Hi, you’re backlog of answers and posts is both impressive and intimidating. It is my personal goal to reach the very first post reading back from the most recent. I thought I’d pose my own question while I’m at it: the prospect of being very outnumbered and the way it’s addressed in fiction. With no combat training, it always rings bullshit bells, whether they are fighting off hordes at once or discreetly dispatching one after another. It feels like a person’s fatigue would catch up with them.
If you go back far enough, you’ll find the posts we’ve done on the 1vX. Fighting multiple opponents is possible but difficult, the fight is brutal, and, if caught in this situation, you are probably going to die. Fiction likes to show of the 1vX because it is the most difficult type of combat available which if done correctly will cement your character as an amazing fighter, and when done incorrectly breaks all suspension of disbelief. The best films to showcase the basic theory for fighting multiple opponents are some of the old school Jackie Chan movies where you see him bouncing off the walls while he runs away from the hoarde of mooks like a madman. That’s basically how it works — you run, you get in a hit or two, you shove a few into each other to slow them down, then you run again.
You’re not really fighting so much as dragging them into each other so they can’t coordinate. If you cede the floor to them, if you let them surround you, it’s over. You can’t stop and fight one at a time because they all come together, and they work together. These are not the stuntmen who sit in the queue patiently waiting their turn until their time comes to be beat up by the hero. Humans are social creatures, we’re pack animals, and even untrained groups will come against you together. The more opponents there are then the more the difficulty exponentially increases, and it was already sky high. Two people working together can easily kill you, even when you know what you’re doing. Eight will murder the shit out of you, and eight combatants is the maximum limit the single human brain can handle at once. People work together. The better coordinated they are, the more used they are to working together, the worse it is. An individual can be overwhelmed by sheer numbers, and it doesn’t take many for that to start happening.
One of the most common tactics from school yard bullies to prison inmates is to have one person lock their target down while the other person, grabbing hold of them either from behind or at another angle while the second wails on them (or knifes them.) This means the individual can’t fight back and is rendered helpless. This is the group’s ultimate goal.
The single combatant in a 1vX situation needs to keep moving. They can’t afford to stop. If they have a long or mid range weapon like a staff or sword then they might be able to hold down a single defensive position provided that position defends their back. With enough open space, the staff is better for this than the sword.
You’re in a sprint for your life. The fight is brutal and exhausting, you cannot afford to make mistakes. Once you lose the initiative, once the group takes control of the fight’s pace, it’s over. You turn your defense into offense.
Fighting multiple opponents is possible, but, especially with unarmed/hand to hand, we’re talking top tier difficulty situations which will most likely kill you. Two on one is likely to kill and has killed people who are experienced combatants. A Navy SEAL getting knifed by six bikers behind a bar shouldn’t be a surprising result. If your character is trying to protect someone else and get separated from them, then you should remember that the group is not all going to turn around and come at you. Some of them are going to keep chasing their original objective, especially if there’s more than two.
Fiction obsesses over the 1vX for fight scenes because the difficulty grade is excellent for showing off the hero’s skill and also because in visual mediums they’re exciting to watch. Then, they end up in situations where they’re breaking down the combatants levels by the numbers of enemies they can fight at once then utilize this to define the villain’s skill level. This narrative technique works well under the right circumstances but when you’re imitating the structure of the martial arts genre without understanding the nuts and bolts of why it works, we run the risk of the scene running wildly out of control. At this point, power creep sets in and numbers cease to matter. The narrative tension goes when this happens, the illusion breaks, and we get dolls slapping each other on the page or stunt actors punching shadows. Most 1vX fight scenes in film, especially in the US, are actually just the fight choreographer throwing as much action onto the screen as possible to overwhelm your eyes/brain and hope you don’t notice. They’re there to convince you that the character has control over the situation instead of a revolving door of, “Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit!” Where you’re trying to track a crazy amount of movement and split your focus between three different people when they all just need to focus on you.
The problem with the presentation of the 1vX in fiction is that the sequence type has become so ubiquitous it tricks the audience into thinking they’re easy to write. A well-written 1vX fight does require a fairly sophisticated understanding of how martial combat works because you’re juggling multiple fighters and you run the risk of queuing (lining your different characters up to make attacks so the character only fights one at a time while the others wait their turn.)