All posts by Michael Schwarz

Q&A: A Knight’s Arms

I’m writing a book in a fantasy setting and my main character is a knight. His main weapon is a longsword, with a shortsword as a sidearm. Do you think he should carry a bow as well, or would that not make sense as that is what archers are for?

Normally, a longsword would be the sidearm. The shortsword, or long knife (the terms are analogous) would be a backup weapon. This is more or less how knives are used today. Their primary weapon would probably be a spear, or another polearm of some variety. That said, this is all very dependent on the culture you’re working from, so I’ll loop back to that in a minute.

Mounted archers certainly existed. They would act as skirmishers, harassing enemy infantry at close range, while staying out of melee. It’s a distinct combat role, and not something you’d normally associate with knights. (For reference, mounted archers aren’t the only form of skirmishers. Small squads of archers or even specialized infantry units performed the same role.)

Normally (at least in Europe) the role of the Knight was cavalry. These would be mounted units that charged into enemy infantry to disrupt their formations, then they would either break contact and repeat or they would remain in direct combat against the disrupted infantry.

While charging, cavalry benefits significantly from polearms, (particularly spears and lances.) After the charge, because of the ranges that combat will occur at, a soldier will be better served with a sword. They’ll be stuck in close quarters surrounded by enemy infantry. The horse is a critical part of their armaments, providing a serious advantage, but they’re still attacking people next to their boots. At that point, a sword is a much better tool than a spear.

It’s fairly plausible that your Knight would know how to use a bow, and had received rudimentary training on one, even if they weren’t a master marksman, and didn’t carry one normally. This isn’t so much an endorsement of the idea that they’d need to carry a bow, so much as the basic suggestion that, yeah, these options would be open to your character.

So, that’s reality (specifically historical Europe, where we usually draw the model of a knight from), but, you’re writing a fantasy setting and that may differ significantly from the real world.

When you strip out the specifics of the training, a Knight was an elite, specialized, combatant. Real Knights were trained to do some of the most difficult jobs in Medieval combat, and as a result required substantially more time to prepare. Knights were, in some ways, analogous to modern special forces. This means it’s better for you to tailor your knight’s weapons to the threats they face, rather than suggesting a basic set of gear and asking if that makes sense. It could.

So, if your fantasy setting is “basically Europe,” with the serial numbers filed off, then, yeah, a longsword, shield, spear, dagger, and possibly some kind of ranged weapon like a shortbow, would make sense for your character. Especially if they’re operating on their own or with a small group of other knights errant.

If your setting is swarming with monsters, then a heavier, or more versatile polearm, like a halbard, poleaxe, or voulge may be more useful. Additionally, a heavier bow, and more time spent honing their marksmanship, would be appropriate.

If your setting is densely mountainous, with no real opportunity to use a horse, where most encounters occur in very tight spaces, then you’d probably get more value from the sword than the spear.

A knight’s role in society, their armor, their weapons, even their training, are all part of the larger world that they inhabit. If your fantasy world starts to depart seriously from the real one, you might want to go back and consider what else would change.

For example: if your setting is a volcanic archipelago, with tiny coastal enclaves on the islands, then that world’s knights would need to be equipped for travel by sea, and combat aboard ships. So, lighter armors would be far more useful. Swords (assuming there were sources of iron), would still make sense as a weapon choice, but aboard ship, you wouldn’t have room for polearms. Those might be used during amphibious assaults, however. Your knights would probably still benefit from some kind of ranged weapons, though at that point, thrown options would be better (salt water is not kind to bows, and you never want to get your bow wet.)

So, do your choices sound reasonable? Yeah, they might, if they fit with the world you’re creating.

-Starke

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Q&A: Longswords

Sorry for the stupid question, but what actually is a longsword? Is it a sword intended for 2 handed use but can be used with 1? Most rpg games have longswords classified as 1 handed weapons, but from what i’ve read on the internet a longsword is supposed to be mainly 2 handed.

That’s not a stupid question, it’s reasonable confusion based on some idiosyncratic classifications created centuries after the weapons saw use. The very simple answer is, the longsword was “a sword.” Most of the specialized names for swords, particularly anything ending in “sword,” is probably a modern classification which doesn’t fully reflect the weapon in question.

Historically you wouldn’t have described your weapon as a longsword, it would have simply been your sword. A lot of the modern terms like longsword, shortsword, bastardsword, greatsword, broadsword, arming sword, and so on are exactly that: modern. Many of these terms only date back to the 19th century, when antiquarians were attempting to classify swords into very specific categories.

In some cases, these categories accurately reflect weapons that existed, and can give you a quick shorthand to understand what the weapon was, and how you used it. For example, “shortsword” and “greatsword” are useful terms. They describe distinct classes of swords that existed historically. That said, the edges are a bit, “fuzzy.” For example, determining when a knife becomes a shortsword isn’t an exact science. There’s no specific length where you can say, “nope, no longer a knife, now it’s a shortsword.” How the weapon was used can help to inform what you want to call it, but these are not hard and fast rules. Your shortsword may be a long knife to someone else.

To expand on this, something like an executioner’s sword is a useful name, because it refers to the function of the weapon, and it has a distinct stylistic element that makes it easy to identify and distinguish (in this case, a flat end instead of a sharpened tip.) There are also plenty of weapons that incorporate distinct elements which make them unique. Another example would be the estoc, which has a mostly unsharpened blade, but boasts a very sharp tip, primarily for piercing the joints of plate armor.

So, there’s three specific examples I should probably expand a bit, because you’ll run across them all the time in RPGs and other media, the Longsword (which you asked about), the bastard sword (which you asked about incidentally) and the greatsword.

A longsword can be anything from a Viking era iron blade, up through to some small two-handers. Usually defined as having a straight blade, these cover dozens of distinct sword designs, which popped up in Europe over nearly a millennia. Because the term is so diverse, there’s really no one “true” longsword, even in popular media. Even within a single game you may see weapons ranging from 8th century one-handed swords next to 15th century two-handed longswords. Usually games will present these as weapons you can wield one-handed, though even this is a bit misleading as most greatswords can be wielded with one hand, at the cost of some finesse and efficiency.

Bastard Swords are… something. There’s no certainty on what the term meant historically, and unlike some other names kicking around, bastard sword was a historical term. The modern meaning of a bastard sword is (usually) a longsword blade with a greatsword grip. That’s, basically, fantasy. Swords like that did exist, but they weren’t considered a unique class of blades until the 19th century.

Greatswords are a modern weapon (though, in this case I do mean early modern, so 15th to 16th century.) The actual names vary by culture of origin. There’s something of a theme here, with most cultures naming their greatswords some variation of “big” or “large” and “sword.” The German Zweihander is a minor departure, as that simply means, “two hands.” While I’m not completely certain, I think the term “greatsword” comes from the translation of Claymore. (Specifically from the Gaelic claidheamh mor.) Historically, the greatsword fell out of use as European armies transitioned to longer polearms, and by the 17th century, firearms were becoming an increasingly important part of warfare, so these enjoyed a brief moment before disappearing.

It’s probably also worth remembering that swords are very light weight. A 4lb longsword would be heavy, most ran 2 to 3lbs. With two-handers the norm was slightly under 8lbs. Substantial for a weapon, but not heavy to the point that you’d be unable to lift it with ease. Real world swords have (basically) never been about overall weight, so much as finesse. This is part of why I said earlier that you can wield a greatsword with one hand. It wouldn’t be as effective, but you could still maneuver the blade. The entire point was to open your opponent up, usually by finding vulnerable points and then exploiting those. This is part of why Europe transitioned to lighter, faster, blades, which could get in and out quickly. It’s also why weapons like the Estoc existed at all. Allowing the user far more control when they drove the tip through a joint in their foe’s armor.

Most swords can be used two handed. Even if your off hand won’t fit on the hilt, you can use your fingers to help control and direct your strikes. Even with larger swords like the zweihander, your off hand isn’t there to provide more strength, you use it to stabilize and guide your attacks.

A lot of games use longswords as one handed weapons because it’s easier and simpler. It provides the player with a clear delineation between that weapon and a two handed weapon class. You know, when you find one, what it will do and how you can use it. This is further reinforced in many video games, where you would need separate animation sets for wielding the weapon one handed vs two. In cases like this, there’s a real incentive to lock it into one mode and leave it there, especially if a two handed weapon class already exists.

So, the short answer would be: It’s a sword.

-Starke

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Q&A: Demon Hunting in Urban Fantasy

I had an idea for an Urban Fantasy setting where a group of humans are covertly fighting demons. I wanted to have the humans stick to swords and bows/crossbows and that sort of thing while the demons rely on their natural abilities. My excuse for no guns is that demons aren’t affected by mundane weapons and have to be killed with special enchanted weapons, with bullets being to small to properly enchant. Is that a good enough reason or should I go back to the drawing board?

This may sound like a nitpick, but it’s not an excuse; it’s how you’ve designed your setting. That is a legitimate rationale, and in the grand scheme of things word choice like that can affect how you view your own work.

The important thing to remember is that guns are not the right tool for all situations, even in the real world. They’re noisy, expensive, leave lots of evidence around when used, and are the first thing any security checkpoint will look for. Even if guns do work, they’re not going to solve all your character’s problems.

Guns exist, and people take precautions to deal with that.

If you have a setting where magic and enchantments exist, people would take precautions to deal with those as well.

So, let’s talk about Urban Fantasy as a genre for a moment, and work through the basic idea.

Urban fantasy is, by design, the modern world with fantasy elements. That means you’re still dealing with all of the trappings of the modern world, mixed in with other things. Cops still carry firearms and have a shotgun in their car. Every other idiot is carrying a smartphone which can upload video of that inexplicable thing they’re seeing to Youtube faster than you can summon John Cleese to plug the Spanish Inquisition sketch, and Google will happily provide you with a wealth of information on the supernatural, most of it bogus from lonely teenagers in the Midwest who, “had a weird experience last night.”

Like any fantasy genre, there is a lot of leeway, when you’re setting the ground rules. Your characters could come from backgrounds that would seem entirely plausible in the real world. For example: a real estate agent, a waitress, and an auto mechanic hunting the monsters who tore their lives apart. They could be something more fantastic, like an elite CDC unit tasked with identifying and eliminating supernatural monsters that can infect and turn normal humans. They could be part of that world, and are members of an ancient conspiracy who secretly rule the world. Who your characters are does a lot to define what kind of tools your characters can get their hands on, what kinds of options they’ll consider.

There’s a second problem here, “demons,” aren’t a specific supernatural creature. So, as a result, it’s a little tricky to say exactly how well your approach would fare. We occasionally run into this problem when we’re talking about vampires, and even werewolves. However, with demons specifically, but the entire concept is very vague in the real world realm of religion, mythology, folklore and metaphysics.

There lots of creatures which fall under this specific header. Depending on your perspective, a demon could be anything from a small extra-dimensional scavenger who could be put down with basic weapons, to a literal fallen angel, who personally participated in the creation of the universe and has enormous power over fundamental forces like the gravity or molecular motion. A monster who can, literally, strip the electrons from your body on a whim, reducing you to a whiff of smoke. Going after a low grade scavenger isn’t necessarily safe, but it’s manageable. You’re not going to take on a primordial universal force escaped from the original prison with a glorified sword. You could, but it won’t end well. Trying would be an insult to the creature, and to you.

This is also ignoring one of the more horrific demonic varieties in fiction: the possessing spirit. This flavor of demon isn’t a physical foe your characters can fight, it hijacks hosts, riding around, taking control of them, and switching out when it’s achieved its goals. With something like this violence won’t get the job done. You can’t kill it, you can’t even harm it. If you managed to, it’d just jump to a new host, maybe one of your hunters. There’s even intermediate ranges where your demon may compel or thrall other normal humans to use as shock troops. Or the demon has set up cults, and there’s no compulsion involved at all. The humans will just try to kill you.

Some demons are in a category equivalent to the forces of nature. You don’t attempt to take out a hurricane with a .45, mystical or otherwise. Some writers will, but doing so undercuts all the work they did to make this creature scary in the first place and killed their tension in the process.

It’s very difficult to pin down what your demons may be after, which will give you some insight into how to stop them. There’s a lot of possibilities, ranging from retribution against mankind for some biblical grievance, to exiles simply trying to survive in a hostile universe, looking for someplace to call their own. These goals scale with what your demons are capable of. Somewhat obviously, a fallen angel who would bend a modern city to their will or obliterate all life on the planet on a whim probably won’t be scrabbling around in the gutters where your characters could take them out.

So, which demons do you have?

The Buffy the Vampire kind, which are campy monsters of the week who regularly get kicked off balconies until we’re reminded they can occasionally be frightening. The little imps from The Darkness who’ll rip off faces when they’re not busy trying to give themselves nose rings with that .45. Fallen spirits back from Hell that are just glorified ghosts like the kind seen in Supernatural, many of whose hosts have been murdered by the Winchesters. The much more dangerous variants like those seen in The Exorcist and other horror movies. The demons from Demon the Fallen, a playable RPG characters who can at their base mess with the laws of physics. The mass of conflicting creatures from folklore you can find in Leonard R. Ashley’s Complete Book of Demons and Devils which is just a catalogue of encounters.

Demons says exactly nothing. Every person who reads your story will come to it with their own understanding, and if you don’t specify that is the one they’ll continue to carry with them. It is your responsibility to clearly define your creatures and the rules, especially for yourself. In fantasy, those rules are your lifeline because they’re the only way anyone other than you can tell what’s going on. The audience doesn’t need all the answers, but you need to be consistent.

A lot of this comes down to world building. There are reasons for a character to carry a sword in Urban Fantasy. For example, it could be a mythical artifact like Excalibur or or it may be a celestial weapon, like Michael or Azarael’s blades (the Catholic angels of death, if you’re wondering.) At that point it’s probably worth pinning down exactly what the enchantment is. A sword that protects the wielder from possession would be very useful against a body hopping demon even if actually killing the creature wasn’t a viable option.

Taking a sword against a monster who is significantly faster and stronger than a normal human is not going to end well. Not well at all. This is like saying you’re going to go hunting a bull African elephant solo with nothing but a spear. That may sound badass on the surface, but you’re going to wind up very dead in short order. Just ask a hunter what its like to hunt for cougars without dogs. You can’t find them. They can, however, find you. The raccoon and the possum can give you rabies, and if you’ve ever heard stories about close encounters then you’ll be glad you never did. Human is not on the menu for them unless they act in self-defense, the same is not true when it comes to monsters.

The monster is giving up nothing to fight your character, they have no handicap in the violence department. They’re perfectly built for killing. This includes the most urbane of demons.  Their nature is not that of a human. In a dark back alley, they have the advantage. They’re creatures of horror built to prey on mankind.

They hunt you.

At that point guns might still be the wrong tool for the job, but it would be in your characters’ best interest to identify tools to deal with the threats they’re facing. Those may not be technological. It could be tactics or magical innovation. Most importantly, remember, violence isn’t always a viable response. Even for monster hunters.

Taking the every problem is a nail approach and using violence when it isn’t sensible undercuts your story, especially a story based in fantasy. For a monster hunter narrative to be successful, the monsters are required to be viable antagonists. Remember, the terminology for demons has its basis in horror both as a genre and in folklore. In a fictional sense, they exist to teach necessary lessons and impart wisdom through the failures of the characters in the narrative. You’re not supposed to mindlessly fight them off, because in some situations violence is doomed to failure or certain types of violence are due to failure. You’re supposed to be clever and realize every situation must be approached in a unique fashion, that brains are needed as well as brawn.

In Christian mythology, demons are outwitted with wits and cleverness. Those who face them with brute force are the ones who die. The purpose of these parables is to teach the listener to think in new directions, to approach dangerous situations with sense, to pay attention, and to gain insight into what is occurring before them. Learning that every problem cannot be solved with a hammer is the literary purpose a demon historically serves. That, and a test of faith. One you survive by enduring and staying the course against temptation.

What are these demons doing for your narrative?

What purpose are they serving in pushing your characters toward development?

These are two questions far more necessary than how one wields a crossbow or a sword. And if you can’t answer them, then you’ve got a myriad more problems than a lack of understanding in the violence department.

-Starke

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A few viewing and reading recommendations:

The Ninth Gate (2000): Superficially this might not seem to be a film about hunting monsters at all. (It’s not, exactly.) It’s about a rare book dealer (Johnny Depp) hunting down books supposedly written by the Devil.

Fallen (1998): A homicide detective (Denzel Washington) tracking a serial killer finds himself dealing with a body hopping demon.

The Last Wish (Andrzej Sapkowski): Not technically Urban Fantasy, nor about demons, Sapkowski’s Geralt of Rivia is an excellent examination of the limitations of violence for a monster hunter. Sword of Destiny is arguably a better example, but both are easy to recommend. (Incidentally, Sword of Destiny is the second Witcher anthology chronologically, I’m not sure what the Book 4 bit is about on Amazon.)

I think I’ve recommended Ultraviolet recently, but it’s still an excellent series. This was a fantastic British TV series about vampire hunters. No demons, but if you’re having trouble adapting classic monsters to the modern era, this should give you some ideas to kick around. (Jack Davenport, Idris Elba, and Suzannah Harker.)

Demon: The Fallen: Part of White Wolf’s World of Darkness, Demon was a late addition, and is somewhat hard to come by now. The game focused on demons who’d participated in a war against Heaven, had been imprisoned in hell and were just starting to escape back to Earth as the end of days started revving up. Probably useful for its own (extensive) lit review for suggested media at the beginning. Hunter: The Reckoning from the same setting may also be worth a look for ideas when it comes to street level monster hunters and the challenges they face.

Fair warning: The World of Darkness was bleak as hell, but it is probably still be worth a look, as there’s a lot of very good concept work baked in.

The Complete Book of Demons and Devils by Leonard R. Ashley – I like Leonard Ashley’s collection because they’re just lists of history and folklore including events attributed to the supernatural that did occur or were said to have occurred by people in history. Its a great resource for getting your boots on the ground for the breadth of mythology, and finding weird trivia you can dig into further for inspiration. If anyone writes Urban Fantasy, Paranormal, or any fiction based in the supernatural then I recommend checking out his books. This is a great way to figure out the phenomena people throughout history and all thought were related to the demonic. Some of these sources involve very mortal people who were very evil, and others not so much. Helpful in either case.

Q&A: Bloodborne’s Rakuyo

Quick question- was the Rakuyo from Bloodborne modeled after a real life weapon? I’ve seen similar designs in other things. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s pretty much a sword, with a partially hollow hilt that you can attach/detach another knife in.

The blade itself is based off of a Japanese military sabre. To be clear, I’m talking about the primary blade, not the detachable dagger. The second detachable blade is something of From’s own creation (or it’s a Berserk reference.) The second blade may be based off a 19th century Japanese bayonet, but that’s mostly an educated guess.

Spiked pommels are quite real. When fighting in quarters too close to strike with a sword, bringing your pommel down on your foe’s face is a valid tactic, and spiked pommels build off this idea. I can’t remember seeing a full dagger attached to a pommel before, but the idea isn’t particularly strange.

As a detachable weapon? Not that I’ve ever seen. In general, Bloodborne‘s weapons are implausibly complex, to the point that most simply wouldn’t function in the real world. There are a few exceptions: While real Pallasches didn’t incorporate firearms, combining a single shot firearm onto a sword wasn’t, completely, unheard of in the 17th and 18th centuries (which is when the Pallasch dates to.)

The “least” realistic trick weapons in Bloodborne tend to be the ones that are articulated or include detachable components. Things like the Threaded Cane, the Kirkhammer, Ludwig’s Holy Blade, or the Blade of Mercy, would all be grossly impractical or impossible to produce. The guys at Baltimore Knife and Sword made a replica of the Saw Cleaver, which illustrates a lot of the engineering challenges inherent in trying to replicate Bloodborne‘s weapons. You can find the youtube video here.

The game is a, literally, a nightmare, as the various characters attempt to deal with elder cosmic gods, of the Lovecraft variety, so the fantastical elements blended into the gothic art style do serve a legitimate purpose. The melee weapons are, without exception, an extension of this concept. They’re twisted, vicious, creations, designed to tear people (and monsters) apart in singularly unpleasant ways. That many of these same weapons are wielded against you by bosses and other hunters just cements the horror.

That said, the idea that someone would have taken a Japanese Guntō and attached a bayonet in a reverse grip isn’t completely insane, while the bayonet’s locking lugs could still allow a quick release option, converting the weapon back into two distinct pieces. I mean, it’s possible, and in comparison to some of the other weapons in Bloodborne, it’s almost plausible. Would it work? Probably not. I doubt it would hold up in combat. But, this would be relatively easy to rig up as a display piece.

So, the short version is, you could make one you’d use for cosplay, but making one that would actually work as a combat weapon is a lot more questionable.

-Starke

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Q&A: Mercenaries

What exactly is a mercenary? My belief was that it was a soldier/fighter/warrior fighting in a political conflict with a personal interest (such as money to be gained). But many video games and random stories portrait them as random soldiers who fight in any conflict as long as the pay is good; political affiliation or not. Basically a jack of all trades sort of person. If I’m not making a lot of sense it’s because I’m confused myself. Sorry and thanks in advance!

A mercenary is just a soldier for hire. Usually this was entire companies of soldiers who were hired as a unit, but the basic idea is there. The term itself is pejorative, and gets applied in a wider range of circumstances as an insult. Someone who acts for money without regard to their own loyalty or ethics may be described as being mercenary. (The word itself can be used as either a noun or adjective depending on context, though the general meaning remains the same.)

Historically, mercenaries tended to be better trained than conventional standing forces. The thought process here is that maintaining a standing army in medieval Europe was fairly expensive, so you’d maintain a small force (if any), and then press or draft peasant infantry into service when the time came. Within this context, a mercenary company, who’d accumulated years of combat experience would be a significantly more effective force.

Mercenaries could have a unified national identity, and in some cases may even be hired out by their government directly, or they could be an ad hoc band of soldiers, gathered indiscriminately in their travels.

Under international law, there are a few wrinkles to defining when someone is, legally, a mercenary. They need to be hired by a nation to fight for it, and they cannot be from that nation. This only becomes relevant when dealing with situations like war crimes, or treatment of prisoners. This means that private soldiers hired by a corporation aren’t technically mercenaries under the legal definition, even though they’re still called that. This also means when a nation hires private soldiers from their own population, those soldiers aren’t, legally, mercenaries. There’s a pretty solid argument that domestic PMCs (Private Military Companies) should be legally classified as mercenaries, but the practice’s rise is very recent.

I mentioned the term is pejorative, this is in large part because mercenaries fought for coin, rather than out of patriotic duty or loyalty. As a result they’re viewed as dishonorable and untrustworthy. There may be some basis to this, but it’s also why the term has a more generalized meaning. Someone who puts their pay above their principles may be described as mercenary. For example, a political operative with no loyalty to their ideological beliefs could be described as “mercenary,” even though that’s clearly not the traditional meaning of the term. Another possible example would be a character who would willingly sell out their friends for a bounty. Again, not a soldier for hire, but simply amoral behavior in pursuit of cash.

-Starke

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Q&A: Swords

Can a sword cut through steel bars, or is that fantasy? Also, how much space is needed to use a sword correctly and is there a lot of difference between say, the space needed to use a long sword as opposed to a short sword? I’m guessing an enclosed space the size of a closet would suck. I’ve tried searching through your tags for an answer to this but didn’t find it.

For the first question, the short answer is no. There’s a full discussion to be had on metal hardness

As I said, there are a lot of relevant factors here as well, such as how easily the object will bend out of the way, but when you’re talking about trying to cut your way through a bar of metal, you’re going to need a lot more than just, “a sword.”

I should probably add, you also don’t simply hack through metal armor with a sword. It doesn’t matter how sharp the blade was when you started out, that kind of brute force will wreck the weapon. Instead, you’re looking for openings, which are necessary to allow the user to move.

This still applies for cutting through bars. While the bars and sword may have similar hardness as materials, the blade’s edge will be more fragile, and any attempt to simply hack your way through won’t end well for the sword.

When it comes to simply hacking through objects, you’re better off with an axe. Those are designed to deliver a lot of blunt force along the edge. You still shouldn’t expect much from taking a steel axe to steel bars, but it is better suited for that kind of abuse.

Now, if you’re using some kind of fantasy weapon, like an impossible blade that breaks down anything it connects with on a molecular level, like Warhammer 40k’s power weapons, or a lightsaber, then steel bars aren’t going to pose much of an obstacle. However, in cases like that, you’re not really concerned with how sharp it is.

Okay, back to the second question. There isn’t a concrete answer, because it will be determined by the sword and the techniques your character’s been trained in. It is entirely possible to use swords, even fairly large ones like the zweihander, in fairly tight quarters.

For a lot of European sword combat, the tip of the blade is the most important point of contact, so you’re more interested in linear thrusting strikes, rather than large slashing patterns.

Even when you are whipping the blade around, there’s still a major focus on being efficient with your motion (at least in most of the surviving schools of thought). There are still a few surviving manuscripts and approaches which focus on wider arcing strikes, which would require more space.

Remember, one major use for swords in Europe was in tight quarters while assaulting castles and fortresses. If the sword couldn’t be used in close, it wouldn’t have remained in use for long. This does mean that, sometimes, you need to get creative. There are a number of grips where you’ll control a sword with one hand on the blade (called half-handing, or half-swording), and others where you’ll strike someone with the pommel, which can be executed at much closer ranges.

With very few exceptions, you don’t wave your sword around in large telegraphed strikes unless you need to. It may look cool, but it’s far easier to defend against. Just like in hand-to-hand, exposing your movements to your opponent is something you want to avoid whenever possible. Keeping movement inside your silhouette makes it harder to track. With that said, the circular sword styles you’ll see in something like The Witcher 3 do have a basis in history, and those can work, for a trained practitioner on open ground.

Historically speaking, shortswords weren’t really a thing, sort of. Bladed weapons in the range of 12 to 24 inches existed, were, and are, real, but, like the greatsword or bastard sword the term is almost certainly modern.

Depending on the era, a shortsword would either be a sword, or a variant of knife. This has to do with the overall technological development. The Roman Gladius was a sword, but, turn the clock forward 1500 years, and a similar weapon would have been a knife or bayonet.

If it’s a sword, it’s probably a sidearm. An early iron era soldier would probably carry a spear or some other polearm as their primary weapon, with a backup sword if their primary weapon was lost or destroyed.

If it’s a knife, it’s probably a backup sidearm. An early modern solder, or even a soldier today, will likely carry a knife as an emergency backup should their primary weapon and sidearm fail, or if they need to use it in very tight quarters. For example, if a soldier was tackled to the ground, stabbing their opponent with a knife would be a legitimate option.

It’s probably worth mentioning, a smallsword is actually a rapier, epee, or another sword with a similar long, slender, blade. The name referred the weight of the blade, rather than it’s length.

Sideswords are another descriptive variation. These were longswords specifically intended for use as sidearms. Depending on the individual blade’s country of origin, these could also be a smallswords. They’re not so much a distinct kind of weapon, as a distinct use for one.

There’s an entire discussion to be had on how modern sword names actually make things more complicated than they need to be. The abbreviated version is: A lot of descriptive sword names come from the 18th or 19th century. They classify a lot of  blades idiosyncratically. It’s where we get the modern meaning for terms like long sword, bastard sword, or short sword. Historically you would not have had “a short sword,” it would have simply been, “a sword,” or, “a knife.” There are a few more egregious examples, like the broadsword, which was never used historically. And, as I’ve mentioned, the term “bastard sword,” isn’t new, but on one knows what these referred to historically. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use those terms, just understand, most never really meant anything, historically.

So, in spite of not being a thing, short swords, or long knives, or bayonets, had a role as an emergency backup weapon. That, really hasn’t changed. The way you’d use a combat knife today is fairly similar to what they would have been used for eight-hundred years ago.

-Starke

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Q&A: Shotguns

You talk very often about shotguns and seem to have them in a high esteem. Could you, perhaps, tell us some more about what’s so great about them, what meaningful differences can there be between models and how to make sure the OC will use them to their fullest effect? I’m from a country without easy access to weaponry, so my knowledge is not too good.

There’s a kind of weird irony here. Generally speaking, I’m not a particular fan of shotguns. However, we do get a lot of questions that slot, pretty directly, into the kinds of situations where they excel.

If your character needs to put “weird” things down a gun barrel, then a shotgun is going to be the easy answer. These things will spit out nearly anything you can crimp into a shell.

For mundane uses, this includes things like conventional shot loads or solid slugs. On the more exotic end, this can include things like less than lethal rounds like beanbags or riot slugs. Those will hurt, but they should keep the target breathing (usually), and commercial payloads that can get downright weird, like Dragons Breath (again, highly reactive metal shrapnel which will ignite on contact with the atmosphere), TAZER slugs, or even flaregun shells. This is before you get into the utterly bizarre stuff that people will hand load into one and fire. Spend some time on YouTube, and you’ll see people making and firing shotgun shells loaded with ceramic magnets, silly putty, stacks of coins, glass, whatever they can think up and fit in a shotgun.

So, when someone says they need to decapitate a monster, the first thing that came to mind were bolo shells, which fall under commercial payloads. This expands further when you’re writing with monsters that require specific methods to dispatch. Granted, the idea of someone putting down a vampire with a copper clad wooden slug is a lot less horrifying than if your characters need to administer a stake directly, but it’s is a safer option.

The other situation where shotguns excel is when you have an inexperienced shooter.

So, when you’re talking about something like home defense, a problem with handguns (which I prefer), rifles, and most firearms is overpenetration. You put a bullet into someone who’s trying to kill you, and the bullet usually doesn’t stop there. It will punch through the person your shooting, go out your wall, through your neighbor’s wall, and maybe come to rest in someone’s engine block, concrete, or the ground. Before someone gets defensive about this, this is more of a problem with rifles than handguns, and it is an issue for shotguns. But, the background of where you’re putting a round is very important.

Pull a handgun in an apartment and fire at an intruder and your rounds could very easily kill your neighbor. With something like an AR15, you need to worry about your background out to around 200 to 300 meters. That bullet will not stop until it makes friends with something solid.

So, as I said, this is a consideration with shotguns. Buckshot won’t be deterred by your couch or some plywood, however, for the amount of damage they can inflict, shotguns are remarkably low power weapons.

Shotguns rely on delivering most of their payload into the intended target. Stray balls of shot are still dangerous, but they’re far less dangerous than putting a bullet somewhere over the rainbow and hoping for the best.

Shotguns do not spray pellets everywhere. They do eject shot in a cone, but it’s a fairly narrow one. This means that even if the shooter miscalculates they have a better chance of downing an attacker than if they were using a slug based firearm. Most hunting shotguns will have a 40 inch spread pattern at 35 meters. (To be fair, this is highly adjustable using chokes, so the user can configure their spread to fit their preferences.) If you’re in the same room as your target, you’re not going to see a lot of missed pellets.

Another factor is that shotguns have unusually light recoil. This makes them much easier to operate and control for inexperienced users.

When it comes to selecting the right shotgun, they’re fairly forgiving. A basic pump action will get the job done pretty reliably. In some cases, with exotic shells, a pump will actually outperform a semi-auto variant. Full auto shotguns exist, but are fairly rare, and again will have issues on non-standard ammo types. For example, loading Dragons Breath into a semi-auto or full auto shotgun will require the operator to manually cycle the bolt after each round.

If you’re looking for a simple, straightforward shotgun to give a character, something like a Remington 870, Winchester 1300, Mossberg 500, or any number of simple pump action shotguns will get the job done. (All of the above are used by military and law enforcement agencies. ) The basic pump design has been around for over a century at this point, and there are a lot of functional examples in existence.

So the short version is, I’m not a particularly big fan of shotguns, but sometimes they really are the right tool for the job.

-Starke

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Q&A: Monster Hunting

If beheading was the surefire way to kill a monster (say, a vampire or a changeling) what kind of weapon would be preferable in a modern setting? I was thinking of something like an axe or a tomahawk, but would they be better than, say, a short sword?

In a modern setting? My first thought would be a 12 Gauge bolo shell. These are a pair of 12-15mm slugs connected by a metal wire. When fired, the slugs will begin orbiting one another, and the resulting projectile will cut through soft objects, like small trees, trash cans, car doors, and human bodies with relative ease.

There’s a simple problem here. If your monsters are superhuman, going into melee with them is a death sentence for an unmodified human. This is especially true if your monsters are significantly faster than normal, though superhuman strength that allows them to simply rip limbs off will quickly disarm your swordsman, no matter how good they are.

“Safely” dealing with monsters requires that you step back, evaluate your options, and pick the best tools for the job. With rare exceptions, that’s not going to be a sword. They may use a fireaxe to finish the job on a downed monster, but putting those things down will be much safer at range.

If your monster hunters have access to military grade hardware (and can use them without drawing heavy police scrutiny), then an excellent option would be FRAG-12 shells. These are a grenade round designed to load into a 12 gauge shotgun, and should be able to spread your unsuspecting vampire all over the walls.

If your monsters have particular weaknesses, then finding a way to deliver those at range will be far safer. For example: silver bullets are a real thing. They don’t make for fantastic rifle rounds, because the weight is lower than lead, impairing the ballistics, but if you need silver to get the job done, a handgun is a legitimate option.

Explosive and incendiary options can be delivered precisely, and at range. This can be anything from a Dragon’s Breath shotgun shell, which ejects flaming metals (specifically, highly reactive metals which ignite on contact with the atmosphere), or flare shells, to home-made explosive handgun rounds. (For example: Adding a fulminated mercury payload to a hollow-point round, which is an incredibly dangerous, but quite real, option.)

Hell, against a monster that’s unusually light sensitive, just chucking a flash bang in could seriously mess them up.

So far as it goes, a simple 12 gauge pump action shotgun, may be able to down a monster, giving your characters time to take its head off. Though, that is an inherently risky strategy, because they don’t know exactly how long it will stay down, and will need to get within arm’s reach.

There’s a slight difference here, between monsters and normal opponents: Humans, when presented with gunfire, will die. Monsters, particularly something that’s undead, may not. The basic idea behind a bullet is you’ll poke holes in something and let it bleed to death. If they thing you’re shooting can’t die from bleeding, there’s a real possibility that shooting them won’t get the job done. Makes sense. Except, that’s not the same thing as being immune to gunfire. A bullet that strikes bone will still break it. Shooting a vampire in the head may not kill it, but hosing one down with automatic rifle fire should still mess it up enough to put it down, at least for a few minutes (if not longer).

Incidentally, if you’re working with the idea of monsters that are, literally, fast enough to dodge bullets, long range rifle fire is your friend. Firing at ranges where the sound will not reach your monster before the bullet means they won’t know to dodge it. For example: A .50 HEAP round should be able to debone your monster from the next zip code over. Again, as above, this is military hardware, and the original intent for HEAP rounds were disabling vehicles and aircraft, but vampires are generally a lot less threatening when they’ve already been disassembled for easy storage.

As I mentioned earlier, for decapitation of a downed opponent in a modern setting, my money’s on a fire axe.  It’s nice, large, heavy enough to get the job done, and common enough that your characters could potentially grab one on the scene. If your characters aren’t squeamish, a sledgehammer to the skull may also finish the job (depending on your monster).

So, I’ve been talking about high end hardware, for the most part. If your monster hunters have the backing of some group that can kit them out. If your characters are just people off the street, faced with monsters, and have no protections, things can get a lot dicier. Dealing with cosmic horror, when you can potentially call in an air strike, is a lot less threatening, than when you’re dealing with the idea that your neighbor has come back from the grave, and is preying on your family.

If your setting is one where your monster hunters are just, “normal,” people, then picking your tools becomes more important, but you also have way less options, and anything they do will draw police attention. Luring a monster into an abandoned building, and setting fire to the place may kill it, but that’s also a good way to get arrested. Meanwhile, things like HEAP rounds, FRAG-12s, and FNX-45s loaded with Silver Bullets are way outside your budget.

If that’s the situation your characters are in, things like fire axes, or maybe an old 1911 are options, but if your characters have normal considerations, spending $30 a round, to load that .45 with silver is probably not a realistic option.

For writing this kind of desperate, street level monster hunter, one of my favorite reference sources is still Hunter: The Reckoning. There’s also some good advice on story-building mixed in, and the old World of Darkness remains an excellent urban fantasy setting, with a lot of moving pieces.

For government funded monster hunters (specifically vampires), Ultraviolet (the British TV series, unrelated to the 2006 American film of the same name) is an excellent examination of how modern technology can intersect with the supernatural. (Also, the first place I ran across Idris Elba.)

Regardless your approach, the best options for dealing with monsters in a modern setting are going to be getting creative with modern technologies. This may be as simple as tazering a werewolf, or chucking Molotov cocktails at a vampire.

-Starke

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Q&A: Guns and Magic

In the story I’m writing, the overall feel of the setting is mid/early 1800s, technology-wise. There’s magic, and given the time period I’m having trouble justifying there not being guns, but I’m not sure how to have them present in the story without ‘just shoot the wizard’ killing the tension. My initial thought was to make them less advanced than guns were at the time, and expensive enough that they would be less common, but I’m not sure how believable that would be. Do you have any advice?

Well, one problem with simply shooting the wizard is being able to actually put a bullet where you want it. The 19th century covered a lot of technological development. When the century began, smooth-bore single shot, firearms were still the norm (though rifles did exist). While firearms did get steadily more accurate over time, flintlock muskets are not an example of that. Additionally, any missed shot means your character will be facing a long reload before they can fire again.

There’s also a lot of considerations with magic that can make firearms as much of a detriment as an advantage. First, gunpowder is exceptionally flammable. If your characters are using firearms, they’re carrying around a supply of improvised explosives, that a pyromancer could use to kill them on the spot.

If you have mages that can manipulate metals, then that’s a pretty serious threat for anyone trying to use a gun. (Or metal weapons and armor, for that matter.)

If your magic interacts with the physical world (which, honestly, magic in most settings does), guns are going to be physical objects, subject to magic in one form or another. You don’t need to fully remove them from the setting, but simply understanding this can give you options which can make firearms another tool, and challenge, for your characters to work around.

A lot of the fantasy genre today draws heavily from Tolkien’s work. He defined the genre, and his setting has become the base most writers work from. To the point that the phrase, “standard fantasy setting,” has inherent meaning. Modifying off of that template offers you opportunities to discuss things, or evaluate concepts, that you simply can’t otherwise use.

Modifying a fantasy setting with a specific technological threshold opens up a lot of technology you otherwise wouldn’t have. If you want a standard fantasy setting in the 1890s, you’re opening the door to things like revolvers, steam engines, trains, telegrams, photographs, electricity, and “all the wonders of the modern world.” That’s kind of the point.

Once you’ve done that, the best route is to ask yourself, “what would magic do to this technology?” For example: “how would magic have affected the creation of the telegram?” If your setting is one where magic allows for instant telepathic communication, then the telegraph is redundant. You could already go to a mage, and pay them to relay your message. But, that’s not quite the same thing, is it? It could be open to manipulation, or surveillance. Business interests who operate networks of telepath mages may work to discredit, or undermine the development of telegraphs as a viable technology, even if their own service is inferior.

On the other end of this is the basic firearms question. Would magic allow for more advanced firearms? It’s certainly possible. Mages may be able to concoct alchemical propellants that are more efficient, and cleaner than real world firearms, allowing for more mechanically complex weapons than the real world supports. It’s also possible that magic would allow for additional defenses against firearms. A spell that was originally designed to protect against incoming projectiles may be equally effective at stopping a bullet. These potentials may even interact with one another, where conventional bullets will stop, but (exorbitantly expensive) alchemical rounds will blow through the shield, hitting the mage.

Another possibility is that, where you have mages, you also have magical abominations, wandering the wilds. When dealing with things like that, it’s entirely possible that conventional firearms are ineffective, requiring something special to deal with the creatures.

If your fantasy setting has a legitimate reason to include firearms, my recommendation is to look at those as a challenge. The danger that someone could gun down one of your characters if they do something stupid, or don’t think through their actions is a fantastic motivator, and something that’s worth keeping around as a credible threat.

If your fantasy setting looks like it should include firearms, then, probably should. This is a technology that reshaped the world, and having to account for it challenging your setting’s history and traditions is entirely reasonable, and something you probably want to play into, rather than avoid.

-Starke

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Followup: The Mafia

Thank you for the Mafia information. You mentioned the American/East Coast Mafia is defunct. Does that mean it would be inaccurate to write about them being active in present day? Because my research still brings up racketeering and drug/human trafficking cases.

It mostly depends on where you’re setting your story. So, there is a mea culpa here; I described as defunct, based on my experiences, and some quick, cursory research focused primarily on verifying names and dates.

In the late 90s, I lived in a city that had been mobbed up, and was still working out Mob influence. In retrospect, I kind of suspect that a few of the restaurants I frequented while there may have been mobbed up.

By 2000, most mafia holdings in the United States were gone. If you lived in one of the cities where they completely folded up shop, you could be forgiven for thinking they were entirely destroyed. This would be a mistake. The very one I made when I wrote the original post. So, for that, I am sorry.

Today, America’s Italian Mafia is a shadow of its former self. They started as East Coast immigrant street gangs in the late 19th century, transitioning into a fairly developed network of criminal syndicates by WWII. The post-war era allowed for explosive growth. American organized crime, effectively founded the modern incarnation of Las Vegas, and even had extensive holdings in Cuba (before the Castro came to power.)

There are a lot of factors which lead to their downfall. These ranged from backlash growing political aspirations, to the war on drugs, the RICO Act was a body blow for the Mafia, as it directly attacked many of their methods of operation. (Specifically, it allowed prosecutors to charge the heads of families for crimes they ordered, but did not directly participate in, closing one of the Mafia’s favorite methods for shielding their upper echelons.)

Today, the Mafia does still exist in a few places. The days when they had families running cities across the nation are gone. If you live somewhere like Texas or California, the idea of Mafia operating in your city is more of a novelty.

With that in mind, the Mafia still has holdings in New York, New Jersey, and Chicago. The places where they were most strongly embedded, and where they’ve managed to somewhat survive.

The other major difference from the Mafia of today, and the one from 30 years ago, is a transition towards contracting labor, rather than using their own people at street level.

So, with all of that in mind, asking if it’s accurate is a bit of a loaded question, and it’s probably worth evaluating what you’re looking at with the Mafia. I’m going to pull two specific films, because they do an excellent job of establishing the dichotomy of who the Mafia wanted to be, vs who they actually were.

There’s The Godfather, and there’s Goodfellas.

The Godfather is an opera. It’s a massive story about honor, duty, sacrifice, and all of these other virtues, layered over the Mafia of the 50s-70s. It’s also, entirely, a fantasy. I don’t just mean the events, I’m talking about the organization it presents. The Corleone Family is what mobsters idealized themselves as. This sort of shadow nobility, benevolent, and honorable (to a certain degree), never existed in the real world.

If you’re looking at The Godfather and saying that’s what you want, it’s a fantasy. It’s accurate insofar as it presents an idealized self-image of who the Mafia believed themselves to be, but it doesn’t square with the reality of who mobsters actually were.

Goodfellas is not an opera; it’s not even, strictly, fictional. The film follows the life of Henry Hill (who died in 2012), from his introduction to the Mafia as a child, up through his eventual role as a witness against the mob. It’s not completely accurate, because it does abridge a few details. Some characters have their names changed, or are composites of multiple individuals. In one case, the motive behind a crime wasn’t exactly what the film presented, though the inciting incident is accurate.

The vast majority of the film is accurate to the actual behavior and identity of the Mafia. This isn’t the noble image of shadowy benefactors guarding and shepherding their community. It’s a bunch of psychopaths, kept barely in line by the threat of further violence, who have no qualms about turning on one another to save their own skins, or over imagined slights.

In some ways, the Mafia you see in Goodfellas no longer exists. RICO prosecutions, have shrunk their influence substantially.

That said, Organized crime still exists. The players are new, and in many cases it’s transitioned to new techniques, but where there’s opportunity, criminals will find a way. Skimmers, credit card fraud, ransomware, and other cybercrimes are all far more profitable, and less risky, than pounding pavement, and threatening to rough up store owners for the contents of their till in an era when anyone can have a security camera feeding images to off site data storage.

Organized crime has embraced globalization. In some respects, this is nothing new. The cartels were moving product around in large volumes forty years ago, but, things like smuggling and trafficking are far more appealing options for the modern criminal enterprise.

The very short version of modern organized crime is, if you want to do something, you no longer need to be there in person, unless you’re moving product (this includes people) in or out. If all you want is money, you can hide halfway round the world, and let your fingers do the walking.

So, here’s a fun and scary thought: If you live in the US, you’ve got a better than average chance of having been solicited by an organized criminal enterprise in the last decade. I don’t mean a few guys showed up at your front door, I’m talking about emails. In particular, where someone would contact you asking you to accept a wire transfer, and then relay it to them. This was actually about money laundering. You receive the funds from a fraudulent credit card transaction, then move it through your account. When the charges get reversed, your transfer out is fine, but the money coming in doesn’t really exist. Another popular one, from a similar time frame, was to take delivery of items for someone (usually “away on business,”) then repackage the stuff for shipping. Again, you would be used as a cutout, when the fraud was detected. So far as it goes, some of those, “secret shopper,” programs were also not on the level, and you would have been furnished with a cloned card, and sent off to turn that into actual cash.

The trick is to get the money across national boundaries and into a safe jurisdiction that won’t assist in a foreign investigation as fast as possible.

Beyond that, most of the organized crime groups that get brought up do still exist.

The Chinese Triads are real. They’re still around. There’s roughly a dozen major Triads. For reference, the largest (if I remember correctly) is the Sun Yee On, which has somewhere around 55k – 60k members worldwide. They’re active in Asia, North America, and Europe. The Triads derive income from drug smuggling, trafficking, and counterfeiting. (Not just counterfeit currency, but also media, like books, DVDs, ect.)

The Japanese Yakuza is real, and weird. Weird, because it pops up in places you wouldn’t normally expect to find organized criminal activity. For example, it’s not uncommon for Yakuza members to own hospitals, or other businesses that usually don’t attract the attention of organized crime. The explanation for this goes back to the 80s. At the time, Japan’s economy was exploding, they were seeing unprecedented economic growth, and had more money than they knew what to do with. Japanese banks were incredibly liberal with loans, because the money was pouring in (from their perspective). This lead to a lot of Japanese businesses purchasing foreign assets, and a general anxiety that they would financially rule the world in the coming century, which you’ll find in media from the late 80s and early 90s.

Around 1991 or ’92, the bubble popped. Before that happened, Japanese banks were happy to pass loans to pretty much anyone, on the idea that it would lead to further profits. This included many members of the Yakuza. (As I recall, there’s a bit of a question whether loan officers knew they were dealing with Yakuza, or if their due diligence was just that lax.) While they did buy into more conventional organized crime fronts, like shipping or construction, they were still left with more money than they knew what to do with, and proceeded to buy their way into other industries as well. Today, Japan is still struggling to clean the Yakuza out of their corporate culture.

When the bubble burst, many Japanese investors were suddenly on the hook for massive debt they’d incurred during the previous seven years. This included Yakuza members. In the face of this some committed suicide, however, many more retaliated, killing bank loan officers and threatening bank officials. This has resulted in a bizarre situation where the Yakuza (and uncollectible loans issued to their members during the bubble) is still a major factor in their current financial climate.

So, like I said, the Yakuza is real, and weird. If you’re wondering what I meant by “economic” research on them, in the earlier post, now you know.

My reading on the Cartels is spotty. As criminal enterprise goes, they are fascinating, because there’s an entire distinct sub-culture that’s built up over the years, including a distinct musical genre called Narcocorrido (culturally this is somewhat analogous to gangster rap, though it’s stylistically related to Northern Mexican folk music.) Beyond the obvious drug trafficking, kidnapping has also been a major money maker in the region. I don’t know how tightly the Cartels are involved in that industry, but it is worth mentioning.

Major street gangs are another factor. Again, these guys are active, and real. They’re a bit too diverse to quickly categorize, ranging from small, local, criminal groups, up to transnational organizations with worldwide members in the tens of thousands. Depending on circumstances, they may be working for, or with, other organizations, or they could be operating in house.

As I said earlier, the Russian Mob is more of a catch all term for a diverse group of criminals who share a common language, rather than a true organization. That said, there are criminal organizations that come from former Soviet states, but it’s not a single monolithic entity. A lot of the cyber crimes I mentioned above, are popular money makers, particularly for organizations that never left home, and now have access to the world via the internet.

So, no, it’s not inherently inaccurate. At that point any question about accuracy comes down to how you present the thing, not if it exists, or existed.

 

-Starke

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