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In playing tabletop role-playing games I notice that few people, other than myself and a friend of mine, ever take pole arms. This is odd since spear of various types dominated most of human history. Greek hoplites used spear, the Macedonian phalanx used long spears called pikes, knights on horseback used lances, Swiss pikemen & halberdiers also used such, and even the Roman legionnaires carried multiple pila into battle (throwing spears) using their famed gladius as a sidearm for use after they had thrown the pilium. In this piece I will look at pole arms in general and discuss reasons why I think they get so little play in tabletop RPGs.
The first thing about pole weapons is that most, but not quite all, include a spear point in some manner. Weapons with a spear point can be used as slightly clumsier spears and have a few advantages over other weapons. With the pointy end is further away they may well be able to damage opponents from a safer distance as the opponent may not be able to attack them back. Many RPGs take this reach advantage into account, allowing those with longer weapons to strike first, but others do not. When a game system, or even the person running the game, uses a mechanic that takes away this advantage to strike at a distance, one of the main advantages of spear, and why they dominated the battlefield for thousands of years, is suddenly lost.
A second advantage is that a pole can be used as a somewhat clumsier staff weapon. This may seem strange to modern people, but those who train in ancient & medieval weaponry do not limit themselves to using just the point. A staff can jab with the end, strike with the last foot or so near either end (for pole weapons this would usually be the most deadly strike), and it can also be used flat on with two hands to push people back. A variant of the push for shorter pole arms in really close quarters is to reverse the weapon with the pointy end down, as then the user will find it easier to attack an opponent's feet, legs, or under their shield, which is one of the advantages of spear & pole weapons, aka with a sword it is hard to attack an opponent's legs whereas with a pole weapon such attacks can be much more common. This is another area most games ignore, namely hit locations and the probability based on opponent's height, terrain, & weapon used, but then again for most games that may be an over complication. One last point is that even if the head of spear or pole weapon is lost, you still have a staff, albeit possibly not one made of heartwood from a quartered stave of a tree and rounded to fit well in the hand, as spears are often on poles of ash sapwood and others are squared off (or octagonal) heartwood intended to help keep edge alignment of the weapon end.
A third advantage is keeping opponents at bay. With too many systems opponents can move past a defender's weapon as it it was not even there, or the defender only gets a single attack and the opponent can then move through as if the weapon was not even there, forcing the user to have to spend effort and give ground backing away. This is odd since even a blunt pole like a quarterstaff can be used to hold an opponent back, be it with the point or shoving with the middle. At the very least a hit should stop an opponent unless they move further up the pole somehow, possibly impaling themselves further. The counter argument those who fight in plate will try is that a spear point just slides off of armor and while that may well happen if facing a single spear it may not be so easy to do against a weapon with projections that can be used to catch & trap, and especially not against ranks of points & projections. Here is where we hit one of the points most games ignore is that spearmen and polearmsmen can: "choke up" on their weapons, have the first rank can reverse them so they are point down (as mentioned above) and use to push against shields or strike at the feet, or use mixed files (halberdiers in front 1-2 ranks with pikemen behind them), etc. Using such techniques opponents may face multiple points from the same file and still be out of sword range of the defenders, at least for the point of holding them at bay. Some systems even try to deny pole weapon wielders the ability to attack at all if the attacker is closer than a certain distance, thus ignoring the ability to reverse the weapon and strike under the shield at the legs or feet.
In conjunction with the third point is the density of ranks & files for spears and pole weapons versus the space needed for cutting or slashing sword and even some hafted weapons. The typical space needed for a cutting sword is about 2 meter (or 2 yards) for each person so they do not accidentally strike their allies adjacent or behind them. Fore spears and pole weapons files are spaced every 2 feet to 1 meter and ranks are generally 3 feet to 1 meter apart. This tremendous increase in density and is totally ignored by most game system, with some mandating that all weapons follow the same standard, often 5ft for convenience, thus decreasing the safe spacing for most swords and nerfing one of the greatest advantages of pole weapons. Density is a huge advantage in keeping opponents at bay, plus flooding them with attacks to various areas, and thus bring pole arms into their own.
There are more advantages of pole weapons, but up to this point I have been covering the advantages they hold in common with spears, and thus now I will briefly touch on a few that sears don't tend to have. One is the shear chopping damage of a single strike from an ax, cleaver, or blade on a pole. A couple of cutting tests I saw demonstrated that a glaive had at least the cutting power of a great sword (two-handed claymore) if not more, yet in most game systems the sword does more damage. For some this gets more pronounced as you move to other pole weapons as many are designed as force multipiers for chopping. Another point is many have a back spike for piercing or at least bending up plate armors to create gaps for the thinner weapons spikes.
So far we have covered damaging attacks, but that is not all pole weapons are good for. Many have back spikes or other hooking projections that can be used to pull down shields, much like axes are also used, and thus move the shield out of position so other attacks/attackers can strike past it. This is something I have not seen mentioned in any game system so far. A further use for back spikes or projections is to drag an opponent out of line and possibly prone right in front of your own lines so the ranks & files can stabby-stabby him when he is most vulnerable and in areas other than the strong frontal breastplate. This is particularly true when attacking horsemen. That covers pulling, but spikes and projections may also be used for catching, parrying, pushing, and even pinning people or even weapons, particularly if the pole weapon has forward facing projections, even such as the beak or point of a typical halberd. Few games mention parrying or pining, but some mention disarming, and yeah, pole weapons can be used to hold opponents down to make the stabby-stabby easier, or even pin their weapon such that they have to chose between losing their weapon or being effectively "pinned" for the "stabby-stabby".
So there it is, a brief look at how underrated pole weapons are in most games. Maybe in later posts we may get into weapons and tactics used to counter pole arms, or even other main battlefield weapons.
-D. M. Zwerg