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Roman-era weapons

Noting a lack of Roman-era inspired weapons, I began tinkering around with a few and came up with these stats.
Pilum
The Roman pilum was a heavier variant of the javelin, with a very long iron tip featuring a weight at the base of the tip. Historians believe it would have been used by frontline infantry to barrage armored opponents at moderate range before closing in with spears or shorter melee weapons. Some have theorized that the elongated tip was designed to bend on impact, neutralizing a shield by transfixing it and getting caught in the wood, but reenactors using recreated weapons have found this “bending” feature was likely not the intention of the design and not necessary to make the thrown weapon highly effective against most types of bronze-age shields and armor. The rigid, weighted tip allows it to pass through wooden shields with very little effort, getting stuck in the shield and often wounding the person behind it. The heavy variant can be thrown with enough force to easily split mail links and knock a soldier off his feet.


The falx was used by barbarian tribes against the Roman legion. It may be an early variant of the “war scythe,” and such a weapon would likely have similar properties in game. Variants were designed to be used either one- or two-handed. It may resemble a sort of sword with an inverted curve, but the forward center of balance causes it to handle more similarly to an axe, and it lacks the dexterity of more evenly balanced swords, making it an inferior choice for parrying. Roman accounts of this weapon describe its terrifying efficacy against armored infantry, particularly crushing through helmets, and historians have hypothesized that heavier Roman helmets were introduced to counter the falx.

Here are the stats I cooked up. Availability rating may be reduced to 1 in cultures where these weapons are more standard.

Pilum
Reach 2, 1H, 3CD, Anti-shield, Fragile, Piercing 1, Thrown
Availability 2, Cost 2

Heavy Pilum
Reach 2, Unb, 4CD, Fragile, Knockdown, Piercing 2, Thrown
Availability 2, Cost 3

Falx
Reach 2, Unb, 4CD, Piercing 1, Vicious 1
Availability 2, Cost 8

New Quality: Anti-shield
If the target of the thrown attack is equipped with a weapon with the Shield property, an effect rolled causes the weapon to fix itself within the shield. That shield becomes Unbalanced as long as the weapon is stuck in this way, due to the added weight and general awkwardness of having a long, weighted shaft attached to it. If the shield is already Unbalanced, it becomes Unwieldy instead. This condition can be removed with a Clear action.

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If a pilum got stuck in a shield, you need more time than a simple Clear action. In most cases you need some tools and more time than you have during a battle. - That is, why pila are designed that way. They are supposed to render shields unusable for the time being.

I thought of having it require a skill test, but didn’t want to make it too overpowered? I generally imagine Hyborea having less optimized weapons technology than what we’d see at the height of a weapon’s development in history. Armor certainly gives that feel in the rulebooks. Also, I’ve seen video of people testing Pila on shields, and it really doesn’t take that much time or effort to get it loose. It’s certainly possible without tools.

My initial idea which was scrapped would be "The condition can be cleared by passing a Melee or Parry test with difficulty equal to the effects rolled, or a D1 Craft test.

That seems more fitting. And it requires a standard action.

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With sufficiently mighty thews you’d be able to rip it out in the blink of an eye.

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Removing a stuck pilum might take a while, depending on the type of shield it impaled.
Then the length of the metal tip is such, that in removing the shield bearer will be fully exposed, not being able to use the shield effectively, neither another melee weapon (which might have been dropped or - using an action - resheathed), because of the need of a free hand to pull out the pilum.

I would say in rules terms, the quality Shield, which includes Parrying and Cover soak, does not apply during the round the character is removing the pilum.

The removing will require a skill test (Melee, Athletics (pure strength), Craft (technique)) as a Standard action.

And all the while the character will have lost Guard - needing to Regain Guard later.

In battle formation, this will be of less risk, as the second rank in your formation will step forward to allow you time to remove the pilum without being immediately attacked in close combat.
In single combat or small group combat, rendering a shield temporarily ineffective might be much more of a game changer.

How would you rewrite the special quality, start to finish, without it being too long?

They look really useful. Thanks!
I might make removing a pilum require a full turn, but only a Brawn test. So you can’t do it in combat without becoming vulnerable. Plus players with Strong Back talent will benefit. I can vary the Difficulty based on shield type if I chose to.

2d20 does not use any kind of Attribute test at all. You always make a Skill test.
You might have 0 Expertise in a Skill, but it is still a Skill test.

The skill of applying force would be Athletics. Strong Back is an Athletics Talent anyway and only applies to Athletics Skill tests.

Sorry, of course. I mean Athletics.

Oooh… Roman themed weapons! The story where Kull fights the Romans comes to mind!

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Regarding the Pilum: I do not know how much you have or do not have professional knowledge on the matter (maybe you know much more than me, and this whole long post may be not necessary).
Here are some of my “thoughts”, as an archaeologist interested in both ancient weaponry and the whole Graeco-Roman “world”.

As far as I know, the whole “bent javelin/useless shield” argument is based on a a few literary mentions and particularly a specific passage from Caesar’s De Bello Gallico about the Bibracte battle against the Gallic tribe known as the Helvetii.
The Helvetii were basically not able to use their shields after the Roman legionaries have thrown their pila.

NOW, there are those few literary sources and there is the “archaeological evidence”.
A pilum has a thin, long tang connecting the wooden part and the point.
However, even if thin, a steel/iron tang does not bent very often, unless it is purposivelly crafted in soft iron.

From the books that I have, it seems that a huge part of the known ancient pila-heads are not crafted in soft iron.
They are HARD, very difficult to bend.

I do not exclude that a pilum can be bended once it pierces a shield. HOWEVER, that is NOT its main function. Caesar never said so…and historians and weapon-lovers in the past like to underline what they like to underline.
Until material evidence (and modern scientific investigation techniques) challenge the hypothesis.

Nowadays it is increasingly clear that a pilum main purpose was to PIERCE through a wooden shield and hit a target, even beyond a shield.
In order to do so, a Pilum’s head needs to be HARD, not soft.
Again: i do not exclude the possibility of bent javelins, but that was not their main function.

I beg your pardon for the LOOONG archaeological excursion.
And I also know that pila in the Hyborian Age may even not be equal to real ancient pila.

However, if it was me, I would change your “Anti-Shield” property in order to include the following:

  • a Pilum may completely ignore a wooden shield’ Cover Soak (mimicking the phenomenon of a pilum piercing the shield) or, if you do not want to add a new rule, I would just raise the Piercing to Piercing 2 and Piercing 3.
  • if a Pilum hits while the target tries to parry with a shield or in a situation where the shield’ Cover Soak would have been applied, it is either “bent” or just “fixed” in the shield. The shield become useless (it cannot become just “Unbalanced” as you say…imagine to try to parry with a 1.5 m long stick protrunding from your shield!!).
  • I do not like the “Fragile” quality but, if you want to keep it, maybe the pilum is bent only if its damage is reduced after being “parried” by a shield.
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Thanks for taking the time to add this very detailed and interesting analysis. You’re certainly more versed in this than I am. I’m just an amateur medievalist who listens to a lot of experts such as yourself. I’m basing my interpretation on tertiary sources. I think we have similar interpretations of the reality of the pilum, but differ on how that translates into game mechanics.
(EDIT for clarity: Tertiary sources on the archaeological side of the issue. In terms of practical use of recreated weapons, they are primary sources. My main source is Matt Easton’s Youtube channel. He’s done a lot of work with Roman pila: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lAe1krJFl78)

I agree that the pilum was probably NOT intended to bend on impact, and mentioned as much in my post when saying:

What I probably should have added there is I’d agree that bending on impact was not only not an intended function of the weapon, but also highly unlikely due to the rigidity of the tip, as you’ve pointed out. That said, this is fantasy, and we take a little license here and there. Some historical accuracy is certainly refreshing, but I think it’s ok to include a little bit of misconception. I think the bent pilum myth has been propagated because many people find it more intriguing than the reality, and therefore I think it’s worth considering for a fantasy setting. My aim was to split the difference by describing a pilum getting lodged in a shield in a way that doesn’t require the tip getting bent on impact, which is consistent with what my sources observed.

I’m also a believer that Hyborean combat technology is not meant to represent these items at the height of their development. The Romans may have had high-quality iron (or steel, I’m not sure) to construct these resilient tips, but Hyboreans may not have. Thus the fragile property. In addition, recreations I’ve watched have demonstrated the tip does indeed dull, and bend slightly, after repeated use. And these were recreations using modern steel, superior to materials accessible to the Romans. Aside from historic representation, game balance and function was also a concern; the final, perhaps most important, reason for including the Fragile property, is to keep it from being an obviously superior alternative to the javelin, which does have that property.

I feel for the pilum to completely ignore shields, would devalue the piercing quality; and even if the weapon penetrates the shield, it still offers resistance. A shield and armor is definitely better than armor and no shield.

I’d find this more reasonable. The problem is with the mechanics what they are in this game, there is a huge difference between Piercing 1 and Piercing 2 in terms of how much damage gets through to an opponent. Keeping context with the other gear presented in the Corebook. I went with Piercing 1 out of concern that any higher would make the javelin not worth considering.

I think increasing the grip to unbalanced adequately simulates this. For an average, 7 Brawn character using a shield and (presumably) a 1H weapon in the other hand, this effectively renders the shield useless. But I think Conan could still swing it (forgive the pun). The effect of increasing an Unbalanced shield to 2H, means that after getting hit with two pila, even the Big Guy would be forced to abandon the shield or take time to fix it. My writing accounts for the above-average fantasy guys capable of doing extraordinary things.

Easton actually created his own documentary on pila.

His findings support your notes, @LucaCherstich and @FrankF. Clearing a pilum from a shield could be easy, but in some cases quite difficult, so a skill test seems appropriate. I think we can consider the “bent-pilum” myth busted, and it looks like Piercing 1 might not adequately reflect the weapon’s effectiveness at getting past shields.

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Nevermind… I miss read something… older msg deleted.

Yes, it does not need to bend to hinder the use of a shield effectively.

Even a bunch of arrows does hinder the use of a shield, especially one with center grip hold.
And breaking off the shaft of a war arrow, that is not so easy as one might think, especially while holding on to the shield - and maybe having to care about someone attacking in melee range, too.

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All things Steve Perrin knew when he wrote the combat rules for Runequest. As far as I know these were the only combat rules written by some one with experience in HEMA , being one of the founding members of the SCA.

  1. Shields break (more often than weapons)
  2. Weapons may be stuck in a shield and may render it useless if they are heavy enough
  3. Shields provide cover against missile attacks
  4. Shields may be used for attack

The Romans knew all this too and used this in their tactics:

  1. The long and relatively thin metal point of the pilum is perfect for rendering enemy shields useless.
  2. A century with interlocking shields provides cover against missile attacks for all legionnaires of that century, because only the legionnaires on the edge of the formation use their shields to attacks from the front or the sides, all others use their shields to provide cover against attacks from above.
  3. The short gladius is the perfect weapon for fighting in such a tight formation because you do not loose cover while attacking.
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That’s an interesting argument and I’ve been applying similar atittude in many rpg systems since time immemorial.
There’s a reason why some ancient Greek Sources (do not remember now the name) speak about a short dagger preferred by Laconian Hoplites ( maybe the name was “Encheiridios”???..I have to find the reference…), to be used when two hoplites shield walls get too near, one to the other, and all the first line spears are broken or difficult to use.
The same argument can be used for the northern European “Seax” which I’m sure had a role in the “shield walls” warfare.
The Shield Wall rules (Conan the Barbarian p.119) seems to at least partly consider the matter…albeit I feel they did it at least somehow wrong.
They basically allow only Reach 2 weapons or longer to be used from inside a shield wall and also with +2 Difficulty, unless the enemy shield wall is broken (and therefore you can use Reach 1 or Reach 2 weapons with -1 difficulty).

HOWEVER, if one consider the reality of ancient shield walls (whether they are Greek hoplites, Roman legionaries or Nordic “Barbarians”) I understand that warriors of the first line can make attacks, whether with spears (when the two walls are still at a certain distance) or, when the two walls are adjacent and pressing, by hitting with vicious blows from below the shields, if you have the right, short weapon (Roman Gladius!! or Germanic Seax, etc…).

I would do something like this:

  • 1st line warrior can use Reach 2-3 weapons only when the two shield walls keep a certain distance or during the first attack but, once the “shield press” starts or when the two shield walls are adjacent, only Reach 1 weapons (short blades!!) can be used (maybe also considering some raised difficulty).

  • 2nd line warriors can use Reach 3 weapons, but attacking from above their 1st line friends’ shoulders and heads. The difficulty of their attacks should be raised by 1 step.

I made those suggestions at the time, when Modiphius gave us a pdf backer copy of the Conan the Barbarian pdf but my suggestions were not accepted the authors…although that’s the way that I play things at my table and I’m pretty satisfied!

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I can’t help but feel you’ve negated your own argument there. From what I know of the subject (history degree a long time ago, much reading since), shield walls were very difficult to fight within once the two sides met. As you say, whether Roman, Greek or Viking or later medieval. A simpler solution would be to say that once shields have met and the two sides are fully engaged, everyone’s Guard is lost? This would simulate the lack of ability to manoeuvre and would leave daggers a good option.

I know it’s long but this video from Lindybiege might help.

Based on the reenactments presented here, it seems unlikely shieldwalls would move so close their shields pressed together, the way Hollywood likes to show us for some reason (though maybe the Romans wrote of battles happening this way?). If, in some circumstance, the enemy moved so close that the guard of your spear was broken, then it makes more sense to ditch the longer weapon and grab the gladius.