The lowly knife?

Wednesday, 14. July 2010

Often in RPG, the somewhat lesser weapons are assigned a rather low damage value (1d4 perhaps?) and not much further thought is given. Is this really the case, are we underestimating the amount of damage that can be inflicted by “lesser” weapons? Virtually all combat in a non fictitious sense really is really is potentially crippling or with lethal consequences. Lets examine the humble common knife or dagger.

Bladed weapons, swords in particular are a major part in nearly any of the old civilizations culture. Consider that edged weapons were only very recently supplanted by ballistics as the weapon of choice (~1700s) on the battlefield. This is a veritable wink in the existence of mankind. Up until this time edges of any sort were the preferred method of eliminating ones foes.  This is due to the brutal and cold efficiency of such weapon and certainly deserves further examination.

For starters knives pierce or sever depending on how they are used. In the process anything in the way gets cut: Muscle, Nerves, Arteries, Veins and bone all get separated. In the worse case, this can result in instant or near instant death in the case of the central nervous system. Any sort of hit to a major artery can cause unconsciousness in a few minutes (or far less depending on what was hit.) and death shortly after without assistance. Damage to nerves will paralyze any part of the limb that is past any affected nerves. Damaged musculature is considerably less useful even with just a slight cut. As one can see the results are plainly put, devastating on a well aimed cut or thrust. Even in the case of a lesser wound, the target is now bleeding. The wound channel knives open is considerably large in the amount of surface area and in the case of a well sharpened blade difficult to close. These factors combined with the high maneuverability of the weapon means that most martial arts who are familiar with such weaponry would often prefer to deal with a gun in close quarters instead of a knife in competent hands.

The real world answer to such combat is go somewhere else (de-escalation or evasion is the best bet,) arm oneself with another, perferably longer weapon or if one can not do that to prepare to get cut.  Fights rarely go as cleanly as they do in the movies and are typically short and brutal.  Part of the long fights in movies is due to entertainment value,  a brief engagement is boring even though it may be accurate.  Another factor I’d consider however is the psychological blocking of the danger of such common weapons. 

I realize the explanation is that  other weapons are more lethal, but dead is dead.  Any sort of weapon in an engagement deserves respect.  Thoughts?

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2 Responses to “The lowly knife?”

  1. a shadow on the water Says:

    It’s certainly true that knives are incredibly damaging or lethal in skilled hands. In gaming terms I’d say that probably not many of the traditional systems that prime people to think about weapons like this were created by people with concrete experience in dealing with them. Hence the low damage assignments that work along a simple (but flawed) logic: a longer cutting edge + more weight = a bigger cut = more damage.

    There’s only one caveat I’d raise here in favor of rating the knife a little lower than other edged weapons for non-specialist users. Think of weapons arranged in a 3D grid by size, weight, and relative ease of use. By relative ease of use I mean the likelihood of an untrained person’s (a) consistently doing serious or lethal damage with the weapon after minimal training and (b) surviving the encounter him or herself. Knives would score well on weight and size and on the (a) aspect of ease of use I think, but poorly on the (b) aspect of ease of use. An enraged fishwife could murder you with a knife, but against a similarly armed and similarly motivated opponent the odds are better than half that she’ll sustain a life-threatening injury too. This kind of “ai-uchi”, or mutual death in combat was an incredibly common occurrence in bladed combat.

    You can see something of this logic in the preference of medieval Japanese armies (pre-firearm) for arming foot-soldiers with spears. They score well across all three axes and require (arguably) less than minimal training for battlefield effectiveness.

    Your point about the psychological blocking is a good one too but it goes both ways. People are used to knives and so underestimate them at some level. At the same time, it’s harder to feel as “in control” of a fight with a smaller weapon like a knife than it is with a sword or even a pool cue. Psychologically, having a larger weapon (to a point–there is a curve of diminishing returns) in the hands can provide a slight advantage. Of course the advantage is *only* psychological for an untrained person, but it can still make a difference.

    Great post, man. Keep ‘em coming.

  2. Grey Says:


    I agree completely in the case of skilled users. Even in the case of the unskilled however; ask any police officer who has had to disarm a drunken housewife swinging a knife how enjoyable it was. Perhaps it might be a better use to put damage on a sliding scale depending on the lethality of the weapon and user thats going against it. In that case since we’re already speaking in terms of abstract damage, weapons could be more effecient by orders of magnitude depending on what the other guy is using, and the skill of the parties involved.

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