All posts by Michael Schwarz

Q&A: Psychic Bleed

not sure if this counts as a fight question, but in stories (esp tv/movies with high visual impact) that have a character that does psychic power things with their mind or are victims of psychic powers, often they’re shown bleeding from their nose or ears to illustrate when they’ve “overdone it” (re Stranger Things) or if they’re overcoming psychic control (re Get Out) and i’m curious why that is? is it just pressure on the brain and blood coming from the nearest orifice? what are the logistics?

It’s a burst blood vessel. Or, sometimes, multiple ones. This is a real condition that can happen. Not the psychic powers, but if you’ve ever coughed, sneezed, or vomited hard enough to get a nose bleed, same thing. This can also lead to minor hemorrhaging in the eye. Unless it’s happening frequently, this stuff isn’t a serious medical issue, just an annoyance.

Bleeding from the tear ducts or ears is less common, but It can happen. If it’s a one off thing, a ruptured blood vessel in the nose isn’t usually something you’d need to worry about, unless it’s recurring. If it does happen repeatedly, than you should probably see a doctor.

-Starke

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Q&A: Superspy Kids Going Off The Reservation

Hi! I was just reading Alex Rider and came across a part that mentioned Alex beating up a group of bullies and it got me wondering. If trained child combatant who was going to a normal public school how would the school as a whole (faculty, parents and students) react to of a story circulating regarding a kid taking on five and going to the ex-special forces levee of brutality to win? How could it be covered up?

Looking at the real world, if you have a kid who’s been getting training from their parent… look, this shouldn’t happen. Most responsible adults with advanced combat  training won’t teach it to their kids. Most. But, it does happen. You will occasionally run across kids who’ve had police or military hand to hand training. They have a parent who’s a cop, or spent tours oversees. The kid may be responsible with this information. Or, something like this could (and does) happen. Maybe it was some misguided, “teaching them to fight,” machismo by their parent. Maybe the kid just wasn’t quite stable, or simply made a miscalculation. There’s a lot of potential factors.

The result is pretty messy, however. Criminal investigations, of both the parent and the child. Depending on the severity of whatever they meted out, you may be looking at criminal charges, potentially being charged as an adult. A kid snaps, gouges out the eyes of an opponent, and kills another by crushing their trachea, and you could easily see a kid in modern America sentenced to +25 years in prison. This can easily spill over onto their parents. It’s not hard to see a situation where an older kid could get their younger siblings taken by CPS in order to, “protect,” them from the parent responsible for this training in the first place.

There’s also a real liability issue for the school and the kid’s parents. If you’re wondering about the idea of a cover-up in the real world, that would be stopped dead by civil litigation. Say whatever you want about America being overly litigious, but things like this are why tort law exists. This would also become a factor regardless of the bullies being alive after the encounter. Someone trained this kid; they’re responsible. Someone let this kid wander around free, waiting for something like this to happen (even if they didn’t know); they’re responsible. This means, even if he kills all the bullies, and there’s no witnesses, you still couldn’t bury this thing fast enough.

The irony here is, even if the bullies provoked this response, it’s still indefensible, and in the eyes of everyone the kid who went too far, and started turning people into meat origami, and they will be held responsible.

This is something every martial artist lives with’ the more training you have, the less force you’re allowed to use to defend yourself. The thought process goes (accurately) that you need to apply less force to ensure your safety, and that of others. It becomes far easier to become the aggressor, legally. This still applies to your kid. Age really isn’t a factor in that. It doesn’t matter if it’s a teen or an adult, with advanced hand to hand training. They go off and start killing people, even in self defense, it’s going to be viewed far more carefully than if a white belt screwed up and accidentally killed a mugger.

So, yeah, that’s not going to be fun.

There’s another factor here worth remembering, bullies are looking for easy victims. They don’t always succeed in finding them, and they probably couldn’t tell you how they identify their potential victims. Normally, bullies will avoid someone with combat training. This isn’t intentional behavior, so much as a subconscious response. Martial training builds self-confidence. In turn, this makes them look less like ideal victims to a bully. Somewhat obviously, it’s not 100%. Some people really are too stupid to live, but that tends to be a self-solving issue.

So, let’s put this back in its intended perspective for a minute. Or at least, as much as I can, having never read the Alex Rider books.

You’re an intelligence agency that just took complete leave of its senses and trained a teenager to be a superspy. They then took that training and used it on civilians? Your next phone call is to get a cleaner on site to bullet the kid in the back of the head, and dump them in a landfill, hog farm, or whatever’s nearby, then pretend that kid never existed in the first place. Let everything after that become one more mystery, because really who’ll notice?

After all, if you couldn’t trust them to keep their training secret, what hope do you have that they won’t flip and start spewing classified information to anyone with a badge or a gun? You can’t afford that. No one can.

Worst case, leaving the body where it landed won’t really lead back to your doorstep. There’s an awkward truth to homicide investigations: If the killer and victim are total strangers, it can become damn near impossible to identify them. A cleaner with an unregistered .44 can leave your teen spy in a pool of their own blood, and slip the perimeter before the local PD figures out what happened. They’re used to giving authoritarian regimes the slip; what are the NYPD going to do? Seal Manhattan over one homicide? Yeah, right.

Not killing the kid and just turning them loose will result in a psychologically unstable rogue agent who may have information you really don’t want in the wild, and their cover is now blown. So any rival groups could potentially make a play for them, or try to disappear them for their own use. That’s another big problem, but hey, it’s a tough world. Hell, even M threatened to have James Bond killed at least once, right?

Also, having a kid flip out like this is a training failure for your agency. I mean, it’s one thing when we’re talking about some guy who was teaching their kid Krav Maga in their basement,  but if you’re supposed to be a respectable intelligence agency, you really needed to make sure your spy would actually be able to operate in the field. That doesn’t mean shirking the issue of bullies, but it does mean finding other, more creative, ways to neutralize them. Not necessarily non-violent means, though those would be preferable. Planting evidence, framing them for crimes, or just straight up blackmailing them into public confessions are all on the table, but taking the direct approach for no substantive gain? No, that’s just bad tradecraft. It exposes the kid, it exposes your agency, and it does this for no benefit.

If there’s a lesson for your writing, it’s that no one is too important to kill if they become a big enough problem. I realize this kind of flips the script on the superspy genre. But, given the provided scenario, there’s no compelling reason not to snuff them. Any cover-up needs to start with tying up loose ends. That means the kid and anyone he confided in. Best case, just him. Worst case, it’s time to dig out the tarps and deep six a few friends and acquaintances. Just be quick, clean, and make sure there’s nothing left that can tie back to you, and you’re golden.

Now, this doesn’t mean that assassinating the kid needs to be successful. The odds aren’t in their favor, but they could find a way to survive. I mean, the entire Bourne film franchise is based off a rogue agent working against his old handlers (the novels are slightly different). But, it is the reasonable response, especially when working in a genre that goes through supporting characters like popcorn. It’s easy to sit back and
think, “well, that doesn’t apply to this character, because they’re one of the main characters.” Splat. Not so much, it seems.

One of the best ways to keep your audience engaged (in genre fiction) is to find ways to subtly violate the conventions of your genre by remaining true to the nature of your characters. Especially if those characters are baked into the genre itself. The superspy genre is (usually) very lethal, selectively. It kills off characters who aren’t important to the narrative. It will wax the mentor, the old friend, people your protagonist cares about, because it’s expected. But, it rarely turns around and puts a bullet in the protagonist because they became too much of a problem… unless you’re Sean Bean.

It’s probably worth saying, in closing, you really can’t train a teenager as a spy. Maybe for sigint, but not spies like you think of them. Working in human intelligence includes a staggering amount of psychological pressure. Most adults can’t handle it. Part of the training process is about screening out recruits that simply wouldn’t be able to survive the job. While you could subject a teenager to this, their chances of coming out the side as a functional operative, or even alive, are extremely low. It’s one thing to wave this for because you’re looking at the superspy genre, but that operates with a comfortable disconnection from reality. When you start asking, “but, how would this actually work?” Everything starts to come apart at the seams.

-Starke

Since I didn’t work a reference in along the way, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is still a fantastic look at spies, and absolutely worth your time. Amusingly, it’s not the first novel in the series, but is an excellent book.

Also, I’ll say it again, the first couple seasons of Burn Notice are a fantastic tradecraft primer. They’re not perfect, but the narrator offers a lot of excellent insight into how to exploit human nature.

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Q&A: Reflex Sights

Recently you talked about reflex sights – what are the differences/pros and cons of reflex vs red dot vs holo sights?

The short, slightly sarcastic, and not completely inaccurate answer would be, holo sights cost a lot more.

Reflex sights are optics that use a semi-reflective surface to provide targeting information. These will bounce a light off said surface, usually a red or green LED, which when viewed from the appropriate position, will tell you roughly where the object is pointed. I’m phrasing it like this because reflex sights are actually used for a lot of different things, including nautical navigation tools, telescopes, and even some disposable cameras.

The advantages for reflex sights are that they’re relatively cheap, and they usually have a fairly substantial battery life. The internals are just an LED and a reflective glass layer. (Technically, there are a few variations of the technology; for convenience I’m describing the one used with firearms.)

Holo sights are, as the name suggests, actually holographic. They use a laser diode to create the targeting reticle in three dimensional space. This opens up some additional functionality that’s either difficult or impossible to obtain with a reflex sight. The big feature is the ability to adjust for range and windage. Finally, unlike reflex sights, they don’t need to have a tinted layer to catch the reflected light, so the optics are slightly clearer.

The most common firearm reflex sights are red or green dot sights. These use a red or green LED to create the targeting point. That said, some holo sights use a dot aim point. In that sense a red dot sight is more descriptive than an identifier.

Picking a color comes down to user preference. In general, red light has the least affect on night vision. Also because of the prevalence of ruby lasers and red LEDs, some people do approach firearms with the feeling that red is the “right” color.

The human eye is more sensitive to subtle differences in green than any other color. This is part of why some night vision setups display their feedback in green monochrome. In theory, this makes green dot sights easier to see. For some people this honestly seems to be the case. Also why you’ll sometimes see green lasers used as targeters on firearms.

Red and green aren’t the only options. Common LEDs include blue, white, and yellow, so if someone wanted an amber dot sight, that is an option. (Though, you’re going to be paying extra.)

There are other factors. Red was used because red LEDs were very cheap to produce until relatively recently.

Blue LEDs only date back to the 1990s. There’s also the direct physiological factors. Historically red light has been believed to produce limited or no eye adaptation, and had the least effect on night vision. My understanding is, that’s not really true, and that green/blue light actually interferes less with night vision, but this is a discussion I’m not fully versed in.

The idea of a dot sight, as opposed to other reticles is purely preference. A dot has a cleaner profile, but provides less information to the user. Just a simple, “bullets go here (we think).” Ring sights, or lines can be useful for judging drift, and can help the user adjust their aim. Alternately, the reticle selected may simply be to speed up target acquisition. This one really is about personal preference. A ring sight isn’t better than a dot sight, it’s about which works for the user.

On more expensive reflex sights (and most holo sights) it’s fairly common to have the ability to switch out the reticle on the fly. So, picking the right one is sometimes about choosing what’s right for this moment, not just picking one and sticking with it.

I will say, video games tend to gloss over these things. I can’t remember the last time I played a game that actually tinted the window for a reflex sight (maybe Far Cry 4), and I don’t think I’ve ever played one that attempted to display a holo sight properly.

Incidentally, some stuff that you can, technically do, includes open reflex sights, where the glass layer exposed to the air. You probably wouldn’t want to do this, because of the potential for damage, but it is a real option, and (partially) open reflex sights do exist. Ultimately reflex sights do need a surface to bounce off of. The name “reflex,” is a shortening of, “reflective,” not a reference to the user’s ability to react quickly.

One thing you can’t do is have a free floating hologram over the weapon. Existing technology doesn’t really allow for this, so you can’t have those neat holographic heads up displays you’ll occasionally see in sci-fi. That said, it’s just not something we can do today, not something that’s impossible.

-Starke

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Q&A: Carotid Strike

(I don’t know of this a question for you or @scriptmedic but I’m hoping you’ll be able to help a little) how effective is the carotid strike actually? Will it actually knock someone out and does it cause brain damage like other knockouts? Is there any way to block against it or lessen the effect? Thank you so much and am very grateful for your blog ))

If I’m bluntly honest, I’m not sure how you could strike the carotid artery in a way that would cut off the flow of blood long enough to render someone unconscious without also killing them.

If you’re deliberately cutting off the flow of blood to the brain by compressing the carotid, that would be a blood choke. As we’ve said before, those can turn lethal with shocking speed. But, I’m not seeing where a strike to the neck would temporarily block the flow of blood long enough to put someone under, without cutting off the flow long enough to kill them.

Assuming you managed to find a way to do this, you’d be dealing with the same problems associated with knocking someone out. You’re cutting off oxygen to the brain and hoping you get a very specific kind of brain damage. I mean, this is the problem here; you’re asking for a way to inflict brain damage without inflicting brain damage.

Even if you did manage to put someone down, as with chokes, you’re talking about the victim being unconscious for a few seconds. So, the value of doing so is fairly limited.

The martial arts I’m aware of that practice strikes to the neck, like Krav Maga, don’t particularly care if the victim survives. They’re more interested in decisively ending a threat and, generally speaking, the dead aren’t much of a threat.

There’s an irony here; you’re describing a kill strike that the victim might be able to accidentally survive. Not, the other way around.

Writers like to use knockouts as a “safe” alternative to killing someone. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. But, the reality is that being knocked unconscious is close enough to killing someone that you really can’t selectively inflict the desired outcome. Similarly, you can’t knock someone out for long periods of time, without inflicting severe brain damage. It can, and does happen, but you can’t choose that result.

Ultimately, this stuff comes from a desire to include, “safe” violence. I’m sorry. There is no such thing. No one who engages in violence has full control over the situation. Some people like to think they do, but they’re deluding themselves. You can have characters who try to do the Batman, “I control all the factors,” but without (some very specifically tuned) superpowers, they really don’t.

Attempting to knock someone out, by any means, means you’re taking on the very real risk that the victim will end up dead. That’s a potential outcome.

-Starke

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Q&A: Snares and Triplines

Question how effective do you think wire would be if used as a trap that involves either someone falling onto them or the wire being moved around them at a very fast rate?

You mean a tripwire or bola? Those can and do work. Bolas are a bit of an oddity, though they are functional. Tripwires, in spite of their name, aren’t usually used to trip someone, but it can happen.

Normally, tripwires are used to activate (or trip) a trap. They’re a triggering device, not the trap itself. For example, run a bit of fishing line between two trees, then rig it against a grenade (technically this is a little more complicated than just tying it to the pin), and you’ll have an improvised mine.

Laser tripwires are similar. You send out a beam of light, then bounce it off a mirror, and check to see if that beam has been broken. If it does, you set off the alarm, lock the doors, and nuke Detroit.

Now, actually tripping over a line? It can happen. I mean, I’ve tripped over the coax cables in the apartment enough times. It will knock you off balance for a few seconds, but it’s not going to send most adults sprawling. So this is more of a trap for toddlers and the clumsy.

You’d get the most mileage out of these by suddenly springing them up in front of a running target. There are ways to do this, but it’s a very situational option.

Bolas are a pair (or more) weighted balls attached to the ends of a thin rope or chord. You throw these with the intention of it wrapping around an animal’s legs tripping them. From what I understand, they actually work pretty well. When the string connects the closer weight will continue traveling and secure itself to that leg, while the longer end will (usually) loop around another leg pulling itself tight as it wraps around. They’re an indigenous weapon of South America, and even saw battlefield use historically.

The downside is that learning the bola does take a lot of practice. They are fairly easy to build in the field, and it is a weapon that someone stranded in the wilderness could realistically fabricate.

So, they work but are difficult to use.

-Starke

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Q&A: Devil May Cry

Let’s suspend disbelief for a second and assume that someone like Dante from DMC can swing a greatsword as big as a human being around like it’s made of tissue paper. How strong would that person need to be or what would be the advantage of using such a heavy and huge sword? Dante is very fast with it so I’m guessing its weight wouldn’t be an issue. Dante also uses other weapons in the games, would he be more effective with another weapon? Sorry, I’ve just always wondered about that.

Granted, I’ve never played any of the Devil May Cry series. Actually, the only Capcom series I’ve got any history with is RE (and I guess Dragon’s Dogma now). That said, I’m pretty sure Dante is a half-demon, and as a result, comically strong. It’s also probably the justification for his utter disregard for the laws of physics.

Being able to toss your opponent 20 feet, or chuck a midtown bus at your foes isn’t a function of strength. That factors in, but the real problem is physics. It doesn’t really matter how strong you are, you can’t swing something that has more mass than you. At least, not the way you’d usually think of swinging a weapon. You could get into some kind of mutual dance of flying murder steel, but that’s not the same thing. This apparently isn’t an issue for Dante, because he has some supernatural control over inertia, gravity, mass manipulation, or something. Which, he’s a half demon, if that’s part of his power-set, fine, I can dig it.

-Starke

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Q&A: Dual Wielding

Is dual wielding (like two swords, a sword and a knife or two knives) an actual effectiv fighting style or just something that looks cool??

With two swords, not really. There’s a few stray examples. It’s not so much ineffective as incredibly difficult. With that in mind, you can absolutely learn how to do this as an exhibition technique. Which, yes, ends up in the range of something that looks cool.

A sword and an off hand dagger has a lot of utility. The off hand dagger actually becomes a defensive tool.This can range from something like a stiletto, used to deflect an incoming strike, or it can include a swordbreaker, which depending on circumstances might simply hold your opponent’s blade in place while you turn them into goulash with your sword.

It’s probably worth remembering that the parrying dagger is more common when dealing with lighter blades, while sword breakers were more common when dealing with heavier, slower, blades.

Dual daggers are a legitimate, hyper-aggressive, knife fighting option. You’re trading any kind of defense for more opportunities to attack. When the user has the element of surprise it can make a bad situation so much worse, but if their foe can respond, it can go wrong for the dual wielder very quickly.

If you’re wondering how a knife can go from being a defensive tool to an offense option, it has to do with the ranges you’re engaging at. Incidentally, a swordsman with an off hand dagger does have the option to attack at extremely close ranges where they can’t attack with their sword.

I know we’ve said this before, but weapons have specific ranges. Get too close, and you can’t use them anymore. A sword works best at a little over arm’s length. For example: A sword won’t do much good

while you’re lying on top of your foe. On the other hand, if you can reach out and touch someone, knives are always good to go. The advantage for a sword is it will add 36-40 inches to your reach.

It’s also worth remembering that a sword with an off-hand pistol was a real option up into the 19th century. You’d open an encounter by putting a bullet in someone, and then use the sword.

-Starke

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Q&A: Vet Your Sources

I suggest you read The Templars and the Assassins: Militia of Heaven by James Wasserman. Very interesting read. A lot of what we know about the historical Assassins is slandar by their enemies. Also the characters of Assassin’s Creed are just as interesting as their historical counterparts. How Ubisoft took the legends of both orders and expanded them is amazing and a stroke of sheer brilliance.

When you’re conducting research: One of the first steps is to vet the author. Who are they? What’s their background? Once you understand that, you can make an intelligent assessment of what you’re reading.

For example, Wasserman is not a trained historian. In fact, as far as I can tell he doesn’t hold any formal degree. His area of expertise is mysticism and the occult. His own bio describes him as, “an admirer of the teachings of Aleister Crowley.” So, if you were researching modern American mysticism, he might be a decent point or reference. Detailed historical analysis? Not so much.

Another thing to consider, when writing non-fiction is that bold claims require strong evidence. In very general terms, claims don’t get much bolder than, “everything you know about this thing is wrong.”

Wasserman… doesn’t really do that. He collected a lot of interesting tidbits of trivia, though given the errors I found from skimming through the first few chapters, I wouldn’t trust any of it without first verifying in more credible sources.

Wasserman also appears to lack the ability to evaluate the quality of his evidence. This is a very important skill in academic literature, particularly when evaluating historical events. Not everything said or written is true, and as an academic, it falls on the author to evaluate the available evidence. This often involves looking at the larger context of contemporary events, the agendas of people involved, and the amount of surviving primary sources.

For example, confessions obtained under torture usually aren’t viewed as particularly credible. As we’ve said before, turns out when you apply enough force to someone, they’ll tell you whatever they think you want to hear, rather than actually coughing up the truth. Torture is a crude tool used to confirm your version of reality, and is not a functional investigative tool. And then Wasserman takes these confessions at face value, and tries to find some way to square them away with reality.

Yes, I am frustrated by Wasserman. He takes a fascinating part of history and injects it with confirmation bias so severe it would make a YouTube commenter blush. As a writer, there’s a real reason you should study history. Looking at why people, real people, took the actions they did can really help you understand how individuals think, and the options your characters have.

What Wasserman does very well is demonstrate how you can take real people and events, and distort them to fit your setting. (To be fair, it’s not an intentional demonstration.) This can be useful when you’re working off some “secret history of the world,” story, or when you’re writing an alt-history setting. If you want to write a story where the Assassins were secret defenders of an alien civilization that secretly founded western civilization, then Wasserman and Erich von Däniken are probably authors you should investigate closely. Also Assassin’s Creed, for the Dan Brown on mescaline vibe, and because that  is the plot for Assassin’s Creed. (Though, von Däniken is pretty good for that flavor of weirdness in general.)

But, hey, at least Wasserman managed to secure an endorsement from a Golden Dawn magus for the back cover. So, you know, he’s got that going for him.

-Starke

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Q&A: Paralytic Poisons

Would you happen to know how fast it would realistically take someone to keel over when struck with a dart coated in a paralysing drug?

With the quick caveat that I’m not a doctor; from what I remember, most paralytics will take effect in under a minute, and kill the victim in under five. Most of these will cause respiratory arrest. You’ve paralyzed them, so they can’t go anywhere, but you’ve also paralyzed their lungs, so they’ll also stop doing that pesky breathing thing.

If you’ve got someone on life support, there are some real medical applications for this. Particularly in surgery. When it’s administered in the field, they’re dead.

You’ll also find a few animals that administer paralytic poisons. This is some seriously scary stuff. Same problem though, in higher forms of animal life (read anything with lungs) it will stop respiration and result in the victim asphyxiating because their lungs are paralyzed.

The mode of action, as I recall, is that the poison actually interferes (or blocks) the neurotransmitters responsible for muscle control. It doesn’t matter how badly the victim wants to move, their body can’t get the message.

-Starke

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Q&A: Think About It

One of my characters rely on their mind more then physical , however, they are required to use a weapon for battling. What is an easy weapon they could use if they don’t have much fighting experience?

Unless you literally mean they have psychic powers, that is how people fight. It doesn’t matter how strong, fast, or tough someone is, if you can outwit them, they’re fucked. This is why, the ability to think, and adapt is the primary attribute for a fighter.

I realize people like to say, “my character is different, they think about how they fight,” but it’s really a lot like saying, “my character is different, they use the turn signals while driving.” Yeah, you don’t need to, but it’s not going to end well.

Stepping back from that a moment, a smart fighter learns a wide variety of weapons, and picks the ones that will be most useful for the opponents, terrain, and situations they’ll be facing. That means learning as many weapons as they can.

There’s a strong bias in media for characters who hyper-specialize on a single weapon. The master swordsman, master martial artist, the gunslinger, the sniper, the archer. You know how to stop someone like that? Pick a weapon or strategy they can’t defend against. It doesn’t matter how good you are with a sword if someone else guns you down.

Being adaptable and merely proficient with a variety of options is often far more dangerous than someone who was studying the blade while you were reading this.

-Starke

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