Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Arms and Armor: Swords and Swordplay - Part 2

Swords and Swordplay Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Evolution of the Sword

Swords (and many other weapons) are thought to have come from the adaptation of farming implements. Farmers didn't just wake up one day and decide they needed a weapon. They developed sickles because they helped with the harvest and developed weapons such as swords because they helped with not-dying. Farming is at the heart of many organized "civilizations," the core of what allowed them to become organized, and swords--while later refined to their own particular purposes--may be another outgrowth of that way of life. Hunting, of course, has produced its own set of weapons (knife, bow, spear, etc.). And, indeed, it may be that the sword grew from the concept of the knife (what's better than a knife? A longer knife!), which was then refined.

While training is key in the use of the sword, and such training mitigates issues of "weightiness" and awkwardness, remember that not all swords are equal. While learning to use one will improve your chances of being able to use another, techniques differ as widely as the design and make of the blade. Not knowing the best techniques to use with the sword you've just picked up is a problem. It will limit the effectiveness of the soldier who picks up a sword style or design with which they are unfamiliar. It may not limited them much--depending on the degree of difference, the training of the soldier, and their skill versus their opponent's skill--but swords like the two-handed great sword required extra training to wield effectively.

Someone who was, for instance, trained only in the use of a thrusting sword meant for civilian self-defense may not be well-versed in the techniques and movements of a sword meant primarily for cutting. While, historically speaking, swords were more often designed to do both to some degree, a rigid training program which teaches only one method of swordplay is bound to engrain that one method to the exclusion of many others. This can be a disadvantage for obvious reasons. If the people a soldier has always fought are ill-equipped brigands, then that person may absolutely rock at that, and not be at all prepared for combat with a fully armored knight.

Methods and styles of combat evolve in response to outside stimuli. Fighting unarmored opponents teaches you to fight unarmored opponents. Fighting both armored and unarmored opponents with a range of styles and weapons teaches you versatility. However, methods of combat are also cultural, meaning that if a culture has fought a wide variety of opponents, your character (even if they have never left their own small town) is more likely to be trained in more generalized weapons. Swords, generally, qualify as generalized weapons. Hence their prevalence. It is the flexibility of the sword which makes it so useful.

I'd like to interject some worldbuilding notes here, because... Well, I'm always thinking about worldbuilding, especially with NaNo just around the corner! I think understanding the different types of combat (armored vs unarmored), and the different types of swords (cutting vs thrusting vs multi-tasker) could be used to good effect in many stories. It's a way to create conflict without reducing the capability of your character, or to create a character that is somewhat capable, but still has things to learn.

If your character is somewhat trained in the use of the sword, no one has to wonder how they became so good at it so damn quickly when they need to be trained. Perhaps they only received limited training, or their teacher only taught them the techniques necessary to deal with unarmored opponents, or they're more used to dealing with unarmored (or lightly armored) bandits than they are armored knights. Perhaps their culture has been pitted against the same enemies--or types of enemies--for so long that their style of swordplay has become "how to fight X" instead of "how to fight."

Considering the evolution of the sword in your own world leads you to a lot of possibilities. Who has it? Why did they develop it? What did they develop it to do? Who have they used it against?

The next post in this series will talk about militia and military training.

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