Tag Archives: gladiators

Q&A: Asymmetric Armor

Hi! What is the real meaning for a character like Cloud Strife to have a single shoulder armor? Is it to rest their sword on their shoulder only, in a safe manner? I have a OC child who wears a shoulder pad just for fun but I want to know if it serves a purpose for real. Thank you, love your blog!

The short answer is that it’s to make the character look cool. It’s primarily there to help differentiate his design. I’m not clear on exactly how much was intentional, but I suspect the art design for most of the FF7 characters was heavily influenced by hardware limitations. (I know this was a consideration in the earlier sprite based games.) Because the polygon budgets and texture resolutions were low, the hardware heavily favored bold aesthetic designs. Cloud wears one massive oversized pauldron, and has hair you can roast marshmallows on because it helps keep the character visually distinct.

So, with all that said, asymmetrical armor was a thing, sometimes. There’s two important considerations, cost, and what you need the armor for.

Cost is always relevant. Armor is expensive; regardless who is paying for it. Doesn’t matter if it’s a lone mercenary or adventurer, then they’re going to have to make some difficult choices on where they spend their money.  Depending on the era, it’s entirely possible that even a professional soldier would have been responsible for purchasing and maintaining their own arms and armor. This could (and did) result in situations where someone had incomplete armor, because it’s all they could afford.

So, could you end up with a mercenary who had a single pauldron, and basically nothing else? Theoretically, yes. However, they’d be better off selling that, and getting some body armor instead. Though, if you had to pick one arm to over-armor, the left would be the better choice.

Depending on the statistics you look at, somewhere between 70% and 95% of the population is right handed. That means the vast majority of the foes you’d be facing on the battlefield would be far more likely to strike at your left arm and side. You’re more likely to take hits on that side (again, in a conventional combat environment), and as a result, it does make sense to add some extra armor on that side. That may simply mean a heavier pauldron, or just some extra weight in your gear. This wasn’t universal, and was rarely to the extent that you’d ignore one side entirely, but there is a little bit of logic behind these aesthetics. It’s also worth remembering, this is mostly a consideration after you’ve already got effective armor, and you’re thinking about adding some more. While there are reasons to put heavier armor on your left arm, that won’t do you any good if you’re run through, hence, the body armor suggestion earlier.

The most extreme example of asymmetrical armor is jousting gear. It’s probably better to think of jousting as a sport, rather than as combat. It was a competition, with strict rules, and supervision. The skills it used were based in combat, (specifically running down enemies with a couched lance) but, the two competitors in heavy plate with crowds cheering them on, was pure spectacle.

Jousting armor had enormously exaggerated protection on the left side. If you know what you’re looking for, jousting armor is instantly recognizable. In particular, the cuirass is often visibly asymmetric, sometimes with the left arm partially shielded, or fused directly into the cuirass above the elbow (technically, the term cuirass may be inaccurate in this specific example.) The helmet is sometimes asymmetric, again, favoring the left side, though this is less universal. In short, you’re looking at armor that expected the user to take a hard blow to the left side of their body, and wanted them to survive the experience.

I know we’ve said this before, but getting the right armor involves knowing exactly what you’ll be dealing with, and choosing accordingly. With that in mind, there was at least one situation where combatants intentionally went into combat with partial armor.

Roman gladiators had predesigned “uniforms,” that filled numerous distinct roles. As with Jousting, this was more of a sport, rather than true armor, but the goals were different. In particular, gladiatorial combat was interested in drawing blood, while simultaneously prolonging the spectacle. In these cases, armor that protected one (or both) arms, while leaving the torso unprotected was a pattern for many of the roles.

Worth remembering in this case, that both a gladiator’s weapons, and armor, were selected based on their roles, and they would be paired against opponents with roles that couldn’t easily counter them. In some ways it’s the opposite of what you’d normally look for in combat, but, the point was to create matchups that would be bloody without also being decisive.

There was a theme with the various roles. Gladiators were “playing the part” of various foreign civilizations that the Romans had already defeated. These caricatures would have been instantaneously recognizable to the crowds, much like how stereotypes in professional wrestling are instantly familiar (and, potentially offensive) to modern audiences. Although, significantly bloodier, professional wrestling is a good analogy to the Roman arena, so it might not be the best example of asymmetrical armor in combat, but it is another situation where this concept appears.

In general, when it comes to designing a character, overtly asymmetrical armor is often simply a method to make the character stand out. That’s what you see with Cloud. It’s not that there’s a specific tactical advantage, it’s there to mark him as your protagonist, and make his character model easier to identify at a glance.


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So I’m going to write this character who grew up for a major part of her young life in a fighting pit without an arm, she mainly relied on the “that girl without an arm can’t be a threat” and then beat their butts when their backs were turned, and I’d like her to be able to wield a sword and shield, and I’m trying to work out the logistics of that, like would it make sense for her to have a piece of wood attached to her stump to better support the shield and stuff, or am I wrong?



So I’ve kept this in my askbox for a while because I’m not sure how to respond to it. I give prompts and some writing advice on this blog.  This question is way outside my limited expertise. I’ll throw it out there in case someone has an answer.

@howtofightwrite this might be up your alley

So, one armed fighters.

We’ve brought up Nick Newell before who is a professional UFC fighter who was born with a congenital amputation of his left arm. The difference between him and this character is he’s not missing his arm, it ends at his elbow. He uses his left arm as a way to provide holds and pressure when grappling that make it almost impossible to escape from due to him not having a full sized arm.

There’s also
Gottfried “Götz” von Berlichingen (1480 – 23 July 1562)

otherwise known as

of the Iron Hand. He was a mercenary who lost about as much of his arm as Nick Newell in battle and replaced it with an iron prosthesis that he used in combat. He held the sword with his prosthetic and used the shield in his left hand. (He could even write with his second prosthetic. Yes, with a quill.) This guy was real, successful, badass, and died of old age. I’d read his bio. He’s an awesome bit of history.

However, when looking to write a character with any disability (whether physical or mental) it is important to not imagine them performing the exact same way as everyone else (otherwise called full-bodied, able-bodied). You’ve got to write from the perspective of someone who has a disability, who is missing their arm. They’ve got to come up with new ways to fight that work for them rather than trying to force them to fight like someone who has two working arms. It is absolutely possible for your character to fight professionally and be very successful at it, but she will do it her own way.

Look at two examples above, these are men who turned their disabilities from what most people would consider detriments into assets. By coming up with unique solutions suitable for them, their approach to combat became extremely difficult for others to counter.

In the grapple, Newell can apply pressure on angles that cannot be gotten to.

Götz figured out how to use his sword in battle without wrist movement. Think about that. That’s incredible.

Unless we’re dealing with futuristic (or even just modern) tech, there’s no way for this character, who is poor and a child, living in a pit to rig up a full prosthetic that functions to the same degree as an arm. And, who else would pay for someone to create it? Their manager has other mouths to feed.

They don’t need that second arm to sword fight. They’ll just use one of the many swords meant to be wielded one handed. They’re going to learn how to fight without that second arm.

The problem is you’re coming at this from the perspective of what you want then trying to jury rig to it instead of from the perspective of what would make sense to this character and what they would choose for themselves. This is usually the major failure of any able-bodied person writing a disabled character: you don’t think the way they do.

They are a character who has grown up without a second arm. A second arm is what other people have, it is not part of their regular life. They’ve learned to live without it. They’ve had to. Everything you think about doing with two arms or hands, they do with one. In training, they’d simply learn to compensate for that arm not being there. They also don’t have to worry about it or defend it when it combat, opening them up to potentially being more aggressive.

There’s also a high likelihood she’d use her feet a lot more.

This is the “not a martial artist” problem. Most people who’ve never done martial arts only consider two limbs, they don’t think of all four (and the head).

Then, there’s the fact she’s a child. Children fighting adults are automatically at a disadvantage. It is one hell of a gap, one she’ll need to be very quick and aggressive about overcoming. (I won’t ask why she’s not fighting in her age group. Take them by surprise works more reliably on children and young teens than seasoned adults.)

So, as a treatment, we’ve got a hyper-aggressive child combatant who wields a sword and uses their feet via kicks and footwork to make up the difference. They’ll have spent a lot of time learning counters to attacks focused on the side of their body without an arm. (If you want common tactics, the perceived area of weakness is where the initial attacks will be focused. That is the behavior this girl will turn to her advantage.)

You’ve got to learn how to re-examine and see the world from their perspective, just like you would if you were writing someone from another culture or ethnic background.

Lastly, I know gladiatorial arenas are popular as a place for characters to get their fighting chops but here’s the thing:

They’re a business.

Assume for a moment this is a fantasy setting that is following a medieval or roman archetype. For someone to be a functional pit fighter, you’ve got to feed them, clothe them, board them for years. You’ve gotta invest in them and it will be years before you see a return on that investment.

So, say your city is dystopic fantasy like Lankhmar from Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. You’ve got an entire city of urchins and orphans to pick from when yanking kids out of the gutter to stick in an arena, so why her? This may sound cruel, but think about it from the perspective of an investor. Why do you pick the girl with one arm versus the girl who still has both but is missing an eye or the kid you just caught trying to pick your pocket?

The truth is (this is where we come back to Nick Newell) it is really hard to stage fights against someone with one arm.

For the other competitor, either they just got beat up by someone with one arm or the fighter with one arm has demonstrated that they’re better than someone with two. (This is the reason why Nick Newell had difficulty getting fights in the UFC, after the years he spent trying to convince multiple gyms to take him on before locating one that would.)

From a business perspective, matching anyone against her is a lose/lose for them. For the competitor, for their manager, and possibly for the arena itself.

Pit fighting is entertainment. All gladiatorial combat, all bloodsport is entertainment. That is its primary purpose and why it exists. If the fight is not entertaining to the audience then it is worthless. If the fighter does not make money, they are worthless. Like all entertainment, there’s a threshold of cruelty the audience doesn’t want to see.

They aren’t going to want to see an able-bodied adult (especially male) beating up a one armed girl. There’s nothing fun about watching that. There’s nothing fun about betting on that. If there’s no audience for it, she has no career and they kick her out of the pit. Any experienced professional would know that going in, you’d need another character who overcame their own good business sense in order to give her a chance.

This kind of manager character will fly directly in the face of your Dickensian fantasy of the self-made little urchin girl who overcame the ills and evils of the world.

Now, Newell did manage to get fights but it took him awhile. He was a great fighter. He met a
lot of other fighters who considered their careers and said no. They
didn’t want to fight him.

The problem is entertainment sports are not about ability, they are about image.

There is a real reason why the UFC is not booking female fighters versus male fighters. They could, but they won’t. Not because a woman couldn’t fight a man or potentially win, but because it’d be a lose/lose for everyone involved. It’d be a lose for the male competitor if he lost to the woman or won against her (he needs to think about his career), it’d be a lose for the woman because if she lost then she’d confirm gender stereotypes and if she won then she couldn’t go back to women’s league. Both their salaries and winnings are paid for by the people who come to their next fight.

Bare-knuckle boxing in the 19th century had female fighters, they fought men, they fought women, they fought everyone. They were adults not kids, and this was backdoor street fighting rather than organized gladiatorial business with promotion.

There were female gladiators in Rome. On a business level, Roman gladiators worked in a manner very similar to modern boxing and the UFC.

In fantasy we’ve got our Gurney Hallack’s and our Feyd Rautha’s.

None of this means this character you’ve created can’t have a career, it just means that you as the author needs to sit down and figure out what your in setting audience considers entertaining, will put down money for, gamble on, and wants to see.

This is going to take some legwork on your part.

None of this is to say this female character can’t become a pit fighter or is invalid or the story idea stupid, it just means there are considerations to make from a setting perspective outside the character herself.

You’ve got to think from the perspective of the people who took her on, their needs, their wants, their desires, and what they saw in her that made them go “yeah, this one works for me.”

If you had any dreams about an angst filled romp where this character was forced into this life and didn’t want to be there then I’ve got some bad news. In the world of professional fighting, if you do not figure out some reason to fight then your career will be short and end swiftly. It may simply be the three square meals a day and the safe-ish place to sleep at night.

The people who are successful at bloodsport are the ones who dedicate themselves to it. This is especially true for women in a sexist environment, where everyone is telling them, “no, this isn’t for you. No, you can’t do it.” If you’ve got a woman breaking barriers then its due to her sticking a big, fat middle finger in society’s face.

Here’s some things to consider:

1) Unless these fighters are coming out of extreme isolation where they hear nothing about the outside world, “that girl without an arm can’t be a threat” is a mistake that’ll be made once. It is not persistent, and it is not an advantage after the first victory. Once she proves herself, they will begin looking for new ways to defeat her. A snake lying still only gets a surprise on their first strike.

2) Don’t assume she’ll get special treatment because she’s female or underestimated because of her gender. Female fighters aren’t rare or special. If you haven’t considered other women in the pit, you may want to redraft. If they’ll pull one girl, they’ll pull more. (A little girl with one arm isn’t going to be anyone’s first choice. So, where are the others who came before her?)

3) There are plenty of men who won’t care she’s a little girl and fight her seriously. Men aren’t stupid. Gender and a disability are not the advantage you think they are. Whatever advantage in expectation they might’ve brought will die on the table very quickly and you’ll never see it from the skilled professionals. Once they realize she’s dangerous, the gloves come off. (This is especially true if their life is on the line.)

4) If she’s pit fighting, she’s not the only fighter missing a limb. So, don’t treat her as a unique snowflake no one’s ever seen before. If they’re fighting with edged weapons then losing limbs will be fairly common.

5) Pit fighting, like any form of gladiatorial sport, is entertainment. Historically, bloodsport is connected to gambling and has more in common with cinema than an actual battlefield.

6) If you’ve got a pit where the star performers are getting killed, where are they getting the replacements from? (And why are they killing them in the first place? That’s bad business. It was actually uncommon in Rome for gladiators to die in the arena, especially popular ones with fans. Oh, did they have fans… and advertising gigs. Why kill your investment?)

7) The goal of a business is to make money. A pit is a sizeable operation that takes a lot of money to keep it going. Even if everything is above board rather than illegal, you’ve still got to have a lot of people on payroll beyond what your fighters cost (whether they’re free or slaves, you have to put money into them). You need to secure money somehow. Whether that’s gambling, wealthy patrons, or prostituting your fighters out to women and men who’ll pay for an hour in the sack, it doesn’t matter. (Rome did all three.) Figure out the economics.

8) A character who trains to fight in bloodsport is not comparable to a trained soldier. They have different motivations and different needs. Don’t assume one is the other.

Give Gladiator a re-watch if you haven’t already, it is surprisingly accurate to history and what you should be considering when setting up any kind of professional bloodsport or arena.

Also Spartacus, and if you’re over eighteen Spartacus: Blood and Sand.

The UFC’s reality TV show The Ultimate Fighter is probably worth a look for research purposes, also great for character reference as there’s a lot of professional fighters and wannabes training to become professionals. It is a reality tv show though, so keep that in mind.

There’s also the history of various fighting sports from all over the world from muay thai to to sumo to pankration to sambo. That’ll help you too when it comes to imagining other fighter types.

We have tags for gladiators and bloodsports.

Good luck.


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Would a trident be used a weapon? If so, how would it work? Not like throwing it, but using it like a polearm (if possible).

I know I wrote, “poke it with a stick until it falls over” recently, but that is the basic idea behind using a trident. I know tridents were used as weapons in the gladiatorial arenas, and you certainly can use one on a person.

Though, generally speaking, gladiatorial weapons weren’t terribly efficient. There was a premium on prolonging the fight to keep things interesting. This often meant inefficient weapon choices that made dealing a killing blow difficult, but allowed for large numbers of minor superficial wounds. So, while you can kill someone with a trident, it’s not really an efficient choice.

That said, there is an entire family of polearms, the spetums (also the corseque and ranseur), that take a similar design into combat. With those you’re looking at a much longer central blade with tines to prevent a foe from traveling up onto the shaft after being stabbed.


othersidhe said: weren’t they mostly used for suicide?

This is one of those great historical ironies. No, they actually weren’t. Much like the Gladiators of Rome, whose matches in the arena rarely ended with death, Samurai didn’t actually commit suicide as regularly as it’s commonly believed they did. There are many different warrior codes in many different cultures across the world, the Code of Chivalry for example also includes a passage on suicide for failure. But the knights weren’t committing suicide left and right for failing, that would be a waste of resources and manpower. The samurai weren’t either.

Here’s why: the period of time when the samurai existed in Japan, there existed a caste system that broke people down into different classes. Peasants were peasants, merchants were merchants, and samurai were samurai. A samurai, for the most part, could only come from the samurai class. Japan has never had an extremely large population, especially not when compared to other countries in the region. China can kill for failure (if they were dumb enough to, they’re not), Japan can’t. They didn’t have the manpower, the options, or the replacement candidates for a samurai to kill himself every time he failed his liege lord. There was a little bit of flexibility, but not much. This is what happened to the Spartans, Spartans were supposed to die in battle and they did. Eventually, the Spartans ran out of Spartans because they were all dying. If samurai were really killing themselves with any regular frequency, Japan would have run out of samurai very quickly. Plus, if this were also true and everyone was behaving the way they were supposed to there would have been no ronin.

The concepts of suicide and the Bushido code we have today come out of the period shortly before WWII, when Japan was reinventing itself. They looked back to the past, to “when they were great” and repeated the same mistake that every culture does when they look back on who they think they are with rose tinted glasses. They readopted the Bushido code, but much more rigidly. The No Failure State was a response to that. The mass suicides that happened during WWII were unique to WWII. However, the concept of No Failure still exists today in Japanese politics.

So, while the wakizashi was used for suicide, that wasn’t it’s primary purpose. It can’t have been. Japan didn’t have enough iron to really waste on two swords that a single samurai wasn’t really doing anything with.

The Gladiator problem is this: it’s inverted. Thumbs up you can kill him, thumbs down, you didn’t perform well enough for him to die. Hollywood screwed it up for dramatic reasons.