Category Archives: Q&A

Q&A: Gauss Rifles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some other details worth considering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

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Q&A: Uneven Balance is a Tension Killer

I have a scene in my book where the two main characters fight soon after meeting one another, in an area where no one else gets in their way and they have a lot of flat empty space. Both are very skilled, but only one of them has weapons. It’s set in medieval times, so they only have daggers and such. The character that isn’t armed needs to win, and I’m not entirely sure how, realistically, he would.

I’d ask what two highly skilled characters are doing getting into such a silly situation when they know better, especially the one caught without their weapons. However, real people do stupid things too.  For all I know, they might of been drinking. Just know, the higher the level of training then the less likely it is for two characters to fight when they don’t absolutely have to.  Justification is good. Make sure you’ve got a reason for them to fight that feels natural for both characters beyond needing them to fight for the plot. I don’t know why they’re fighting, for all I know it could’ve started off a drunken row with one yelling, “Anything you can do, I can do better! I can do anything better than you!

These characters don’t actually exist, but it’s important to get yourself in the habit of thinking they could die. I could die is one of the major thoughts that will occur in the mind of anyone who is highly skilled, and more likely to occur than it is with someone who isn’t sufficiently trained.

Hotheads to who jump into fights at a moments notice over a slight or insult with something to prove are beginners. They’re not (usually) seasoned soldiers. Seasoned combatants understand the costs and consequences of violence, both to themselves and the people around them. They’re more likely to make mental calculations regarding risk, assess risk, and decide whether they will or won’t fight. The soldier understands that violence is unpredictable, that death is sudden, and no form of combat is ever truly safe. One mistake is the difference between life and death. Characters who are skilled will avoid violence because they understand its costs. They have nothing to prove. Remember, a knife is one of those “hell no” weapons. No one wants to be anywhere near a knife when they’re armed with one of their own, much less unarmed.

I could die. Is this worth it? I don’t want to die. Is this worth my life?

Often in well-written fiction when you’ve got an incredibly skilled character jumping into fights all the time for no real reason, it’s because they have a death wish. When someone does want to die, simply doesn’t care about living any longer, or sees themselves as already dead then that changes the stakes. There’s also, “I like to fight” which often translates into “I like to kill” in regards to unrestrained violence. Unless there’s a rules set down, two highly skilled characters have an excellent chance of killing each other. The weapons one of these characters has brought to this fight, say, “yes, I do intend kill you. I will make you very dead.”

This doesn’t sound like its a duel, but if you were thinking it might be then I’ll lay down some facts.

Duels are highly ritualized as a form of combat, and come with very specific rules of what does and doesn’t constitute a duel. (Much less the people who can take part in them.) Duels, Code Duello, Medieval Duels. If you’re up for reading some Medieval Charters in regards to dueling as a legal means of settling disputes, here’s some. In some cases, they’re a means of settling a dispute or challenge to ones honor.  We still have duels today as a point of fact, it’s just the duelists and their swords have been replaced with lawyers. For a duel to be a duel, they’d both need to be armed. Usually with the same weapon, otherwise its not a test of skill or fair. Weapons inherently offer advantages over each other, and if you’re not fighting with the same weapon then that would be cheating. This fight between these two is not be what we’d call Right Honorable Combat, and its probably illegal.

“Daggers and such” covers a lot of ground.  It could mean one of these characters has daggers, swords, polearms, or even a flail. Also, when fighting with weapons, you’re usually fighting with intent to kill. If that wasn’t the other character’s intent, they might put their weapon away when facing off against the character who is unarmed. I’m going to assume this unarmed character is squaring off against an opponent who carries a dagger. However, I did note the plurality of weapons. You will immediately run into trouble if you don’t hammer down which weapon the unarmed character is facing, or if they decided to dual wield with the second weapon as defensive. Different weapons require different approaches as each comes with its own concerns. Distance is a major one. The only universal rule is: don’t get hit.

Start with the assumption one of these characters is actively trying to kill the other, if he wasn’t then he’d put the weapon away. Outside of highly ritualized and carefully moderate dueling structures where one might call for time at first blood, a highly skilled character will understand weapons are for killing. With weapons, especially bladed weapons, skill level isn’t a matter of deciding when you kill and when you don’t. It is a matter of deciding whether or not you care to risk your opponent’s death. If they were interested in a test of skill or even just a friendly hand to hand bought, they wouldn’t pull it to begin with. Your main character needs to win this duel because if they don’t, they’ll be either grievously wounded or dead.

Working under a predetermined outcome when writing a fight scene is the worst decision. What we want in our heads won’t necessarily translate to the page, and more importantly characters who know they’re going to live will behave differently from characters who don’t know they will. Simulating the chance of death in your mind by entertaining death as a possible outcome will force them and you to work harder. They’ve got to earn their right to survive.

Now, your character isn’t planning to win because the plot needs to progress. He’s fighting because he wants to live.

Feel the difference? We’re now six inches closer to real tension.

Highly skilled doesn’t translate to guaranteed survival, it just means you’ve got a better grasp of what’s happening, how screwed you are, and potentially have more tools to escape a bad situation. They allow the character to recognize the danger their facing, what the intent of their opponent is, and, hopefully, act accordingly before its too late. There is, however, only so much training can give. Weapons are one of the situations where an unskilled character can make up the difference against one who is highly skilled. Weapons are the great equalizer. A guy with a knife is a guy with a knife. Whether you’ve been training for five minutes or eight years, there’s a extremely high chance of death if you’re unarmed and unarmored. The difference between the person who has trained for five minutes and the one who trained for eight years is that the experienced one has a better understanding of what it means when someone pulls a knife. They know it means they’re at an 80% or greater chance of death. They know a wrong move could, at best, result in an injury they may never recover from. Their chance of victory is razor thin where the margin of error is next to none. This is why smart warriors don’t fight other people with weapons without weapons of their own or, if they cannot avoid it, change the rules.

I’m going to assume too that you’re going with the old Defeat Means Friendship trope. You want Character A to be fought to a standstill by Character B who disarms them, then when put under threat to their life surprises Character A by letting them live and giving them back their weapon. (Which promptly causes Character A to stab them if we’re being realistic, but that’s not what the trope is about. If you want this trope, please give the weapon back later.) The problem, of course, is you’ll completely undercut Character A’s combat ability if you do it wrong.

Personally, my favorite rendition of this trope is the 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood film with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland where Robin Hood dueled Little John on the bridge with a staff after Little John called him out over his bow. Robin took Little John’s challenge (he can’t resist a challenge), dueled with a weapon he was less familiar with, lost, and got dunked in the river. Their friendship was born out of Robin Hood’s good humor over his bath and his appreciation for Little John’s skill. (This is a great foreshadowing for the archery competition later in the movie.)

In the film, we had plenty of opportunities to see Robin’s skill earlier. Little John needed to establish himself. By having him beat Robin with the weapon that is his specialty, we as the audience understand how skilled he is. Just as when Friar Tuck fought Robin to a standstill later as Robin attempted to recruit him. (And his men pranked him about the good friar’s skill with a sword, aka they lied.) Robin’s friendships with his men evolve not from his skill or how he’s better than they are, but in his ability to handle defeat gracefully and genuinely appreciate their skills. In both moments, we see him duel to test out these potential recruits. In both, he gets a good dunking in the river that is entirely his own fault.

You see, Robin establishes his ability much earlier in the movie when he lays claim to the deer killed by Much the Miller to protect him from Sir Guy of Gisborne. He then carries it into Nottingham Castle. (Saxon taking an illegally killed deer into a castle full of Norman knights alone.) Dumps the deer carcass on Prince John’s table in the Great Hall during dinner, and proceeds to tell Prince John, Sir Guy, The Sheriff of Nottingham, Maid Marian, the Bishop of the Black Canons, and all his knights over the dinner he’s invited himself to that he’s planning sedition to fight John’s rule. After hearing him out, John attempts to have him killed by the castle’s men at arms and all the knights present. Robin, still alone, then fights his way out of the Castle.

In the process he shows off his sword skills, his archery skills, his moxie, his fluency with treason, his strategic/tactical ability, and his quick thinking. (The fight scene that follows is probably one of the best if you ever want to write one person versus a whole room full of people. It involves the fine art of running away with purpose and the occasional murder.)

We know about about Robin. We know he’s brash, reckless, and incredibly skilled. That’s why the later fights with Little John and Friar Tuck have so much meaning when it comes to establishing their skills. They can go toe to toe with the guy who strutted into Prince John’s castle as a wanted man then got back out again while the heavily armed and armored inhabitants tried to kill him.

Whatever purpose you have for this fight scene, it’s important to remember what it is establishing in the relationship between these two characters. Take the lesson from The Adventures of Robin Hood, and understand it isn’t enough just to win. The fight scene needs to be there for a reason. Perhaps, more importantly, the kinds of fight scenes you write must revolve around what you’re trying to say about these characters abilities. Two characters you want to be seen as evenly skilled need to fight evenly. Friendships aren’t built on superiority. The protagonist being beaten is a different category from all other fictional defeats, it doesn’t delegitimize them the way it will a character we spend less time with. For the protagonist, defeats they survive are learning experiences and we learn far more about a person by how they handle defeat than we do when they win.

Robin Hood isn’t less awesome because he loses to Little John at the bridge, he’s actually that much more incredible than he was before. We learn its not just his skills he appreciates, but those of the people who best him. We know Robin is willing to fight others on their terms for the fun of it, rather than his own. Little John being better than Robin at one skill doesn’t take away from Robin’s previous victories. Robin’s acceptance shows his abilities as a leader better than being superior with a staff he made five minutes prior.

A character fighting another character when they have a weapon and the other character doesn’t isn’t showing that both are equally skilled. It’s actually showing one with a significant advantage over the other. When the underdog beats him, the underdog is shown to be much more skilled. That’s the point of unevenly balanced fights in fiction.

Little John: “I’ve only a staff and you threaten me with a long bow and a gray goose shaft. Are you not man enough…?”

Robin Hood: “Give me time to get myself a staff.” – The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Two characters fighting with the same weapons are on an even field, this is a battle of skill. Two characters fighting with different weapons are unevenly balanced, the shifting advantages make the combat difficult and the scene becomes about one character problem solving around their disadvantage. A scene where two characters are highly skilled but one is armed and the other is not will end with the unarmed character either dying or proving they are that much more skilled than the one with the weapon.

Disarms are difficult against someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. There is no room for error, especially with a knife which can cut six different times in six different ways before you’ve a chance to grab it. Disarming someone who knows what they’re doing with their weapon is much harder.

A knife offers no room for error, every strike has the potential to be deadly. In order to disarm your opponent, you need to catch them by the wrist (not the knife) which puts one in direct line to get stabbed. You’ve got to catch the knife while simultaneously keeping yourself outside of stabbing distance. You can kick a knife out of someone’s hand, but then you don’t control it. You can attack the person instead of the knife as some self-defense disciplines encourage, with the theory being the person can’t use their knife if they’re disabled but so long as the knife is in hand that’s the present danger. Understand that inside their range the knife is as dangerous as the gun, if not more so. The knife is still as relevant today as a weapon as it was a thousand years ago. Think about that.

Daggers are essentially short swords, but the same principle is here. To stop a knife when one is unarmed, you need an immediate and brutal response. You need an immediate and brutal response when you’re armed too. This is not a weapon where you’re given time, consideration, and distance. It is fast, brutal, and over quickly. Any hit, even a glancing blow, has the potential to be end game. Character B can’t allow themselves to suffer no injuries, otherwise they’ll spend the next few months hoping their stitches don’t get infected or they’ll bleed out before they can get medical attention. This can be a problem as, against a knife, it’s often necessary to give up a body part in order to take it. It can’t strike other, more vital places if it’s in your hand. (Not a great option.) Or buried in the bone in your forearm. (Better.)

When fighting, one actually has to work around the knife. This is easier said than done, again knives are fast. They’re near modern fencing levels of fast while also much more deadly. They’ve got a lot less distance to cover and they’re very sharp. Forget about catching the blade unless your character has solid leather gauntlets (though those might get cut), metal is better.  They’re going to need to stop the arm long enough to take hold of the wrist and twist the dagger out of the enemy’s hands.

Disarms against weapons, especially when you have none of your own, are always incredibly dangerous. Skill means you can do them at all, but it doesn’t make them any safer or any more of a good idea. Gun disarms are for when you were going to get shot anyway, and you might as well go down fighting because there’s less than a 50/50 of success. Knife disarms are the same way.

The sad truth is that disabling someone is much more difficult than killing them, it is much riskier, and you’re much more likely to die in the attempt. We double that against someone who knows what they’re doing. Weapons are serious business and they’re designed around killing human beings.

Good fight scenes are about progressing the story forward. They teach us about the personalities of the characters involved, how they work, how they think, what their morals are, and they communicate more through the character’s actions than you think. Be careful with what you’re attempting to say.

An unarmed character disarming a mook with a knife will tell us a lot about their character without damaging anyone (except the mook we may never see again.) An unarmed character encountering and disarming another major character with a knife is a very different story, especially when this is the first time we meet them.

By and large, the rules of action are these:

  1. The protagonist is the baseline for understanding all narrative violence. They are the net point, all audience understanding of skill within the narrative begins with them. You want a character the audience understands is better than the protagonist? They beat the protagonist or beat someone established as being better than. (The villain murdering your martial arts master.) By constantly winning the protagonist undercuts everyone else.
  2. Have your protagonist lose or fight opponents to a standstill, usually on mostly even ground.
  3. They can defeat and disarm an important enemy, but only that enemy has thoroughly proved their worth in battle and you don’t wish to use them anymore. It can be a redemption kickstarter, but we need to witness their villainy and skills first. The hero better earn this win.
  4. Keep your characters on a relatively even playing field for tension unless there’s a very specific reason not to. Unarmed characters versus armed characters may seem like an easy way to establish skill, but you are catapulting them into a level of action you and they may not be prepared to make good on. (Also if one character beats another at the previous character’s specialty, what’s the point of that character?)
  5. Violence escalates and your story will escalate with it. Unless utilizing a different sort of action (see: Robin Hood), you can get caught in a cycle of enemies ratcheting ever higher in skill in order to maintain tension.
  6. Your villain is either more skilled than your hero or on an even keel with their own advantages that ensure they remain dangerous, no matter the humiliations they may suffer throughout the story. (Robin Hood steals Sir Guy of Gisbourne’s tax collection while he’s traveling in the forest, kidnaps him and his men, humiliates them, and makes them walk home. Sir Guy sets up an archery tournament and takes him captive, planning to hang him. He is saved by Marian, who sneaks out of the castle and visits his men with a plan.)
  7. Set your hero at the disadvantage, but stay within the realm of reason even when that reason may feel ridiculous. (Wesley fighting Fezzik in The Princess Bride.)
  8. Understand the kind of action you want in your story. Realism is the rules of reality within your setting. Worry about abiding by them and maintaining suspension of disbelief.
  9. Do not be afraid to humiliate your hero in order to set up the skills of other characters. If Character A is the protagonist, then Character B taking the knife from him could result in a good life lesson. (This is a traditional plot point when the protagonist meets their martial arts master. Not so great for showing two characters of equal skill level.)
  10. Inside out, rather than outside in. The justification of a fight is character driven as the character justifies the narrative. Violence is a means of problem solving, if your characters are not problem solving then they’re not using their skills effectively.
  11. Fight scenes are there to support your narrative, they do not have to be there. Don’t let the fight scene override the rest of your story. Act to maintain your tension.
  12. All violence must be paid off with resulting character interaction later in the narrative. Violence almost causes more problems than it solves.

Saying two characters are highly skilled is not enough, you need to show it and show it as a means that undercuts neither. A character who has already been proven as a great fighter earlier can lose to another in order to bolster that character’s cred with the audience. Remember, the POV character and protagonist always have more starting cred to their name than any other character.

I know that doesn’t exactly answer your question, but I hope it helps.

-Michi

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Q&A: Movement Hides Movement

I believe you’ve mentioned in the past about the ‘bouncing’ or ‘hopping’ that boxers/martial artists do to stay light on their feet, etc. but I don’t see HEMA/other weapon based martial arts doing this. Is there a reason why?

You see this in HEMA all the time, they’re just not bouncing with their feet. (Though you’ll see them do the shifting.) They’re moving their sword. Modern fencers bounce, they have to, they’ve got a lot of movement to cover. However, the sword tip flicking back and forth or circling off the wrist’s subtle shifting in the air working off the same principle as Ali’s “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” It may not be as visually pronounced, but it’s there.

See, you’re thinking that its about feet. It’s not just that, beginners make this mistake a lot. They see an action and assume that’s the answer instead of looking at the underlying principle then seeking to apply that principle to a different context. A warrior wielding a sword has different needs in order to be successful than a boxer fighting under very specific rules. Staying light on your feet is a matter of adjusting your stance so you lean forward onto the balls of your feet rather than sitting on your heel. This position allows for a shift into immediate action like a sprinter on the starting line.

Bouncing is footwork. It is footwork to cover your footwork that covers your footwork. The point of bouncing is to cloak the tells signaling when you’re about to strike by constantly staying in motion.

Your body has lots of tells for when it’s about to attack, it will betray you. Your eyes will betray you. (I mean it, if you don’t train your eyes to take in the whole body then they’ll move to their desired target point. Even moderately skilled fighters watch their opponent’s eyes and their chest.) Your feet will betray you. Your chest will betray you. Your hips will betray you. Your arms will betray you. Your legs will betray you. With a sword, it’s… in all those things and the weapon itself. Action is predicated by action. Some of those tells are more visible than others.  A single technique may look fluid to the outside observer, but it is actually a multitude of little actions chained together. Those actions have a beginning and they have an end. The beginning of the action is where the tell is. The beginnings of a technique predicate the strike and where it will go.

Martial arts trains the eye, especially your peripheral vision, to watch for movement rather than specific techniques. Your brain is trained to recognize patterns and respond to those patterns, predicting and preempting the act before it comes. This is how we block and how we dodge. You move when they move, move as they move. You don’t wait to see what they’ll do, then move. From the beginning motion of the eyes to the pectoral muscles to the shift in the shoulder, you can see the punch beginning. Blink and you’ll miss it.

Blocking and dodging are about timing. You want to block an incoming attack, you have to preempt. Catch it mid motion. In the middle, before the action completes. When the action passes past the chamber and into extension then its too late. Their momentum is behind them. You either need to redirect or get out of the way.

Bouncing, or shifting your weight back and forth from your front leg to your back, acts as a means to cover those crucial early seconds before an attack. You’re basically overloading the eye with motion so the brain has difficulty tracking which limb is moving when. It’s the basic act of giving yourself cover.

You’ve got to fake out the eye in order to get them to block, then strike somewhere unexpected. The high/low combination techniques you’ll see in many martial arts are devoted to this fake out. As are the bursting techniques of Krav Maga. (Krav Maga is extremely effective.) If you don’t do martial arts, I get why this might be a little more difficult to understand. This is maybe green belt level for strategic and technical understanding. Feints are easy to grasp in concept but difficult if you’ve never seen them in practice with other techniques. Also, there is a necessary component in understanding the interplay between a techniques success and its footwork. Or, even, just what footwork is. (Universally the most basic and fundamental part of a martial art, necessary to success, and also most overlooked.)

Muhammad Ali level bouncing is exhausting. Remaining constantly in motion is exhausting. 90% of the time when watching sparring practice, you’ll see the kids go from bounce, bounce, bounce to flat footed in less than a minute. It requires dedicated conditioning in order to sustain the pace. You will get tired much faster than if you remain still, you need to train for it and a lot of people don’t. This includes professional fighters.

Martial arts is not one size fits all, different schools are going to have their own means of cloaking their motion in order to hide their attacks. Different individuals are going to figure out their own ways of doing it. Though many in boxing mimic it now, Ali’s fighting style was revolutionary for his time.

-Michi

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Q&A: Basic Energy Weapons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

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Q&A: Hit Points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

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Misconceptions of the Rapier (Women do the Thing)

I don’t know if you’ve answered this before, but I’ve read that a rapier is actually harder to learn to use, then another sword (i think the longsword was the other comparison) if that’s true, how easily would a woman be able to wield it, with the proper training and teaching?

I’ll link Matt Easton’s video about misconceptions with the rapier.  It talks about what the rapier is in comparison to the longsword and what it isn’t, which is lighter and faster like a smallsword.

The question about women is irrelevant, swords literally weigh two and a half pounds. How easily would a woman be able to wield it? The same as it would be for a man.

I know the man versus woman debate is the initial knee jerk for most everybody, so the question on its own is not your fault. However, now is the time to start ridding yourself of it. When you’re looking to write action heroines that question is going to debilitate you far more than help. Cling to “can a woman do it?”, and you’ll never find the action hero’s mindset.  That question is valuable when looking at lens or perceptions through which others might judge the character, the questions the character asks themselves, or their own internal struggles against enforced gender norms, but has nothing to do with actual physical ability.

Skill in martial combat is a matter of training and experience. Patience, dedication, a willingness to try, and a teacher are all one needs. Arguments over sex and gender have even less value when it comes to weapons than they do when looking at hand to hand. Weapons are the great equalizers, they are designed to overcome the body’s advantages. The playing field is never level, not for anyone. However, writing female action heroes begins with the understanding that the challenges women face are social rather than physical. Just because society at large says, “not for you” doesn’t mean it’s true and that goes for everyone.

As for swords? Swords are designed to suit difference purposes. The rapier is a long sword (not a longsword), and primarily designed for its reach advantage rather than a speed advantage. It is longer than the longsword, which means it is more likely to hit first in a standard duel.

As for training? Asking about the difficulty in learning a basic subject is pointless, because your character is simply not going to have many choices when it comes to learning. The weapon you choose locks you more or less into the time period where the weapon comes from, and further limits the available choices. Weapons are designed to deal with the dangers of the times they exist in, they’re specific design choices rather than arbitrary. In this case, your needs against the opponents you’re facing are as important as your desires. An easy way to decide a character’s weaponry is this:

Time Period > Education Level/Income Bracket/Social Status > Available Training > Weapon.

Now, the rapier like many variants of swords was available for all levels and the skill level varied.  So, this is more a question of research ergo: “my character is an English peasant living circa 1568 AD” or “I’m basing my fantasy setting on the War of the Roses, my character is a noble…” etc.

Or we do our research in reverse:

Desire > Weapon > Time Period > Education Level/Income Bracket/Social Status > Available Training

Your character begins with a desire, “I saw X in a duel when I was five and decided I wanted to learn to wield a rapier like him!” then goes out to find a teacher, convinces teacher to teach them, learns weapon, then fights with weapon.

This is the evolution of how humans choose to pursue the combat arts. Inspiration creates a Desire, the desire then becomes a Goal, the goal leads them to Pursuit of Action, and that is their origin story.

We become good at a thing based on our enthusiasm for the thing, and that applies as much to martial training. The only time this rule doesn’t apply is when your character is a Chosen One, which yes, they have to do the thing regardless of whether they want to or not.

The world your character exists in decides which weapons they use. Weapons that no longer suit the field of combat are discarded, and new weapons are created. Those new weapons are not necessarily better than the old ones, they simply change based on survival needs. Weapon advantages and disadvantages aren’t universal either, so it’s best not to try and munchkin our way to victory in the stat pools.

If you were in a HEMA club and trying to decide which sword style you wanted to study first then a question of difficulty would be relevant. (Though the answer about difficulty will differ depending on who you ask, so its usually better to go with what interests you.)

There are women throughout history who wielded all sorts of weapons in combat. You just won’t hear about them if you don’t go looking for them.

There are tons of women who do HEMA.

The question as to whether or not a woman can fight with a rapier is dependent on a single question:

How much time has she dedicated to becoming proficient?

If she’s not practicing or isn’t consistent with her practice, then the answer is no. She isn’t.

If she is then the answer is probably.

-Michi

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Q&A: Multiple Monsters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

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Q&A: Write It

I’ve been a fan of this page for a long time, and this isn’t a combat question, but it is a writing question. I’ve had a horrible plot and character idea since I was eleven, a twist on religion and the multiverse. I do not want to write that idea, it’s confusing to myself even. Whenever I try and write something else, I suffer from writers block and can only think of that world. Is there an escape from this damnation?

Write it.

The answer to any idea that won’t leave you alone is to write it. You’re not eleven years old anymore, there are things you can do with this setting and this story that you couldn’t then. It’s hanging on because it wants to be told. You can lock it up in a deep dark place when you’re done and never show it to anyone. There’s writing Starke and I will never show or share with anyone.

Just do yourself a favor, escape from purgatory.

Let it out.

It doesn’t have to be in total, just in pieces. You can try letting it free then working on something else at the same time. Much as your conscious mind insists it’s a terrible idea, there is a part of you that is desperate for this story to get out. So, listen to this part of you.

Give it life.

You will not be judged by every horrible idea you begin with, and honestly many, many ideas are terrible in the beginning.  If we don’t let ourselves be awful we never give ourselves the chance to become great.

Writing is a process, like with everything. We never have all the answers in the beginning, just an idea. A spark that lives in the quiet corner of our minds. Most of us will never have an idea that emerges whole. When I get far enough in a story, (usually around 20,000 words) I need to step back and do research as a breather. I did through research materials and get a sense for where I want the world to be like. This is the part for me where the most interesting ideas happen, the story changes and a new plot emerges. Give your creative mind time to get there. What you imagine and what makes it onto the page will be different, and it will be further refined as time goes on.

This is also the part where I tell you that every single horrible thought and plot you think up has the potential to become your best writing. The bad ideas are the ones that initially sound good, then disappear on the evening tide. The really good ones? They’re the ideas that stick with you. They come back, time and again. There’s something in them which attracts your mind, a nugget of creative brilliance or some exploration you haven’t realized you need yet.

One of the most important truths as a writer is learning to listen to yourself. Beneath all the noise of the outside world, society, and our thoughts, there’s another voice in there.

Creativity lives in what interests and excites us, often in what seems terrible but we just can’t let it go. It isn’t in the politically correct, or the should be’s, or the best ideas. Sometimes, it’s silly, and confusing, and disconcerting, and you don’t know what to do.

Let the eleven year old you come out to play.  Give them the gift they weren’t able or ready to give themselves. If you can come up with no other reason to write this story then do it for them.

Tell them their story.

We find peace when we remember to love ourselves, when we love the shades of who we were. Those people in our past, who we’ve outgrown but never left behind. Writing is, in many ways, an expression of the dreams we never lost. Some stories stick around until we find the words to express them, when we’re ready to tell them. In that moment, they become more insistent. When they do, they’re telling you that you’re ready. There are doors in all our hearts which take us back in time to the dreams we had when we were young. The voice of our inner child is the source of creativity, its where our magic and wonder exists. Writing is just an extension of playing make believe. Canonized and uplifted, maybe, but that’s what it is. Listen to the parts of you that remembers joy without judgement or criticism. All ideas are horrible in initial concept. In the end, we all write about what we want rather than what’s right. Self-acceptance is, perhaps, the most important part of any creative pursuit. Creative catharsis as it were.

We cannot write for any audience other than ourselves until we learn to write selfishly. This means engaging with the silly ideas, the terrible ideas, the horrible ideas, the destructive ideas, the frustrating ideas, the cliche ideas, and all the others when they decide to stick around. It’s not just okay to be selfish, it’s necessary. The creative must believe in themselves, and realize that sometimes we don’t get to decide which stories we tell. Sometimes, we tell them because want to. Sometimes because we need to. Listen to your inner world. When the same idea returns time and again, brought to the beach that is your conscious mind, accept it for what it is. Don’t fight the tide.

You may find, when you finally do tell this story, you’ll be greeted not by a stranger but an old friend who wondered why you were gone so long.

-Michi

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Q&A: Beware the Unintended Implications

 Hi! I’m writing a story that is in a dystopian setting. One of the characters is female and perhaps 110 lbs soaking wet. I want her to be a capable fighter, able to defend herself against fast moving rabid-like humans. I don’t want to overly rely on guns as this will be set about 15 years after the end time event. Any suggestions of the types of weapons a small yet capable woman could use effectively in combat? Also the kinds of strategy and fighting techniques she might use?

All of them? Sky’s the limit.

We get a lot of questions like this, and the answer is always going to be the fighting techniques and combat tactics that they thought were a good idea. It’s the wrong question, because weapons, tactics, combat techniques, and strategies aren’t based in body type or even who someone is. They’re based on who the enemy is, what their enemy’s strengths and weaknesses are, what the terrain is, and where they’ll be fighting.

The problem with this line of thinking  about women, weight, and body types is that it’s inherently sexist. Honestly, it’s sexist when we do it with men too but given the way gender norms work in fiction chasing after it with female characters will get you into a lot of trouble. The sexism begins with the thought process of “inherently less dangerous because x” or “cannot do y due to x”.  The problem with this is thought process is that it will lead you to overcompensate. Overcompensation with a character’s combat ability leads to imbalance of threat level, and will utterly wreck your tension.

A massive, overweight man can be the lightest, most graceful, and gentlest member of a Tai Chi Chuan class. (Seen it.)

A black man well over six feet can do full splits. (Seen it.)

A ninety pound girl can throw a 220 pound grown man to the other side of the room. (Seen it.)

If you want to write action, start by stripping out the preconceptions that led you to ask the question about weight. If you want your female character to be good at fighting or even just surviving, you need to start focusing on what she’ll be fighting, the dangers she’ll face, on her mental outlook, and what she’s comfortable with doing. Not what she weighs. Weight and body type are the least important question, and gender is really only relevant in regards to mental hangups. What we believe ourselves capable of is far more damaging than our gender or what we weigh.

Besides, starting weight is pointless. The body and body type changes under physical stress and conditioning. When we start training and have access to the food we need to put on muscle then you’ll put on muscle.  A character who is ninety pounds may jump to 110, a character who is a 110 will jump to 130, and it is not uncommon for female athletes to weigh in at 150. If you’ve got a character who is ninety pounds and its all muscle, it’s not going to matter. An athlete who weighs 150 will look like they’re 120.

Visuals can be deceiving.

Here’s some things to think about.

  1. Fifteen years after the end times, guns will still be working.

If you want guns not to be present or extremely rare, the character’s got to come out of some sort of utopian future where they’ve been outlawed.  Or, the technology has moved to the point where they can’t be easily replicated beyond what’s already available.  You’d still be looking at a time frame of around 100 years after the end, and for the record they might just fall back to or revive older tech. Guns designed 100 years ago are still in use, still sold, and considered to be among the most reliable on the market. The Colt M1911’s name comes from the year the design went into production, and it has a lifespan of over a century.

The problem of the gun for a post-apocalyptic setting is that they’re really easy to make. Even if the knowledge vanished (somehow), the guns themselves all vanished (somehow), you’d still be left with people who’d go, “yeah, explosive powder, barrel, small object, boom.” Or just move back to firing firecrackers at the walking dead before learning to catapult larger objects more effectively.

Never underestimate human ingenuity and their love of blowing things up. (Also, fire.)

2. There are reasons beyond lack of availability that may lead to them not being used.

Sound is the issue with guns. When it comes to zombies, loud noises will only draw more zombies. The person who fired the gun (and anyone with them) will wind up buried in bodies, which they will have no way of fighting past. The trick to understanding zombies, rabid, fast moving humans, or anything in that general category is that there are always more. It’s better not to fight them at all, if you can avoid it.  If we found ourselves in a situation where the combat viability of the gun ended up outweighed by the detriments then they’d start falling out of use. It’d have to be a very high threshold, but it’s possible. At that point, the guns would be kept around to deal with the other humans that weren’t feral. Even then, someone would be working to find a way to make them work again.

3. Think long and hard by what you mean by “feral” human.

This is actually very important. If you don’t, you’ll accidentally wind up caught in some very ugly imperialism/colonialism tropes. I know Tumblr likes to ascribe these thought processes as moral failings, but they’re not. What you will fall prey to in your storytelling has been here longer than you’ve been alive, and will still be here after you and I are gone. You can’t escape them by focusing on skin color or ethnicity, either. These tropes have been around before they had names because they play on our xenophobia and fear of the unknown. Whether it’s cowboys and Indians, savages in the dark depths of Africa, shrieking Bedouins on horseback, or white devils.  The civilized versus the terrifying, unknown, feral humans has been around for a very long time. There’s a term for it, one you should immediately recognize: savages.

“They’re savages, savages,

barely even human,

savages, savages”

– “Savages” – Pocohontas

Say what you will about Disney’s Pocohontas, and there’s certainly a great deal, but that song sums up the issue at the heart of these narratives. Feral humans, savages, every monster of a similar vein, they’re all historical means of dehumanizing those who are different. Now, that doesn’t mean all narratives involving this subject will fall to the trope. They can sidestep it, avoid it, get around it. They can even be transformative like Richard Mathesen’s I Am Legend. The issue is the “feral human” part and the long nasty history associated with the phrase, along with all the otherworldly qualities that get applied on top of it to disregard entire civilizations as monsters.

I get the feeling you were trying to go for “zombie” without saying “zombie” but if that’s what you want, really, just go with zombies. The mindless undead or the virus that drives everyone mad will somewhat slip under the radar. Zombies can, sometimes, sidestep the embedded colonialism due to being a commentary on something else. They can also fall right into it, like in Resident Evil 5 with the white protagonist killing African zombies. Joss Whedon managed to get there (I hope) unintentionally with the Reavers in Firefly. Given the way Firefly chases Ghosts of Mars in its aesthetics, there’s a real possibility it was accidental for Whedon. The monsters in Ghost of Mars were intentional, but count on John Carpenter to know the Western tropes he’s working with. The Reavers are a trope pulled straight from the darkest hell in the Western genre. They are an exact rendition of the way Westerns treated the Native Americans, otherwise known as the unknown darkness of the wilderness that drives men mad. The feral humans you’re talking about in your question are on their way to becoming that exact trope.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, Apocalypse Now, and Spec Ops: The Line all do a decent job subverting the trope (though the last two are adaptations of the first one), I Am Legend by Richard Mathesen, with The Omega Man with Charlton Heston and The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price probably being the only decent adaptations. Sadly, the Will Smith version cut the original ending and plays the trope completely straight.

All genres have similar issues. Some more than others are fields lined with landmines. However, you get past it by not completely dehumanizing the other side. This is also not me saying you should never touch these concepts. I am suggesting you think this concept through.

4. We don’t fight animals like humans. A human reverted to the point where they aren’t cognitively functioning is approached like all other animals. (Remember, we discussed the implications of this thought process above.)

Here’s where the horror comes in.

If you’re really intent on these former humans being fast moving but mindless like the ghouls in the Fallout series or the virus filled monster freaks in 28 Days Later, then most of the standard single person combat styles aren’t going to work. Hand to hand combat doesn’t function well against dogs and it won’t work against zombies either. They can’t feel it and they’re just going to bite you anyway.

Humans fighting other humans aren’t working off the idea that they’re just going to scale you and start ripping chunks out of your neck with their teeth. The idea they will is terrifying, watching them do it is even more terrifying. What is even more terrifying than that prospect is the fact humans are both persistent predators and pack animals. They (yes, they) are just going to run her to exhaustion. They are going to follow her until she is too tired, and then they will kill her. You should get it into your head right now that she is the hunter, she is the hunted.

The answer to how to fight them is you don’t. One human against two is a losing proposition for anyone, no matter how well they’re trained. Groups are the greatest of all threats a single individual can face and as the numbers increase, so does the danger. The upper human limit of what we can deal with at once is 8, and that’s for martial arts masters who’ve been training for thirty years. For most everyone else, they have a small chance against two and three is out the window. The problem is you can’t fight them one at a time, they’ll come at you together as a unit. They circle, they flank. That’s just normal human instinct, we don’t need to know how to fight in order to coordinate. One person against a team is screwed, doesn’t matter if they’re feral dogs or a bunch of drunken frats leaving a bar.

We avoid predators, and drive them off as necessary. This involves making ourselves less valuable as targets because of the effort necessary to succeed outweighs the risk. All you can do with predators is drive them off, so they’ll attack easier targets. The stakes will make it so they eventually get in or will no longer be dissuaded, but that’s the nature of the post-apocalyptic zombie genre. The problem is there’s no winning. It’s just people trying to survive as long as possible and ensuring they don’t get into a situation where they’re in over their heads. The other humans surviving are a far greater danger to the protagonists than the mindless, devouring swarm. (This is usually how we sidestep some of the accompanying grossness, though not all of it.)

5. How a character fights is based on what they know, what they’ve been taught, and what they’ve learned how to do.

How your character fights will be based on what she has access to and how she’s been trained to deal with the environment around her. Unless she’s the result of an experiment and turned out superhuman like Alice in the Resident Evil movies, standing toe to toe won’t be an option unless it’s a last resort.

It’s not a function of gender or training, it’s a function of numbers. If she’s working with a team of survivors then that’s a different story, but on her own she faces the same problem that these other humans do. She has to consider water, food, and the cost versus reward of expending her energy to fight if she doesn’t have to.

Combat risks injuries she can’t afford, requires energy which she’ll need time to recoup, would need to eat more food in order to regain (possibly more than what she has, meaning she’ll have to take more risks later to find food), and, of course, water. Not to mention sleep, exhaustion, and attracting the attention of other members of this species which will inevitably result in a fight she can’t win.  When she hits that point, game over.

The tension in survival stories is all cost versus benefit, and the inevitable consequences that result from people having to choose between morals and pragmatism. Ingenuity and problem solving skills are the order of the day, not how many monsters one can kill because there are always, inevitably, more. The guy who runs off to murder all the zombies is the moron who screws up the supply run because we were here to get baked beans, Bob, and now we have to find a way home through every zombie in the goddamn neighborhood.

6. Weapons and Strategies.

The answer to how to fight is ranged weapons, traps, and spears. Shotguns really wouldn’t hurt, they’re easy to load, easy to maintain, spray wide, and can be a great equalizer against the crowd.

The staff is the easiest hand to hand weapon to learn, provided she has someone to teach her. The spears has range (provided there’s room), and the reach means you can hit your opponents before they hit you. It is one of the best weapons for handling groups of enemies as a single. At the very least, she can swing it around in front of her to make it a bad idea for anyone to try and get close.

The bow is the silent killer but, fair warning, if she trains on one she’s gonna end up stacked. The compound bows will most likely have difficulty surviving, and regardless all bows require way more care than most people think. They also take time to prep, string, they cost arrows that’ll need to be either collected or replaced, and it’s not great for single combat or melee. In addition, if she goes out with just a bow, she’ll end up in the Jurassic Park velociraptor problem. One distracts and the others come in from the side. (However, when these “feral” humans begin showing signs of intelligence we’re back into those nasty colonialism themes. The colonialism issue can be solved by them being intelligent, but that defeats the initial purpose and any feel good killing.)

Traps. The traps are for the home front, so she can sleep well at night barred behind carefully erected walls. We’re looking at barbed wire and hanging cans. Pit traps, snares, etc. Anything she can come up with that makes getting to her difficult. (With exit strategies in case someone lights the tree house on fire.)

In the end, she has two basic options.

One: Hunt them down before they get her.

Two: Run like hell.

In a survival setting, number two is the smarter option.

-Michi

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Q&A: Bar Fights

Any recommendations for a bar fight in a sword & sorcery setting?

The basic question at the heart of any and every bar fight is: who are my characters and what are they like when they’re drunk?

That’s going to tell you a lot about where and how the fight will go. This leads to other important questions: How much do you know about being drunk? Have you ever been drunk? How much time have you actually spent around other people when they’re drunk and you’re sober? How much time have you spent around other drunken people while drunk?

If the answer is little to not at all, this is going to be a challenge. The key to writing good bar fights is understanding how humans work while under the influence, and the cascade effect of multiple drunken individuals interacting with each other.

Alcohol exacerbates factors already present in our personalities, it removes inhibitions. What those inhibitions are depends on the person. Depending who your character is when they’re drunk (and whether they drink at all), you’ve got a range of options for how the bar fight begins. (This is all before we get to the drinking traditions of different cultures. From the Irish, to the Scottish, to the British, to the Germans, to the Japanese, everyone’s got a specific use for alcohol. Also, regiment rivalries like Army versus Marines. In the hazy land of alcohol, tribalism reigns free.) Nailing down your character’s drunken personalities is important to writing a successful bar fight. Without that individualism and understanding, it won’t feel natural.  Depending on the genres you’re used to looking at or have been reading, your exposure to natural drunken reactions may not be great. We can say words like ‘compromised’ and ‘impaired’, but unless you know the behavior that translates into it’ll be a rough hike. The major issue most writers face when coming to bar fights is they become so focused on forcing the fight to happen that they forget the drunks. The assumption is that it’s irrational, the other person is just a jerk, or it can somehow be written off in the aftermath.

Keep this in mind: your bar fight isn’t just an isolated fight scene, it’s part of your story.

Every bar fight begins with some inciting incident. The behavior and course of action of the participants seems entirely rational to the person who is drunk. It may seem irrational on the surface, but assuming that will doom the scene. Everything a drunken person does is incredibly logical in the moment, it’s just that their decision making and grasp of context is compromised. They no longer understand consequences. So, the part of your brain that goes, “no, that’s a bad idea” doesn’t kick in. Your id does what it wants, when it wants, however it wants. This doesn’t mean those desires, ideas, or decisions will work out. It just means you’ll do it.

This is where that interplay between alcohol and violence begins. The brain is not processing anything beyond, “I want to punch that dude.” Or, “I hate you! I’m gonna hit you with my stiletto heel.” It may not even begin somewhere negative. They could just like hitting people or violence is an expression of how much they’re enjoying themselves. They could also be trying to stop the fight, like every single cowboy who fires his revolver into the ceiling of a bar because loud noise = everyone stops. However, no thought is given to the people upstairs. We’re acting on impulse, there’s no comprehension of what comes after or what the results will be. The choices can be anywhere between intentionally aggressive or genuinely well-intentioned. Regardless of the outcome, the inciting incident that kicks off violence between two drunken people is based in something real. It is not generic. It is character specific.

Remember, these characters are not out of control. They are not irrational. They are making choices. Dumb choices, more often than not, but they’re still choices. It was logical when it happened, it’s just a stupid decision. Painting in vague swaths will ultimately handicap you, your humor, and your drama.

If you ever want an answer to who your character is when drunk, the simplest question is: what would they do if they thought were no consequences for their actions?

That’s who they are.

A mean drunk can be the seemingly nicest person, who is essentially forcing themselves to be nice all the time. When they’re drunk, all that antagonism they keep buried comes out.

A flirty drunk might be someone who feels emotionally or sexually repressed, who isn’t brave enough to express themselves or feels it isn’t a good idea to act on their impulses.

A fighting drunk might be someone who is angry, someone who likes to fight, someone who enjoys the feeling of being powerful/invincible (they’re not),  someone who is looking for an excuse to explode because they feel out of control in their own life. It can honestly go any direction.

A drunk isn’t going to always be the same kind of drunk. The mean drunk can be flirty or transition into a fighter. The destructive drunk can also be flirty, out to sabotage a relationship they feel uncomfortable about. There’s a spectrum of drunken behavior that changes based on the amount ingested, which is why it’s a bad idea to ascribe morals to who they are when impaired.

What’s important to remember is the underlying cause for their behavior, something pushing them to behave the way they do. It can be personality based or situational, or both. In a fictional context, bar fights are about showing us who characters are. Their flaws, their failings, and where the short end of their temper is. Knowing who someone is while under the influence is often eye opening.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking you see the real person when they’re drunk. Think of it as their most impulsive self, if that helps. This is only who they are when their brain has been poisoned to the point where their common sense stops functioning. They’re not firing on all cylinders. The real person is somewhere between who they pretend to be and who they are when they don’t give a shit about aftermath. The person they are when they’re drinking can run the gamut. They could end up in the corner catatonic, hitting on their crush (single, married, or otherwise engaged), cracking people’s skulls open with their axe, or serenading the watch barracks as a three am wake up call. They could fall into the river and drown.

What’s powerful about alcohol in fiction is a character’s personal issues are often laid bare. This is central to your characters when drunk. Good bar fights incorporate the characters, and are driven by their actions. They are driven by the choices of those in the scene.

Bad bar fights are when an author tries to create a bar fight wholesale with no attention to, well, the people in the fight. They work from the outside in, rather than the inside out. It’s usually, “Character X comes under threat from Drunken Asshole Y, and then they prove they’re a badass.” This route can work, but it’s boring. It’s even more boring if there are no consequences or chaos that results. Bar fights do not happen in isolation, but in crowded spaces. Someone will jump in. Being drunk is not a justification. It’s removal of inhibition. No fight is ever a get out of jail free card. Everybody has to own up to whatever it is they do while under the influence, whether that’s cheating, stealing, arson, or murder.

The good news is bar fights are mostly the same… anywhere. All you’ve got to do is take into account what the place looks like and what kind of weaponry everyone has access to.  Then, remember it doesn’t matter how good at fighting your character is, because the chaos of a bar fight spreads. Rapidly. Also, nobody fights at peak proficiency when they’re drunk.

When a bunch of drunken people throw down, they’re just going to cause even more drunken people to join in. Someone is going to stumble into someone else, get thrown across a table and end up slammed on the floor in a rain of glass. The people at the table might take some issue with that, especially if they’re the fighting kind, testy, and prone to violence while on the sauce.

Basically, your characters are going to want to get out of dodge before the drunk mage in the left corner decides he’s going to set the whole place on fire because a barbarian just sent his buddy out the window. It was an accident. He really was swinging for the guy on the right, honest. That won’t matter though, and alcohol doesn’t mix well with fire and wood.  Light a match and… boom.

Basically, a fictional bar fight is like a trail of cascading dominoes. One piece hits another piece, which hits another, and another after that. That’s where the most entertaining ones are, it’s just mass chaos. It might start with fists, it might start with weapons, but it will move from one to the other. You can bet some ale or grog is going to go in someone’s eyes followed closely by the mug. Alcohol and weapons don’t mix, and if you’re drunk enough everything becomes a weapon.

Bottles. Mugs. Tables. Chairs. Plates. Paintings. A rack of deer antlers. Stuffed badgers. Whatever you can get your hands on, really.

One guy grabs another, lifts him and just runs him up the bar face first through all the drinks, bottles, glasses, and food. Only for the first guy who grabbed the guy to get grabbed by another guy and have his face plowed straight into the bar.

So, what does it look like?

Mass chaos. Everybody fights everybody else. Someone will inevitably be scrabbling under the tables trying avoid getting skewered. Someone will pull a knife, another guy’ll pull a sword, and the last guy grabs a spoon… then realizes and runs. Someone’s going to be grabbing up all mugs and beer, drinking as fast as they can because hey, free beer! The two guys who started it all might just end up deciding they hate that other guy over there more and team up. The maid and the bartender are either hiding behind the bar or they’re in the thick of it. You better believe someone’s robbing the till. There are a couple of lovebirds macking through the whole thing, though the partners may switch. And then, there’s that one guy snoozing. He doesn’t wake up.

They’ll fight until either A) the guards come and roust them, or B) there are no guards to break it up, so they’ll fight until they run out of steam. Basically, it’s a riot.

You can get some amazing drama out of these bar fights, but the best thing to do is initially play it for laughs. Consequences are for tomorrow. However, remember those consequences on the morrow. Nothing happens in isolation, and no one is ever going to be quite drunk enough to forget everything. A bar fight is an inciter for drama, it is not a get out of jail free card. Every tension that caused the fight to happen in the first place will still be there when your characters wake up, and they’re going to have to own up to whatever it was they did.

Western bar fights are the best because the fight inevitably leads to someone getting shot, dying, and then somebody swearing revenge. Or, you know, several people get shot and everybody swears revenge. Then, they all go out to shoot each other while sober. (At least one character will still be drunk.)

Sword & Sorcery rides extremely close to the Western, so it’s worth keeping those genre tropes in mind. After all, Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian is a major influence here, and Howard grew up in Texas boon towns during the early 20th century. He observed the real thing, and that made it into his work. Sword & Sorcery bar fights are Western bar fights, which means someone’s going to get murdered on accident and that’ll be the inciting incident for your characters into either a major or minor whirlwind of drama. If they’re involved, they’ll probably have to leave town.

Now, writing drunk people takes practice and, to get it right, personal experience helps. My suggestion is to get drunk with your friends and study them. Go to bars with friends, be the designated driver and take the opportunity to people watch. If you are of age and struggle with writing drunken characters then there is also the method actor approach. Get yourself tipsy during the first draft. Notice I said tipsy, not drunk. (This works well when writing sex too, if you’re shy like me)  However, if you are a minor, under twenty one, or an alcoholic this isn’t an option. Turn then to fiction, and all the writers who write drunkards really goddamn well. If that’s just watching Pirates of the Caribbean of The Hangover twenty more times, then so be it. My suggestion is watch lots of Westerns and movies where soldiers go to the bar. Western bar fights are so iconic they’re genre cliches. They’re also mass chaos, utterly hilarious, and more than a little horrifying. That said, I don’t care if your choice is Top Gun or The Pacific or both, you need a sense for what the trigger happy look like when drunk. What the depressed and miserable look like when they’re drunk. All the different kinds of raging assholes, because there are so many possibilities.

Try to remember that drinking is a social exercise. The goal is really for everyone to get drunk together. Keep in mind too that when you’re drunk, nothing ever quite goes to plan. Someone might try to pull their sword, only to have it get stuck halfway in their scabbard. Try to fire their bow without their bowstring… or arrows. Climb on tables. Seduce the millers daughter by falling into the rose bushes. Whatever. They thought it was a good idea at the time.

No matter where they are or what genre they’re in, humans are going to be mostly the same under the influence. All that really changes are the tools they have access to. Once you figure out the motivations, the second half gets a lot easier. You can just apply what you know of the behavior to new situations as they are re-imagined.

If you know how people behave when they’re drunk and can figure out the catalysts then you can write them in any situation. It doesn’t matter if it’s the 21st century, the 20th century, on the moon, or in High Fantasy.

People are people.

If it helps, I’ll tell you who I am when drunk. I am a multi-stage person who changes based on the amount of alcohol consumed. (This is most people, everyone’s got stages between tipsy, drunk, really drunk, and goodbye world. The amount of time it takes between those stages is your tolerance level.) I rotate between being a touchy, flirty drunk who needs to hug everyone, a sad drunk who cries into my cheerios, a manipulative drunk who will use my crying to get people to feel bad for me, and a sleepy drunk who conks out on the couch. It can literally be all four, just one, or skipping straight to the last stage.

I can tell you that based on the one time I was really drunk, but not blackout. I don’t drink much, so believe me when I say that one time in the safety of your own home is all you need. (If you can’t due to circumstances or just don’t want to ever for any reason, then watch videos of drunk people on YouTube. They post them.)

-Michi

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