Q&A: Hide Armor

Would fur or hide prevent injury effectively? One of my characters, a barbarian, she’s wearing boar skin pelt over a chainmail shirt, and I want to know if the pelt itself would be able to prevent an arrow or sword blow?

For the arrow, probably not. For a sword blow, it might absorb a glancing slash, but a solid hit or a thrust wouldn’t stop it. But, there are some factors here worth considering.

The original animal the hide came from does matter some. If it’s a normal animal, that can be hunted with a bow, then a single layer of hide probably isn’t going to stop an arrow. (This includes boar skin.) I mean, it didn’t work when the creature was alive, now that it’s dead that hasn’t changed.

Here’s the caveat: a character might layer multiple hides together. So, while one deerskin wouldn’t stop an arrow, several layers might do the trick. (I’m not sure how many layers you’d realistically need.)

It’s also possible that the way the layers are attached to one another could significantly affect their protective ability. Three or four layers held together by a semi-rigid resin could offer some significant protection.

Finally, the if the hides, or even one layer mixed in, is something significantly tougher, it might do far better shrugging off abuse. Deerskin armor might not be a great idea, but in a fantasy setting, the armor may incorporate something far more exotic like werewolf hide. At that point, the rules associated with it will vary based on how that works in your world.

A fantasy barbarian could be wandering around in hides that include a couple more exotic beasties she’s snuffed out along the way. This is also a reasonable character affectation, as she just keeps accumulating the hides of things she’s killed, skinned, and treated, discarding the badly damaged outer layers as they become too mangled to offer much protection.

Personally, I wouldn’t want the chain shirt as the innermost layer. So, probably a layer of padded clothing (or, more likely, leather), then the chain, then her outer layers of hides. Other than that, layering armor is a real thing. Armor that’s well suited for one kind of assault may fail, at that point redundant protection is a good idea. For example: Plate Armor was almost always worn over a gambeson (padded armor.) (Usually with a layer of chain between the padding and plate, as I recall.)

Most things that get through the hides (even just boar hide) would be stopped by the chain. Direct arrow fire would still be bad news, but it would offer a lot of protection in melee. So, of someone did try to run her through, it’d (probably) go through the boarhide, and stop on the chain. (Though, some of the kinetic force would carry through, so that wouldn’t be fun. Though, again, a padded layer under the chain could go a long way towards blunting those hits.

The hides (again, even just boar hide) would be excellent at dealing with natural threats. Think wolves and things of that nature. Larger animals like bears or big cats would still be a significant threat, but against medium sized animals, it would help a lot.

Pelts are also an excellent way to manage cold temperatures. Boar wouldn’t be my choice (unless you’ve got furry boars in your world), but wolf or bear hides could do wonders for keeping her warm in arctic conditions. Again, in weather like that, I’d want a layer of insulation between the skin and chain, but it is a very legitimate way to keep warm. Hair and fur are excellent insulators.

If you presented the character to me, I’d assume the hide layers were to keep her warm, and the chain was for armor. Though the hide would take some abuse, it’s far more valuable against the cold.


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Q&A: Supply Raid

Thanks for answering my ask, I didn’t notice because it wasn’t like all the other ask/answers. So for a different book, is there any way an infantry heavy force might be able to defeat armored vehicles? The protagonists are defending a coastal city they just recently captured full of food and oil but before they can ship it off or dig in, the enemy attacks with tanks they recently bought. I’d rather not end it abruptly with, “and then they were all run over. The end.”


I’m just going to skim over the part where the other side just “bought,” their tanks. That’s not how a military usually works, and most mercenaries/PMCs aren’t going to be fielding tanks. So, that’s strange.

It would make sense if the enemy was redirecting tanks to deal with your characters. Especially, if they had previously used some form of misdirection to get their foes to deploy the tanks elsewhere. (For example: bad intelligence Misdirection and deception is a major part of strategic warfare. If you can get your foes to deploy their forces someplace out of the way, it’s almost as good as killing them, and can pave the way for that later.

Getting any mechanized warfare unit to deploy to the wrong place is an even bigger boon. Your foes need to spend fuel to move them around. This means, logistical damage has been done, even if it can come back into position later. It’s easy to think this isn’t a serious problem, but during long or massive campaigns, logistical resources can get stretched pretty tightly. This is on top of the part where your characters are getting ready to loot their fuel dump.

With that out of the way, there are a lot of options to deal with armor. Most of it specialized. There are plenty of infantry portable anti-tank weapons. There’s also anti-tank mines. If they just captured an enemy munitions stockpile, there’s probably a few things in there that could be used against a tank. There may also be some nastier improvised options, including flame traps using stolen fuel, or selective sabotage of the city’s infrastructure, so that it will fail under the weight of a tank, potentially neutralizing the vehicle.

The exact layout of the city matters for planning. Your characters need to hold the port long enough for extraction. That means the rest of the city may be reduced to territory that the hostile forces will need to clear, delaying their advance. Delay them long enough, and it may open the door to naval bombardment, close air support, or successful extraction.

So, a couple things to keep in mind. Tanks are heavy; most civilian streets cannot support their weight. Usually this isn’t much of a consideration, however, if you want to take a tank into a coastal village, things could quickly get squirrelly.

A lot of coastal ports tend to be built on inclines. If the terrain is too flat, the town would be on the tidal plain. This is even more likely if there’s a port present, because the water would need to be deep enough to accommodate sea going vessels. Trade off is, if you’ve got streets (and roads) designed to accommodate heavy shipping, they’re not going to have a problem with a tank or twenty. We’re back to sabotage here as a real option. Undermine the road (assuming your forces have time to), and you might be able to cut off the armored advance, and possibly put a few in the water in the process. (They’re probably not coming back from that.)

If the tanks get into the city, then you’re left with very dangerous threats that are not exceptionally mobile. In a larger city, they can’t exactly blast through skyscrapers without getting buried under the rubble, and that’s still a risk even in smaller towns. They can’t (safely) drive through buildings that get in their way because there is no way for them to know if they’re going in on solid ground, or if they’re about to fall into someone’s basement.

Also worth remembering, tanks are great for dealing with enemy vehicles. They don’t really excel at dealing with infantry in an urban environment. It’s like trying to kill a fly with shotgun slugs. It might work, but it’s not going to be efficient. Having said that, any competent armor column will have infantry support. They’re there to keep your infantry from sneaking up and chucking a satchel charge under the turret.

Assuming a competent column is coming in with full infantry support and your characters are in a bad state. But, this is where you need to remember their goals. Your characters don’t need to win the fight, they prolong it long enough to the oil and food extracted. That means, even if they’re in a losing situation, their main job is to delay the enemy as long as possible. Now, not going to lie, that’d get messy. You’re going to lose some characters. But, if the goal was to seriously hurt the enemy by stealing their supplies, your secondary characters are expendable ahead of that goal. Possibly even some of your main characters. It depends on the ending you’re going for.

It’s also possible that, in the end, your characters may decide to scuttle the depot. That’s one ending, and it still achieves a partial victory, even if there aren’t any survivors.

You need to decide what you want from your story. Then, you need to get creative. This isn’t an automatically losing situation, but it is a legitimate challenge for your characters, and there’s going to be some costs for them. Sounds like it has the makings of a decent ending to me.


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Q&A: Sword Tricks

My friend has a question but no tumblr to ask it, so I’m submitting for her: In movies you sometimes see disarmed combarants kicking their sword up and into their hand. Is that possible or a movie myth?



I want to say this was a Bob Anderson thing. It can be done. Given how many stunt actors picked this up I suspect it’s pretty simple in execution, though I don’t know, exactly, how to do it myself.

The basic idea is that you foot under the blade’s balance point, and then just kick it into the air and catch it. This sounds a lot more complicated than it is. If you spend any serious time with a weapon, you will get a feel for where it’s balance is. On most swords (or at least the ones I’ve spent time handling), that’s slightly ahead of the cross guard. Then it’s not much more complicated than kicking anything else into your grip. It’s flashy, it looks cool, and it’s kinda pointless; you could just bend over.

So, it’s possible, and not a myth, just not something that has any real combat value. This is pure showmanship. It’s about presenting a visually engaging fight and showing off how skilled the character, or stunt performer, is.

The important thing to remember is that what you’re seeing is the result of two (or more) performers putting on a show. They’re working together. In that environment, you can do things you’d never do in a real fight. Things that are too risky, but look cool.

Any flourish beyond simply knocking the blade in the air and catching it is just pure performance. It’s impressive to see, and that was the point.

There’s a related disarm, where you lock up with your opponent and spin it a couple times, this torques the weapon against their wrist and pops it out of their grip. That’s real, and works if you take a longsword against someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. The Bob Anderson flourish was to catch their disarmed sword mid-air, and bring it to ready off-hand. That’s not easy, and extremely impressive if you’ve spent any time around a sword.

Never underestimate the creativity of a couple of armed friends who very good at what they do, and have been set loose to screw around.


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Q&A: Worldbuilding and Logistics

Hey, me again. I was busy today. Is it realistic to have a castle full of expert fighters (talking about 500+), like, cliché-knight-level experts (that have magical powers, mind you, like photokinesis) and still have plenty of food, supplies, weapons, etc. Like enough weapons for spare weapons?


The question here is, do the numbers support it?

It might not look like it, but this is a math question, and I don’t have the information to give a definitive number.

Ignoring the standing forces for a moment, a fairly large fantasy nation could easily support a large stronghold to hold elite forces. The arms and armor aren’t a problem, until they become one.

Now, conventional arms are supply and demand, if the idea is that each of your mage knights is supposed to be carrying around magical weapons, that becomes a bigger supply question. Can your setting’s smiths, arcane smiths or whatever produce the things in sufficient volume? If arms and armor are (mostly) mundane then that’s not a problem. Also if the weapons are simply “there.” That is to say, they date back centuries, and their actual sources are lost to time. Maybe they were all forged by some mythical creature that could pump them out. At that point, okay, fine, they’re there, and irreplaceable.

So, how many of them are there? I’m going to stick with 500 for the moment and run with that idea. But, you need to start asking questions about how common these powers are. Figure that most people with these powers wouldn’t spend the time to develop the powers to the point where they could become an elite fighting force. I’m going to peg this at somewhere between one in a hundred to one in fifty. (I think it’s entirely valid to inflate these numbers even further, it’s possible that less than one in a thousand  possesses the ability and drive to become one of these elites.)

So, we take the 500, multiply to get a rough number of the overall population for your world/nation whatever. This puts powered population of your nation somewhere around 25,000 to 50,000. (Obviously, if you take the 1:1k, you’d have half a million powered people.)

So, then we need to know how frequent these powers are in the general population. If one in ten manifests these abilities, at any level, that might mean your fantasy nation’s population is somewhere around half a million. That’s not unreasonable. And, if we’re talking about an economy supported by 500k people, these numbers are fine. But, to get here we made powers incredibly common in your setting.

At the other end of the spectrum, if only one in a thousand even manifests an ability, and only one in a thousand has what it takes, you’re looking at a population of 500 million people. The modern United States has a population of ~308 million. Your elites would literally be one in a million.

So, are there the numbers to support that? An economy of half a billion people wouldn’t have trouble maintaining upkeep for that fortress. The weapons and food are significant logistical issue, but in a large enough system that’s manageable, if expensive.

You can put your thumb on the scale and shift the numbers heavily, by selecting a non-representative chunk of the population. For example, if the magical powers are hereditary, you could significantly skew the overall powered population in favor of your organization. If one in five is part of the program, and in one in a thousand of your world is powered, you’re looking at a population of around 2.5 million. Again, for a “standard fantasy setting,” that’s not too high for a major civilization. This is also assuming that the full 500 are from one nationality, and not worldwide.

There are some limits to skewing the math too hard. Usually in favor of justifying your elite’s existence. Realistically you can’t get 100% enrollment. Even 20% is pushing it. Most people will not want to fight for a living. No matter how good your setting is at picking them, some will be missed (especially if there is no hereditary element.) Some simply won’t be good enough. They won’t commit to training, they’ll screw around, and ultimately, they’ll be worthless for your organization’s purposes. 20% is ridiculously high, but you could make an argument for it.

The overall rate of incidence, how common powers are in general, has a massive effect on your setting. The more people practicing magic, the more innovative was your setting will start to change from the real world (or its history.) Even after the superficial stuff, magic facilitates “impossible” technological growth. The more magic users your setting has, the more they’ll distort it.

There’s probably a legitimate argument that, in a fantasy setting, combatant is the least culturally valuable role for a magic user. When they could be doing almost anything else, advancing their civilization’s technology or understanding of the world, and that stuff can be applied. It’s still a necessary role, but it also argues against the overspecialization of magic users as strictly elite combat units.

Another problem is, just because “your” society came back with this answer doesn’t mean another couldn’t have come up with a different one. Just because your nation uses their magic users in a combat role, it’s entirely possible other nations on your world would have significantly smaller battlemage cadres with a focus on R&D. In practical terms, this means they could be facing forces that are far better equipped by technology they cannot comprehend, because when their mages were practicing how to stab someone, the other guys were developing autonomous power crystals that could be used to operate heavy machinery, or developing mass produced magical weapons that could be wielded by their standard infantry.

I haven’t answered the food thing. Short version is, if there’s the agricultural support to keep food coming, then sure. They’re going to eat a lot. Keeping in fighting condition is requires a lot of calories. But, if there are enough people to actually staff your magic using elite corps, the agricultural support is probably going to be there. However, this does dictate where your fortress can be. It needs to be someplace with ready access or secure supply lines to, your major agricultural centers. Again, you can mess with this a lot, depending on the overall sophistication of magic in your setting, (which is directly related to how common magic users are.) It’s possible you could see portal travel and cryomantic food storage, allowing your fortress to be up on a mountain somewhere and still stay supplied.

This might seem like a lot of busy work, but it is stuff you should think about, because it’s how you answer your question, “is this realistic?” I don’t know, what are the rules you set up for your world?


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Q&A: Read The Art of War

I read the book description of The Art of War and wonder if this book is insightful for storytelling as well especially if stories tackle warfare and politics. I’m planning on writing a fantasy that involves disputes between kingdoms and such but I lack ideas of war strategies and politics. Do you think I should read this book to get have an idea or insight of the war strategies and politics?


You may also find the book a little obtuse at times. If that’s the case, you might want to track down some commentaries or an annotated version (both exist.) Regardless, The Art of War is a book you should read. Even outside of the context of this project.

I’d also suggest The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli. It’s an excellent “how-to” primer on European political rule, and can also offer some excellent insights that may help your writing. Keep in mind it was written in early 16th century, so some the ideas he’s espousing were relatively recent.

Both of these are challenging reads.

Sun Tzu asks you to do a lot of unpacking. The writing itself is extremely succinct, and on the surface, it’s just about armed conflict, but a lot of the advice given works on a much wider scale if you can step back and put it in a larger context.

So, yes, read them both.

Given they are on Project Gutenberg, I’m linking them here. The Amazon links above to benefit the blog, but these are both public domain.

The Art of War by Sun Tzu (Giles translation)

The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli (Kenaz translation)

Sorry this is such a short post, but they are worth your time.


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Q&A: Plate and Bayonets

Hey there, aspiring writer here that just discovered your blog, I was wondering if there were any ways someone with a bayonet could fight against an opponent in heavy armor, like a cuirass. A musketball piercing through a breastplate is a foregone conclusion, but if the enemy got in close, can the musketeer actually kill his enemy or is he basically already dead meat?


Stepping back for a moment, putting a musket ball through a cuirass is not a foregone conclusion. If you’re talking about modern rifle rounds, yes, those will efficiently punch through metal armor, but black powder firearms are far weaker.

When you’re dealing with a foe in plate armor, you’re not going to be hacking through the plate. (The exception is if you’re trying to use a blunt weapon.) You’re looking for openings to slip a blade in.

The easy openings are at the joints, these are necessary for the armor to function, because if the wearer can’t move, they can’t fight. By necessity, this means that elbows, shoulders, knees, and hips are not completely protected by metal. There were often additional elements designed to help protect those points, but there’s only so much you can do to protect someplace like the armpit.

Armor does confer a significant advantage, since it means that while your musketeer needs to land a precise hit, their foe has far more options for attack. So, your musketeer isn’t already toast, but if they’re one on one against a fully armored foe, they’re in a bad situation.

Detachable bayonets date back to the 1600s, which comes in at the end of full plate. Early bayonets were used to convert light infantry over to deal with incoming cavalry charges. This means the specific match up you’re talking about would have happened sometime between 1610 and 1650.

Also, the early bayonets used a plug design to attach to the weapon, sealing the barrel. Meaning that if a handgunner converted their musket with a bayonet, they wouldn’t be able to fire the weapon until they removed the blade. Ring mounted spike bayonets, which allow the weapon to be fired while mounted, date to the late 17th, or early 18th century.

As firearms became more numerous in war, full plate fell out of favor. Full plate was always expensive enough that its battlefield use was limited. It was useful to put on elite infantry and heavy cavalry. Against melee weapons it was a reasonable investment, particularly for elite forces, but against volleys of musket fire, it didn’t offer enough additional protection to justify the costs. By the time firearms had gained the accuracy to make it viable again, their armor penetration capabilities had improved to the point where plate never made a return.

Something I alluded to a moment ago, but I should probably point out. In a larger battle, it’s unlikely your character would be in a protracted one on one fight with another foe. For one thing, anyone in plate would be an elite in the enemy forces, meaning there wouldn’t be as many of them, and your character would probably have more allies on hand to assist with dealing with them.

However, gunshots do lose velocity over distance, so a round that might not pierce plate at 20ft, might still blow through a dented plate at a few inches. Remember that your character is now in melee with their foe. It’s entirely possible one of their allies might put a hot loaded bullet through their foe’s cuirass at point blank range to save their friend.

Another factor to consider is that in a battle, your character (and their foes) would be continuing to fight for extended periods of time, so fatigue is a major factor. Related to that, fighting while wearing full plate is far more exhausting, meaning that their foe may be more fatigued when they first match up. This is more of a consideration depending on where your fight is during the battle.

Battles are not a single fight scene. They’re an extended sequence that can potentially last for days. Remember they’ll only be fresh at the beginning of the battle. Even that isn’t certain, if they’re coming off a forced march, have been under siege for an extended period, or any number of other potential scenarios, they may already be a bit worn at the beginning of the battle.

When you’re staging a battle for your work, you need to know the scope of your perspective. You’re talking about focusing on infantry, which means the vast majority of the battle takes place beyond their frame of reference, so it becomes more of an ongoing endurance test of combat and trying to find a moment to catch their breath. If your PoV character is a general overseeing the battle, the way the sequence is structured should be significantly different, to reflect what they know and are responding to. So, instead of individual fights, they’d be focused on the overall tactics being used by and against their forces, and formulating ways to respond to those. At the most removed, this might simply be someone in a war room, hundreds of miles away, reading reports and issuing orders to their generals in the field.

The nature of your story should inform you what level of combat you want to engage with. If the war itself is the point, then that’s going to lend itself better to command or strategic level characters, while if it’s focused on the experiences of an individual, that’s probably going to be front line military. (It is possible to have a mix of these if you’re comfortable juggling different PoV characters, but keeping focus in a story like that could prove tricky.)

In a one on one, your character isn’t completely screwed, but it is a bad match up for them. They shouldn’t be in a one on one situation in the middle of a larger battle, but it is possible. However, it will be a very dangerous situation for your character.


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Q&A: Mediums & Realism

Well, this is embarrassing. If you’re looking at the clock, you know I’m running a bit late tonight. What I didn’t realize, until after writing the post was that Michi had already addressed it. So here we are, with a second take on a question.

Hi! You raise a good question on choreography. Actors can’t do realistic fight scenes and it has to look entertaining. Well, then why are we creating realistic fight scenes in writing instead of entertaining? Of course on screen it’s restrictive by the medium. Are realistic fight scenes in writing more entertaining than unrealistic movie fight scenes in writing? Or is it just because it’s writing we have free rein and not restrictive to what can be done for a movie.

One big reason is, you can’t write visual spectacle. You can describe absurd events playing out, but you can’t actually present the image. Visual mediums, including films and comics can show you what’s happening, and keep you engaged on the pure, “look at this,” spectacle.

When you’re watching a film and you see someone throw five punches in quick succession, it’s visually engaging. When you write that it just lands flat. At best you can inventory each hit, but that’s going to kill the momentum. You can abbreviate it as, “five punches,” but that becomes weightless, and has no real effect on the scene. But, when you look back at the video, each hit can be showcased without disrupting the scene. The director and cinematographer even have a lot of control over how you experience those moments. Longer cuts smooth the action out, while quick cuts result in a more disorienting experience. If your PoV character is the one dealing the blows, they benefit from the former, if they’re on the receiving end, jump cuts can help convey their disorientation. A wider shot can pull the audience out of the moment and put them in a more objective state of mind, watching what happens, while a closer camera pushes them to empathize with (at least one of) the characters.

Film benefits from longer fights. Yes, it fills time, but it also allows the director to orchestrate a full story within the sequence. It’s a strong opportunity for character building.

I know I’ve said it before, but film and prose are entirely different forms of media. The way you tell a story on 35mm includes a lot of tricks of framing, perspective, composition, and editing. Even things like color can become crucial touchstones to inform your audience what’s happening.

Ironically, a lot of those editing techniques are necessary to convey things to the audience that a writer can simply say. You don’t need to dramatically orbit your principle character and show them looking at the city below as they make their decision, you can simply tell us what they’re thinking. You can expose their entire internal discussion if you want. It’s two roads to the same destination, but options are vastly different.

When it comes to fights, film benefits from spectacle. It benefits from giving the audience time to process what they’re seeing. Because the speed is controlled by the editor a fight will have a tempo. Hell, it’s going to be scored to music before they’re done, and if something still doesn’t fit, there’s always ramping.

Your fight isn’t going to be scored to a soundtrack when it’s read. Even if you offer a suggestion, you have no control over how fast or slow someone else will read it. You can’t fully control the tempo; all you can do is keep your words short to speed the scene up.

If you want to maintain the impact of your fight, you want to keep it short. The longer it runs, the more time your audience has to tune out and lose interest.

So, here’s a very basic writing tip: If something doesn’t need to be there, cut it. At the most granular layer, this includes unneeded words in a sentence. In a fight, this means cutting the parts of the scene that don’t matter. When you step back and compare a fight on film to one in prose, there’s a lot of stuff that has little to no value at a narrative level. It’s important for the film because it’s contributing to the tempo, it’s relevant for the scene’s pacing, but it’s not like the story would make less sense if you cut a couple parried jabs from the fight. (The editor probably already did.)

As a writer, your best option is to keep your fights short and to the point. Films have to worry about production cost and logistics, but your budget is the word count, and keeping your audience engaged. (In fairness, run time is also a consideration for films, but the factors involved are weighed differently.)

Obviously, context is important; if your character is training in a martial art, you’re going to spend a lot more time discussing what they’re doing, and digging into their art’s philosophies. In a situation like that, having a little discussion about what’s going on in a fight is relevant, because it’s showing how much they’ve learned. But, this is a very singular example; if your character’s training wasn’t the focus of the narrative, this isn’t going to resonate as a part of their growth.

We regularly suggest a realistic approach, but that doesn’t mean what you think.

In fiction, “realism,” refers to internal consistency, not how well the work conforms to the real world. Are your characters following the rules of the world you created? This includes things like behavior that feels artificial. Plot points that feel forced. In fights, this happens when your characters suddenly burst out inexplicable superpowers. Like the ability to fight for ten minutes. Sure, the movies make it look easy, but that is damn near superhuman.

In the absence of altered rules, the ones from the real one are fine. Your fights should always be realistic, but that might not look the same in your world, so plan accordingly.

Because film and prose are completely different mediums, there’s a host of things that work for one and not the other. You may find ways to get a similar effect if you get creative, but simply lifting one from the other medium won’t do it.


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Q&A: Expert Weirdness

Is it possible someone unskilled in fighting may be able to get a one time move to disable an expert fighter, simply by coming up with a weird move that made them go wtf and lose concentration? Something like bringing the fight to the next room and on entrance someone else clangs a cymbal in the expert’s ear to make them wince and let go and subsequent clangs smashes the guy’s head in the middle.

Taking this one piece at a time, it’s possible someone with no combat experience could get the drop on an experienced combatant and end the fight before it started. This example offers none of that.

There’s something to be said for the take the third option, “do something crazy” mentality for self-defense. However, that involves hopping up and down on one leg while singing a little song until the guy with the knife thinks you’re too much trouble to bother with. This is a real example of how a woman escaped a mugging. People don’t like crazy and the unexpected can throw someone off. However, you’ve got to actually throw them off. This scenario you’ve created for yourself is too much within the range of an actual fight. These are the choices of someone who knows nothing about violence and thinks they’re being out there when the scenario proposed is what I’d expect from someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. You want someone to go, “what the ever-living fuck was that?” Kill someone with a rubber chicken. Wait, what? how? Who knows, but that’s going to result in some confusion.

So, let’s dig into some advanced concepts that your character wouldn’t begin to understand.

It takes someone a moment to register a threat they’re unaware of. This runs around a quarter of a second for unexpected visual information. That’s basically dead time while their brain is processing what’s happening. (Sound is processed faster, and reflexes from touch stimuli are the fastest at 0.15s.) (All of this is, “average,” so there is some range here.) If you have the capacity to end a fight on the edge of that window, it is impossible for your opponent to respond.

If your character’s cunning plan was to hide behind the door and mace them when their foe entered, that’d work, (with caveats.) If they were behind some sound equipment, they might be able to topple the stack on the other character, though that’d be less effective.

Cymbals? Nope. The sound isn’t going to be debilitating enough, and before you suggest, “but maybe if they’re bigger,” that’s the problem. Small symbols aren’t going to produce enough noise to have any appreciable effect, though you could box someone’s ears with them. If you’re using symbols larger than their head, those will get caught on the target’s shoulders, reducing the impact. At large enough sizes, these will collide with the shoulders, and then each other, meaning there will be little to no force applied to the head. Also, larger symbols are noisier; I don’t mean they make more noise when used, they’ll do that too, but they also produce noise when held, picking up and amplifying small oscillations. Remember the thing a moment ago about reaction times? Actively making noise informs your opponent that you’re there and their brain processes that information faster, telling them where you are, and significantly carving down reaction times.

Giving your position away also significantly reduces your opponent’s reaction delay. Once they know you’re there, they can start preparing to deal with you. Now, in fairness, we’re talking about a difference of less than 100 milliseconds, but in the context of combat, that’s significant. This is also part of why the trained vs untrained thing is such a hard line. If you’ve had sufficient training, you can intelligently react to what you’re seeing, hearing, and feeling. You don’t have to stop and decide what to do next. If you don’t have sufficient training, you need to stop and think between strikes. This means, under most circumstances, an untrained fighter cannot maintain the initiative.

You might also, now, have a better idea of why ambushes work so well. Storming through a door is a good way to take a bullet. Especially if your foe knows you’re coming, they’re listening for you, they’re actively ready, and they only need the visual confirmation to go. This is also introducing us to a lot of problems with your, “expert.”

You didn’t specify how they’re an expert, and that’s kind of an issue, because they’re making a lot of very inexperienced mistakes here.

Your expert has decided to enter a new room. Since you said, “let go,” I’m going to assume they have one of two things, a weapon or a hostage (possibly both.)

Your expert’s first task would be to “sweep” the room. This starts happening as they enter. You divide the room into “pie slices,” from the door, and as you open the door, you verify that there’s no threat, panning from the side opposite the door’s hinges, across until the door is fully open. This means they’re going to see the “musician” before they can act. They’re also actively looking for threats, which means their reaction will be far faster. They’d also use their foot to block the door so that it couldn’t be used against them as a weapon. (I’m working off the assumption that the door opens into the room, because that is how architecture works in most places, the exact process for scanning a room (or corridor) from the other side varies a little, but the basics above hold true.

There is a good element in here; your character has a plan to disorient their foe. This can open up options for finishing the fight. Except, your character doesn’t have a plan to finish the fight. Boxing someone’s ears is disorienting, (though your character would be better off doing that with their bare hands), and it will put an opponent off balance, but it won’t finish a fight. Your character needs a way to incapacitate their foe.

Is it possible to incapacitate a foe through sheer weirdness? Maybe, but probably not. You’d need to come up with an engineer a situation so bizarre your expert decides to throw in the towel and take up a career in making table candles. That’s a kind of strangeness, you’d really need to work up to.

Now, we have other problems with this scenario. Your expert is the driving force behind the pacing for the scene beyond just the fight. If your protagonist is running, then you should assume that they’ve already taken control of the initiative which means the protagonists reactions are a result of the expert’s actions. Outlining those priorities, goals, and skills for yourself will be necessary in working out either a plan of attack or escape. What does the expert want? What is their goal? What are they trained to do? How do they go about achieving that goal?

All these can decide whether or not this expert will even choose to fall into the protagonist’s trap and walk through that door, or simply lock the protagonist in. If the room has multiple exits, they might choose another method of entry.  One of the traps you shouldn’t fall into is trying to structure a fight based on what you want the outcome to be. Rather you should create the sequence with a focus on the strengths of these two characters. Grabbing the cymbals is the kind of attack someone without experience thinks is a good idea, so they try it and… it fails. (You’d need a something like a blowhorn, not cymbals to disrupt their concentration.) Now, what?

Depending on your character’s skills, they may have far more effective ways to deal with an expert hunting them, which could be as simple as working to avoid detection and escape. Having a character who isn’t trained to fight doesn’t mean you have an incompetent character, it just means violence isn’t an option they can use effectively. They will need to look for alternative options to achieve their goals.

Cheesing this so that your untrained protagonist can win by brute force weakens every character in your narrative, it diminishes your tension, and if this character is a dragon for another villain then you’ve devalued both of them. You’ve devalued your protagonist too.  Focus on what your character is good at, and make their strengths the backbone to their achieving victory. Don’t be afraid to let a scene slip sideways or for a character to lose, if you’ve created a scenario where your character doesn’t have the means to win then let the scene play out. Ask: what happens next?


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Q&A: Training Bruises

Is it normal for a dojo student (10 year old) to have defensive bruises on their arms from training? There was a boy at school who was questioned by his teacher on where he got a bunch of bruises on his arms and that’s where he said he got them from. His instructor. Is that okay or is that abusive?


This is a very serious topic so Starke and I are going to take turns answering this question. We’re going to have similar answers from different perspectives. Keep in mind we were both exposed to martial arts at very young ages, and I am a former martial arts instructor. I come at this from both the perspective of instructor and child martial artist. I have fourteen years of experience in the community of what we’ll call commercial martial arts which is where the martial arts studio functions as a business, which is the type this child is most likely practicing.


Without seeing them, I don’t know. You’re asking me to render an opinion based on almost no information.


Martial Arts is a physical contact sport. Bruising is as normal here as it is in any other contact sport. Would you ask the same question if the child was participating in one of them?

My initial response to this question is yes, that’s normal and doesn’t necessarily mean anything untoward occurred. I’d need to see the instructor’s practice in class and speak to the child before I could conclusively determine if any abuse took place. If the bruises are on his forearms then he was probably practicing blocking. If he received them from his instructor then the likeliest answer is they were practicing the techniques closer to full force rather than with another student where there’s no contact allowed. His instructor is the safest person to practice with because they have the best control.

That said, bruises happen. In fact, bruising is the most common injury you’ll receive during martial arts training. It is so commonplace you won’t notice it happening, and, depending on the severity of the bruising, this child might not have even noticed them until the teacher pointed them out.  Martial arts is a physical contact sport. You’re gonna get bruises, and you’ll get so many it’ll become so normal you don’t notice.

Other people do notice, though. If you’re not from the culture or community, and are used to bruises being a signal of something being wrong either at home or on the playground then you’re going to perceive the bruising on the wrists as being wrong. This child’s teacher’s response is also normal.


Minor bruising in martial arts training happens.

In particular, learning to parry hand strikes can easily result in a pattern of bruises along the outer forearm. The bruises will be centered around the bone, as that’s the point of contact. The most basic form of these techniques involves catching the opponent’s incoming strike with the forearm, and redirecting it away from the body. Initial practice can be done very lightly, but, eventually, you’re going to get some minor bruises from practicing this with a partner.

How extensive and severe may indicate some issues with oversight in the dojo, or it may reflect actual abuse. From a very superficial, “hey, this is a thing I saw,” it’s very hard to render a professional opinion. In most cases, a public school teacher is not going to be qualified to render that opinion, and will react to any sign of physical injury.

The only thing about this that bothers me is the statement that those injuries came from his instructor. But, we’re in a game of telephone here. You told me that you heard that he told someone else, that… so, what happened originally?

It strikes me as odd that his instructor had him practicing parries with enough force to bruise. Though, some of that could, legitimately, be the kid’s enthusiasm. So, technically the bruises would be self inflicted (because he was striking his instructor’s arms with more force than was called for by the exercise), but the instructor would still be the one who “caused” the bruises, when someone asked the child.


I’m going to disagree with Starke. At ten years old, it doesn’t actually take much force to bruise. I spent most of my pre-teen years wandering around with inexplicable bruises on my forearms, or halfway up my upper arm, or on the inside of the wrist, depending on what techniques we were practicing that week. I usually didn’t realize I had them until days later, and they only ever hurt if I poked at them. I’d sometimes show off particularly hideous ones to my peers (or ones I was proud of) just to freak them out.

I don’t know what you mean by “defensive bruising”, but my concern kicks in when the bruises are in unusual places that don’t correlate to the type of training the child says they’re doing.

You could easily get bruising on the wrist from practicing wrist releases, especially if you’re working with your instructor and they want you to experience breaking free from the real thing. The bruise you might get from the training could be indistinguishable from someone forcefully grabbing your wrist. Practice involves simulation.

We don’t know what his martial art is. “Dojo” is a common term in the US when referring to a martial arts school because everyone knows what it means. When I was a kid I’d tell people I was going to my “karate school” because no one knew what Taekwondo was and Taekwondo is the second-most popular martial art in America. So, we don’t know what he’s practicing and don’t know what’s normal at his school.

Lots of traditional Japanese martial arts don’t practice with pads, or use them in a very minimal way. If he’s practicing any strand of Karate — which he might be, karate is one of the most common martial arts — there’s going to be more bruising there.


Is this abusive? Without a more comprehensive investigation, I wouldn’t be comfortable making that call. I’m inclined to think that it’s a credible story, so far as it goes.

Is it fine? Not exactly, but minor bruising isn’t automatically a sign that anything’s wrong with the Dojo. This could be the result of a cautious instructor making the right call, and not asking the boy to practice with his fellow students.

Ultimately, I don’t know. There’s not enough information on what happened here. I’m inclined to think everything’s fine, but I have scars from training, so my zero point might be a little off.


Martial arts studios are businesses. The most common students studios make the most money on is children between the ages of five to twelve, and many parents use martial schools as after school day-care. These are usually family oriented establishments who put a heavy emphasis on child safety, they have to or else they don’t stay in business. I’m not going to say abuse doesn’t happen in martial arts schools, it does. However, we’d need a lot more information to make a judgement call.

I don’t know his martial art. I don’t know his belt ranking or how long he’s been training. I don’t know if these bruises are common for him or not, if this is a first or just the first time his school teacher noticed them. I don’t know if he’s had any serious behavior changes within the past few months which might indicate psychological signs of abuse which correlate with his injuries. From the information given, I’d say his bruises are most likely the result of normal training; especially if he wasn’t hiding them.

Exterior bruising on the outside forearms, upper arms, thighs, and shins is very common in Taekwondo because these spots are where you take the hits. Interior bruising on the inner arm/inner leg is less usual but not concerning. The severity of the bruises, the color and depth of penetration are the important factors because I need to know how hard they’re getting hit. I’d want to know about bruises around the core, and I’d still need an established pattern rather than knowing if it was a one off accident. The only place I’d initially be very concerned about is bruising on the face or neck. A ten year old should not be getting bruised on his face or neck, especially not by his instructor, but I have seen it happen from other students as an accident. I’d also need to observe the instructor, the demeanor of the students, the attitudes of the parents, and probably on multiple occasions to be certain.

Let me tell you though, the instructors are the ones who come away with the most bruises. We’re the punching bags, especially for younger students. Even when it’s something simple like holding out a paddle, you never know when they’re going to miss and… there go the fingers. I can’t tell you how many jammed and occasionally broken fingers come out of board breaking seminars. Someone is going to miss at least once. Again, you need to hit and get hit to ultimately test out whether your technique is working. Your instructor is the one who is safest to do this with because they’re the only ones with the control to hit just hard enough so the child learns whether or not they’re doing the block right. This lets them simulate the real thing without being in any danger, even from the other students. The worst bruises come from your peers, not your teachers.

Media dresses up martial arts training to be more harsh and nefarious than it actually is. We deal with those questions on this blog all the time. The real world is much less salacious and more mundane. Martial arts training for kids is very safe, much safer than some other sports (I’m looking at you football and gymnastics), but it does involve physical contact which can result in bruising.

-Starke and Michi

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Advice and suggestions for writing fight scenes.