Tag Archives: writing fantasy

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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hey i’m creating a race of fairies and since they generally have small builds and metal such as iron cold steel are deadly to them what are some good materials to use for the fairies to craft their weapons, i considered gems but doing some research i realized substance like diamonds and crystal are utterly impractical even for the fairies.

Well, fairies are magic. If a fairy wanted to wield a diamond sword, they could and no audience would question it. Magic is the solution to a lot of problems. The weakness of a weapon forged with magic is, of course, a steel blade but that only matters if they’re encountering humans wielding steel on the regular. Fairies can do whatever they want and dance merrily on the graves of scientists the world over, so don’t let that stop you.

Blades of pure light.

Blades of diamond.

Blades from plants.

Fairies wielding magma blades or swords forged from stardust.

A sword of glass containing the beating heart and heat of the sun.

Futuristic fairies who behave like aliens in Iron Man style power armor formed from plastics/polymers wielding lightsabers and firing bolts of plasma.

They’re fairies. Sky’s the limit here. Except, it’s not because then we catapult ourselves out into space. Go however far your imagination takes you.

Look to myth for your solutions, especially the Celtic Sidhe. Unless you’re dealing with a modern setting (and even if you are) mythology has already developed solutions. It’s a great place to start your search.

However, here are some things I’ll point out:

Cold Iron/Cold Steel are a reference to a specific forging technique rather than a type of metal, though in folklore it can just mean steel swords. Still, this will open up your options some.

Cold Iron for fairies dates back to when iron forging was still mostly new, or less common. There’s certainly lore out there with mythological fairies fighting warriors wielding iron blades, but were unbeatable until new forging techniques were developed.

Ask yourself: is it the forging technique which makes these swords dangerous to your fairies or is it the metal itself? In which case, then you can cut out “cold” as it’s just steel.

Here’s the Wikipedia article about iron in folklore. It may help you some in your search.

If you want to write Urban Fantasy with fairies then I’d go with the forging process rather steel itself. The reason is that they couldn’t go anywhere. At least, not places like the US or Europe or anywhere there’s a high steel content in the buildings, cars, and sewer systems. Even with a shift to polymers too much of the major metropolitan centers in the developed world are built on steel bones. Science fiction fairies re-emerging in the future where all metals are polymers has more potential.

Honestly, any army from a period using steel or iron weapons could curb stomp fairies if they’re allergic to the metal. Using the forging process moves all to some and then down to almost none, making way for the future fairyocalypse of 2018.

-Michi

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Q&A: D&D Raksasha

Would having backwards hands (Like a Raksasha from D&D) provide any kind of tangible combat benefit.

I kinda doubt it. Both my editions of the Monster Manual insist that it doesn’t affect their manual dexterity, which, I’m not so sure about that. They suggest that all it does is make the Raksasha look more disturbing.

I mean, if you spend enough time, you may be able to come up with some extremely situational examples, where their reversed hands would be an advantage. For example: They can claw you on a backhand, instead of a normal rake. Though, the value of that is kinda dubious. Mostly this detail is just to make the Raksasha more memorable and feel more unique. I mean, the 3.5e MM runs to over 300 pages, the Raksasha needs something to stand apart from the crowd.

Details like this can help to sell a fantasy creature you’ve created. Weird little anomalies you can use to make your world feel less generic. At the same time, these don’t need to be immediate, concrete, beneficial powers. Things like the Rakshasa’s reversed hands can just be there to sell your setting.

-Starke

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Hi there, I was wondering; in a fantasy setting, should “ranged fighters,” AKA archers or mages (especially mages), wear any kind of armor? One of my friends (who is a little too glued to the idea of using gaming terms for his fight scenes) doesn’t give his ranged fighters much protection because “they have tank who will aggro,” despite me telling him that in IRL situations enemies won’t always work like that, and ranged fighters are deadly and would easily become top priority during battle.

Which works right until the tank can’t maintain aggro, then
the DPS scatter, because of course they do, and everyone wipes because, turns
out, it’s nearly impossible to hit two idiots on opposite sides of the arena at
the same time with the same AoE.

…or the tank never slotted a taunt, and the healer ends up
running from and DPSing Bloodspawn, while the DPS stand in stupid trying to
revive each other. No, I’m not thinking of a specific event, why do you ask?

Games are, by nature, an incredibly abstract approach to
combat. Even inside of an MMO, the sharp difference between how PvE and PvP
plays out should be a pretty solid indicator of how fragile the entire concept
of aggro is.

An AI driven NPC needs to know who to attack. In most cases
they’ll prioritize incoming damage, and target whatever’s dealing the most. The
entire idea of a tank is to fake out that number, boost it further, or in some
cases, completely override aggro generation, and take the brunt of the enemy’s
attacks. Which is downright hilarious, when you step back and think about it.
You’re talking about sending a party of adventurers up against an ancient demon
who’s been sealed outside of the universe for millennia, but he will ignore the
people actively trying to kill him, because that idiot who’s doing almost
nothing to him said some mean things about his mother.

As I understand it, and I could be wrong here, Tanking is
something that has come, almost exclusively, from metagaming. The idea that, “well,
players are going to take damage, so let’s concentrate it on a single player to
make the healer’s job easier,” doesn’t have a place in the real world. I’m not
sure if the strategy dates back to tabletop, or came from the early MMOs like
Ultima Online or Everquest. As I said, it doesn’t have any basis in reality.

The closest you can get is the role of infantry and
skirmishers in mass combat. But, at that point, sticking infantry between your
enemy and your archers wasn’t about protecting the archers, so much as, that
the infantry were your primary combat force.

Step into PvP, and the value of a tank diminishes sharply.
Most human players understand that, so long as the healer is up, nobody’s going
anywhere, so they become public enemy number one.  Hell, most of the times, when you give players
an AI controlled encounter with a healer, your priority is clear. No, it’s not
the big tanky guy/girl/sentient iguana with death rays mounted on its armor.

That said, I’ve seen a lot of games try to make the tank
more valuable in PvP. Reducing enemy mobility, debuffing them, applying
selective buff manipulation that makes a taunted target deal far less damage to
other targets. All of it is a band aid on a system, trying to make the role
function in an environment where the tank’s foes are smart enough to say, “nah,
he’s not a problem, I’m going to wax the healer first.” Though, bonus points
awarded to the games that just go, “screw it, the tank is the healer.”

Mages wearing robes is a setting or character decision. If
armor somehow impairs a mage’s ability to cast magic, then that’s something they’ll
want to avoid. If a mage isn’t, primarily, a combatant, and dislikes, or can’t
afford, armor, they may avoid it for those reasons. That said, if armor doesn’t
interfere with your mage’s ability to cast magic, they understand how to use
it, and can afford it, not wearing armor is just being stupid (even if it is that
character’s preference).

The whole concept of tiering armor based on the combat role
is another gameplay abstraction, without a lot of basis in history. Armor was
expensive. To the point that most rulers couldn’t afford to outfit large
standing forces in heavy armor.  You got
the best armor you could afford. If you were supplied out of an armory, you
wore what you were handed, which might just be a padded gambeson.

Thing is, I rather like armor tiering. At least from a
gameplay perspective. It informs the player what the armor they’ve found is
useful for, and is very useful for deciding if the gear you just found is going
to be helpful for your playstyle. In MMOs it can help break up players, so that
you have an easier time identifying their roles. But, it is an abstract, game
system, with no relation to reality. Trying to take these things out, and
evaluate them outside of their native environment can be tricky. This is how
you end up with characters who can instantly cram three hundred cheese wedges
down their gullet to fully recover from being set on fire and flung off a cliff
into the sea, hundreds of feet below.

-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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My story has blood mages, who require their blood to work magic. What are the best places to lose blood and be able to survive? Preferably it needs to be more than just a drop that fingers give. Thanks in advance!!

The best place to get a lot of blood when you need it fresh is from someone else.

Here’s the thing, blood magic is a form of human sacrifice. The idea is a life is more powerful than drawing on or channeling the ambient energy which surrounds us in the universe at large. That is the actual magical theory. It’s sacrificial magic. You’re sacrificing your (in this case, literal) life energy in order to empower or gain the power to cast your spells. The logical choice from a survival and concentration standpoint is to use someone else’s life, especially if the spell calls for a lot of blood.

You don’t want to be losing blood in vast quantities, but you can pretty much cut anywhere to get blood. Your body is full of veins. If just a dash will do, these mages can cut pretty much anywhere so long as they don’t nick a major artery.

The problem, however, with using your own blood for spell casting is that blood loss causes dizziness and a loss of concentration. This is pretty much the perfect storm of terrible ideas when it comes to attempting to fundamentally alter reality. Reality bending is definitely the best time to lose concentration and, possibly, pass out in a dizzy haze of confusion.

In most magical systems, the magic will just keep taking if the mage leaves the spell open ended. Without safeguards, even a potentially minor spell can be deadly and cause a bleed out. That’s the problem. It’s magic, you could just bleed indefinitely in a spell gone wrong until you die. The bigger and more complex the spell, the more likely this is. If the injury won’t clot because the spell is drawing on blood inside the mage’s body, they will eventually bleed to death. It doesn’t matter where. If the volume lost exceeds the volume generated then they will die.

So, consider the operational costs. Sacrifice someone else.

That’s what cultists are for.

-Michi

(And never cut across the palm of the hand. It’s not deadly in a blood loss sense, but it does suck and involves your character giving up their hand for a few weeks. The back of the hand is better, the top of the forearm, etc.)

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So, I was reading a story about where characters live in a RPG. The story is founded on each person has a class at birth, that can’t be changed. The main character is a blacksmith, a class that is not “Made” for combat. And on his journey to become a “Hero” he blindly stumbles through the social norms of heroes and a bunch of other things. I was wondering how you think one would go about writing his personality and thought proccess and character growth. Thanks.

Up front, I don’t have an answer. As I’m sure I’ve
said before, I can’t tell you who your character is. What I can do is unpack
this question a little.

The hardest part with writing characters inside a
game is, you need to understand the game’s rules. It’s actually a much more
difficult kind of worldbuilding than simply saying, “I have a setting here.” It
also breaks from how reality functions in a critical way.

Games are, at best, a simulacrum of reality. Details
get sanded over to present the underlying philosophies. Sometimes that’s an
intentional choice by the developers. They want to talk about something
specific. Sometimes it’s an incidental choice that reflects how the developers
view the world. Sometimes it’s a fluke, created by the other systems.

This applies to the rules themselves, and can
reflect a developer’s priorities. A more intricate combat system suggests the
game is focused on players delving in and working through the intricacies of
complex tactical situations. A game with an abstract combat system suggests
that combat is less of a focus, or if it is, that it’s more of a venue for
player expression than the mechanics designed to keep the players engaged.

Roleplaying games aren’t about what’s real, or how
people actually work. It’s about creating a system with a specific goal in
mind. Usually, that goal is populating the world with characters who fit into
it, and allowing the players to experience (and hopefully influence) a story
(or a multitude of stories).

Class systems can serve several distinct purposes. In
games, they can be an attempt to push characters towards certain archetypes
defined by their setting or genre.

This is especially true in something like D&D,
where the player classes are designed to build into the normal fantasy hero
archetypes. You have your Aragorn or Legolas style Rangers. Your Conan inspired
Barbarians. Your academic Wizards who wander the world in search of lore. Your
chaotic and impulsive Sorcerers who cast magic as it flows through them. Your
rogues, freshly escaped from the pages of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. These are
the kinds of characters the game wants available to the players. It doesn’t
mean that every Barbarian will be a shallow imitation of Conan the Chimerian,
but it forms the initial framework of the character. It’s a player aid, saying,
“hey, kid, you wanna be a hero?”

Now, remember what I said above about system focus?
Character creation in an RPG is the same; it informs design goals. An RPG that
simply gives you a non-customizable class is more interested in putting players
into the action. It may also suggest the game is one where individual
characters are expendable. Conversely a game without any class system
whatsoever is probably advocating character creation as an element of personal
expression. A game without a class system, or a more pervasive one will be more
accepting of “special snowflakes,” than a game that hands you your class on a
playing card and says, “it’s this or you could try the Waywatcher.”

When it comes to getting interesting material out of
this kind of a dynamic, your best bet is letting characters play against one
another within the range of who their class expects to be.

Now, here’s where understanding your game becomes
vitally important. If you look at classes as training wheels for building a
character, your next question becomes, “how restrictive is it?”

RPGs can have very open classes or very tightly
restricted ones. D&D’s done both, over the years, and had a lot of
different approaches to class systems over the years.

A restrictive class system is one where you cannot
break out of your class identity at all. An RPG with a strict gear list based
on classes. Where a Wizard can’t even use a sword or any armor, for instance,
would be a highly restrictive one.

A less restrictive class system might use certain
skills to control progress, and ignore or cap advancement in others. An
unrestrictive class system might let you simply buy out of your class and into
others as you progress.

For example: Third and 3.5 Edition D&D allowed
you flat out choose new classes when you leveled up. You’d start at level one
in those classes, but you’d gain everything associated with being a member of
that class in addition to the old one.

Another example would be White Wolf’s Exalted. Where
characters could buy skills and magical abilities outside of their Caste. In
one specific case, they could also buy skills from other kinds of beings in the
game. There were limits, but those were more about ensuring your character had
a basic core ability set, rather than saying they could not follow their
dreams.

It’s also probably worth noting that the Exalted
were (explicitly) demigods, so their ability to do whatever they wanted was a deliberate
reflection of that nature.

The philosophy and worldview that underpin class
systems is that people have a specific venue. That may be they have a specific
skill set, and can learn others. Or it could be a far harsher view that “they
have a place in the world,” and cannot deviate from it.

In a very restrictive class system, it may not be
possible to buck the trend. If your character literally can’t equip armor,
because their class doesn’t allow it, they’re going to have a very difficult
time becoming a frontline fighter.

And it gets worse.

In most
games, blacksmith wouldn’t be a player class. Not all, some MMOs will gleefully
allow players to pick non-combat/non-social classes, with the idea that you
want to simply roleplay in the world.

Most class based RPGs maintain a hard line between
playable and non-playable classes. Players stand head and shoulders above the
general populous. Your normal RPG is a power fantasy after all. It’s about
being bigger, stronger, faster, more cunning, or more lethal than you can in
life. You’re creating a character to be (one of) the protagonist(s) in a story.
Not the tavern owner that serves the heroes their beer while they plot to take
down the evil overlord.

For games like D&D, that means that NPC classes
(even combat focused ones) are flat out inferior to player classes. For
example, if you’ve played 3.5 Edition D&D, you’re probably aware of the
Fighter class. Did you know there’s also a Warrior class? It is almost the
same, except it doesn’t have any bonus abilities, fewer hit points, and a much
shorter skill list. It’s a class for NPCs, designed to allow the GM to
introduce professional soldiers, guards, or other combat capable NPCs, who aren’t
as powerful as the party but can fight alongside, or against, them.

If you’re curious, D&D 3.5 has five of these NPC
classes. The Expert (a highly skilled non-combat character), the Adept (a weak
healer), the Warrior, the Aristocrat, and the Commoner.

Now I’m going to go out on a limb. I haven’t done a
full lit review of how RPGs have influenced modern fantasy. I see it frequently
in passing, but it’s a specific interaction that I’ve never really researched,
so take this with a few grains of salt. It’s my opinions, not empirical fact.

The rise of RPGs, particularly D&D, have
influenced how we write “conventional” fantasy. A modern generic fantasy novel’s
setting often owes more to Gygax than to Tolkien. This is a symbiotic
relationship. It’s not that people are “ripping off,” D&D nor the reverse.
Simply that D&D has become a nexus of modern fantasy elements that has superseded
Tolkien.

Within post-modern fantasy lit, there’s a
substantial chunk of lit dealing with a very specific paradox of D&D and
RPGs in general. If your character is a normal farm boy (or girl) one day, and
an adventuring hero the next, what the hell just happened? How does a character
go from being a background NPC in their world one moment to becoming a
significantly more powerful player character?

I brought up D&D because it, systemically,
illustrates how strange this paradox really is.

Some of this is because it’s how Campbell’s hero’s
journey works. Your protagonist comes from nothing, and in a moment is revealed
as the protagonist. They were always there, hidden (even from themselves), and
are forced to reveal themselves.

Some of it is supposed to be glossed over. You
rolled up your character to play a hero, not to spend thirty years forging
horseshoes before being killed by a goblin to provide a nearby adventuring
party with an adventure hook.

It’s entirely possible to cheat around this. Your
character finds some magical doohickey that “reveals their inner potential,”
and changes their class. It’s not a satisfying answer, because it doesn’t
actually say anything meaningful, it just levels your character up and pushes
on with the quest, but it’s one that many writers do fall back on.

Unfortunately, I don’t really have an answer for you,
just more questions:

How self aware is your setting? There’s an entire
sub-genre of D&D lit where characters are literally discussing how the
rules function in setting. Order of the Stick is probably the best example that
comes to mind. A story where adventuring heroes wander the land is going to be
substantially different if people are actually talking about the result of To Hit
rolls, crit confirmations and hit dice.

Is this something the rules actually allow for?
There are games that will allow you to flat out break class. Hell, one of my favorite
methods for subverting the level scaling in Oblivion was to roll an Acrobat and
then specifically play against class, to artificially deflate the character’s
level in comparison to their skills.

What does being a hero mean? This one probably needs
to be further unpacked, but at a basic level, who does your character want to
be? In many campaigns player characters are little more than exceedingly
homicidal magpies on the prowl for the next loot piñata. That is something he could aspire to. But it’s
a pretty warped definition of, “hero.” It’s fun, and game designers usually
come up with contextual elements to excuse it, but this is a genre that can
become pretty messed up when you step back and ask, “but why am I hitting this
man with a giant club made from the incisor of a petrified dragon?”

How does your character deal with failure? Even
under the best of circumstances, your character isn’t going to get what they
want. How they deal with failure is at least as important with how they deal
with success. This one’s a pretty good question to think about for any
character you’re writing.

Who’s playing this thing? Is your character a player
trapped in the character sheet of an NPC, or are there actually player
characters wandering around adventuring while your character looks on? If it’s
the latter, what is the GM after? This can lead to some incredibly surreal
weirdness. Especially if it’s 3am and everyone’s still laughing about the
butterscotch zombie, while the GM’s trying to get the game back on track, while
your character’s just trying to deal with the insanity unfolding around them.

-Starke

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Somehow, Discworld seems to be the most appropriate
reading recommendation. It might not make sense immediately, but Terry Prachett’s
approach to messing with fantasy conventions and clichés is on point. I’m linking The Color of Magic, but feel free to poke around and pick other ones from the series, if they catch your attention instead.

Exalted
focused on one interesting twist on what you’re talking about. Exalts were
superhumanly powerful. For the weakest variety, their powers were usually hereditary,
but in some cases the offspring of Dragon
Bloods
would fail to Exalt, and remain mortal. It’s part of a larger
setting, but if you’re worried about your fantasy setting being too generic,
then Exalted’s setting might help. It
also spent time talking about characters who went from nobody to demigod in a
moment, and how they dealt with that. More what your character fantasizes about
than their life, but still.

I have a character (in a typical swords-and-sorcery world ala Middle Earth) who decides to fix metal ridges to the bottom of her boots that doubles as better traction and making it hirt more and deal more damage if she needs to kick in a fight. Is this realistic, or would it be too heavy to fight in?

I’m going to be that pedantic asshole here for a second and remind you that Middle Earth is High Fantasy, and if we’re going with Lord of the Rings then it’s Epic Fantasy. “Sword and Sorcery” is actually a different sub-genre of fantasy established (mainly) by Fritz Leiber and Robert E. Howard. The famous narratives surround the adventures of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser and Conan the Barbarian.

You will probably break your brain trying to figure out all the fantasy subcategories from dark fantasy, to low fantasy, to gaslamp, but the distinction here is important. “Sword and Sorcery” is a sub-genre is a set up where the fantasy focuses on the personal costs to the characters rather than a sweeping epic. It’s generally populated with anti-heroes, but if you’re writing a story that involves a small group of friends on an adventure and they are focused on personal growth over epic battles then you’ve got Swords and Sorcery.

However, if you don’t understand your genre then you eventually end up in this situation: Dragon Age (epic fantasy) versus Dragon Age 2 (sword and sorcery).

If you want my advice though, I’d say you pull a Tolkien and start researching medieval combat. Too many authors attempt to come up with “clever”, more “modern“ solutions in order to give their characters an edge that people in the middle ages either actually solved or just weren’t applicable.

In this case, it’s probably both and definitely the latter. Steel ridges on the bottom of the boot aren’t going to add anything to the foot’s stopping power. The reason for this is that stiffening up the sole in a boot or shoe that you intend to use for kicking is a bad idea.

When you’re looking at application of force via a punch or a kick, you learn quickly that the body position and posture ensure that the force is distributed over a small area rather than a large one.

In simple terms = the smaller the area, the more penetrating force you get.

For example, the reason why a boxer’s fracture occurs in the fore and index finger on the hand is because that’s where the connecting force is being applied. The rest of the hand is reinforcing those two fingers. Ultimately, a similar principle applies with the foot.

The whole bottom of the foot isn’t used for kicking, except in a very few circumstances (like the push kick, which does exactly what it’s defined as). Kicks use the blade of the foot (the outside edge), the ball of the foot, and the heel. Sometimes, the top of the foot is used. When you use the whole of the foot to kick i.e. spreading the force across a wider surface, you get the push kick rather than the front kick. The push kick is a defensive kick, used for maintaining distance. You bury your foot into the other person’s gut and shove, like a literal push. You use your foot to push your opponent away from you. (This is the point where some of you may be realizing that martial techniques are often given literal names that correspond directly to their purpose, which will help you in the future when figuring out what X technique does. Case in point = triangle choke (arm forms a triangle and chokes) and the arm bar (opponent’s arm is extended to form a literal bar).)

The front kick  = leg kicks toward the front (point of impact: ball of the foot)

The side kick = turn sideways in order to kick (point of impact: blade of the foot or heel, depending on type)

The roundhouse = the leg comes across the body, literally swings around to kick. (point of impact: either ball or top of the foot depending on type of kick used.)

The back kick/spinning sidekick = your back faces your opponent when you kick. (Point of impact: Heel.)

The hook kick = leg’s chamber forms a hook as it kicks. (Point of impact: Heel)

The spinning hook kick/wheel kick = you spin and perform a hook kick. (Point of impact: Heel)

The axe kick = leg lifts and drives the heel on a sharp downward angle like an axe. (Point of impact: Heel.)

The shin kick = instead of connecting with the foot, this Muay Thai kick connects with the shin. (Point of impact: Shin.)

The mule kick = you know how mules and horses kick with their hind legs? Yeah, it looks like that. (Point of impact: heel.)

The push kick = A defensive kick which pushes an opponent away from you to create distance.  (Point of impact: the entire underside of the foot.)

When you see someone breaking down a door with their foot in the movies, they are, usually, using a push kick.

If you’re wearing boots that don’t allow for much articulation of the ankle or bending in the foot then your character isn’t going to do much kicking. Kicks are easiest to do with no shoes on, then in sneakers. There’s a lot of bendy, rotational, mechanical detail that goes on with kicks like the side kick or the roundhouse. Add in that kicks are risky business, going up on one leg is sacrificing a lot for attack, and their use in most modern combat is confined almost entirely to the mid/lower body.

With the way kicks function, there’s no point to affixing steel to the bottom of the boot. It won’t matter if they’re fighting someone unarmored and if they’re armored then they’re best bet will be going after the joints left exposed in the armor for articulation like the knee. You wear steel on the top of the foot to protect the foot and the toes, and on the shin.

If you don’t plan on having her kick as a major part of her fighting style, then I suggest going with a medieval variant of the steel toed boots. The boot will be too heavy for fancy kicking, but you get to upgrade kicking someone in the shin from “OH GOD WHY” to “OH GOD YOU BROKE IT!”

Something similar to the sabaton.

I’ll be honest, cool as they are, kicks aren’t the easiest to pull off especially in a combat situation. Most fighters, especially when going up against enemies in armor, will avoid them entirely. Unless you’re doing a lot stretching and remaining loose, getting practice in, they’re very difficult to do cold. Do to the necessity of going up on one leg, kicks end up in the category of risky business.

Also, unless you’re building your setting on “Rule of Cool”, avoid the spin kicks. While devastating when they connect, the average combatant isn’t going to want to risk taking their eyes off their opponent for any length of time. They also aren’t going to want to expose their back to the enemy.

You need your spine and your kidneys.

The back kick and its brother the mule kick will get the most mileage off an enemy coming in from behind you. However, take care of the opponent in front of you first. Otherwise, it’ll put them in the perfect position to grab your head with all the other openings provided to pick from.

The other thing that’s important to remember about kicks is that due to their risky business (very big motion, up on one leg, total commitment), you gotta be fast. Wearing heavy footwear will impede the speed, which ultimately both lessens the power of the kick and makes it easier to avoid/block/counter.

The one thing you don’t want is to throw your leg out there only to have the other person catch it and then break your knee. Or, you know, drag you around the field until you fall down.

No, really, it happens. If you ever want to know about the horrors that can be committed on a captured leg, check out Hapkido.

TLDR: Just give them some normal protection for their feet.

Please.

While the most risky, kicks are the most powerful of the hand to hand techniques. They don’t need help to make them more effective against unarmored opponents. They crush organs and break bones just fine all by themselves.

Your bones, even, if you screw up. (Hello, Sixth Grade.)

If they are facing enemies in armor then take weapons.

-Michi

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I need some help, in my novel my main character has a lot of skills with swords but people on my fantasy planet have powers, so when my main character battles the villian won’t it seem usles to use swords when they can use powers?

Okay, I think you’ve mentally ended up in a rock, paper, scissors conflict. Which is it goes round and round until you decide one is inherently superior to the other so there’s no point in using it like rock or paper. Everyone chooses rock, right? So the best choice is paper! What’s the point of using scissors if it’s always smashed by rock? Even though scissors are still a viable option as they cut paper, they get ignored because they’re seen as less useful.

Except, scissors cuts paper. If someone comes to a match expecting their opponent to throw rock and think the best move for them is paper, then you change your move to… you guessed it. Scissors.

Right now, you’re thinking of those swords like some people think of scissors. Useless because everyone else has a rock. So step back for a moment, if your character is surrounded by people with powers and but has none of their own, they put their time in training with swords (or a variety of different weaponry, give them some credit here) then wouldn’t a part of their training also focus on dealing with people who have powers? Wouldn’t that be part of what they’re preparing for as it’s an eventual inevitability?

You have a character who is an underdog. They are absolutely at a statistical disadvantage, which is sort of the point of your story. However, if your characters are at a disadvantage, they don’t need to enter the conflict as if it’s on an even keel. If your hero cannot fight your villain then they must find a way to either:

A) Find aid to defeat them, some way to bring themselves up to their level by way of a friend helping them or through some other means. (If you’re writing a love story then it’s often the lover combining their powers with the hero to empower them.)

B) Find a way to bring the villain down to their level.

C) Subvert the villain’s advantages through some other means.

D) The hero goes to certain death, intentionally playing for time on the hopes or plan that someone more capable is going to defeat the villain.

If you can’t defeat someone conventionally, you find alternatives. If you want a “man to man” kind of fight then you build your hero and antagonist as equals where the skill difference between them is manageable or can be managed by the story.

You can build a very interesting story around a hero going on a quest or finding a way to subvert the villain’s magical powers. They might start feeling that it’s impossible and then through their journey with a side of character development realize that they either 1, don’t need to go through it alone (power of friendship), or 2, they figure out a solution to their problem that they can handle by themselves.

You have to decide that though and you need to come up with it yourself.

What you’ve created for yourself is the old analogy:

“Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.”

And now you’re gotten stuck on it. Your hero brought a sword to a magic fight. It seems impossible when you look at it from that direction. He’s totally outmatched, right? Magic beats swords. Guns beat knives.

However, the fact is that the knife can be quite dangerous in a gunfight, most people who do don’t stand opposite at ten paces and wait for the go signal so the other guy can shoot them. They start close and attack before the guy with the gun has time to draw. Can’t use a gun if you can’t get it out of your holster. It takes time to aim and fire. If the guy with the knife starts within grabbing distance as most muggers do, already has the knife out, and closes the distance then it’s over long before it gets started.

Funny, isn’t it?

Not so much, actually. The knife/gun thing happens in real life and people have died as a result of it. A large portion of people who choose to carry a gun as a form of self-defense get caught up in the same idea you did with magic. That so long as you have the gun, it trumps other weapons. All the hours put in at the shooting range don’t help much if they haven’t been practicing point shooting, quick draws, and learning to be aware of your surroundings.

Statistics, advantages, and conventional wisdom all have their place but when they’re keeping you from stopping, sitting down, and problem solving your situation. If you’ve hit a dead end then it’s time to go back to the drawing board and your setting’s magic system. Powers and magic needs limitations, it’s easy to make it so that they can do everything but not only is that unhelpful, it’s also boring. Sit down and think about limits and weaknesses that you can put on the setting’s magic system. There’s Vancian systems like in Dungeons & Dragons for wizards where they can only perform a certain number of spells per day or ones they’ve memorized. There’s Fullmetal Alchemists’ equivalent exchange.

One of my favorites is from L.E. Modesitt Jr’s Saga of Recluce where the forces of Order and Chaos meant that you could only perform certain types of magic certain ways with nasty side effects such as headaches, backlash, and extreme hunger just for doing it, much less doing it wrong. Chaos mages, though far more aggressive and actively destructive, for example were all doomed to die young and turn to ash. Their magic aged them rapidly. Those who totally immersed themselves too much in chaos could be killed simply by coming into contact with an object created by an Order wizard and even metals commonly associated with Order could be toxic such as an iron arrowhead. Order wizards, meanwhile, build. They can live for a very, very long time if they maintain their rigid orderly lives, but order is also extremely dull. Their creations can be actively destructive, but they themselves are limited to protection. They can only work magic through objects such as a staff whereas Chaos wizards just channel. Both groups need to eat a substantial amount of food or they start to waste away as the magic they use has a direct effect on their bodies equivalent to performing strenuous exercise. They can be blinded or even killed by overdoing or channeling too much magic.

One of Starke’s favorites is Mage: the Ascension (note: not Awakening) an urban fantasy/punk rock RPG system from White Wolf which features a concept called Paradox. Mage’s world is built on a consensus reality and the power of will, if everyone believes that there is no magic then there is no magic except for that one guy over there with a lot of willpower who decides there is and is now overriding everyone else. The trick with magic and paradox is that you can do magic, so long as you don’t get caught. If you get caught doing something that shouldn’t exist according to the consensus then you receive reality backlash that makes the spell go awry. Paradox doesn’t care about your intentions, it only cares if you did it.

This brings us to the “Threefold Law” in Wicca which firstly a real religious tenet and secondly is similar in concept to karma. It also appeared in Gerald Gardner’s 1949 novel according to the Wiki:

“Thou hast obeyed the Law. But mark well, when thou receivest good, so
equally art bound to return good threefold.” (For this is the joke in
witchcraft, the witch knows, though the initiate does not, that she will
get three times what she gave, so she does not strike hard.)

If you use a fantasy magic system in line with the Threefold Law then it’s an ethical test for your mage. You do good with your magic then you’ll receive good, but do bad or selfish acts and you will receive bad in turn.

You may not want something that costly for yourself, but it’s worth going through the fantasy section at your local library and making note of the different magic systems, the costs, and what they affect.

I’m not the biggest fan, but Jim Butcher’s Furies of Calderon starts with a protagonist who has no powers and has to live by his wits. (The first (few?) books anyway.)

So, instead of pondering your hero, ponder your setting and your villain. Once you know how both work, it often becomes easier to see the path out.

-Michi

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How would you write action scenes with characters who have superpowers. For example the power to channel light or maybe teleport.

Superpowers are a tricky beast to write. Like all fantasy, they’re also rather difficult to work with without having access to specific world building concerns. How they work, what they do, how they affect the world around them, how people with superpowers are viewed by society, and the questions go on ad naseum until your head spins free from your head and flies off into orbit. As annoying as it is, though, it’s important to understand. Details are how you ground your audience in your narrative, and allow them to buy into it.

A skill like teleportation comes in a lot of different flavors. Bending space and time like Ciri from the Witcher 3 so that one can strike an enemy multiple times at once. Jumping into mass battles to cause rather huge explosions of air and heat as physical space is displaced a la Warhammer 40k. Opening portals large enough to transport a number of troops and carving a hole through the gray space between realities. Beaming up like they do in Star Trek. Short term bursts that allow the character to quickly move around the battlefield.

You have to settle on what the hell these powers do and how they affect the world around them. You also don’t have the same luxuries to communicate this information in text that you do in visual media like comics or cartoons. So, a greater focus on how it works is necessary for describing crumbling buildings or the sharp bang of air being displaced when a character decides to jump out.

“I hate when they do that.”

“Ow, it hurts my ears. Ow. Stop blinding me. Ow. Turn off the lights, damn it!”

“Damn it!”

Fortunately, superpowers themselves are well documented and a vast array of media is available for reference. We have over a hundred years of superhero comics and serials, and this is before we get to the entire fantasy/science fiction genre.

Do you want your character’s light based powers to function like modern strobe lights? Is it light based constructs like the Green Lantern? Do you want them to be like Doctor Light? Are they heat or radiation based? Do they work more like Superman’s laser vision? What constitutes light in your mind?

You make it real by grounding it in the world. What the powers affect, what they can do and can’t do, will dictate a fairly significant portion of the way your character fights. We play to our strengths. We try to mitigate our weaknesses. This doesn’t change. You actually write actions sequences with superpowers the same way that you write any action sequence. The considerations change based on the individuals involved, but the base questions often remain the same.

What do they want? What’s their goal? What are they hoping to achieve?

Where are they fighting? What is the layout?

Why are they fighting? What are they willing to sacrifice to win?

What do they bring to the table? What are their unique abilities? Their experience level with combat? Their other skills? Their morals? Their personal values? What are their specific weaknesses? What are they not good at?

Is this a surprise attack or premeditated?

How does that change their approach or plan?

How can those approaches be countered?

Do either opponent know how to counter these ability sets?

On a basic level, action sequences are a reflection of your characters and your setting. They are a way for the audience to get to know both and see what they’re like when put to the test. It’s a test of creativity, ingenuity, and brutality. Where everything that your character chooses to believe about themselves and the kind of person they are is put to the test. And, yes, you do need to test it.

At the end of the day, superpowers are actually about ethics. You give someone phenomenal powers and then you see what they’ll do. What do they become? What are the temptations they must fight in order to keep from abusing their powers? Can the average non-powered individual even trust them?

Yes, that’s a serious question and, more importantly, it’s not one that you as the author really get to decide. Not without taking a step back after you’re done and looking at it from an objective viewpoint, and what your character actually did over the course of their action sequence or the narrative itself.
The guy who can slag you, vaporize your brain, cook your eyeballs, or dump you in the middle of space or on some alien planet with no recourse? Yeah, that guy. Would you trust them?

Try thinking about life in New York City from the perspective of the average non-powered Marvel denizen. Any minute, Rhino could come blazing down the street, killing you, destroying your car, demolishing your business or where you work. Your only hope is that one of the countless superheroes in New York manage to get to you in time before the 800 pound meathead crushes you beneath a concrete wall. You’re just a fly on the wall to him. Meanwhile, the Spider-Guy is up there cracking wise while you’re trying to drag a half-dead friend or another citizen out from under an overturned car because there’s no way the paramedics are getting here in time. All while cars (hopefully empty), pieces of broken concrete, roads, and who knows what else are flying over your head.

Characters with superpowers are not automatically owed the love or loyalty of anyone just because they fight crime. Or, at all, really.

So, when you’re thinking about superpowers and combat, it’s also helpful to think about the consequences. To think about what your characters are actually doing to other people. Whether the harm that they’re causing them is justified. Superpowers get us into some really interesting questions about use of force, personal boundaries, public safety, and privacy violations.

Yes, these are important to writing your fight scene because your character will eventually have to face the consequences of their actions. Or, at least, they probably should.

It’s all fun and games until someone’s internal organs get liquefied.

-Michi