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The Forgotten Smugglers' Cave: Index of Posts

An index of posts describing the Forgotten Smugglers' Cave, an adventure for Holmes Basic characters levels 2-4.                    ...

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Part 16: "An Exchange of Two Blows With Ordinary Weapons"

Part 16 of a comparison of Holmes' manuscript with the published Basic Set rulebook. Turn to page 20 of your 'Blue Book' and follow along... 


These days this section is one of the most notorious in Holmes Basic, due to the rule that "Light weapons such as the dagger allow two blows per round". This rule, combined with single dice damage (d6) for all weapons, makes daggers twice as effective as swords and four times as effective as two-handed weapons, which "can be used only once every other round". As I once wrote, "Not a big deal if only M-Us with poor AC are using daggers, but if all the fighters in plate & shield are also using daggers it gets ridiculous". It's been theorized that this "broken" rule came about due to changes in Holmes' manuscript by TSR. Now with the manuscript we can finally look more closely at what Holmes intended. I'll start by quoting this entire section from the manuscript for your reading pleasure:

From the Holmes Manuscript, pages 53-54

Now, let's go through this section sentence-by-sentence:

"There are ten "rounds" of combat per turn. Each round is ten seconds, so a combat turn is shorter than a regular turn, but results in at least as much muscular fatigue. Movement (if any) is usually at a sprint, an unarmored man can move 20 feet per melee round, a fully armored man only 10 feet."

There are no differences in the title, or the first three sentences, between the manuscript and the published version. The ten-second rounds and ten-round turns are the same as in the section on "Time" described earlier (See Part 6). Here Holmes also gives us movement rates for each round of melee that are 1/12 of the rate per turn. One might expect the rate per round to be 1/10 of the rate per turn, since there are ten rounds per turn, but the 1/12 rate is clever because it is easier to use with the 10' squares common on maps back then, such as the Sample Dungeon. As far as I can tell Holmes came up with this himself since it is in the manuscript. And Gygax was fine with it, as he left it unchanged in the published rulebook, and expanded it in the module B2 by giving a rate of 5 feet/round for fully armored/heavily loaded, and by explicitly stating that the 1/12 calculation is to be used for determining monster movement during combat. See this OD&D thread for more on this.

"Each round consists of an exchange of two blows with ordinary weapons."

In the fourth sentence we see the first difference. The manuscript says, "Each round consists of an exchange of two blows with ordinary weapons" (emphasis added), and the published version is the same except for dropping the word "two". By itself this is not a big change, and could just be attributed to editorial style; Holmes' choice of "two blows" might simply refer to the attacker's and defender's alternating attacks. 

In the published rulebook the next sentence is the problematic one: "Light weapons such as the dagger allow two blows per round". The manuscript is missing this sentence. So Holmes did not single out daggers or light weapons for two blows per round and this represents a change by Gygax/TSR.

But look carefully at Holmes' next sentence, the fifth in the manuscript:

"The heavy two-handed broad-sword, battle axe, halberd, flail, morning star, and pole arm can be used only once per round."

This was changed in two ways, one minor and one major. The term "broad-sword" was changed to just "sword", presumably to be consistent with other usage. The Original D&D rules didn't refer to "broad-swords", and in AD&D the "broad sword" is a separate weapon from the "two-handed sword". 

More signficantly, the ending of this sentence was changed to "...once every other round" in the published rulebook. 

If heavy weapons can only be used once per round, this means that all other weapons, such as swords, maces and daggers, can be used more than once per round. So when Holmes wrote "two blows per round" what he meant is that all melee weapons other than two-handed weapons get two attacks per round. Holmes makes this crystal clear in the melee examples, which I will cover in a future installment, where characters and monsters get two melee attacks per round.

The next two sentences in the published rulebook deal with crossbows:

"The light crossbow takes time to cock and load, so it likewise can be fired only once every other round. The heavy crossbow takes twice as long to load and fire". However, in the manuscript, there's just a single (sixth) sentence about the heavy crossbow:

"The heavy crossbow takes time to cock and load, can be fired only once every other round.

So in the manuscript the light crossbow could be used once per round (as all other missile weapons) and the heavy crossbow every other round.

The rest of this section is unchanged between the original and published verison. Of note, the last sentence mentions that the DM should consider 'friendly fire' during combat if missile weapons are used, although earlier on the same page in the section on "Cover" (Part 15), Holmes said that missile fire was not permitted at all once melee was engaged.

In summary, here are Holmes' original number of attacks per round:

Normal Weapons: 2 attacks per round
Heavy Weapons (e.g., Two-handed): 1 attack per round
Most Missile Weapons, Spells: 1 attack per round
Heavy Crossbows: 1 attack every other round

[Update: The "1 attack per round" for missile weapons is my interpretation of the text. See this thread for discussion of the possibility that missile weapons should also get 2 attacks per round]

This was changed by TSR in the published rulebook to:

Light Weapons (e.g., Dagger): 2 attacks per round
Normal Weapons: 1 attack per round
Heavy Weapons (e.g.,  Two-handed): 1 attack every other round
Most Missile Weapons, Spells: 1 attack per round
Light Crossbows: 1 attack every other round
Heavy Crossbows: 1 attack every fourth round 

In Holmes' original rules, the heavy weapons are at a disadvantage compared to normal weapons, having only the potential for half as much damage per round. But TSR's changes exaggerate this, making it twice as bad.

If you want to use Holmes' original version, I'd suggest using double damage (2d6) for heavy weapons and allowing them a free parry per round to mitigate the loss of shield (along the lines of what I suggested earlier for the published rulebook).

So, where did Holmes get the idea of two attacks per round for normal weapons?

In the absence of clear description of how combat works in the LBBs, my guess is that Holmes went back to Chainmail. The section on combat in Chainmail has the following sentence: "A man wielding a weapon four classes lower (1 vs. 5, 2 vs. 6, and so on) strikes two blows during every melee round" (pg 26 of Chainmail). The "two blows during every melee round" is very close to the "two blows per round" that Holmes includes in the manuscript. In Chainmail, many of the one-handed weapons are four classes lower than many of the two-handed weapons. See the Man-to-Man Melee Table on page 41; e.g., swords (class 4) are four classes lower than pole arms (class 8). Chainmail balances this fewer blows of heavier weapons by having them be more effective against heavier armors, but Holmes didn't include this part in the Basic rules. Kudos to Grey Elf at OD&D Discussion for suggesting the influence of Chainmail on the Holmes rules back in 2010).

Continue on to Part 17: "Highest Dexterity Strikes First"
Or Go Back to Part 15: "Hits With Arrows" (Missile Fire, Cover, Magical Weapons)
Or Go Back to Start: The Holmes Manuscript


  1. Kind of a "fail" on Holmes' part, here, in that by simplifying he created a problem with the heavy weapons. They really don't make sense unless you include some sort of rule making them more effective against heavy armor (or, perhaps, making lighter weapons less effective).

    Historically you generally do not see true dedicated two handed weapons until about ~1300AD or so (there are exceptions, such as the Dacian Falx from the Roman Iron Age and the Viking/Saxon broad axe from the late Viking Period, though). I attribute this to the general lack of plate armor. About this time, however, one starts seeing the Coat of Plates and other attempts to strengthen maille armour by itself, possibly in response to the increased punching power of crossbows. By the last half of the 14th century one starts finding breastplates of various sorts, in addition to plate protection to the limbs (the Churburg 13 panoply is a good example of this, dating to c. 1390AD). By no coincidence one starts seeing a lot more heavy impact weapons, such as early halberds, war hammers, maces, battle axes, and so forth.

    Note that daggers are a special case, being simultaneously useless in some instances and utterly lethal in others. The problem with a dagger vs. say, a sword, is that the wielder of the latter weapon will use its greater length along with agility to keep you out of range. You may get all sorts of "swings" with the dagger, but they will be at empty air. HOWEVER, if one does manage to get in range, as it were, the dagger is just nasty, as one can strike very rapidly indeed (not that a sword is slow, mind you!). Indeed, in one of the Fechtbucher (either Fiore or Talhoffer, not sure which) there is the statement to the effect of: "And now we turn to the dagger. God help us!"

    The Mediaeval dagger was, generally, a quite stout stabbing weapon, with a highly variable blade length (about 4" to even 20" or so). Some were really nothing more than very nasty ice picks. Against armoured opponents you had to drive into a joint, eye slot, or (less desireable) into maille protected parts. Against unarmoured foes you simply murdered - it was not uncommon for unprotected brawlers with knives or daggers to mortally wound one another in the course of a quarrel. Keep in mind that the overhand stab was almost universally used, so that resulted in a lot of often serious wounds to the head, neck, and upper chest.

    Using the original Chainmail rules straight up is a fair approximation of Mediaeval combat - not perfect by any means but capturing at least some of the real facts of such fights. The Holmes oversimplification takes out too many key elements to be workable.

    I'd do many things different, such as basing damage more on class and level than the weapon itself, and ensuring differentiation among the weapon types. But for a simple fix here in addition to your ideas one could give swords and daggers a -2 to hit vs. any heavy armour (maille or plate) though they should get more attacks than heavier maces and so forth. Something like that.

    1. Very informative response. I was not aware daggers were mainly used in the overhand stab. How easy is it to read a Fechtbucher for a novice?

    2. You can glean a lot from the pictures, actually! Check out Fiore dei Liberi on Wiktenauer. Keep in mind that the characters are often drawn a lot closer together than they would be, due to the format of the book.

    3. There are quite a few modern translations of the "old masters" available these days - so many I'm not sure where to begin! Some of this is probably even online. There is one of Talhoffer entitled "Medieval Combat" that has been around for awhile. Ken Mondschein has translated one of the Fiore manuscripts entiteld "The Knightly Art of Battle" (Getty Museum Publications). Paladin Press has several titles pertaining to the use of pre-gunpowder weapons, including Clement's books on Medieval and Renaissance Swordsmanship, modern translations of Sigmund Ringeck's fechtbucher, Paulus Hector Mair's work on pollarms, and directly relevant to this post, Jason Vail's book "Medieval and Renaissance Dagger Combat". A lot of this can probably be found fairly cheaply second hand, as well.

    4. It was Talhoffer who wrote “God help us all” or some such. Excellent post.

  2. Absolutely fascinating. I actually like the original manuscript version, and would be interested in trying it. The default is of course one attack/round at a maximum for all weapons, and one every other round for crossbows and two-handed weapons. This is what Gygax wrote into B2 while maintaining silence on use of the dagger. Probably an error in editing Holmes' manuscript on his part, since a close reading of B2 does not imply extra attacks with a dagger per round.

  3. Great stuff, thanks for those observations.

  4. Interesting stuff. Of course, the rule itself is utterly moronic in both cases. If daggers were four (or two) times better than a longsword, I don't think you would have seen many longswords manufactured...

    1. Holmes' original intent does not seem to regard daggers as any better than a longsword. Both attack twice/round and both would do d6. Using variable weapon damage would make the dagger d4 vs. the longsword d8. The edits are what break the rule, which is typically ignored as written.

    2. Ah, yes, I was forgetting that in D&D a "longsword" is a one-handed sword.

      In reality, a longsword was a two-handed sword.

      So I was talking about a two-handed sword.

  5. @ Zeno:

    This whole series is great (just found it, and I'm up to October 2014), but this piece is especially enlightening. Thank you so much for putting in the compare and contrast effort...great reading!

  6. Fascinating post. I’ve been doing HEMA for 16 years and Japanese swordsmanship for 13, and at this point I’m reasonably convinced that representing true combat on the tabletop isn’t really possible. The Riddle of Steel got about as close as one can get. It just comes down to what level of abstraction one finds best. I’m happy with TROS, HârnMaster or D&D or whatever. As long as it’s playable and gives the results the group finds optimal, it’s all good. It’s amazing seeing Dr. Holmes’ original intent. Thanks so much!