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Swords in science fiction -- why?

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I understand why there are lightsabers in Star Wars; the Jedi Order is (or was) a part of the setting. But there are other examples of swords in scifi. Klingons have the bat'leth. The Narn and Centauri have their own blades. Traveller, Warhammer 40000, and Halo all include swords in their arsenals.

 

But why? Swords aren't used in combat nowadays, and they aren't about to make a comeback in the battlefield anytime soon. Why would they make a comeback in the far future?

 

The Traveller rpg has some explanation: Swords are used instead of guns to prevent damaging internal systems when fighting on board a starship. They are a feature on sword & planet stories, so those get a pass. Otherwise, they don't seem to fit in the genre. Maybe there is some technology in the game/fiction that is preventing firearms or lasers from functioning.

 

Any ideas on this, besides the "swords are cool" trope?

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5 minutes ago, tkdguy said:

Any ideas on this, besides the "swords are cool" trope?

Why do you need more than swords being cool?  Any idea anyone has for reintroducing the sword to warfare will be a blatant excuse that doesn't hold up under serious scrutiny anyways, why bother?  Swords are cool, that's why the setting has them.  No more explanation needed. 

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12 minutes ago, dmjalund said:

swords are less likely to puncture thin starship hulls?

 

I think that was the reasoning for including swords (along with allowing nobles to duel) in the Traveller rpg. Dune had personal shields that repelled bullets. Any other reasons?

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Power Armor + Vibro Blades = Unbeatable Armor Penetration, mebbe? Like, say, if the armors of the setting are based on things like carbon nano-tubes, and those would be sensitive to certain frequencies of vibration ...

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6 hours ago, tkdguy said:

I understand why there are lightsabers in Star Wars; the Jedi Order is (or was) a part of the setting. But there are other examples of swords in scifi. Klingons have the bat'leth. The Narn and Centauri have their own blades. Traveller, Warhammer 40000, and Halo all include swords in their arsenals.

 

But why? Swords aren't used in combat nowadays, and they aren't about to make a comeback in the battlefield anytime soon. Why would they make a comeback in the far future?

 

The Traveller rpg has some explanation: Swords are used instead of guns to prevent damaging internal systems when fighting on board a starship. They are a feature on sword & planet stories, so those get a pass. Otherwise, they don't seem to fit in the genre. Maybe there is some technology in the game/fiction that is preventing firearms or lasers from functioning.

 

Any ideas on this, besides the "swords are cool" trope?

 

 

    Swords may not be used by modern soldiers,  but knives certainly are.  Part of every country’s military training is knife work.  From silent kills to “what to do when you’re out of ammo.” how to handle a blade is considered vital.

   Swords just aren’t part of most modern cultures, but if they started becoming seriously used by one, than everybody else would have to take them up again since few hand to hand weapons can match them for deadliness.

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On 8/9/2019 at 1:57 AM, tkdguy said:

But if I were to sell a campaign to my players, some of them wouldn't be satisfied with that explanation. I'd need a more substantial reason.

 

If your players aren't happy with the, "rule of cool," then you aren't going to have swords in your SF game. They'll have to make do with a bayonet on the end of their plasma rifle.

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There's always going to be times when you aren't going to want to use firearms. Maybe you want to be quiet. Maybe your target is standing in front of a fuel tank. Maybe there are gun control laws like in the evil Empire from Star Wars so you can't openly carry guns on some planets.

 

Swords have reach over knives. Either a knife or a sword is more effective than a fist for most people.

 

And a sword is the traditional weapon of the aristocracy so I could see it's use continuing centuries after there's any practical reason for it to do so.

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Yeah tech might simply be making melee weapons more viable than ranged.  Or armor is so good that a ranged weapon won't penetrate, but a thin blade will.  Or culturally, ranged attacks are considered cowardly, dishonorable or weak and shunned.

 

Oh, and there's always the Dune thing where fast-moving objects won't penetrate the shields so you are better off using blades.

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So to summarize:

 

1. Self Preservation. Swords are better than powered ranged weapons in instances where they will damage surroundings (starship, dome, orbital station, sensitive equipment, flammables or explosives nearby).

2. Culture. Swords may be traditional or killing at range may only be acceptable during war, etc. A variety of cultures elevate swords or other hand to hand weapons to an art form.

3. Stealth. Blades (and to a lesser extent some blunt weapons) excel at removing a target in silence. They are often easier to conceal from modern electronics as well, since blades can easily be made of materials that don't set off detection devices (whether they detect energy signatures or explosive content).

4. Access / Cost. It is generally much easier and/or cheaper to obtain a blade of some kind than a powered ranged weapon.

5. Laws. Restrictions can range from only certain weapons to requiring permits to restrictions on travel with certain weapons, etc. 

6. No ammunition / charges. You don't have to worry about running out of charges or ammunition. 

7. Cool / Intimidating. Blades are often seen as more intimidating because they provide the opportunity to cause pain for longer. It is hard to control how much damage you do when you shoot someone (especially with energy weapons) but not hard with a blade.

8. Effectiveness. Tech may have made certain ranged weapons obsolete in some cases. Reflective armor defeats lasers, force fields stop energy beams, etc.

 

Feel free to add if you think of something else.

 

- E

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1 hour ago, eepjr24 said:

1. Self Preservation. Swords are better than powered ranged weapons in instances where they will damage surroundings (starship, dome, orbital station, sensitive equipment, flammables or explosives nearby).[/QUOTE]

Although it would be likely that the technology of those ranged weapons would develop along with all the other technology.  A phaser set on stun will knock someone out, but won't poke a hole in a bulkhead.

 

Quote

2. Culture. Swords may be traditional or killing at range may only be acceptable during war, etc. A variety of cultures elevate swords or other hand to hand weapons to an art form.

But no culture is going to survive for long if it values tradition over survival.  Attacking at range always has been and always will be an advantage.  Range beats no-range.  Longer range beats shorter range.  It's been true throughout the history of warfare.

 

Quote

3. Stealth. Blades (and to a lesser extent some blunt weapons) excel at removing a target in silence. They are often easier to conceal from modern electronics as well, since blades can easily be made of materials that don't set off detection devices (whether they detect energy signatures or explosive content).

This is a useful point.  A stealth operation is a different task than an open combat.  Different tools for different tasks.

 

Quote

4. Access / Cost. It is generally much easier and/or cheaper to obtain a blade of some kind than a powered ranged weapon.

How much does it cost to die and lose the battle as opposed to living and winning the battle?  No nation, no police force, no individual facing combat is going to be cheap when it comes to a matter of life and death.

 

Quote

5. Laws. Restrictions can range from only certain weapons to requiring permits to restrictions on travel with certain weapons, etc.

Possibly, depending on how effectively those laws are enforced.  Like a tyrannical space empire where the imperial troops have ranged weapons, but no one else is allowed to.  Of course, they have to be able to shoot better than Star Wars Storm Troopers.

 

Quote

6. No ammunition / charges. You don't have to worry about running out of charges or ammunition.

See #4.  A sword as a backup weapon is reasonable for when you run out of ammo, but you'd do whatever you could to reload.

 

Quote

7. Cool / Intimidating. Blades are often seen as more intimidating because they provide the opportunity to cause pain for longer. It is hard to control how much damage you do when you shoot someone (especially with energy weapons) but not hard with a blade.

If I can shoot you from 100 meters away, I'm not going to be the least little bit intimidated by your sword.

 

Quote

8. Effectiveness. Tech may have made certain ranged weapons obsolete in some cases. Reflective armor defeats lasers, force fields stop energy beams, etc.

Also possible.  The personal shields in Dune, and other possible technical factors.  Maybe there's an "intense magnetic field" that renders the energy-zap weapons ineffective.  However, people would do everything they could to develop military technology to get around these problems - a gun that *can* penetrate the shield, a lasgun that doesn't cause a dangerous explosion on contact with the energy shield, a zapgun that still works even in an intense magnetic field.

 

While some of these are good reasons, a whole lot of swords-in-sci-fi is just bad writing.

 

In particular, the Klingon bat'leth makes no sense at all.  And neither does a lightsaber with a mini-lightsaber crossguard.

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Phil, I think we had some differing assumptions about the context of the question. I took it in the vein of science fiction settings, which are not always (or even generally) known for consistency with real world (or sometimes even internal) physics. I also was not restricting my replies to the battlefield or necessarily war time. With that in mind, see below.

 

1. Self Preservation. Swords are better than powered ranged weapons in instances where they will damage surroundings (starship, dome, orbital station, sensitive equipment, flammables or explosives nearby).

Quote

Although it would be likely that the technology of those ranged weapons would develop along with all the other technology.  A phaser set on stun will knock someone out, but won't poke a hole in a bulkhead.

In many fictional settings this does not seem to be the case. See Star Wars, Dune, the Honorverse, Starship Troopers, etc.

 

2. Culture. Swords may be traditional or killing at range may only be acceptable during war, etc. A variety of cultures elevate swords or other hand to hand weapons to an art form.

Quote

But no culture is going to survive for long if it values tradition over survival.  Attacking at range always has been and always will be an advantage.  Range beats no-range.  Longer range beats shorter range.  It's been true throughout the history of warfare.

Here I would disagree. If the culture exclusively adopted swords over guns, sure. They both have things they are better at, so exclusion is not needed or desired. And while the long term result is probably extinction if they do exclusively it might not be without significant cost to the other side (see the Anglo-Zulu wars for a non-fictional example, "On Basilisk Station" provides a nice fictional one).

 

4. Access / Cost. It is generally much easier and/or cheaper to obtain a blade of some kind than a powered ranged weapon.

Quote

How much does it cost to die and lose the battle as opposed to living and winning the battle?  No nation, no police force, no individual facing combat is going to be cheap when it comes to a matter of life and death.

It really does not matter if you don't have the money? And at a national level, that argument is reasonable, but for individuals who may be down on their luck, something is better than nothing.

 

Quote

Possibly, depending on how effectively those laws are enforced.  Like a tyrannical space empire where the imperial troops have ranged weapons, but no one else is allowed to.  Of course, they have to be able to shoot better than Star Wars Storm Troopers.

Or the Starship Troopers for that matter. What is it with Troopers and poor aim?

 

6. No ammunition / charges. You don't have to worry about running out of charges or ammunition.

Quote

See #4.  A sword as a backup weapon is reasonable for when you run out of ammo, but you'd do whatever you could to reload.

See my response to #4.

 

7. Cool / Intimidating. Blades are often seen as more intimidating because they provide the opportunity to cause pain for longer. It is hard to control how much damage you do when you shoot someone (especially with energy weapons) but not hard with a blade.

Quote

If I can shoot you from 100 meters away, I'm not going to be the least little bit intimidated by your sword.

There is no 100 meters away in an alley, a bar or the tight quarters of the engine room of a ship. And you are assuming here that both sides are armed, not always the case at all.

 

8. Effectiveness. Tech may have made certain ranged weapons obsolete in some cases. Reflective armor defeats lasers, force fields stop energy beams, etc.

Quote

Also possible.  The personal shields in Dune, and other possible technical factors.  Maybe there's an "intense magnetic field" that renders the energy-zap weapons ineffective.  However, people would do everything they could to develop military technology to get around these problems - a gun that *can* penetrate the shield, a lasgun that doesn't cause a dangerous explosion on contact with the energy shield, a zapgun that still works even in an intense magnetic field.

Arms races always exist. There will be corner cases and new tech that defeats old tech. If that is the case, then if the sword is a solution often enough and you are not sure if that gizmo will be... I know I would have both.

Quote

 

While some of these are good reasons, a whole lot of swords-in-sci-fi is just bad writing.

In particular, the Klingon bat'leth makes no sense at all.  And neither does a lightsaber with a mini-lightsaber crossguard.

 

 

I am mixed here. I do believe there is bad writing out there and that is one reason. I also believe that we are talking about fiction and some "bad writing" to one person is a valid story concept to another. And even if the concepts are far fetched (which really is the nature and intent often in science fiction itself) time has proven that we are really poor predictors of what will become reality and what will not. Miracle drugs exist for some things, but we can't grab a flying car to work. Laser weapons do exist, but we don't have orbital farms yet. Etc.

 

- E

 

PS: I do agree with you on the lightsaber crossguard, but I don't know enough about the bat'leth to have an opinion, I always favored Gorns or Hydrans over Klingons.

Edited by eepjr24
PS

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1 hour ago, PhilFleischmann said:

But no culture is going to survive for long if it values tradition over survival.  Attacking at range always has been and always will be an advantage.  Range beats no-range.  Longer range beats shorter range.  It's been true throughout the history of warfare.

 

This is true if the range option exists; but there can be environments and conditions where it doesn't, and these can be even more common in science-fiction than in real life. Dense jungle. Underground caverns. Thick fog or smoke. Confining buildings.

Or underwater, where projectiles or energy will be greatly attenuated. Or amid crowds with mixed combatants and innocents, where stray shots produce unwanted casualties. Hand-to-hand weapons may be the best option.

 

Besides, tradition doesn't have to be valued OVER survival. Everything in its time and place. ;)

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Also keep in mind that good swords are expensive, and people need training to use them well.

 

I had thought of creating a science fantasy campaign, where some force field prevented modern and futuristic firearms from working. The PCs would probably try to find that force field and negate it. I nixed that idea because it would have turned into a retread of some previous campaigns. But I can post it in the Fantasy Hero boards if you wish.

 

In any case, my players prefer guns over swords anyway. I am leaning toward a non-military science fiction campaign, which will be hard enough to sell.

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6 minutes ago, tkdguy said:

Also keep in mind that good swords are expensive, and people need training to use them well.

 

I had thought of creating a science fantasy campaign, where some force field prevented modern and futuristic firearms from working. The PCs would probably try to find that force field and negate it. I nixed that idea because it would have turned into a retread of some previous campaigns. But I can post it in the Fantasy Hero boards if you wish.

 

In any case, my players prefer guns over swords anyway. I am leaning toward a non-military science fiction campaign, which will be hard enough to sell.

Making good swords in medieval times was expensive. Compared to making guns or other powered projectile weapons, good swords are generally 1/4 or less of the price. Yes, you can pay a lot more for a custom sword by a master sword maker, but you can do the same for a gun. I do agree that being good with blades requires more training generally than being good with guns IRL, but we are talking about a game where either one is a WF for the same points.

 

I can see trouble selling a non-military science fiction campaign, if you mean it lacks any military at all. I can't recall much in the way of settings similar to that. You can get away from having the military directly involved by making having the military involved in distant wars that prevent their presence from being strongly felt in the area of the campaign.

 

- E

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51 minutes ago, eepjr24 said:

Making good swords in medieval times was expensive. Compared to making guns or other powered projectile weapons, good swords are generally 1/4 or less of the price. Yes, you can pay a lot more for a custom sword by a master sword maker, but you can do the same for a gun. I do agree that being good with blades requires more training generally than being good with guns IRL, but we are talking about a game where either one is a WF for the same points.

 

For that matter, I would expect the Gun of the Future to use sensors and computers to aim itself. The wielder onbly supplies judgement about when it should be fired. But that's really boring for a game.

 

(For my Planetary Romance campaign, I did have it that in space combat, the only role for humans was to decide to fight. At the speeds and distances of spaceship-to-spaceship combat, humans just can't think or act fast enough. But I also made the conscious choice that spaceship combat would never happen in the campaign.)

 

I suspect the real reason for swords appearing so much in SF was the desire for cool illustrations on pulp magazine covers. But "realism" arguments are shifty. I greatly enjoyed an internet essay on why World War Two was obviously fictional, and trite, badly written fiction at that.

 

In the Lensman series, it was axes, not swords... super-heaqvy axes of advanced alloys, wielded by soldiers in powered armor. They were for boarding enemy spacecraft, for chopping through bulkheads (and enemy soldiers) without the risk of shooting through hulls or vital equipment.

 

Ultimately, though, setting design is more about rationalizing choices made for style, not some Platonic ideal of techno-social forecasting. There's a tradition of swords in SF, but not so much anyone's obliged to include the trope.

 

Dean Shomshak

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Not sure about the production costs, but a few Google searches show swords (real swords, not those crappy wallhangers) being more expensive than guns on average. I have to take supply and demand into consideration, of course. Katanas are particularly expensive, since they are popular, and they're hard to make.

 

I'm not averse to having a power sword similar to that of the 40K power swords.  I had a similar idea. But again, would it fit in my campaign. Keep in mind that to the game, internal consistency is more important than realism.

 

My offer of posting my ideas still stands. We can make it a shared world project if there's any interest.

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20 minutes ago, tkdguy said:

Not sure about the production costs, but a few Google searches show swords (real swords, not those crappy wallhangers) being more expensive than guns on average. I have to take supply and demand into consideration, of course. Katanas are particularly expensive, since they are popular, and they're hard to make.

 

My offer of posting my ideas still stands. We can make it a shared world project if there's any interest.

 

https://www.budk.com/Katana-Swords-2887

vs.

http://www.firearmspriceguide.com/

 

You can make arguments either way, depending on what you look at, of course. I would compare Katana more with rifles and something more like this with a pistol:

 

https://www.budk.com/United-Cutlery-Combat-Commander-Gladiator-Sword-27709

 

I am a lot more likely to reach for the pugio or gladius style weapons before a katana since I find shorter blades easier to work with.

 

- E

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Ugh! Don't buy swords from BudK. The company sells decent knives, but the swords are those wallhangers I was talking about. Trust me, I did some test cutting and ended up with a nasty dent in my sword. If the sword is described as being made of stainless steel and/or having a rat-tail tang, spend your money elsewhere.

 

Go to Cold Steel; that company has a good reputation, and the prices are affordable. Albion is another option

 

Still, real katanas can cost over $1000. Machetes will cost a lot less. YMMV.

 

 

 

 

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On August 9, 2019 at 1:38 AM, tkdguy said:

I understand why there are lightsabers in Star Wars; the Jedi Order is (or was) a part of the setting.

 

And all the Japanese cartoons that inspired them.  There is  was a cool factor there until the prequels just passed the things around like candy.  Got tired of seeing them, honestly.

 

 

On August 9, 2019 at 1:38 AM, tkdguy said:

 

 

But there are other examples of swords in scifi. Klingons have the bat'leth.

 

No matter how you tear that thing apart, analyze it, or study and create some kind of methodology for it's use, that thing is stupid from start to finish.  The only way to use it with minimal risk to yourself and the guys on either side of you is as a very short, very limited-options staff, and a very short, very limited option staff would be better at it.

 

 

 

On August 9, 2019 at 1:38 AM, tkdguy said:

But why?

 

I'll come back to that, but first I'd like to say that the Traveller justification works well enough, honestly.

 

 

On August 9, 2019 at 1:38 AM, tkdguy said:

Swords aren't used in combat nowadays, and they aren't about to make a comeback in the battlefield anytime soon. Why would they make a comeback in the far future?

 

When firearms are illegal from top to bottom in all places-- 

well, let's face it:   people are still going to want to kill each other.  It's in our nature.  Swords work better than sticks.  So you never know: social pressure might actually result in them coming back.  Even today, there are just as many places selling (seriously low-quality artistic junk) swords as there are guns, at least in the US.

 

 

On August 9, 2019 at 1:38 AM, tkdguy said:

 

The Traveller rpg has some explanation: Swords are used instead of guns to prevent damaging internal systems when fighting on board a starship.

 

Addressed already: the Traveller justification may not be absolutely perfect, but it is reasonable enough to accept as plausible in a game setting.

 

On August 9, 2019 at 1:38 AM, tkdguy said:

Any ideas on this, besides the "swords are cool" trope?

 

What else do you _need_?!  :lol:

 

 

 

On August 9, 2019 at 5:27 AM, dmjalund said:

swords are less likely to puncture thin starship hulls?

 

And airlines and conduits and all those other things-- the Traveller justification.  However, if you're fighting inside a Traveller-esque ship, you'd better be using them for stabbing only, as swinging them in those tight corridors causes the same "cutting things" problems, compounded by the presence of your teammates swinging swords in narrow corridors.

 

On August 9, 2019 at 7:49 AM, Tjack said:

  Swords may not be used by modern soldiers,  but knives certainly are.  Part of every country’s military training is knife work.  From silent kills to “what to do when you’re out of ammo.” how to handle a blade is considered vital.

   Swords just aren’t part of most modern cultures, but if they started becoming seriously used by one, than everybody else would have to take them up again since few hand to hand weapons can match them for deadliness.

 

 

And that's a great place to start with "why."   If we're going the Traveller / space opera route, we have more than one culture.  We have more than the cultures of one planet.  Given potentially a thousand new cultures, or a thousand-thousand new cultures, it's entirely possible that some of those cultures, for whatever reason, find swords to be the most practical personal weapon.  Even today, should I live in Canada or England, I-- as a tourist-- would likely have a way easier time finding a big knife than I would have finding a hand gun.  The catch, of course, is that the pigsticker is a bit harder to conceal---

 

which in _itself_-- the fact that you _know_ if buddy-cross-the-table is packing a sword or not-- may be one of the very reasons that some sci-fi cultures find swords to be more socially-acceptable weapons.  Who can say?

 

But keep running with space-opera settings: traveling to untold worlds, a hundred tech levels from "Wheels?!  That's one _hell_ of an idea!" to stone hatchets to compound bows to pistols to pocket missiles to nuclear-weapons concealed in prosthetic eyes to who knows what?!

 

So I stop at Aldebaran Station and load up: I refill my sand casters and missile launchers, maybe trade off some cargo space for a small power plant so I can add that last beam weapon I've been dreaming of....   I get my slug and pellet throwers serviced (last mission saw a _lot_ of action!  You can _hear_ the barrel slop on that automatic! ), and I get two crates of ammo for each of them.  I grab a couple of flash and stun grenades, just in case the natives are hostile where I'm going, fill the galley, and off I go, my crew and I ready for adventure.

 

We get halfway to our destination, prepare for another jump, foof-- misjump.  Lucky us, we can detect a habitable tech 1 planet at extreme range and head for it.  Navigator says the comp and some of the hardware needs work.  Looks like we'll be camping for four months or so, given we're going to have to cannibalize a few things and make a few others.  Turns out the natives _are_ hostile, and more than one hunting trip has resulted in attack.  By the end of the third month, we're pretty low on deadly noisemakers.  The natives, iron age bastards that they are, seem to have one distinct advantage over us with their swords:  the don't have to reload.  Sure, they're sucking hind teat on offensive ranged capability, but they've got the area knowledge; they've got the skills-- the tend to get pretty damned close before we even see them!  We fire eight shots and we're out; stop to reload.  They keep swinging those swords....

 

 

So we've got that in favor of swords, at least as a back-up weapon (which honestly, even in Traveller, other than duels, back up weapons is all I ever really saw a sword being used for, even for NPCs.  Everyone had a gun, but they all had a sword of some sort for on-board work and in case that gun failed.  Guns are inherently more complicated than swords, after all.

 

 

Or suppose we leave the Imperium entirely.  I've been two seven worlds and can't find a damned thing that will work with my Browning or my Dan Wesson.  That kind of sucks, because I really _like_ that Dan Wesson!  So I've spent money on new slug throwers and new ammunition on every planet, only to find I have to do it all over again if I don't scrape up the funds to start buying it by the metric ton!   My steward, though, has come to realize that regardless of how they build their guns, all these different people still bleed a _lot_ when you chop them with something.

 

I have more, but I don't have the time, so I hope some of this might get your "why we need swords" juices flowing.

 

 

Now backing way up to Connery's Outland, or whatever it was called--- well these problems don't apply.  It's sci-fi, but we didn't leave the planet(ish), so why bother? 

 

 

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I am not  a fan of swords on starships.  Axes might work better, but I would prefer short barreld shotguns. Tiny  pellets dont do much past the walls, but do a number on unarmored flesh. armoured flesh means switching to slug rounds with shaped charges, XD

 

 

(Not a fan of the "Rule of Cool")

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The problem with the Rule of Cool is that it's subjective. What's cool for me may not be cool for you. This includes having swords in science fiction. Therefore, I need another reason to include them. The starship systems argument works for me, but what if the characters use teleportation devices instead?

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Personally, I think a long prybar with a padded grip would be much more useful than a sword.

 

Use it to beat someone over the head, poke it through them, or to really apply a lot of weight to pry open things...and all without having to worry about the edges chipping or it breaking in half like you would with a sword.

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