Awards Suck…Until You Win One

That picture is me holding the “Golden Geek” award for Best RPG from Boardgamegeek.com. See that look on my face? It’s a look of suspicion. As in, “I don’t trust you.”

I have mixed feelings about awards. And as award season begins this year, I find myself thinking a lot about them. I mean, I could write an essay about awards after awards season, but that seems…you know…disingenuous. Best to do it before all the nominations start so I can sabotage my company’s efforts up front rather than seeming to bitch about them afterward.

I’ve won a pretty good number of them. RPGA Player’s Choice Award for Best RPG, Origins Award for Best RPG (twice), I was on the design team for Best CCG (again, twice)…I’ve won my fair share of them. And winning an award is fun. It’s recognition from fans and peers that you’ve done a great job.

7th Sea Second Edition was the result of a lot of work from a lot of different people. Mark Diaz Truman, Marissa Kelly, Mike Curry, Rob Justice, Jess Heinig, Thomas Deeny, Mark Richardson, Brendan Conway, Sally Richardson, Amanda Valentine, Shen Fei, Giorgio Baroni, Manuel Castañon Gurerero, El Tio Drake, Young Yi Lee, Digeo Rodriguez, Beth Sobel, Meagant Trott…and that’s just to name a few. That’s a lot of people doing a lot of hard work to make 7th Sea a great game. And they all deserve recognition for their work.

But is it “the best” game?

I’ve never been a fan of the idea of “best.” In fact, it unsettles me. I don’t know how you evaluate any work of art over another. Is 7th Sea better than Masks (the runner up)? I don’t know. Or Wrath of the Autarch? I don’t know. I own both of them and I don’t know which measuring stick anyone uses to evaluate one RPG over another one.

Instead of definitive terms such as “better” and “best,” I like to use more subjective terms such as “favorite.” Pendragon is one of my favorite RPGs. I don’t know if it’s the best RPG, but I do know it’s one of my favorites. Over the Edge kicked me in the teeth with its design and presentation and I know other game designers have cited it as an RPG that influenced them as well. But is it “the best?” Very soon, Pinnacle will be launching a Kickstarter for the new edition of Torg. I love that game and can name at least ten other designers who do as well. But is it “the best?” I have no idea because I don’t know what criteria to use. And I’m pretty sure every person has their own way of evaluating games. Kind of like measuring apples and oranges but worse because everyone has their own definitions of apple and orange and what makes those things better than the other.

I’m also suspicious of awards because they make the whole creative process into a competition. I’ve already played in the Camarilla and I’ve seen what happens when you add PVP to the creative process, so no, thank you. I prefer helping and working with my fellow creators, not compete against them.

Awards also get into your head. Make you feel like you’re better than you are. Go back to the early days of the Legend of the Five Rings forums and look for my name. Yeah, you’ll see how quick awards can go to a normally humble guy from Minnesota’s head. It happened so fast, I don’t even remember when the transformation took place.

I remember winning the Best RPG Origins Award for Legend of the Five Rings. I was so damn proud, but at the same time, I also felt awful for the folks who didn’t win that award. I wanted to apologize. I loved their games. At the same time, I remembered that my mom—who threw away all my RPGs when Oprah said they were “Satanic”—was waiting by the phone to hear if we had won. I broke up on stage in front of a bunch of people. I was proud of what we accomplished, but at the same time, I was thinking of everyone else who was nominated and how they deserved the right to stand on the stage with me. They had produced games I loved. They deserved the same spotlight as me.

So, as awards season approaches, I view it with both hope and suspicion. Hope because a lot of the folks who worked on 7th Sea haven’t won awards yet and they deserve to have a moment standing on stage, feeling that joy and elation. And suspicion because…well, all that I’ve already said. To all the winners this year, I offer you my congratulations. And to all the “losers,” I offer you my congratulations as well. Maybe I’ll make my own awards and hand them out at the big cons this year.

Yeah…I’ll have to talk to Hannah about that…

#trekforthefirsttime

Last week, I got sick. The kind of sick that sits on your chest and won’t let you breathe. The kind of sick that gets into your head and screams until your skull starts to crack. The kind of sick that you have to fight all day long, so by the late afternoon, the only thing you want to do is just lay down.

That kind of sick.

My doctor tells me I caught a cold. No big deal. But the cold triggered asthma. I said, “Asthma?”

She nodded and said, “Asthma.”

Well, ain’t that fun?

So, I got sick. I had five different bottles of pills, kettles of hot tea, and the empty cardboard corpses of tissue paper rolls strewn around me. I couldn’t do anything except lay back, be miserable and watch Netflix.

Well, as it turns out, you can watch the entire run of Star Trek: The Original Series on Netflix.

I’m not a Trekkie, but I know a lot of them. Jess is a Trekkie, Chris is a Trekkie, Lenny is a Trekkie. Hell, even my dad is a Trekkie. But not me. I saw Star Wars before I saw Star Trek, so…well, you know how that goes.

Now, I may not be a Trekkie, but a whole bunch of people I love are. And because I love them, I want to understand the things they love…even if I don’t. For example, both Jess and Chris have Trek bathrobes. Jess has blue and Chris has gold. So, I got red. And one day, we’ll all be in the same place at the same time and wear them together. I also have an idea for a Trek RPG scenario I want to run for both of them. I won’t spoil it here, but it involves two of their favorite episodes from the classic show.

Yeah, I indulge in the things my friends love because I love my friends. And so, with my red Engineering robe on, I settled in and started watching the classic Star Trek tv show…for the first time.

That’s right. You heard me. For the first time.

Now, I’ve seen a couple episodes before. About…three, I think. “City on the Edge of Forever” (because I’m a fan of Harlan’s), “Trouble with Tribbles,” and “Balance of Terror” (at the urgings of many Trekkies). And I have to say, I liked all those episodes. In fact, “Balance of Terror” even beats out Harlan’s episode as my favorite. I loved that one.

But as for the rest, I’ve never seen them. Never once sat down and watched TOS. So, I figured, it was time. I started writing brief notes about each episode on my Facebook with the tag, #trekforthefirsttime. And the response has been pretty fun. At least it gets my mind off the fact that I can’t sleep because I can’t stop coughing.

Now, as of this writing, I’m not finished with the series. I’m halfway through Season 2—just watched “Conscience of the King”—but I still have a few thoughts I’d like to share with you about the experience. Specifically, as a Game Master. Because that’s the hat I’m wearing when I watch these episodes. And it’s gotten me thinking a lot about a Star Trek RPG.

As I began watching, I noticed that there are three kinds of episodes. I’m dubbing them:

  1. Kirk vs the Machine
  2. Kirk vs God, and
  3. The Good Ones

In “Kirk vs the Machine,” Kirk beats a godlike machine or android by using logic or absurdity. I didn’t like it the first time, I didn’t like it the rest of the times. I mean, it’s clear these episodes were written (or, in many cases, re-written) by people who don’t understand what the word “logic” means. It’s infuriating as someone who studied philosophy to hear “logic” thrown around so freely. In the world of Star Trek, nobody can agree on what “logic” actually is because they all have different definitions. Just like folks can’t agree on what “god” is because…

Well, let’s talk about that one, shall we?

And another thing before we get to the last category. Any episode that ends with someone solving the problem with technobabble is just not for me. Instead of Scotty saying, “We re-routed through the Jefferies tubes,” he may as well be saying, “I waved me magic wand and made the problem go away.” That’s boring. It’s like telling Dorothy should could have gone home at any time by tapping her heels together. I call bullshit. But more on that in a moment.

Let’s talk about Kirk vs God. Yeah. I…just…can we just not talk about this one? I mean, I’m the openly atheist in the room and this one just makes me feel dumb even thinking about.

As for the third kind of episode, this is where we get stuff like “Amok Time,” “Space Seed,” and the always delicious “Mirror Mirror,” along with the previously mentioned “classic” episodes. This is the real stuff. Nothing gets solved because of technobabble. And the reason is simple: there are no easy or simple solutions to the problems in the episodes.

Everyone likes talking about the Kobayashi Maru test: a test of character. And how Kirk fixed the test so he could win. But what’s interesting to me is how many Kobayashi Marus there are in the series. No good choices. Just choices. And you hope you made the right one.

“Balance of Terror” is an hour-long series of vague choices. Any one of them could doom the Enterprise at any moment. Kirk and his crew have to be at their best against an enemy that’s just as smart, clever and capable as they are. As fun as it was to see Khan in Star Trek 2, I would have loved to have seen the unnamed “Romulan Commander” make a return.

“City on the Edge of Forever” is another example. There’s no tricorder reading that can solve the problem of having to watch another human being die.

“Amok Time” sticks in my head for so many reasons, all of it weighing heavy on the dynamic chemistry between Kirk, McCoy and Spock. I understand why this was the first episode of the second season. Hell, I wish it was the first episode of the first season. And again, there is no easy solution to the problem. Sure, McCoy pulls a bit of trickery out of his med kit at the end, but the choice was still Kirk’s to make. A choice for his best friend.

These are the episodes that resonate in my head because they are about watching characters I care about—and yes, I’ve grown to care about them—facing real and certain challenges. The banter is fun. I like the banter. But what hits me hardest are the real moments of the show. When the characters talk to each other. And when they face dangers with no easy answers.

Remember that the next time you sit down at the game table. Do you remember your character’s stats? Do you remember how cool the initiative mechanic is? No. You remember when your character had to make a choice and nothing on the character sheet could help you.

That’s when shit gets real.

So, more of that, if you would Mr. Roddenberry.

D& Acquisition

Game designer John Wick, via his company John Wick Presents, has acquired the rights to the Dungeons & half of the Dungeons & Dragons franchise. “The 7th Sea Kickstarter was so successful, we had enough cash to do something important.”

While the dragons are still out of reach, Wick is excited for the possibility of taking the dungeons to new heights. “It turns out the dragons are pretty expensive,” Wick said. “But we’ve got some neat things planned for the dungeons part.”

Wick announced Dungeons & would be released into the public domain in five years, making the gaming public owners of the property. “The fans can do what they want with it. It belongs to them now.”

In the meantime, what are JWP’s plans for the property? Wick said, “We don’t plan on changing much. 5th Edition is my favorite edition of D&D. Maybe some new lighting for the dungeons. More pirates. Switching to a d10 system. Nothing major.”

Along with the acquisition of D&, JWP has also acquired Raven-, Plane-, Dying and Birth-. Wick said, “When we get the rest, we’ll be giving the full rights back to the original creators. Until then, they’ll have to settle for halfsies.”

For further information, please visit www.johnwickpresents.com/d-and.

John Wick Presents at PAX East (March 10-12)

Ahoy!

We’re happy to announce that the JWP crew will be attending our first PAX East this weekend. Join us Friday, March 10th to Sunday, March 12th for three days of merriment and games. We’ll have:

This time around, John won’t be there in person, but we’ll have a full crew staffing the booth. Stop by the tabletop arena (booth #10112) to say hi to Mark, Marissa, Thomas, and Hannah!

We’ll also be running weekend-long demos of the upcoming 7th Sea board game, War of the Cross. We’re thrilled to share this prototype with you and can’t wait to see you there!

Yours in adventure,

-The JWP Crew

Distractions and Mans

So, I’ve tried to write three different blog posts. I’m supposed to do this twice a week, and this time, it just isn’t happening. Why? Well, this little gif pretty much lays out why.

Writing is different for everyone—which is why there are so many different writing advice books—but one thing seems to be true among the writers I read and admire. That’s momentum. It’s hard to get started, but once you’ve got momentum, once you’ve been writing for ten-to-twenty minutes straight, you just keep going. You’ve found a rhythm and that rhythm keeps you going. Unless, of course, the world throws a fire in your face. Then, you have to start all over again.

And that’s pretty much what happened to me this week. I’ve been trying to avoid the news and politics and culture, trying to catch the momentum, and I’ve failed. All week long, I failed. I’ve gotten very little writing done, but I’ve been posting a lot on social media. More than I should have, to be honest. Because arguing on the internet is… well, we all know what arguing on the internet is all about, don’t we?

XKCD says it all

Way back when I was writing 1st Edition 7th Sea, my then-wife Jennifer (isn’t she knockin’ it out of the park with her 7th Sea fiction bits, folks?) put a rule on my head. No Internet Before Writing. I wasn’t allowed to check e-mail or go to any websites until I had written my daily word count.

I guess I’m gonna have to go back to that rule.

No internet before word count.

So, I’ve got very little for you this week. But I do have one thing. One very small thing. It’s small but very important.

The Mighty Matthew Colville—whose Youtube channel is required viewing for Game Masters, and that’s coming from the guy who wrote Play Dirty 1 & 2—introduced me to a couple memes that have become important in my life. The first is “Friendly Game,” which has become an important part of my game design philosophy. But the second is the concept of “mans.”

“Mans” is the name for the figures/chits/bits/pieces you move around in a board game. We were playing the old Dune board game (a brilliant, but flawed gem) and Matt referred to all his pieces as “mans.” I found the term absolutely delightful and adopted it into my own vocabulary. I even unofficially brought it into Houses of the Blooded. I’ve always loved RPGs that allow me to have “mans.” Folks who are linked to my character. I once designed a Noble character class for D&D that gave me more mans as I leveled up. And when I wrote Houses, I made sure one of the elements of that game allowed me to have mans. I could have a Spy Master and a Valet and a Poison Master. You know, like I was a Landsraad noble from Dune.

That was many years ago, but the word has stuck with me. And I should mention, in my head, it’s gender neutral. “Mans” means both men and women. But I’ve also become considerate to the fact that I cannot ignore it has a masculine connotation, and there are women friends of mine who would not appreciate being called a “mans.” (Yes, “mans” is not only gender neutral, but also both plural and singular.) And so, I’ve been looking for a new term.

What’s more, just recently, I realized that I actually do have mans. My company, John Wick Presents, has a whole bunch of people working on projects. We just released Heroes & Villains and Pirate Nations is off to the printer. Nations of Théah, Vol. 1 & 2 are both on the fast track to coming out in a couple of months, and just today, I saw Secret Societies has an outline deadline of this week.

Secret Societies! The very last book on our schedule for 7th Sea has an outline deadline for this week!

I have mans. A whole lot of them. And they’re doing some really damn amazing work. But, I can’t call them mans. I really can’t. I need a new term. Not because I’m afraid of offending people—if you know anything about me, I don’t give a single flying @#$%ing @#%% about @#$%ing offending people. But because people get to choose their labels. And if someone doesn’t feel comfortable with being one of my mans, then they deserve a new nickname.

Especially if they’re doing outstanding work for a company with my name on it.

Still, I’m a little sad to lose it. Nevertheless, a new word for the folks who work for me.

“Employees” is stale and boring. These people aren’t my employees. Some of them are the best friends I have in the whole world. And “friends” isn’t right, either. It just lacks the charm of the original term.

And entourage? Yeah, no. That’s just demeaning. That’s too close to “hangers on,” which does not denote the fact that I need these people.

And then, in the shower, the place where all great ideas hit you in the head, I knew what to do.

I knew the term I needed to use. Something for the JWP folks working so hard to make the company with my name on it look so good.

I have a crew.

Sure, I may be the captain of this mad voyage, but I’ve also got officers who manage things and keep us going in the right direction. A captain without a navigator and a pilot… yeah, no good. And the crew working the sails, we need them, or the ship goes nowhere.

A crew. All working together so we all get to where we’re going. We all heave together or the ship don’t go.

Yeah. That sounds about right. A crew.

I’ve got a damn fine crew at JWP. Looking at the books we’ve produced so far, at the Wiki page, at the Free Rules we just released, at the maps, at the art, at the innovative mechanics, at the editing, at the fiction… at just about everything. All working together to keep the ship going.

I’ve got a crew. And that’s about as much anyone can ask for.

Sing ho! for a brave and gallant ship

With a fair and favorin’ breeze

With a bully crew and a captain too

To carry me over the seas

To carry me over the seas, me boys,

To me true love far away

I’m taking a trip on a Bucca ship

Ten thousand miles away

Listen to “Ten Thousand Miles Away” for 7th Sea by Sheldon Morley

What We’re Playing

Dice and wooden meeples on a game board. Via Pixabay.

Happy New Year!

2017 is well under way, and we hope you’ve got some good gaming sessions scheduled ahead. Here’s what we’ve been playing at John Wick Presents:

Mendez, one of our 7th Sea staff writers, has launched a Masks campaign for Dungeon Elementary, a game store group he runs for younger players. Mendez says they’re taking to the system like superheroes!

Dan runs a Call of Cthulhu game every Sunday. He’s currently pulling inspiration from the Tanis podcast and Lovecraft’s The Shadow Out of Time novel.

Dan and Fabien share a gaming group with John, where they’ve been playing an Ars Magica game run by Pirate Nations developer Ben Woerner. Their group has been going strong for 8 years now—a show of true scheduling commitment.

When Ben’s not running Ars Magica, he’s running side campaigns of Legend of the Five Rings and playing D&D 5e in the Birthright campaign setting. Fabien’s also running sessions of Legend of the Five Rings, in addition to sessions of 7th Sea 2e.

Finally, Hannah’s in season 3 of a long-running Monsterhearts campaign, played in the same town with new characters and a new dramatic plot arc each season. It looks like this season the masked Tyrant will finally be revealed. Are the protagonists ready for its unveiling?

What have you been playing this winter? What games are you looking forward to playing this year?

Let It Go

I do a lot of game design seminars and I always meet “The Guy.” He always says the same thing, too. He raises his hand and says, “I’ve been designing a roleplaying game for twenty years now…”

I stop him. Right there. I know exactly where this is going and I need to stop it before it gets any further. I say, “In twenty years, I’ve designed almost thirty roleplaying games. You need to crap or get off the pot, pal.”

That’s usually when The Guy gets up and walks out. And in twenty years, he’ll still be designing the same game. He’ll never be finished.

That’s because he’s unwilling to do the hardest part of design or writing or painting or anything else: letting it go.

I told Mike Curry and Rob Justice this. “Every day, you wake up and know how to make your game better. Every day. Even the day after you sent it to the printer. Even the day after it shows up in bookstores. Even a year after that. Every day.”

The hardest part is letting it go.

I’m elbow deep in the second draft of Born Under the Black Flag, the second 7th Sea novel. The first one was damn hard. This one was easier. Not a lot easier, but I did a few things I did not do with the first novel. First, I made an outline. Black Flag jumps back and forth through the life of Thomas St. Claire, a pirate in the world of Théah, and I wanted to know where the past and present were going to be. I outlined the chapters on index cards and put them down on the floor with numbers. Then, I picked them up in the order I wanted the novel, giving them letters. I shuffled them around a bit, scratched out some numbers and letters, and when I was finished, I started writing.

I finished just as my deadline hit. I mean, on the same day. Daughter of Fate—the first novel—got pushed back 30 days because I wasn’t finished with it. But St. Claire had a goal, a simple goal, and he was able to reach it because he was willing to spill blood to do it.

First draft done, I sent it off to Amanda Valentine and take a year end vacation, not thinking about the novel for a while so I could approach it with new eyes. Also, I spent some time doing research and reading Patrick O’Brien.

I knew a novel about pirates would need some O’Brien in it. There was already a little—maybe 1 O’Brien’s worth—but I wanted more. Not a lot more, but enough to satisfy myself and the other fans of his work.

O’Brien was the author of the Master and Commander novels—among others—and his storytelling made my heart ache. I couldn’t capture the same authenticity he did—I simply did not have the level of knowledge he had—but I wanted to make sure the nautical elements felt authentic enough.

I told Amanda that when I sent it off to her and she said she would help me out. She had a couple of friends who were O’Brien fans, so when I finished the second draft, she would hand it over to them for feedback.

Last night, I was going through her edits, making changes both big and small, when it came time to introduce the first ship in the book. And this is where I needed to raise the O’Brien Factor. I spent an hour and a half writing a single paragraph. One hundred and thirty words. I wanted them to be the right words. To make St. Claire’s inspection of the ship feel authentic.

Ninety minutes on those words. It was some of the hardest writing I’ve ever done. But I went to bed happy. This morning, I sent them to Ben Woerner who gave me feedback and added a little bit about hammocks. And then, I read it back to myself—out loud. And I was happy. Damn happy.

The Galente was a fluyt out of Vestenmennavenjar. A merchant ship smaller than those from Montaigne or Castille, clearly influenced by recent Avalon designs. The ship was round like a pear when viewed from the fore or aft and the forefoot had greater rake. Despite its size, she could handle shallower waters than most and the aftcastle was tall, giving plenty of room to the officers and the captain. A sure sign of vanity. The masthead caps were wide and she had little room for cannons. All of it was for crew and cargo. Her rigging was designed to minimize the first of them. She was tall and proud, few guns. And she was fast. Damn fast. Just a few carpenters and the right directions, and she’d be a fighting ship in a month.

After I was done, I sent the words to Jessica. She’s my Jane Austen fan. I sent them along with the request, “Please tell me if you get lost in the jargon.” I wanted to make sure there was just enough she could understand what was going on. She sent me this reply:

This is the sort of paragraph I skip when reading. If a fluyt is a real ship, then I don’t want someone spelling it out for me in text. That’s what Wikipedia is for. Talk about the significance that whoever’s POV would be considering.

Things like “A sure sign of vanity” are hints of a good direction.  I want to hear the captain (or whoever) size her up, like a sailor would. I know no one knows what a fluyt is anymore, but ignore that. hide the information in the captain’s evaluation of his dreams and plans for her.

A merchant ship means he can hide his nature. That should be emphasized rather than comparing it to other nations.

A sure sign of vanity, but he could afford that. or maybe it would extend to his men, proud to have such a vessel. They will work harder.

I don’t know. But make it personal. Make it real. This is a text book description. Jargon smargon. It’s missing the people and the reasons.

Needless to say, I was heartbroken. I loved those words. I worked hard on those words. Dammit. DAMMIT.

Okay, okay. Take a breath. You know why you’re upset. You know why.

She’s right.

So, after stomping around the room for a little while, I set myself back behind the keyboard and began editing. Looking at Jessica’s feedback and using it. And what I got, after another hour of work, was something better. Not just better, something that Ben Woerner said “gave me chills” after reading it.

Yeah. It was better.

I wasn’t The Guy. I wasn’t going to walk out of the room when someone challenged me. I was going to listen and think.

And let it go.

St. Claire walked along the Galente, his eyes and mind taking in all the details. She was a fluyt out of Vestenmennavenjar: a merchant ship smaller than those from Montaigne or Castille, clearly influenced by recent Avalon designs. She was round like a pear when viewed from the fore or aft and the forefoot had greater rake. That meant he could sail her in shallower waters, hiding behind islands from larger ships. He could sail her up rivers, giving him access to ports and escape routes larger fighting ships could not manage.

The aftcastle was tall, giving plenty of room to the officers and the captain. St. Claire snickered. A sure sign of vanity on the part of the captain. Made the officers’ cabins easy targets for other ships. That would have to go.

She had little room for cannons. Only six per side. Instead of cannon decks, the Galente had room for cargo. She was a merchant ship, after all. Claire didn’t need many more guns, what he needed was speed, and the Galente had plenty of that. Her rigging was designed for minimal crew and outracing pirates. She was fast. Damn fast.

He knew what he had to do. Lose some cargo space with double hammocks and she could carry plenty of fighting men along with a small working crew. Add chase guns to the fore and aft, keeping sharp shooters in the rigging. Hiding in shallow waters at night, waiting for larger ships to go by, sailing right up to their hulls, moving so fast, the enemy’s cannons would fire too long, splashing cannons behind them. Then, unleash the marines. If he got that close, most ATC ships would surrender without ever firing a shot.

Just a few carpenters and the right directions, and she’d be a fighting ship in a month.

Spirit of the 7th Sea: Interview with Samantha Swords

sam-at-dragongate-swords-arm-crossed-by-box-bag-promo-image
Samantha Swords

Welcome to spirit of the 7th Sea, an interview series with experts and enthusiasts who share a passion for early modern European history.

This month, we interviewed sword-fighter, performer, illustrator, and craftsperson Samantha Swords.

Originally from New Zealand, Samantha has traveled the world doing work in the film industry, as well as working with propmaking, armor construction, costume construction, large-scale sculpture, metalsmithing, and much, much more.

Samantha was kind enough to lend her time and expertise talking with us about historical sword fighting, pop culture myths, and favorite dueling maneuvers.


Hi Samantha! I’m thrilled to be able to talk with you about sword fighting. Thanks for lending your time and expertise!

Q: First, how did you get your start? What initially drew you to sword fighting and what attracted you to historical sword fighting over modern sport fencing?

Samantha: I have been passionate about medieval European swords since I was a child. I started training in historical fencing in 2008, but I did practice modern Olympic fencing for four years as a teenager. I don’t see much relationship between the two, as historically the art of defence was very practical and dangerous, and it’s much more interesting to me. Also the martial arts of medieval Europe are very beautiful, and the challenge of reviving them is unique and exciting!

Q: Like many people, my concept of historical sword fighting mostly comes from pop culture, and I know my knowledge is built on a lot of myths. What are the most common myths you’ve encountered?

Samantha: The first is a strange myth that medieval swords weren’t actually sharpened much, or were mostly bludgeoning tools.

We know that medieval and Renaissance swords were very sharp, partly from surviving museum examples, through forensic evidence of damage to deceased fighters, and via documentation from the period. Also, feders—the sword-like tools that historical fencing schools used to train safely—are strangely-shaped so that they can simulate the weight, balance and other characteristics of a fully-sharpened sword. Essentially, there’s no sense in carrying around a 3 foot long blade if one isn’t going to use it as a blade!

Another myth many people love to hold onto is the idea that ‘swords were extremely heavy’. They weren’t. The average weight of any actively-used sword throughout the Middle Ages was a mere 1-3 pounds. Most single-handed arming swords were around 1 pound in weight, even Viking swords! In the case of Viking swords, they were secondary weapons, mainly used for cutting at exposed areas, not used for smashing into wooden shields (that’s what other shields and axes were for..!)

The later weapon, the longsword, averaged around 2-3 pounds in weight. The rapier was heavier than most people think and was around the same weight as a longsword, but the since it was a single-handed tool the weight was distributed more close to the hilt, allowing freer movement of its long, narrow blade.

Larger two-handed swords gained popularity in war and for ceremonial use from the 16th-17th centuries, and their size varied depending on different, specialised functions. Swords used in dueling tended to be smaller than those employed to hew through large groups of enemies at a time (such as the famous montante, from the Iberian Peninsula). Two handed ‘schlachtschwert‘ (battle swords) were very large but still dynamic and well-balanced. Their great size made them well-suited for ceremonial use. Even ‘bearing’ swords, extremely large swords used only in parades to impress onlookers from great distance, were built to fighting-sword standards. Surviving examples of bearing swords are excellent examples of craftsmanship, and like battle swords, are only around 6-8 pounds. However a modern misunderstanding about the context of such weapons contribute to the myth of the oversized, overly-heavy medieval sword.

The good guide to debunking such myths is to remember that a tool is made to be useful, and in a fight, any excess weight will slow you down. Weapons and armour-makers intelligently designed their equipment to be as strong, lightweight and efficient as possible.

Q: Speaking of pop culture, let’s talk movie sword fights! I’ve always loved this fight scene from Princess Bride, between Inigo Montoya and the feared Dread Pirate Roberts. I’m ready to have my reality shattered. What do you see here that just wouldn’t fly in a real sword fight?

Samantha: I love this scene. It perfectly captures the energy and character of Inigo and The Man in Black. The fighters’ use of the environment, their gymnastic feats and clear, disciplined attacks, the wit and wordplay the two engage in, the references to historical fencing masters and their strategies—everything is great for on-screen entertainment.

As with any stage combat, the strikes that both actors make are often wide, and won’t connect if the other performer misses with their block. This style of attack is done for the safety of the performers and usually hidden through camera angles, but in a real fight if an opponent makes an attack that won’t actually connect then there is no need to move and defend against it! Knowing when to move or not involves a mastery of distance— knowing how far you and your opponent can reach when the swords are extended in a thrust or cut.

The Man in Black and Inigo are fighting with rapiers, but not using them as rapiers were historically used according to the many sources that we have. Despite referencing four fencing masters, what they are doing in the scene doesn’t actually reflect the movements they are commenting on. This is unsurprising as the wonderful sword choreographer Bob Anderson was not well-versed in historical fencing so wasn’t able to bring in the complex techniques referenced as he created the fight.

The style that the two are fencing with more resembles the use of small-swords, which require a closer range to cause damage. Smallswords are also lighter than rapiers, which allow for soft, quick, flexible attacks, gymnastic behaviour like leaping and hopping, and antics like tossing the sword from hand to hand, as The Man in Black does towards the end, mid-defence. With a true rapier fight he wouldn’t be able to do this as the opponent, Inigo, would push through the centre the moment the Man in Black switched hands. As someone who ‘has studied his Agrippa’, this would be a simple matter for Inigo. Instead, the two constantly are swiping at one another with their swords, making contact and then breaking apart again.

Unlike what is often seen in movies, good historical fencing was based around being able to control the other fighter’s blade, not constantly knock it aside back and forth (most often seen with larger weapons such as longswords). The teeth of two sharp swords bite into one another and create a strong connection between both opponents. They are then ‘bound’ and able to feel the force and movements of the other, and a good fighter take can advantage of this feedback as they press one another for an opening.

It’s very realistic at the end of the fight that Inigo becomes erratic with his defence. A masterful swordsman would seek to defend with conservative motions, whilst still threatening and making their opponent move wider and wider until there is an undefended opening that the swordsman can take advantage of—just as The Man in Black does with Inigo. This kind of masterful control of a fight takes precision and patience, which is why Inigo realises that The Man in Black has bettered him, and he surrenders.

A masterful swordsman would seek to defend with conservative motions, whilst still threatening and making their opponent move wider and wider until there is an undefended opening that the swordsman can take advantage of.

Overall the duel at the Cliffs of Insanity is strictly linear in its motions, much like a modern fencing bout. One way to take such advantage would be to step offline, changing the angulation of the attack—such as using the strategies of Thibault. The linear fencing in the fight reads well on film, however, and has a beautiful flow to it that in no way detracts from the rest of the movie.

Despite the criticisms mentioned above, I feel that the style of combat in the scene was entirely appropriate. Having the two characters fight in any other way would detract from the lighthearted atmosphere of the encounter. Ultimately this is what good fight design should do—fit with the characters and story and feel like a seamless part of the world they are in. By this standard, the scene is perfect!

Q: My final pop culture question, and I hope this one doesn’t make you cringe. I love the trope of a blade so sharp it can cut another sword clear in half! I’m guessing that one’s … not very realistic. What would it take to make that happen?

Samantha: Actually, this one isn’t so far fetched as other myths! It is possible for one sword to cut through another, but only if the sword that breaks is already weak; of poor quality. Steel is made up of crystals that form and weave together during forging, and once you fracture their structure (by heating or mistreating a blade) it is completely possible the sword can snap or yield to a forceful cut.

Two good steel swords that strike one another with a lot of power are going to be damaged, but if they are made well and flexible, their core should transfer the force along the length of the tang.

Blades cut when they are moving, and have thousands of microscopic teeth that bite into something, like a saw. Just pressing them hard against an object is not enough to cause a cut. There needs to be a sliding motion, just like with a saw cutting through wood.

When it comes to the trope of a sword slicing through armour, consider that armour is made to defend against swords and other weapons. That’s the purpose of its design. If swords were able to slice right through the layers then there would be absolutely no point to wearing a hot, heavy harness that takes a fair bit of time to put on. Armour worked, but like everything, it still had vulnerabilities. Many other tools were developed solely to damage a fighter in armour. If a sword were already able to do that then there would be no need for other weapons to exist like the war hammer, mace or flail.

If you were going to attack a well-armoured opponent with your sword, it would make sense to mainly thrust and only go for the gaps and weak places. Historically, fully-armoured knights fighting a sword-wielder would be targetted in areas like the armpits, the palms, the eye-sockets, inside the elbows, behind the knees, and other areas that armour wasn’t able to cover because it needed to still hinge and allow the fighter to move their body.

Although a sharp blade is dangerous and can cut easily, being able to make smooth, clean strikes that slice right through something requires a lot of practice. It takes very little pressure to cut through skin, but if you don’t follow through then an enemy may only be in pain, and able to strike you back! In historical swordsmanship, every cut should be an offensive blow. Even if it is a parry it should still be swung to still be a threat, and keep your opponent at bay.

Samantha Swords death strike. Photo by Bruno Gallant.
Photo by Bruno Gallant.

Q: While heroes get themselves into dire situations, sword fighting in 7th Sea often has a playful edge! In a real sword fight (or more casual swordplay), are there any maneuvers where you know someone is just messing with you? Like playful moves, or provoking moves?

Samantha: Definitely! You can use your distance to trick an opponent, and bait them into attacking an opening that might be just out of range. You can switch your weapon from one hand to another, to confuse them, especially if they are not used to fighting a left-hander (although good fencing masters of the time would teach to defend against just that!).

You could play with them by making contact with their blade with the tip of yours, but not enough for them to control you—moving the fastest part of your sword around theirs. This can be very frustrating to experience because your opponent refuses to commit to an action.

You can lean away from your opponent when they strike, not even moving your feet. This can be annoying if the other person has put a lot of force into the blow… Another option when duelling at close range is to perform disarms. Many people don’t expect it, and it can be an amusing way to end a fight!

Q: In 7th Sea, the continent of Théah is made up of ten nations, each with its own distinct customs and personality. Can you talk about regional differences in bladed weapons? Are these differences largely aesthetic or will you find major differences in the shape, weight, and function of bladed weapons across 17th century Europe.

Samantha: The 17th century saw dramatic changes in single handed swords, and how they were used. Following the Renaissance, several distinctive blade types developed in Europe. The iconic shape of the cruciform, double-edged medieval sword was largely replaced by blades that ranged in shape from wide and curved to straight and narrow. Civilian and military weapons were extremely diverse and developed both for fashion and for function.

As the blade styles evolved they were imitated universally, but decoration and other details varied depending on culture and region. Hand protection was added to many swords and classical-inspired styling, such as scalloped shapes and the chiselled likeness of animals were very fashionable features found on many swords. Italian and Spanish weapons tended to be elaborate and flamboyant, Germanic weapons were more simple and functional, and English and French swords fell somewhere in between.

Many sword types were effectively the same across Europe as their specialised parts would be made at certain workshops and manufacturing hubs, then shipped and assembled by local cutlers. Some of the reasons for this were to enable the best product quality and also practicality of transport. For example, sword blades packed tight and stored in a barrel are a lot easier to ship than a bundle of fully-finished swords.

Italian and Spanish weapons tended to be elaborate and flamboyant, Germanic weapons were more simple and functional, and English and French swords fell somewhere in between.

The lessening influence of the Church on nobility and increased trade with the East contributed to social acceptance of curved sabres, and also the increased skill of swordsmiths (combined with access to fine quality steel) allowed for the development of longer, finer weapons like the rapier and the smallsword.

As well as being a military weapon, the rapier became immensely popular during the 16th and 17th centuries due to its elegant appearance and lethal capabilities, and especially as it could be an ‘espada ropera’- a sword of the robes, or daily clothes. It could be worn anywhere, unlike the larger swords that were associated with the ‘work’ of war and considered provocative and inappropriate for civilian life. The rapier was discreet enough to still be worn for self defence and showed the wearer was both a swordsman and a gentleman. During the 17th century the preference changed in favour of the smallsword, and then by the end of the century, sadly the pistol replaced these as the duellist’s weapon of choice.

Other shorter bladed weapons were popular during this time too, such as the basket-hilted broadsword (with a wire cage that protected the user’s hand) and the messer, a sword-like knife worn by all classes of society. For the upper classes the rapier enjoyed the most use, and its extreme length (between 30-55 inches) was a great advantage in any duel. At the beginning of the 17th century rapier fencers would frequently use a left-handed dagger as well. This fell out of fashion in most areas, except in Italy and Spain where the weapon took on a highly-developed, specialised form.

The rapier was discreet enough to still be worn for self defence and showed the wearer was both a swordsman and a gentleman.

Some other blades were immensely successful in select regions, such as the stocky, powerful cinquedea of Italy, which was used extensively there and nowhere else. Another example is the katzbalger of the Landsknecht mercenaries, a short, brutal and effective weapon- an appropriate companion to the professional soldier.

In some cities the wearing of swords was restricted or banned outright, so other weapons were adopted, such as falchions or baselards. Like their well-utilised cousin the messer, these might pass as swords at a distance but are actually constructed as knives with single edges and a different hilt, allowing them to defy legal restrictions through sheer technicality.

At sea, shorter weapons were also favoured due to their heft and manoeuvrability in close quarters. Firearms were becoming more efficient in the 17th century but were still limited with their reloading capacity and overall reliability, so many seamen opted to always fall back on wielding an axe, or a trusty blade.

Q: I’ve heard people refer to the katana as a superior bladed weapon. Do you think there’s a historic sword that’s a cut above the rest, or does it really come down to the skill of the bladesmith and the intended purpose of the sword?

Samantha: Whilst the katana was produced by an extraordinary feat of engineering, it was still only suitable within the context that it was used—defeating other warriors in single combat. Different weapons develop for different purposes, and there are some exceptional weapons (especially from ancient Asian and Scandinavian cultures) so it is very difficult to decide on one ‘best sword of all’.

However, since the majority of medieval and Renaissance swords were designed to follow harmonic principles of geometry, the original objects are beautiful and extremely well-balanced, symmetrical tools. For me, this makes them superior to most other weapons. I’m also biased towards medieval swords!

Q: How customized is footwork when it comes to using different swords? For example, if you spent your life training with a rapier then picked up a longsword for the first time, would you really trip yourself up?

Samantha: For later styles such as rapier or smallsword, footwork is very specialised, because the fencing style is based largely on thrusting and takes advantage of the minute differences in blade angles.

A rapier fighter could employ their footwork to wield a longsword and may still fight well, but there are major differences on how best to use your body to work with either weapon. A longsword requires both sides of the body to move together more wholistically, and to adjust your body structure for the powerful momentum of longsword cuts. The fencer would need to learn to wrestle as well, since the optimal sparring distance for longsword is much closer than rapier—just outside of grappling range—and the martial arts of the longsword largely incorporate switching between the two.

Samantha Swords fencing in Michigan.
Samantha Swords fencing in Michigan.

Q: Can you talk about little details a player or GM might add to their 7th Sea games to make dueling scenes or sword fights feel more realistic? Something that would take the scene from “awesome but impossible” to “awesome and plausible?”

Samantha: I’ve thrown in some clues in my other answers, which I hope will help players build more realism into their game. The essence of creating believable combat in a role-play story is to understand the purpose of the fight, and the motivations of the people in it. Do they want to get away? Do they want vengeance? Are they impressing their peers, or surviving a brutal confrontation? Are they in or out of their comfort zone? How desperate are they? Are they tired? How far away is their backup?

I think of combat as falling into three different goals: for show (like a duel of honour or test of sportsmanship), for self defence (such as being ambushed and fighting to get away), or for survival (such as enduring a battle or a situation that you can’t just walk away from). Once you understand where a character falls into these important categories, you can then look at other smaller details and build them in.

The essence of creating believable combat in a role-play story is to understand the purpose of the fight, and the motivations of the people in it.

As well as understanding this breakdown of fighting goals, my best advice is to learn as much as you can about historical arms, armour and their limitations and advantages so you can exploit the details in your narrative. This will make it feel real and engaging to the other people involved in your story.

Q: Let’s talk scrappy fighting! In 7th Sea you’ll find trained nobles and naval officers with swords, but you’ll also find pirates. What are some of the notable differences you’d see in a fight between a trained swordswoman and a rough n’ tumble fighter? What bladed weapons might a wealthy person have access to that a pirate wouldn’t?

Samantha: Did I hear you say, “Let’s talk about pirates”…?! Yarrr…!

‘Hit and run’ was the essential signature of a pirate attack. Historically, pirates worked through intimidation, relying on their reputation and superior strength to demoralise their victims, and the expectation was immediate surrender lest the hapless ship suffer fatal consequences. The majority of ships targeted by pirates were trade vessels that had never seen battle, so in most cases the terrified crew would comply after the pirates made a show of force and demanded a surrender. Many seamen could not swim, so even just the threat of fire and exploding devices such as early grenades thrown onto an oily wooden ship could be enough for a ship’s crew to be conquered without a drop of blood being spilled. On land, pirates would also employ raid techniques, sometimes banding together with other pirate crews so that their numbers overwhelmed the small towns they stormed.

Although pirates were thought of by their contemporaries as wild, cruel individuals that killed without hesitation, a great many were former merchant seamen; young men in their 20s who had willingly—or not—joined a pirate crew. Some would have been thugs and criminals, but the greatest fighting strengths that pirates possessed were their willingness to engage in violence, the firepower of their ship, and the reputation that preceded them.

Individually I can only speculate on how a pirate might fight. Brawling was common amongst both working men and academics in the 17th century, but a pirate’s intimacy with everyday violence would give them more comfort during a fight than a person living within the law might feel.

An experienced swordsman would have certainly studied rapier, military sabre or sidesword as a duelling weapon, as well as other ‘gentlemanly’ weapons such as dagger, cape and open hand/wrestling techniques. They would have been influenced by a calculated and mathematical approach to the defensive arts that grew during the Renaissance and was popularised by the writings of masters such as Capo Ferro, Thibault and Fabris. With a better concept of physics and more conservative motions, the swordsman would have the upper hand in a civilised fight. However pirates worked outside the law, so ‘anything goes’ was probably the best approach to winning a one-on-one fight with such a person.

Reproduced illustration from Academy of the Sword by Girard Thibault (1628)
Reproduced illustration from Academy of the Sword by Girard Thibault (1628)

Public duels amongst 17th century swordsmen were often bloody affairs, though rarely lethal. Thus an experienced fencer could have won many duels, yet might struggle to keep their head during a scrap with a disreputable, ‘rough and tumble’ type. In this case I think having general military experience would serve a person much better in such a fight than having only studied 17th century martial arts.

A wealthy person had a great variety of weapons available to them. As well as pistols, rifles and muskets (which were very much in everyday use during the 17th century) bladed weapons that a person of means might carry include rapiers, broadswords, any type of long knife, basket-hilted swords, sabres, or in some cases pikes, warhammers and short spears.

Fighting seamen such as pirates would have fought with more simple weapons such as pistols, naval axes and hangers—thick, curved, single-edged swords. Essentially the same as messers, hangers were in use for hundreds of years as popular weapons but found special favour during the Age of Sail, where they evolved into the weapons known as cutlasses (derived from an Italian word for a ‘long knife’). The cutlass was the ideal close-combat weapon for ship use, but was not in widespread use until the very end of the naval era, despite being the most well-remembered weapon in our mythology and stories about that time. The earlier hanger and other broad-bladed swords were most often used by the military and were very useful in naval combat due to their short length, sturdy construction and terrific cutting power, which combined to make them excellent weapons within the tight quarters of a densely-rigged ship deck.

A 19th century French naval cutlass
A 19th century French naval cutlass

Q: Finally, if someone wanted to learn historical sword fighting today, where should they look? What do you recommend for beginners who can’t wait to jump in?

First I recommend watching ‘Back to the Source‘, an excellent documentary that was made recently about the historical European martial arts community. It covers a lot of what we do, is free to watch online and is very encouraging for folks just getting started!

There are many online resources, such as the Wiktenauer (a gigantic online library of historical European martial arts books) and terrific YouTube channels such as Schola Gladiatoria, which will give you an abundance of historical martial arts knowledge.
You can also check out the HEMA Alliance Club Finder to search for local groups practicing near you.

Failing all that, should you wish to do library or internet research yourself, you can look for ‘Western Martial Arts’, ‘Historical European Martial Arts’, ‘Historical Swordsmanship’ or ‘Historical Fencing’.

I’d recommend buying some kind of starter sword (which can be made of wood or synthetic) and practice hitting a target. Don’t buy a steel sword until you know if it will suit regular training. HEMA-oriented websites should help you find good, trustworthy brands of starter swords.

If you are training with a friend wear sturdy gloves and head protection at the very least! Many people buy fencing masks, which are good if you start sparring. If you do want to spar I’d also recommend wearing a mouthguard, some kind of joint, neck and torso protection, and groin protection for guys. Developing control is more important than having equipment, but safety gear needs to help keep you safe and confident while you learn. Personally, when I pick up a sword for practice I also put on safety glasses, which cost only a few dollars and are very good if your sword breaks or your friend slips and donks you in the eye!

HEMA is a growing movement and with the rich resources of the internet, it’s very possible to start a club if there are none in your area. There are a great variety other medieval combat groups as well. For people who are less interested in historical martial arts and perhaps want to do armoured combat, there are many sports groups that specialise in this which aren’t associated with HEMA, but are also a lot of fun.

The ACL (Armored Combat League) and HMB (Heavy Medieval Battle) are two similar international organisations who do very competitive, highly-athletic medieval combat.

There’s also the SCA (Society of Creative Anachronism) who also train with medieval armour and host impressive, huge battles, and some SCA groups offer really good rapier training. If you’re not ready to get hit with steel or even wooden swords you might want to get some experience using foam swords with LARPing groups. There are many fighters from the groups above who cross-train in the relaxed, fun environment that LARPing offers, and I know HEMA groups that use foam to build up confidence and awareness with beginners, especially youth. It’s fine to use lots of training tools so long as you remember what they are simulating- a sharp steel sword used in the art of self-defence.

Whatever path you choose, if you get a sword, find someone to teach you, make time to practice, and keep at it, you will be well on the way to becoming a competent swordsperson!

This was fantastic, Samantha! Thank you again for sharing your time and enthusiasm in the name of 7th Sea.

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