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Q&A: Two Weapons From Two Periods In Versus = Bad News Bears

I’m working on this story and for plot reasons there’s gonna be a spear vs. Poseidon-style trident one-on-one fight, so I’d like to ask your take on the trident’s viability as a weapon? And how much of a difference would it make between the other person having a hoplite-style setup of shield and spear, or just a two-handed spear like in Chinese wuxia stories? Thank you very much.

Not all weapons of similar category are the same, or those from a similar time period.

The wuxia spear seen in cinema transitions between being a one handed weapon and two handed weapon. The second hand in a two handed weapon is there for guidance and accuracy, but the techniques can be performed one handed.

For reference, the style you’re probably thinking of is more contemporary with the rapier than any ancient setting and some variants are even more modern.

There’s about two thousand years of technological advancement between the Hoplites and the Chinese martial art we’re talking about. The Wuxia of today is going to cover the martial styles that come out of Hong Kong cinema and Chinese film, rather than the ones that existed when the genre began as a form of Chinese storytelling in 300-200 BCE. This is the Warring States period, and foundational to modern Chinese storytelling. However, when looking at the Warring States period in modern Chinese cinema, it’s important to understand the period is depicted as a fantasy setting not unlike 14th Century Arthurian Camelot. Culturally important, not necessarily represented with accuracy. For example: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, The Emperor and The Assassin and many other films are set during this period. None of whose martial arts are historically accurate. The characters will also usually have superpowers by means of martial training/enlightenment as that’s a convention of the genre. This is the straight up origin of the Martial Arts Gives You Superpowers trope.

A wuxia hero can fly over/run up walls as a genre conceit, just like a Celtic hero can grow tall as a tree, talk to animals, or ride on the shoulders of salmon. (That’d be Sir Cai. Yeah, that Sir Kay.) Same with the Grecian mythological heroes. If we’re running mythology though, most of this post is moot.

The strength of the Grecian spear is the Phalanx formation, and it’s not meant for dueling. The modern version of the Chinese wuxia genre heavily relies on martial arts that didn’t exist or were not used in the historical period. So, having the wuxia spear go toe to toe with a trident from the Bronze Age would be akin to taking a rapier against an FN P90. It won’t end well. You’d end up with the same issue with any hopilite era weapon versus the basic wuxia spear, one is vastly superior in technological advancement and comes from a period where martial training was not only a thing but highly specialized in concept and materials.

The problem here is anachronism stew, and the assumption that all weapons within a single category are the same or equivalent. They’re not. Even when we step back and try to limit our options, those advantages present in one weapon style will heavily outweigh those in another with almost no way to make up the difference.

What I’m saying is that even if you took the anachronistic fighting style seen in 300, (mostly fine for the first part, but when we break from formation and hit dueling the fight choreography transitions into Chinese spear combat) or this fight scene between Hector and Achilles from Troy where the techniques with the spear are predominately and anachronistically Chinese. Even then, the style used by the wuxia staff/spear in Chinese cinema is going to wreck its day. If you see spear combat out of Hollywood cinema these days, the film choreography is taking its ques from Chinese cinema. This includes The Viper versus The Mountain in Game of Thrones. Compare to combat with the European spear.  Here, we have Roland Warzecha discussing dueling with the Medieval spear and a concept called “claiming the center” which is a necessary component to understanding blocks, counters, and striking distance. This concept did not exist for the Hoplites yet, but it will for any duels you see on screen today.

So, for wuxia, we’re talking a warrior trained in a complete and comprehensive martial style, who has been training for at least four to five years. You don’t pick and choose weapons out of Eastern martial arts, you don’t train in the spear and nothing else. Chinese martial arts are rooted in curriculum. Any wuxia style you look at is going to have movements which stem from a base in hand to hand, the staff transitions into spear, and even into the sword. Take a fighter of a Chinese martial style and they’ll have a grounded base in hand to hand, be able to use both the staff and spear, and possibly other weapons as well. These are martial arts where all aspects feed together to create harmony, and where one technique is the extension of another. While this is our modern understanding of how a martial arts curriculum works, this philosophy is unique to East Asia and India (where it originates.) The Greeks and the Europeans would not have viewed martial arts in the same holistic way, especially as Chinese martial arts are heavily reliant on Chinese philosophy like The Tao. (Also Confucianism, Buddhism, etc.)

There are cultures where you can just grab a weapon, get trained on that specific weapon, and run off with it. We still use these distinctions today with certifications such as knife training or sword training versus someone who is trained. Holistic systems are not built for a smash and grab, take one piece and you’ve consigned yourself to taking everything that comes with it. The weapon style isn’t built for the person wielding it to not understand the hand to hand elements. The concept of specialization is very different in Eastern styles than it is with its Western counterparts. The holistic approach is the purpose behind scenes in Chinese cinema like this one from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon where the warriors are just working their way around the room switching weapons.

This is important to understand, not just because the Greeks existed in a period before the modern concept of a trained military existed. You can’t separate a weapon from the time period it belongs in because weapon’s technology is still technology. This is scientific advancement. The closest the Greeks had to a trained military were the Spartans and, in the modern sense, the Spartans were highly inefficient. A Chinese martial artist from the Boxer Rebellion would wreck them in fairly short order. The Warring States saw the emergence of personal defense martial arts for commoners, so martial training wouldn’t necessarily be limited to the nobility.

The second problem is here: the basic misconception about two handed weapons.

Most two handed weapons are actually one handed weapons in that they can be wielded entirely with that singular hand. You use the second hand for finesse and guidance, the the first serves for rotation and power. The vast majority of the techniques can be done entirely with a single hand. Light spears like the kind usually seen on screen in Chinese film, are very light. The trick to understanding their movement is controlling their balance point. So, rolling a staff between your fingers or bouncing it off your shoulders isn’t that impressive. They’re parlor tricks that work off the same concept as a soccer ball, you’re controlling and bouncing the staff off its balance point. The same is true when rolling it between your legs, around your neck, shoulders, and the rest of your body.

Drop/throw the staff forward, kick it at its center with the ball of your foot, bounce it off the incoming fighter’s chest, and catch when it rebounds back. Favorite tactic of wuxia cinema.

When you’re looking at the Chinese spear spinning, they’re actually messing around with the balance point to create momentum in order to change position. A foot swipe with the instep kicks the bottom of the haft up to the power hand and into an action position. This works because the guidance hand is already holding the staff halfway up the haft at or slightly above its balance point. The balance point on a staff is found at the point where you can balance it on a single or two braced fingers.

Control of all weapons is based in balance, not in strength. The power of a spear comes from its momentum, and greater ability to generate it. You halve the thrusting power of a spear by gripping it at it’s center, which is the point behind holding it lower and using two hands. (You also have a greater reach, control, and can use spears with longer shafts.)

With the wushu spear, it is not uncommon for the wielder to switch their grip from the end to three-quarters/midway up the shaft. And to shoot it at their opponents from a couched position. A shoot is when you thrust the spear with your back hand and let go, then catch it with the front hand or the back hand before it escapes your reach. This creates a sudden onslaught of speed and power which can be used to break past an opponent’s guard or allow for a quick transition in grip. There’s a spear technique in wushu where you spin the spear around your neck, lock it horizontal on your shoulders, and shoot it out in a strike or simply strike with it from that position while advancing.

This is what we’re talking about regarding attack vectors, a key part of martial arts is getting yourself on an angle the enemy can’t block and there are lots of ways civilizations all over the globe have developed as a means of achieving this goal.

The third problem is this: Chinese weapons work off a foundational concept called information overload.

This is a strategic battle tactic which involves overloading the eye with as much movement as possible. This is part of why these martial arts work so well on film because the same rules apply. The flags and red tufts on the weapons serve this purpose. The more motion there is then the harder it is for the eye to track and, like a bull, your eye is drawn to bright colors. In the case of the basic wushu spear, the figure eight rotation is not just a flourish but an attack. The tip is sharpened steel is capable of cutting, so you get more motion than as a single thrusting attack. The shaft is lightweight, made from softwoods but durable which aids in its flexibility. This is crucial to understanding strike patterns seen in wuxia films. However, you can get Chinese staves with a full steel shaft, which will wreck any bronze era weapon via contact. The spear techniques will coordinate a chain of attacks together in continuous motion to distract the eye and knock the opponent off balance for when the final attack comes.

A dual technique shifting between striking Low at the feet to High at the head wasn’t really a concept for the Hoplites practiced in their spear combat. The European spear will just go under the shield, a Chinese spear will attack the bare feet. You can’t get the vector while holding the spear half way up the haft, but you can when holding it two handed. The fast forward movement where your opponent is driven back is what the cross-step is designed for.

The cross step: Instead of coming at you forward facing, your opponent’s whole body turns sideways, bends the knees and one foot steps behind the other then in front of the other in shifting rotation as you strike downward at the feet in synchronization with each step. There are variants of this shuffle, but it allows the fighter to move forward at a half-run while they rush their opponent and strike at the same time. (This pattern will allow for shifts into different strikes as the body opens, and a myriad of alternate stances. Footwork is the least understood and most commonly underestimated element for non-martial artists.)

They’ll do this until spear/shield falls over, they hit their foot, or spear/shield manages to get them off that vector which they will then proceed to roll over onto another one because they’ve got the footwork to open up the full 360 around their opponent. Spin steps are for direction changes. The basic martial arts strategy is always to begin by attacking the unguarded parts of the body in order to reach the parts of you that are protected. If someone carries a shield, the first order of business will be to get rid of it.

However, the methods in how this is accomplished changes substantially in sophistication depending on time period. This is why you can never count on two similar weapons from two different periods in history being the same. Combat marches forward. Basically, when pairing weapons for combat, you don’t want to choose weapons from different periods in history because technological advancement will wreck your day. A Hippolite is not going to be prepared for a warrior who can shift from a direct line onto a diagonal, much less one who can rapidly circle behind them via footwork. They won’t have the footwork to keep up.

A Chinese martial art style will not only be more efficient in terms of killing, but also more efficient in terms of conserving energy. They can attack more often, more quickly, and be less tired at the end of it. They practice conservation of movement versus the wide swinging seen in Hollywood which is great for camera work but not efficient. The main focus in terms of dueling with weapon/hand to hand advancement is discovering new vectors on which to attack that cannot be blocked. Those vectors shift from major to minor, from shifts in direction, diagonals, to simple adjustments in strike direction. This begins with counters.

A counter is when you block and then shift into an attack, all modern martial arts have these baked in to their training. This is natural, but it wasn’t for the time. This is what happens when your trident or spear gets blocked the first time on its strike, the other spear adjusts past it and comes forward into a follow up strike.

A martial artist trained in a similar style will make this more difficult because of arm position, hand position, grip, stance, tension, and the expectation of pressure in the lockup between two weapons. Both participants would be trying for the same follow up in their attack. A block isn’t necessarily enough to stop a Steel Era weapon, and certainly not enough for weapon from the 1600s. Knock away and strike. Slide around, protect yourself from the counter, and strike. Claim the center.

If you’ve ever wondered why weapons are primarily held on diagonals for defensive positions, this is why. Circular rotation is better for knocking weapons away or applying pressure, thus making it more difficult for the opposing weapon to hold position. The triangle creates a fulcrum of force with both parties attempting to break, adjust, or ease past it.

We do this in hand to hand too, the front hand works for catching, blocking, or redirecting an incoming strike to create the opening while the second hand (your power hand) strikes. It doesn’t always work that way though, the second hand can become the grab hand and you can use to pull the other person forward into a strike from the first hand. While the vast majority of martial artists from holistic styles have a preference for their power side or power hand, they are ambidextrous. They’ll be more technically proficient with the hand that isn’t their right/left primary because that’s the hand which does the guiding/defense/detail work.

In the Hoplite era, the shield is going to be doing most of the work when it comes to blocking. The combat is not going to present much of a threat to a more modern combat style, as it isn’t designed with later martial art or military tactics in mind. The hoplite shield is reminiscent enough of the metal shields of later eras used by the Chinese, so it would have techniques to get past it baked in. You may be wondering what the shield has to do with a trident, but the point is the shield was the best defense they had.

A trident is not a weapon, unless we’re talking about the version seen in Catching Fire. (Which is not, really, a trident.) Here is a historical breakdown on the different kinds of tridents from fishing to hunting to pitchforks and, finally, weapons. It discusses the Shaolin trident, which is also an axe. The trident has the potential to be a weapon, and the design was later featured in several European polearms like the spetum. However, again, the trident is not a weapon by itself. It’s designed with fishing, hunting, or farming in mind. Like the machete, it’s one of the better options you can turn to in a pinch. If its magical, that might give it a leg up, otherwise it will lag behind weapons that are actually weapons. The best advantage the trident has is using the outside tips to catch and lock up the spear to disarm. However, they’re not designed for that. They’d need to be able to catch the spear tip, lock up the spear, and disarm the spear before the other person recognizes what’s happening.

The main problem with the trident is that it’s a gladiator set up. Gladiators are arena combat in the same way prize fights, pit fighting, UFC bouts, and bare-knuckle boxing function. They’re designed to drag out combat as opposed to ending it quickly. Ironically, and much as I hate the stuntmen queuing in Gladiator, this scene emphasizes the point nicely. Maximus is a Roman General, he fights like a warrior. His intent is to finish the fight as quickly and efficiently as possible. This is counter productive to the goals of the arena. The Roman Arena was a show, it’s entertainment. Functioned in the similar vein to modern prize fights with similar priorities, the fighting was structured to extend the show long as possible. The goal is to be as inefficient as possible.

Hence: the Trident.

Visually stunning, memorable, wicked, and, unless redesigned, utterly useless for anything other than surface injuries. The problem is that due to the three heads, the trident can’t penetrate as deeply as a spear. It gets stuck. It’s designed to, in fact, because you don’t need much penetration for fishing and the barbs hold the fish in place. However, while it won’t go deep, it will cause lots of bleeding and surface injury.

This is why the Romans used it in the arena, most of the damage stays superficial and surface level. This is why they carried the net and the knife, because the knife is what would do the actual killing.  Add in some wonky balance issues in comparison to the spear, and you’ve got a weapon at a disadvantage.

This doesn’t mean the design never saw use. There’s the dangpa which is a 17th century Korean weapon. You’ll notice though, it isn’t exactly a Poseidon-esque trident. It’s more like a fork. The head is much smaller, the tips are bladed rather than barbed, and its going for limited penetration with extra pig-sticking damage on the internals. It won’t go as deep, but its designed to make big holes for lots of bleeding. The dangpa was meant to go after pirates, so you get distance, extra damage, and limited chance of the weapon getting stuck.

Just as a general rule, never pair Bronze Age weaponry against martial styles where going into the air is an effective strategy. The hoplite’s overhanded with the spear, which significantly limits it’s mobility options and power. The spinning with the Chinese spear allows the user to create a defense while transitioning up and down the length of the shaft. They can control how close or how far they are from their target without stopping the movement/momentum of the weapon. The weapon style allows for the wielder to use the weapon close to the tip in short form grip and transition back to the end of the haft in order to swing it one handed. The swing will then transition into another position to make use of the ground they’ve gained. Basically, you’d be looking at something similar to the Donnie Yen/Jet Li fight sequence from Hero. We’re talking about someone moving a metal spear fast enough and hard enough that the metal bends as a result. That’s something some styles take advantage of and build toward, depending on historical period. The basic concept here is why you’d never want to pit these martial systems against anything Bronze Age. What gave the Spartans and the Persian Immortals the advantage in their period was the fact they were training and no one else was, but they were outliers.

We’re talking about a combat system designed for a period where a professional military force is nonexistent. The Grecian city states didn’t have the resources to keep a standing military force, they were ad hoc militia. It worked for the period. It didn’t work against the Romans, who had a standing military force that was much closer to what we’d consider professionally trained soldiers.

This is why versus with weapons sucks. Weapons are a form of technology, they belong to specific time periods and they’re designed for the problems existing within those periods.

A character with a Chinese spear out of wuxia legends would get:

Comes from a period where standing militaries exist. (Huge advantage.) Likely trained from childhood, but even if they’re not it doesn’t matter. Trained in a comprehensive martial system. (It is really hard to overstate how important this concept is.) Can chain multiple attacks together, different attacks, different techniques, with footwork, blocks, and counters.  They’re likely a professional fighter.

A Hoplite gets none of these things, and a Spartan (which is the closest they have to professional soldier) would get wrecked in a duel. The guy wielding the Chinese spear is working off a conceptual understanding of martial arts that doesn’t exist yet for them as a culture and they don’t have the luxury to develop. The heroes of wuxia myth have more in common with the knight-errant than they do with the Grecian heroes.

This is before we get to the fact that the Chinese spear can be either steel or wood. The Chinese had the resources to do it, they could and did make spears entirely out of steel from tip to shaft. There’s a huge technological jump between bronze and iron. One will fall apart on you in battle while the other will make the other humans fall apart. You can’t really make longswords out of bronze (the Celts did and they would collapse during battle) because the metal wasn’t stable enough.

China is one of the great martial powers of its region and era, it is comparable to Europe in terms of militarized technological advancement. You’ll get people who argue they were more advanced, which depending on period is certainly possible if not likely. For comparison, it’s basically like saying, “I want a Roman gladiator to fight a knight.” That could happen, but it wouldn’t end well for the gladiator. Or wanting a samurai to fight a US Marine. It wouldn’t end well for the samurai. It didn’t actually, when they encountered the Black Ships.

You can’t strip the training that comes with a weapon to make them comparable to one from another period in history, especially an older one. Early Era spear versus trident would be a very boring fight. They’d both be overhanded and poke at each other until someone died. The one with shield has the advantage because defense and the spear has greater penetration, so that’d be the winner. Give the guy with a trident a net and we’ve got a gladiator arena. It’d be a slow fight, but it’d be more fair. The net provides options, and allows the opportunity to negate the spear/shield.

It might be entertaining though for story purposes, that was the point of the gladiator arena. Entertainment as opposed to efficiency. The goal of storytelling is to be entertaining. The reason for a trident is spectacle and/or desperation, which is still spectacle.

Or the trident is magic.

That might change the rules.

-Michi

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I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but how effective is full plate armour? Was it actually a good way to defend yourself?

machiavellianfictionist:

sirobvious:

Short Answer: Yes. 

Here’s a general rule: People in the past were ignorant about a lot of things, but they weren’t stupid. If they used something, chances are they had a good reason. There are exceptions, but plate armor is not one of them. 

Long Answer: 

For a type of armor, no matter what it is, to be considered effective, it has to meet three criteria. 

The three criteria are: Economic Efficiency, Protectiveness, and Mobility.

1. Is it Economically Efficient? 

Because of the nature of society in the Middle Ages, what with equipment being largely bring-it-yourself when it came to anybody besides arrowfodder infantry who’d been given one week of training, economic efficiency was a problem for the first couple of decades after plate armor was introduced in France in the 1360s. It wasn’t easy to make, and there wasn’t really a ‘science’ to it yet, so only the wealthiest of French soldiers, meaning knights and above, had it; unless of course somebody stole it off a dead French noble. The Hundred Years War was in full swing at the time, and the French were losing badly to the English and their powerful longbows, so there were plenty of dead French nobles and knights to go around. That plate armor was not very economically efficient for you unless you were a rich man, though, it also was not exactly what we would call “full” plate armor. 

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Above: Early plate armor, like that used by knights and above during the later 1300s and early 1400s. 

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Above: Two examples of what most people mean when they say “full” plate armor, which would have been seen in the mid to late 1400s and early 1500s.

Disclaimer: These are just examples. No two suits of armor were the same because they weren’t mass-produced, and there was not really a year when everybody decided to all switch to the next evolution of plate armor. In fact it would not be improbably to see all three of these suits on the same battlefield, as expensive armor was often passed down from father to son and used for many decades. 

Just like any new technology, however, as production methods improved, the product got cheaper. 

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Above: The Battle of Barnet, 1471, in which everybody had plate armor because it’s affordable by then. 

So if we’re talking about the mid to late 1400s, which is when our modern image of the “knight in shining armor” sort of comes from, then yes, “full” plate armor is economically efficient. It still wasn’t cheap, but neither are modern day cars, and yet they’re everywhere. Also similar to cars, plate armor is durable enough to be passed down in families for generations, and after the Hundred Years War ended in 1453, there was a lot of used military equipment on sale for cheap. 

2. Is it Protective? 

This is a hard question to answer, particularly because no armor is perfect, and as soon as a new, seemingly ‘perfect’ type of armor appears, weapons and techniques adapt to kill the wearer anyway, and the other way around. Early plate armor was invented as a response to the extreme armor-piercing ability of the English longbow, the armor-piercing ability of a new kind of crossbow, and advancements in arrowhead technology. 

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Above: The old kind of arrowhead, ineffective against most armor. 

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Above: The new kind of arrowhead, very effective at piercing chainmaille and able to pierce plate armor if launched with enough power. 

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Above: An arrow shot from a “short” bow with the armor-piercing tip(I think it’s called a bodkin tip) piercing a shirt of chainmaille. However, the target likely would have survived since soldiers wore protective layers of padding underneath their armor, so if the arrow penetrated skin at all, it wasn’t deep. That’s Terry Jones in the background. 

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Above: A crossbow bolt with the armor piercing tip penetrating deep through the same shirt of chainmaille. The target would likely not survive. 

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Above: A crossbow bolt from the same crossbow glancing off a breastplate, demonstrating that it was in fact an improvement over wearing just chainmaille. 

Unfortunately it didn’t help at all against the powerful English longbows at close range, but credit to the French for trying. It did at least help against weaker bows. 

Now for melee weapons. 

It didn’t take long for weapons to evolve to fight this new armor, but rarely was it by way of piercing through it. It was really more so that the same weapons were now being used in new ways to get around the armor. 

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Above: It’s a popular myth that Medieval swords were dull, but they still couldn’t cut through plate armor, nor could they thrust through it. Your weapon would break before the armor would. Most straight swords could, however, thrust through chainmaille and anything weaker. 

There were three general answers to this problem: 

1. Be more precise, and thrust through the weak points. 

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Above: The weak points of a suit of armor. Most of these points would have been covered by chainmaille, leather, thick cloth, or all three, but a sword can thrust through all three so it doesn’t matter. 

To achieve the kind of thrusting accuracy needed to penetrate these small gaps, knights would often grip the blade of their sword with one hand and keep the other hand on the grip. This technique was called “half-swording”, and you could lose a finger if you don’t do it right, so don’t try it at home unless you have a thick leather glove to protect you, as most knights did, but it can also be done bare-handed. 

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Above: Examples of half-swording. 

2. Just hit the armor so fucking hard that the force carries through and potentially breaks bones underneath. 

Specialty weapons were made for this, but we’ll get to them in a minute. For now I’m still focusing on swords because I like how versatile the European longsword is. 

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Above: A longsword. They’re made for two-handed use, but they’re light enough to be used effectively in one hand if you’d like to have a shield or your other arm has been injured. Longswords are typically about 75% of the height of their wielders.

Assuming you’re holding the sword pointing towards the sky, the part just above the grip is called the crossguard, and the part just below the grip is called the pommel. If you hold the sword upside-down by the blade, using the same careful gripping techniques as with half-swording, you can strike with either the crossguard or the pommel, effectively turning the sword into a warhammer. This technique was called the Murder Stroke, and direct hits could easily dent plate armor, and leave the man inside bruised, concussed, or with a broken bone. 

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Above: The Murder Stroke as seen in a Medieval swordfighting manual.

Regular maces, hammers, and other blunt weapons were equally effective if you could get a hard enough hit in without leaving yourself open, but they all suffered from part of the plate armor’s intelligent design. Nearly every part of it was smooth and/or rounded, meaning that it’s very easy for blows to ‘slide’ off, which wastes a lot of their power. This makes it very hard to get a ‘direct’ hit. 

Here come the specialized weapons to save the day. 

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Above: A lucerne, or claw hammer. It’s just one of the specialized weapons, but it encompasses all their shared traits so I’m going to only list it. 

These could be one-handed, two-handed, or long polearms, but the general idea was the same. Either crack bones beneath armor with the left part, or penetrate plate armor with the right part. The left part has four ‘prongs’ so that it can ‘grip’ smooth plate armor and keep its force when it hits without glancing off. On the right side it as a super sturdy ‘pick’, which is about the only thing that can penetrate the plate armor itself. On top it has a sharp tip that’s useful for fighting more lightly armored opponents. 

3. Force them to the ground and stab them through the visor with a dagger. 

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Many conflicts between two armored knights would turn into a wrestling match. Whoever could get the other on the ground had a huge advantage, and could finish his opponent, or force him to surrender, with a dagger. 

By now you might be thinking “Dang, full plate armor has a lot of weaknesses, so how can it be called good armor?” 

The answer is because, like all armor is supposed to do, it minimizes your target area. If armor is such that your enemy either needs to risk cutting their fingers to target extremely small weak points, bring a specialized weapons designed specifically for your armor, or wrestle you to the ground to defeat you, that’s some damn good armor. So yes, it will protect you pretty well.

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Above: The red areas represent the weak points of a man not wearing armor.

Also, before I move on to Mobility, I’m going to talk briefly about a pet-peeve of mine: Boob-plates. 

If you’re writing a fantasy book, movie, or video game, and you want it to be realistically themed, don’t give the women boob-shaped armor. It wasn’t done historically even in the few cases when women wore plate armor, and that’s because it isn’t as protective as a smooth, rounded breastplate like you see men wearing. A hit with any weapon between the two ‘boobs’ will hit with its full force rather than glancing off, and that’ll hurt. If you’re not going for a realistic feel, then do whatever you want. Just my advice. 

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Above: Joan of Arc, wearing properly protective armor. 

An exception to this is in ancient times. Female gladiators sometimes wore boob-shaped armor because that was for entertainment and nobody cared if they lived or died. Same with male gladiators. There was also armor shaped like male chests in ancient times, but because men are more flat-chested than women, this caused less of a problem. Smooth, rounded breastplates are still superior, though. 

3. Does it allow the wearer to keep his or her freedom of movement? 

Okay, I’ve been writing this for like four hours, so thankfully this is the simplest question to answer. There’s a modern myth that plate armor weighed like 700 lbs, and that knights could barely move in it at all, but that isn’t true. On a suit of plate armor from the mid to late 1400s or early 1500s, all the joints are hinged in such a way that they don’t impede your movement very much at all. 

The whole suit, including every individual plate, the chainmaille underneath the plates, the thick cloth or leather underneath the chainmaille, and your clothes and underwear all together usually weighed about 45-55 lbs, and because the weight was distributed evenly across your whole body, you’d hardly feel the weight at all. Much heavier suits of armor that did effectively ‘lock’ the wearer in place did exist, but they never saw battlefield use. Instead, they were for showing off at parades and for jousting. Jousting armor was always heavier, thicker, and more stiffly jointed than battlefield armor because the knight only needed to move certain parts of his body, plus being thrown off a horse by a lance–even a wooden one that’s not meant to kill–has a very, very high risk of injury.

Here’s a bunch of .gifs of a guy demonstrating that you can move pretty freely in plate armor. 

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Above: Can you move in it? Yes.


Here are links to the videos that I made these .gifs from: 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vi757-7XD94

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NhWFQtzM4r0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5hlIUrd7d1Q

You’re written a very good article. I believe it deserves a full-length reply. As much as I enjoyed it, there are just a few corrections I’d like to make, and more than a couple clarifications.

First off, just to get it out of the way, I’ve never actually found any account of “arrowfodder infantry” being used historically by any medieval army in Europe. Generally speaking, you would want all your soldiers to be skilled, trained and properly equipped. No matter how much money you had, cost-effectiveness was always something to strive for, and having thousands of useless soldiers who can do nothing but take arrows and die is simply not worth it, especially since they will also be eating your food while they’re still alive. If you wanted to protect your army from enemy archers, you used armor, shields, fortifications and the terrain itself.

Now, about the introduction of plate armor. If we’re talking about what most people think when they hear the term, then yes, that shows up on the second half of the 14th century. Your first picture is a good example of this (that being said, that mail mantle is a much later piece, used here to imitate the mail aventail that would hang from the edges of the helmet). However, solid metal plates have been used as armor for hundreds of years before. Even if we ignore the entire Bronze Age, the Roman Empire and the concept of helmets, we still have to look back at least as far as the 13th century. Schinbalds were curved metal plates strapped on the lower legs to protect the shins. Poleyns were introduced shortly after to protect the knees.

Around the middle of that century, the coat of plates appeared. It was the first step in what could be considered plate armor. It consisted of slightly curved overlapping plates riveted to the inside of a leather or fabric garment shaped like a surcoat. The plates themselves mainly covered the torso and sides, and perhaps some of the back. Below is a drawing of a Teutonic Knight wearing armor of this type, from Osprey Publishing.

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Later the structural garment would become shorter and in some cases include decorations of many kinds.

The coat of plates developed in two directions. In one case, the plates got progressively larger, eventually evolving into the globular breastplate we’re all familiar with. Below is a reproduction of a transitional model, somewhere between a mid-14th century coat of plates and an early breastplate. It was beautifully crafted by Piotr Feret.

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The chains in models like this served to secure the sword, dagger, great helm and any other object the wearer wouldn’t want to drop and lose. Below we can see the plates before they were finished and riveted to the fabric facing.

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Here we can clearly see the similarities between this type of armor and a breastplate. The large plate meant to cover the chest already has the beginnings of that characteristic globular shape meant to deflect blows. Of course, early versions of the globular breastplate were also covered in fabric or leather, which also served to attach it to the fauld or laminated skirt of plates that hanged from it. Below is a set of armor by renowned blacksmith Jeff Wasson featuring one of these pieces, based on historical examples from around the year 1380.

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At this point it’s worth noting that breastplates, specifically the solid globular piece, only cover the area of the torso demarcated by the ribs. This is so that the wearer doesn’t lose any flexibility on their waist. The hips and abdomen were protected by the much more flexible fauld.

On the other side of the spectrum we have the coats of plates which eventually evolved into the bringandine. This was a set of much smaller overlapping plates attached to the inside of a vest-shaped garment, usually open at the front, narrower at the waist for purposes of mobility and weight distribution. Below is a model by Armour Services Historical.

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This example has a wool facing and is decorated with brass rivets and a Cross of Saint George, characteristic of English soldiers who served in France. Below is a picture of the inside of a similar piece by the same maker, showing the multitude of plates.

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The brigandine remained extremely popular all through the 15th century and even well into the sixteenth century, though of course styles changed with time. There even was a variant of it during the Renaissance called a jack of plates, in which the plates were sewn to the inside of a garment which was more similar to civilian clothing, though still unmistakably armor. These could be worn by virtually any kind of soldier, from infantry archers to mounted men-at-arms. They were considerably more comfortable than solid breastplates, and provided a similar level of protection. Solid breastplates did have one considerable advantage, their potential for heat-treating, which I will explain further on.

You say only the wealthiest and most French of individuals could afford “full plate” armor. I’m going to have to disagree with that. While it is true that the French were famous for being able to field large numbers of heavy cavalry and infantry, during most of the Hundred Years War their suits of armor were far from complete. They were very likely to trade the protection of some of the less essential elements of armor in exchange for comfort and mobility. For example, I can tell that the first picture you posted is most likely based on a French suit of armor because of the lack of fauld on that breastplate. On the other hand, English armor of the same period, particularly the early 15th century, was extremely protective, going as far as to cover even the inside of the upper arms. Below is a picture of such a suit of armor, from Osprey Publishing.

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Of course, such a suit of armor would be extremely expensive, but this didn’t mean less wealthy soldiers had to rely solely on mail to protect themselves. Bringandines were relatively cheap, for example, and you could simply buy the elements of plate armor you considered more essential, perhaps even resorting to pieces of lesser quality to reduce the cost. Even in the late 15th century, when plate armor became more common, most soldiers were not wearing the full harness. Below is a harness from Best Armour, which could have been used by an infantryman in the middle of the 15th century.

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Note how only the torso, head, shoulders, hips and upper arms are protected. The pieces hanging from the fauld, by the way, are called tassets, a common element of plate armor from the 15th century onward. The armor covering the face is called a bevor, attached to the gorget which covers the throat. It could be hinged down to allow easier vision and ventilation. Under the armor a soldier would of course also wear a padded jack and perhaps a pair of sleeves and a skirt of mail.

Also, while in theory you could take any kind of equipment from a fallen enemy or inherit it from a relative, when it comes to solid body defenses you’d ideally want to have them made specifically for you. This would absolutely ensure that it fits you properly, which is vital for having both protection and mobility.

Now, regarding how effective armor is and how it can be defeated. I’m not sure exactly why you think plate armor was created specifically to defeat the English longbow, or that there was such as thing as a new armor-piercing crossbow. Armor in general served and was constantly developed to protect against weapons of any kind, and the breastplate wasn’t any different. The English longbow was a very powerful and effective weapon, but it wasn’t some sort of alien and terrifying artifact for the people of continental Europe. Longbowmen were used as mercenaries by all nations in a multitude of conflicts.

Crossbows were also very common, and in fact ancient. Military crossbows may even predate military bows. If you’re referring to crossbows with steel prods, you have to keep in mind that crossbows in general were never a lot more powerful than bows. For example, a 350 pound crossbow would be roughly as powerful as an 80 pound longbow, which was the lower end of the military longbow power spectrum. This is because the draw length of a bow is much longer than that of a crossbow. Take diminishing returns into account and the most powerful crossbows wouldn’t really have been a lot more powerful than the most powerful longbows. The one huge advantage they did have, however, was that they were a lot easier to aim. You can wind a crossbow and have it ready to shoot for hours. You could position yourself behind a fortification or a large shield and patiently wait for your target to come into range, aim carefully, and shoot accurately. When you draw a longbow, you really only have a couple of seconds to aim, before you get exhausted from holding that string at full draw and have to release it. Expert weapon craftsman Leo Todeschini can probably explain it better. Below is a crossbow that wouldn’t be out of place in the late 15th century, by Leo Todeschini.

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This decorated weapon would most likely be used for hunting, but a more simple version would be an excellent weapon of war. It uses a cranequin as a winding mechanism, and has 450 pounds of power in that steel bow.

Regarding arrowheads, you can’t really talk of old obsolete arrowheads and new revolutionary models. All of those existed roughly at the same time, and served different purposes. The long bodkin in fact can be traced all the way back to the Viking era, or perhaps even earlier. The broad cutting arrowheads with large barbs were mostly used for hunting, though of course they could be used very effectively against unarmored humans. The bodkin had an easier time penetrating mail, since its narrow profile could get between the links with much less resistance, though it would still have to penetrate the padded armor that was commonly worn underneath. You could also find less specialized arrowheads with narrow heads and small barbs, a compromise of the two other models. And of course there were numerous other types of arrowheads which I won’t go into here.

Now, how do arrows fare against steel breastplates? Well, a standard broad hunting arrowhead won’t do any good. A bodkin won’t be very effective either, the long point will bend before it penetrates. In any case, anything but an almost perpendicular hit would simply glance off the rounded surface, which is exactly the purpose of that shape. There was a type of heavy arrowhead, with a squared profile and a heavy body. It’s very commonly seen on crossbow bolts. Leo Todeschini has referred to it as a quarrel head. If any type of arrow has any chance of piercing plate armor it’s that one, though perhaps it’d have to be aimed at the thinnest plates. Of course, you could always hope that your arrows landed on the gaps of the armor, and take your chances at penetrating the mail and padding, or perhaps see if your bodkin can slip past the visor. Alternatively, you could choose to not aim directly at the knights or men-at-arms. Terry Jones said it himself. “Never mind the chivalry, kill the horses.”

Horses were a lot more difficult to armor than humans. Mail and padded armor existed, but they weren’t used very often, most likely because of how much they affected the horse’s body temperature as it galloped. Proper full plate armor for horses didn’t really appear until the end of the fifteenth century, and even then it was reserved for the heaviest cavalry. Usually horses would at most wear a chanfron, a simple piece of armor to protect the horse’s head. This piece went as far back as the Roman Empire. Below is a drawing of three German soldiers, from Osprey Publishing.

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See how only parts of the horse are covered in steel plates, and the rest is either uncovered or protected by mail. Also, the mounted crossbowman at the back rides on an unarmored horse, as would most cavalrymen. Also note the infantryman wearing only a partial harness, including a style of brigandine reinforced by a placard, the lower portion of a late 15th century breastplate.

Now, there’s one vital element that can make a breastplate virtually impervious to all projectiles. This invisible ingredient is hardness. A skilled 15th century blacksmith could use his forge and a barrel of water to heat-treat a breastplate and turn it from a simple steel plate into a spring, perfect for resisting any blow that may strike it. This process was usually done on the breastplate and the helmet, which were also the thickest parts of the full plate harness. Thinner parts of the armor, like the sides of the visors, would be much easier to penetrate.

About longswords, it all seems very accurate and well researched. I just have two things to say. First, the longest longswords I’ve seen were about 50 inches long, while the shortest were a little over 40 inches. Second, you don’t really need leather gloves to do halfswording as long as you grip the blade firmly. The you will only get cut if you run your hand up or down the edge while putting pressure on it.

The weapon you showed in that picture, which many call Lucerne hammer (after the Swiss city of the same name) but can also be called by a multitude of other names, is a variant of the pollaxe (also called by many other names), a specialized weapon for armored combat. These were generally speaking about as tall as the wielder and had a combination of spikes, axes and hammers on top of a pole, and sometimes a simple spike at the bottom end. Nikolas Lloyd explains it more concisely than I ever could. Below is a reproduction of an English pollaxe by Josh Davis.

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Of course, another anti-armor weapon worth considering was the gun. Handheld firearms have been around since the fourteenth century, and while they were extremely inaccurate, at close range or in volleys of fire they could be a threat to armored soldiers. A hardened breastplate could still deflect these shots, but if hit in the thinner parts of his armor a soldier would be in great trouble. Below is a reproduction of a hand gun from the early 15th century, by The Rifle Shoppe.

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The rest of your article is fairly spot-on… except the bit about female gladiators, I don’t know where that came from. At least if we’re talking about Rome, we don’t have any evidence of female gladiators wearing any kind of torso protection. In addition, I would add perhaps ten or twenty pounds to your estimation of the weight of a full plate harness. I’d also like to point out that, as awesome as that portrait of Joan is, that armor belongs in the sixteenth century. Armor of her time would be more similar to the seventh image in my reply. Finally, just to be clear, regular cavalry armor would also be suitable for jousting, just not as specialized as actual jousting armor. And of course, the military exercises that eventually developed into the sport of jousting were in practice long before the development of plate armor.

Just to finish things up, I’d like to recommend a few videos by Matt Easton, where he talks about different types of medieval armor, the effect of bows against armor and common misconceptions regarding that subject.

So in the story I’m writing, the main character has to fight a master swordsman, both characters using rapiers. The main character is experienced in fighting, but is less used to direct, close-range combat, and has little experience with swords. However, in this situation she only needs to distract her opponent for a certain amount of time, before running away. Is there a way for a less skilled combatant to prolong a fight they wouldn’t be able to normally win?

Okay, so there’s a problem in fiction where in order to make an enemy seem more impressive, we throw around terms like better, bestest, best. Master probably tops the list of improperly used terms because we know that a “master” of any discipline is really, really, really, really good. We want our characters to fight someone impressive and we want a term that’s easily recognizable to our audience so that they know this person is more skilled than the average person.

That makes sense.

The problem is that a master swordsman is an individual of singular skill. We’re not just talking about someone with between ten to forty years of dueling experience, but someone who is so skilled that they are generally recognized by their community to be at the top of their craft.

When you call someone a master, you’ve defined them as being one of the best fighters in your setting.

Your character with no sword experience is about to try and go up against someone who is considered to be one of the best swordsmen in her world. A status which only a handful of individuals will ever reach, who perhaps number in the single digits, and who fights with a rapier which is one of the fastest, longest, and deadliest swords for unarmored combat. This man isn’t just a skilled duelist, he’s a specialist. The rapier is made for dueling. Dueling is his forte. If he’s been a swordsman for twenty to thirty years, then it’s possible he’s been cutting down individuals in single combat longer than your protagonist has been alive.

A simple analogy would be like this: on your first day of fencing, would you like to duel an Olympian fencer? It doesn’t matter if they’re a gold medalist, they might be, but you’re going to duel someone who has proven their status as one of the best fencers in the world.

You’re asking her to fight Yoda, quite possibly on Yoda’s home turf.

Those are some impressively terrible odds, I gotta say.

They have to find a way to survive against one the best and most experienced warriors in their setting, where the master has all the advantages and they have none, and whatever clever trick they manage to come up with this guy has probably seen before because he has a lifetime of battle experience to draw from. However clever you think you’re protagonist is, you need to weigh that against all the other people who’ve come before them. From those who were just as inexperienced as your protagonist when they fought this guy and died to those who knew far more and died. The ones who tried to run. The ones who stood their ground. The ones who believed themselves the best. The ones who just wanted to live.

Stop and think about your master swordsman for a second. Consider how old he is and how long he has been fighting, what he has gone through to earn his rank, and how many duels he has survived to make it this far.

A master is not just going to be good/better/bestest, they’re also going to be experienced with a wealth of previous battles and defeated enemies to draw from, they’ve got their teaching experience to draw from, they’ve the duels they witnessed to draw from, able to adjust their style on the fly, skilled at reading body language, canny, and cunning. Their life has been a learning experience and they survived terrible odds on skill alone.

It may be hard to quantify, especially if you’ve never seen a master in action. (The likelihood is that you actually have. Turn your brain to Bruce Lee, Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung, Chuck Norris, Jet Li, Jackie Chan, and the other well-known action stars, they all qualify and none of them had to earn their master status on a pile of corpses.) If your only experience is action movies then the best of the best become commonplace.

So, what you’re asking is:

How can my character escape another character who has spent their life killing characters like them?

The answer is good luck.

When writing an action sequence, you should always be careful to set your characters against challenges against which they can succeed. They may be underdogs, but they aren’t helpless. It’s like balancing out blocks and the trick is to balance them just write so the sequence remains plausible and exciting, but also doesn’t stretch too far outside of what your protagonist is good at.

Say your protagonist is experienced with ranged combat, but they’re trapped inside a building with a master swordsman. Their plan is to escape and they have their preferred weapon, though it won’t do them much good in a close range fight. They have to avoid the swordsman that’s hunting them and get to the exit before he catches up.

You might say, “but doesn’t that put the swordsman at a disadvantage?”

The answer is actually: no, it doesn’t. The swordsman is a master, and one of the best warriors in your setting. We can assume he’ll probably have some experience with closing the gap between himself and a ranged weapon in order to slay the enemy.

You can stack the deck against your swordsman and he’ll still likely come out on top by virtue of skill and experience. This guy is a survivor. He’s beaten the odds before and he probably will again.

When you’re writing individuals who are hyper-competent, especially villains, the more obstacles your hero throws in their path and the more they vault over without significant issue will just make them more terrifying. You put these two characters into a position where your heroine feels that she has the advantage and then this guy turns the tables on her, your audience will go ‘oh shit’. They may not have known just how good a master in your setting is supposed to be until this point because without being shown it’s a meaningless term.

When done in reverse, the villain loses their teeth.

You set up a character who is established to be one of the best warriors in their setting but the heroine with no experience wielding a sword can face them and hold out long enough to find their escape. Unless he’s making an executive decision to offer up a half-assed fight and lets her go on purpose, that’s a bad guy failing to live up to expectations.

He becomes less scary as a result.

This is why over-stacking the odds can be a huge problem among novices and experienced writers alike. A good fight sequence acts as a supportive character developing moment for our heroes and our villains. We show who they are and what they can do. For the most part, your audience will know what the hero knows. They experience what the hero does.

Never be afraid to throw your protagonist a bone so your villain can steal it from them later.

The higher they get before the rug gets ripped out from underneath them is what makes the fall so awesome. Especially when the villain has overcome, perhaps effortlessly, what we know the hero is good at.

If the hero is good at archery, it tells us nothing about a villain if the hero loses to them at hand to hand. Both the audience and the heroine can say, ‘oh, but it would be different if she had her bow. Next time, she’ll have a chance.’

However, suppose the heroine has the advantage but cannot manage to hit her enemy, who outwits her, proceeds to close distance, and finally defeats her in hand to hand before forcing her to retreat. Suddenly, our perspective shifts. The stakes have changed. The hero has just been forcibly punted toward necessary character development, which she must have in order to survive the next encounter.

It’s okay for your hero to lose. In fact, it’s necessary and it’s better for the loss to happen when they’re trying their best at what they’re best at. Losing when they’re at the top and in the safety zone establishes more about the challenges they’ll need to overcome.

Get over thinking about fights from the perspective of who has the most advantages in terms of weapons. Weapons are only one part of the equation. The other is the individual themselves, their experience, their skills, and their ability.

If your character is hyper-competent give them challenges which prove that competency.

One of my favorite moments from Erroll Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood is the Archery Tournament. Up until this point in the movie, Robin Hood has made a mockery of Prince John, Guy of Gisborne, and the Sheriff of Nottingham. He wins at the beginning of the movie against incredible odds, swaggering his way alone into Prince John’s castle, a illegally slain deer across his shoulders which he tosses nonchalantly on the table as he sits down to dinner and casually explains his motives to protect England from John. Then proceeds to make an outrageous (and treasonous) declaration of war in a castle full of John’s loyal retainers, two of whom happen to be sitting next to him. He fights his way to freedom, using his wits, swordsmanship, and archery skills to escape before running off into the woods.

We see his campaign against John and Gisborne begin in the first half of the movie, success after success, culminating in stealing the taxes Gisborne collected while he travels through Sherwood, and taking the entire party (including Marian) captive. In the end, out the magnanimity of his heart, he humiliates the knights and sends them home in rags.

Up until this point, the Sheriff has been treated as a bumbling buffoon secondary to the more talented Gisborne. However, he is the one who comes up with the idea for an archery tournament and using Marian as the bait. Showing us, that the minor characters overlooked and played for laughs by the stronger characters have a dangerous edge. Using Robin’s flamboyancy and overconfidence against him, they lay a trap. Robin bites, as we knew he would, and is captured.

Thus our secondary characters, the Merry Men, are left searching for a way to free him. They find it, but only because Marian decides to help. It is her plan that saves his life. But the act of Robin losing shows us how precarious his position truly was while also giving Marian the push she needs for character development, showing us that she’s not just his romantic partner. She’s clever in her own right and she knows a great deal about the inner workings of John’s court, which makes her a much needed ally.

You may be wondering what this has to do with your question. The answer is The Adventures of Robin Hood balances its fight scenes to perfection, they all serve as a means to both push the plot forward and establish the characters. From major to minor, every sequence and character interaction is important. They set up all major plot threads, skills, deficits, and character flaws, which culminate in consequences later on.

Think about what you want to establish with these characters. What is the point of this scene where an unskilled character tries to fight a hyper-competent one within his own wheelhouse? What are you trying to set up in this scene? What are you attempting to establish?

Tension isn’t created just by having one character be an underdog. It’s crafted by wants and desires, by goals and plans, and the characters who make them. Set up by the story they’re in and the plot in play.

Hyper-competency in combat is useful when you want to upset the status quo. The best of the best isn’t useful or scary because they’re the best. It’s because they can overcome a great deal more than we expect. They have a lot of useful skills and the ability to adapt into different circumstances. You don’t really know how skilled a character is until they’re put into a situation where they don’t have an advantage, but you also need to be careful of what that situation is and ensure they have the tools (personal, character, cleverness, or what have you) to get themselves back out.

Use this sequence to establish something about these characters and who they are.

Don’t cheapen the moment.

Don’t fuck around with Masters.

They’ve seen it before.

They will see through your bullshit.

-Michi

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References and Resources

#swords – Our swords tag.

Wikitenaur – this isn’t precisely for beginners, but there are a lot of free and translated manuscripts here from HEMA enthusiasts written by the masters of their style. You want to know how a master swordsman thinks, you can find their descriptions of combat and technical manuals here. Written in their own words.

Scholargladitoria – Matt Easton has fantastic breakdowns on swordsmanship, combat, and Historical European Martial Arts which make him an excellent entry point for beginning your research.

Skallagrim –  Skallagrim is just fun. Okay?

Samantha Swords – Just good general advice from a HEMA practitioner, and a female perspective.

On Mary Sue

((In a small note, thank you to those who have donated through our site. We’re still in need of help to get the funds necessary to move, but every little bit helps toward getting us somewhere a lot better.))

Mary Sue is every young writer’s worst fear. Writing advice from all corners hounds and hounds on and on about avoiding Mary Sue. They list categories and traits, they say it’s the worst kind of writing. The demon in the dark as it were. The female Mary Sue is mocked more often than her counterpart Marty Stu, but only because she stands out more. The advice tends to be that Mary is all together terrible and you should avoid any semblance of it, even though many of the traits one might ascribe to a Sue are not actually an issue in and of themselves.

What is Mary Sue?

She’s an outline. A cardboard cutout. A first stab.

The trouble with Mary Sues is that most characters actually begin their lives as one. Conceptually, many characters in a blanket swath will fit the bill. They sometimes come into our imaginations as these phenomenal and powerful individuals adored by the people around them. We really love them and because we love them, we begin to fret. We worry. We fear that maybe we’re doing something wrong. We run these characters through every internet test and (gasp) we turn out a positive. Sometimes a very high positive, but that doesn’t mean the character is automatically bad. There’s nothing wrong with your character being special.

Many of the complaints you’ll find about Sues around the internet are actually symptomatic. They don’t address the real issue at a Sue’s heart. You can have incredibly powerful characters with incredible eyes and hair colored in a way that doesn’t appear in nature, who are deeply kind, or nearly invincible without them being a Sue. Superman and Batman, for example, are both rather classic examples of characters who could (and sometimes do) count as Marty Stus. Yet, they manage to escape the trap, remaining both as compelling characters and cultural mainstays. Idolized rather than despised. Part of this is genre and expectation, but another real aspect is the realization that the traits aren’t what matter. The application is.

The trouble with actually identifying a Sue in your own writing comes with the understanding that every Sue is individual to their writer. Usually, Mary Sue is a character that we love and adore. She fulfills our deepest fantasies and desires. She exists without us having to worry about reality. She can do what we would do and say what we would say. This is why Mary Sue is not anything to be ashamed of. She is the purest of pure fantasy. She is want and desire, everything that we wish we could have been. It is fantasy without the intrusion of any reality, not even that beholden to the worlds they exist in.

Again, this is why Sues are not inherently bad. Let your imagination run free during the character creation process, no matter how weird, out there, or overpowered it might seem.

A Sue becomes a Sue by presentation and context. They face no true challenges. They do not struggle. Everyone wants them, everyone wants to be them. They are often supposedly kind, compassionate, and wonderful. Though these traits tend to be informed, rather than actually seen. The characters of the world that they exist in do not react to them in any kind of realistic fashion. They take actions that would be generally forbidden by their setting and receive no repercussions for any reason other than being either a protagonist or the protagonist. Often, they so flagrantly defy their own setting rules that they undermine the drama presented.

However, the real crux of what makes a Sue a Sue is how other characters react to them and how the narrative frames them. Other characters are not given a voice, they no longer act for themselves. Their entire existence becomes dependent on the wants, dreams, needs, and desires of the Sue, even when it makes no sense given the context the narrative has previously set up. More than that, the narrative often smooths their path for them. They are the best even when they screw up or do something that would get another person killed with no explanation other than “ProtagonistTM”.

What makes Mary Sue bad writing is actually the over focus on a single character. It’s not that she’s in defiance of some iron clad writing rules, which she isn’t, or breaking with gender norms (which… she usually isn’t either). It’s that everything else in the story must bend into a singular, selfish focus. Instead of building the characters around her up, Mary Sue makes her compatriots less and thus diminishes the story by extension. No one is more of a badass, regardless of whatever training they have or how the narrative presents them. No one else is cleverer or more skilled, unless it’s specifically pointed out that it is okay for X reason. No one else is capable of performing their own actions or living their own lives or pursuing their own goals unless the narrative authorizes them to do so. Anyone who breaks with the Sues opinions or disagrees with the Sue is evil, or soon will be down the line. They are painted as antagonists hurting her goal, even when their suggestions are reasonable.

There are no shades of gray, the world of the Sue is black and white.

As a result, the characters in question end up as puppets. They dance on the strings in accordance to where the plot points them. Their side narratives are rarely fulfilling and they rarely receive full character arcs. It’s often easy to feel the overhand of the author shuffling the pieces around to drive the plot forward, like the Wizard of Oz with neither the curtain nor the Oz.

This is why Sues are more obvious in fanfiction because the reader is already familiar with the pre-established world and they don’t feel like they belong. They are just as prevalent in regular fiction, but harder to spot due to having no prior experience with the setting.

Having one in your own work isn’t some shameful mark and fixing it is fairly easy, you just need to start thinking from the perspectives of other characters in the story. Begin humanizing them, begin having them react the way they’d react to any other character, and your Sue problem will go away in fairly short order.

No need to throw what could be the beginnings of an awesome character in the trash bin. It’s not unfixable, if you want to correct it. Besides that, there’s nothing wrong with a character being special.

-Michi

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

What do I want instead of a Strong Female Character? I want a male:female character ratio of 1:1 instead of 3:1 on our screens. I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or neither, because they are more than strength or weakness. Badass gunslingers and martial artists sure, but also interesting women who are shy and quiet and do, sometimes, put up with others’ shit because in real life there’s often no practical alternative. And besides heroines, I want to see women in as many and varied secondary and character roles as men: female sidekicks, mentors, comic relief, rivals, villains. I want not to be asked, when I try to sell a book about two girls, two boys and a genderless robot, if we couldn’t change one of those girls to a boy.

Sophia McDougall, “I hate Strong Female Characters” (via charlottefairchild)

I recommend reading the whole article in the link.  It’s long but good, and also points out the annoying trope of Hollywood thinking that as long as the female character gets a token “can beat people up” scene, then it’s totally fine that otherwise they still are filling very typical fictional roles women are pigeon-holed into, and usually are still just a love interest or plot device.

Also, to the above quote, this is about having that diversity in a single story, or even having many of those traits in 1 character, and not just plucking a few examples out of all of fiction and go “see, in this story, the woman was shy and quiet, and in this story, the woman beat somebody up, and this story the woman was mean.  There!  Diversity!”  It’s about overall trends, it’s about not just having one or two women in a cast, it’s about how women are situated in the story, it’s about whether the women are protagonists or plot devices, it’s about all sorts of ways that women are marginalized, pigeon-holed, etc in fiction, and not simply just about one thing.  There’s no easy fix where you go “see in my story, the woman warrior wears a shirt and she doesn’t get raped!”  The problem is there are so many issues with the way women, and every other marginalized group, are portrayed in fiction (and even more so with the intersectional problems with characters who are part of several of those groups), and only so much that people can talk about in one go, so usually people are only able to address one or two issues at any time, and it leads to the idea that as long as you fix (or superficially) fix that element, then it’s all good, and it’s more than that.

From the standpoint of this blog, sometimes there comes the misconception that as long as a story has fully armored women, or has battle-ready posed women, then that’s something that’s necessarily a good story about women, or necessarily a good depiction, and it’s more than that.  It’s a step forward, definitely, and I absolutely think it’s good for people to keep the visual portrayal of women in their minds when creating fiction and not just doing one thing over and over because it’s just how we’re so used to seeing women depicted visually.  But it can’t stop at that.  How many women there are in the story matters.  Whether or not she’s portrayed as being “exceptional” for her gender, and therefore all other women in the fictional world are still flat stereotypes matters.  What happens to her in the story, how she’s situated, presented, talked about matters.  Whether she’s the protagonist, or if despite her armor, she gets kidnapped by the villain to anger the male hero matters.  It’s about more than simply avoiding one single way women are portrayed, and then dusting off our hands and patting ourselves on the back for fixing how women are portrayed in fiction.  It’s about examining the way we see women in our society, and being aware of how that affects the way we depict and situate them in our writing, often without realizing it.

Escher Girls, The Bechdel Test, Bikini Armor, etc, are all catchy terms, and great things to keep in mind when writing fiction with women in it, but it’s not as simple as just “not doing this one thing”.  These phrases and ideas are meant to highlight specific issues about the way women are written and drawn in fiction and to open up a discussion about the larger picture of how women are portrayed.  The Bechdel Test is meant to point out how few women have roles and how even fewer of them have stories of their own that don’t revolve around men.  Escher Girls is about showing the prevalence of female characters being contorted or dressed in ways that maximize titillation over function. They are symptoms, not the cause, and addressing just one of them once doesn’t fix the underlying issue.  Change comes by challenging ourselves to not just settle at “my princess punches people before being captured” or “the male hero’s love interest talks to her female friend about dogs at one point”, but to be willing to examine the overall way we’re depicting women in our fiction, how many there are, and how they’re situated.  Centaur women, battle bikinis, and the boobs and butt pose are the beginning of the discussion, not the end.

escher-girls

(via moniquill)