Steve Jackson Games - Site Navigation
Home General Info Follow Us Search Illuminator Store Forums What's New Other Games Ogre GURPS Munchkin Our Games: Home

Go Back   Steve Jackson Games Forums > Roleplaying > GURPS

Thread Tools Display Modes
Old 10-22-2017, 04:27 AM   #1
JoelSammallahti's Avatar
Join Date: Aug 2004
Default Are swords worth it?

I'm starting a fantasy campaign in which the players have to purchase their gear with their characters' starting money. (Yes, that's rules as written, but it's a first for me! I've always more or less winged stuff before based on Status and abstract Wealth.)

So, looking over the weapon tables with a penny-pinching PC in mind, I got to thinking: are swords worth it at the price?

I've got a 150-point game here, with fighting characters generally having ST in the 11-16 'realistic' range. So, comparing the prototypical sword, a Thrusting Broadsword, with what I see as its main competitors as primary melee weapon, Axe, Mace, and Spear, I did some quick calculations on how much injury you can expect to deal.

Some assumptions:

-ST is evenly distributed from 11 to 16. Higher ST leaves spears behind because they don't get swing damage, which increases much more than thrust with higher ST. It further favors swords, because the difference in adds is reduced in importance as base swing increases.

-DR is evenly distributed from 0 to 6. Again, we're in the realistic/low-level range. At huge DRs, thrusts become less able to penetrate relative to swings, but on the other hand, they can target chinks and gaps.

-We're just looking at average injury from a hit. On the one hand, if you surpass the Major Wound threshold, you've got a much better chance to take a guy out, which means we should emphasize high-variability damage that can reach this threshold more often. On the other hand, the shock penalty caps out at -4, so each +1 injury past 4 should count for less than each +1 up to 4. I'll call this a wash.

-We're only counting injury from torso hits. Impaling attacks can get more injury by targeting the vitals at a lesser penalty than other attacks, which need to go for the neck or skull (or face for better knockdown), but then again the neck and face especially are often unarmored, and impaling attacks suck against the limbs. So I'll ignore this too, another wash.


So, here are the injury means per attack for swords of different qualities:

6.3 (thrust) or 6.9 (swing) for Cheap ($360) or Good ($600)
8.1 (thrust) or 8.3 (swing) for Fine ($2,400)
10 (thrust) or 9.8 (swing) for Very Fine ($12,000)

But for $320, less than the price of a Cheap sword, you can get a Balanced, Fine spear that does 8.1 injury on average (17% more), is much, much less likely to break, hits more often, and may give you a better parry. The sword has a couple of advantages, of course: you can Fast-Draw it, and cut against Unliving and Homogenous targets. But then again, the spear can be used 2-handed for more reach and damage, or thrown.

For less than the price of a Good sword, you can get a Fine axe ($500). Now, it can't stab and of course has a severe limitation in the U parry. But you get 9.8 injury on average (a whopping +41%), and again, are less likely to break your weapon. And that much cheaper Balanced, Fine spear is still superior to the sword for injury, skill and breakage.

Looking at the Fine sword's price range, you can a Balanced, Very Fine spear ($2,160). That's 10 injury on average (+21%), +1 to skill, and less likely to break. Or, for just a little more, get a Balanced, Very Fine axe ($2,700) and swing for 11 injury (+32%). Again, the U parry might be a deal-breaker... But if you're using Defensive Attack from Martial Arts, you can match the sword's Attack maneuver for damage and parrying, and still enjoy the skill bonus and low breakage chance.

At a Very Fine sword's cost, you've exhausted the options for spears and axes. But you're still doing only as much damage as the spear option above, or less than the axe, at a lower effective skill. And the other options leave you enough cash to beef up your armor, or mount, or secondary weapons, or house or whatever. $10,000 is a lot!


So, what gives? It looks to me like a broadsword is a chump's choice. Shortswords are even worse. A greatsword is a different beast entirely, much more attractive especially at high strength.

Obviously, swords have the status thing going for them, but if the game stats don't support it, it's harder to sell the idea that everybody who's anybody wants a sword.

I'm thinking of buffing swords somehow to make them more attractive to players. Some things I'm considering:
-A Parry bonus of +1. Swords particularly good at defense in comparison with other weapons? I could buy that.
-Reduced Breakage. Swords are made from better-grade steel than spears and axes, and don't have wooden hafts.
-Halved penalties for Rapid Strike and multiple parries, like fencing weapons. Again, swords handling better with speed sounds reasonable enough. I don't have TL4 stuff available in the campaign so it's ok if rapiers and sabres lose their special lustre.

Any ideas or advice?
JoelSammallahti is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 10-22-2017, 05:52 AM   #2
Join Date: Jun 2006
Default Re: Are swords worth it?

Originally Posted by JoelSammallahti View Post
I'm thinking of buffing swords somehow to make them more attractive to players. Some things I'm considering:
Don't do any of those. There's no particular reason to want to push delvers to use swords if they don't want to. Anyway the lack of a U parry already covers the defensive advantages relative to Axe/Mace and the option for swing/cutting the damage advantage over spears.

Note that historically swords are almost never the primary weapon of any military unit. There is a reason for that. They aren't wonder weapons, they're tolerably good ones that have a lot of flexibility.
MA Lloyd
malloyd is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 10-22-2017, 06:12 AM   #3
Bruno's Avatar
Join Date: Sep 2004
Location: Canada
Default Re: Are swords worth it?

Swords are expensive because swords are both harder to make and use more (expensive) metal than axes and spears. Full stop.

Spears are cheap, because they use a little piece of metal in a fairly simple shape, on the end of a long cheap wooden pole.

Axes are cheap because they use a modest piece of metal in a very simple shape, on the end of a shorter, still cheap, wooden pole.

If you player is looking for the ultimate in dollars-per-damage, they want a stick weapon, like a quarterstaff (which also gets good Reach and an excellent Parry).
All about Size Modifier; Grand Unified Hit Location Table
A Wiki for my F2F Group
Bruno is online now   Reply With Quote
Old 10-22-2017, 06:13 AM   #4
mhd's Avatar
Join Date: Apr 2008
Location: Land of the Beer, Home of the Dirndls
Default Re: Are swords worth it?

And let's not forget that all that weapon upgrading stuff is rather theoretical. Are there really that many weaponcrafters that waste their time on creating Fine spears? Whereas you'll always get money from nobles for a good sword.

Also, while they might not be the best weapons from a martial perspective, swords are great for the adventuring kind. Sure, in your formation, your shield and spear are literally awesome. But when you're in town, you're not gonna lug around a couple of pounds/feet of wood, both from a practical and legal perspective.
mhd is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 10-22-2017, 06:25 AM   #5
Join Date: Jul 2012
Default Re: Are swords worth it?

You’re not wrong. Swords do have their problems. You can get a lot out of a well-made spear or axe.

I am also biased towards longswords or bastard swords more than broadswords, because I like the greater flexibility in the reach (a longsword can thrust at reach 1 & 2, a spear can thrust at reach 1 or 2, but has to change grips). To me the sword’s main advantage is flexibility, and broadswords seem to lack that, at least a little. One solution could be to make the “default” one-handed sword into a longsword rather than a broadsword.

On your list of assumptions, I think it’s important to not ignore the last item on the list, because it makes a huge difference to the relative effectiveness of each weapon:

Sword vs Spear – Armour on the battlefield will probably matter quite a bit, specifically whether it’s more common for people to armour their entire body equally (for example DR 3-4 all over) or to concentrate armour over the vitals (DR 4-5 on torso & 2-3 on the limbs?). In the latter situation, a sword’s ability to cut will matter far more.

Sword vs Axe – A high-quality axe with Defensive Attack is harder for the sword to compete with. However, what about urban self-defence? How normal/legal is walking around in decent armour? In an unarmoured streetfight the +1 Parry from being able to Defensive Attack with a sword (Defensive Attack with an axe only allows a Parry at all) can be more important… although the +1 skill from Balanced for the axe could offset that. And torso-thrusts become more dangerous once armour is out of the picture.

These would make a slight niche of “spears do poor against armoured targets, axes waste some of their potential in unarmoured fights, swords can adapt to either better.”

Some thoughts:

Do weapons take damage over time? I can see a problem with a Fine Balanced spear/axe with the gradual accumulation of damage to the half (although such quality weapons would probably have langets protecting them).

Personally I would hesitate to invest in a Fine Balanced spear instead of a long spear, since the main advantage of the shorter spear is it being throwable – which means more chance of losing it. Normally I’d go for a long spear due to the greater reach, in which case it fits a different niche to the sword, and so you get a spearman who switches to a sword at close range.

I treat spears as disposable anyway, because even a long spear is expected to need dropping before the end of the fight. I use it for long-weapon tactics to gain an early advantage, then draw a sword once the foe is up close.

Two-handing a spear for extra reach & damage is possible, and since it doesn’t have a swing it would almost be in Defensive Grip by default, although it’s safe to assume anyone using a Broadsword has something in the other hand – whether a shield or a light club or even just a knife, to allow them to Cross Parry for +2. No reason why an axeman or spearman can’t do something similar, but just something to be conscious of.


I think making Longswords a more typical sword than a Broadsword might help give the sword something of a distinctive niche. Shortsword is kind of terrible. I tend to replace them almost entirely with a Fine Long Knife (maybe with Falchion modifier depending on the design). Both give some measure of flexible reach.

Stop Hit with the modifiers for thrusting & A Matter of Inches could be the go-to tactic for a swordsman against an axeman, especially in an urban (lightly armoured) street-fight. Defensive Attack means it’ll be survivable, but the axeman will feel the difference even a Cheap Broadsword makes in that situation.

Reduced breakage is an idea I like, and makes the Cheap Broadsword more viable, which offsets the main problem of using Cheap Broadswords.

Those are my thoughts. I hope that helps.
Railstar is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 10-22-2017, 06:38 AM   #6
Join Date: May 2007
Default Re: Are swords worth it?

Swords can also be fast-drawn with the proper skill. Makes them useful in situations where you can't walk around with a weapon in your hand, or as a secondary weapon to something else.
Blog - Role-ing Solo
Litvyak is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 10-22-2017, 08:51 AM   #7
acrosome's Avatar
Join Date: Aug 2010
Location: Colorado Springs
Default Re: Are swords worth it?

The point about swords historically never being a primary weapon is (largely) accurate. Even a medieval knight would use a lance, warhammer, or mace preferentially. But a sword is sort of the ultimate flexible weapon that's pretty capable in most situations. It helps that the long thin blade needs a lot of (expensive) work to be any good, making it a prestige weapon as well. Thus it's status.

I too tend to like the bastard sword's better utility over the broadsword. But the biggest benefit to any one-handed sword over a spear is that the swordsman will almost always have a shield in the other hand. Shields make a big difference. Also, if GURPS was just a touch more realistic, the longer a weapon is the harder it would be to control its point. Spears are less "accurate" that way IRL.

The sword's advantage over the axe is that it can impale. The axe is a one-trick pony that way. It can only cut. Put a spike on the back, though, and that is mitigated. Also, if you play more realistically, the handle of the axe makes a decent target. It can be cut, disarming your opponent.

But, as had been said, you don't really need to force your players to prefer swords, especially if their backstory isn't nobility. Heck, I'm a big fan of "peasant" weapons, esthetically speaking. I love quarterstaves and slings, and a good bill even more. :)
acrosome is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 10-22-2017, 09:03 AM   #8
Rupert's Avatar
Join Date: Aug 2004
Location: Wellington, NZ
Default Re: Are swords worth it?

Originally Posted by JoelSammallahti View Post
Looking at the Fine sword's price range, you can a Balanced, Very Fine spear ($2,160). That's 10 injury on average (+21%), +1 to skill, and less likely to break. Or, for just a little more, get a Balanced, Very Fine axe ($2,700) and swing for 11 injury (+32%). Again, the U parry might be a deal-breaker... But if you're using Defensive Attack from Martial Arts, you can match the sword's Attack maneuver for damage and parrying, and still enjoy the skill bonus and low breakage chance.
Only swords and fencing weapons can be Very Fine.
-Reduced Breakage. Swords are made from better-grade steel than spears and axes, and don't have wooden hafts.
They already have this against actually attacks on the weapon (they're also smaller than spears and thus harder to hit).

Also, remember that swords are easier to carry than spears, and faster to bring into action when worn on the belt than an axe. As written there's no Fast-Draw skill for axes.
Rupert Boleyn

"A pessimist is an optimist with a sense of history."
Rupert is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 10-22-2017, 10:01 AM   #9
Fred Brackin
Join Date: Aug 2007
Default Re: Are swords worth it?

For just $80 you can get a plain Morningstar and subtract -2 even from blocks and -4 from Parries. In a 150pt environment that's close to "enemies defend only on crits". This is what will really raise your average damage.

You do need to spend a few more pts on Flail Skill and you do need your shield but those are small things in my opinion for the benefits in stand up fights.
Fred Brackin
Fred Brackin is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 10-22-2017, 10:32 AM   #10
Join Date: Aug 2004
Default Re: Are swords worth it?

At the GM's discretion, other Fast-Draw skills can be added - it's in the skill description on B195.

As for swords being worth it, well... as others have pointed out, they're really a secondary weapon and a status symbol most of the time. They're versatile in combat, useless out of combat, and costly relative to a stout stick - so they're something you wear to show off that you can afford (or are allowed) to wear a sword.

Mechanically, you should probably tell your players that skilled warriors are going to have a couple different weapon skills - sword, axe, bow, etc. - and which one they favor will depend on their fighting style, character background, and so on. A battle hardened mercenary might be pretty rusty with the sword but a dab hand at using axe and spear as his main weapons, while the courtly knight who mostly duels other nobles will neglect all other weapons in favor of his (Fine, decorated) broadsword. A cinematic samurai, for example, is going to know Broadsword, Two-handed Sword, and Shortsword to use his katana and wakizashi. Axe isn't even on the table, though he'll probably have at least a passing familiarity with tetsubo, yari, and naginata, and he should know how to use a bow.

To reflect the social side in game, you might grant a situation skill or reaction roll bonus or penalty to someone wearing (or not wearing) a sword - someone with Status 1+ might be expected to have at least a shortsword at all times, someone with Status 0 or less might be in trouble if they have a sword at all, that sort of thing.
Apollonian is offline   Reply With Quote

comparisons, cost, melee weapons

Thread Tools
Display Modes

Posting Rules
You may not post new threads
You may not post replies
You may not post attachments
You may not edit your posts

BB code is On
Fnords are Off
[IMG] code is Off
HTML code is Off

Forum Jump

All times are GMT -6. The time now is 12:22 PM.

Powered by vBulletin® Version 3.8.9
Copyright ©2000 - 2018, vBulletin Solutions, Inc.