It used to be that a writer or game-master who wanted to shore up his or her creativity with some research would have to visit a library. Libraries are still awesome, of course. They hold materials you cannot find on the Web. Often, they hold materials that aren’t even listed in their own catalogs. (If you’ve ever been to a restaurant with a secret menu, like In-N-Out in California, well, libraries have them, too.) However, you can often give yourself an entire course of education on a subject through YouTube alone. And some of the stuff out there is good.
Below, I’ve laid out a YouTube-based course just on swords.
You can, of course, find great electronic resources about swords outside of YouTube. For instance, the explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton’s famous treatise, The Book of the Sword, is available online in PDF. (If you don’t know how cool and wide-ranging Burton was, for some fun and easy introductions you might try reading either Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series or else watch the fantastic explorer movie, Mountains of the Moon, for which a trailer can be found here. Both are entertainment, not biography, but you’ll get a sense of why he’s fascinating.)
Onto the videos!
Unit 1: Sword-Making
Let’s start with some documentaries on how they’re made. Naturally, you’ll want to know how the very best type of blade was made. And no, by most expert accounts, that’s not the katana. (Though we’ll get to that, too.)
Secrets of the Viking Sword (source: Nova/National Geographic)
This excellent documentary reconstructs the cherished Ulfberht sword, and it’s far more interesting than you would think it is. As bait for those inclined to argue, just a few minutes into program, it offers up some critiques of the more famous katana. Yes, again. Digs at the katana abound in sword videos. It’s a theme you’ll want to get used to.
The same video, via YouTube. If this link also fails to work, you can find the same video via Netflix; at least for now, it’s streaming.
A Modern Approach to Making a Viking Sword (source: smith Niels Provos)
Here’s another smith making a pattern-welded sword. Although he’s aiming mostly for the look of the weld, I don’t see any signs he’s using the same alloy that the Ulfberht does. The video is still interesting. It takes Provos seven days to make his sword (well, most of it) — and that’s using a power hammer. Also: The way he creates the pointed tip is very counter-intuitive. Few other videos show that part as clearly as this one does.
The Pros and Cons of Bronze Swords (source: Skallagrim)
People look down on bronze weaponry. Is that stance merited?
Forging a Katana (source: National Geographic)
Now for the better-known specimen…
Samurai Sword-Making (source: Portland Art Museum)
… and, for a sleepier version without the Mythbusters voiceover …
Okay, so that’s the big picture stuff. But what about the details — the little bits and protrusions of the sword that concept artists go nuts over?
Why Swords Sometimes Flare or Widen at the Base (source: Lindybeige)
Or, how to keep your sword from rattling about or slipping from its scabbard.
Fantasy Sword Designs (source: Skallagrim)
Sometimes the artists are just high on paint fumes. (No arguing that their stuff looks cool, though.)
This is totally optional, of course, but the science of learning strongly suggests that you get more out of any lesson if you think about it and apply it to something. Once you use knowledge, you make it your own and it becomes rooted, instead of ephemeral.
So… you might take a moment to describe a sword — not just what it looks like, but how it was constructed, its history and design. If you’re a player, do it for a character you have or might someday have. If you’re a GM, here’s a good chance to describe some killer loot. (Literally.)
One of the more useful lessons I learned early on as a GM (in part from a Dragon magazine article), was that well-described treasures with history, design, and thought behind them don’t need to be as powerful or magically featured for players to covet and appreciate them. Good description can mitigate power creep.
Unit 2: History and Geography of Swords
Complete History of Swords (source: The History Channel)
The sword, of course, isn’t restricted to any particular geography or time period. Swords have been around for ages. And they’ve matured, evolved. One way to enrich a campaign is to know what period and region you’re emulating. In light of which, we present a couple of videos on the history of the weapon.
Secrets of the Samurai Sword (source: History Channel)
For some geographic variety…
Classifying Sword Lengths (source: Lindybeige)
The next couple videos won’t look like they’re about history, but they are. A classification scheme for European swords (what’s a long sword and how is it different from a bastard sword?) necessarily involves some discussion of history and region.
What Swords Really Sound Like When Being Drawn (source: Lindybeige)
On a final note, let’s consider what happens when the history of a thing is no longer “living” — when we no longer draw swords regularly. Answer: Films can get away with weird things when it comes to sword scenes. (For a parallel, there is no sound in space, but we’re at a period in history when most of the film-going audience still expects sound, so they get it.) So, here’s a video for DMs who want their descriptions to be more correct than Hollywood’s.
The 5th edition equipment guidance tells you that the weapon entries are meant to be generic and broad. That is, the longsword entry can be any number of different swords (broadswords, bastard swords, katanas, etc.), while the short sword might be a wakizashi or gladius or dirk, for instance. If you’re a GM, what are the longsword, short sword, and two-handed swords of your campaign region? You might come up with special terms for them, cultures surrounding them, and histories behind the preferred models. Has the preferred sword in your region changed with time, as happened in Europe, or has it held steady for centuries, like it did in Japan?
Unit 3: Principles of Sword Use
In this section, I’m going to be drawing a lot on a trinity of YouTube sword buffs who do useful research on swords and then share that information with us mortals: Scholagladiatoria, Lindybeige, and Skallagrim. A few other sources pop up, but if you like this sort of thing and don’t already subscribe to those three channels, I strongly recommend them.
Why Sword-Wielding Skills Aren’t As Important As the Ability to Read the Field (source: Lindybeige)
Let’s start off with a video that addresses what matters in battle. It isn’t what most gamers assume.
Swords as a “Dirty Great Lever” (source: Lindybeige)
This video is titled “Weapon Combinations” — but he’s not talking about dual-wielding. (That’s covered later!) He’s talking about multiple weapons in a single formation. Why do we care about this? Well, different weapons are good for different things. A mixed unit can take advantage of multiple strengths at once, with some coordination. Despite the cinematic qualities of the sword, its strengths tend to be defense and … well, levering. Watch the video.
How to Attack (and Not) with a Long Blade (source: Lindybeige)
In 3rd edition it was called Power Attack. In 5th, it’s called Reckless Attack. In either case, you might think twice before trying it in a real fight.
Weapons, Other Gear, and Encumbrance for Gamers (source: Scholagladiatoria)
Does someone at your table carry two swords crossed at the back, one on each hip, and one in each of four hands? The next two clips might be good remedial viewing for that guy.
Where to Stow Your Sword (source: Lindybeige)
Hint: Don’t sling it over your back.
How to Win with the Medieval Broadsword (source: History Channel’s “Conquest” with Peter Woodward)
This was a fun program. A little cheesy at times, but I really liked the approach of bringing in volunteers to try to do the things that Woodward was coaching. If this link dies, I find that this program pops up all over YouTube. Just try a general search for the keywords.
How to Win with the Swords of the Musketeers (source: History Channel’s “Conquest” series with Peter Woodward)
This clip is fun in that it shows off some of the differences between cinematic swordplay and authentic sword fighting. It also talks about a sword that exists in many films, but which didn’t exist historically. This happens.
An Advantage of Thrusts over Cuts (source: Scholagladiatoria)
Alrighty. Now you’ve learned about metallurgy, history, stowage, and some basic principles. But today, you arrive at the dojo and your teacher attacks you from the shadows. It’s on! Now you have to figure out how to wield the darned thing!
Comparing the Merits of Axes and Swords (source: Skallagrim)
In case you end up in a Crouching Tiger situation in that dojo duel, so that you’re having to grab new weapons every minute, you might want to watch this one.
On Dual-Wielding (source: Scholagladiatoria)
Ah, but what if you see two swords leaning against the wall? Do you grab one or both?
On the Practicality of a Double-Sword (source: Skallagrim)
If you see a double-sword, here are some reasons why you might just leave that one for Darth Maul, assuming the slacker shows up to class this week.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Smallswords (source: Scholagladiatoria)
If you decide to go two-fisted, short-and-long, or if you run out of longswords, you might need to know more about smallswords.
Why the Hoplite Sword Isn’t the Same as the Roman Gladius (source: Lindybeige)
While we’re on the subject of short blades…
If you’re a player, you may have picked out some fighting styles, but at the moment those are just game mechanics. How does your character carry his or her weapons? What styles, stances, and strategies does he or she use? If you’re a GM, what do the local sword mentors teach their pupils to do? Are there distinctive moves or weapon combinations?
With any luck, at least one of the videos above has triggered a creative cascade for you — a series of ideas that enriches either your character or your campaign. Cool descriptions matter, even for players (for that link, see the section on why being compelling matters). If not, keep on browsing! There’s a lot more out there, and more being posted every day.