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Historical Steel: Dialing in the Range

ArkebusierBeyond the overlooked polearms and famous straight, thrusting, and curved swords lies a major category of weapons that just as importantly deserves some mention—ranged projectile weapons. From the nameless men-at-arms shooting crossbows from castle crenellations to green-suited, do-gooding outlaws with their longbows to the swashbuckling musketeer, each has their unique place in the annals of fantasy fiction. And before anyone stomps off mumbling “guns in my fantasy” and “ruined forever,” take a deep breath for a slightly different mantra: “there’s no such thing as a perfect ranged weapon.”

The Bow

The bow is ancient history or, to be more precise, prehistory. The bow is also fairly simple, at least in theory: it’s a D-shaped spring that launches a slender, stabilized dart when it attempts to return to its natural shape. From an engineering standpoint, a bow has to have high tensile strength on the outside and compressive strength on the inside; numerous solutions have been made, all with their purposes, advantages, and drawbacks. Selfbows, made from a single piece of wood, are simple to make, hold up well in adverse conditions, but are often extremely long. Composite bows, especially recurve bows, are a blend of multiple materials, typically wood, horn, and leather, and while they are smaller for a given power—handy for horseback archery—they can be louder, and the animal glues used to join the materials can be ruined by rain or humid environments…

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Real Steel: The Kwaiken

kwaikenThe kwaiken is like a dagger. It’s a type of small tanto, historically carried by both men and women of the samurai class. As with the tetsu no bo (kanabo), I’m having a hard time finding a reliable translation. Kwaiken literally translates to “chest knife” or “bosom knife,” but whether or not the literal translation carries the intended meaning isn’t clear to me just yet. Because it was carried in the obi, and the obi (especially on a woman) was worn on the lower chest and upper abdomen, I think the meaning is probably literal.

The traditional kwaiken has a wooden handle and saya (sheath)—very much like a shirasaya tanto—but was substantially smaller. The modern westernized version usually has a wrapped handle, which is more traditional for a full-sized sword. The sheath is often Kydex or Concealex, but I personally prefer leather…

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Historical Steel: Back to the Power Curve

A nobleman of Tigre (1849)While the origins of the sword are clear, the history of single-edged blades is a bit murkier. Some such blades, however, have become iconic in Western history in their own right: the pirate’s cutlass, the scimitar of the Middle East, and the cavalryman’s saber. Others have failed to catch the limelight of history.

Back to the Future

Curved blades and single-edged swords were independently invented and reinvented across history. The Egyptian khopesh—the name a transliteration of a Canaanite sickle-sword (itself an update of a third millennium Sumerian weapon)—was a Bronze Age weapon that was effectively a hilted hybrid of sword and axe, designed for cleaving blows. Beyond this early statistical outlier is the Greek kopis, a curved sword derived from the civilian knife, and although less used than the more famous xiphos, it was a favorite weapon of Hellenistic cavalry; the historian (and soldier) Xenophon recommended the curved blade in his treatise On Horsemanship. The Iberian falcata was a parallel but later development, derived from the Iron Age Celts’ sickle-shaped knives, and went on to influence Roman sword design and the more famous gladius…

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Death Bug Contest Winner: Spider Dagger

Kiridashi assasin bug - right sideAnd the winner of the Real Steel Death Bug Contest is… Sam Hing and his spider dagger. We had many great entries but only one could be winner. Todd Gdula, Wolfgang Baur, and myself had a tough choice, but the final decision was unanimous: the spider dagger won the day. Congratulations, Sam! —Scott Gable


This dagger bears a gleaming blade and a multitude of metallic legs. A single multifaceted gem is inset into the blade, gleaming like an eye. It scuttles toward you with disturbing speed.

Spider daggers are frequently created to act as assassins for thieves’ guilds and mages. Swift and silent, they leap on their targets and slice them apart. In some dark cities, fear of spider dagger attacks keep the populace passive and the “gifts” of the merchants high. A brace of spider daggers can reduce even hardened adventures to sliced and bleeding corpses with shocking speed…

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Real Steel: Rumble! What Are You Bringing To The Party?

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's CourtIn physics, an interesting way to work out a problem is something called a thought experiment. This allows physicists to build what is essentially an imaginary environment and create conditions that would be very difficult to create in the real world. What I am proposing to you here is that we craft a thought experiment to make us exercise our minds in a way that perhaps we haven’t tried before. I believe this will be useful in generating more interesting game environments.

Get It Together, Softy

In 24 hours, you will be transported to another world. Whether it’s Earth in the dark ages, Middle Earth, Krynn, or the Forgotten Realms doesn’t matter. You’ll randomly be “dropped” in a village, a dungeon or cave, or a wilderness area. You’ll be provided with a pack containing several days’ worth of food and basic survival tools, including fire-starting supplies, a good map, a big sturdy camp knife, and the appropriate clothing. All you need to select is weapons and armor.

The only information you have to help make your selection is that you will be facing humanoids and possibly whatever the indigenous wild animals are—nothing worse than bears and mountain lions. If you face magic, you’re toast, and there’s nothing you can do to prepare for it anyway. You can only pick weapons that are within the technological limits of the destination…

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