Tag Archives: world building

Q&A: A Knight’s Arms

I’m writing a book in a fantasy setting and my main character is a knight. His main weapon is a longsword, with a shortsword as a sidearm. Do you think he should carry a bow as well, or would that not make sense as that is what archers are for?

Normally, a longsword would be the sidearm. The shortsword, or long knife (the terms are analogous) would be a backup weapon. This is more or less how knives are used today. Their primary weapon would probably be a spear, or another polearm of some variety. That said, this is all very dependent on the culture you’re working from, so I’ll loop back to that in a minute.

Mounted archers certainly existed. They would act as skirmishers, harassing enemy infantry at close range, while staying out of melee. It’s a distinct combat role, and not something you’d normally associate with knights. (For reference, mounted archers aren’t the only form of skirmishers. Small squads of archers or even specialized infantry units performed the same role.)

Normally (at least in Europe) the role of the Knight was cavalry. These would be mounted units that charged into enemy infantry to disrupt their formations, then they would either break contact and repeat or they would remain in direct combat against the disrupted infantry.

While charging, cavalry benefits significantly from polearms, (particularly spears and lances.) After the charge, because of the ranges that combat will occur at, a soldier will be better served with a sword. They’ll be stuck in close quarters surrounded by enemy infantry. The horse is a critical part of their armaments, providing a serious advantage, but they’re still attacking people next to their boots. At that point, a sword is a much better tool than a spear.

It’s fairly plausible that your Knight would know how to use a bow, and had received rudimentary training on one, even if they weren’t a master marksman, and didn’t carry one normally. This isn’t so much an endorsement of the idea that they’d need to carry a bow, so much as the basic suggestion that, yeah, these options would be open to your character.

So, that’s reality (specifically historical Europe, where we usually draw the model of a knight from), but, you’re writing a fantasy setting and that may differ significantly from the real world.

When you strip out the specifics of the training, a Knight was an elite, specialized, combatant. Real Knights were trained to do some of the most difficult jobs in Medieval combat, and as a result required substantially more time to prepare. Knights were, in some ways, analogous to modern special forces. This means it’s better for you to tailor your knight’s weapons to the threats they face, rather than suggesting a basic set of gear and asking if that makes sense. It could.

So, if your fantasy setting is “basically Europe,” with the serial numbers filed off, then, yeah, a longsword, shield, spear, dagger, and possibly some kind of ranged weapon like a shortbow, would make sense for your character. Especially if they’re operating on their own or with a small group of other knights errant.

If your setting is swarming with monsters, then a heavier, or more versatile polearm, like a halbard, poleaxe, or voulge may be more useful. Additionally, a heavier bow, and more time spent honing their marksmanship, would be appropriate.

If your setting is densely mountainous, with no real opportunity to use a horse, where most encounters occur in very tight spaces, then you’d probably get more value from the sword than the spear.

A knight’s role in society, their armor, their weapons, even their training, are all part of the larger world that they inhabit. If your fantasy world starts to depart seriously from the real one, you might want to go back and consider what else would change.

For example: if your setting is a volcanic archipelago, with tiny coastal enclaves on the islands, then that world’s knights would need to be equipped for travel by sea, and combat aboard ships. So, lighter armors would be far more useful. Swords (assuming there were sources of iron), would still make sense as a weapon choice, but aboard ship, you wouldn’t have room for polearms. Those might be used during amphibious assaults, however. Your knights would probably still benefit from some kind of ranged weapons, though at that point, thrown options would be better (salt water is not kind to bows, and you never want to get your bow wet.)

So, do your choices sound reasonable? Yeah, they might, if they fit with the world you’re creating.

-Starke

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Q&A: Guns and Magic

In the story I’m writing, the overall feel of the setting is mid/early 1800s, technology-wise. There’s magic, and given the time period I’m having trouble justifying there not being guns, but I’m not sure how to have them present in the story without ‘just shoot the wizard’ killing the tension. My initial thought was to make them less advanced than guns were at the time, and expensive enough that they would be less common, but I’m not sure how believable that would be. Do you have any advice?

Well, one problem with simply shooting the wizard is being able to actually put a bullet where you want it. The 19th century covered a lot of technological development. When the century began, smooth-bore single shot, firearms were still the norm (though rifles did exist). While firearms did get steadily more accurate over time, flintlock muskets are not an example of that. Additionally, any missed shot means your character will be facing a long reload before they can fire again.

There’s also a lot of considerations with magic that can make firearms as much of a detriment as an advantage. First, gunpowder is exceptionally flammable. If your characters are using firearms, they’re carrying around a supply of improvised explosives, that a pyromancer could use to kill them on the spot.

If you have mages that can manipulate metals, then that’s a pretty serious threat for anyone trying to use a gun. (Or metal weapons and armor, for that matter.)

If your magic interacts with the physical world (which, honestly, magic in most settings does), guns are going to be physical objects, subject to magic in one form or another. You don’t need to fully remove them from the setting, but simply understanding this can give you options which can make firearms another tool, and challenge, for your characters to work around.

A lot of the fantasy genre today draws heavily from Tolkien’s work. He defined the genre, and his setting has become the base most writers work from. To the point that the phrase, “standard fantasy setting,” has inherent meaning. Modifying off of that template offers you opportunities to discuss things, or evaluate concepts, that you simply can’t otherwise use.

Modifying a fantasy setting with a specific technological threshold opens up a lot of technology you otherwise wouldn’t have. If you want a standard fantasy setting in the 1890s, you’re opening the door to things like revolvers, steam engines, trains, telegrams, photographs, electricity, and “all the wonders of the modern world.” That’s kind of the point.

Once you’ve done that, the best route is to ask yourself, “what would magic do to this technology?” For example: “how would magic have affected the creation of the telegram?” If your setting is one where magic allows for instant telepathic communication, then the telegraph is redundant. You could already go to a mage, and pay them to relay your message. But, that’s not quite the same thing, is it? It could be open to manipulation, or surveillance. Business interests who operate networks of telepath mages may work to discredit, or undermine the development of telegraphs as a viable technology, even if their own service is inferior.

On the other end of this is the basic firearms question. Would magic allow for more advanced firearms? It’s certainly possible. Mages may be able to concoct alchemical propellants that are more efficient, and cleaner than real world firearms, allowing for more mechanically complex weapons than the real world supports. It’s also possible that magic would allow for additional defenses against firearms. A spell that was originally designed to protect against incoming projectiles may be equally effective at stopping a bullet. These potentials may even interact with one another, where conventional bullets will stop, but (exorbitantly expensive) alchemical rounds will blow through the shield, hitting the mage.

Another possibility is that, where you have mages, you also have magical abominations, wandering the wilds. When dealing with things like that, it’s entirely possible that conventional firearms are ineffective, requiring something special to deal with the creatures.

If your fantasy setting has a legitimate reason to include firearms, my recommendation is to look at those as a challenge. The danger that someone could gun down one of your characters if they do something stupid, or don’t think through their actions is a fantastic motivator, and something that’s worth keeping around as a credible threat.

If your fantasy setting looks like it should include firearms, then, probably should. This is a technology that reshaped the world, and having to account for it challenging your setting’s history and traditions is entirely reasonable, and something you probably want to play into, rather than avoid.

-Starke

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Q&A: Creative Materials

I’ve been trying to think of “creative” materials to use in my fantasy world. How do you think bismuth would fair as the base for armor/weapons?

Not well. Bismouth is a brittle metal, and won’t hold up in combat. It was used as component in some bronze alloys but, as a metal, it’s unsuitable for weaponry.

If your setting is using bronze age technology, it’s possible they’d use bismouth contaminated tin and copper, to produce bronze, but unless your character is a smith, that’s not the kind of detail which would be relevant, and trying to wedge it into exposition could be awkward. Even then, it’s more likely that they’d view it as some variant of tin or lead.

So, let’s step back from this and dig into the more general question: How do you go about incorporating “creative materials,” into your setting?

Before you can answer that, you need to answer two previous questions. Why do you want those materials? And, what do you want to do with them?

When you’re creating a setting, introducing fantastical elements can help to make the world more memorable. Your setting has elves, has magic, has vampires, whatever. Over time, the audience will acclimate to certain elements in a genre. So creating a fantasy setting today where almost anyone can perform some basic magic isn’t nearly as memorable as if you were writing the same story in 1930. Within that context, unusual materials can go a long way towards selling that.

At this point, you can sometimes get more attention by eschewing parts of the, “standard fantasy setting.” Which is to say, if you want your fantasy characters fighting with bronze, iron, or steel weapons (depending on the technology they have), you’re not under any obligation to include these things simply to be different. One thing that doesn’t suffer from diminishing returns is creating compelling characters who behave realistically, in a way the audience can identify with. Unusual metals and mystical artifacts are there if they serve your story, or help you build build detail into your world, not because you must include them.

In very simple terms, you can use strange or exotic materials along with other fantastical elements to separate your audience from the world they know. You create a less grounded setting, which affords you greater control over your world. Depending on the kind of story you’re trying to tell, this can be a benefit or a problem.

The second part of this is, what your material does in your setting. There are a few ways this can go.

If you’re inserting a material as a replacement for something that existed historically, then that’s going to build towards your setting’s strangeness. If this sounds like it has to be a 1:1 conversion, that’s not strictly true. Your setting may have some kind of resin, or hard bones that function as a replacement for armor or weapons. You may have some kind of sea creature with a carapace that will hold up for decades after death, and can take a serious beating. You may, simply, have some alternative animals that are used as mounts or pack animals. The important thing is, you’re filling a cultural niche with something that doesn’t exist in the real world.

Replacing elements will lead to a less grounded, more fanciful setting, particularly as you stack up elements. Juggling elements like this can make your setting more complex and memorable, or it can render the entire thing obtuse, and difficult to understand. Handling these kinds of elements becomes a juggling act. Said juggling act becomes more difficult when you try to write to people who are familiar with the genre and newcomers. There are real rewards for this kind of approach, and it is something I’d recommend you experiment with or at least research, but it’s not something you can expect to nail on your first attempt.

You can introduce elements that replace anachronistic concepts that wouldn’t exist in your setting, but would be familiar to a modern audience. The idea of a fantasy setting with cell phones may strike you as odd, but there are plenty of settings that do incorporate modern technology into a fantasy setting under the guise of something else. Communication crystals or spells allowing telepathic contact and remote viewing.

The tricky part here is figuring out exactly what all of these pieces would reasonably do to your world. Even minor tweaks can start to have significant consequences. More aggressive wildlife will mean better fortified settlements. Without that, the settlements would be overrun and wiped out. So, this becomes a necessary precaution. If you have truly massive pack animals, then major trade routs could easily form along land routes instead of along waterways, leading to a very different geography, potentially one with far less interest in water travel in general. This is particularly true if you have vitally important materials that don’t naturally occur near the water.

Conversely, if your fantasy setting is dependent on something pulled from the water, they may go even further. Magical research, and even mundane technology could go far further towards deep sea diving if some leviathan down there is the source for carapace armor, or the only place to mine some otherwise unobtainable ore.

However strange your world becomes, it’s vitally important to remember one thing: For your characters, this is normal. (Unless they’re native to a different setting and get dumped into it. At which point, everyone around them will still be in the mindset of, “no, this is normal; stop gawking at the sledge, they get nervous when you stare at their eyestalks.”)

If you’re not chasing strangeness, then unusual materials often become a way to indicate that a given weapon or item is special in some way. The first example that may come to mind is Mithril, from Tolkien, but there’s actually a long history of people making up metals and imbuing them with special properties. Some quick examples include: orichalcum, which Plato ascribed to Atlantis, and adamant (which is where we get the terms adamantium and adamantite), which referred to an improbably strong metal or substance (and is the root for “adamant,” in modern English, if I remember correctly).

Unusual materials also have some basis in history. (Not counting orichalcum, which may have been an actual alloy, or could have been something Plato invented for rhetorical effect.) Superalloys like crucible steel and Damascus steel were quite real. Similarly meteoric iron was sought after because of how valuable the metal was to a smith. Chemically most of it is an iron/nickle alloy, but this stuff was one of the first sources of metallic iron, before smelting technology was developed.

If your setting has unusually advanced magic, it’s possible they’d have access to metals that just wouldn’t exist historically: like titanium. In the real world, titanium wasn’t discovered until the eighteenth century, and wasn’t refined into a metal until 1910. (Somewhat obviously, the minerals were always there, but they went undiscovered until 1791.) However, if your setting has magical means to locate and identify metals, and access to forge temperatures far beyond what real world technology allowed (specifically, high pressure, non-carbon based forges, for titanium), it’s possible you could have this stuff in your setting. (At that point it’s probably worth remembering that Titanium was, explicitly named after the Greek titans, so the name may not carry across, even if the metal does.)

Mixed with all of this is the idea to single out a weapon and indicate it’s special. This has some historical basis. Weapons made from superaloys or meteoric iron were highly regarded historically, and may be the origin of stories about magical weapons and artifacts. It’s entirely possible your otherwise grounded setting may have a sword made from starsteel, that’s a symbol of the king, or a “magical” sword with the wavy bands of Damascus steel. This stuff was real, and for users who were unfamiliar with the origins, Clarke’s Third Law holds. (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”)

Somewhat obviously, there’s nothing to stop you from having an artifact made from some material that’s been otherwise lost. This is, sort of, how Plato used Orichalcum in his discussion on Atlantis. The material and objects created from it were almost forgotten, but (supposedly) still existed.

It’s entirely reasonable that your character may be questing for an onyx-jade sword, or something equally bizarre, in an otherwise grounded setting. This works particularly well if your setting has a pattern of fallen civilizations, and exists in a dark age after some lost golden era. (Incidentally, this fits with how Europe viewed itself through most of the middle ages, ending near the enlightenment. So, there is historical precedent in this approach.) This can also leak over into outright science fiction elements, if that’s what you want.

The most important part of incorporating “creative materials” into your setting is in the name, be creative. Look for opportunities where you can start to seriously alter your world. Ask yourself, “what would this mean to the civilizations of my world?” Look for opportunities to connect your ideas, and how they would interact with one another. But, most importantly, be creative. If you want to have something fanciful or strange, don’t feel limited to the periodic table.

-Starke

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Q&A: Evil Organization Caught Being Evil – News at 11

Commonly, when a character escapes Evil Organization™, they stay low and try to avoid getting their face in the news. Could doing the opposite and making themselves as obvious and well-known as possible work instead because it would be more obvious if someone tried to kill them (especially if they dropped hints that someone might be after them)?

Well, if you’ve trademarked your company, “Evil Organization,” then you’re probably not too worried about the headlines. You may also have some branding issues that Marketing will want to discuss with you, but, that’s a different issue.

“Evil Organization caught eating kittens!”

“Yeah, well, no surprise there.”

So, in concept, there’s a couple factors to consider with your approach. Because, in the right circumstances, it could work as a deterrent.

Does the organization care about its public image? Normally, you’d think the answer is yes. Especially if you’re talking about a business. But, when you’re talking about a pseudo-government agency, or something like a criminal enterprise, or conspiracy, they might not.

The simplest way to look at it is, a company that runs a chain of department stores will care far more about how they’re perceived publicly, than a supervillian hiding in his volcano lair.

If they don’t care about their public image, then publicly waxing your protagonists isn’t a problem.

In fact, depending on their reputation, it may be a boon. If your characters are on the run from a crime family, a very public execution would actually work in their favor.

The old cliche about, “all publicity is good publicity,” doesn’t quite hold true. But, if you’re attempting to cultivate a reputation as someone who should not be messed with, a public, and messy, execution or two can do wonders for keeping people in line.

Will it face any significant backlash for its behavior? If you’re talking about an individual, sure. Even if the evil conspiracy is just a room full of businessmen and their hired gun, then they could be rounded up, arrested, put on trial. There could be consequences if they’re caught. But, if we’re talking about something like a government agency or a drug cartel, that starts to go off the rails.

With criminal organizations, then your character would become another statistic. One of many dead due to violence. A tragedy that, as I mentioned earlier, would actually benefit them. Serving as a warning to everyone else to stay in line and do what they say. Now, there are diminishing returns for this kind of an approach, but that’s something your characters could only enjoy posthumously.

If the conspiracy your characters are running from have hooks in the law enforcement community, it may not be possible for your characters to hide in plain sight. Even if it’s a business or corporation, they could still find themselves subject to arrest, if the company started providing evidence of criminal acts (real or otherwise) committed by your characters.

Can it still get access to your characters without exposing itself? This should be somewhat obvious, but the organization might not need to publicly out itself to kill your characters. Depending on who they are, it might not even be possible to connect the killer to the people pulling the strings.

If the evil organization has the capacity to execute a covert assassination, your characters gained nothing by taking this approach.

Really, this question supersedes the others. If the answer is “yes,” your characters are screwed.

In fact, by taking this approach, your characters may have put themselves in a worse position. It’s entirely possible the organization may not have the resources to find them, if they’d fled to the dark side of the moon, and kept out of sight. But, they’ve publicly told their foes where to find them.

There are potential applications for this. If your characters want to drag their foes out into the opening, sticking a big, “here I am, come get me,” sign on social media will bring them in. But, that’s the opposite of going into hiding, to avoid their foes, and more something to do when you want to definitively eliminate your foes.

If your characters want to lure the organization into a compromising situation, this may be useful. It’s one thing if a covert hit squad can actually find and kill your characters. But, it’s another if they can be coaxed into assaulting a high society cocktail party when your characters aren’t even there.

There’s also a few big problems with this approach.

Everyone wants to be famous. I realize this isn’t strictly true. There are plenty of people out there who are quite happy to pass unnoticed. However, there are many people who do want to be famous. Actually getting to that point is hard, time consuming, work. It’s a skill set.

Cultivating a fan base, keeping people interested, building up your brand. This all takes time, and effort. It’s not something you can just, flip a switch, and achieve (unless you are improbably lucky).

This means there’s a long time frame between your character announcing their existence, and the point that they’d actually enjoy any protection from their fame. It also means there’s no guarantee they’d ever reach a level of fame that actually offered any protections.

Being famous is inherently dangerous. Actual celebrity assassinations are fairly rare, though they do happen. That said, fame is a peculiar creature, which has an unfortunate effect on many. People, complete strangers, sometimes not entirely stable strangers, want to get close, participate, feel like they’re part of it.

Spend any considerable time following entertainment news, and you’ll see a long procession of weirdos breaking into peoples houses, attacking others. It is a real phenomena. In an attempt to find safety, your characters are actually putting themselves in more danger.

You can’t control what people care about. Honestly, this is something to keep in mind as a writer, but it applies to your characters as well. Sure, your characters can make themselves publicly available, suggest that they know things, draw attention onto themselves, and hope that will provide protection, but it might not.

This is also one of those things where people might not care about your character at all until after they’re dead. Which is a partial victory, I guess, but doesn’t do them much good.

It’s also entirely likely your character simply wouldn’t manage to reach enough people to draw them in, especially if they’re regularly making comments that sound like they’re six sunflower seeds off becoming a full blown conspiracy theorist.

Like I said earlier, there are applications to this approach. Your characters could make use of it as part of a larger plan. Particularly if their goal is to expose the evil organization somehow by provoking them. But, it’s still incredibly dangerous, and wouldn’t provide much, if any, protection.

-Starke

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Hello, I am writing a ‘Apocalypse’ story that also has mythical creatures in it and I am unsure how strong I should make them compared to humans. One of the main characters is a 16 year old Elf who was trained since he was ten, and I don’t want him to be too strong. Elfs can use Runes and subtle illusions in my story. I am unsure on the power levels of other Mythical creatures (like Fae, Ghouls, Centaurs, Merpeople and Chimera) as well.

They should be as strong as the story requires. There is no
concrete answers here, just world building, which is, ultimately, on you.

Let’s start with your main character. Elves (or Elfs, if you
prefer) aren’t real, so they don’t age at a fixed rate. Which means, saying he’s 16
years old isn’t that useful. I understand the intent behind your
statement, but it’s probably important to step back for a minute.

If we’re taking D&D’s setting basics, and running with
those, a 16 year old elf is a small child. Conversely, D&D’s perfectly
happy to call a 16 year old human an adult. This is, of course, assuming your
setting’s elves aren’t completely ageless, come into existence fully matured,
and then never change.

It’s worth remembering, when you’re building a fantasy
setting, that you control all of the
variables. Sure, your human characters should, probably, come across as mostly
human, in most cases, but even that’s not set in stone. Accusations that
Aragorn is unrealistic are fairly rare, and this is a character who’s in his
80s. (And, yes, there’s an entire internal justification for that, but Tolkien’s
race of Men aren’t really human. They’re another flavor of mythical beings,
like his elves and dwarves. Aragorn is a step further from that, but the point stands.)

When you’re talking about elves, that’s a very open topic.
Depending on your source of inspiration, that could be anything from beings
that are basically human characters, that have access to very advanced magic or
technology (and no, this isn’t an oblique Stargate reference), a variety of fae, normal
people who’ve been altered by some release of magical energy, or just another sentient species wandering your world. It’s up to you to define who and what they are, in your setting.

This also spills over into what sets them apart from a “normal”
character. What your elves are
is influenced by what you want to talk about. (Because your main character is an elf, their nature is far more important than if they were a minor side element in your setting.) Once you have that, then
you can start to extrapolate how your elves are different from other beings in
your setting. This could be as simple as your character being lumped in with
the other mythical beasts and viewed as a different flavor of monster by the
people he’s trying to save (or not), or it could be a coming of age story. This
will seriously influence what your elves are. How alien they are. How they age.
What their society looks like. It also affects how strong they are. Depending
on what you’re creating, it’s entirely possible your character is already a
superhumanly powerful engine of destruction by 16, whether he has the emotional
maturity to handle that or not. In turn, that would seriously influence how
elves are perceived by others in your setting. Or, he could still be a small child. Where he lands between these points is something that needs to fit the story you’re trying to tell.

To varying degrees, the same is true of the other creatures
in your world. If they’re supposed to be incredibly powerful, to the point that
normal beings can’t even slow them down, the apocalypse is an extinction event
in motion, then that’s your answer. If they’re more of an environmental hazard
that a well equipped group can deal with, again, that’s your answer. If they’re
a nuisance that only becomes a serious problem in large numbers, you get the
idea. In practice, you’ll probably want a mix of these things, depending on
what your setting needs. It’s entirely reasonable that you’ve got fairly common
threats like ghouls that can be dealt with, while still having far more powerful
beings like titans or leviathans wandering the world wrecking things. How these
interrelate will be influenced by the story you want to tell.

World building starts with the idea of wanting to tell a
story, and having a vague idea of what you want to talk about. Then
extrapolating a world that supports those ideas. Finally, you go back through
and start nailing down the fine details, like, “how powerful are these monsters?”
or, “how did people react to their arrival?”

This leaves me in a slightly awkward place: without knowing
what you’re trying to do, you’re asking for some of the final detail work
without knowing what you wanted to do in broader strokes.

At a very basic level, the more powerful the creatures are,
the more severely isolated human communities will be. I’m using power as an aggregate
here, endless swarms of easily dispatched monsters that will overwhelm and
obliterate can be more effective than a skyscraper sized
behemoth that shrugs off any injury.

At the extreme end, humans may be restricted to a handful of
small enclaves, and extinction could be imminent. On the other hand, you could
easily have a setting where survivors have retaken and fortified entire cities,
with heavily armed caravans wandering between, and smaller enclaves scattered
across the world.

It’s entirely possible you’re setting up an environment like
The Witcher. There are monsters, but
they’re more of a pest than a real threat, and the apocalypse which unleashed
them on the world is a dim memory.

There’s an old cop-out answer on physics exams, “the
problem cannot be solved with the available information.” That seems to apply
here. When you’re building your world, you have the  ability to shape it to fit your narrative.
Think about the kind of story (or stories) you want to tell in it, and build
your setting accordingly.

-Starke

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If it’s not a bother, do you have a master list of different fighting styles? I’m in the process of world building and I want different tribes to have a different styles than the others.

We don’t, creating one would take a lot more time and in depth
research than either Starke or I are willing to commit. There are a lot
of different styles of combat out there, both currently alive and dead.

However,
I will say that you’re coming at your research from the wrong
perspective. Combat is inherently and directly tied to your world
building, it isn’t an outside source where you pick from a list and you
slap the ones you like on top of that.

There are too many
different styles of combat that will not be applicable to your setting
and society, even if you find them visually interesting or have heard
that they are “the best”. More than that, they directly relate to
cultural attitudes about violence and their practitioner’s societal
roles.

The peasant who is not legally permitted to carry weapons
but must devise alternate options to defend themselves against raiders
and bandits will create a martial style that is totally different from
the lord in his ivory tower.

There will be historical examples
similar to what you’re looking for, but you begin by culling the
unnecessary factors such as cultures that are not applicable to the
world your creating and the time periods that accompany them.

If
you want to write a fantasy novel set in a setting similar to 14th
century Europe then there isn’t that much reason to begin by looking at
fighting styles from India, Japan, or China. (Though studying up on the
Middle East might be applicable.)

Start with your own setting and
the troubles these tribes face from where they live (mountains? valleys?
deserts?), what they eat/how they get their food (agricultural?
hunter/gatherer? raiding?), and the kind of technology that they’re
capable of devising i.e. what do they use? bows? knives? spears? what
are those tools made of? A large supply of refined ore, the ability to
create metal, and skills in blacksmithing are required for major
advancements like metal swords and armor. A society that is regularly on
the move won’t have a use for swords or develop them.

Historically,
different styles of combat have been developed as a direct result of
devising a means to protect oneself from outside threats, this relates
to both the environmental factors and the society’s technological level
(i.e. what kinds of weapons they are capable of creating).

All
these will tell you what kind of society you have and the kind of
society you have dictates how they fight, how good they are at combat,
and the specialized styles that they developed as a result of their
unique experiences.

Once you understand the kind of society you
have, then your research pool is slimmed to the point where you can
easily look up similar societies that exist or existed in order to get a
better understanding of other considerations and the way they went
about it.

The mistake a lot of writers make when trying to devise
their own combat styles or utilize another combat style for their work
is the belief that they are interchangeable. However, combat and the
ways in which we fight are a result of environmental and sociological
factors as we adapt to face the threats that could end our existences.

You
have a culture that comes from the plains and must rove vast distances
in search of food? They may fight on horseback primarily, wielding bows
(also initially used for hunting) and they raid other groups for food.
Their style of combat relies heavily on mounted combat because horses
are the backbone of their society.

You’ve got a culture where the
primary source of food is too large or to dangerous to be brought down
single handed or is difficult to find. The primary weapon of the hunter
is the spear, but more than that they may also use other helpful tools
such as hunting dogs to locate and bring down their prey. Dogs have
historically been used as part of attack forces for a very long time.
The human and dog tag team against other humans is a legitimate combat
option.

It’s not a question of “what is available”, it’s what do I
have and what is the natural and logical extension of those choices
then research thoroughly to develop a better understanding of the
concepts that you’re working with.

The way combat happens, the training, and the strategies employed are inherently tied to the cultures which create them, their societal norms, and their history.

Even approaches to combat training are heavily reliant on the historical period as most of our modern ideas of what army is are just that: modern.

You don’t want to be the guy who writes the story where his main character is practicing Aikido in 1150 England. And if you can’t tell me why that’s silly beyond Aikido being Japanese, then you need to do more research.

-Michi

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How would you implement appendages such as claws or fangs of a fantasy/sci fi race (for example such as khajiit or some sort of humanoid alien species but not limited to) into a martial arts style? How would alternate biologies and physiologies affect what they’re capable of?

The thing that’s honestly kind of frustrating with the Khajiit is, they have a couple named martial arts. We’ve even seen characters proficient in them… and, no animations to go with them, or any real explanation for what they do or how they work. Khajiit use the standard unarmed animations, and get a slight unarmed damage bonus, leading to Punchcat builds.

But, that distraction aside, this is actually a world building question. Though, the Khajiit are a pretty good example of it, so we’ll keep track of them for a minute.

For characters with a non-human biology, any martial arts they develop need to do three things. They need to reflect their physiology, they need to reflect their society, and they need to account for the societies they interact with on a regular basis.

Physiology is the easiest. If your characters can bite, that’s probably going to be a part of any formalized martial style. If they have retractable claws, those will also probably find a home. It’s the same with stingers, barbed tails, horns, serrated plates. If the character can use it safely, and there isn’t a social stigma associated with it, they probably will. And, in an emergency, that stigma might not be enough to keep them from using it anyway.

The Khajiit are actually an interesting restriction on the physiology element. There’s actually seventeen different varieties ranging from bear sized cats, to the bipedal cat men seen in the games, to almost human looking, to intelligent house cats.

If you’ve never looked at it (and it’s not already becoming apparent), The Elder Scrolls is a very strange setting. One that’s passing itself off as normal, but poke it and weirdness starts to seep out everywhere.

I suspect a large part of why they’re so vague about what the martial arts entail is because most of those arts are supposed to be accessible to most Khajiit, and the range of physiologies makes trying to get into specifics impractical.

The characters’ culture will determine a lot of what is or isn’t socially acceptable. If you have a culture that embraces their bestial impulses, or just considers that a normal state of being, then again, they’re probably not going to have an issue using their claws, teeth, or other appendages.

It’s worth remembering that, for any civilized culture, proportionality is still very important in combat. For instance; if you have a race with a venomous bite, biting would be viewed as an attempt at lethal force. With all the associated consequences.

As with humans, the amount of harm done to the victim will be predictable, and their society’s values will influence how their violence is perceived.

If their culture considers their nature bestial, or something they seek to suppress it, then things like using their claws may be viewed as shameful. This would make attacks using them much more extreme.

I said there were external cultural pressures as well. The simplest way to think of this is, as an entire, societies are affected by peer pressure in the same way individuals are. It’s not as immediately apparent, but it can and does happen.

So, if your fantasy race is set apart from those around you by physiology, there’s a very real chance it will affect their outlook on the world, and their perception of self.

I realize this gets into an uncomfortable topic, but it’s one you should probably consider, both in building your world, and your characters.

A couple good things to look at: Though, none of these will be especially useful for the fighting specifically, they should help with world-building in general.

Lucasfilm’s Aliens Chronicles by Deborah Chester: What’s stuck with me, years later, was how distinct Chester managed to make the various alien races. It also does a great job exploring the potential effects of outside influences on a character.

Farscape: I know we’ve plugged this series before, but it’s very good. This is probably one of the best Sci-Fi television series out there. It populates it’s universe with loads of memorable and unique aliens. In part the writing uses that to feed the sense of otherness and alienation that it’s driving, but it usually keeps the strangeness on point.

Since we started with the Khajiit, it’s probably a good idea to look at The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, assuming you haven’t already. Skyrim’s tricky to recommend, though. The main story’s writing is fairly standard save the world fantasy fare, and the protagonist is a fantasy, demigod, superhero. But, the world it builds is far more interesting when they player isn’t shouting people off mountains to watch them ragdoll. Things like the treatment of Khajiit and Argonians by the Nords, are fairly easy to find. Digging up the full depth of the setting is a lot harder, and something the game doesn’t ever really suggest you should do. You really should.

The MMO will paint a more coherent picture, particularly of Khajiit and Argonian culture… but it’s also an MMO, so the signal to noise ratio is insane, and I’m not about to say you should spend 200+ hours to dig up it’s insights. Even if it does do a fantastic job of looking at racism and it’s aftermath, which might be relevant for you.

Morrowind is probably still the best game in the series, but, the last 13 years have not been kind to it. It’s wonderful, but incredibly slow. I can honestly say you’ll see a different world in that game, but it’s probably one that would take more of a time commitment than you have (even in comparison to the MMO). That said, if you’ve gone through the later games in the series, but missed this one. It is probably taking a look back.

-Starke

You guys run an amazing blog and I’m constantly impressed by your knowledge. Very often, people write asking “My MC is __ and he/she does ___. Is this realistic?” And often, the answer is no. However, the majority of readers have no understanding of fighting, and also, fiction implies a breaking of rules. Generally, where do you draw the line between “This could work” and “aw, c’mon” (and further between “this is all wrong, but it ROCKS!”)? I figure the rules of the world play big into this…

The question is usually: well, which rules are you breaking?

In a fictional context, realism is entirely dependent on the fictional world you build for your characters. You have to define what those rules are before you can break them. When most readers go “oh, that’s not realistic!” what they are actually responding to isn’t the part where it goes against their “real world”, it’s a sign the author failed at communicating their world’s systems or broke their own rules. “That’s not realistic” is really just a higher brow way of saying “something’s not right here” or “that shouldn’t be possible” but the fictional work is defining what is possible.

With most MCs, it’s more about getting the writer to start thinking outside of their character. On one level: it doesn’t matter if it’s unrealistic. It really doesn’t. The question is, does the author realize that they can’t just make the rules one way for one character and not for anyone else?

If your MC can do it, more than likely your villain can. The average mook could. The kid wandering by on the street too. Anyone. Anywhere. Probably someone else.

It’s not about what will happen. It’s about what can happen because a story is more than a single character. For violence, there’s no safety net. To unironically take the best lesson from Avatar, when Aang attempts to learn to Earthbend “there’s no special trick-trickety trick that’s going to defeat that rock”. You can’t find a way around it with 100% certainty.

You’re always risking something when you put your character into combat and the sooner that gets internalized the better off you’ll be. Don’t believe your character will make it to the end of the story when you write combat. Believe they could die at any time. From any mistake. Completely by accident. Make your characters earn their right to survive. You’ll write better, I promise.

A writer who writes with the understanding that every fight they put their character into that character can die and has them act accordingly will always be in the “This is all wrong, but it ROCKS” category. Tamora Pierce’s fight scenes, for example, especially the ones in Protector of the Small when the kids are in genuine danger. They are dealing with the situation, there is a sense of a threat, a worry that they could die, and they are thinking it through or accepting the necessary sacrifices they need in order to win.

The author who uses the violence as a means for something else or primarily as a message, who has their character acting in a way that makes no sense because they already know they’re going to survive lands in the “No” category for me. There is no guarantee your character won’t fail. There should always be a chance they will and the scene should be written from the perspective that they might just. They can get themselves killed. More importantly, they can get someone else killed. Stupidity does that. Charging into a group of eight guys intent on killing someone else doesn’t mean they’re all automatically going to turn around to fight the protagonist.

The character needs to feel like they are dealing with the situation in front of them. The author should keep the overarching narrative view in mind, they should think about the consequences of their characters actions. Fight scenes are often treated as throwaways, a character can commit them with zero consequences. The average mook does not have family or friends or anyone who will come back to take the MCs head. The character beats up some poor idiots on the side of the road, sometimes in a place they visit often, and that’s it. It’s over. No more needs to be said. Except… violence has a ripple effect and often the effects are unintended. It spirals well beyond a single individual character, events may end up affecting everyone in their left regardless of their original intentions.

Think about the real world for a second, not in terms of “what is real” but your own life. What would happen if you took a baseball bat to school? What would happen if you started a fight? What would happen if you punched someone out? What would happen if you shoplifted? What would happen if you went to Walmart tomorrow and bought a gun? How would people react? People in general? The people in your life? Do you get detention or jail time? Do people approve? Do they condemn you? What do they say? If you were beat up by some idiot what would happen? If you saw them again with a group of your friends, what would you do? If you died tomorrow, what would people say?

We get so caught up in our main characters that sometimes it’s easy to forget that every character in your story is you. They all have friends, they all have family, and they all have lives that will continue on long after the Protagonist has moved on.

Allow me to use the titular “teach girls to defend themselves as a solution to stopping violence against women” which crops up often in literature, especially in lately in YA. I will list one example where it is well done and another where it fails utterly.

Page by Tamora Pierce.

In Page, Keladry acquires a new maid named Lalasa. Lalasa has a history of abuse and has been targeted by both servants and nobles in the palace for her shy nature. Kel takes Lalasa on as a favor to Lalasa’s uncle Gower, even though she’s reticent about it. When dealing with Lalasa’s abuse in the novel, Pierce hammers out all the different ways in which the abuse is allowed to continue as part of the world building. She makes a point of noting that the abuse is systemic, that victims are persecuted and they are blamed, were Lalasa to take her complaints those higher up both she and her uncle risk being turned out. She also notes that you can’t command people to change, the attitudes which allow the abuse are perpetuated even after someone powerful says “no, stop it” are important to understanding why it happens. They will no longer do it within the hearing of said powerful person, but you can’t just snap your fingers and expect immediate change to happen.
Page makes a point of saying in the actions of the surrounding characters and the events it relays in regards to Lalasa’s situation that sexism and abuse are systemic. Change takes time. And indeed it does, because Lalasa’s character arc runs the length of the novel.
While she think its silly not to, Kel respects that Lalasa does not initially wish to learn to defend herself. She waits for Lalasa to make the choice and it takes time. They both accept that self-defense is mitigation, not a solution. This is harder for Kel, who comes from a privileged perspective, than Lalasa, who is more practical. Lalasa’s learning self-defense is part of her regaining her confidence and taking her life back, she does not take just a few lessons, once she agrees to begin then she works at it and she works hard. She practices often and learns so well that when it finally all wraps up, she takes what she knows and passes her knowledge on other girls. Indicating that while systemic change takes time, people can change and work to aid others who suffer similar circumstances. Both women learn from each other, Kel in teaching and Lalasa in learning. Lalasa is a minor character in Page but her narrative is powerful. Both girls embody change in a system that fights tooth and nail to keep them in their place. Their struggles are difficult and they are real.

Graceling by Kristen Cashore.

When Katsa travels to an Inn, she sees a serving girl being assaulted by one of the tavern’s patrons and moves to intervene. She proceeds to think that if girls were taught to fight then they wouldn’t have to suffer because more violence is what solves violence problems.
However, she gives no thought to whether or not the girls want to learn. No thought to what would happen to them after she leaves. No thought to how this would affect the tavern and the girl’s ability to work or continue working. No thought to whether or not they’d even be able to fight the way she (super powered character) fights.
The total train of thought is “if the girl knew how to fight then she wouldn’t be assaulted” which is ultimately just another form of victim blaming and lacks the awareness that whatever they do or don’t know affects other aspects of the character’s life. This includes their ability to keep working, the fact they may be rejected by other people in their life, what happens to them next, and an understanding that introducing violence into a situation is a great way to escalate it.
It never occurs to Katsa when she witness the scene that the reason the girls aren’t fighting back may be because they can’t or a response to other circumstances, not that they don’t know how. It doesn’t even matter that she’s right (they don’t know how), the problem is the thought never occurs. This is why one of these is “that’s amazing” and the other is “No”. One thought it through while working to ensure reminder to long term consequences and the other didn’t.

Good scenes are all about asking questions and then answering them. Drama is something happens and then there is fallout. Cause and effect. One action leads to another and then another and then another, each building every higher into what eventually becomes a story. If you can justify your character’s actions in story then it doesn’t matter, but if you’re giving them preferential treatment then be prepared to justify it through the other characters. This requires treating them like characters as opposed to nameless mooks or a cheerleading section.

More importantly, a good author needs to recognize that violence creates as many problems as it solves. It’s a short term solution only, one with long lasting consequences. Being good at fighting doesn’t mean the protagonist can brute force their way through their problems and doesn’t mean that they are safe from someone else hurting them.

Respect that there are characters in the setting who are better at fighting than the protagonist. Understand that not all combat training is created equal. Learn what good combat training looks like as opposed to sensationalized training like in Divergent. Respect characters who put the time in to be good at something, even if they are just a throwaway enemy.

Recognize all characters in the right circumstance (or any circumstance) can kill your MC.

Act accordingly.

You will get into the “That’s not right, but it’s AWESOME” category.

That’s my two cents, anyway.

-Michi

How do you see a fight progressing between superhuman fighters? The people in question have strength, speed, endurance, and damage resistance far exceeding those of regular humans as well as a certain measure of telekinesis, particularly in aid of their own movement. They can change direction in mid-air by pulling or pushing against objects and can run and jump far faster and further than humans. How dramatically would this change how these people fight one another compared to regular folk?

In all honesty? Not as much as most of us would think.

The biggest issue most writers get into when they give their characters super powers is the assumption that they have to use them. Which, really, they don’t. What gets missed most about fighting styles is that all the ones dedicated to practical i.e. real world combat is that they are all about conservation of energy.

Every single person, be they human, alien, robot, or giant cosmic fish has a limited energy pool to draw from. When that’s gone, they’re done. You can inflate your pool by being in better shape, building your endurance, working out, or being gifted with superpowers which give you those things without having to work for them, but in the end it doesn’t change the fact that at some point you will run out of power. When that is gone, it will take a while from hours to days to get it back and that may be time your character doesn’t have.

Being able to outlast your opponent in a single bout is great, but if you’ve spent all your energy on fancy finishing moves then you probably won’t have any left for the next six or seven guys you’ve got to kill on route to the big tower with the super bomb that’s going to blow up Manhattan.

This is why practical martial arts are so dedicated to efficiency, to finishing a fight as quickly as possible. It’s all about exiting the fight, getting out in tact so you can keep going on to the next one. There’s going to be a next one, then one after that, and one after that.

So, it’s really all about changing the way you think about fighting. You’re thinking “how do I show my character’s superpowers by writing some really cool fight scenes” where I’m thinking “yes, I could use my telekinesis to easily bust down that door much quicker than the grunts with the battering ram but what if I need it to scale a wall later? What if the bad guy has a rocket launcher or a tank? I can knock that guy into next week, but if I do will I have enough left to stop all the bullets in that grunt’s machine gun?”

Super powers give characters a different toolbox with which to approach combat and the problems posed by it, they don’t or at least shouldn’t change the basic concerns already present.

“I can only do so much and I have a limited amount of time.”

The limited energy pool doesn’t change.

Time constraints don’t change.

The fact that there will be detrimental consequences for their choices, especially if they choose to waste their power, isn’t going to change.

Even a being with infinite cosmic power can still fail, your heroes are still vulnerable to their flaws, their limitations, and their own egos.

The end goal is still the most important aspect of the fight. A fight is what happens on the way to getting to the important thing your character has to do, it’s not the important thing your character has to do (even when it feels like it).

Some Things to Remember:

Normals are dangerous.

Writers forget this one too often. They give a character a superpower and think no non-powered character can fight them. They become too focused on the superpowers as the solution to the problem and forget that they’re only a tool, just one method. There are many ways to combat an opponent and only a few involve fighting on an enemy’s terms.

They are going to be facing intelligent opponents. Intelligent opponents problem solve and the less power someone has, the better they need to be at it.

Never assume an enemy will attack your character’s from a position where they are strong, where they have an advantage.

HK-47’s discussion on killing Jedi from Knights of the Old Republic 2 is actually very insightful on combating a character with a superpower. The key to understanding how is to understanding how the character’s powers work. Exploiting those weaknesses is key, which means you need solid world building. Characters with the powers are less likely to see their own weaknesses and combat them than normal characters on the outside looking in. For example, HK-47 sees Jedi and killing them from a different perspective than a Sith might or another Jedi might.

If your characters have power then there are those around them without those powers who will look for ways to exploit them, use those flaws to control them, or ultimately destroy them.

“Normals”, “Muggles”, “idiot humans” are the most dangerous because when they are deemed insignificant, your superpowered characters will never see them coming.

Katsa from Graceling is considered to be an unstoppable, superhumanly gifted fighter. So, why fight her? Battle her in the court of public opinion, leash her by destroying her allies, turn each and every one of her actions into those of a brutish thug. A diplomatic, strategic, and tactical chess master in world politics is her greatest threat. The dagger hidden in the silken handkerchief. When she comes at you straight, go at her sideways. She’s proud and impulsive, taunt her into quick action. Feed her misinformation, use that council of good deeds to lure her into situations where a forced response is a terrible idea and pacifism is the only solution. Convince her to kill someone she really shouldn’t. Savage her when she thinks she’s succeeding.

If you have the resources, bury her in bodies. If not, bury her with words. Sow salt in the wounds of those she once considered friends, make alliances with the foreign powers she seeks to undermine, allow her a few victories until she gives you cause to attack those she is most desperate to protect. Take them when her political and social support is gone.

She likes to knock out entire castles, but leave the soldiers alive. Have select trusted forces kill them after she’s gone and then lay the blame for it on the country where she’s harboring her new friend. She’ll survive it all but it’s a mistake to assume surviving equals victory.

After all, what is survival when everything you love is gone? If she’ll survive no matter what then make her wish she didn’t. If her strength is in arms, then attack the mind. If she’s afraid of being a monster, paint her as one and then gift her with angry villagers carrying torches and pitchforks.

Be devious. Be cunning. Be ruthless. And most importantly remember: the truth is inconsequential, perception is what matters.

Basically, be Sun Tzu. Or Lex Luthor.

You don’t need superpowers, or be telepathic, or have super human intelligence to achieve victory. You just need to understand your enemy, understand what they will and won’t do, and be willing to attack those weaknesses.

When facing a telepath, don’t think just do. Fill your head with inconsequential thoughts. Bury the truth deep behind walls of strong emotions. Repeat the same phrase over and over and over until the words are all they hear. Or just take Atton’s advice and play pazaak in your head.

When facing someone with super strength and super speed, fight at range. They can’t dodge a bullet if they don’t see it coming. Gas a room. Poison their drink. Mine the ground they walk on. Wear them down. Attack their mind. Attack their emotions. Attack them through their fears. Take this moment from the Superman Animated Series where Superman critically underestimates the Joker, it’s a great example of how a character that’s used to being invincible can be completely taken by surprise.

For all their power, they are still human and those failings make them just as vulnerable as the rest of us. It’s actually really important to remember that when working with super powered characters.

The person who fights from a position of power will have difficulty anticipating the person who doesn’t.

-Michi

Hey guys! This question’s a bit more based on culture-building, but I recently realized that the culture in my story doesn’t much allow for the swords, plate armour and other similar fantasy-type gear I had planned. I’m looking to figure out a weapon that could carry similar connotations to a sword, but without the need for a stable smithing community in order to build it. Any ideas on where I could go to research other types of melee weapons that aren’t so dependent on large-scale forging?

If you actually want swords, I wouldn’t automatically ditch them just yet. Depending on your setting you could use alternate materials.

I’m going to blame all of the Elder Scrolls Online ads floating around for this tangent, but the setting has some interesting alternative materials, or at least did back with Morrowind.

The carapaces from the region’s large insects were re-purposed into a kind of light armor plate, and weapons. My recollection was that the stuff was fragile, but, it’s an idea.

Bonemold was a kind of fantasy plastic, specifically, a resin. They’d mix finely powdered bone with some local glue and the result would be a very hard and somewhat light substance. In the real world I’d wonder about the feasibility of the glues, (waterproof glues are a fairly modern thing), and I’d wonder about it being able to hold an edge. It’s worth noting, if you wanted to go that route, you could use something else as the powdered additive, for some reason all that’s coming to mind is powdered granite.

Stahlrim was described as “unmelting mystical ice.” This was incredibly hard, and would be carved by trained “smiths”, into the desired armor and weapons. It had a sort of roughly whittled appearance, along with a deep translucent blue color.

Ebony is an Elder Scrolls setting standard. It’s actually just mystically strengthened obsidian, that’s then worked and polished to a mirror sheen. In the real world obsidian can be formed into ridiculously sharp blades. So, if your setting has the means to harden it to the level of steel, or tougher, obsidian blades and armor might be viable. Real obsidian has a slightly purplish, or grey translucent, color when it gets thin enough.

EDIT: Since I missed saying this, somehow. In the real world, obsidian is just volcanic glass, and quite brittle. Sharp, but it will splinter apart with no warning, and to the best of my knowledge, it’s not something that can be tempered.

Where I’m going with these two is fairly simple, depending on your setting, you might not need to forge your weapons from conventional metals, you could use any appropriate mineral source from your setting. Stone swords were never a thing, but stone axes and spearheads do have a real world history.

Beyond that, some kind of fantasy wood might be able to hold an edge, and make functional armor. This could get a little strange, but a lightweight hardwood, that’s been properly lacquered, and treated could work as some kind of armor. In the real world, wooden armor was never an effective choice, and wooden weapons were always either for training, or blunt implements (like staves), but, that doesn’t mean your setting couldn’t have “ironwood” or the like.

If you actually want to get away from a sword, I’d seriously consider the axe. It has some nice symbolic qualities, as both a weapon and a tool, and therefore an excellent badge of office to show how the king/suzerain/whatever is in touch with the people. Or to indicate how brutal the world you’re presenting is.

D&D’s Dragonlance setting comes to mind as well, as I recall, the name comes from literal lances used to fight dragons (and, used while mounted on the backs of them.) It’s a major symbol in the setting because it’s function is so important, to the point that it eclipses the sword, somewhat.

Staffs are another possible weapon choice, and there’s some actual history for these as well, with some organizations actually using a staff to indicate authority. It doesn’t have the immediate flare of a sword, and you’d see more of a distinction between a staff designed for combat, and an ornate one as a badge of office.

The short answer at the end is, be creative. It’s what you’re wanting to do in the first place, and stuff like this is only problematic if you want to keep it as bland and gritty as possible. People will use the tools they have access to.

-Starke