All posts by Michael Schwarz

Q&A: Off Hand Shooting

Can you aim a handgun with your off hand?

I’d be pretty screwed if I couldn’t.

The short answer is: yes, you can train yourself to switch hands with firearms. For a lot of shooters, myself included, this is a fairly important skill, because many guns are designed for right-handed users. In some cases, the fire controls (safety, fire select, magazine release, ect) only on one side. In other cases, the grip and or stock will be contoured for the right hand, and attempting to use one of these with your left hand will be unpleasant or impossible.

What this won’t do is help you dual wield handguns. That really doesn’t work. Guns are, still, two handed weapons. You need your second hand to stabilize and manage reloading. So you’re sacrificing accuracy to burn ammo faster, for no real benefit. More than that, you really can’t sight two pistols at the same time. Getting them in line with your eyes will put the barrels way too close to one another, resulting in bashing the guns into each other when firing in tandem. This is one of the few situations where a laser could be useful, but even just the longer reloads, and loss of precision, mean dual wielding isn’t advantageous.

One variety of dual wielding that was entirely viable, was a sword and pistol combo. This was more common in the 17th and 18th centuries, with inaccurate, single shot firearms. During naval boarding actions, and other close quarters combat situations, it was fairly common to fire a shot from a pistol, before following with the sword. In these cases, the pistol would usually be carried in the off hand, with the sword in the dominant one, because it is far easier to shoot with your off hand, than it is to wield a sword in your off hand.

With firearms in modern situations, it can be advantageous to switch hands for a number of reasons. The specific example that comes to mind is cornering. When turning a corner to your right, if possible, you want your firearm in your left hand. This will give you a clear line of fire, while minimizing your exposure. Conversely, when cornering to the left, you want the firearm in your right hand for the same reason.

Being able to switch hands fluidly in a CQC situation is one of the many ways some gun disarms can go wrong. Many disarms rely on locking up gunman’s dominant arm. Against a shooter who has significant experience switching their weapon between hands, these techniques can quickly turn lethal for the person attempting the disarm.

So, yeah, I can shoot off hand. I’m not particularly accurate with my right hand when operating a pistol (I’m fine firing rifles right handed, go figure), but that’s just a personal issue.

-Starke

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Q&A: Superheroes Creating Their own Villain

Do you think real life masked superheroes would ‘create’ villains? I liked what I heard of Mr. Ravenblade and people who dressed to give food to the homeless but do you think this type of activity would bring out villains/criminals as some people say?

Kinda, sorta, not really.

So, the theory is that superheroes like Batman face so many villains because they, “create” them. That is to say, when you’ve got a mentally unstable guy dressing up as a bat and beating the snot out of criminals, that will encourage other mentally unstable individuals to pick similarly bizarre themed costumes, and then join in the fun.

With some characters, particularly Batman and Spiderman, there’s a direct correlation between their actions as superheroes, and their rogues galleries. With others, the connection is a bit more tenuous.

Even in a real world context, this is fairly plausible. Someone engaging in extraordinary acts of violence will provoke others. Either to oppose them, or to aid them. For example: a vigilante hunting Mobsters would encourage the mob to look for specialists to deal with their masked psychopath problem. They may also provoke other, more aggressive, criminal syndicates to move in and set up shop in the city.

So, why isn’t Seattle currently dealing with real life super villains? Because, people like Phoenix Jones and Mr Ravenblade (no matter what Mr Ravenblade liked to call himself) are not superheroes.

To be clear, both Phoenix Jones and Mr Ravenblade are Seattle based individuals who style themselves as superheroes. Ravenblade claimed membership in the “Real Life Superhero Movement,” while Phoenix Jones was a member of the “Rain City Superhero Movement,” until it disbanded in 2014. Since then he’s been operating under his actual name, Ben Fodor. (As far as I can tell, Mr Ravenblade is completely inactive now.)

As with so many other things, the reality is far from romantic. Ben Fodor is a professional MMA fighter, who spent four years wandering the streets in body armor with a can of pepper spray. He never became involved in anything big enough to really test the super-villain theory. (Though he claims to have prevented a bombing during the Occupy Seattle protests in 2012.)

To be fair, if you really want to look at the entire superheroes create villains theory in a serious way, I think it’s far more likely that the relation runs, primarily, in the reverse. If you had costumed villains, you’d be far more likely to see a spike in the hero population.

The problem for people like Ben Fodor is a search for purpose in their superheroing. There’s a kind of implicit promise in the genre that you go out, put on your costume, and foes will pop up for you to fight. As the RHSM has proved, that’s an unrealistic expectation.

The theory does have some legitimate basis. In the real world, threat-response patterns occur, both at an individual and organizational level. So, if superheroes posed a real threat to street level crime, then you would see individuals specifically targeting them. As is, they’re just not relevant enough to create their own villains.

-Starke

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Q&A: Handloading

how hard would it be to make bolo shells? i have a post-apocalyptic setting, and bolo shells sound like the perfect ammunition for the story (vampires), but idk the logistics of my character getting her hands on them or if it could be practical for her to make them herself.

As far as I know, it should be fairly easy. Shotguns shells are, generally, more forgiving to handload than most firearms. The hardest part would be making the bolo itself, which should be doable if you’re familiar with making bullets, have a suitable supply of metal, and some steel wire to connect the weights.

So, let me explain terminology here, quickly.

Handloading is the practice of manually preparing your own ammunition for a modern firearm. This requires a few supplies. You need casings (sometimes called brass, though with modern shotguns these are plastic), bullets (as in the actual projectile you’ll be firing, sometimes simply called, “lead”), powder, and primers.

In this case, your character would be making their own exotic projectiles. When you’re looking at a normal firearm, you’d usually want to get your own supply of unused bullets, though with some practice it is possible to make your own lead. It is possible to make bullets from materials other than lead. For example, you could use tin, copper, or other soft metals. Depending on density, they’ll have different ballistics from conventional rounds.

It’s technically possible to melt down harder materials like steel, and make bullets from those, but the resulting round would damage the firearm’s rifling when fired. These are sometimes used, with a soft metal “jacket” layered over the harder core for armor piercing rounds. (These work because the harder core will not deform as easily on impact, and will deliver more force to a single focused point, rather than expanding out, distributing the force across a wider space.)

With powder, it’s worth remembering that modern firearms do not use black powder. If you’ve found a recipe for gunpowder that calls for potassium nitrate (strictly speaking, any nitrate will get the job done, saltpeter is just the most common suggested ingredient), sulfur, and charcoal (sometimes you’ll see this referred to as just carbon, but you do need some of the unburnt wood cellulose for the chemical reaction), that will produce black powder. Now, this stuff does work as a primary propellant, but it will also cause any firearm more mechanically complex than a revolver to foul fairly quickly. The issue is that black powder burns less efficiently than modern smokeless powders. This means your unburnt powder will form as residue in your barrel and in any exposed mechanical components. Additionally, the sulfur is mildly corrosive, meaning it will also damage your weapon from prolonged misuse. Not that it matters, but black powder also delivers less force, so your bullets would have less range, and penetration.

It is (theoretically) possible to synthesize your own smokeless powder after the end of days, but it would require getting access to some fairly specific chemical supplies, and some fairly sophisticated lab work. Primers are a similar situation, not impossible if your character has a strong background in chemistry, but not exactly the kind of thing you or I could whip up in a desperate moment.

That said, handloading is fairly common among some gun enthusiasts, so the supplies are out there. How long those would last after the end hit would depend heavily on how long people were able to hold out before dying. If the apocalypse claimed the vast majority of its victims in the first few hours, the existing ammunition supplies could last for decades. On the other hand, if the apocalypse was slow, and people were dying out over the decades, then these supplies could be incredibly scarce.

-Starke

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Q&A: Splitting the Party

How do I sideline my powerful fighters without sloppy excuses? My story is rooted in Asian mythology and there are powerful gods and creatures as well as weapons and shields.

The simple answer is: By making sure you have carefully thought out reasons, rather than simply trying to come up with an excuse at the last minute.

So, let’s talk about writing for a minute.

Your rough draft is when you first sit down and start typing up your story. Nobody’s rough drafts are perfect. Rough drafts are, by necessity, kinda sloppy. Stuff won’t always fit together. Ideas will get kicked around, and abandoned, sometimes mid-draft. There will be plot holes. That’s fine.

Then you start writing. When you go back and rewrite your draft, you know what your story is doing, where it’s going, what’s happening, and, most importantly, exactly what will happen. If you know you want a character split off, you know you need to start setting that up.

In some ways, this is the definitive answer: How do you avoid sloppy writing? By going back and rewriting once you’ve written the piece. Writing really is rewriting. First drafts suck. That’s not on you, it’s a truth every author needs to acknowledge, and remember, “you’re not stuck there.” Once you know what you’re doing, go back, and improve it.

So, how do you sideline your characters? There’s a lot of options, but a simple one that will almost always give you more material to play with is, give them something else to do.

In very broad strokes there’s two sub-categories here. They can act in their own interests and pursue personal agendas, or they can work towards the benefit of the group, they just need to do it somewhere else. These can lead to very different characters, and vastly different stories, so let’s look at both of those.

Remember, your characters are distinct simulacra of people. They have their own wants, dreams, and goals. Depending on who they are as a person, those may take priority over helping your hero. (Or, if we’re talking about your hero, this may take priority over loyalty to their allies.)

If your character has spent centuries questing to find their lost love, they may abandon the party of wandering heroes they met in an inn a month ago when they find a lead. If they’ve been exiled from their home, they may even turn on their allies if it means they could go back. They may betray their allies because they’ve become convinced that your heroes are more destructive harmful than the forces they oppose.

There’s an unlimited number of potential permutations here, ranging from the selfish to altruistic. These are also incredibly contextual. Choosing how to fit these pieces together will come down to assessing your characters, their world, the forces they’re opposing, and figuring out who your characters are.

These kinds of events tend to be irrevocable. If your characters are betrayed by someone they called a friend, you really can’t walk that back, even if they come to regret their actions.

The alternative is that, sometimes, you just need to be in two places at once. One or two characters may need to split off from the rest to accomplish separate goals. A cadre of heroes may stage a doomed assault, to create enough of a distraction for one of their members to sneak in and assassinate a leader, or deliver some critical plot coupon.

Events like this can be thrilling. You’re putting a lot more weight on your characters’ shoulders. If anyone fails to carry out their plan, then everything will go horribly wrong.

Again, there’s an infinite number of possible permutations on this concept. They may not be killing someone, they may not even be in the same area. They may have split off awhile back to deal with something privately, but now, when needed, they’re leagues away.

There’s also a lot of options to blend across between these categories, and there are a lot of other possibilities. For example: A character who’s been poisoned by some mythical substance and put into a coma isn’t going to be much use in a fight.

This is your story. You’re only limited by your imagination. Look for conflicts of interest that will test your heroes. Look for the consequences of their past actions. Don’t worry if your rough draft seems off. That’s why, “writing is rewriting.”

-Starke

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Q&A: Secret Identities

Would pointing out that they bear an uncanny resemblance to their alter ego and following it up with a comment that a specific feature is slightly different help my character prevent the people they consort with from realizing that they are the secret identity?

The short answer is, no. Saying, “yeah, but this one thing is different,” underlines how everything else is the same. To be clear this is a bad situation for your character to be in. It jeopardizes their secret, and may put them in extreme danger, if it doesn’t get them killed outright. Now, a character who panics may blurt out, “but he doesn’t have this fake scar on his knuckle!” But, no, it’s not a great way out. At that point, even a simple, “you must have me confused with someone else,” might carry more weight. Not, much more weight, but still.

That said, there’s basically two routes for this question, so, I’ll take a stab at both.

If you’re talking about a character who’s working undercover (either with a group backing them, or on their own), then all of the normal issues come up. If they’re working without some organization backing them, then their best option will be to go in as themselves. Not necessarily to be upfront about why they’re there, but ultimately trying to hide who they are is a recipe for disaster.

For example: if your character is trying to investigate a corporation, then their best option for infiltrating is to get hired, that means they’d need to pass a background check, and get through the hiring process. In all of that, pretending to be someone they’re not won’t really work. The entire system is designed to weed out someone who isn’t on the level. Obviously, there are relevant considerations, but the way in is through the front door and into the HR office.

To be fair, if your character is investigating some kind of criminal conspiracy without any backing, they’re going to need to be very creative in order to avoid getting caught up in any police investigations, while still maintaining their cover identity. As it turns out, saying, “but I was only infiltrating them to find out what they were doing,” is not a particularly solid affirmative defense for waxing a witness. (Writing stories like this require a solid grasp of operational planning. Your character needs to be able to identify their goals, and then set about dismantling the organization in critical ways without blowing their cover. That last part is much easier said than done.)

If your character is operating with backing from an organization that can create a convincing cover identity, that’s different. This could be an intelligence agency, law enforcement, or even some well connected, shadowy conspiracy. If this is the case, the organization has a lot more flexibility to put someone unknown on the ground. Cover identities are a thing, but the critical part is that the people your character is infiltrating never meet the people who actually know them in their day to day life. So, the situation where someone recognizes your character for who they are, is something they need to avoid at all costs.

Also worth noting that, under some circumstances, you could have a character with multiple cover identities, which are drawn into conflict with one another. For example, a character who went undercover in one group years ago, and has since gone undercover with a new group could be in a very awkward place if they discovered an old associate from the previous cover while they were operating under the new one. These situations can quickly get very tangled, and make for fantastic plot complications in espionage fiction.

The other possibility that comes to mind is superheroes. For the flying tights crowd, secret identities are kind of a genre convention. You want your superhero to have a normal life you can switch out to and ground the character for the audience. Which is much harder when your character is also a major mythological figure, the last survivor of an alien race, or a rich boy with daddy issues.

If we’re talking about superheroes, then that’s almost a viable answer. I mean there’s a slightly absurd element to the entire idea of superheroes and their alter egos. People would notice that your character was staggering into work looking like they’d been in a fight with fifteen guys. Alternately, sooner or later someone would notice that your superhero never got injured, never got sick, and didn’t react that time someone spilled boiling coffee on their hand.

Depending on context, there’s a fairly smart critique of superheroes how regularly interact with reporters, cops and other investigators. Their plainclothes allies probably figured out who they were years ago, and keep those secrets as well. Personally, I still really like the Ben Urich line about knowing who Peter Parker is, because, “sometimes you smell like burnt buildings. You know who else sometimes smells like burnt buildings?”

In a context like this, even if your character isn’t a superhero, it’s possible that friends and allies may let their cover slide, if they understand what’s going on. Of course, if they don’t, or are about to make a scene, then they are a threat to whatever your character is trying to achieve.

There are also possible situations where an antagonist may seek to keep information about your character secret. Realizing who they are, but holding onto that for whatever reason. This could be due to conflicting loyalties. It could be they’re planning to use that information to their own advantage. They may even intend to blackmail your character with this information at a later date. It really depends on what their goals are, and their relationship with your character.

There are much better lies your character can use to protect their identity. So, here’s something to watch, it’s about a minute long, and light on the details, but keep it in mind. Someone who is aware of their mannerisms, and can adapt to their current “role,” can become effectively unidentifiable and blend into their surroundings. Specifically, things like posture, body language, preferred clothing and speech patterns (such as verbal crutches), can be far more identifiable than just physical appearance. The original Jason Bourne novel by Robert Ludlum actually talks about this kind of a technique in detail.

None of this will help if you’re talking to someone who’s known you for years, but when you’re walking past a casual acquaintance, they may not recognize you. Also, to be clear, this is a learned skill. It’s not quite as simple as just changing into a clean set of clothes and staggering off.

If you’re going the superhero route, sometimes secret identities get exposed. It can be a major transition in your character’s life, as they go from masked crimefighter to public figure. There’s no hard and fast rules there, on what happens as a result. Partially because there isn’t a real world example, but also because superheroes are such a diverse group to begin with. As with everything else, think through all the possible outcomes. Pick the ones that feel the most natural or appropriate.

-Starke

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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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