October, 2003

Polearms used in Nethack

Polearms were developed in warfare for combatting mounted soldiers, and those with heavy armor. The polearms (arms on poles) increased leverage for cutting the armor, and increased reach for reaching above the horse.

As time went on the various different weapon types borrowed heavily from each other and began to look like each other, which has lead to a great deal of confusion over classification. If you search the internet now for examples of these weapons, you are likely to see weapons completely mislabeled as something different.

The halberd (sample halberd heads pictured above) was a mainstay weapon in many armies for a long time. The halberd is a poleaxe, meaning an axe on a pole. It's main identifying feature is that the blade is always angled slightly downward, which explains Nethack's description of an angled poleaxe. In addition to the axe, halberds also have both a spear tip, and spike or hook on the rear for penetrating armor or hooking. A nice three-in-one weapon. Due to the popularity of this weapon, there are a wide variety of different styles, although some of the coolest were only parade weapons. The halberd is one of the best Nethack weapons, and this is consistent with its role in real warfare.

Nethack calls the bardiche a "long poleaxe" and that is exactly right, if you assume that the "long" applies to "axe" and not "pole". A bardiche is nothing more than a long axe blade on a stick. The cutting blade was typically two feet long or more, and usually attached to the pole in two places (in the middle and the bottom). But it is mounted on one of the shortest poles for a polearm, only about five feet. So "short poleaxe" would be accurate also. This simple weapon's advantage was in its size and weight, not its subtlety. I think Nethack gets the weight wrong -- a bardiche should be heavier than a halberd.

The spetum is a spear, with two more knife blades stuck on the sides. Nethack's "forked polearm" is vaguely accurate, but forked weapons would more typically have side prongs that reach all the way up to the top. Over time variations were added and it more strongly resembled the next weapon. (I'm not sure if the spetum grew into it, or if they were developed independently.) Nethack gives this an advantage with large monsters, which doesn't quite make sense to me, as it is supposed to be a lighter polearm.

The ranseur, the "hilted polearm", is essentially a spear with a hilt. The hilt served primarily to block opponents weapons, and possibly trap the weapon for disarming. The hilt was sometimes also used secondarily as an alternate way to attack. The hilt often hooked backwards also, so that it could be used as a hook. The ranseur was probably an all around better weapon than the spetum, but this is not the case in Nethack. In a perfect universe, nethack would give this weapon an advantage when fighting monsters that use weapons, as that is where the hilt is useful.

The partisan also winds up looking much like the ranseur and spetum. Originally the partisan was a spear with small double axe blades added below it. This basic form is shown in the first partisan above, however you won't likely ever see a partisan that looks like this. The other forms are more typical. Note that while some of them look like spetums, they present broader protrusions than the knife-like spetum prongs. The partisan is also more likely to have a flat bladed tip, rather than the spiky blade of the spetum and ranseur. Over time partisans (or weapons called partisans) became more ornamental and ceremonial, which may explain why it is one of the weaker polearms, and also why it is referred to as a "vulgar polearm".

Perhaps one good way to differentiate between the spetum, the partisan, and the ranseur is to look for the edges on the prongs. Typically, a ranseur would have no edges, a partisan would have edges only facing out, and a spetum would have edges on both sides of the protrusions.

Nethack has it just right referring to the voulge as a "pole cleaver", as this weapon probably was invented as a meat cleaver on a pole. The voulge may look somewhat like a bardiche, but the blade is much shorter, and the shaft is longer. It also may tend to look like the next weapon, but would generally have a broader blade.

If you could put a cleaver on a stick, why not just a knife? The glaive, is basically just that, a knife on a stick, or as Nethack calls it, a "single-edged polearm". Glaives were not the best weapons, and Nethack gives them too much credit. They should also be one of the lightest polearms.

In Nethack the glaive is called a naginata if you are playing as a samurai. However a naginata was actually a japanese polearm which used (the equivalent of) a top-quality samurai sword at the end of the pole, and the weapon was backed up by a long-developed and rigorous martial art, and when combined with this expertise it was a formidable weapon. Perhaps this is why Nethack gives the glaive so much credit. But in my opinion they should be two different weapons.

While we're sticking random things on poles, lets talk about the fauchard, which Nethack calls a "pole sickle". This is because this weapon had a curved blade, with the sharp edge on the inside of the curve. This was a really stupid weapon design, and Nethack rightly doesn't give it much power.

The guisarme, like the voulge, started out as a peasant's weapon, made from a tool on a stick. In this case the tool is a pruning hook, which is where it gets its description. While it was a somewhat useful cheap weapon, the lack of a spear point was a significant liability. It was good for pulling riders off of their mounts, but what do you do once they're off? It evolved to some degree, sometimes adding a reverse spike, but eventually guisarme became a generic term for any weapon with a hook, such that you had voulge-guisarmes, and glaive-guisarmes.

This leads us to bill-guisarmes. Bill hooks were english weapons similar in shape to the guisarme, but perhaps with somewhat less hook in general. They followed a different evolution, such that any weapon that was similar to a glaive or fauchard, but with extra bits thrown in, was often called a bill. So, in terms of origination, bill-guisarme would be a bit redundant, but in terms of later meaning, a bill-quisarme was a bladed weapon with multiple sharpened edges and spikes, and with a hook. Nethack should give these weapons more credit, they were very versatile, and used over long periods of time, second only to the halberd.

There is a lot of confusion out there on guisarmes and bill-guisarmes. Often the bill-guisarme is called simply a guisarme. Also, Many pictures purporting to be guisarmes are actually fauchard-forks, which is a fauchard, with a sharp spear point added to the back of the blade.

The lucern hammer is vaguely similar to the halberd, only instead of an axe blade, it presents a three-pronged hammer to it's victim. Hence the "pronged polearm" designation.

The bec do corbin looks extremely similar to the lucern hammer, however the hammer side was sometimes blunt instead of pronged. The distinguishing characterstic though is that the spike was a thick beak-like shape designed only for puncturing (armor, or whatever). This is why it is the "beaked polearm". The beak was the primary mode of attack, the hammer or claw was secondary. The spear tip was also generally less pointy than that of the lucern hammer.

Note that the source code lumps the dwarvish mattock in with the polearms. I'm not sure why. But this designation is thankfully not used in determing its weapon type for skills (it's a pick).

Also the lance is a polearm, although it served a very different purpose from other polearms, because it was used by mounted soldiers instead of against them.


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  • Polearms
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