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Art of War: Animating Realistic Sword Combat

December 13, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

This article -- a compilation of two viewpoints on adding authentic sword combat to games -- originally appeared in the December issue of Game Developer magazine. You can subscribe to the print or digital edition at GDMag's subscription page, download the Game Developer iOS app to subscribe or buy individual issues from your iOS device, or purchase individual digital issues from our store.

Eben Bradstreet on Real Combat

The first time I walked into John Clements's Iron Door Studio, I learned how to hold a longsword.

I thought it was obvious: Grip the handle with both hands. That's how I'd always imagined it was done. It's how they did it in the movies, after all. The handle is the comfortable bit between the pommel and the cross-guard. It's large enough to accommodate both hands. So I hold it there, right?

Wrong. The right hand (or the leading hand) indeed goes just below the cross-guard. The left hand should grip the weapon by the pommel -- that's the knob at the end of the handle -- in most circumstances.

At first, I was a little dubious. "Hold it there? Really? I thought that part was just for smashing skulls. Or balance. Or decoration."

My mind drifted to Orlando Bloom in an early scene in Kingdom of Heaven, where it's quite clear that he grips his weapon in the way that seems most harmonious: by the handle, with both hands. Later in the film, he even helpfully confirms my bias by smacking someone in the noggin with his hand-free pommel.

Figure 1: The proper way to hold a longsword.

The reality of the pommel is a little more complicated. It is used to knock sense into your enemies, it does affect the balance of the sword, and sometimes it's even pretty to look at. But, it's also a great place to hold the weapon. And it's a perfect example of how all my assumptions about the sword were challenged when I first set out to learn the reality of the weapon.

Grounding Fantasy in Reality

As it turns out, how to hold the longsword is also a great place to start talking about what that reality can mean for animators. If a video game character grips the pommel with its trailing hand, the resulting animation will have fewer problems with deformation around the wrist, less clipping between the sword's mesh and the character's mesh, and will display better biomechanics when cutting (which we'll talk about later).

The first two points are subtle improvements, and are best demonstrated by gripping the handle by both hands, then extending the sword forward, holding the weapon at eye-level. From this position, start turning, windmilling, and cutting with the weapon while keeping it in front of you. If you don't have a sword immediately available, you can do this with any wooden or plastic dowel. Just hold the dowel roughly three to five inches from the end in order to simulate the exposed pommel.

As you swing, pay attention to how often the pommel wants to intersect with your wrist, especially when you try to drop the blade to the lower right, and note that in some positions, you can't continue an arc because your trailing wrist simply won't contort enough to facilitate the movement.

As I said, these are subtle points. The real magic happens when you now try the same thing, but grip the pommel, instead of the handle, with your left hand. The first thing you'll notice is just how much more leverage you have. The sword is a lever, after all, and your leading wrist is the fulcrum, so it makes sense that the further back from the fulcrum you're able to grip, the more control you'll exert on the blade. You should also notice that this method is easier on your wrist (which will help with deformation), especially if you allow the pommel to slide and turn freely in your palm. Your wrist can now stay relatively straight through most swings, and there's no longer any danger of the pommel clipping through the wrist's mesh on your character models.

Bad Sword, Bad Reference, Bad Animation

Inevitably, you'll want to capture some reference. Even if you're using motion capture, it's always good practice to "feel" the movement yourself, or to whip out a camera and go through some of the motions.

The best way to not get good reference, no matter how you decide to hold the sword, is to use a crappy weapon. For most people, the easiest access they have to a generic sword is either through a catalogue, a renaissance faire, or even the odd novelty store. With the rare exception, the weapons you get from these sources are universally terrible for your animations -- they're often much too heavy and poorly balanced.

We have one of these weapons at my workplace, and even after two years of swinging steel as a martial art, I still can't do anything with it. That weight transcends physical reality, and every skilled attempt to mitigate it directly influences how our characters move. It's an awkward and sluggish prop that makes our characters look equally awkward and sluggish. Early on, we decided not to use it.

Instead of trying your luck with weapons that will harm your animations, it's almost always better to simply go to a hardware store and buy a wooden dowel, or a length of weighted PVC pipe. If you're feeling crafty, you might even want to make your own wooden sword (historically called a "waster"). Wooden props like these will certainly be much lighter than steel, but they'll be easier to swing in a good way (good for the director, the animator, and the actor). The alternative is a poor knockoff that will cheapen your results by virtue of your trying to use it, rather than just hanging it up and staring at it (as it was made for). Bad swords make your job more difficult than it has to be.

The weapons that John and I are using in these images are made by Albion Swords ( There can be long waiting times for these weapons, so it may not be an ideal solution for gathering good reference quickly or cheaply.

All About Universal Biomechanics

As I learned more about the art of fighting with the longsword, as Medieval and Renaissance Europeans understood it (and actually chronicled in dozens of study guides), I began to understand how intuitive the whole skill set actually was. There are a few basic guards, roughly nine vectors of attack, and a handful of rules that guide your footwork. The more advanced techniques, while impressive to look at, are largely ancillary: In all the sparring matches I've seen, the flashier techniques are never used. In fact, the more I watched and the more I learned, the more it started to feel familiar.

That sense of familiarity didn't come from the movies or the stage -- and certainly not from the highly sportified world of foil fencing. No, the moves I was seeing in sparring matches, which were reflected in the historical imagery plastered on the walls around me in John's studio, looked more like the close-quarters combat training we'd done while I served in the Army, or mixed martial arts matches on TV. It was savage and in-your-face. There was nothing at all pompous or chivalric about it. This stuff was real, and it was universal -- because no matter what time or place we come from, we're all human and we're all governed by the same biomechanics.

Consider the weapon we've been talking about. If I had been handed this weapon three years ago and someone told me to swing it, I would have done what pretty much anyone would do. Maybe swing it like a baseball bat, or because I used to cut wood when I was kid, I might swing it like an ax. If you were handed that weapon, what would you do? You might try to mimic what you'd seen Conan do, or imitate a samurai.

What you wouldn't do (at least, what most of us wouldn't do), is swing it like a golf club. But why not? Both are roughly the same length, both are used to hit things, and both do most of their business up to five inches from the end. Certainly, to swing a sword like a golf club and connect would be devastating to your target. So why don't we use it that way?

The answer is biomechanics and perception. Biomechanically, it's not efficient: The target of a golf club is at ground level, where the target of a sword is at eye level. Because the difference in targets is so drastic, we instinctively perceive that to swing a sword like a golf club is wrong.

Now let's use this thought process to delve a little deeper: Think about the target of your animations, and where your character's enemies are located. Is swinging the weapon like a baseball bat the solution? Consider the game you might be working on: In an environment where your character is trying to kill people, the target of your swing is more likely to be the pitcher (in front of you), than the ball (next to you at the moment you swing). Is it still correct, then, to stand like a batter, and swing as though you're trying to hit the ball? Probably not.

So now we can take a step back and ask ourselves: "What is the best practice?" Nothing beats calling in an expert, of course, but even if you don't have the time or resources for that, putting in a little effort in developing your fundamental understanding of human biomechanics with respect to weapons can help clean up your animations in a major way.

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Paul Marzagalli
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I was surprised to not see Neal Stephenson's KS-funded game "Clang" mentioned anywhere. It would be interesting to see a follow-up from the developers of that game to this piece, since their game is entirely about exploring swordplay through game mechanics.

Great article!

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Kellam Templeton-Smith
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I honestly thought this was in regards to that, especially given that IGN just ran a piece interviewing one of the sword teachers who is doing mo-cap for it.

Still, this is quite cool, something I've been thinking about quite a bit. I'd love to see this expanded into a lengthier look at the subject.

Jeff Richardson
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Of course they wouldn't acknowledge Clang. That would be in direct contradiction to Mr. Clements claim to have the only dedicated WMA training facility in the world.

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Kellam Templeton-Smith
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Something like Dark Souls is also worth a mention-the game provides a breadth of traditional weapons with nice attempts at simulating realistic weight and heft. It may not be the most realistic system (in terms of engaging against another swordsman), but it presents a system that seems plausible.

I think CLANG! will be a fun attempt at bringing realism to digital sword duels, but I don't think it's necessarily something that will benefit a lot of controller based games (though I wholeheartedly agree with trying to at least make the hand positions and swings based on actual practiced styles).

Kevin Alexander
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I like this article a lot.

However, I've always believed the relevancy of realism as a design, poses so much more problems/complexities from a game play mechanics perspective than it ever has as an artistic/animation problem. Unfortunately, I can't see a reason to employ the later sans a commitment to the former without it feeling or looking estranged.

I'd love to see more of both.

Cordero W
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Oooor, you can go play Demon Souls or Dark Souls. There. Saved you an article.

Chris Hendricks
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For that matter, why come to Gamasutra at all? Just play good games. You'll learn everything you need to know without all of that pesky reading.

Daniel Accardi
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Cordero, I don't think Demon's Souls or Dark Souls has realistic combat. Most of it is pretty standard, if well-crafted, hacking and slashing. I was actually thinking about this in terms of Elveon, a Slovakian game that was cancelled years ago (you can find some youtube videos of it). What Elveon (and the DSs) both have is really just an appreciation for the physics of weapons. Halberds and axes feel long and heavy; swords feel lighter and quicker. When you get hit, you feel it. That's an extremely valuable quality for game combat, but it's different from realism in terms of the fighting techniques being used.

Luis Guimaraes
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Awesome article!

Rob B
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The brilliant thing about this is that because its based in reality, even when it seems strange and out there, it all makes perfect sense. Its a perfect marriage of something thats entirely logical and consistent with something original and new (At least to most people of these times.)

Im reminded of seeing a realistic display of how knights battled. Because slashing through plate metal is hopeless the swords were used for thrusts and as clubs. This would mean that theyd regularly be holding the sword by the blade either to direct a thrust or swing the hilt like a club in to a crushing blow. (It had the benefit of being able to hook on to a combatant)

As far as I can remember Ive never seen this in any game, or for that matter any TV show or movie. I always thought that was a shame. A lot of variation and originality going to waste.

Cam Kirmser
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Interesting article.

If you look at Japanese sword masters, it can be seen that, though the katana lacks a European style pommel, they are held with the strong hand against the tsuba - the analog to the European hilt - and the weak hand held at the very far end of the handle, or tsuka.

I first noticed this when I saw the miniseries Shogun back in the 80s. Prior to then, I had always thought that the katana was gripped with the strong hand against the tsuba and the weak hand against the strong. But, from watching the show - and other samurai flicks since then - it is obvious that there is a quite noticeable gap between the hands.

When you think about it, it makes sense; the sword - as this article points out - is a lever. The strong hand serves as the fulcrum and the further back the weak hand on the grip, the longer the moment arm and the more force that can be exerted by the blade.

Matthew Downey
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+1 for physics.

Amir Barak
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Check out some koryū schools if you're interested in traditional japanese sword-work. Tsuba is the handguard (from what I know anyway) and tsuka is the hilt itself, but yeah that's how we were taught to hold the sword anyway. Different swords are also used in different ways, that is, some are more for bashing, some are for cutting, some are for piercing, some for use on horseback... etc. etc. All of these also affect the holding and attack vectors available for the sword. Generally though I would said that it's pretty bad form to jump with a sword (at least I've not seen anyone do that seriously but I could be mistaken) and turn your back on an opponent. Also, as far as I figured it out (and from some combat duty myself in the army though with tanks not swords :P) all of theses kata and movements are there to instil reflexes not usage, you'll forget about 99% of the stuff when faced with a real opponent (or several). It's that 1% core that'll save your life.

steve smith
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I've studied and loved martial arts from both east and west, and it's great to see people talking about western longsword in the gaming industry more and more.

However, I dispute the notion that what we need in our games is more realism. People do not play games because they're realistic - they play them because they *think* they're realistic. The game's job is to sell that.

Eastern martial arts are popular because they're depicted as being flashy and elegant while also retaining explosive, supernatural levels of power. The romance of western martial arts, while beautiful, doesn't have that flash just yet.

Game developers with an interest in western martial arts would do well to go through their knowledge and find the exciting moments in the Fior di Battaglia (or your other preferred classic fighting manual), and bring them to the forefront of the in-game experience. Preserve the form but hide the boring stuff, and players will be enchanted - which is kind of our job, right?

Brett Williams
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The article isn't asking people to employ realism. It's showing people that if they started from a foundation in a realistic stance and methodology that it would actually make animating and embellishing it easier, because it more naturally fits the mechanics of how the human body works. As noted very early on in the article, the simple act of moving the characters hand to the pommel fixes a lot of animation issues with collision and the wrist position. This isn't extra work, it's actually making less work and thus a more realistic setup to build upon.

Kyle Jansen
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Very interesting read. I fully agree that games should be *based* in reality, and should be stylized and exaggerated as needed. That really applies to everything - sword combat, architecture, costume, dialog...

Alan Rimkeit
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Anyone that is really interested in learning this should go here.

This is really great that realistic Western Martial Arts are being discussed. I disagree with most of the opinions above. I do want a realistic sword combat game. I am seriously looking forward to the this game Clang. I want to see how it turns out.

Patrick Miller
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(Just FYI, ARMA director John Clements co-wrote this article.)

Alan Rimkeit
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FYI, I did see that. Just providing a link to ARMA for those that are interested.

Henrik Strandberg
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Great and very interesting article! Anyone interested in the subject should check out CD Project's The Witcher (2007), which featured melee combat choreographed by experts on medieval swordfighting, and performed by professional martial artists (all combat is mocapped). For sure the choreography was designed to match Andrzej Sapkowski's literary universe and Geralt's persona - for example to accentuate the difference between the steel sword used for human enemies and the silver sword used for supernatural creatures - but I think it's a great example of an end result that applies the same kind of thinking as this article. To make it even more interesting for the player, they designed three entirely separate sets of moves, with different pacing and force behind the blows.

I'd also recommend contacting your local chapter of Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). Just like some SCA members seek authenticity in terms of garb, food, crafts and performing arts, many SCAites have spent decades practicing medieval fighting - it's a brutal and efficient fighting style so likely somewhat realistic, although hardly as flashy as you'd expect a game/entertainment experience to be.

Alan Rimkeit
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FYI, ARMA dislikes the SCA with a burning passion.

"many SCAites have spent decades practicing medieval fighting - it's a brutal and efficient fighting style so likely somewhat realistic, although hardly as flashy as you'd expect a game/entertainment experience to be."

And is nothing like real sword combat at all in any way shape or form.

If people want to learn the sword combat that is being discussed in this article and on the ARMA website avoid the SCA like the plague. Go to ARMA instead. There are local chapters all over the world.

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Personally for me the most interesting aspects of games is the opportunity to learn something new and apply it to modify a world. A lot of things in games are arbitrary (click here to do this, 3 medallions allows you to draw the master sword etc) but including something like this grounded in reality really adds a lot to the experience. Going deep on almost any topic always turns up some fascinating insights, e.g. accurate swordplay, rock types in DF, etc.

Jeremie Sinic
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I am not an animator, but this is great food for thought for anyone I guess.
Video games have tropes like movies (you've got to check this Cracked article, which is not just funny but also accurate:
mptions-every-movie-makes.html ), where the medium feeds on itself, leading to directors who assimilate elements coming straight from movies rather than from reality.

Christiaan Moleman
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Good article. Doing your homework makes a difference.

I think the resistance mostly comes from people *liking* showy "useless and suicidal" moves and aesthetic preference often taking precedence over realism. Judging by the moves and attire of most game characters, combat tends to be reality- and physics-free.

Anyone ever see the TV program "Weapons That Made Britain"? Was pretty interesting and touched on a lot of the same points.

Arjen Meijer
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Superb article, I have been working on a sword game for some time and got some interesting gameplay coming from it so far. Also a big plus having a professional sword fighter helping!

David Navarro
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Looks like the guys in the illustration are holding their swords wrong.

Eben Bradstreet
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It's an awkward placement for that picture, true. The weapons those gentlemen are wielding are probably not "long swords", but rather some kind of zweihander (two-handed sword). Their handles are much, much longer than the kind of weapon that I was demonstrating, or that you'd typically find.

Also, gripping your weapon by the handle isn't entirely wrong. There are circumstances where it's applicable. Generally speaking, though, it's better to grip the weapon by the pommel.

Eben Bradstreet
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Hi all, I was responsible for the first half of this article. My thanks to everyone for their positive feedback! If you have any questions or need anything clarified, don't hesitate to ask.

Alan Rimkeit
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Boss article. Props to you and John Clements.

Waqar Rasool
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i am glad i stumbled upon this article, the next game we are working on requires the main character to keep a sword. Although the game style is action arcade, Eben is absolutely right that the basics are always the same.
goodi good.

Jeff Richardson
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Not only does Mr. Clements not have have the only dedicated training facility in the world (as he claims in this article) Mr. Clements doesn't even have the largest dedicated training facility on the North American Continent.

Just on the West Coast...
Probably the largest facility in the world is Academia Duello run by Devon up in Vancouver Canada.
In Seattle Washington you have Michael Tinker Pierce and Neal Stephenson and the guys developing Clang who have their own facility.
Also in Seattle Washington you have Cecil Longino at Salle Saint-George
In Portland Oregon you have Academia Duellatoria which also has a pilot school in Phoenix Oregon.
In Eugene Oregon you have Maestro Hayes at Northwest Fencing Academy.
In Santa Clara, California you have the Davenriche European Martial Artes School.

That's just a handful from the West Coast off the top of my head.

Richard Elswick
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Chicago Swordplay Guild as well Jeff Richardson.

There are many others, smaller as well.

Europe has many as well.

For another flavor of understanding the reconstruction of western martial arts in the 14th-16th century, do a search on YouTube for "Battle of the Nations 2012". Also take a look at for additional info.

Michaelangelo Reina
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A very interesting article, I prefer to look at it as overall concepts that can be applied. I am not sure there is much space for a deeper integration unless the idea is to purposely create a fully realistic simulation of what it is to fight with a long sword, (and in a game, rarely turns out to be a long sword, or just one sword). I've been practicing KDF for over a year now, and animated on titles with sword play at the same time. I think at the end you have to do what is right for the type of game you are making first and foremost.