All posts by Michael Schwarz

Q&A: Creative Materials

I’ve been trying to think of “creative” materials to use in my fantasy world. How do you think bismuth would fair as the base for armor/weapons?

Not well. Bismouth is a brittle metal, and won’t hold up in combat. It was used as component in some bronze alloys but, as a metal, it’s unsuitable for weaponry.

If your setting is using bronze age technology, it’s possible they’d use bismouth contaminated tin and copper, to produce bronze, but unless your character is a smith, that’s not the kind of detail which would be relevant, and trying to wedge it into exposition could be awkward. Even then, it’s more likely that they’d view it as some variant of tin or lead.

So, let’s step back from this and dig into the more general question: How do you go about incorporating “creative materials,” into your setting?

Before you can answer that, you need to answer two previous questions. Why do you want those materials? And, what do you want to do with them?

When you’re creating a setting, introducing fantastical elements can help to make the world more memorable. Your setting has elves, has magic, has vampires, whatever. Over time, the audience will acclimate to certain elements in a genre. So creating a fantasy setting today where almost anyone can perform some basic magic isn’t nearly as memorable as if you were writing the same story in 1930. Within that context, unusual materials can go a long way towards selling that.

At this point, you can sometimes get more attention by eschewing parts of the, “standard fantasy setting.” Which is to say, if you want your fantasy characters fighting with bronze, iron, or steel weapons (depending on the technology they have), you’re not under any obligation to include these things simply to be different. One thing that doesn’t suffer from diminishing returns is creating compelling characters who behave realistically, in a way the audience can identify with. Unusual metals and mystical artifacts are there if they serve your story, or help you build build detail into your world, not because you must include them.

In very simple terms, you can use strange or exotic materials along with other fantastical elements to separate your audience from the world they know. You create a less grounded setting, which affords you greater control over your world. Depending on the kind of story you’re trying to tell, this can be a benefit or a problem.

The second part of this is, what your material does in your setting. There are a few ways this can go.

If you’re inserting a material as a replacement for something that existed historically, then that’s going to build towards your setting’s strangeness. If this sounds like it has to be a 1:1 conversion, that’s not strictly true. Your setting may have some kind of resin, or hard bones that function as a replacement for armor or weapons. You may have some kind of sea creature with a carapace that will hold up for decades after death, and can take a serious beating. You may, simply, have some alternative animals that are used as mounts or pack animals. The important thing is, you’re filling a cultural niche with something that doesn’t exist in the real world.

Replacing elements will lead to a less grounded, more fanciful setting, particularly as you stack up elements. Juggling elements like this can make your setting more complex and memorable, or it can render the entire thing obtuse, and difficult to understand. Handling these kinds of elements becomes a juggling act. Said juggling act becomes more difficult when you try to write to people who are familiar with the genre and newcomers. There are real rewards for this kind of approach, and it is something I’d recommend you experiment with or at least research, but it’s not something you can expect to nail on your first attempt.

You can introduce elements that replace anachronistic concepts that wouldn’t exist in your setting, but would be familiar to a modern audience. The idea of a fantasy setting with cell phones may strike you as odd, but there are plenty of settings that do incorporate modern technology into a fantasy setting under the guise of something else. Communication crystals or spells allowing telepathic contact and remote viewing.

The tricky part here is figuring out exactly what all of these pieces would reasonably do to your world. Even minor tweaks can start to have significant consequences. More aggressive wildlife will mean better fortified settlements. Without that, the settlements would be overrun and wiped out. So, this becomes a necessary precaution. If you have truly massive pack animals, then major trade routs could easily form along land routes instead of along waterways, leading to a very different geography, potentially one with far less interest in water travel in general. This is particularly true if you have vitally important materials that don’t naturally occur near the water.

Conversely, if your fantasy setting is dependent on something pulled from the water, they may go even further. Magical research, and even mundane technology could go far further towards deep sea diving if some leviathan down there is the source for carapace armor, or the only place to mine some otherwise unobtainable ore.

However strange your world becomes, it’s vitally important to remember one thing: For your characters, this is normal. (Unless they’re native to a different setting and get dumped into it. At which point, everyone around them will still be in the mindset of, “no, this is normal; stop gawking at the sledge, they get nervous when you stare at their eyestalks.”)

If you’re not chasing strangeness, then unusual materials often become a way to indicate that a given weapon or item is special in some way. The first example that may come to mind is Mithril, from Tolkien, but there’s actually a long history of people making up metals and imbuing them with special properties. Some quick examples include: orichalcum, which Plato ascribed to Atlantis, and adamant (which is where we get the terms adamantium and adamantite), which referred to an improbably strong metal or substance (and is the root for “adamant,” in modern English, if I remember correctly).

Unusual materials also have some basis in history. (Not counting orichalcum, which may have been an actual alloy, or could have been something Plato invented for rhetorical effect.) Superalloys like crucible steel and Damascus steel were quite real. Similarly meteoric iron was sought after because of how valuable the metal was to a smith. Chemically most of it is an iron/nickle alloy, but this stuff was one of the first sources of metallic iron, before smelting technology was developed.

If your setting has unusually advanced magic, it’s possible they’d have access to metals that just wouldn’t exist historically: like titanium. In the real world, titanium wasn’t discovered until the eighteenth century, and wasn’t refined into a metal until 1910. (Somewhat obviously, the minerals were always there, but they went undiscovered until 1791.) However, if your setting has magical means to locate and identify metals, and access to forge temperatures far beyond what real world technology allowed (specifically, high pressure, non-carbon based forges, for titanium), it’s possible you could have this stuff in your setting. (At that point it’s probably worth remembering that Titanium was, explicitly named after the Greek titans, so the name may not carry across, even if the metal does.)

Mixed with all of this is the idea to single out a weapon and indicate it’s special. This has some historical basis. Weapons made from superaloys or meteoric iron were highly regarded historically, and may be the origin of stories about magical weapons and artifacts. It’s entirely possible your otherwise grounded setting may have a sword made from starsteel, that’s a symbol of the king, or a “magical” sword with the wavy bands of Damascus steel. This stuff was real, and for users who were unfamiliar with the origins, Clarke’s Third Law holds. (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”)

Somewhat obviously, there’s nothing to stop you from having an artifact made from some material that’s been otherwise lost. This is, sort of, how Plato used Orichalcum in his discussion on Atlantis. The material and objects created from it were almost forgotten, but (supposedly) still existed.

It’s entirely reasonable that your character may be questing for an onyx-jade sword, or something equally bizarre, in an otherwise grounded setting. This works particularly well if your setting has a pattern of fallen civilizations, and exists in a dark age after some lost golden era. (Incidentally, this fits with how Europe viewed itself through most of the middle ages, ending near the enlightenment. So, there is historical precedent in this approach.) This can also leak over into outright science fiction elements, if that’s what you want.

The most important part of incorporating “creative materials” into your setting is in the name, be creative. Look for opportunities where you can start to seriously alter your world. Ask yourself, “what would this mean to the civilizations of my world?” Look for opportunities to connect your ideas, and how they would interact with one another. But, most importantly, be creative. If you want to have something fanciful or strange, don’t feel limited to the periodic table.


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Q&A: Gauss Rifles

So, how would a gauss sniper rifle work in real life (i.e. What kind of kick would it have, would it make a sound, what would the energy consumption be, etc)

Well, you’ve hit on the problem with all energy weapons, there. Power consumption is obscenely high. The entire reason that modern rail guns are ship mounted is because they are extremely energy intensive.

I’ll stick a caveat here that I may be doing the math incorrectly in my head, but: a handheld gauss weapon may actually have a substantially higher energy requirement per shot than a ship mounted weapon.  The energy used is based on getting the projectile to speed. With rail guns this creates two factors. First, a handheld one will have a shorter barrel, meaning it needs to accelerate the object faster, and small arms have, nominally, higher muzzle velocities than artillery meaning, in theory, you’d need to get the round to higher speeds than you’d need with a ship mounted system.

I say, “in theory,” because the muzzle velocity of the prototype rail guns the US Navy is using are somewhere in the range of 2400m/s. Which is ludicrously high speed, and gives the weapon an effective range of around 100 miles. In practice that is a bit overkill for an infantry weapon, and you could scale that back somewhat. But, you’re still left needing to accelerate an object to several times the speed of sound in a tiny fraction of a second.

I’m going to make a guess and say that recoil would be slightly more severe than with a modern gunpowder firearm. The problem is still basic physics. You’re accelerating an object into motion, which means Newton’s Third Law will take vicious revenge on your shoulder one way or the other.

What I’m not clear on is exactly how much, because of two factors. First you’re probably talking about a smaller round, and second, it will probably be going much faster than a modern firearm. A 2mm tungsten needle would have less recoil than most conventional firearms today, but muzzle energy is calculated (in part) based on the velocity and mass of the bullet when it leaves the barrel. (This is an easy point of reference for how destructive a bullet will be on impact.) In order for that 2mm spike to be more destructive than a modern bullet, it would need to be traveling significantly faster. So any recoil you saved on the lighter round would be replaced by requiring a higher muzzle velocity to do the same work.

One minor perk is that, while the projectile would have a higher velocity after exiting the barrel, it would build up speed in the barrel, meaning the recoil would be spread out a bit further. Does this matter? Maybe, but on a handheld weapon, probably not. If the overall length of the barrel is 36″ and you’re talking about a velocity of a projectile leaving it somewhere north of 1500fps, the difference between that and ignited powder would be mostly academic.

While I’m not sure what the rifle itself would sound like, I’d guess some kind of electric humming, simply because the magnetic coils would pull a lot of energy, (the prototypes sound a bit like someone shorting out a transformer), the actual gunshot would sound a lot like a modern rifle at long ranges. Again, physics is here to apply unfortunate limitations.

The speed of sound is, roughly 343m/s (or about 1125 feet per second). Any physical object that exceeds that limit will create a small air shock as it passes. (Technically, the exact point an object will create a sonic boom varies based on elevation, humidity, temperature, barometric pressure, and probably a few other factors I’m forgetting.)

Most modern rifles send rounds down range at speeds of at least 600 m/s. Even most handguns will exceed the 343m/s threshold. At long ranges, the loud crack from a rifle is a result of the bullet breaking the sound barrier. Now, if you’re operating a gauss rifle, that’s still going to happen. You’re dealing with basic physics. Firing the rifle will produce a loud crack along the path of the bullet.

Probably worth remembering the term, “rifle,” is a bit of a misnomer here. There’s no actual rifling in the gun, and bullet stabilization would probably occur via fins on the projectile itself. Probably with some kind of sabot system.

The choice of tungsten above wasn’t (completely) at random. The atmospheric friction will create a substantial muzzle flash. Where normal firearms eject burning powder, a rail gun would be ejecting flaming steel or whatever the sabot was made of. Having a projectile that can withstand the heat generated by atmospheric friction, and ferromagnetic enough to respond to the coils seriously limits the options. As mentioned above, you can’t fire a steel slug at 2400m/s because it will melt. Tungsten on the other hand has one of the highest boiling points for a metal. (It might actually be the highest, I don’t remember off hand.)

While I’m not 100% certain, it’s entirely possible the projectile may produce a visible tracer effect from atmospheric friction alone.

Now, there is another caveat here. I’m assuming you use similar velocities to a the navy’s prototypes. That’s not strictly necessary, and projecting a cartridge at, say, 800m/s would have vastly different characteristics, and may not generate enough heat to melt steel. It would also require roughly 1/3 the power per shot. However, the power consumption would still be extremely significant.

Some other details worth considering.

Because the barrel is responsible for the speed of the shot, it may be possible to fine tune how fast the resulting bullet leaves the gun. Depending on the design, this could allow for a kind of multipurpose assault/marksman rifle that isn’t really possible with modern firearms.

As I mentioned earlier, the navy’s prototypes have an effective range of 100 miles. (Or 160 km). At those ranges it would be basically impossible to fire accurately without extensive computer control, and possibly some kind of satellite aided targeting system. However, there are a couple reasons to tune one that high.

First, drop and drift. Bullets are, as we’ve said before, physical objects. There’s an old physics experiment where, if you fire a gun (parallel to a flat surface) and drop an identical bullet simultaneously, both will hit the ground at the same time. Depending on the cartridge, this does become a factor sooner or later. Spitting a round out at Mach 7 will have very limited drop in the first mile or two, meaning it will be somewhat easier to predict where the round will land at those ranges. This isn’t fully necessary, but it helps.

The second thing is transonic speeds. As a bullet travels through the air, it loses speed. When it gets down close to 343m/s, it will drop through transonic speeds. When that happens, it will be overtaken and hit by its own sonic boom. This destabilizes the bullet’s flight, and effectively destroys accuracy beyond that distance. The initial speed determines when that happens, and by extension, how far you can fire the weapon. If you can radically increase the initial speed of a bullet, you extend the effective range. This is part of why that prototype is so impressive.

Incidentally, if you get the velocity over, about 11.7k/s (so a little over four and a half times what the prototypes fire), you can put a round into orbit. Not particularly relevant for the question, but worth knowing. (Also that’s Earth’s escape velocity. It wouldn’t be the same for other planets. For example: those same railguns can achieve lunar escape velocity now.)

Of course, the biggest issue with these is still power consumption. Regardless of the factors, you’re still using electromagnets to propel a slug of metal to hypersonic speeds. With modern energy technology, that’s not really feasible.


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Q&A: Basic Energy Weapons

If Sci-Fi laser guns existed, do you think the bolts would act more like bullets or laser pointers in relation to how the various variables affect their path?

The thing about lasers is, they actually exist now. Which wasn’t true (or, at least, wasn’t as true) back when science fiction first picked them up as a concept.

A laser is, basically by definition, going to travel at, or very close to C. (Roughly 300 million meters per second.) So, if you’re thinking of slow moving projectiles that your eye can see and track, that’s never going to happen.

The other thing about lasers is, they’re just focused light. This is the same, basic concept as a kid with a magnifying glass, weaponized. It’s still going to reflect off, or burn through, anything it hits. It will also be basically invisible.

The only time you can actually see a laser beam, in real life, is if there’s particulate matter in the air, reflecting the light back to you. Smoke, fog, and dust will all pick up the beam, and reflect some back to you so you can see it. This isn’t a problem when you’re talking about a targeter or pointer; the beam isn’t particularly destructive, so this kind of blowback is harmless. But, when you’re talking about a weaponized laser, that starts to become a real concern.

This is a general truth about seeing things, by the way. For your eye to see something, light needs to strike it and bounce off, hitting your eye. Your eye processes that light, and tells your brain, “hey, there’s a thing here.” Lasers, by definition, avoid that until contact with their target. Thing is with a weaponized laser, the produced light is the weapon. So, if you can see it, you’re getting hit. Even if it’s bouncing off water vapor in the air.

Of course, as with any other variety of light, you can bounce it off a reflective surface. This means, the greatest defense against future soldiers with laser weapons may just be polished chrome surfaces. Not only would it reflect the laser off of it, it would send it back in the general direction of the original user or their buddies. Best of all, you couldn’t see exactly where it was going, because you don’t want that light being reflected back to you.

Now, there is a possibility it would burn through any dust or other atmospheric contaminants on the way through, leaving a faint, singed, after image of where the laser was fired, but in general, you wouldn’t be able to see the beam. Which isn’t that different from bullets, for that matter. There’s another possibility where it would reflect off something like water vapor or any other atmospheric obstruction, (the way lasers actually do), and diffuse to the point of worthlessness almost immediately. (To be fair, I’m not sure which is more likely to occur.) Either way, you’ve got a weapon that will face all kinds of problems on a battlefield.

If you’re trying for a hard-sci-fi setting, (meaning the science underpinning your setting is sound), then all of these factors will make lasers less appealing. If your setting is aimed at a less grounded, soft sci-fi, then lasers are (somewhat) less appealing, simply because their fantastical value has worn off. Lasers sounded like weapons of the future, when you couldn’t pick one up as a cat toy for $5 in most department stores.

With that in mind, you can try to keep the same weapon concept, but selectively trim off the issues, for your softer settings. Things like Star Trek’s phasers and disruptors aren’t, technically lasers, while Star Wars’s Blasters are an entirely different technology that you probably interact with in a non-weaponized capacity on a regular basis.

As with a large amount of stuff in Star Trek, whatever technology keeps phasers from reflecting around randomly is never clearly explained. The term itself is a portmanteau of phased and laser. So, it’s some kind of laser variant that won’t normally reflect (though it is shown happening a couple times in the franchise).

Disruptors are even more nebulous, and it’s helpful to remember this is more of a catch all term, including things like sonic weapons, up through a variety of molecular disruption weapons.

Star Wars uses the molecular disruption idea for their disruptors, when the writers want one, but basic blasters aren’t laser weapons. Blasters fire bolts of ionized gas, meaning they’re actually plasma weapons.

As with lasers, plasma is a concept we’re familiar with in modern day. In the simplest terms, it’s a fourth state of matter. You have solids, liquids, and gasses, with plasma sitting above gasses. Plasma is heavily affected by magnetic fields, meaning it is possible to contain and eject it with directed energy weapons (though, that’s not possible with current technology.) It’s not a very energy efficient technology, but you don’t need to worry about it reflecting back and killing the shooter because it struck a mote of dust en route to the target.

If you absolutely need an energy weapon that behaves more like a modern gun, firing glowing bolts of energy, plasma is probably your best bet.

There are problems. Magnetic fields on the target’s armor could mess with the plasma delivery, (which may help you understand that line about the Death Star’s trash compactor being magnetically shielded.) Also, any magnetic field it passes through on the way.

Plasma is also an option for beam weapons. In fact, the most destructive form of plasma you’ve probably encountered is a lightning strike. The electrostatic discharge instantly ionizes the atmosphere between the points, and you get a visible flash of light, followed by the sonic shock of that air being instantly converted into plasma.

Before I move on, it’s probably worth noting, most current plasma research is focused on power generation. That is to say, using magnetic fields to contain plasma for the purposes of safe fusion reactions.

Long term, plasma weapons are probably going to fall by the wayside for sci-fi the way lasers have. Most people don’t think of fluorescent lights as plasma, so the term sounds more fantastic than the technology really is. With refinement of magnetic containment technology, and the use of fusion as a power source, plasma weapons will probably lose a lot of their shine.

The railgun is another weapon you’ll see referenced in near-future sci-fi. Sometimes called gauss weapons, or mass drivers, these are, quite simply, a gun. Instead of using a chemical propellant, they use magnetic fields to accelerate a ferrous slug to speed.

I’m bringing them up for two reasons. First, it is one conceivable way to make a plasma weapon viable. Second, they actually exist.

Laser weapons are, at best, theoretical. Plasma containment and manipulation is an actively researched topic. Though the primary goal there is power generation, not weapons technology. Railguns do exist today.

Modern railguns are mounted weapons. You can stick these things on a naval vessel, or in a facility. They draw massive amounts of power to fire, but deliver a lot of destructive force on impact. Part of the reason is because they’re truly frictionless. You can accelerate their payload to speeds that would utterly destroy conventional firearms. You can also send payloads down range that are far harder than anything you’d ever load into a gun.

One of the mechanical limitations to modern firearms is, the bullet and barrel are in direct contact. When you fire a bullet, it, quite literally, scrapes the barrel on its way out. Part of the reason why we make bullets out of materials like lead and copper is because they are substantially softer than the steel barrel, and will result in significantly less wear.

When we do need to fire a round with something more solid as its payload, the harder core will be wrapped (called jacketed) by a softer metal. For example, a steel core round will have a copper or lead jacket, to protect the firearm. On impact, that coating will strip away fully, and the steel will (usually) punch through any light armor in its path. You’ll also see things like depleted uranium, or tungsten used as cores for armor piercing rounds.

With railguns, that’s not a consideration. Unless the material is magnetically inert, you can just drop it in, and fire it.

What we can’t do with a rail gun, is carry it around. Current technology is too energy intensive for that. But, if you’re looking at a future setting, where power generation is less of a consideration, then these may be an option. Ballistically speaking, they are guns, firing solid projectiles. The only difference is, they’re doing so at speeds that are impossible to achieve with conventional firearms.

I’m going through all of these, but all of them are built around the idea that we need something other than conventional firearms. That’s probably true, on a long enough timescale, but modern ballistic weapons are remarkably energy efficient, for their design. You have a cartridge which contains all of the necessary energy to propel a round at hyper sonic speeds. There are considerations like recoil, which can be minimized through mechanical developments. There’s also potential hybridization of other technologies into them, in order to make a more efficient design. But, if you’re working with a sci-fi setting, it’s worth considering that guns may stick around, simply because they work.

In a vacuum, lasers or plasma weapons are probably more desirable, because a mass projectile will continue traveling until it hits something, which could be in hundreds of thousands of years. But, a laser will eventually disperse to the point that it is too indistinct to cause damage.

In an atmosphere, a gun, or gauss rifle may be a much better option for the situation presented.


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Q&A: Hit Points

One thing I’ve always used to depict “Hit Points” as is not necessarily damage, but rather, a character’s ability to avoid serious damage. For example, Tanks have a better sense of how to mitigate whatever damage their armor isn’t fully protecting them from. In this sense, 0 HP is more like actually receiving a real wound; a bullet finally hits, the sword goes through your lung, etc, and that’s why your character really goes down; they take a genuine, serious injury. HP is more like stamina.

To be fair, hit points are a somewhat necessary abstraction to begin with. The ability of the human body to survive horrific injuries doesn’t neatly render down into a single statistic. (Nor a discrete collection of numbers.) At the same time, characters aren’t (usually) invulnerable, and you need a system that can quickly approximate combat.

Since, I don’t think I’ve really discussed this in detail recently: at an abstract level, when you’re writing, you’re playing a game. It’s not incredibly dissimilar from a GM running a tabletop RPG session. You set rules to establish a rough illusion of fairness, and sometimes cheat a bit, to push the story in the direction you want.

When you’re actually playing a game, the rules are concrete and there to provide an element of fairness (or a uniformity of unfairness, depending on the game in question.) Within that context, HP serves a vital function, informing the players exactly how badly they were just mauled, without automatically removing a player from the current play session.

That analogy a minute ago, about writing being a lot like being a GM? I stand by it, but this is one very specific point where you might want to seriously consider what rules you’re working under.

Large hitpoint pools (in relation to the damage received) work better when you’re trying to provide a system that draws things out, and slows down combat. For the most part, this is what D&D, and most D20 based games, do. At higher levels, you’re very unlikely to be one-shot from full health (though it can happen.) Which leads to the exact issue you’re describing a workaround for.

You take a character, with a large pool, empty a shotgun in their face, and they keep ticking. Even when the rules are relayed transparently, that’s going to leave a few people scratching their heads. Thing is, you don’t actually need this (for games or writing.)

What you described is one way to reconcile this without altering the rules. As I recall, it was the official interpretation for D&D at one point. Your HP wasn’t your health, but a measure of your character’s ability to avoid life threatening injuries, and trudge on.

If you’re writing a story about fantasy heroes or superheroes, then this approach makes sense. It fits within the genre conventions. To be fair, when we’re talking about D&D, and a lot of heroic fantasy RPGs, that approach is consistent. Improbable health pools strain credibility, but the ability to just keep fighting is part of the genre.

Now, if you want to chalk some of that up to their armor soaking some of the damage, that’s fine. It is consistent with how D&D, and a lot of games, present combat roles, so that abstraction isn’t really that strange.

Thing is, this only really works if you’re aiming for superhuman characters. If you’re wanting something more grounded, you want a much smaller pool of health (again, in relation to the incoming damage.)

At the extreme end of this, you can get stuff like White Wolf’s storyteller system, where you have seven HP. That’s it. Each point lost indicates specific thresholds of increasingly severe wounds.  The game boosts survivability by giving you more opportunities to resist damage, but it creates a situation where any combat encounter has the potential to go horrifically wrong without warning.

When you’re talking about armor, you’re not going to be fully protected. Even if you have a character in full plate, just impacts from combat will still wear on the user. It probably won’t result in critical injuries, but it can be exhausting. Even simply fighting while wearing full plate will be extremely fatiguing. Part of this is because armor will effectively trap body heat, leading to the exhaustion mentioned above. This is part of why you’re less likely to see combatants in full plate wandering around desert environments (if the writers know what they’re doing.)

To a certain extent, it’s more accurate to say impervious armor actually moves damage around, into different kinds. You’re trading blood loss for heat exhaustion, which can be just as lethal. That said, this doesn’t make for entertaining game play. “Fight the guy until he’s too exhausted to move and falls over,” may work as a gimmick, but it’s not a mechanic you’d usually want to build into your core game design. As a result, you’ll almost never see armor in games that will fully mitigate all incoming damage. Usually there’s some upper cap on resistances. Sometimes this is 50%, 80%, at least one point of damage must be inflicted, ect.

That said, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a character who’s an impervious juggernaut. Either as an ally or enemy of your PoV character. The important thing is to remember that they’re not immortal, just very resistant.

All of this can be pretty useful, if you’re tailoring your story carefully. Rules, under the surface, can help you keep track of how badly someone was just hurt, or how close a character is to keeling over. At the same time, it is very important to match your characters’ durability to the genre you’re working with. Games that tend towards ludicrous amounts of HP (regardless of if that’s their actual health, or some kind of mystical ability to avoid suffering harm) won’t get the results you want from  a horror story. Just like an epic Sword & Sorcery romp will be seriously hampered if everyone goes down after taking a stray hit.


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Q&A: Multiple Monsters

Trying to plot out a fight scene. My character’s fighting vampires and has to keep three of her friends safe. I’m planning to have her putting up a decent fight, but ultimately losing when another person arrives to help and together they manage to fight the vampires off. How many people do you think would be a realistic number of vampires to confront her at first?

One might be too many. So, a few problems your character needs to solve. First, you’re not dealing with other humans, they’re facing supernatural monsters. Second, they outnumber her. Third, she’s not their target.

The vampire problem is going to depend on your setting, and possibly the specific variety of vampires from your setting that your characters are facing. If these are mindless blood fiends that will scamper after any warm, moving body, your character could probably protect her friends by drawing them off.

However, if your vampires are fast, intelligent, supernatural predators with centuries of experience backing up their hunting, she might be completely screwed. One could be far more than she can handle, and more could easily be a death sentence for them all. Or undeath sentence, depending on their goals.

Depending on what she’s facing weapons may be able to even the playing field, (just remember, your vampires might be packing).  The more experienced and powerful your vampires are, the less likely weapons will be enough. On-her-feet creativity may be help, but, again, it depends on what the vampires have seen and experienced.

Dealing with multiple human opponents is always a serious risk. Even for a practiced martial artist, getting into a fight with two or more foes is not a good idea. While your focus is on one foe, it’s easy for another foe to flank and shank you. This is considerably more difficult when you’re facing things that aren’t human.

Usually, weapons are one of the ways you can seriously skew the balance for situations like this. Multiple unarmed attackers aren’t going to have a good time going after someone with a handgun and CQC training.

One of the easiest methods for dealing  with multiple attackers is to control your environment so they can’t come at you simultaneously. If you’re facing ten foes in a tight corridor where they can only come at you single file, the ones behind them are, basically, irrelevant. In an emergency, densely packed crowds can serve a similar function, if you keep moving, and can track the attackers.

This is, also a function of classic infantry combat. The total volume of forces you bring to bear is less important than the number you can actually get into contact with an enemy.

When you’re alone, controlling the environment and, “juggling,” your foes by controlling who has the opportunity to attack is the only safe way to handle multiple foes.

I should probably put, “safe,” in scare quotes, because this is still quite dangerous, with very little margin for error.

If you actually pay attention, you’ll frequently see this at work in a lot of martial arts films. Jackie Chan will maneuver one foe into another, use a door to block an attack, or bounce over a car to restrict the potential vectors for attack. It looks good on film, but isn’t that far removed from how you can actually employ these tactics. Positioning so that enemies will get in each other’s way is a basic element of threat management.

Now, here’s where things get really difficult. Your character isn’t the target. She’s trying to protect her friends. This means a lot of conventional juggling tactics won’t work, because one or, maybe, two enemies will break off and engage her, while the rest will keep going. Obviously, if you’re positioned in tight quarters where they can’t push past, that’s less of an issue. Still doesn’t deal with the vampire problem, where they could just shove her out of their way, but still.

Again, weapons are a way to make this more viable. Your vampires are less likely to try to shove their way past an improvised flamethrower, or shotgun loaded with flare shells. Though, it’s worth remembering your character doesn’t share their immunity to bullets and they may be carrying guns.

Regardless, your character probably can’t juggle foes the way she would if she was their target; meaning she needs a different plan.

With your scenario, advanced planning, and controlling the environment is far more important. If you know you’re going to be attacked by multiple opponents, you need to pick places where you can control the avenues of attack, limit access, have options to fall back, and ultimately a goal which will put you in a safe environment or a defensive position that you can hold until help arrives (or until daybreak).

If your characters are being pursued, that’s not going to be easy, but, it should give you some ideas to work for.

At this point, the only resource your character starts with are her friends. So, plan accordingly.


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Q&A: Trick Weapons

So how practical would a transforming Melee weapon (i.e. Bloodborne) be? And in case you don’t know, I means specifically something that can switch between a closer, faster attack and a longer, slower attack.

The idea of a slow heavy attacks is a video game concept. In real combat, dealing with real people, large ponderous strikes are an invitation to be disemboweled.

That said, there is some truth to what Bloodborne does, and it’s worth keeping in mind. Adjusting the way you use your weapon to deal with threats at different ranges is a very real practice. One of the most obvious examples is the practice of pommel bashes with a sword.

A pommel bash is used when you’re too close to use the blade, so instead you’ll simply drive the butt of your sword into your opponent’s face in a downward strike.

Another example is shifting your grip on an axe or polearm. At longer ranges, you benefit from having your grip closer to the butt of the shaft, but in closer combat, you may migrate your hands towards the head, to allow for tighter strike patterns.

This means there’s a few hunters weapons that aren’t something you’d normally want to do, but might work with mythical materials (given you’re reinforcing them with blood stones, the Hunters’ weapons are probably made from something other than conventional materials). This means the telescopic Hunter’s Axe may be a functional option. Normally, you wouldn’t want a telescopic melee weapon, but whatever the thing is constructed from might be hard enough to make this workable.

There’s also a few trick weapons that, might, be viable, if you could actually engineer the things to work. I’m thinking specifically of the Threaded Cane, which transitions from a metal walking stick, into a kind of articulated whip with serrated blades along the cable. There’s basically no way to make one, especially since the core appears to operate “intelligently,” (it has a fixed resting position, unlike a real whip) but it would result in a vicious melee weapon. (In fairness, all of the From games have whips that return to fixed resting positions, so this might not be an intentional function of the Threaded Cane.)

The Moonlight Sword is another example of a weapon that is, basically, viable. It’s a FromSoft standard, and has popped up in every release since Armored Core (I think), but the Bloodborne version is an entirely functional, impossible, weapon. It’s a normal sword, that when transformed creates a magical, energy blade over the physical one. This can be used as a sword, or generate ranged attacks. Like I said, this is entirely viable.

There’s two varieties of trick weapons in Bloodborne that simply don’t work. The hinged ones are, primarily an engineering problem. So, that’s the Saw Cleaver, Saw Spear, and Beasthunter Saif, and probably a few others I’m forgetting. In most cases, the basic design is workable, but the problem is that the hinge would result in a serious structural weakness, rendering the weapon unusable. As with the Hunter’s Axe, this probably isn’t an issue for the specific examples in Bloodborne, but it would be an issue with conventional materials. Also, as with God of War, it’s worth remembering that Bloodborne is a character action game, so the overall scale and proportions would need to be adjusted.

The second are weapons that convert their sheath into another weapon. The Kirkhammer and Ludwig’s Holy Blade both convert this way. The problem is, there’s really no way to make this work. Your character would, effectively, be carrying two weapons. You’d also be be relying on the outer weapon not flying off in combat. Depending on exactly how they lock together, this could be a serious issue.

Ironically, sprinkled through all of this is one real weapon. As in, flat out, “these existed.” The Reiterpallasch is a saber with a mounted firearm. While I’m not sure if any pallasches were fitted with firearms, light blades with attached firearms did see actual use in the 17th and 18th century, particularly in naval boarding actions, where simply having a gun in your hand, in addition to your blade had real utility.

On the whole, sword mounted guns quickly became a historical oddity. They were very situational, and not particularly useful, but they did briefly exist.


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Q&A: God of War

How physically (in)feasible would weapons like the Blades of Chaos from God of War be in real life (the in-game nonsense about attachment aside)? The blades themselves are too big to be accurate thrown weapons, which I’m assuming the chains are supposed to compensate for, but I don’t quite understand the aerodynamics and weights versus a meteor hammer (or other, slightly more conventional weapon of that sort).

The short answer is, they’re not. For the exact reason you mentioned, the Blades of Chaos are far too heavy to use, this is before you even consider throwing them. Man at Arms built one back in 2013. To make the thing work, they actually used a lighter steel alloy, scaled it down, and ported it to get the weight of the blade under 10lbs. Even ignoring the part where Kratos is throwing them, these are stupidly big blades.

So the overall size isn’t an option. You can chalk this up to art design, or superpowers, if you want, but the swords are simply oversized to the point that they’re unusable. If you want to say, “that’s art design,” sure. That’s fine. It’s not authentic to the real world, but you’re talking about a steroid junkie who was resurrected from the dead hunting down and killing the Greek Gods, so, there’s not a lot of point to arguing if his swords are too large for a human to wield them. Just, you know, keep in mind, that’s part of the material’s visual aesthetic.

As with using them, they’re too heavy to throw at someone. That said, sticking a blade on the end of a length of rope or chain was a real weapon that saw use in China. We’ve talked about rope darts or kunai before. These are, basically, a small throwing dagger that is controlled by the user via the attached chain or chord. These are pretty popular in martial arts films, and they are a real option. There’s also a number of blunt variants, including the meteor hammer you mentioned. In those cases, you’re less worried about aerodynamics, and more interested in using the chain to control where and how the weapon spins. Sort of like a yo-yo, of horrific death and dismemberment.

There are practical points for both the Blades of Chaos and the rope dart, but they’re fundamentally different contexts.

Rope darts, and similar weapons are incredibly hard to deal with defensively. Against a trained user, they’re nearly impossible to block or parry.  Beyond that, they can be incredibly hard to predict. They’re also very difficult to use. It takes a lot of training and practice to actually put the blade where you want it. This means that a skilled practitioner can give these some very idiosyncratic strike arcs.

The Blades of Chaos are designed to do something you usually don’t want in a weapon: They’re designed to telegraph the user’s actions, and it is incredibly important that they do so.

For those of you unfamiliar with the God of War franchise, it’s a character action game where you control Kratos, an undead, Spartan warrior. Gameplay is (primarily) presented from an isometric perspective, where Kratos takes up somewhere around 2%-5% of the screen at any given moment. Part of this is to provide a sense of scale, and the series has a frequent sub-theme of sticking him next to incomprehensibly massive enemies. So, making him visually small is thematically important. It’s also important from a gameplay perspective. The player needs to be able to see the entire arena they’re currently fighting in, so that they can track enemy movement, and avoid attacks.

The chains attached to the Blades of Chaos provide two critical functions. They provide several medium range attacks for the player, and they offer the player feedback. That’s the telegraphing thing I mentioned earlier.

Given the way combat flows in the franchise, the ranged attack options are critical. The idea is that they player will be involved in melee combat, and continue to engage in it immediately after killing an opponent. There’s a number of ways to deal with this design goal, including lunge attacks or medium range options. As far as I know, God of War does both. The blades are also used as traversal tools, both in a chain pull to move the player around the battlefield (that’s a lunge move), and as climbing aids for some of those massive boss fights. (And some miniboss fights.)

In a character action game, telegraphing your attacks is actually fairly important. It runs contrary to actual combat doctrine for the exact reason that you’d never want to do this in a fight. In a game, you need to know exactly what your character is doing at all times. You also need to know what your enemies are doing. Because, as a genre, character action games tend to ramp up the speed of combat significantly, and maintain a high tempo, this means you’re not going to have the time to take a measured look at your opponent and evaluate their movements. So, for it to be playable, everything needs to be telegraphed. If you don’t, the combat will become nearly unplayable or, worse, feel unresponsive and inconsistent.

The cartoonist proportions of the blades are (I suspect) largely because you need to convey information to the player, in game, quickly. They’re comically oversized, but that’s because you need to be able to track them on your TV, from the couch, when Kratos is smaller than an action figure. The part where they ignite when used just gives you clear information on what you just did, where that hit landed and, (most importantly), when you’ll be able to do something else.

That last part is a huge component behind why all of this is so important for a game like God of War. (Not just a video game in general, but this specific genre.) When you’re designing a game, it’s important to understand what aesthetic elements communicate to the player. There’s a lot of parts to this, and it’s not always as simple as just the art style.

This is also why you don’t want to take stuff straight out of a video game without seriously considering what it was doing there in the first place. In this case, it’s telegraphing.

That said, if you’re drawing art, the whole oversized weapon aesthetic can serve (roughly) the same purpose: to communicate the progress of combat clearly. It also gives you more space for fine detail work on the weapons, which may work into your overall aesthetic as well. It’s not realistic, but there are artistic merits to the style.

When you’re in a real fight, the last thing you want is your opponent to know what you’re doing. This is one of the things the rope dart excels at, and part of why a lot of martial arts focus on keeping your movements inside the body’s profile. Humans process objects by identifying the outlines, and it will (usually) lump a person together as a single object, or a small collection of objects, meaning tracking motion inside that outline is actually harder. It’s not that you can’t see it, just that there’s a momentary lag of your brain going, “wait, what was that? I wasn’t paying attention.” In a fight, that can be fatal.

When you see stuff like this actually play out in video games, it tends to result in feeling like you couldn’t tell what was happening, or attacks came out of nowhere. In short, it’s not fun.

Television and films often use large exaggerated movements for the same reason, to convey what’s happening. It’s part of why the roundhouse punch is so prominent on screen (particularly up into the late 60s), when attempting the actual move in a fight is borderline suicidal. (The other reason this persisted is, it’s a very easy attack to whiff for the camera. Meaning it makes life much easier on the actors. Additionally, the long windup means the other actor has plenty of warning to cue their reaction. Again, the opposite of what you’d want in a real fight.)


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PSA: Plagiarism

I’ll be honest, I really do not want to be writing this. However, it apparently needs to be said:

If you’re going to send us examples of your work, don’t plagiarize the first line.

Really, don’t plagiarize content at all. Just, don’t.

This time, we caught it. It was the first line, and it left me sitting there thinking, “wait a second, I’ve read this before.” That is the best possible outcome. Someone caught it early, and put a boot in it, before it got off the rails.

The worst possible outcome is, no one catches it before publication. At that point, someone will catch it. At that point, it will end your career. Don’t get caught plagiarizing, and the safest way to ensure you don’t get caught is to not do it in the first place.

I do understand. Writers are, by nature, intellectually omnivorous. We read some weird and obscure stuff sometimes. Pick up the pieces on the way through, and wander out the other side with a lot of ideas that we’ve spliced together along the way.

Nothing is created in a vacuum. You’ll encounter ideas, and concepts that inspire you. You’ll see a story hook and thing, “but, what if…” That’s fine. That’s being a writer. Sometimes it’s simply saying, “hey, I found a thing that speaks to me, go, read it, check it out.” There are ways you can incorporate that into your own work. In a phrase you’ve probably heard before, write it, “in your words.”

When you see the cliche that, “great artists steal,” that is what we’re talking about. The ability to pick up something, absorb it, and turn out your understanding of it on the other end.

It is not intentionally taking something you read somewhere else and regurgitating it onto the page without fully comprehending the context. Tell us what you’ve seen, give us your version.

I’m sure the author who provoked this post thought they’d found something obscure, that spoke to them on a deep and profound level. Problem is, the text in question is instantly recognizable in its genre.


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Q&A: Trope Patrol

So, would you say that humans, who have used intelligence and ranged attacks to become the dominant species on this planet, are instead the Squishy Wizard trope?

At the risk of sounding contradictory, no. If you wanted to delve into TV Tropes, and come back with humans expressed as a single example, my first thought is actually Proud Warrior Race Guys. And, before you ask, no, this isn’t because I’m constantly writing about violence.

Basically, there’s two major pieces to this:

Compared to the other animal life on this planet, we’re ridiculously resilient. Humans can survive punishment that would flat out kill anything else. It doesn’t mean that we’re invincible, somewhat obviously. What we are is durable, resistant to poisons, (though, again, not immune, obviously).

Remember, we consider consuming toxins which will kill pretty much everything a form of recreation. And, if you accidentally cut yourself, you can use hard liquor as an antiseptic.

In particular, human endurance is one of our major evolutionary advantages, up there with our intelligence, and tool use. If you’ve never heard the term persistence predation, it’s a hell of a concept. Without advanced tools, humans can hunt their prey by simply being better at conserving energy, and literally wearing their quarry down until they’re no longer able to flee. Even in modern hunter-gatherer societies, humans can simply jog an animal to death, by preventing it from having the opportunity to rest. This has even been documented as a tactic against other predators. You don’t have to be faster, you just need to be fast enough to keep them from catching their breath, and sharp enough to find where they’ve gone. Then repeat until they’re completely exhausted and defenseless. Kill, cook, eat.

If you’ve ever wondered why humans are, mostly, hairless (in comparison to most mammals), this is probably a major factor. In extremely hot climates, sweating to regulate body temperature works far more efficiently than having to slow down and hyperventilate. Also, part of why humans can operate in climates that are too hot for our animals.

The second part is, none of that matters when you’re dealing with another human. While we are hard to kill, we’re far better at killing each other. We’ve had the entirety of our history to practice.

That is what combat technology (including unarmed martial arts) has developed to achieve. Even then, most untrained fighters can’t really do much to each other, outside of accidentally getting lucky (or unlucky depending on your point of view). The real danger is facing someone who knows what they’re doing.

Take two humans who know what they’re doing, and, yeah, we are pretty squishy against one another. As I said, we’ve spent a lot of time figuring out exactly what it takes to make other members of our species stop flailing and screaming. For someone or something without that background, it gets pretty tricky.

There are a lot more parts to both of these thought processes, and it is important to remember that the real catalyst for a lot of this is human intelligence. So, in that sense, you’re not completely wrong. It’s just important to remember that, when it comes to humans, we’re not really that squishy; we’re just very adapted to killing one another, which is where the, “glass cannon,” comment came from.


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Q&A: Don’t Cook This At Home

How long would somebody be able to be burned on an open fire without sustaining life threatening burns? Also i love your blog 😀 Thank you for your time!

I’m honestly not sure exactly how long, but it’s not going to take much time.

A quick caveat: The data I could find was on conductive burns, not convection burns, so there is a little bit more leeway, but this one isn’t going to end well. Also, this is one of those times where I’m having to make an educated guess. I don’t have this particular bit of info internalized, and I can’t find a concrete answer on short notice.

Direct contact with water or steam over 155 Fahrenheit (68C) can result in third degree burns in around a second. For reference: Water boils at around 212F (100C), so even if you haven’t brought it to a boil, you’re already in range for some serious injuries, just messing around with simmering.

An open bonfire tops out at around 1100F (593C). Technically, the sustained temperature will be a bit lower than that, and it will vary by the wood being used. Of course, when you’re talking about temperatures in the 500C range, five degrees difference isn’t going to mean much. (Also, if that wasn’t enough fun, a charcoal briquette can burn at nearly twice that.)

Remembering that third degree burns are life threatening, and remembering that the smoke emitted from the flame will start out at roughly the same temperature as the fire. I’m inclined to say under a second.

It’s not that being set on fire is an immediate death sentence, nor that there aren’t some unusual circumstances where someone could get away unscathed. (Firewalkers are a thing, after all. They rely on a thin layer of moisture on their feet to avoid burning.) There are also plenty of burn survivors who have been, literally, set on fire. But, this is one of those things that can flat out kill someone. Even if they somehow survive the heat, the resulting smoke inhalation will probably finish the job.


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