What makes one swordsman better than another? Many years ago, I was in the Society for Creative Anachronism. There, I knew a man who was probably in his late 30’s or early 40’s at the time. He was of average build, docile temperament, not terribly fit (though not overweight) and certainly not muscular. He was a bearded dork of a man who could dent 14 gauge helmets with ease and was a “Duke”; a two time winner of bi-annual regional (northeastern US) tournaments. His predisposition was towards combo strikes. Usually – but not always, he would lead in with one or more feints. It was quite normal for the strike to appear as if it was going towards one side and you’d find your helmet ringing from a blast of rattan to the other side; leaving you to wonder how he managed that.
Becoming highly ranked in tournament SCA heavy weapons combat, or any other competitive, full contact martial sport, requires three things. Firstly, it requires an immense amount of practice; both on the basics and on combining them into combinations. Karate’s katas are an example of the latter. When you go through a kata a mind numbing number of times, you are teaching your brain and body not only how to execute individual motions well, but also how to smoothly transition. The second thing that is required is a good feel for how those actions look when others perform them. Does that slight twitch in the shoulder precede the start of a left hook by 50 milliseconds? Lastly, there is judgment. Do I lead off with a feint? If so, how far do I commit? Do I appear to drop my guard and draw him in? But what if he actually managed to exploit that? Etc.
With the traditional Dungeons and Dragons/Diku approach to combat – sometimes euphemistically referred to as “heroic combat”, this is all under the hood. Click on attack (or type and hit enter) and wait while the numbers crunch. It follows D&D’s abstraction of combat, which is derived from chainmail’s abstraction of combat. Now a circa early 1970’s tabletop wargame needed abstracted combat. You were moving dozens of figure around the table, representing hundreds of combatants. It was simply not practical any other way. The approach on D&D made sense as well. It kept the pace of the game up rather than bogging down in die rolls and calculations as some of the early PnP RPGs were prone to. The rules explicitly stated that it was an abstraction that that you were expected to fill in the blanks using your imagination. It also had the advantage of readily merging back into tabletop wargame play if you were running a Chainmail or Battlesystem battle.
What abstracted heroic combat can’t do very effectively is explicitly capture the true feint, feint, strike nature of melee combat. In tabletop play, a GM can embellish it verbally. In a computer game, you can only look at canned animations and perhaps watch basic textual feedback roll by.
When I was in the SCA, I usually fought pole-arm. This was initially to help my household (team/guild) out by providing a pole weapon fighter for large melees. An SCA regulation polearm is a six foot rattan staff with the last two feet padded. It is a “nerfed” (but certainly not bofo) halberd or glaive. The fighters in a shield wall can be classified as tank or DPSer; with the weapon and shield men as the tanks and the spears and pole-arms as DPSers. I took to the “weapon” like a duck to water and had an unusual stance when fighting singles. Most pole arm fighters – at least at the time – held the pole pointed at the opponents head. I pointed it at his feet. This allowed me to more easily parry with the pole and exploit low openings. This stance also carried a psychological advantage. Very often, when fighting someone for the first time, they were simply unsure about how to deal with me because the unusual stance. It was not something in their playbook and I was able to use this to perform better than my skill level. You certain can’t do THIS with levels and heroic combat. In generic MMO terms, I was a low level DPSer. The other guy would have beaten me every time in an MMO. Heck, he could have been AFK and I would not have been able to touch him.
Next up – my own little proposal for an alternative, which is a derivative of skill based systems.