A sub-trope of Weapon of Choice.
Behold, the staff. Essentially nothing more than a long, wooden club, it is one of the simplest weapons known to man, yet frequently referred to as the deadliest melee weapon ever created. It can be easily improvised from a number of ordinary farming and cleaning tools — such as plows, rakes, or mops — that are readily found anywhere. Those who frown upon spilling blood can confiscate various polearms and snap off the pointy end(s) to suit their tastes. Even convenient tree branches can serve in a pinch.
However, not all staves need be so simple. A few war-staves are shod with blunt metal caps for harder strikes, and bound with iron rings to better parry swords. The violent potential of especially these iron-shod staves cannot be overstated, as when wielded properly are quite capable of shattering bone, denting and deforming armor and completely removing vulnerable areas such as the jaw.
Many instead double as symbols of station, and thus feature elaborate headpieces — of which the wisest choices are sturdy and heavy enough to serve in a fight. Some clever individuals have made staves out of hollow metal pieces that can collapse into a concealable weapon.
In the West, a full-length fighting staff is called a quarterstaff. Contrary to general opinion or many movies, in the medieval age a staff was not held in the middle, but wielded in a similar way to a spear. In Japan, it is called a bo, with a smaller version called a jo. The Japanese also have hanbo — short staves that Westerners would call rods. A Filipino fighting art called Eskrima (or Arnis or Kali, depending on which island you're from) also makes use of these short rods.*
An interesting side-note is that eskrima teaches its practitioners to strike with one particular surface of the stick rather than just any part of it — because eskrima is intended to allow the user to switch his relatively non-lethal sticks for blades if necessary.
Staves tend to be the Weapon of Choice among monks and others who, for moral and/or ethical reasons, refuse to take a life, but for various reasons find themselves desiring a weapon. Anyone else interested in practicing combat skills is more interested in lethality, and so affix various pointy ends to their poles, making these implements a different kind of weapon entirely. Of course, some people take a middle path and conceal various nasty surprises in their staves.
Staves also tend to be the favorite of particularly old and weary characters in need of a walking stick — or those who wish to appear older and wearier than they really are. As such, it is a favorite among Old Masters and certain kinds of wizard. In the latter case, the "simple" staff probably also doubles as a Magic Wand, thus becoming the hybrid melee and magical weapon, the Magic Staff. Staves work great for teachers because a) they don't look impressive, and thus when they kick your ass it's a demonstration of the user's skill, and b) staves provide ample opportunity for hard whacks to the shins or head — painful, but not fatal, blows — thus perfect for discipline.
These connections to the monastic, the mystic, the elderly, the traveled, and the sorcerous have lent the staff itself, and those who use it, a certain image of being intellectual, knowledgeable and wise. Whether this is any more real than the image of frailty is another matter, but more staves in fantasy are Magic Wands than Magic Wands are staves. If the Magic Wand aspect of the staff is limited to only shooting people (or, if said shooting from a staff is not even magical in nature at all), then you have a Boom Stick, rather than a Magic Staff.
In Eastern media, the staff is often a Kung Fu weapon, used with much grace and skill (and choreography). Combined with the distance afforded by its long reach, martial artist monks have long been able to smack around roomfuls of Mooks completely untouched. As Western audiences rightly recognize the awesomeness of this, it's spreading to Western media as well. The most famous user of the staff in Eastern media is Sun Wukong from the seminal Journey to the West, and thus most staff-users reference Wukong in some way, especially through his not-so-simple staff, the Telescoping Staff, a related trope.
When the fighters don't actually care as much about the injuries they inflict, or actively try to cause lots of injuries, perhaps the staff really is just a long club. Or a spear without a spearhead.
If the wielder is a martial artist, expect to see a particular special defensive trick.
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Anime and Manga
Staves in the world of Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha don't tend to count, but Raising Heart's staff form is Nanoha's melee weapon of choice — unless she's reached the point of using its final form, which can produce a spear-head.
Gold in the Pokémon Adventures manga had a pool cue that he uses for calling out his mons.
In the Mermaid Melody Pichi Pichi Pitch manga, Gackto's rod, decorated with roses and jewels, is used like the mermaids' E-Pitches for the Dark Lovers' song. Rihito inherits one just like it, but never actually uses it as a weapon.
Shu from Now and Then, Here and There utilizes a long stick as a staff of sorts; the weapon is mainly used as a contrast against the other characters' weapons, where all of the other children are wielding knives and guns. Although he isn't very skilled per se (he mainly just recklessly uses the same move over and over), it is meant to highlight his pacifism.
Fasalina from Gun X Sword wields... uh... a very long pole-dancer stick. Either to beat the crap out of her opponents, or to control her mecha. And even her mecha comes with it.
Husky in +Anima. He occasionally fights with it (he's good), but it's used more as a punishing staff.
As mentioned in the Journey to the West example below, Son Goku of Dragon Ball wields the Nyoi-Bo. A magical staff that grows and shrinks as the user's will. (Known as the "Power Pole" in the dub.) However, it fades from use in Dragon Ball Z. Also, Kamesennin (Master Roshi) has a staff of his own, he never seems to really use it for anything though.
Nami from One Piece uses a simple staff at the beginning but later replaces it with the Clima Tact in Alabasta.
In Naruto, Chouza Akimichi uses a staff in combat, and it changes size with him whenever he goes into Attack of the 50-Foot Whatever mode. Tenten is also a staff fighter, albeit mainly in filler and video games.
In Card Captor Sakura, Sakura's Magic Wand is a pink staff with a bird's head that is used to seal and summon Clow Cards. Later, the bird's head changes to a circle with a star in the middle, when Sakura is officially made the Mistress of the Cards.
In Teen Titans Tim Drake often used a bo staff, usually collapsible. The original one Drake used was modified with a bit of carving to create a whistling sound when he swung it to distract his enemies.
In fact, Tim Drake, when offered training in any weapon of his choosing by arguably the DCU's greatest martial artist and assassin, Lady Shiva, goes with the bo staff specifically for its non-lethal attributes. He's grown so proficient with it he's been declared the best staff fighter in the DCU.
The Batman version of Dick Grayson uses it as well.
Agent 355 wields an expandable baton as a (somewhat) non-lethal alternative to her pistol in Y: The Last Man.
The Authority: Midnighter tends to use a collapsible metal staff when he isn't using his bare hands. Far from being a Technical Pacifist though, he's used it to decapitate people.
The Mighty Thor: Volstagg used a staff in the older stories, before eventually switching to a axe.
Commander Primary Xerox in The Mad Scientist Wars uses a high-tech version of these, in favor of guns, and second to his huge Net. Seeing as how it's collapsible, made of unknown material, and can be adjusted to weigh up to 100 kilo, It's about as violent as a non-violent weapon can be.
This is Timmy Turner's weapon of choice in Burning Black, due to his aversion to taking life. If it hadn't been destroyed, he'd still be using the wooden quarterstaff/training bo that Caleb gave him when he was ten. It pulled double duty as his Magic Staff for helping to direct his spells. Steps are being taken to return it to him.
Prince Akeem from Coming to America (played by Eddie Murphy) is seen training in staff-fighting in the beginning of the film. So, later when he's working in Queens at a fast-food restaurant and a thug tries to rob the place with a shotgun while he's mopping, he unscrews the handle and beats him down.
In the original Beastmaster movie Seth and Tal use these while posing as simple travelers.
In Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Dick Van Dyke's character waxes lyrical about "Me Old Bamboo", though the song itself contrasts the old bamboo with other similar implements, including (by name) walking sticks, poles, and quarterstaves. It's not entirely clear how the bamboo is different, though it is apparently capable of making people applaud, cheer, and/or go daft.
Many LARPers consider the staff to be one of the most effective weapons, due to the simple fact that a hit can be scored with any part of the weapon.
Ever since his appearance in the original Journey to the West, Sun Wukong (also known in the Japanese translation as Son Goku) has used a magical collapsible staff called Jingu Bang. It appeared as nyoi-bo in Dragon Ball, which the dub called a "Power Pole".
This trope also appears in Robert A. Heinlein's Sixth Column, written back in the early 1940s. In that novel, the "priest's staves" were in reality Applied Phlebotinum, both weapons and tools. They took the form of a ornately carved and gilded staff (that hid the controls in its gilding) surmounted by a cube of six colors (that concealed the generators/projectors) A backpack hidden under their clothing hid the power source.
In Discworld, wizards use magic staffs. Some of them are very old, handed down through generations, and may be made of different materials. Ridcully the Brown has one and it's the reason he doesn't use magic too often, because he's found that if something isn't intimidated by being walloped by six feet of solid oak, it probably won't be troubled too much by magic either. This proves useful on his second visit to magic-free Roundworld, where we actually see him trounce a native in a quarterstaff brawl.
As the popular song reminds us, A Wizard's Staff Has a Knob on the End. So they're not quite "simple" staves.
Apropos in Sir Apropos Of Nothing uses a number of weapons, but none so often as his staff, which he has because of a lame leg.
Mat Cauthon from the Wheel of Time books uses a staff as his favourite weapon, and is good enough with it that early in the series, he beat down two expert swordsmen in a demonstration bout. At once. While convalescing from a serious curse/illness. (The instructor of those swordsmen then reminded the class that the Wheel of Time's greatest swordsman in history was only ever beaten... by a farmer with a quarterstaff.)
Later on, he upgrades to a polearm, but is still prone to using the haft as a staff against multiple opponents.
That's exactly how one uses a polearm when not in formation.
Redwall: "Oh me liddle stick o' wood, me liddle stick o' wood/ Whacks here'n'there'n'everywhere, no weapon's half so good ..."
In Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle, an Irish Partisan defeats an English Noble in a duel, armed only with a staff. Afterwards, he advises his friend to "...get a bloody great piece of wood, and hit him over and over until he dies."
Neatly subverted in Spellsinger: Jon-Tom's weapon appears to be a simple staff until he presses a button on the top, at which point a foot-long blade shoots out of the other end.
In the Belisarius Series a new order of warrior monks is formed that uses quarterstaffs as their weapons. The reasons are mainly political. The order is to be used to fight in the streets of Alexandria against street gangs and religious fanatics. If they use swords then it will look like soldiers slaughtering unarmed civilians. However, if they use staffs then it is just another street brawl between club wielding religious factions which is a daily occurrence in Alexandria. When the riots begin, the street mobs are massacred by ranks of highly disciplined and highly trained staff wielders.
Harry from The Dresden Files carries one of these. The magical community views it as something akin to walking in with an M249. The nonmagical community views it as walking in a club. It's a great, versatile focus ... and when someone needs a thwacking, a staff does the job. If memory serves, he also used it to motorcycle-joust against a Limo. It was at least as awesome as you think it sounds.
The Blackstaff carries one of these. It has a bunch of magic imbued in it, though, and appears from hammerspace.
For a while, like lots of wizard tropes, it seemed that wizard staffs was played effectively straight, though not for the usual reasons. Then Elaine makes fun of Harry for having old-fashioned and phallic focii.
Subverted in The Lord of the Rings. Royal guards tell Gandalf that he must leave behind all weapons if he wishes to meet the king, but Gandalf counters, "You wouldn't deny an old man his walking stick, would you?". Of course, his walking stick is actually a Magic Staff, which he uses to break Gríma Wormtongue's spell over the king.
Though what he actually appears to do with it is to magically darken the room and simply knock Wormtongue out, so he can speak to the King directly. In the book, Théoden isn't under an actual magical spell, but simply under the thumb of a twisted advisor who exploits his fears and uses subtle poisons to make him feel weak and powerless.
For order-mages in the Recluce Saga, staves aren't simply the weapon of choice, they're pretty much the only possible weapon. Bladed implements like swords, knives and the like (basically, anything designed with death and destruction in mind) causes pain and discomfort in an order mage, since these things are linked with chaos magic. The staff is inherently non-lethal in nature, and can be used defensively more or less indefinitely. For this reason most order-mages wind up carrying a staff (or in one notable case, a truncheon). While the staff can be used to injure or kill as well (and does have the noted pain-inducing effects in the order-mage wielding it), it is not specifically designed for this purpose, and is thus comparatively safe to use, whereas some order-mages feel ill even just holding a sword.
The Rangers had the Minbari fighting pike for a primary melee weapon, which is essentially a collapsible staff that can extend so fast that one could be knocked out just by having an end of it hit you when telescoping.
In one first-season episode, a wandering monk in search of Holy Grail carries a staff and takes down a pair of muggers.
Ben from LOST prefers a telescopic baton (a homage to Y: The Last Man, whose writer also writes for Lost), but he's not above using a gun if it's handy.
In the Beastmaster series this is Dar's preferred weapon.
Andromeda featured the Force Lance. Among its many features, was the ability to expand into a full length staff.
Ryouga Hakua/AbaRed from Bakuryuu Sentai Abaranger has a staff with a Tyrannosaurus head, which not only functions as a staff, but the head can munch and eat his enemies. He's still a good guy though.
Averted in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Giles wants to train Buffy on the quarterstaff. Buffy is not impressed: "Giles, 20th Century? I'm not going to be fighting Friar Tuck." Giles insists, claiming that it will take "countless hours of rigorous training" to master. They face off and Buffy makes short work of Giles, knocking him flat on the ground.
Giles: [croaks] Good. Let's move on to the crossbow.
Older Than Print: If Robin Hood isn't shooting you, Little John is probably swinging one of these at you... In the very oldest Robin Hood ballads Robin and his men usually fight with swords. However, they do take up quarterstaffs before print.
Monks in the 3rd (and 3.5) Edition of Dungeons & Dragons were able to use their faster unarmed attack bonus with certain weapons like the quarterstaff.
Subverted in Basic Dungeons and Dragons, where the Magic-User is only permitted to use the dagger. This is only adjusted by House Rules or Rules Cyclopedia, where the magic user may use the staff - but since it is a two-handed weapon, they will lose initiative when casting spells (where taking damage causes the spell to fizzle.)
Just about every RPG, be it tabletop or online, have staffs as one of the most common weapons carried by spellcasters. In some games they count as Magic Wands, while in others they just give stat and damage boosts. Either way, staffs aren't usually very good melee weapons, although exceptions do exist.
In Werewolf The Apocalypse, the Children of Gaia had perfected a style of combat with a simple wooden staff that could knock out even a werewolf in a single strike.
The default Weapon of Choice for the default Protestant Blessed in Deadlands is a simple stick, always referred to as being made of hickory. For a game where customizing the Player Character with realistic equipment, strengths, and weaknesses was such a big draw, the repeated reference to whackin' the walkin' dead in the head with a Simple Staff got tiresome.
Breath Of Fire II has Katt, a staff-wielding Cute Bruiser who also ended up playing the Black Magician Girl — despite starting as a fighter, she expressed interest in learning magic... and towards the end of the game, she suddenly got some of the most powerful attack spells in the game and enough MP to use them.
The Mystic/Oracle Job in Final Fantasy Tactics mainly wields staffs, which are one of only three weapons providing a two square attack range, alongside the Dragoon's Polearms, and the Dancer's Carpet.
Poles show up in Final Fantasy XII, but calculate damage as the difference between the target's Magic Defense and the attacker's. As such, they are best used by characters whose gambits are set up around magic use.
Lezaford has this in his Final Fantasy Tactics A 2 artwork, while Montblanc has a more planty-decorated staff in his artwork.
The Dark Primary in Condemned favors one long staff used as a sword, and Dark Servitors prefer escrima sticks.
The later Wizardry games oddly feature both the bo and the quarterstaff-both have similar if not identical combat performance, but the bo can only be used by a very few classes such as the monk, while the quarterstaff is usable by pretty much anyone.
In the Doom-based game Heretic, the players Melee/Emergency weapon is a wooden staff.
Fatal Fury: Billy Kane and his three-sectioned cudgel-on-a-chain.
His sister, Lethal Joke Character Lilly uses an ancient staff weapon known as a "laundry pole" to fight. ...Or an actual laundry pole. Probably the latter.
The Warriors of the Order and the Mages in Risen use staffs as weapon, but Mages use them for defensive purpose only. Also, note that in this game spears are considered as staves.
In Halo, some of the Honor Guards are seen with staves, and in a cutscene they use them to beat down some Grunts that got to excited. Unfortunately, they're not used as weapons in actual gameplay.
Eagle from Street Fighter uses escrima sticks in battle, and got an expanded moveset for them once he migrated into Capcom vs. Whatever territory. Rolento also uses a stick, although it is more of a command baton rather than a weapon.
Ryu Hayabusa from Ninja Gaiden gets the Lunar staff in Black. Although less damaging than the Dragon Sword it is still reasonable powerful and has a large attack range and high speed making it one of the more potent weapons.
Dark Ageof Camelot has the Friar, a hybrid healer-tank which specializes in the use of the quarterstaff. They also wear armored monastic robes, leading them to usually be mistaken for a Squishy Wizard in PVP. Hilarity Ensues whenever a stealther tries to backstab one.
Quarterstaves are Jaheira's weapon of choice in Baldur's Gate. Due to the restrictions of her Fighter/Druid build, they are also some of the only weapons she can wield. Fortunately there are powerful staves in Shadows of Amn and an Infinity Plus One Staff in Throne of Baal.
Though it isn't until Dragon Age II that they get used for melee attacks.
Jade Empire features the staff as one of the weapon styles.
Predating the aforementioned Jade would be the Edenian warrior Jade from Mortal Kombat, who utilized a staff in a few of her attacks starting with ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 and later became her weapon fighting style in Deception.
Koei's various Warriors games have a number of characters that use staves as their weapon of choice. Of special note are Dynasty Warriors' Pang Tong who can momentarily surf on his staff through the air, and Warriors Orochi 2's Sun Wukong, who can annihilate anything within seconds with his at max level.
Zhou Yu switches to a bo staff in 6, followed by Yue Ying in 7.
A late-game boss in Bad Dudes fights using a pole. He is the epitome of Boring Yet Practical and When All You Have Is a Hammer in the game, as all other bosses have impressive, showy weapons, but he is the only one to use his weapon to keep distance from the player characters, among other techniques. As a result, he is surprisingly difficult to defeat even for his point in the game.
Fallout New Vegas has Old Glory, a flagpole tipped with a golden eagle. It's the signature weapon of Ulysses and is gained at the end of the Lonesome Road DLC.
In both Fallout 3 and Vegas, pool cues can be used as staff weapons.
Batman Arkham City DLC characters Robin and Nightwing use a collapsible bo staff and Escrima sticks, true to their comic book counterparts.
The weapon of choice for sorcerors and necromancers in Might And Magic VI-VIII, and by the end-game of VII for monks (monks primarily specialize in unarmed combat, but the final level of the staff skill, unique to monks, makes staves count as unarmed for the purposes of the unarmed skill...). Often magical, but not necessarily a Magic Staff (they have the exact same enchantments available as any weapon, though unique staves do tend to give boosts to magical power).
The new Robin, Tim Drake, uses a collapsible, sometimes electrified bo staff in Young Justice.
Richard Peeke, an English sailor captured by the Spaniards in the 17th century, was forced to fight 3 swordsmen with a quarterstaff. He killed one with his first blow and disarmed the other two.
Most martial artists will tell you that if they could only ever learn two weapons, those would be the knife and the common stick. While it may be unimpressive, it's effective and remains one of few things that might actually come to hand if you ever needed it in real life. (A broomstick, cane, curtain rod....) Good luck finding your pretty katana in a bar fight.
Bokken techniques would be better for the things mentioned above. Most common wooden things will more likely be closer to sword-length than full staff-length.
Traditionally, there is no difference between bokken techniques and quarterstaff techniques in principle- both are attempts to emulate a sword with a length of wood. The quarterstaff is wielded like a Zweihander.
Several fencing authors of the Early Modern era, including George Silver, considered the quarterstaff the most effective of all hand weapons.
The Irish have the shillelagh. No, not the silly stubby cudgel that gets passed off as such to tourists, an actual stick. Ostensibly used for a walking stick, at least where British nationals could hear it given the British ban on Irish having weapons in the earlier history of The Troubles, but there were several fighting styles developed using it as a weapon, with the "handle" end serving as an impromptu hammer if need be.
A standard-issue weapon for the Zulu Imperial Army was a staff with a wooden or metal head far smaller than that of a typical club, known to Westerners as a "knobkierie" (old Afrikaans for "walking stick with a knob on it"). It could be used as anything from a fighting staff to a light club and was famously effective as a secondary weapon to the assegai (stabbing spear). It is still used in Zulu cultural ceremonies, and to this day is a common melee weapon for home defense throughout almost all communities in South Africa. It is featured in the South African coat-of-arms.