The Tip of the Spear

This is a little random but I have a question which often vexes me. Why are spears the oddballs of weapon charts and rules in almost all fantasy games?

I’m going to start off by saying that I know just enough about the historical evolution of melee weapons and real world fighting techniques to admit that I don’t know enough. So I have no intention of attempting to dive down the rabbit hole of “but this and that exotic historical point!” If anyone with expertise wants to chime in in the comments, I’ll be happy to learn something but know that I’ll be taking your word for it for the most part…

That said, something I have done is played in a lot of fantasy games using a variety of systems over the years and I have a pretty good grasp on the various combat systems and equipment lists of those games and the treatment of spears always vexes me. And the reasoning is very personal. I like spears. I like the visual of a warrior fighting with a spear, I like the idea of a haft of wood with a pointy bit on the end and I like the incredibly simple cultural distinction which can be tied to weapons in a narrative sense. I mean, clearly that guy with the soft brown hair and the raiding spear is a Har Darig warrior but that guy who looks distinctly Shen fighting with the same weapon… why choose that? Did he kill a Darig warrior and claim it, does he just like it, or does he have some other connection. The narrative function of distinctive weapons is interesting in my imagination. Ultimately though, it comes down to the fact that I’m a big fan of the spear and I’ve noticed that it gets treated oddly in a lot of fantasy games.

I’ll start with the most recent fantasy game I’ve run, Adventurer Conqueror King System (really great addition to the OSR, btw, check it out if you haven’t already). The spear is a weapon so versatile and so ridiculously better than every other weapon it just begs to be used. The spear in ACKS does the same damage as the sword or the battle axe, all of which can be used one-handed or two-handed. But whereas that is all the sword or axe have to offer… the spear can be used to fight from the second rank and it does double damage when used for or against a charge. Also, since it can be used one-handed and from the second rank in fights we ended up – as a party – with every melee character carrying two spears, using them for two-weapon fighting (which grants a +1 to hit in ACKS). Basically, the sword and the axe were just such inferior technology that they practically disappear. To be fair, spears are more susceptible to Sundering (a special maneuver) but since the effectiveness of the sunder maneuver is usually very in doubt it doesn’t seem to balance out all the inherent advantages of spears.

The Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying Game (2nd edition) has a similar oddity. In that game the vast majority of the typical fantasy weapons of choice (battle axe, longsword, etc.) simply fall under the category of “Hand Weapon” which means they do normal damage and have no special qualities. The spear however has the same damage output and is also “fast” giving opponents a penalty to their parry attempts. Now, this is a smaller overall benefit because there are no rules for using the spear two-handed but unlike in ACKS, in Warhammer the spear can also be thrown as a ranged attack. Admittedly, this means you are surrendering your weapon but spears have the same cost and encumbrance as Hand Weapons so carrying two is not really that much of a burden. In Warhammer, this is balanced somewhat by the fact that spears cannot be used as part of “two weapon fighting” mechanics as defined by this system but this creates a mechanical vs. common sense oddity as well – after all – shields are perfectly acceptable as the second weapon for two-weapon fighting and history is rife with examples of spear and shield fighters (the mechanical effect of two-weapon fighting in WHFRPG is primarily a penalty to hit coupled with getting a free parry each turn so it would seem that spears should work just fine in that role). I assume this was meant as a mechanical balancing factor – and it’s a powerful one as that free parry is important in the flow of combat in WHFRPG – but ultimately, again, simply leaves me wondering why the fighting spear wasn’t just grouped with the Hand Weapons and left at that.
Then we get to the more mechanical games like Pathfinder (or D&D3.5 before it) with lots of complicated weapon rules. I’m just going to put this out there… when is the last time you saw anyone use a spear (or the odd shortspear) in a Pathfinder game? The main problem being that in the math exercise of combat that Pathfinder and other OGL, d20 system games promote, the spear has the same stats as the battle axe (with the exception of being able to be braced against charges) but is a two-handed weapon. Also, taking into account the vast number of feats and abilities available to players in the game, the spear does not offer nearly the interesting range of options. Despite being Simple weapons and being able to be thrown, the spear is just not mechanically worthwhile… unless you have to use it. So the spear now has the opposite problem, that of being less valuable as a weapon than the other common options while still being very much the odd weapon out.

I could go on. It’s a really weird little thing to get hung up on, I know, and easy to fix. For ACKS it’s easy to simply declare that a spear must be used two handed to brace against or be used in a charge or to be used from the second rank – not entirely cutting the weapon’s advantages but mitigating them to the point where it doesn’t become the only weapon of choice for most fighters. For Warhammer, the easy solution is to just scrap the spear entry entirely on the weapon chart and just treat it as a hand weapon like the swords and axes of the universe, right. Still – it’s just one of those little oddities that seems to consistently crop up in games and leaves me with a need to tinker.

So really, spears… what’s up with this?

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4 responses

  1. Perhaps because “spear” is such a vague term that every writer has something different in mind? The spears I spar with are about six feet of shaft and a foot of head. That handles radically different than the three foot long spear from earlier cultures and vastly different than the 12′ proto-pikes. The strength needs, the quickness, the reach, the flexibility are very different. The size I use is a spear but it’s also a quarterstaff with a knife on the end. But a lot of my standard plays are pointless with a spear under five feet and impossible with a spear over eight feet. It’s the same issue as “knife.” Are we talking about a two inch pocket blade, or my 24″ Messer?

  2. Dariel Quiogue | Reply

    Bagun has a great point. Since I prefer to set my games in specific milieus, I address that by giving the spears culture-specific names so I can give the players more precise descriptions per type.

    I’ve also been thinking about how spears work. They’re great for defense — until your opponent gets inside the effective reach and then the spear’s length works against you. So what if a spear gave you an AC bonus in melee until you miss or get hit? This models the opponent having gotten inside your reach, so you either have to back off or change weapon.

  3. Or shift the function of the weapon. I could almost see breaking “spears” down into three general classifications. Short spears (about javelin length) wouldn’t have any reach advantage or disadvantage. They basically are daggers on sticks. A medium length spear could give a bonus to reach or the like, but if the opponent gets inside that reach, you have to treat the spear as a quarterstaff until you can regain some distance. Then the truly long spears, for hunting boars and stopping cavalry. I’d rule that you need to have them couched or planted to be of use, and if the enemy gets within 10′ of you the spear pretty much becomes useless. Or just call it a polearm.

  4. The Tip of the Spear | The Rhetorical Gamer

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