Saturday, 31 December 2011

A Spearprising Statistic

As a long-time resident of Japan who doesn't really buy into the Japanophile scene, I'm always entertained when myths about Japanese society (particularly to do with samurai) get busted. (See posts passim like this one.) So I was pleased to discover some statistics while reading Sir George Sansom's magisterial, and somewhat dry, A History of Japan:

There are no exact records of the arms carried by the troops engaged at Sekigahara, but a general idea can be gained from the composition of a reinforcement sent to Ieyasu by Date Masamune in October 1600. Of a total of 3,000 men, 420 were mounted, probably carrying swords, 1,200 carried firearms, 850 carried spears, and 200 carried bows; there are no particulars for 330 men. 
A similar contingent of some 2,000 men from another quarter included 270 mounted men, 700 men carrying firearms, 550 carrying spears, and 250 carrying bows; there are no particulars for the rest. These and other records show that by 1600 the most important weapons were firearms, followed by spears and next by bows. Swords came last.

So there you have it: katana look nice, but ask those who were in the know and they'd always have gone for trusty old yari, and they liked teppo best of all.

Actual matchlock firearms were only introduced to Japan by the Portuguese in about 1540, so it was only in the course of 60 years that they came to surpass the bow in terms of importance. Almost like with the Maori musket wars, a foreign technology was introduced which totally revolutionised Japanese warfare and changed social mores indelibly (though in this case, in the opposite direction to that of the Maori: Japan became more conservative and backward as a consequence). This is a lesson for any DM who is interested in creating a living, breathing, sort of a world: imagine what could happen to an orc society once firearms (or a certain type of magic) is introduced.

But I'm more interested in spears. To put it simply, I'm a spear fan when it comes to D&D, and never create a fighter who doesn't have one (or a trident or similar). Swords don't interest me much: a spear is just as good in a fight - or better, because it lets you fight from a rear rank or from above/below - but it's also an invaluable tool: it's a 10' pole with a spike on the end. It's a trap-finding, hole-poking, enemy-tripping, depth-finding device extrordinaire which no self-respecting dungeoneer should leave home without. No wonder the medieval Japanese liked it so much.


  1. But I was told that a Katana could cut through stone and be used to deflect bullets --- is that not true?

  2. I've always been largely disappointed with how D&D has handled the spear over the years. Of course, part of the issue has always been that accurately representing the advantages and disadvantages of sword vs. spear would actually involve adding a lot of complexity to the combat system. I think that the reach/AoO system in 3.x is probably the best we can expect.

    Of course, spears also have tremendous advantages in warfare that aren't seen as much in the skirmishes of a typical fight. They are cheap, easy to use, and ideal for using from the second rank of densely packed infantry.

  3. Spears are cheap too, and easier to learn how to fight with. And they can be thrown. The only major downside, other than the size (you pretty much have to carry them all the time, as they are hard to holster), is that you usually have to use two hands to wield them, making it impossible to use a shield well (unless you are in formation).

    Don't forget setting for a charge.

  4. I've never been a katana fanboy, but I was a bit surprised when I started reading up on Sengoku-era warfare (for a miniatures wargaming project) that spears predominated. And even before the introduction of the teppo and the yari, it was more about skill at the bow than at the sword. I get the sense that the katana was basically samurai bling, but when it came down to brass tacks (and mass battles), it bowed to any number of other (more effective) weapons.

    "They are cheap, easy to use, and ideal for using from the second rank of densely packed infantry."

    Since we're discussing Japanese warfare, an interesting point: 16th-century Japanese "pike" formations (wielding ~15-foot-long spears called nagae-yari) did not fight in close order formations. This seems kind of counter-intuitive--what's the point of going into battle with a wicked long spear if you're not packed like sardines?--but then again Japanese cavalry didn't operate in the same way that Western cavalry at the time did, either.

  5. In OD&D the spear is the best weapon due to how it interacts with the charging rules.

    Personally, although I'm a big fan of the spear, a heavy stabbing sword-knife would be my favored dungeon weapon.

  6. I think one way to help out the spear is to make everything cost more. The cheapness of the spear then has some impact in decisions of equipage, while making the absurdly-expensive sword a goal for those so inclined. I sometimes play with the idea of making all Fighting Men begin with spears at 1st level.

  7. Sirlarkins: I think that might have something to do with the shield never evolving in the way it did in the West, stemming back thousands of years to the early Greeks. The packed phalanx only really works if you have shields too. Otherwise you're just a big mass of guys literally marching onto another load of guys' spear-tips.

    Armour also wasn't very effective in medieval Japan - another reason to want to be able to have lots of room to dodge, rather than leaving your life in the hands of your protective garments as a European man-at-arms would have.

  8. I'm speaking totally extemporaneously, of course. But it seems to make sense.

  9. Matthew Slepin: That's my type of thinking. A sword is a lot of steel, and not something a commoner should be able to get his hands on easily. 1st-level adventuring should all be about spears, clubs, axes and knives.

  10. Excellent points, and they make sense to me. Different cavalry tactics, shields (or the lack thereof), armor... If anything, comparing and contrasting different cultures can be a great eye opener for coming up with fantasy cultures. Westerners tend to think, "Yes, spears - excellent for close-order fighting." But that style of fighting developed in reaction to and was facilitated by very specific factors.

    As to swords being costlier: East or West, the sword seems more a status symbol than some kind of uber-weapon and I like the idea of encouraging a "sword cult" in a game world without making the weapon necessarily better than any other (one of the reasons I kind of like the old D&D approach of having every weapon do d6 damage). It would be interesting to see what the players did in regards to a weapon that enjoyed a massive qualitative advantage but no actual quantitative advantage.

  11. Reading about feudal-Japan warfare I always have the impression that the samurai was, mainly, a mounted archer. Yes, the katana is the soul of the warrior and so, but there must be a reason for all those 19th century photos showing samurai proudly wielding their bows...

  12. Because holding a sword looks cooler, that's why.

    Honestly, soulless technocrats, the lot of you.

  13. sirlarkins: I'm not an expert at all, but I've read in a couple of places that warfare in the pre-Columbian Americas was all about taking enemies prisoner rather than killing them in battle (so they could be tortured and sacrificed later). They had many weapons and techniques geared towards disabling but not killing foes. I'd like to do something with that in a campaign setting someday.

    Liza: Yes, in the Nara and Heian periods (roughly 700AD-1100AD) Japanese warfare was quite ritualised: both groups of warriors would fire arrows at each other before closing in to fight with swords and knives. The archery bit seems to have been more important.

    Zak: Don't you think swords are a bit MOR though?

    Incidentally, I've just realised I should have called this post "An Inspearing Statistic".

  14. @ Noisms:

    Spear-wielding samurai occupied a more prestigious position within the samurai caste/class than sword-wielders. My understanding of the hierarchy (if I'm remembering my history books correctly) is:

    #1 Bow
    #2 Spear
    #3 Sword

    (this is pre-firearms)

    This is in direct correlation to their use/effectiveness in warfare.

    The sword may have developed its legacy due to being a personal (as in "up-close-and-") weapon used to settle disputes of honor...even used against oneself!...and all the romantic notions that accompanies such things. And, of course, later glorified on the silver screen. But the sword was always behind the bow and the spear in terms of prestige.

    The Japanese spear, by the by, is an excellent weapon, as meticulously crafted and cared for as the katana. It's too bad it doesn't get the props it should...but there are a lot more kendo schools out there.

  15. Sorry, middle-of-the-road. It's like, "Oh, a fighter with a sword."

  16. JB: Yep. The popular image of the katana-wielding samurai is cool, but is a product of the Edo period (post 1600AD) when Japan was largely at strictly-enforced peace. Without actual battles to fight, the samurai class developed this incredibly arcane and strict set of codes, principles and manners, and as a consequence fought a lot of duels. So the sword became their weapon of choice for that reason.

    The whole 'Bushido' thing is also a product of the Edo period. It's what you get when you have a large warrior class with fuck-all to do for 250 years.

  17. fuck all to do
    cf chivalry, jousting plate, poignards et al. And of course the Toledo steel rapier, which gets my adventurous expectancy going again - who will win, Athos or the Blind Swordsman? Can a katana cut Chuck Norris in half?

    I was going to say that lots of expensive swords would necessarily mean lots of high-class warriors and that's just not how the economics of warfare work, but everyone else beat me to it.

    You know who had crucible steel in the 12th century? The Seljuk Turks (according to recent archaeological work at Merv). Oddly, we don't fetishize them much.

    I think big Japanese wide-bladed spears (glaives?) look just as good as swords, personally, but I'm really holding out for the Native American whaleman game, with massed ranks of harpooneers, or maybe Leviathan-cavalry. You can adventure as a guide-tracker (supernatural sense of smell and hearing), a harpooneer (supernatural strength and eyesight) or an ironworker (supernatural strength and balance), but you agree to die before you reach 35, ideally while saving some important white guy who plays Gilgamesh to your Enkidu.

  18. -noisms

    Well, if you've ever designed a comic book character (or other serially-repeating character) you start out going "Oh, lets make him a giant eyeball with brains for knees and a crown of lasers..." etc. etc.

    Then you learn that while you can make this awesome freak look good doing 5 or 6 things, you cannot make them look good or convincing doing everything they need to be doing. Which is why the main character in stories full of mutation and grotesquery is often the least visually interesting -per se- but looks good in the pictures anyway. It is some simple Gilgamesh, swordy samurai, or John Carter in the center of a realm of freakery

    A certain level of stylish-but-not-so-baroque-as-to-require-bending-the-entire-composition-to-make-it-work quality is one reason swords work.

    Sure, that morningstar or maquahuitl or flaming chakram or proton axe looks good here and here, but the sword looks good and not awkward in pretty much any situation and any environment. Your zebra-striped jacket is cool--but it doesn't look good with everything.

    Not that this pictorial flexibility is entirely meaningful in a RPG situation, but its a real thing.

  19. I'll have you know my zebra-striped jacket looks cool with EVERYTHING.

  20. Do you think a lot of the mystique about weapons comes from their craftsmanship and adoption as a privilege of the ruling class rather than their effectiveness on the battlefield?

    AKA "Bishop, kindly issue a fatwa against this crossbow" - armored knight