Two weapon fighting in Ars Magica

Two weapon fighting is cinematic and exciting, and present in most rolepaying games, especially those with a high fantasy touch like Dungeons and Dragons. Ars Magica on the other hand aims for a level of realism as well as fantasy; and there is an argument to say that two weapon fighting is not especially valid in Europe around the middle ages. It is certainly not the predominant method expressed in the surviving artworks of the period. So there is a quandary – it makes sense that it is not an option that has been presented in ArM game editions, and it also is something that players may want to try.

Wielding two weapons has the initial appeal of offering a much more threatening opponent into battle, and some role-players (like myself) have played systems where it is an excellent option to get the most damage applied as quickly as possible. Many a Fighter has been created with dual wielding Longswords, and while they were entertaining, they also grind on my nerves when I consider the feel that Ars Magica is going for. But then I find the idea of a viking raider using a hand axe and a dagger in battle totally worth considering. There are likely to be as many forum posts around in support of two weapons as there are against in terms of it being a valid combat style.

For the purposes of my games, I think there is a middle ground where I can support the idea if it is presented as part of a good character concept, and also ignore the concept if it is being chosen only for a mechanical advantage. For that reason alone I think its worth discussing how a game like Ars Magica might incorporate two weapon fighting.

I can see two high level approaches, based upon splitting the advantage that two separate combat rolls have:

  1. One Strike with modified combat effects and weapon stats, or
  2. Two strikes with varied weapon and combat stats.

The selection between the two is a driver for how much leverage the ability will have in the game, and also how much specialisation should be needed by the character. Allowing two different rolls adds a much higher probability that the attacker will hurt their opponent.

There is an argument to be made for using the Single Weapon skill, and applying the modifiers to the combat stats akin to how a shield modifies the combat stats. That sounds good in theory, but when thought about in more detail it does not make sense logically at all. The body positioning and stances used when a combatant is using a single weapon vs a single weapon with a shield are different; but either of those stances are totally different from the stance used when fighting with two weapons. i.e.:

Single Weapon only = weapon arm forward, body side on to opponent.
Weapon and Shield = shield arm forward, body on angled.
Two Weapons = Both side on and facing, often switching position.

From my limited experience in weapon fighting, two weapons have a number of constraints that need to influence the combat maneuvers.

  • Fighting with two small weapons is easier than two moderate sized weapons, both are far easier than two larger weapons (but still one handed weapons). Think of this as a size comparison between a dagger, a hatchet, and a falchion.
  • Fighting with a smaller weapon in the offhand is easier, especially if that weapon is very small.
  • The ArM 5th edition rules do not indicate a size difference officially between most one handed weapons, except via the weapon’s description. This is troublesome for creating rules which should adjust for small to large one handed weapons. Perhaps just two sizes are needed, as small being something that is dagger to hand axe sized, and medium weapons are bigger than that, but not two handed. I’m not sure as yet.
  • Almost nobody is truly ambidextrous. I can see that people can learn to be proficient with two hands equally for some tasks, but almost everybody favours one hand over the other. This might indicate that a Virtue is needed to have true ambidexterity, but that will need to be pondered very carefully by the GM to see how it matches the game. A straight combat bonus via a Virtue is not in keeping with the 5th edition style in my opinion.
  • Through training a character should be able to become an effective combatant with two weapons, but that effort should be at least (if not more) time consuming that one handed or two handed fighting.
  • It is debatable if it is harder or easier to defend with an off hand weapon. On the one hand you could argue that the weapon can be used to parry, but on the other it could be argued that the weapon should never have been there in the first place as the stance would be totally different. The Defense adjustment is where I think there is a lot of complexity and variations depending on the weapon types and the weapon sizes used.

Option 1 – One Strike per round

As Ars Magica typically uses an abstracted combat system, and the use of two weapons should modify the combat statistics that the combatant uses as part of their one standard attack action. Changing the stats for the one action means that combat is resolved quickly, although it misses certain opportunities (like striking two different opponents in the same round).

  • A new skill is required, called Double Weapon Fighting (abbreviated to Double), which replaces Single Weapon as the default skill used. This skill is purchased as normal Martial skill.
  • One hand is always considered the “off-hand” and one the “main hand”; probably stick to right hand as main hand. It is assumed that the off hand weapon is smaller in size than the main hand.
  • Initiative: Additional coordination required lowers the Initiative score of the main hand by -1.
  • Attack: The threat potential of the combatant is increased, so add half the offhand weapon’s Attack score to the main hand weapon.
  • Defense: No hindrance to Defense when using small weapons in the off hand, but a -1 for using medium weapons in the off hand.
  • Damage: Add half weapon damage of the additional weapon to the main hand weapon stats.
  • Strength: If the offhand weapon is small then no additional strength is required. If the offhand weapon is medium, then the overall Strength requirement is increased by +1.
  • Load: Apply load calculation normally.
  • Roll 1 additional botch dice.

This creates a combat pool total for the attack that is slightly slower, has a higher potential for threatening and damaging the opponent, and incurs a penalty to defense. That feels like a good summary of the desired goals.

Option 2 – Two Strikes per round

The major issue I have with allowing an additional strike is how much of a great advantage that additional swing is in a game which is fundamentally based upon one action per round. An additional attack roll dramatically increases the chance that either strike in combination will hit and inflict damage in one round; therefore it is almost a no go from the start for me.

But lets say that as GM you want this option, then here are the modifiers and rules I would apply so that a true dual wield option is added to the game.

  • A new skill is required, called Double Weapon Fighting, as above.
  • Initiative: The character attacks twice, and that should modify the separate weapon initiatives accordingly. The main hand weapons strikes at a penalty of -1. The off hand weapon has a -3 modifier to Initiative to simulate the amount of coordination and balance needed for dual wield. Only one dice roll should be used.
  • Attack: The character certainly has more potential to inflict damage, but this is reflected far more in the capacity to have a second attack rather than the efficiency of each individual weapon strike. I argue that each strike is harder, due to increased coordination. Therefore a -1 attack penalty applies to the first strike (main hand), and a -2 penalty to the second (the off-hand).
  • Defense: It is harder to parry with a weapon than with a Shield, and the base defensive bonus of a small shield is only +1. For this reason a small weapon can be used to parry (as appropriate to it’s size), but it offers no bonus or penalty, so has a +0 Defense score regardless of what the normal defensive bonus is for the weapon. This means that some weapons that would normally offer a defensive increase do not give a bonus. If a medium weapon is held in the offhand all Defense rolls suffer a -1 to the Defense rolls, and the weapon’s defensive bonus is also still negated.
  • Damage: The first attack is resolved as normal for damage. The second inflicts half damage (round down). I was thinking that total damage should be halved (ie. after the roll), but I think that might be too cumbersome in the rules.
  • Strength: as above.
  • The character cannot strike twice in a round where they have moved more than a step or two.
  • The combatant can strike at two separate targets, but suffers an additional -1 penalty on all rolls until their next attack action.
  • Roll 1 additional botch dice.

Other considerations

There is an argument to say that two weapon fighting might be used with fists, and essentially I cannot see a major issue; the GM has accepted that a soldier can strike with a longsword and dagger, then why not a dagger and fist, or two fists? The two strikes rule-set would be the most logical for unarmed type combats, but would still require the character have purchased the Double Weapon skill to utilise.

There maybe also the scenario where a character tries to wield two weapons without the Double Weapon skill. As I don’t think a character will do this often, and it should also be darn hard to do without training, the player should suffer a flat -2 to all rolls while doing this, and also add one additional botch dice. This is a heavy handed approach, as it is more likely that certain rolls would be worse and others not as heavily impacted, but on balance -2 is enough. I’d say two additional botch dice might be better.

To judge the size of weapons, there are a few ways. A simple approach is to say that any weapon with a Strength requirement less than zero is small. It almost works perfectly except for the Short Spear, which is 4-7 feet in length, so hardly small.

As an alternative below is a Weapon Size Table, with reference to ArM p.176.

Weapon Size
Any Brawling weapon (dagger, knife, etc) Small
Any Great weapon Not allowed
Axe Medium
Club Small
Hatchet Small
Lance Not allowed
Mace, and Mace and Chain Medium
Spear, Short Medium
Sword, Short Small
Sword, Long Medium
All shields Use normal rules

The next step is to playtest both sets of rules. I’d be very keen to see how a wide set of players reacts to the possibility, and also if there are changes which are needed. On the surface it makes sense, but nothing is as destructive to a theory like real world application.

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