Close Combat – Core Rules

September 1st, 2011

These rules are based on medieval and renaissance fight-books, such as Talhoffer, Mair, etc. I’m trying to capture the essence of these combat systems in-game mechanics. Hopefully to get across the core concepts of real combat in-game form, and impart some of the ethos of martial arts. I imagine this game could be used a teaching aid (if it’s correct – there’s a bit of artistic licence), getting the young up to speed, while also providing the veteran gamer with a ‘realistic’ system. I know ‘realistic’ is a loaded work in wargame and RPG circles. I do not mean the rules are a ‘simulation’, I mean: they express the concepts of combat and how they interact.

I am concerned that my generalisations could be misleading. Some of the terms used, like ‘bind’, cover a lot of techniques. At a later date I wish to divide these out and put them into game mechanics.

Once the core rules are sorted I can then figure out a core ‘flow chart’. On the later ‘advanced’ flow charts (with all the individual techniques) the generalised terms (core) will act as ‘container areas’, so the basic and advanced flow charts share a common structure.

There are some ‘odd’ rules compared to other wargame and RPGs, such as auto-hits, and moving all the skill over to the defensive side of things.


Humans have a very high hit rate with tools and weapons. A fit, able-bodied, man will find it hard to miss a stationary target. Therefore all attacks/ strikes/ thrusts are assumed to fundamentally be ‘auto-hits’.

Example: You pick up a waster (wooden practice sword) and strike a pell (a thick practice post stuck in the ground). You strike it 100 times: the chances are you will hit it 100 times. This works out at 100%.

A miss usually has a reason. If the man is distracted, or the target moves, that is handled separately and overrides the ‘auto-hit’.

Defending yourself is not automatic like hitting. The trick is to time your defence to your opponent’s commitment of strike. This is not easy, judging the real commitment is an art, and requires a lot of training and practice to get right. To pull of this type of defence you have to make an MA test. MA = Martial Arts.

Example: You pick up a waster and strike a human target. Your target moves to avoid the blow, or they may deflect the blow, bind the incoming attack, or simply avoid your strike. All this is down to their ability to time it so they act as soon as you commit yourself. Their success or failure is down to their MA test.

It may seem odd, but once you have committed yourself to a strike, you cannot change it mid-flight. Once you commit; the defender is dealing with a ‘set’ incoming attack, on a set path, and the success of their defence is all down to their ability to deal with it.

Note: This is all relates to a straightforward ‘auto-hit’ attack, it does not take into account feints etc. which are handled separately.

The Basics

All these rules built upon the above premises.

Opening: The Instigator will open with an ‘auto-hit’ strike against the Retaliator. The exception to this rules is when the Retaliator is wielding a longer weapon.

Weapon length: The longer weapon always gets the first (opening) auto-hit. This means the Retaliator will strike first if their weapon in longer than the Instigator’s.

The MA test: The ‘Martial Arts’ test is required to defend yourself from an ‘auto-hit’. The MA test is your Action attribute (+ any modifiers you may have). If you are successful you have defended yourself. If you fail your are hit and removed from play (armour may save you! – see advanced).

Basic defence: There are several types of defence modifier. To use a defence you must have it listed. Usually a warrior will pick the most advanced type of defence they have that is effective for the situation at hand.

Avoidance: This is a basic skill everyone has (if as a child they played ‘add’ and other chase games).

If you move too soon the man can readjust and strike at your new position. The timing to getting out-of-the-way of an incoming ‘auto-hit’ is down to your avoidance abilities.

A successful MA test means you are safely out of the way, but you cannot counter strike as you are out of reach. You can flee, and you will have a head start.

Note: Avoidance does not work when in formation.

Deflect and counter strike: Built on avoidance and adds in deflections, allowing you to stay closer to your target. After a successful MA test you can strike back with a basic ‘auto-hit’.

Attacking a fighter with a longer weapon: If your opponent’s weapon is longer than yours (one size rank higher), you are out of range, and cannot use avoidance, or deflect and counter strike. You require a new modifier called ‘bind’ that will allow you to move in and strike. If you do not have ‘bind’ you are kept as bay (the same way an animal can be kept at bay with a spear).

Bind: You intercept and control your opponent’s weapon. This allows you to stay in contact with their weapon as you make up the distance before striking. Strikes from the bind are less powerful – slices, rakes, thrusts, etc. but will cause serious injury and should disable your opponent. Once disabled they are easy to finish off with the next strike.

Golden rule: disable first then kill. There are many wounds that are mortal but will not disable, such wound will allow your opponent to counter often when you are compromised and overbalanced from landing the mortal wound. Always aim to disable first, to contain them and quickly follow-up to finish them while disabled. Of course some strikes will disable and kill in one blow (cut off their head).

Opponent unable to counter-bind: If you successfully bind, and your opponent does not have the bind modifier listed: their options are limited. They can use Defence 1 as normal (unless in formation), but Defence 2 will not save them. If they are in formation and their maximum is defence 2, they will automatically fail their defensive MA test. This means they will be hit and removed from play (armour and shields may yet save them!).

Counter-bind: If you successfully bind, and your opponent does have the bind skill they can make an MA test as normal to counter-bind. This lock you both in a bind. The first to fail an MA test is removed from play (armour may save the one who fails their MA test).

Spear or Pike ranks vs bind: When a swordsman binds a pike block, he requires a string of MA tests: one MA test for each rank, one after the other. If one fails, he is pushed back.

Set spear/ pike: A stationary set spear, or pike, will defeat charging cavalry. Auto-hit.


Shields: will auto-block any incoming auto-hits, except binds. Binds do not work if the shield-bearer is in formation. The shield auto-block does not require an MA test to use. No roll is required.

Buckler: add a bonus to MA test to defend. Using a Buckler requires an MA test as normal, but it comes with a modifier.

Mail: Proper riveted mail armour is incredibly difficult to cut. It effective turns a hewing stroke into a blunt force trauma, and allows the wearer to ignore all slices, slashes, and rakes. It is also very hard to penetrate with a trusting attack.

All strikes from the bind are stopped by mail armour.

Auto-hits are very powerful and will impart blunt force trauma. This will stop the target from fighting, and while suffering from the impact (reflex defence), they are easy to finish with a power blow.


The half-sword technique (grabbing the blade with the left hand to shorten the weapon) is ideal for closing down an opponent. It can also deliver an accurate and powerful thrust aimed at the weapn point in armour.

Half-swording works with ‘binding’. The idea is to make the sword a very short-range weapon, almost a mini quarter staff, and move in. The chances are your opponent will use the full length of their weapon to gain the auto-hit, but with a successful MA test you can move in on them.

You can deliver a double-handed thrust with the point of the sword from the bind. This is a powerful attack and an exception to the usual rule that all attacks from the bind are weak. This double-handed thrust can penetrate mail armour, but not metal plates. However the increased accuracy means you can target the mail areas of a plate harness, and hence avoid the plates (effectively ignoring the ‘plate’ in plate armour).


Once both combatants successful bind, either may choose to grappling. This is either grappling-at-the-sword, or hand grapples. The usual MA tests is made to defend yourself, and the tests alternate between the pair until one fails. The one who fails an MA test is put into a lock, thrown, or stabbed.

Locks: To maintain a lock you have to be equal to, or stronger than your opponent. If you suspect you are not strong enough to hold the lock, you can disengage if your opponent fails their MA test.

Throw and stab: If you choose to throw, and are equal or greater strength, your opponent is now prone. While throwing your opponent you can draw a dagger. Make an MA test and if successful you stab your opponent, usually in a vulnerable place that can avoid armour.

Edit: Temporary removal of cavalry rules while I (and Guy) hunt down some more info:


This bit isn’t completed yet, I included it as an outline of what is coming up.

Cavalry armed with a lance can charge a unit, strike down those in the front rank (auto-hit), and plough into the formation trampling defenders under foot. A horse is a big powerful animal and can apply a lot of force.

If the cavalry charge a unit with set spears the horses are going to be severely damaged, or killed, and will come crashing down, with the rider, who is then vulnerable. However, the front rank are probably going to take a hit, and be injured, and that means a Mentality test is required. If the unit holds, the cavalry with probably halt, or one may choose to test.

With multiple ranks of pike, the impact of the horse collision is absorbed over multiple ranks, and the horse will not get through the ranks of pike. Cavalry will not change multiple ranks of pike head on, and seek to attack from the side and rear, if for no other reason that to slow the pike block’s advance and mess with their enemies plans.

Categories: Rules |

Comments: 4

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  1. Guy says:

    This all sounds like excellent work to me except the final bit about cavalry. A horse doesn’t really want to charge straight into a man anymore than it would into a wall. Some horses can be trained or forced to do this but hitting a man, even if he is turning aside or reeling back, leads to quite a shock. Have a look at horse collision videos on YouTube. Even if the hit is only minor the rider is often hard-pressed to stay on and sometimes falls off whilst the horse is badly affected and, in some cases, is actually knocked down. Charging into a solid block of foot-soldiers would be suicide.

    Have a look at how Major-General (then Lieutenant) Arthur Moore won his VC – – he was able to charge a Persian square (but only by forcing his horse to leap) but it killed his horse and toppled him , breaking his sword. However the dead/dying horse, the moral shock of the attack and the courage of the surprised Persians fragmented the formation and allowed a comrade to rescue him.

    It doesn’t make much sense to imagine that cavalry would just charge straight into the spear points. Not only would it require a kamikaze-mindset in both horse and rider but it would be hugely expensive because you’d be deliberately riding good horseflesh to its death every battle. Furthermore, as is suggested by the case of Lt Moore, the rider would almost certainly be in a state of shock, would have to recover himself and might well lose or break his weapon before combat even began!

    A much more realistic approach is that cavalry charges are a moral challenge. Cavalry charges are both hugely impressive and incredibly scary. Ill-disciplined or ill-led troops will break before the horses hit them, allowing the cavalry to ride them down. Alternatively the front ranks might become disorganised through fear, allowing the cavalry to make their way into the gaps. However if the infantry hold firm then the cavalry will wheel away or shy back, barring the odd horse that impales itself on the front rank. This would also account for the, often astonishingly low, casualty figures of Medieval cavalry in battle with infantry. If the infantry can stop (stakes), slow (marshes) or otherwise impede the cavalry whilst holding firm then they can get amongst them and, operating in teams, pull them from their horses and kill them easily, as happened at Courtrai, Bannockburn and a score of similar battles.

    • Philip S says:

      Good to hear from you Guy! The cavalry part is of concern to me as I do not have enough information to model the combat with confidence. Separating the myth from the reality is proving difficult, and what fragments of the puzzle I do know raises more questions than answers. Perhaps you could point me in the right direction? 🙂

      If a block that stands its ground always forces the cavalry to disengage, and the infantry know this for a fact, why wouldn’t the block always hold?

      I suppose fear of the unknown, i.e. an inexperienced block that assumes the horse will plough into them, will make them break – but what about a seasoned unit?

      Assuming this is all true I would imagine a seasoned unit will always hold, as they know for a fact the cavalry will not follow through, it seems cavalry are pretty much redundant. There must be a way to use lance against a solid block, perhaps charging down the sides (like in a joust) to pick shield bearers off.

      Again, assuming this is true, against pike the only use of cavalry would be to slow the unit down by forcing them into squares.

      I know horses can ride down fleeing enemy. I watched videos of mounted police charging protesters, but the protesters obviously ran away (having no experience of horse charges) and there is little actual contact so perhaps not the best model for knights (but good for modelling police!). Single men standing their ground, alone, are knocked out-of-the-way. I guess a horse figures it can take a single man down.

      I wonder what would happen if the protesters stood their ground? Would the horse refuse to plough into them? I wonder what would happen if the fleeing protesters were to turn, and counter charge as a group, would a horse panic and try to stop?

      Is a cavalry charge all about bluffing. What I have written in the rules is what the cavalry are threatening to do, but the rider knows it will be unwise to actually do it. If the block they charge breaks, they will steam in and disperse the block. If the block holds they disengage.

      I wonder if this is always the case. I wonder if at some point a unit of knights, armed with lances, really did charge into a block (there is only one way to find out how this will work out!), and that is the fear in the back of everyone’s mind when facing a charging horse: are the knights crazy enough to actually follow through, and does the front rank really want to suffer the impact.

      If this is the case, I can tighten up the rules a bit;

      However, the front rank are probably going to take a hit, and be injured, and that means a Mentality test is required. If the unit holds, the cavalry with probably halt, or one may choose to test.

      I could change this and say the cavalry will instead disengage automatically.

      This all makes sense, except for when it comes to lances. It’s the lances that cause me confusion.

      Lances seem to be specifically designed to charge into a block formation, but if it’s all a bluff, and the cavalry can’t plough in if the block holds, why take a lance? It seems they could use their swords, and be ready for close combat, except they use a lance. Why?

      That stumps me. As I mentioned at the beginning of this comment, that in a joust, or in practice, the knight takes the target down the side. Yet in historical accounts, their formations seem to be all about punching through.

      Could there be some other dynamic at play, that when knights force their mounts to charge into a dense block (non-pike), even though at it looks like it’s going to end up as a head-on collision and a complete disaster, it doesn’t quite turn out that way (as human are not skittles!). If a head on collision is going to happen I’m sure the front rank is going to react once they realise there is not enough time for the knight to slow down, and this forces a reflex defence of some type? i.e. if the charge is for real the impact is lessened in the last instance when the individuals within the block try to get out of the way in the last seconds?

      If this is the case, and the knights know this (or believe it), they could charge into a block and most of the time it fragments, but now and again it all goes pear-shaped?

      Maybe Arthur Moore thought this?

      It’s all pure speculation on my part, and that’s the problem (hence why it’s not finished), as speculation can take you to some very weird places. Any help you can give would be great.

      • Guy says:

        I’m no expert on cavalry so sadly I can’t point to any precise books on cavalry as a whole. Christopher Duggy’s “The Military Experience in the Age of Reason” (fabulous book) has a great section on cavalry but the period covered is post-Medieval. Mostly I’m basing my opinion on general historical accounts.

        A block that holds it ground will usually hold but this relies on experienced troops who are well disciplined, well commanded, well motivated and well trained. Often the case is simply that the infantry lacked these things, especially in the Medieval period, when the infantry were often levies or mercenaries. Whenever you find decent Medieval infantry, whether it is the Swiss Cantons or the Flemish burghers, then their infantry usually manage to repel charges.

        The role of cohesion is also important, especially with pre-standing armies where the men in a unit may not be well known to each other. Many armies, whether Medieval or Ancient, were really collections of professional warriors bulked out with levies. This worked well enough in the usual form of war, raid and counter-raid, but less effectively in large scale battles (which were always rare). This partly explains the success of the post-Marian Roman Legions. They were disciplined, well-equipped and professional. The men in a century knew and could trust each other. By contrast the only Celts or Germans who knew and trusted each other were the small bands of professional warriors. There is also the question of the type of experience: many experienced warriors were experienced in raids, not in large scale battle.

        However there are also a number of ways to deal with steadfast infantry blocks. The easiest and best is to bombard them with artillery and missile weapons. Alternatively you can turn the flank or rear of the enemy; they might not be expecting it and break or become disorganised, they might lack the men or skill for all-round defence or they might consider themselves surrounded and give up. The English learnt to defeat Scottish “schiltrons” (pike-blocks) by using their longbows to break up the formation and then sending the knights in on a flank to take advantage of the disorganisation. During the Napoleonic wars infantry were very vulnerable to an artillery-cavalry tag-team, because to defend against the cavalry they had to form Square but this made them a great target for the artillery.

        Cavalry can also still attack blocks, especially if they have weapons with a longer reach. One of the reasons that Lancers were so feared in the Napoleonic Wars was because their lances were longer than a musket with bayonet. Consequently the lancers could ride around the Square, stabbing at will. Alternatively cavalry can taunt the enemy,which works well against certain societies, or use their own missile weapons. Cavalry with pistols or bows can stand off and shoot into the block. Taking such punishment at close range without breaking formation is extremely tricky.

        So whilst infantry can just stand still, often there are ways of dealing with them. Preventing your steadfast infantry from being mauled by artillery or flank charged then becomes an important principle of generalship. Obviously there are historical periods where this is difficult though. Mughal armies were defeated with such frequency by the British because they relied on mass, undisciplined cavalry charges, which worked well again levy infantry but consistently failed when confronted by European drill.

        Horses can indeed run down fleeing enemies, who are off balance and usually moving in one direction anyway, although stirrups help enormously, as does size (one factor is the size, training and breeding of the horse in question).

        As for protesters, they provide a good example of why cavalry are usually superior in tribal warfare. The protesters/rioters/criminals are usually united by their aim but lack discipline and training. Which is why you see them form three loose ranks; with hangers-on at the rear, the great mass in the centre and the elite at the front, who often charge in singly or in small groups to attack the police. When the police charge then all ranks fall back but when the first rank/the elite press home their attack and either cause a breach or turn a flank then the mass of the second (and third) rank(s) charge forward with them.

        When the protesters do hold firm in sufficient numbers, usually by building barricades or linking arms, then the police horsemen usually either hold back and wait for the foot police to remove the barrier/deal with the problem or they advance and ride alongside the line of protesters, striking them with their batons. A horse could be panicked by a charge at close range, although I believe they train them to deal with it. The greatest worry is that a short range charge might surround the horse and allow the protesters to either strike accurately at the horse or to pull the rider down.

        Usually though the key is fear. There used to be a video on the Guardian’s website of a police charge into a massed crowd during the Student Protests, where the crowd essentially parted way and fled, allowing the horsemen to ride straight through. I suspect this mirrors your idea of individuals in the block trying to get out of the way.

        Your points about lances are excellent but I’m afraid I don’t have any answers. I’d like to know the answers to your questions too! Really we need a Medievalist as all I have is conjecture. I would suppose that lances are either (a) excellent for cavalry combat, which will be the usual mode of warfare or (b) that lances increase the “fear factor” because they allow the knight to kill the infantryman first, being longer than his spear or (c) that the ability to kill the first rank on your lance-point before you hit the block disorders it and allows the cavalryman space to enter it.

        I’ll have to head to the library to see what I can find on the mechanics of cavalry warfare. If I find anything useful I’ll make sure to post it here.

        • Philip S says:

          I thought your last recommendation “Lost Battles” was a fantastic read, so I jumped at the chance to order a (second-hand) copy of “The Military Experience in the Age of Reason” from Amazon. I can’t wait to read it.

          There seems to be a bit of a split between a horse’s reaction in cavalry charges with, and without, a lance. I am not sure about the validity of this split. Perhaps, in the cold light of reality, the lance charge is very similar to the non-lance charge, and the historical accounts exaggerate the effect of lance. Playing up the knight’s side. I suppose a charge that ‘smashes’ a block, could be less about physically smashing through, and just as much a product of psychology as you suggest. The historical recording probably misses out the exact dynamics of the charge, and the block’s reaction. When such an account is read in later years, it could be taken as physically smashing through, but in the flesh (back in the day) you could see the block starting to break apart before impact, and the knights may not be going full speed.

          There used to be a video on the Guardian’s website of a police charge into a massed crowd during the Student Protests, where the crowd essentially parted way and fled, allowing the horsemen to ride straight through.

          Is this the clip: ?

          Even at that low speed I’m sure a lance impact is really going to hurt. The thing that interests me is the amount of flexibility in the mob – even though they looked pretty packed together at first they scattered very quickly. I wonder if a well-trained block has similar flexibility? Perhaps the speed of charge (and the resulting impact) changes depending on how the block breaks apart?

          You information on the lancers;

          One of the reasons that Lancers were so feared in the Napoleonic Wars was because their lances were longer than a musket with bayonet. Consequently the lancers could ride around the Square, stabbing at will.

          Was very interesting, as it ties into my speculation that a lance works well if galloping past the enemy and strike to the side, where the horse does not have to slow down at all (just like a joust!).

          As for later era, without lance, I wonder if all the stories told about the knightly cavalry charges smashing the enemy had a lasting impact on society. Could it be the psychological impact of the lance era cavalry charges bled through to later era? Leading to a basic belief that modern cavalry will impact, just as they did in the lance era, and this gave it greater effect that it would normally have. This would, if true, also affect the leadership. The leadership would hold onto the cavalry charge as they believed it to be effective (and reinforced if those who are charged break), even as warfare started to change, the belief (and dreams of glory) persisted.

          Until I know more I think I’ll temporarily cut out the cavalry rules, as they are proving a distraction to the rest of the core-rules, and revisit them when I have more info. However if you find anything on your Library adventure, or have further thoughts on cavalry, please feel free to post it here. I’ll do likewise if I figure it out!

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