Simultaneous Action, Writing 1vX combat

“But no, not Velociraptor. You stare at him, and he just
stares right back. And that’s when the attack comes. Not from the front,
but from the side, from the other two raptors you didn’t even know were
there. Because Velociraptor’s a pack hunter, you see, he uses
coordinated attack patterns and he is out in force today.” – Doctor Alan
Grant, Jurassic Park

You may think that using a
quote from Jurassic Park about raptors to discuss writing when fighting
groups of individuals is strange. However, for all the talk of lone
wolves, humans are pack animals. They are very capable of working
together, even those who have never been trained, to overwhelm through
even haphazardly coordinated action. The better the group of opponents
are, the more practice they have at working together, then the more
dangerous they will be.

There isn’t a “level limit” like in video
games in real combat, and there really isn’t for dealing with groups of
enemies. In movies and television (which follows into books and other
media, then vice versa), we fall prey to the trait of the “most badass
stands alone”. A single individual facing multiple people is
challenging, even when those enemies don’t know anything about fighting.
Groups
bring: Communication, coordination, tactics, strategy, and the ability
to limit movement. They come together, use each other as distractions,
circle, and come at angles that you can’t defend yourself well from. It
gets worse when they know the terrain and can use the environment to
their advantage.

Much like fighting groups in real life, writing
groups is actually a very difficult endeavor because of those qualities.
It’s probably one of the most difficult aspects of writing fight
sequences and the easiest to botch. Whether you’re writing
semi-realistic fiction or combat with magical/super powered elements,
there are some things that are commonly forgotten.

The action is fast, it comes in multiples, and is nearly simultaneous. Take this example below:

Dirthara
reappeared, lunging toward her. Her feet blurred on the on the ground,
magic pumping through her legs. Both blades drawn back, she swung in
low.

Eirwen flicked her sword up, catching Dirthara’s first strike
along the edge of her blade. She knocked it away. The deadened trails
of their energy filtered through her. The second blow would come toward
her ribs. No.

This was wrong.

Behind!

Blade tip rotating, she flung Dirthara’s second blade up and threw herself sideways.

Revas
spun past her. Blades wheeling in a dizzying spiral around his body, he
shot through Dirthara. Black tendrils dripped from their edges as a
dark shadow lengthened out across the stone behind him.

Unharmed,
Dirthara straightened. Holding her blades out before her, one high
beside her cheek and the other low before her chest, she resettled into a
deep stance. The right foot extended, it pointed directly toward
Eirwen. The back lifted onto the ball, turned on a slight angle.

Slowing,
Revas also stood. The blades in his hands parallel to the ground. His
head swung. Blonde hair drifting across his forehead, the long nose of
his profile clear and distinct under the moon’s light. The curving
tendrils of his tattoos shone brightly on his cheek as a single,
visible, blue eye narrowed.

Behind them, Fals remained motionless.

“Well,” Eirwen muttered. I can’t afford to be defensive. She
stepped back, turning sideways as she leaned on her rear leg. Left hand
secure on her hilt and the right on the pommel, she lifted it until the
blade until it was nearly perpendicular to her cheek. And I can’t afford to be offensive. “This will be tricky.”

I
wrote this while messing around with more Anime-esque combat and it’s
not really accurate for conventional confrontations, but this is
essentially the principle. Attacks are coordinated, enemies will circle
if they can and they’ll come from multiple angles. If you’re choosing to
have the character stand in fight, then the one in the 1vX is going to
be primarily on the defensive. They’ll be ducking and dodging, blocking
and pushing, trying to control their terrain, keep all their enemies in
front of them. It’s a lot like juggling, they’ve got to keep all the
balls in the air or they’re dead.

This means that you as the
writer can’t focus on any single opponent, but you can’t afford to waste
time either. One of the biggest failures of a 1vX scene is queuing like
you see stuntmen do in the movies. The author will focus all their
attention on one opponent or they’ll assume that a single hit will be
enough to take someone out. It won’t.

It’s true that you want to
take out the X number of opponents very quickly, but you can’t just
stand around trading blows. You must keep the defending character
moving. A character can only afford a few hits at a time, they have to
create their own openings through delaying tactics and by forcing their
opponents to fight each other.

The ground shook
beneath her feet. Fals brought the hammer down, shattering the stone
ahead of him into a few hundred tiny pieces. Some fell into the gaping
hole. Others floated up, caught in the pull of Myrian’ magic.

Shit! He’s bringing this platform down.

She
jumped back, letting Dirthara sail past her. Her body twisting in time
to catch the edge of Revas’ spinning blades with her sword, she levered
hers up and slid out of the way in a spray of sparks. Heel skidding
across the rock as she spun out.

Foot catching on the stone,
Revas’ ankle rotated about, and his whole body whirled back. Racing
toward her with stomach nearly parallel to the ground, he came in low.
The tip of his left blade swung toward her middle.

She shot
forward and, instead of letting their blades meet, passed through his
body. Landing behind him, she let her gaze rise to the stones ripping up
out of the ground. Dirthara’s energy was on a rapid approach from her
right. Felas’ hammer was coming down again. That one. Another hit and the whole platform would fall.

Sheathing
her sword, Eirwen raced across the fracturing ground. Her index and
middle fingers flicked down. Magic flooded them. Cutting between the
rising shards, hopping off the stones that gave way beneath her feet,
she leaped over the gap protecting Fals with the other two hot on her
heels.
Tethers from her mind flung out, spearing down through Myrian’
control to hook into his brain. She seized them with mental fingers and
hauled him up short.

Stop.

Eirwen landed, crouched
atop his war hammer. It hovered just centimeters off the ground, utterly
still. Her eyes snapped up just in time to see his widen. A faint smile
curved her lips and she launched upward. Palm slamming down on his
helmet, she twisted over his head. Magic flowed down off her fingers,
embedding itself on the inscribed runes in his armor. She hit the ground
on the other side and cranked her knee to her chest, slamming her foot
into the small of his back.

“Sorry, friend,” she said. “This is where you get off.”

Fals stumbled forward, head turning in time for her to register his surprise.
Her fingers flicked out, eyes narrowing as the magic she’d left behind sank into the runes. Three, two… Her smile widened.

His armor buckled.

One.

Exploding
outward in a dizzying blast of blue, Fals cried out. As fire licked up
his body, his voice rose to an eerie scream. The magic ate away at his
skin, cracking down his exposed arms, his eyes burning with white
flames. His hammer fell to the loose ground and the rock beneath his
feet gave way.
Fals dropped, vanishing from sight as he plummeted toward the icy mountains below.

Dirthara
leaped over him. Legs a blur, she landed on a surviving piece of the
platform and flung herself forward with a maddened scream. Wicked
daggers gleamed in the moon’s red light.

Eirwen brought her hands up, blue rippling over her shoulders.

Revas lunged from the shadows behind her, winged blades whirling toward her spine in another deadly spiral.

The ground rolled and rocked beneath Eirwen’s feet, disappearing as quickly as Dirthara advanced.

We’re going down.

Focusing on one of the larger floating pieces of stone overhead, Eirwen closed her eyes.

Revas spun through her ghostly shape, leaving a cold shiver as he went.

With a sharp inhale, she disappeared as the ground fell away beneath her.

Reappearing,
her feet dropped lightly onto a much smaller piece of rock. Large
enough for one. A hot burn spiked her center. Hand clenching over her
chest, she dropped to her knees. Can’t expect that to work too many more times.

Teeth
sank into her lower lip and she bit down, blood welling on her lower
lip. Swallowing, she sat up. Her fist tightened on her chest. She let it
go, forcing the pain to recede.

Below, the first of Myrian’
platforms crumbled. Great pieces of granite tumbling down to crash into
the distant, smoking ground. Other pieces, more structurally sound
pieces, were rising. On them, Dirthara and Revas stood. Their eyes
locked on her.

Well, she sighed, left hand settling on her sword hilt. It’s not like I expected that to stop them.

Overhead,
the battlefield restructured itself. New platforms populated the air,
held together by winding silver staircases. Among them, Myrian’ disk had
grown wider as he ripped more and more pieces of the temple out of the
ground below.

It’d be an easier to fight if she managed to land on any of them.
That’s quite a long way up, though.

Simple
short range teleportation, even the advanced form she’d recovered
through her memories was not enough to cover such a distance.

I’ll have to outrun them.

Below,
Dirthara and Revas had begun to move. Leaping from one floating rock to
the next as they made their way toward her position.

The chances of that? Unlikely.

Eirwen smiled and freed her sword from its sheath.

Only one path left, I suppose.

Green
fire rippled along its edges, tiny runes lighting beneath the
cross-guard as they raced down the length of the blade. Her right hand
extended out and the rune embedded in her palm crackled. A thin circle
of green energy appeared beneath her fingers. It spun, rotating around
and around as heat simmered on her skin.

She leaned off the edge, focusing the primary portion of her magic into her feet.

Then, Eirwen flung the chakram down and dove after it.

So, how do you do it?

Writing
a 1vX is like juggling, you have to bounce between characters. You
can’t have the character stop and duke it out with one guy and ignore
everyone else.  They have enough time to land one hit, which is unlikely
to be permanent, and continue to fight so they can create openings.
Even when fighting with a plan to kill, this is difficult because
multiple enemies working in tandem have way more options than a single
character working alone.

It’s a race against time.

As
combat goes on, we get more tired and, as we get more tired, we begin
to make mistakes. You’re at your best when you’re fresh. The more energy
that gets expended now means that less will be on the table for later.
The defending character can’t expend too much energy on any one person
because it means they won’t have that energy for the others that are
still fresh. A group can share the burden of the expended energy, an
individual can’t.

1vX group combat is interesting because it
forces the character to start making new and different choices,
immediate choices based on their survival. If there’s yet another enemy
waiting in the wings, then those choices get even harder. The character
must finish them or provide themselves with some means of escape before
they become too exhausted.

They must be flawless. Every hit they
take is dangerous, because all openings in the defense will be
exploited. Every attack they make when they open up their defense must
count (and it might not), they must pick their targets carefully, and
constantly remain on the move or find a more easily defensible position
so that they’re harder to get to.

Control the field.

A
character who lets multiple enemies do their thing in a 1vX is lost.
Being surrounded means having portions of your body that are left open.
You can’t really just stand and fight.

Prioritize the enemies.

The
character has to pick their targets for who they’re going after first.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed, but they need to start looking for where
the threat is and go after those. The enemy which gets prioritized may
not be the most dangerous. Even if they’re just faceless mooks, when it
comes to creating a clear picture it’s easier if you name them. They
don’t have to be their usual names: “the big guy”, “the short one”, “the
blonde with blue eyes”, “the guy with nice teeth”, “Frizzy hair”,
“Seahawk’s jersey”, etc.

In the above example, Eirwen prioritizes
Fals because he’s attacking the terrain while the other two distract
her. If she stopped to finish her fight Revas and Dirthara, then she
wouldn’t be able to control when the platform went down. Fals was the
least dangerous of the three overall, but the most dangerous in the
moment. By getting rid of him, she could focus on the other two.

Emphasize teamwork.

If
you’re writing combatants who are supposed to be good at what they do,
then they need to be using teamwork. Dirthara and Revas come one right
after the other, nearly simultaneously, while Fals focuses on bringing
the platform down. They’re working together as a distraction to keep
Eirwen off balance (if they kill her in the meantime, it’s all good)
while Fals destroys the ground they’re on so they all tumble to their
deaths.

Punish them for using the same tactic over and over.

Change
up the routine. You want to create an adaptive environment, one where
the enemy observes and responds to what a character is doing while their
fighting. Counters are a huge deal in combat. The main way they’re
developed is by witnessing how a technique works, then working out a
means to disrupt or stop it. If your character is using a “signature”
move, it won’t be signature for very long. Besides, forcing a character
to change their battle tactics when they’ve gotten too comfortable is an
excellent exercise for the writer who has also gotten too comfortable.

If
you start thinking a character is unbeatable, then change the routine.
You don’t need MOAR POWER, but what you do need is creativity and
characters that are focused on problem solving. See one technique enough
times and the game starts to change, the enemy starts figuring the
character out. Change or die.

-Michi

We’ve talked about a single individual combating groups before:

Fight Scene Strategies: the Individual versus the Group

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