RPGs normally introduce a weapon triangle in order to balance out gameplay. Do these weapon advantages really exist or is that just a game mechanic? I’m writing a story and I want one of my main characters to use a lance/spear, how would they do against swords?

Sort of, but not in the way you’re thinking. The
smooth “rock/paper/scissors” style trinities don’t usually exist, but weapons
will effectively negate others. For example, don’t bring a knife to a gunfight,
sword fight, or if the other guy’s got a spear, or a baseball bat, or a broken
chair.

It’s more accurate to say that weapons are
situational. When they’re being used appropriately, they’ll excel. When used
inappropriately, or kludged into a situation where they don’t really work, they’re
at a disadvantage.

Polearms work best in large open spaces, where
bringing the weapon around to face a foe is easier, and the size serves to keep
someone with a short hand weapon at range. If a swordsman is coming at you,
just poke ‘em a few times, and leave them to bleed to death. Problem solved.
This is much easier if you’re talking about infantry employing a phalanx
formation. Where each combatant has their own spear, pointed in the general
direction of a future pincushion.

Usually, the weapon priority systems you see are an
abstraction of reach. Weapons have both a maximum range you can use them at,
and a minimum range where they’re effective. If you’re armed with a
shorter range weapon, your goal is (frequently) to get close enough that your
opponent cannot use their weapon against you. Spears kinda screw this up a bit, in that they can be used at very short ranges, by migrating your grip across the shaft, while still having a longer maximum range than most swords.

If a foe manages to negate the spear (by grabbing it, or by hacking through the shaft), then your
character would, probably, fall back to their own sidearm, rather than trying
to use the spear ineffectually. (Normally, this isn’t going to be an issue, because poking someone with a spear will put an end to the fight long before they can do anything with their sword.) This is the other side that weapon priority
systems often skip over, if you’re planning for a heavy combat, you’re going to
want to bring multiple weapons with you, for use at different ranges and in
different situations that you might encounter.

Realistically, your character might be carrying a polearm
(a spear, lance, halberd, bardiche, voulge, billhook, and any of the thousands
of other varieties) with a sidearm, (some variety of sword, an axe, warhammer,
or mace), and a backup or two (depending on the era, this could be anything
from a dagger to pistols). Depending on what they were doing (and when they
lived), they might be carrying a bow or crossbow instead of a polearm. In more recent eras, the
polearm began to be replaced with a handgun (remembering this is not a pistol, but
was named to differentiate it from a cannon), and later with muskets and
rifles. The sidearm transitioned from the sword to single shot pistols, then
the revolver and, eventually, modern pistols. The backup really hasn’t changed,
it’s still a choice between knives and guns, though the exact style of both has
changed.

The differences between polearms are somewhat
idiosyncratic. Poleaxes, like the halberd, voulge, bardiche, (and many others)
allowed you to attack with a chopping or slashing movement. Piercing polearms,
like the spear, pike, lance (and again, many others) were better suited for
poking someone. These came in a wide variety of lengths, and the designs
seriously effect exactly how they can be used. It’s not that there’s one “best”
polearm. There were a lot of people trying to develop one.

It’s probably also worth noting that the spear,
lance, and pike aren’t universal terms. Pikes are usually the long ones, clocking in at up to twenty five feet.
Spears are usually the short ones, at
six to eight feet. Depending on exactly when you’re talking about, the lance
could be anything from a javelin (designed to be thrown) up to a twenty foot spear,
intended for cavalry use. But, these terms do get misused a lot. They’re not
the same weapons, but the terms also aren’t consistent.

A lot of games will step back and say that polearms
in general are anti-cavalry. That’s kinda true, but it’s not universal.
Polearms do give infantry more reach, and allow them to attack mounted foes (more
effectively), but they were designed to be used against opposing infantry.
There’s nothing unusual about someone with a halberd squaring off against a foe
armed with a sidesword. If your character is fielding a pike, then they’re
going to want to switch to a blade, if they can’t stop their attacker on the
pointy end first. Usually, the pointy end will reliably stop the swordsman.

There’s also this post, with a video from Matt Easton on the subject.

-Starke

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