Spears Rule

Spears have never really been given a fair shake in traditional fantasy gaming.  A spear is somehow not as romantic as the "long sword," despite the fact that it figured prominently as a heroic weapon in the mythos of many cultures, including the Norse and the Greek, two popular sources of RPG root material.  Historically, the spear was the weapon to field, starting with the Greeks (before that, the club was the primary implement of killing the other guy, while the spear was primarily for hunting).  Rows of tightly packed spearmen was a popular and standard tactic from the earliest phalanxes up through companies of Swiss pikemen and the bayonet charges of the 19th and early 20th centuries.  A spear is simple enough to put into the hands of the greenest peasant levy, and versatile enough to have entire systems of combat based around it (especially by the Chinese).  In a one-on-one fight between a spearman and a swordsman of comparable skill, the spearman is the odds-on favorite to walk away.  Yet in all forms of fantasy gaming from Dungeons and Dragons to the MMORPG systems of Asheron’s Call and Ultima Online, the spear is disregarded as a decent weapon most of the time, and for good reason:  the weapon’s game statictics are always lackluster, always less effective than weapons like the sword.  Why is this?

First look at the predominant advantage of the spear in realistic combat.  A spear in its simplest form is a dagger on the end of a pole.  This was a simple method of increasing the reach of the wielder, allowing him to strike at a longer distance than a dissimilarly armed opponent could counter.  The spear immediately puts an enemy with a smaller weapon on the defensive, while at the same time increasing the wielder’s own defense by the virtue of being out of reach.  This is very important.  A swordsman or other enemy who wants to get to the spearman must first get past the effective range of the spear, which is daunting to say the least, as trying to slip in puts one at great risk of death or grievous injury, both paralyzing possibilities in mortal combat.  The advantage of superior reach led to longer and longer spears, eventually cumulating in the specialized awl pike at around 18 feet or so in length.

This strength becomes even more powerful when applied to mass combat.  A well disciplined line of spearmen all pointing at your line was a serious issue to contend with.  The concept of the spear phalanx was so central to mass combat that shieldbearers were enlisted to protect them.  A shieldbearer is a man whose only job is to plant a tower shield firmly into the ground in front of the spear line to keep enemies from penetrating the line.  The spear phalanx was the only tactic of its day capable of dealing effectively with a charge of heavy horse (archery could also deal significant damage to cavalry if they were not on the move yet).

The big problem with the misrepresentation of the spear in fantasy RPG’s is that there are almost no systems that reflect the power of extended reach in pen and paper, and none at all in MMORPG’s.  The best model of spear combat is in Shogun:  Total War, a strategy game.  Almost universally, the designers of fantasy RPG’s, computer or otherwise, have a vision of dark ages melee combat that comes from watching two actors bash each other with pieces of aluminum at theme restaurants like Medieval Times.  In these cases, the winner is not the one who has a better intrinsic understanding of the attributes of his chosen weapon, he’s the blond guy.

How then can the power of pole weapons be represented in simplistic engines and systems that don’t track the exact x, y, z location of the striking surface?  Engines like the Turbine engine 1.0, and most certainly the UO isometric engine, have no ability to know or care about how many feet and inches an opponent is from his target.  A simple way to reflect the reach advantage in games like this is to assign defensive bonuses to the man with the spear.  The spear is, after all, primarily a defensive weapon, aimed at keeping the enemy far away from the wielder.  In a more advanced model, weapons and techniques could have "reach" parameters assigned, and defense modifiers assigned to the person with the greater reach.  A system like this would also allow for considerations like proper greatswords, pikes, and the absurdity of charging into a battle with a ceremonial punch dagger, but would represent an additional drain on resources and bandwidth, important considerations given current wide area networking technology.

4 Responses to “Spears Rule”
  1. Part of the problem with spears getting a bad image is that spears are, as you mentioned, extremely good – in ranks. But how often does your typical fantasy adventurer spend in large groups? At best, he might be in a small group doing a quest, which would give the opportunity for “pike squares” and the like with fellow spear-men. Most of the time, though, it’s rather difficult for him to lug around an 18-foot spear.

    A system like this would also allow for considerations like proper greatswords, pikes, and the absurdity of charging into a battle with a ceremonial punch dagger, but would represent an additional drain on resources and bandwidth, important considerations given current wide area networking technology.

    Some of the games I’ve played try to work this in by manipulating accuracy statistics. In other words, if that knife-wielding thief goes up against a spear-wielder, he has only a minor chance of getting a hit, because he has to successfully dodge the spear-point to get close enough.

  2. Alexander Avery says:

    In response to Brett.

    What you said is not entirely true, While the longer spears like the Awl Pike are like that, the shorter 5-7ft. spears like the Boar Spear, Ji, or Halberd were effective even at broken ranks. And the Greek Dory was as well, as it was designed to be used with a shield.

    Which more games should incorporate the 1 handed spear.

  3. I also wish the Spear got more love in games, especially after seeing it used effectively in a few Chinese movies (Fearless [2006] with Jet Li comes to mind).

    One of the few games I’ve seen the Spear represented effectively is Morrowind. Old by todays standards, and certainly not a MMORPG or traditional top-down RPG, but regardless the weapon had reach which allowed you to effectively backpedal around the field while stabbing and outdistancing an opponent. The downside was it was SO effective that they basically removed it from subsequent Elder Scrolls games.

    Either way good design theory articles!

  4. The real problem with spears in MMO’s is really nothing related to it’s effectiveness in live combat. In an MMO setting, the average player isn’t mortally wounded by taking one or two stabs from a spear with a longer reach because they have a large health pool to draw fights out longer. As a direct result of this, the player with a spear and longer range would only get maybe one attack in sooner then his opponent. There’s also nothing preventing a player from getting inside of a spears range like live combat. If you’re fighting someone using a spear against you, you think twice before charging into the spears range. High health pools and low damage from individual hits leaves no fear of standing in a weapons range. In fact, in many MMO’s it is perfectly acceptable to have 2 players standing next to each other spamming skill after skill on each other and calling it PvP.

    While this article does a good job of pointing out the lack of proper game design around spears, it doesn’t touch on the reason “why” spears aren’t great in games. The only game I can think of that I have played that took a realistic advantage of a spear was Final Fantasy Tactics. As it was a turn-based game with different units in a grid, each had their own movement distance and range of attack. A spearmen could effectively most to it’s maximum attack range and deal a blow without retaliation until another unit wasted a move to get in range. Final Fantasy Tactics also had a higher dmg-per-hit to unit life ratio to make it worthwhile, complete opposite to the issue I mentioned above.

    The solution to making spears effective is to change the combat dynamic to a form where the added range makes a difference. Although, another downside to this in MMO’s occurs when the player with a longer range moves faster then another melee player. Many MMO’s have a ranged class with a root, snare, and/or knockback that they use to maintain a far enough distance to avoid being attacked, while dealing a blow, rinse/repeat until the player dies or gives up.

    MMO’s won’t increase the dmg/hit to health ratio because it makes combat too fast for their customer base, and this is probably the biggest reason extended ranged melee weapons of any kind won’t be given much light. Spears will probably only be realistic in games outside of the MMO genre where it’s range quite frankly, matters.

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