All posts by Michael Schwarz

Q&A: Margins of Error and Violence

What do you think of “I just couldn’t stop myself” vs “they only don’t stop when they think they get away with it”? Especially when it’s not in terms of domestic violence, but other fights. How well can people be expected to stop themselves in a fight?

Your ability to effectively moderate your use of force scales with your training. The more training you have, the less force you need to neutralize your opponent. The less force you use, the less risk of something going horrifically wrong. Also, the better your training, the more control you maintain, which further reduces risk.

Now, it’s critical to understand that even under the best circumstances, accidents can, and do, happen. Additionally, live combat is never, “the best circumstances.”

This is almost never couched as, “I couldn’t stop,” usually, it’s more in the range of, “I didn’t mean to do that.”

It should also go without saying that if the person using that argument is the aggressor or the victim carries a huge impact on how its viewed. An aggressor who says they couldn’t stop is going to be viewed in a far more hostile light. If it’s the victim, depending on exactly what happened, this could be viewed as little more than an understandable accident. Worth mentioning that the phrasing you used leans heavily on the idea that the character was the aggressor.

I’m not 100% sure what you meant with the second argument.

“…they only don’t stop when they think they get away with it?”

Again, there’s a legitimate read, and an illegitimate one.

If you look at it as using enough force to “get away.” That’s the threshold for normal self defense. (Create an opening and escape.) As above, someone with limited training and experience can be forgiven for exceeding this by a substantial margin in the moment. The more training you have, the narrower this margin becomes.

If you’re asking about, an aggressor who only stops when they think  they’ll face consequences, that’s a sadist, or worse.

There is another element to holding back, in fiction: concern that violence will, “taint,” your character, and make them unlikable. This is an understandable, if ultimately, mostly, misplaced fear. If we’re talking about your PoV character, they’re in a unique position to defend their actions to the audience. In a real way, you have far more control over how the audience views your PoV characters than any other participants in your story.

Your characters need to act in accordance with who they are as people. So, that does put some limits on what you should do with them. There’s also room for a character to be someone other than they appear, though doing this with a PoV character can be tricky, and will carry it’s own consequences.

Stories and drama thrive on consequences. A character does something, the reactions that come from other characters are dramatic. This is a good thing. Stories thrive or die based on their access to drama. This can include situations where they’ve gone too far. Dealing with the consequences for that, are a dramatic goldmine. It’s nice when everything goes to plan, but it’s interesting when the wheels come off.

-Starke

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Q&A: Chimichangas and Post-Modern Superheroes

Deadpool is a protagonist who kills people. How would you suggest pulling this off in book form? Since killing is usually a ‘villain’ thing to do.

Have you ever really thought about what a her or villain is?

I mean, honestly, the film has this line:

You’re probably thinking, “My boyfriend said this was a superhero movie but that guy in the suit just turned that other guy into a fucking kabab!” Well, I may be super, but I’m no hero.

Personally, the Deadpool joke has run a bit thin. It’s still a good joke, and like most astute comedy it’s getting at a few good points you might want to consider.

In spite of his arguments against being one, Deadpool is a superhero. At least now. Originally, the character was a one note villain added by Rob Liefeld. He was a standard, humorless, 90s antagonist that was later repurposed into the character we have now. But, he is a hero.

Heroes and villains aren’t synonymous with good and evil, right and wrong, moral and immoral,or any number of other dichotomies. The simplest implementations embrace this.

In Star Wars, Luke wears white, Vader wears black, one’s good, the other’s evil, one is a scion of the light side, the other has embraced the dark side; they’re a study in contrasts. It’s black and white storytelling, and while you can use this as a pejorative, it’s not inherently bad.

As a genre, superheroes naturally build out of this kind of sharp relief. You have heroes, who are paragons of purity, and goodness, and villains who are irredeemable monsters. Most real people aren’t like that, but it serves the story, and there is a lot you can do with this, so it’s not bad writing. At least, not on its own.

In a weird kind of way, Deadpool is probably the most 90s superhero possible. Sure, we have Rob “MOAR POUCHES” Liefeld’s design, but it doesn’t stop there. The hyper-angst backstory is almost indistinguishable from characters like Spawn, Jackie Estacado, or any number of other contemporary heroes. But, that’s not why I’m writing this; Deadpool embraces the 90s post-modern critique of superheroes as a genre. To the point that 20 years later, the jokes still work. He exists in a far more rarefied environment, along with comics like The Mask or The TickDeadpool is a natural evolution off of what Alan Moore started with Watchmen.

Stepping back for a moment, there were two major direction changes for comics in the 80s. Alan Moore, and Frank Miller. These two writes basically set the tone for where the format would go. Before Moore and Miller, yes, Deadpool would have been a villain.

Miller’s influence started with his work on Daredevil. He took over a c-list superhero, and started retooling him into the obsessive, self-destructive, character we know today. Miller set the tone for the dark and edgy heroes that would follow, even if that’s not entirely visible in his work on Daredevil. Similarly, Batman: Year One, and The Dark Knight Returns fundamentally altered Batman into his modern incarnation. Miller’s characters were darker, and more violent takes on existing characters, and it infested the market. Now, I am being a bit reductive, there were other extremely violent comics in this era; several 2000AD series come to mind, including Judge Dredd, but Miller had a massive influence on what as permissible in superhero comics.

It’s unfortunate to reduce Moore’s influence to just Watchmen. He’s a very good, if overly verbose, writer. However, Watchmen was very different from comics of the day. Where Miller was presenting darker, violent heroes, Moore was attacking the foundations of the superhero as a genre. Watchmen is a deconstruction of superhero comics. The term gets thrown around a lot, but Moore was engaging in literary critique. I could probably do an article on Watchmen alone, but, I’ll hit the high points.

Watchmen argues that you can’t save the world from any realistic threat (in that case, mutually assured nuclear destruction) by punching muggers in the face. Throughout the comic, violence doesn’t actually, achieve anything tangible.

Watchmen criticizes the image of superheroes as inhuman paragons, this is a much bigger deal than it may seem today. Presenting superheroes as flawed individuals was a radical departure from the contemporary genre.

Just because you’re a superhero, doesn’t mean you’re a good person. We see this explicitly with many of the characters. Again, this was a massive departure for comics, and along with Miller’s work it opened the door to a lot of characters that simply wouldn’t have been possible a decade earlier.

To be fair, I’m also abbreviating a lot of comic book history. Both Miller and Moore benefited from the decline of the Comics Code Authority. If that had lasted a decade longer, we could easily be having this discussion about writers like Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis or Mark Millar.

Moore’s critique lead the way for a lot of writers to poke at the superhero and say, “this is idiosyncratic.” Deadpool may not have been written, intentionally thinking about Alan Moore or Watchmen, but the mindset that lead to his rebirth as a fourth wall breaking smartass is indebted to Moore’s work.

Deadpool’s habit of breaking the fourth wall is a doubled sword. It’s part of why I started to find the character grating, but it’s also used to engage in meta-commentary on comic books as a format. There’s no, “how I would do it,” retort here. I think it’s well done (most of the time.) It’s also critical to the commentary you get from Deadpool. The comics roast the rest of the industry (viciously), while the film takes that approach and hoses down the modern superhero film.

There’s an expectation in that starting quote, “…this was a superhero movie…” It is, but so are Watchmen, Blade, and Dredd; I’d be hard pressed to say any of those are have “nice” protagonists.

So, what is a hero? Deadpool is pretty sure your answer is wrong. That’s the point of the character. He is a hero. When the time comes he can put aside his selfish inclinations and do the right thing (even if he does it in protest.) Is that enough to be a hero? I don’t know. It’s certainly a credible attempt to strip the concept (at least within the context of superheroes) down to it’s core.

A hero can do the right thing for the wrong reasons and still be “a hero.” Can you do the wrong thing (killing people) for the right reasons and still be one? That’s what the character is trying to explore.

Thanks to Moore, there’s a lot of different takes on this. Dysfunctional superheroes, heroes struggling with the aftermath of prior traumas, villains trying to make amends for past wrongs, explorations of ethics and morality with superheroes who have radically deviant views of the world. Accidental heroes, who will still do the right thing, for entirely selfish reasons. None of these are entirely new concepts, but they were a sharp departure from superhero comics.

Now, if it seems like I’m being overly harsh on you, I’m not. Asking your question is very important. It’s easy to create a protagonist who has no qualms about killing, and then go overboard with it. There’s a lot of ground to explore, and asking, “is this still a hero?” is a good step. Your protagonist’s outlook (almost always) defines that of the story, so remaining critical of their views can be a good thing.

-Starke

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Q&A: False Flags

Hi. I would like to ask, is it honestly a good idea to take an enemy vehicle or wear the enemy’s armor and then return to your own people, at the risk of them attacking you before you are able to identify yourself?

Probably not, for exactly the reason you identified. Though, with the vehicle, sometimes the only available transport is still the only surviving option. So commandeering an enemy vehicle after combat may be necessary, though your characters would probably want to indicate that it had been captured, if at all possible, such as by defacing the iconography. They’d still probably want to be cautious approaching friendly checkpoints regardless, and “surrender” to their allies rather than risk taking a bullet.

As for taking enemy armor, things get more complicated and context matters.

You may come across conflicting information on if wearing an enemy uniform is a war crime (and, yes, if their armor is distinct to their faction, that’s a uniform.) This is both true, and untrue. Simply wearing an enemy uniform is not a war crime, what you do while wearing it can be, however. The same goes for their vehicles.

“Misusing” an enemy flag, insignia, or a flag of truce is the war crime. The hard part here is, “misusing,” (or “improper use”) is the legal threshold, and that is undefined.

A ruse de guerre, (literally: “ruse of war”) is legally accepted behavior. This can include wearing enemy uniforms for specific purposes, such espionage and sabotage. However, legally, while in disguise, a soldier cannot engage in combat operations. So, disguising yourself in enemy armor, and sneaking into a facility to assassinate someone, or to ambush unsuspecting troops is a war crime. While wearing their uniform to obtain intelligence, or to sabotage equipment is not. To be clear, ambushing enemy troops is an accepted ruse de guerre, you just can’t do it while wearing their uniform.

To be fair, I’m condensing a fairly complex legal concept. In general, international law tends to get very complicated, and when it comes to armed conflict, it gets extremely involved.

The good news is, wearing an enemy uniform because you’d otherwise be naked is entirely legal. At least internationally. Also, if the goal was to steal the transport and extract it, wearing their armor to get through checkpoints on the way out is legitimate. That’s fine. Sneaking in is fine too, so long as your unit switches back to their own uniforms before they start picking off potential enemies.

The title for the article, a false flag, was originally a nautical example of this behavior. A sailing vessel would fly a flag allied with their enemy to close to cannon range and open up with a broadside attack. Again, under modern law, if the ship swaps out it’s flag before opening fire, that’s legal, if it engages while baring the enemy’s flag, that’s a war crime.

There’s similar logic for crossing back over into friendly territory, with the added caveat that this is very dangerous. You soldiers would need to approach a friendly patrol or checkpoint while clearly surrendering. There’s some details here: It’s a war crime to execute a surrendering combatant, and that should buy your characters enough time to explain who they are. Now, keep in mind, they’ll be taken into custody, until their identities are confirmed. But, that doesn’t reflect on them in any real way.

Also, even though it’s a war crime, this is still a very dangerous situation. A jumpy recruit might accidentally shoot them. A soldier who doesn’t care may simply open fire before they can identify themselves. This is not a good situation to be in, but it’s automatically fatal, if everyone involved keeps their head and follows the law.

If their mission was to secure the vehicle, it’s probable they’d have some extraction protocol to ensure they weren’t staring down the barrel of a friendly fire incident. Probably a set location that was briefed that they’re arriving, and bringing the vehicle (or whatever the actual payload is) back. Of course, if things go wrong, they could end up stumbling into a friendly checkpoint as a last resort.

A detail here is, if they were trying to steal something, or extract a VIP, that vehicle, and the disguises are probably the best way to achieve their goals. Also, yeah, that is a legitimate ruse de guerre use of enemy gear.

Again, I am condensing a fairly complicated legal situation into a very clean line, while reality is far muddier. Also, in some situations, this may not matter. Guerrilla forces may not care about pesky things like war crimes, for example.

So, is it a good idea? Normally, no. However, sometimes it’s the most expedient option available.

-Starke

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Q&A: Lessons from Dragon Age 2

regarding your latest dragon age analysis, you state that dragon age used to be great at one point. while i agree, and origins is still one of my favorite video games of all time story-wise, i would like to know if this is actually your opinion or just what i want to hear? because i personally think that in the latest game they really lost track of what made the past games really good, but I’m not sure if that’s your opinion.

It’s not. I found Origins underwhelming, with both design, writing, and business decisions that I’d call questionable at best. The business decisions fall well outside the scope of this blog, and I covered my issue with the game design last week.

I realize it’s a dark horse in the fandom, but the only Dragon Age game I really like is 2.  The writing does a couple things very well, giving the game a truly unique flavor from the rest of Bioware’s releases. That’s kind of the problem. So, there’s four things discuss, that are worth taking a moment.

Dragon Age 2 does a good job with shades of gray morality. In most Bioware titles, it’s easy to identify the good/evil dynamic. To borrow a phrase, your choices split between being a saint, or eating babies. That’s not true in DA2. The game presents you with a lot of situations where both sides have legitimate positions, and you’re left with some difficult choices. This can easily leave you feeling like, no matter which way you went, you’d made a mistake. There’s a true to life quality to this, and it fits well with the overarching tone the game is following, but if you came here for a conventional power fantasy, the game shanks you at almost every turn. This is something that Origins claimed it would do, but 2 delivered, and the community’s reaction was less than enthusiastic.

It’s story and setting are serious, it’s characters aren’t. Origins and Inquisition both inject their humor into the events around the characters. Sometimes these are the result of character action, but often these jokes are delivered deadpan by the world. This is a familiar beat in tabletop roleplaying games, where the GM chooses to be a smart ass for a second, but it’s incongruous with the setting that the development team was trying to sell.

DA2 doesn’t do this, nearly as much. Most of the humor there comes directly from the characters responding to the horrific events around them. Again, there’s an uncomfortable truth to this kind of behavior; humor is often a defense mechanism. It’s a way to deal with things that are too horrible to deal with. In contrast to a normal heroic story, this is an arc of people falling apart, or struggling against it. There’s a corrosive quality to the events story, where characters simply trying to survive and cope with the things they’ve seen. This can leave you with the impression that these are truly horrible people, and over the course of the story, a few of the recurring characters become far less palatable than they were at the beginning.

It violates audience expectations from the developer. This isn’t automatically a good thing, and the fan reaction can probably serve as a warning against this kind of behavior. DA2 is very critical of the normal Bioware game, to the extent that it’s almost an inversion. Your character starts in a relatively stable city surrounded by loyal friends and family, but as the story progresses, the city falls to ruin, the friends and family start to scatter or die. While Hawke, the protagonist, becomes more politically important, they become more disconnected and isolated. The opening cutscene even tells you, this isn’t the story of how a scrappy hero arrived to save the day, it’s the story about how someone who tried to make things better served as a catalyst for the unspoken chaos that followed. This is more in line with authors like Michael Moorcock than Bioware’s normal stable.

If you picked up 2 after playing Origins,  you’d be greeted by a mostly unfamiliar setting. There are some superficial similarities, the game’s prologue and first chapter play out during the events of Origins, however, almost immediately the tone is unrecognizable, for a number of reasons. First, and foremost, Dragon Age 2 is in a completely different fantasy genre from every other game in the series.

I mentioned Michael Moorcock earlier, and there are some hints of Elric of Melniboné in Dragon Age 2, but the major influence, visible up front, is Lankhmar. From Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, the city of Lankhmar was a fantasy pastiche of contemporary New York City. The strange confounding, almost ungovernable mess should be immediately familiar to any player who spent any time wandering Kirkwall in Dragon Age 2. The similarities aren’t just in the architecture or denizens, but in the borderline feral quality that resists governing. Leiber’s opportunistic rogues are also instantly recognizable as kindred spirits for Hawke and party. Even the narrative structure of the game, as multiple semi-connected vignettes is very reminiscent of the short stories. There’s still a lot of Warhammer here, but it’s marinating with a diverse array of influences, and the result is something completely different.

There are some major flaws. Some critical exposition for understanding what’s going on in the city are buried in an unmarked collectible sidequest, leaving many players with the impression that the events happened for no reason. (This may have been impossible to complete on some platforms due to a bug, making things worse.) The ending is rushed, probably owing to an abbreviated development cycle.

In spite of how the community rejected Dragon Age 2 at the time, I think it’s probably the single best example of writing from Bioware. I can understand the people who didn’t like the gameplay experience. I can understand the people who felt betrayed. They were promised a specific kind of experience, and were delivered something unexpected and, at times downright vicious. Personally, I still prefer something that takes risks, and commits, more than a writer that plays it safe, even when it doesn’t quite work out. Also, the sarcastic personality was shockingly close to my outlook on Dragon Age after playing Origins, so that probably helped a bit.

-Starke

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Q&A: General Terminology

What would be the difference between using a knife and using a dagger in combat?

I know you included your name, but I’ve anonymize it, because I don’t want this to sound like a teardown of you.

“Knife” is a catch all term. It includes an incredibly diverse range of bladed implements, ranging from kitchen utensils to combat tools and technical equipment. So, it wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate to say that there’s no such thing as, “a knife,” in any definitive sense; there are many knives, not just one.

Daggers are, slightly more uniform than that. They usually refer to double edged knives intended for use in combat; and yes, daggers are knives. These might be offensive weapons or parrying tools, and each of those are different weapons. These would later evolve into more specialized variants, like the stiletto; which is a dagger, and not a dagger.

That’s the problem. These aren’t two separate weapons. Not like asking, “what’s the difference between a sword and an axe,” for example.

There is a legitimate question here: “How do you use different kinds of knives in combat?” Unfortunately, the answer is almost as diverse. There are knives designed to parry your opponent’s mainhand weapon. There are narrow blades designed to be inserted through gaps in their armor. There are broad blades, designed to carry themselves via their weight. There are serrated blades designed to do as much tissue damage on the way in and out. This is before you consider curved blades designed to slice more effectively, straight blades for piercing stabs, and a dizzying array of different combinations of designs.

-Starke

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Q&A: Good Writers Steal: Understanding Dragon Age and Pillars of Eternity

You know when you compare the lore of Dragon Age and Pillars there a lot of similarities and it wouldn’t be that hard to put both settings in the same world.

No, they really don’t fit together.

This is kind of ironic, because that’s how we got Dragon Age‘s setting in the first place, and why I’m answering this.

Let’s start with what the two settings still have in common. Both games are based around evolving D&D into a new, non-licensed system. In both cases, the long term goal was to pave over some of the more idiosyncratic elements, and create new settings that could be used without raising the ire of Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast.

In both cases, they started with an approximation of D&D’s Forgotten Realms setting, and then started mixing in other inspirations; and that’s when the wheels come off this wagon.

To condense: Forgotten Realms is a “standard, Tolkienesque fantasy world,” where numerous immensely powerful civilizations have fallen into ruin. There’s a full chronology of empires rising and falling throughout the setting’s history. The modern cultures often live directly adjacent to civilizations so advanced that their residual magic defies comprehension. This is the setting of games like Neverwinter NightsBaldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and the MMO Neverwinter, along with, literally, hundreds of novels.

Pillars of Eternity starts from that point, and plants the clock firmly in the 17th century (though the overall technology doesn’t perfectly match any specific point in history.) It then uses the altered setting to talk politics and philosophy. Up front, I’m a fan of this kind of approach to fantasy. Speculative fiction is at its best when it has something to say, and can do it without getting preachy. Taking your “normal” fantasy prejudices, and then pulling that apart and using it as allegory has a lot of merit. I’m also a big fan of taking a setting (in this case, the “standard fantasy setting”) and pushing the clock forward, asking, “what happens next?” What does colonialism look like in a world where you have dragons and wizards?

On the surface, Dragon Age may look somewhat similar. There’s no colonial themes, firearms, or advanced sailing ships, but it is building off of the same, standard fantasy setting template. Where Pillars looked to real history, Dragon Age went someplace a little different: Warhammer.

I’ve talked about Warhammer Fantasy before. A lot like Pillars it’s adapting the fantasy setting to a specific historical era, in that case it’s target is the late 15th, early 16th century. It’s less interested in saying anything, but it was designed for a tabletop strategy game, where the narrative was, at best, ad hoc. Along the way, it’s embraced the mindset of the era, and pulled a lot of the conflicting tones from that time in history together into a weird amalgam. This is a setting where the church is under siege from literal daemons, instead of the protestant reformation. It’s a setting where new ideas are starting to stream in, and simultaneously are mixed with incredibly dangerous concepts that threaten to, quite literally, rip the universe apart.

I love Warhammer; it is a brilliantly stupid setting, and within that context it has a real identity. I know I said I like settings that have something to say, but you can get by on sheer charm. Warhammer is an incredibly bleak setting that turns the pitch black horizon into comedy.

Warhammer is a postlapsarian world. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, this is a concept from Christian literature holding that humanity is a fallen race; separated from divinity for our sins. Warhammer pulls this out as part of the philosophies and outlooks that define its era, and runs screaming into the night with it.

Like, Warhammer, Dragon Age is also postlapsarian. The specifics are different, and more solidly tied to human hubris. It’s setting mimics middle ages Catholic church politics, complete with the schism between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. It skips over the Protestant reformation that dominates Warhammer’s thoughts on the subject, but some of that is a function of time.

The biggest difference is tone, and part of the reason why I’ve spent 700 words leading up to a tear down.

Dragon Age wants to be a serious game, about serious people, doing serious things. If it would make up its mind, or lighten up a bit, it could have been pretty great. (Or, arguably was.) Now, let me explain why I sidetracked into talking about Warhammer up there: Dragon Age is a poorly executed riff on Warhammer, not Forgotten Realms.

In Dragon Age/Warhammer, mages are unstable and risk corruption by demons/daemons from the fade/warp. They’re constantly struggling to keep control over themselves, and the demons/daemons are always nibbling at the edges of their minds. If a mage loses control they can become possessed by a demon/daemon, and become an abomination/a daemon, physically transforming the unfortunate mage in grotesque ways. Because of this, mages are hunted down by Templars/Templars of Sigmar, sometimes/usually called Witchunters, who have enormous authority granted to them by The Chantry/The Church of Sigmar.

Travel through the fade/warp is possible, but extremely dangerous without a trained mage (or a functioning Gellar field in WH40k), this can allow an experienced mage to travel vast distances (Warp travel is technically an FTL system.) The fade/warp is a substructure of reality shaped by the subconscious psychic energy of the universe’s population, and the demons/daemons within are direct manifestations of vices/base emotions.

Civilization is threatened by incursions from the Darkspawn/Chaos, a mix of strange fade tainted/chaos warped creatures, who come from the south/north, but can pop up nearly anywhere.

Now, to be fair, there are differences between the settings, the Dwarves are being pushed to the edge of extinction in a handful of holds, having lost their once grand empire because of prolonged combat with the darkspawn/greenskins (orcs, goblins, and some other critters.) I also, don’t really want to get into a full discussion of the similarities between the Lizardmen and the Qunari, because that quickly gets esoteric. There’s also a lot of armies in Warhammer that simply don’t appear in Dragon Age. Some like the Skaven and Greenskins appear to have been rolled with the Chaos armies, others like the Vampire Counts, Tomb Kings, High Elves, Dark Elves, and Wood Elves are basically absent.

So, where’s the problem? A couple things.

It doesn’t bother me that Dragon Age was heavily inspired by Warhammer. After all, Warcraft also began life as a Warhammer game, and that splintered off into its own identity. Everything we do as writers builds on things we’ve consumed. The material you read will seep into the things you write. That’s fine. That’s the nature of being a creative. Look outside yourself, see things, take a look, and incorporate the parts that make sense.

You’ve heard the old quote, “good writers borrow, great writers steal?” That’s here. You see a neat thing in text, in a game, or on screen, you’ll remember it, you’ll try to snarf it up and consume it. It becomes a part of you, it affects how you look at the world (even in a small way), and will affect your writing. This means that, most of the time, when you see someone saying, “they just ripped off X,” and list one or two things, it’s not.

In taking inspiration, see something you like, take it, digest it. Look at the concept from all sides. Roll it around in your head. Ask yourself what it means when it gets dropped into your work. Don’t just lift entire systems, or characters, and transplant them without considering them. The goal is that, on the other end there’s no way to know, and that the previous paragraphs I wrote where I describe both settings with a simple proper noun replacement scheme can’t happen. (And, I could have gone on for a lot longer. The similarities vastly outnumber the differences.)

If Dragon Age‘s setting is Warhammer, it’s rules are Forgotten Realms. This is something of a problem. You’re presented with one system for how the setting works in text, prose, and fluff, and you’re presented with a completely different setting when you actually engage with the material directly. I wish I could say this is a problem unique to games with narratives, but that’s not entirely true. This can become a problem any time a writer establishes one set of rules for the, “little people,” of their world, and a different set of rules for their protagonists.

Magic in Warhammer is dangerous. A wizard is channeling the power of the warp, and hoping they can keep control over it. In Dragon Age, magic is described as dangerous, and in both cases the characters risk drawing the attention of a demon/daemon. But, in actual game play, the only threat Dragon Age mage faces from casting is running out of mana. Magic can never slip from their control reeking havoc outside of a cutscene. Untold horrors can’t spill forth from a tear in the fabric of reality. They’ll never be possessed against their will (again, outside of a scripted sequence, when the power of plot compels them.) Dragon Age‘s magic is built off of Forgotten Realms (even though it ditches D&D’s Vancian system), because the gameplay was designed without regard for the setting. Or, put another way, the protagonists follow different rules from the rest of their setting.

As a writer, if you look at Dragon Age you need to assess that fundamental cognitive dissonance first.

There is another piece of dissonance between Dragon Age and Pillars, their approach to humanity. (I’m abbreviating here, as both settings have many non-human individuals that fit inside this context of this argument, while still being explicitly something other than human.)

Postlapsarian views humans as fundamentally fallen. Pillars solidly rejects that entire thought process. There’s a full state of nature debate in there, and if you really believe people can’t be trusted to managed their own bowels, you have the option to say so, but the story doesn’t endorse this. Dragon Age enshrines the idea that people broke the world, and all of the horrific monsters wandering the world are their fault. In Dragon Age magic is an emblem of (and conduit to) that original sin. In Pillars magic is another tool for advancing civilization’s understanding of the world (in addition to being a highly destructive weapon that’s significantly affected the setting’s history.) In fact, the metaphysics of Pillars are under the control of characters. This is reminiscent of how D&D’s gods tend to be ascended adventurers, but it creates a setting where the sentient races are in control of their destiny, and aren’t being told they need to atone for anything.

If you want to take two settings and blend them together, the first step is to pull them apart and start sifting through the individual pieces. See how they connect to the rest of the setting/story, and ask yourself what it affects and if it makes sense. Also, remember you’re free to disagree with the authors on their conclusions. Don’t simply take something, make it your own first.

-Starke

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Q&A: Invisible Enemies

My antagonist can turn invisible. Is it possible to fight/kill him?

Yes. Invisibility is not the same as invulnerability. It’s a significant combat advantage, but like all advantages, it’s something your characters need to plan around.

Off hand, two approaches come to mind. You can either come up with a plan that negates the invisibility, as much as possible, or find ways to deal with your antagonist that completely sidestep direct combat.

Negating invisibility depends, in part on how the power functions. If it’s technological, there may be systemic limitations.

Someone cloaking themselves from the visual wavelength may still be visible in the infrared spectrum, or ultraviolet. Meaning you might be able to find them using thermal goggles, or with blacklights. You may be able to disrupt their cloak using a rapidly changing environment, for example with dance club lighting and strobes. If you’ve watched the Predator films, there’s also the possibility that their adaptive camouflage can’t handle exposure to water. Even failing that, it might not be able to conceal foreign objects striking them. Meaning dust, sand, snow, or of course, blood may cling to their body, partially exposing their location.

If they’re only invisible, they will interact with their environment. This means things like leaving footprints, brushing aside cobwebs or foliage. If they’re moving through smoke, dust clouds, or any other airborne particulate matter, they probably can’t conceal that either, so you’d likely see some hints at their movement if you paid enough attention. That same particulate matter may cling to them, meaning they wouldn’t be fully invisible for long. You may not be able to see them, but if you’re looking for something moving around, you should see some traces. Of course, all of this requires that your characters know what they’re dealing with.

Another fun possibility with technology is that they may still cast a shadow. Their cloak may be able to replicate the image behind them, but it probably can’t emit light at the same intensity of the sun, or even a streetlamp without resulting in some seriously strange lighting behavior.

Another possible approach is that light actually lenses around the character. This is, in theory, the technology behind the cloaking devices in Star Trek. So, they wouldn’t be emitting light, directly, just passing it around them without leaving a shadow. There is one problem with this, your eyes function by being struck by incoming light. If you lens the light around an object, it is invisible, because the light you’re seeing will never actually contact the object and bounce off, but it will also render the user blind (while the field is active.) There are ways around this, but the short version is, their eyes (or goggle lenses) need to be visible, or they can’t see. I’m not saying that a pair of disembodied, glowing, red eyes is better, but it is a functional limitation based on physics, depending on how the technology they’re using works. Somewhat obviously, this isn’t a problem if they’re using some kind of chameleon style equipment.

So, this is all technological, but there are harder to pin down options. Magic is open ended and sets its own rules. It may follow physics, or it may not give a damn. So, let’s look at another easy to manage example, your antagonist isn’t actually invisible, instead, like The Shadow, they have the ability to prevent others from seeing them. In this case, most of the things I just described wouldn’t work. They could pass through fog without betraying their presence because your characters are psychically prevented from realizing they’re there.

This comes with a host of different considerations. For one, your antagonist’s ability to remain invisible is directly tied to their mental state and control. If they’re taunting from the shadows, it may be possible (though difficult) to work their nerves in return. There may be other factors they can’t control. This is also far more strictly dependent on your antagonist having full control over their environment. For example: They can’t mask themselves from someone they don’t know exists or a security camera.

That’s the hard way. The easy way is if you have a vague idea of where they are, simply lock them in, or set the building on fire. Sure, they might be able to escape. But, that’s why you lock the doors first.

Invisibility is a strong advantage, but you can work around it. It’ll just take some advanced planning, and some idea of what their limitations are. So, that’s your characters’ first goal, find those limitations, and then operationalizing a way to use those against them.

I cited Predator earlier. It’s not a great film (though, you’re welcome to disagree with me on that point), but it is about an invisible alien hunting film’s most improbably armed search and rescue team. In your case, I’d also recommend the sequel, Predator 2. Set a decade after the first, it includes characters who are specifically looking for ways to circumvent the Predator’s cloaking system. It’s also got a lot of visual fodder to play with for how a personal cloaking device might look in an urban environment.

If you can look past the uncomfortable Orientalism, 1994’s The Shadow is probably one of the most easily accessible versions of a character who masks their presence psychically. It’s also a better film than it has any right to be, even if the CGI is very dated now. If you’re going the psychic or magical route, this one may be worth looking at. To be fair, this is a character that’s been in print for almost 90 years, so it’s not like there’s a shortage of material to choose from. However, the ’94 incarnation just happens to be a very good, period, superhero film.

Invisibility is one of those superpowers that demand a little more creativity. That’s all. You can kill ’em.

-Starke

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Q&A: Delta and HRT

Hi, I’m writing an urban fantasy where the deuteragonist is a former member of Delta Force and FBI Special Agent who works with the FBI Hostage Rescue Teams as an instructor. Any tips for the do’s and don’t for hostage rescue situations?

Okay, I’m going to chew on the background for a second. Your character sounds like a unicorn. It’s not. The combo is a lot more plausible than it first seems, but it sounds a bit out there.

Delta Operators are vanishingly rare. The exact size of the organization is classified, but best guess is that there’s only around 250 – 300 Delta Force Operators cleared for field work or hostage recovery at any given time.

I’m not clear on exactly how many Hostage Rescue Teams the Bureau maintains, but it’s also a short list. If your character trains the HRTs, that’s a full time job.

The reason the Delta to FBI thing strikes me as weird, beyond simply collecting alphabet soup, is that Delta trains FBI HRTs, and, the FBI’s HRT instructors train Delta. It’s a symbiotic ouroboros. Both groups practice some of the same tactics, though the exact methodology varies. This leaves me with a simple question of, “why?”

Why leave the military, to go to the Bureau to do the same job with the same people, and a fraction of the benefits? This doesn’t mean you can’t, or that someone wouldn’t, just remember it’s probably unnecessary. Your Delta instructor could very well know and have trained your HRT member protagonists with no extra layers mixed in.

Given this is urban fantasy, that might be your reasoning. Characters like Ultraviolet‘s Vaughn Rice (Idris Elba) come to mind. They’ve seen horrific things in mundane organizations, and were inducted into clandestine monster hunting agencies because of their experiences.

Though, I’m not 100% certain the HRTs a good fit. Especially if your setting has Delta, or more specialized groups tasked with countering supernatural threats and monsters. If that’s the case, you might want to trim one of those off. Your character went from Delta or HRT into their monster hunting organization, rather than stacking up multiple “elite” backgrounds, even if they are justifiable together. I guess, one entirely plausible explanation is if your character is setting up their own agency, and tap your Delta/HRT to bring the new program up to speed. That would track. Still strange that they’d follow that career path, but it would certainly bump their resume up the pile, when searching for recruits.

To be fair, there’s also a lingering question of, “why isn’t this guy your protagonist?” They may, very well, be a more interesting character than whomever you planned to run with. This isn’t a strike against them if you’re careful. Just, be aware that you may need to up your protagonist’s game to keep them engaging.

As for actual hostage rescue tactics, I’m not the best person to ask. My original primer was via The Negotiator. It’s a good film (if you can still stomach Kevin Spacey), but not something I’d call educational. A quick search did turn up this article on PoliceOne.com. I’m not particularly familiar with the site, but the information tracks with what I do know, and the psychological methods presented are solid, so, it seems legit. There’s also a much more in-depth primer on HowStuffWorks.com. It’s not comprehensive, but should fill in some minutiae that the PoliceOne article skimmed over. You may also want to ask @Skypig357 for his opinion.

I’m also left with questions for how viable hostage rescue would be when dealing with supernatural threats. Though, I suppose, in a context like the Nightwatch novels, or Men in Black, where you’re dealing with the supernatural as just another law enforcement headache, it’s certainly possible.

-Starke

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Q&A: Science Fiction Melee

Are there still advantages to bladed weapons in a futuristic setting? (Assuming sci-fi weapons like laser guns are commonly used in the setting) There are obviously uses of small blades like knives, but are swords still plausable? I’ve seen a few shows and books set in the future where energy swords or similar weapons are used

Without accounting for specific situational factors, no. Once you have ranged weapons that can be used to quickly neutralize multiple opponents in short succession, and remain viable at melee ranges, there’s no real place for a pure melee weapon.

Knives, axes, and hammers are something of an exception because they have value as utility tools, that can double as an emergency weapon. Though, I am reminded of the email in Doom 3 questioning a shipment of chainsaws to Mars. It’s probably worth remembering what those tools are used for before you simply drop them into your ship’s storage locker.

While we’re on the subject of using tools as emergency weapons and video games, I’m also reminded that most of the arsenal from the Dead Space were re-purposed mining and engineering tools. (At least in the first two games, anyway.)

So, that’s without specific settings that would justify the existence of a sword in your space opera. There’s, obviously, quite a few science fiction settings that do gleefully chuck a box of swords at the combatants and force them to sift through for various reasons.

The primary reason you’d be seeing swords in sci-fi is cultural. Lots of settings envision a distant future where culture has degraded to some prior point for whatever reason. Dune is probably the ur-example here, where human civilization has been reduced down to a feudal state, governed by noble houses. In a setting like that, you could easily see the sword used as a ceremonial weapon, in duels, or other specific circumstances. To be fair, Dune also replaces the sword with daggers for mostly aesthetic reasons, but the effect is still similar. Dune also challenges the use of ranged weapons with body shields. These, expensive, items block kinetic ranged weapons, and detonate in a nuclear blast when struck with lasgun fire. So, there’s an exemption to the ranged only rule above.

The lightsabers from Star Wars are another special case. In the hands of a trained force user they can (effectively) negate incoming blaster fire, meaning they do offer an exemption to the ranged rule.

Warhammer 40k finds a similar exemption by simply increasing the resilience of its inhabitants until you have a setting where fans sarcastically refer to energy rifles capable of reducing humans to red mist as “flashlights” because they do nothing to many of the setting’s inhabitants. To be fair, if something can survive direct lasgun fire (40k “borrows” the term directly from Dune), you’re probably not going to get very far swinging a mundane sword at it.

Because, sci-fi settings encompass such a massive range of potential environments, it’s probably important to point out that there are a lot of reasons you might see melee weapons on the loose. The above just a couple possible reasons, but let’s codify these without tying them to explicit examples.

Ceremonial usage is a big one. This means you probably wouldn’t see swords being used during boarding actions, but you would see them around, and people from the social classes who needed them could be reasonably expected to know how to use them should it be the most expedient option. This could be because civilization has degenerated into a kind of clan or great house structure. Generally speaking, ritualized dueling works in a system where you have disputes between individuals, but can’t politically afford to adjudicate punishment. This makes the most sense in feudal systems, or intra-faction conflicts in an unstable coalition. Again, Dune‘s Great Houses are an excellent example of this kind of situation.

Another big, potential, reason is if ranged weapons are rendered ineffective or risky in certain situations.

One of the classic examples is using high power kinetic weapons on a starship where you’re risking a hull breach with every gunshot. Depending on the nature of your energy weapons, (and the overall technologies used for maintaining structural integrity) this may be more or less of a consideration. If your setting’s ships can use force fields to maintain atmosphere punching a hole in the hull with a stray gunshot will be far less dangerous than if that means the ship is losing air, with no way to replace it. As your weapons become more powerful, this risk becomes more significant. That said, the hull breach situation comes with a mix of other considerations. If your setting has body armor that can resist small arms fire, it’s likely that your ships would share that construction. It’s also entirely possible that boarding teams would operate in sealed environmental suits, capable of exposure to hard vacuum, and more ruthless groups might intentionally trigger hull breaches during their boarding actions. The risks involved may also heavily depend on kind of ranged weapons your characters are using. Kinetic weapons with very high penetration may pose a much greater threat here than handheld particle beam weapons.

Another potential situation where you have technologies specifically designed to suppress the effect of specific weapon types. Personal shielding technology, or exosuit armor are potential examples. Of course, if it is armor, simply pulling out a sword probably isn’t going to do much, unless the sword circumvents the armor somehow. But, if you have a setting where body shields that can survive multiple plasma hits are semi-common, you might very well see people using swords, or similar weapons, to bypass them. To, be fair, you may also see the development of new weapons designed to bypass or overload those shields, so it’s not like this automatically means you’d see melee weapons.

Another possibility is when dealing with primitive cultures. If you’re dealing with a post-apocalyptic sci-fi setting, where some prior galactic civilization fell, leaving colonies cut off, you might come across planets where advanced technology fell completely out of use. I’ve argued against this in a strict context of post-apocalyptic settings before, but colonies introduce a new wrinkle, where you could potentially have a population base who knew how to use advanced energy weapons, did not have practical knowledge of  kinetic firearms, and lost access to the latter. This could result in a full on regression, over a long enough time frame (figure several thousand years, at a guess.) So it is, theoretically possible you might have lost colonies that have regressed back to spear and bow warfare. What happens if human ships visit one of these lost colonies is, of course, up to you.

There is one hard part when it comes to defining a state of existence for science fiction, and it does show in this question. I used a few examples. Star Wars is generally accepted as existing in its own timeline. It’s science fantasy, and that’s fine. Both of the video game examples, along with a lot of sci-fi settings like Star Trek are near future. They’re set within one thousand years of present day. Stuff like Dune or Warhammer 40k are a lot harder to pin down. Dune is set sometime in the 24th millennium, and 40k draws it’s name from being set in the 41st millennium. Both of those settings juggle their overall technology by technological dark ages, but it does start to peal the lid off questions of, “what will the technology look like?” Meaning you need to address those concepts in much more general terms.

So, in short, “probably not,” but you might be able to assemble a setting where swinging swords around like it’s the golden age of piracy does, in fact, make sense.

-Starke

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Q&A: A Hunter’s Tools

In fantasy stories, the bow and arrow is an overused choice of weapon. What other weapons are there that I can give my huntress heroine for effective use in the woods? She’s skilled in a variety of weapon use, such as swords and daggers and other things, but I want to give her one weapon that she excels at.

I’m not sure if it’s really overused. The bow is a very versatile hunting tool. Slings were used to deal with predators, and could be lethal, but aren’t usually associated with hunting in the same way, at least in fiction. Slingshots can be used to deal with small game, though those date to the 19th century.

Slings date to the neolithic period, and are formed with multiple lengths of cord connected to a pouch which holds a (usually stone) projectile, called a “bullet.” The user spins the weapon, releasing one of the straps to release the projectile into flight. With practice, these can be surprisingly accurate. Historically they were used as military weapons during the bronze and iron age. Though, as I said, I’m not sure on their use in hunting.

The bolo is somewhat similar to the sling. This is a thrown weapon with multiple weights, joined together by a flexible line. The weapon is thrown by spinning one of the weights and releasing, so that it will tangle the target’s legs dropping it.

The atlatl is a paleolithic weapon, dating back approximately 30k years. These consist of a simple shaft with a cup designed to hold a spear (or dart.) The butt of the spear is loaded into the cup, with the atlatl’s shaft under the spear. The user then launches the spear by “swinging” the atlatl. Because of the length of the shaft, this effectively magnifies the initial launching force from the projectile. I’m unsure of the exact timeline for use in Europe. There are surviving examples dating back 17k years, but I don’t know exactly when they fell out of use. In the Americas, they were still used, sometimes in preference over, bows up to the time of European colonization. (In fact the name, atlatl is of Aztec origin.)

Failing that, it’s worth remembering that the spear. These things have been around longer than homo sapiens, and we’ve been using them to catch dinner and poke holes in people we don’t like for almost all of our existence. They’ve been used for hunting, in warfare. They’ve been thrown, used as melee weapons. If your character hunts, especially in a low-tech setting, it’s a virtual certainty that they’d use a spear, at least some of the time.

Also, the spear would be the preferred tool for killing a wounded animal, as it allows the hunter to remain at a safe distance; closing in with the knife would be borderline suicidal, especially against wounded herbivores.

Following closely behind the spear are traps. We’ve been getting creative and killing things by turning the environment to our advantage throughout history. These include pit traps, where you dig a small trench, and line it with sharpened sticks, cover it with leaves, and then startle an animal through it. Deadfall traps, where a rock or other heavy object is suspended over bait, when the targeted animal approaches it, the suspension is removed or cut. Finally, snares are another common trap, where a cable or rope latches onto and holds the animal that trips it. In some cases, these are combined with bending tree branches to tension, in order to suspend the target. We don’t usually think of traps as weapons, but they’ve been an important part of human hunting throughout our history.

I’m going to say this again for emphasis. If your character is a hunter in anything other than a modern setting, they should be using traps. Full stop. These were a vital tool for hunters historically, so it’s worth your time to look into those in a little more depth.

Another incredibly important hunting tool is a dog. They’re not as durable as a human, but they are far more mobile, especially in dense areas, and can be incredibly useful for driving prey into traps, or tracking wounded prey across difficult terrain. It’s easy to think of dogs as companions, but many breeds did have specific working roles, including hunting.

Also, worth remembering, the sword is for use on people. If your character is also hunting people, then that’s a natural fit. Otherwise, they probably wouldn’t own, or even know how to use a sword, unless there were other cultural factors at play. (For example, if your character is a game warden for some feudal lord, or a retired soldier they may have and use one.) The sword isn’t useful for hunting. So, unless your character is also a combatant, you can safely ditch this.

Depending on setting, it’s entirely possible your character would go hunting with a spear (or spears, if they intend to throw them), a sling, some snares, and a knife (for setting the traps.) They may also carry an axe, which might also double as a shovel for digging pits. Though that’s somewhat less likely. If they found themselves threatened by another person, the spear would function as an entirely effective weapon, so at that point the sword is somewhat unnecessary. Depending on context, it’s entirely likely they’d have a dog (or some other animal that acts as a hunting assistant.)

I’d also recommend you take some time to research hunting tactics, with things such as lures and blinds. If you’re wanting your character to be a hunter, it’s probably a good idea to have a fundamental grasp of their job skills, even if you can’t replicate them in the wild.

-Starke

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