banging my head against a wall of spears

Ok, I’m a perv. I have to admit it.

I really like polearms. I like pikes, halberds, partisans, spears, becs de corbin, swordstaves, longobarde (also called bardiches), ranseurs, guisarmes, naginatas, sarisse, lances and yaris. Gygaxian polearms spreads people find useless make me happy, and while I still dunno if his (apparent) liking them so much has something to do with his Swiss ancestry or not, I guess I never will (there are other links between Gygax and Switzerland, better left for another post tho). I consider squares of pikemen in aggressive stance, moving their forest of pointy deaths toward their intended target, the most terribly grandiose medieval display of condensed utter disregard for human life and suffering. The “push of pikes”, two pikemen squares against each other, pikes ending up in a number of wrong places with a lot of pushing till one of the formations involved collapses, is for me an amazing symbol of the futility of war.

The sheer ingenuity of putting a blade at the end of a long stick to better reach the enemy and keep it away at the same time is not lost to me; even Pappo, my B/X halfling thief, uses a pole-torch (10′ pole with a torch attachment) as main weapon. It’s really good to set moulds and oozes on fire from a safe distance. Or to set anything else on fire, by the way.

In addition polearms (together with missile weapons) proved instrumental in abolishing the wonder-weapon of medieval battlefields, aristocratic knights on heavy armoured cavalry.

Still, B/X and BECM don’t really do polearms well, hence the need for some more house rules. While I don’t particularly like adding rules to the game, I feel that the DM could turn consistent rulings into codified rules: after all, it eases the GM life and allow players to organize a bit.

My questions were:

  • how many spearmen can fight side by side in a 10′ wide corridor?
  • can I use a spear to attack from the second line? And a halberd?
  • What’s the spear-setting thing in the handbook?

The relevant answers evolved in this (still fluid) set of rules, which is optimized for interesting play and not for realism, as always.

Long Weapons

Long weapons are listed in the handbooks under three different names: spear, lance and polearms. The pike, a long spear, is added. The lance is used on horseback and marginally covered in these rules, which focus on footmen.

Initiative and setting polearms

Use of long weapons against an opponent with a shorter weapon wins initiative in the round the two opponents get close in melee if the long weapon is facing the attack general direction. This means that a knight with a lance and a footman with a spear will automatically win initiative against a footman with a sword or mace but not against each other, for example. If a footman with a long weapon (spear, pike, halberd or any other polearm with a spear tip) is facing the opponent and not surprised, stunned or incapacitated he’ll deal double damage against charging enemies as his weapon will be set.


Pikes are 20 feet long spears wielded two handed, not throwable, dealing 1d6 damage. They cost as spears but are not really useful in dungeons, due to the cramped environment (turning a 20′ spear in a 10′ wide corridor is not easy).

Second line

A footman with a spear can attack from the second line or, if in the first line, can attack the second line of the enemy formation. In both cases the initiative is not automatically won. Pikemen can attack from the third line, but if in the first line can’t attack opponents in the enemy formation’s first line.

Spearmen groups

If a spearman has a spearman using a shield on his right, he can gain cover by the shield gaining a 1 point AC bonus. Three such spearman can fit side by side in 10″, for example in a dungeon corridor.

Hedgehog and moving spear walls

It takes a full round to change spear orientation if in formation.

For example, six spearmen are in the first two lines, wizard and cleric in the back. Bugbears attack the party from behind. The first line of spearmen can’t do much, while the second line can spend a round turning around and repositioning, attacking from the second line over the third in the next round.

Obviously DMs uses these rules too. Orcs with spears are a pushover no more. Enjoy 🙂

There are dangers, in the vaults

There are dangers, in the vaults.
Men-eating ghouls, rat as big as hounds,
distant eerie tunes, creepy glowing runes,
dragons of flame, elves of deadly aim,
slimes that eat your flesh,
birds that gouge your eyes,
stirges that bleed you dry
(not to talk of the vampires),
and the whole lots of goblins, ogres and kobolds,
not to forget of the Great Underground Hobgoblin Empire.

There are dangers, in the vaults.
Vorpal scythes,
swallowing pits
disintegrating purple rays
poisonous darts,
electrifying plates,
and don’t try to pull
any of the five chains.

There are dangers, in the vaults.
Gold shining, gems glittering,
tomes full of forbidden lore, relics of the kings of yore,
riches making honest men
greedy like fallen dwarves
and things ending up in strange places,
steel blades beneath shoulder blades,
hemlock in wine bottles,
people left in deep pits.

There are dangers in the vaults.
trust me this time,
the meanest, darkest,
most disappointing of them all, are
“Adventurers armed and dangerous”.
people you used to call

There are dangers, in the vaults.
You don’t get to
pick yours, son.

We prohibit under anathema that murderous art of crossbowmen and archers

I completely forgot to mention that this post is some kind of followup to Conley’s thoughts on crossbows.

29. We prohibit under anathema that murderous art of crossbowmen and archers, which is hateful to God, to be employed against Christians and Catholics from now on.

Pope Innocent II, Second Lateran Council, Rome, 1139

Crossbows are an amazing weapon: if you’re not one of the few people innately good at it, bows are notoriously a pain to leant to use properly. You need good posture, aim, breathing, upper body strength, tons of practice. But as England brilliantly showed at Agincourt against France, bowmen can win a battle. If put on horses, like Partians and Mongols did, they can be even more effective, attacking the enemy while keeping at distance.

But still: lots of training. Training is expensive, in a way more expensive than mundane goods as it can’t be easily replaced. The same can be said of the warrior class of the middle ages, that in the western world went through years of training before being the armed and dangerous weapon of mass murder, plunder and destruction that all players of fantasy RPGs learn to love.

Enters the crossbow: technology offers a missile weapon that is way easier to operate than a bow, can scale in size and lethality easily without much problem for the operator, due to its construction is smaller and at the same time sturdier and more delicate than an equivalent bow. Combining all these factors, if a sufficient number of crossbows and darts can be made by skilled and specialised artisans, villains and citizen can be made crossbowmen in a short amount of time (more or less the same can be said for pikemen used in a defensive formation, as the Swiss demonstrated to the Holy Roman Empire).

The reliance on specialised craftsmen to produce tools which automatise the difficult part of the work (crossbows and war, in our case) mirrors, in a way, the construction of mechanical weaving mills by engineers, to be used by unskilled labourers to mass produce textiles at the beginning of the industrial revolution, centuries later.

Knights fear crossbows and bows because of their inherent subversiveness: armours can be punched through by arrows and bolts and, while being killed by a lowly welsh bowman that spent lots of time practicing with his bow is a terrible faux-pas, being killed by a pig herder with a dumbed down bow is a sure way not to receive R.S.V.P.s to dances, parties, wedding and tournaments. In Western Europe the social pact between worker class, warrior class and clergy was menaced by this, and Pope Innocent II made the use of said missile weapons illegal against Christians, which did not stop Agincourt to happen and crossbows to be used. Or gunpowder weapons to be developed.

McNeill in his book Pursuit of Power explains how in China an early “industrial revolution” of sorts produced enough iron (combined with an adeguate supply of craftsmen) to make the production of significant amounts of crossbows feasible. For a serie of reasons, the Chinese bureaucracy, clergy and worker classes excluded the warrior class from the social pact, as it suited them better to have masses armed with locally made crossbows than have to deal with warlords in friendly terms.

Meanwhile in Europe Balestrieri Genovesi, Genoese crossbowmen using weapons made by the balistai guild of the Most Serene Republic of Genoa, were used by the City as defence in both the army and the navy, and as mercenaries across Europe, apparently causing plenty of damage almost against everybody they were pitted against. And when captured they apparently  enjoyed fingers mutilation as bowmen did.

D&D fails with crossbows. They behave the same as bows, and the heavy crossbow from BECMI is a step in the right direction but doesn’t quite cut it. Which is a lame and not at all badass if you want my opinion. d20 does much better, listing the heavy crossbow amongst simple weapons, dealing plenty of damage and being usable by classes, to reflect its ease of use.

My homebrew D&D will soon have its version of the “knight killer”: 1d10 of damage, two rounds to reload and if AC 9 [11] or better is hit, add +4 to hit to represent armor penetration; it’s a riff on the mechanic I’d like to use for axes and maces, in turn a simplified “weapon vs armor class table” from AD&D.

But if a crossbowman with his death implement happens to be around guards from a local knight or cleric, woe to him. Knight killer crossbows are illegal almost everywhere outside the domains of Free Cities: as the only purpose of having one is to kill or harm an armoured target, and the only relevant armoured target in a fief is the local vassal, even the possession of a k.k crossbow manifests a want to plot against the life of the local lord.