Recently I have been looking through some interesting and slightly unusual RPG systems that, among other things, have an emphasis on realistic combat. In the case of these games I’m primarily talking about melee combat in a medieval style.
There are four systems of this particular style (that I know of) and they all seem to be derived off of one game in some way or another named ‘The Riddle of Steel’. This game was released in 2003, designed by Jacob Norwood and published by Driftwood Publishing. As indicated by the name, it takes thematic influences from Conan and its gameplay and mechanics are loosely derived from a Polish RPG from 1997 named ‘Dzikie Pola’. It describes its setting in a way that although contains magic, it doesn’t seem to be going for an Epic or high fantasy vibe more popular RPGs do, and instead goes for something more dark and gritty.
The Riddle of Steel appears to have gained a following over the years, and clearly people were interested in the style of the game, as three fan-made (eventually more professional) systems were started. Two were named ‘Song of Swords’ and ‘Song of Steel’. As far as I can tell they were started independently at about the same time in around 2010/2011, and both were largely formed by collaborative work and discussions rooting from 4chan’s traditional gaming board, and eventually spreading to their own forums and wiki pages. Due to the obvious name similarity that came from them trying to pay homage to The Riddle of Steel, Song of Steel changed into ‘Band of Bastards’.
The third, and latest game in this style is named ‘Blade of The Iron Throne’. Released in 2013 and also fan-made, it is considered a true successor to the original Riddle of Steel, and is also the most complete and professional of the three, as it can be bought in print and is complete, whereas the other two are still in beta stages. Due to this game being more complete, it also has more fleshed out rules for things aside from the combat mechanics compared with the other two, and it describes its setting in a similar vein to The Riddle of Steel, calling itself ‘sword and sorcery’ rather than usual fantasy.
These games caught my eye because ever since i played D&D for the first time (not that long ago) I have always thought that the use of weapons and combat in tabletop RPGs was rather disappointing for the most part. This only grew into frustration as time went on and I started to study medieval weapons and combat techniques at university and in my spare time. Taking D&D as the most prominent example, the way weapons and armour are used doesn’t really make any sense. It is probably one of the worst offenders when it comes to the classic tropes about medieval weapons and armour, such as plate armour being hindering to your movement while also only protecting you against weapons in a very broad sense, with no thought given to the type of weapon or how its used. Also, the stat for armour is used for other purposes such as dodging or avoiding attacks, meaning that a fast rogue is equally able to avoid damage, but without the detriment that armour brings.
Now onto what makes these games stand out: their combat mechanics. Simply put all these games share the common use of d10 dice pools as the core system. Depending on various stats across the games, you roll a certain amount of dice to do an action or attack. Attacks may be based on one of your base attributes, the type of weapon you are using, how you are using it, and what you are using it against. Furthermore, depending on what you are trying to do, you may be required to ‘spend’ some dice, meaning you remove some dice from the roll depending on how tricky it would be, such as for some sort of advanced combat maneuver. Combat maneuvers add a lot of depth to the combat, as these basically describe what you are doing in a direct attack or other combat action. Maneuvers are limited based on the type of weapon you are using and the skill of your character. For example, as basic maneuvers in Band of Bastards you can go for a power swing to do more damage, you can prepare a parry or dodge maneuver to defend yourself, or you can even attempt a grapple maneuver which opens up other maneuvers such as disarming the opponent, throwing them, or strangling them. There are far more maneuvers than just this, and each one has its own roll target and activation cost, and many have special effects upon a success or even failure.
In addition to these combat mechanics, the use of equipment and their effects if very in-depth. In all these games the distinction is made between cutting, piercing and blunt damage, and each one is taken into consideration the sort of effects it would have at varying strength on each and every part of the body. The type of weapon used determines the sort of damage you will do, and armour will not only lessen the strength of an attack and its damage, but also convert damage type if appropriate. For example, all metal armour will convert cutting attacks into blunt damage. This means if you swing your sword at a foe’s breastplate you will have to use the blunt damage stat of your weapon, which would be very low on a sword. In a situation like that you do have other options, such as aiming for the head or legs to hopefully stagger or trip the enemy, or even go for a grapple, opening up the ability to easily attack a gap in his armour. It would probably be a safer bet to carry around a back up mace though.
The combination of all these rules (and probably a lot more that I am forgetting) results in a very complex and in-depth combat system that would probably, unfortunately, take a long time to learn, make combat too slow for some people, and probably alienate most. For these reasons, I may never get to really play or run one of these games even though I would love to give it a shot, but the fact that they exist is very interesting to me. They depict a surprisingly realistic representation of medieval style combat, where armour is almost always a bonus, you need to think about the use of your weapons, and combat can easily be over in one move or take a long time of opponents waiting for the other to make the first move and preempting attacks to prepare their defense. Clearly the makers of these games have done their research, and some of them do claim to have used original sources, and sought advice from HEMA (Historica European Martial Arts) practitioners for their combat systems.
If you would like to have a go at one of these games or even just have a read, then feel free to follow one of the links below to my Google Drive where I have them all collected. If you want to play one of these I would probably recommend either Blade of the Iron Throne or Band of Bastards. The first is the most complete and well rounded as a whole system in general, and the latter I believe has the more well described combat systems and character sheet. The others also seem good, but Riddle of Steel is quite obviously older than the rest, and a little harder to grasp, and Song of Swords is a bit of a mess at the moment as it’s the most incomplete (although it does have a lot of very interesting details added by /tg/)
Also, if you like it then please consider purchasing Blade of the Iron Throne to support the makers: http://www.drivethrurpg.com/browse/pub/3637/Iron-Throne-Publishing