Tag Archives: writing reference

Q&A: Choke Holds

How long does it take someone to lose consciousness from a choke hold? Google gives you answers that are anywhere from a few seconds to seven minutes.

That’s because there are many different types of choke holds with different positions, focuses, and purposes. They all require different amounts of time to take effect.

The one that takes seven seconds is: the blood choke.

The blood choke is strangulation, where you cut off the blood flow to your opponent’s brain by choking the carotid artery with pressure. The terminology I learned for this one was the triangle choke (confusing, because there’s a separate variant you can perform with your legs) which is decent because it describes the positioning of the arm, but its also called the rear naked choke and others depending on discipline. You form a triangle around your victim’s neck, with your elbow under their chin, and then squeeze. This choke is designed to cut off the blood circulation to their brain. Starving the brain of blood will put your opponent under much faster than starving it of oxygen. You also have a much smaller window on this choke between putting someone under and death.

Keep in mind, this isn’t like putting someone to sleep. When you knock someone out, they usually wake up a few seconds later.

The one that takes seven minutes is: the two hand throat grab.

The two hand throat grab is ironically the least effective choke and one of the easiest to escape from. This is because while the position is more stable than the single hand grab (which is very easy to break), the dual hands get in each other’s way. This choke hold goes directly after the windpipe, squeezing to cut off oxygen to the brain. Seven minutes is a very long time for professional martial combat. Consider that the standard street fight lasts less than thirty seconds. Martial Combat is all about economizing your time efficiently and this choke is not efficient. However, unlike more effective choke holds, it is easy to do. You’re also unlikely to kill your victim with it, unless you sit there squeezing their throat for about twenty minutes. The reason why I say this is because the hands get in the way of each other and don’t completely cut off the oxygen flow. It’s really hard to squeeze the windpipe shut with your fingers. Ironically, it’d be faster to smother them with a pillow.

These are the two (three) big ones most people think of when discussing choke holds. However, chokes aren’t the only way to strangle someone. There are quite a few techniques from the palm strike to the knife hand designed to perform similar functions like closing the carotid artery or collapsing the windpipe.

When considering knockouts, it’s very important to remember that a knockout isn’t the same as putting someone to sleep. Therefore, it isn’t “safe” and consequence free the way a lot of media portrays.

-Michi

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Q&A: Combat Magic

Hey! Sorry if this isn’t your area, but I’m writing a fantasy story set in a world where people have various individual abilities (i.e. one kind of magic each). There’s a villain character with a military background who has magic, who’s fighting a character without any magic. What kind of powers could someone have that would make them really effective on a battlefield/commanding troops, but put them at no great advantage in one-to-one combat of this kind? No worries if you don’t know. Thanks!

This reminds me of a post from a couple months ago. Obviously, it’s not the same question, but might be useful reference.

Support related magic could make someone far more effective in a command position, but have little effect on personal combat.

One irony is that the D&D bard fits your question, almost perfectly. The class is a real master-of-none situation. If you want to fight people you’d be better off with a fighter, paladin, or other front light combat type. If you want to heal them, clerics and druids specialize in that. If you want a mage, there are wizards, sorcerers, and a number of other, better, magic users. What Bards do is buff party members, improving their attacks, helping them resist hostile effects, and improving their skills, while filling in on all the other roles as a backup. Being able to magically inspire your troops may sound like a pretty minor thing, but it’d be a major strategic asset. The class gets treated like a joke by the community, but in the right hands it can be very potent.

Beyond examples like the Bard, even just having an unusual attunement to sensing magic at range could be useful for tracking enemy forces that have their own battlemages.

Remember not to discount your villains who don’t fight. Someone with a military background would know how dangerous powered opponents are in their world, and would take steps to prevent being ambushed by them. Because they’re not able to leverage their abilities in one-on-one combat, they’re probably going to ensure that they’re not alone when your hero comes for them.

Without knowing what kinds of magic exist in your world, it’s a little difficult to know exactly what kind of spell list your villain may have access to. So let’s split this up a bit.

Healing magic, particularly of a sort, on the spot, healing can be incredibly potent.

Being able to augment other characters, such as boosting their attacks or defenses.

Being able “debuff” enemies, reducing the same.

Necromancy, being able to call up the souls of the dead. This one depends a bit on how necromancy works in your setting, but if it involves prolonged rituals, that won’t help in a fight, but it will let you make some friends for when a fight does come.

Wards or bindings that prevent enemies (or certain kinds of individuals) from crossing borders or leaving specific places. Which would lead to your villain being able to bind your hero to a location while they ran for help. Illusion magic could help them make their own forces appear more fearsome, or powerful, significantly impacting enemy morale, while offering limited value in direct combat.

Counter-magic is a bit of a weird one, but could significantly help your villain. It wouldn’t make them more effective in combat, but it could help to negate enemy powers. On a larger command scale, it would give them the ability to specifically negate enemy powers that would be devastating if left unchecked.

As world building goes, magic is opportunity to get creative. You decide how the metaphysics of your world work, and then create powers that fit within that. At that point, your not limited to things like lightning bolts or fireballs, and you can start creating some really unique powers, if you’re so inclined. So, there isn’t really a wrong answer here, let your imagination run wild.

-Starke

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Q&A: Powered Armor Melee

Would the advent of powered armor change hand to hand techniques that soldiers are trained to use? If it’s armor, then there’s still a human being inside, but that human being has a lot more strength, speed, and durability on hand… so would that change the way they fight, or just up the ante on what they already do?

It depends on the armor. However, based on the real world research, it’s going to require a slightly different approach.

Current powered exoskeletal research programs have been mostly focused on industrial applications. The priorities have been granting the user increased strength, and allowing them to carry items that would be far too heavy for a normal human to move.

I did say, “mostly focused;” there are some real combat applications. Sticking soldiers in exoskeletons does have a lot of advantages. Melee is not among them.

The two major problems with powered armor are speed and agility.

Current powered exoskeletal research is based around a motorized frame. Without significant advancements in that technology, this will always be significantly slower than an unarmored combatant. When it comes to unarmed combat, speed is far more important for generating force than raw strength. So, while your powered armor soldier could try to punch someone, they’d be doing less damage on impact than an unarmored fighter. (With a caveat: If they’re slamming their victim into something immobile, like concrete, that’s going to get messy.)

One of the major advantages of powered armor is the ability to load up the fighter with additional weapons. There is some potential overlap, by mounting wrist blades, a flamethrower, or some kind of tazer rig. Barring that, most powered armor would be somewhat less useful in melee.

The other side is, of course, that if you’re wrapped in half of a ’57 Chevy, you’re going to be pretty much immune to someone punching you.

When I’m talking about agility, in this case, I really just mean the ability to connect with what you’re swinging at. This is an extension of the speed issue, because you’re not going to be able to connect a punch as easily in powered armor.

Now, all of this was based around the idea that your armor is using the industrial powered frames that are currently being researched. Something that’s come from prosthetic research is synthetic muscles. These are electroreactive polymer strands that behave, mostly, like human muscles. When exposed to controlled electrical signals they contract or expand (like muscle tissue.) The big difference being that synthetic muscles are significantly stronger than human ones. This opens the door to a semi-organic (Note: “organic” not “biological,”) variety of power armor, where the underlay is made from a synthetic musculature, that mimics, and enhances the wearer’s anatomy. This could address both the agility and speed issues, though, what hand-to-hand combat would look like is still a bit open ended.

Research in prosthetics has also lead to non-intrusive neural interfaces. This stuff is still pretty primitive, but the basic idea is you slap electrodes on and control the synthetic muscles with nerve impulses. The end goal is to give someone full control over their prosthetic, though the current tech falls a little short of that. We can’t feed sensory data back into the nervous system, and the user control is limited. It’s not that much of a stretch to see a future where you control organic components of a power armor rig with a direct neural interface, while receiving sensory data directly from the armor itself.

Regardless how your power armor works, your characters would need specialized training to use it. I’m not talking about hand-to-hand fighting, I just mean, “use the armor without harming themselves.” As anyone familiar with “worker’s comp” can attest, people are entirely capable of overstressing their bodies without the assistance of an external rig performing unlicensed chiropractic atrocities.

There’s a lot of variations in powered armor, from crude mobility assistance rigs, to bio-armor, to full on mechs. So, there isn’t, really, one answer to this. It would change how melee combat works, but I can’t say exactly how, with any certainty.

Depending on the variation, I usually think of heavy powered armor rigs as vehicles, rather than, “armor.” At that point, it stops being, “how would I punch them?” and becomes, “how can I turn them into red paste?”

-Starke

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Q&A: Writing Dungeon Treasure

In my WIP, my characters find a shield left in a thousand year old ruin. Are there any metals that the shield could be made out of so that it might still be useful if preserved properly in a locked chest or something? I immediately counted out iron because of rust, and maybe copper and bronze corrode too much. I was contemplating gold because it seemed to be the most durable age-wise, but maybe it’s not that useful weapon-wise?

Gold won’t corrode, but it’s far too soft for use in combat. Bronze, iron, and copper will oxidize. This doesn’t mean they can’t be preserved for thousands of years, but they wouldn’t survive in an ancient ruin’s chest.

As a bit of trivia, when copper and bronze oxidize, they turn green, not brown.

So, this whole thing builds off a fundamental world building problem of challenge/reward structures in games. This is relevant for writing, because it can affect how you build parts of your world, and you should consider the reasons behind your choices. So while I’m talking about game design for the moment, think about how this applies to writing.

If you’re asking the player to fight through an extended dungeon sequence, you need to give them something at the end. That doesn’t need to be a physical reward. For example, Skyrim’s word walls which provide tangible abilities the player as a reward are fine. In a more abstract sense, information can be an entirely valid reward. That’s fine. It’s also true to life, somewhat, because the real treasure of most ruins is information about the people who built it and lived there. There’s also a boss chest in there with a random assortment of items, that makes no sense.

The problem with the boss chest that awards random, level appropriate items, is when they player is the first person to walk those halls in thousands of years. Any tangible weapon, would have rusted, or rotted away. Skyrim is an excellent example of this, as the various tombs, ruins, caves, and other dungeons exist in a weird kind of suspended animation. No human (or elf) has been in that ruin since the Metheric Era (at least 4500 years ago), but the candles are still burning, and there’s a chest with Dwarven gauntlets that are thousands of years more advanced than the ruin’s builders. What?

This works for a game, because as a player, you’re looking for that dopamine hit. You get a cool item, you feel good about it. It’s reductive to boil games down to a Skinner box, but in this case, the comparison is apt: Push the button; receive treat.

This doesn’t work in writing. There’s a lot of pieces to why, but the short version is perspective. In a game, you are the protagonist. In a story, you are witnessing the protagonist. So, when the player gets a piece of junk gear that’s marginally better than what they’re wearing, that’s a dopamine hit. It’s something cool you can use, and you will get the opportunity to play with it.

In a story, you don’t care if one of the characters finds new leather gloves in a ruin, unless there’s something special about those gloves. You’re there to see them grow as a character, and their gear is incidental to that. If that gear facilitates new options, or spurs character growth, then you’ll care. If those gloves belonged to someone the character knew, and they’re a hint to what happened to them, then the reader will care. If the gloves have special properties which can help with a challenge the character is already facing, then the reader will care. If the gloves offer two extra points of protection (whatever that means), the reader will not care.

A thousand years is a long time. If you’re talking about today, a one thousand year old weapon might be a low quality steel sword. A thousand year old shield may have been wood, which would have rotted away unless carefully preserved. So you’d be left with the iron frame for a shield. Or, you might have a low quality iron shield.

Many fantasy settings exist in a kind of technological stasis. I mentioned Skyrim a minute, so let’s look at that. The games span a little under a thousand years (Elder Scrolls Online takes place 952 years before Skyrim). In that time, there’s been no meaningful technological development in the setting. This also not even an egregious offender on this front, Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Star Wars are also guilty of this, with, literally, thousands of years of history where no meaningful technological advancement occurs.

Contrast to the real world where the last thousand years saw the development of civilization from fractured city states into unified nations, the development of mechanized transport, near instantaneous worldwide communication networks, and space travel. Most of that, in the last century.

When you’re sitting in the moment, looking at the past, it’s easy to see things as static. “Yeah, people fought with swords for thousands of years,” but, when you start looking at the details, you realize, nothing is static. The swords taken on crusade in 1096 were substantially better than the swords the Roman Legions were using in 96. And those Roman Legions were terrifyingly well equipped in comparison to the Greek Hopolites in 404BC.

There are settings that can justify long periods of technological stasis. In Warhammer 40k invention is seen as religious heresy in almost all cases; this is an example where technological development would stall out. This is further reinforced because of how jealously the Machine Cult guards their technology, while still viewing it in religious terms. There’s something sickly amusing about the idea of a religious cult that would worship a toaster, but, it could explain this kind of stasis.

Post-apocalyptic settings (including 40k) have some justification, because the people who knew how this stuff worked are dead, so the survivors have to play catch-up. Insert a religious order that blocks technological progression, with the political power to enforce it’s views, and you’ve got some justification for technology lying fallow.

This is where the boss chest makes sense. (Sort of, anyway.) If the world has fallen from some forgotten golden age, it’s possible that whatever’s at the end of the dungeon could be weapons or armor made from some lost alloy, that survived the millennia unharmed. It’s even possible it was stored in a climate controlled armory, rather than in a wooden chest that should have rotted away centuries ago.

Golden age gear can also work as story hook, on the idea that this stuff is significant enough to be an important step in preparing your characters to face whatever they’re dealing with. It’s the rare moment where you really can get away with a loot hunt in a non-interactive story.

The other possible payoff to all of this is a shaggy dog. Your character goes through all of the effort to get through the ruin, and they find a ruined artifact. They put hopes and dreams on this chunk of corroded bronze because they believed it was their key to victory, and now they have nothing to show for it. Remember, your reader isn’t here for the loot, they’re here for your character. How your character deals with that, how they move on, that’s the reader’s payoff. That’s what they’re here for. There’s nothing wrong with screwing your characters over, so long the result is interesting to read.

I’ve said this before, but your job as a writer is not to make life easy for your characters. Your job is to make their lives interesting.

-Starke

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Q&A: Monster Hunting Solutions

So this may not be in your expertise, but in my setting (modern fantasy) my characters mostly fight monsters. My characters are faster than normal humans, and mostly have to use melee weapons, as monsters are resistant to normal metals, and the magical metal is too rare to reliably make bullets. I have no idea how to armor them. Speed feels like its the most important, as I can’t see how most armor could hold up to even a normal wild animal, much less one that is faster and stronger. Advice?

I don’t know what kinds of monsters your planning to throw your characters against. Enhanced reflexes would help, but, alone, it wouldn’t be enough to go into melee against anything significantly more dangerous than a human. So, if you’re fighting vampires, werewolves, or magically empowered mole men, your characters are in a bad situation.

I’d almost say the most important thing for monster hunting is practical knowledge of the creature your characters are tracking. Things like where it hides, what it feeds on, how it will behave. This becomes harder if you’re dealing with creatures possessing human levels of intelligence. Hunting a monster that is, basically, just an exotic apex predator is dangerous, but it’s something your characters can plan ahead for. Even in cases where they’re dealing with something that rivals human intellect, knowing how the creature is inclined to behave will give them a significant advantage for anticipating its actions. Remember how we’ve said, “instincts will get you killed?” Yeah, this one of those times.

Things can go wrong when you’re dealing with creatures that are significantly more experienced than your hunters, as this flips the script a bit. These aren’t the first hunters to come after this monster, and as a result, they’re the ones going through the familiar motions, and getting picked off.

Armor depends on what your character is fighting. If your characters are hunting monsters which can pass for normal humans, and have human (or better) intelligence, they can use a gun on their hunters. This is a problem for a modern vampire hunter, because while guns won’t (fully) affect the vampire, they will take down humans who come after it. Similarly, for a werewolf, if they shoot someone, that’s just a murder; however, if they wolf out, and tear someone limb from limb, now everyone knows something strange is going on, and monster hunters have more reason to come knocking. At that point, ballistic vests are your best bet. Just because you can’t shoot something doesn’t mean it can’t return the favor.

Also worth knowing, most modern armor has a shelf-life. Older kevlar vests would break down in hot and humid conditions (sort of like if you’re wearing them while being physically active for months and sweating on them.) I’m not 100% sure if this is still an issue. Additionally, taking bullets will mean you need to replace your armor. There’s also stuff like plate carriers, where you’ll need to replace the plates eventually.

In contrast, (assuming your vampires have enhanced speed and strength), sending your humans into melee combat with them is a death sentence.

So, you have a limited solution. You have melee weapons which can kill monsters. But, you still have guns, you just need to get more creative with them.

Ultraviolet (1999) did some interesting work chewing around this idea. (I’m spoiling some things here, sorry.) Because the vampires are immune to lead bullets, the vampire hunters use pressed carbon rounds to, effectively, stake vampires at range using conventional firearms. As a theme, the show presents both the vampires and vampire hunters adapting to modern technology, and using it to their advantage. I’d almost put this one as a must view for urban fantasy simply because of how it discusses monsters in the modern world.

Some other, “fun” things to remember about are dragon’s breath shotgun shells, which eject highly reactive metal strips that ignite on contact with air, essentially turning a shotgun into a sort of flamethrower.

White phosphorous is similar to dragon’s breath above, except, it’s a single bullet. Also, phosphorous is really nasty when it connects. The moisture in the wound will keep the phosphorous burning deeper into the victim, until it hits bone. This is a very horrific round, and if your characters are caught carrying around large quantities of the stuff, they’re going to have to answer some very hard questions.

Moving from borderline to straight up illegal, we’ve got high explosive rounds. There’s a lot of ways to make these. One that comes to mind is taking revolver hollowpoints, filling the tip with fulminated mercury, and waxing over it. You don’t want to use this specific example in a semi-automatic, as there’s a risk the gun will go off in your hand. In this case, it doesn’t matter if something’s resistant to metal when you’re literally detonating an explosive in them.

Bullets can also function as a delivery method. One example that comes to mind is, ironically, from Skinwalkers by Tony Hillerman. A character loads shotgun shells with bone beads, to block another’s magical abilities. (Hillerman’s novels are worth reading, but they’re murder mysteries, not urban fantasy.)

Also worth working out exactly why a monster’s resistances work. You can’t shoot a vampire because it’s already dead. So, if you make it bleed, that won’t kill it, you’re just taking away its dinner and pissing it off. However, that’s the same thing as immune. Hitting a vampire with a rifle round designed for putting down an APC might not kill it, but it should spread it around the room enough that you can put it out of your misery, before it’s back up and running.

Another option that might be worth considering are bows or crossbows with tips made from the magical material. The critical thing here is being able to retrieve the projectiles (most of the time.) This approach relies on getting the drop on the monster, which could be quite difficult if the creatures posses heightened senses.

If your characters are inhuman, themselves. If they don’t have to worry about getting shot. If they’re fast enough and strong enough to go into melee with a 9ft tall snarling deathbeast and live, then they might want to look into more archaic versions of armor that allow them to fight their foes.

It’s also possible your characters are relying on armor that mystically empowers them, (or powered armor exosuits) to level the field. In that case, the armor they wear will be dictated by the rules of their setting. If the artifact that grants your character the ability to fight monsters looks like a 17th century breastplate, then that’s what they’re going to wear.

-Starke

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Q&A: Weapon Preferences and Specializations versus Signatures

Would it be feasible to have a character that’s bad at fighting with a sword and doing hand-to-hand combat, but is skilled with using a bow and arrows? I’m asking because I’m not sure if being a good archer has any crossover with fighting with your fists, for example, in terms of skills needed. Or would this character be good at all three of them if she just practiced? Is it realistic that she could just have an affinity towards using the bow?

The concept of the signature weapons rather than comprehensive fighting styles is a fictional creation, usually you see them in anime and in video games. To use a bow doesn’t mean you can’t fight with a sword or an axe or with their fists, and, due to the changing nature of the battlefield or the situations they might find themselves in, it would be inadvisable for them to ignore close quarters combat. Even if you’re character was simply a hunter, they’d have a wide ranging skillset with various weapons, including the creation and setting of traps to knives and, possibly, even spears depending on the type of game they hunted. You don’t go after bears and boars with a bow.

One thing to understand about the medieval bow if you plan to have a character use one is that the weapon itself requires a lot of time to set up. A bow is not like a gun, you don’t just pull it out and start shooting. You’ve got to keep it oiled and carefully wrapped so its not exposed to the elements, you carry the bowstring separately so if you’re traveling and didn’t plan to use your bow then it must be restrung. You will also need to either go get your arrows after use, find a fletcher, or make them yourself if you’re not part of a military unit which will provide them to you (and even then, you still want to retrieve them.) The general use for the bow in your standard military was as artillery. They were the cannons before there were cannons. Archers also carried a sidearm in either a sword or axe in cases where the enemy broke through the front lines. At those times, they’d be required to fight in close quarters.

As a writer its important to learn the distinction between “preferred” and “can’t”. This character may prefer to fight with a bow, as a sharpshooter and at range, but combat specialists develop a wide array of skills so they can change out as needed. This includes fighting in hand to hand, fighting with swords (these two crossover), axes, spears, and other weapons.

If you choose to go with a character who only uses a bow and nothing else, then you have a character limited by their positioning who can’t fight in crowded rooms without finding higher ground (and can’t fight past enemies to get to higher ground), who can’t survive an ambush, who has to run and keep running until they put enough distance between themselves and their enemies, who will have difficulty fighting indoors or in places with poor visibility, who may face difficulty fighting at night, who is limited to a specific set of circumstances and does poorly in every single other one. This is a character without any self-defense skills, who is reliant on others to keep them safe when things don’t go according to plan or when they run out of arrows. They also lack the means to create advantageous circumstances for themselves while under threat, which limits their long term survivability.

Every character is going to have preferences for weapons they like to use, and things they don’t like to do. It’s like being told to eat your veggies when you just want to eat fruit, or that you have to do push ups when all you want to do is parkour. Some people prefer fists to kicks, some people prefer standing grappling or joint locks to groundfighting, but you have to learn them all in order to prepare yourself for a variety of situations. If you play shooters, you’ll notice the soldier characters carry a variety of different weapons from assault rifles to SMGs to handguns. That’s not counting the countless other weapons you can choose based on the situation you’re about to walk into. This is so they’ll always have a usable weapon when the situation, scenario, or battlefield changes. You don’t want to lose crucial seconds using a weapon poorly suited for the environment you’re in when a fraction of a second can cost you your life.

Remember, in the combined legends of Robin Hood, his standard kit includes not just a bow but also a sword. We have the legends of his fight on the log with Little John with staves. He might not be better than Little John at using a staff, but he’s trained to fight with one.

Martial combat and weapons work are skills. You learn to use them. Usually, when we’re discussing talent, we’re discussing people who have better than average coordination and great physical mimicry. There’s almost no gap between seeing a technique and applying it. That’s the talent. Your character’s affinity may not just be natural, but learned if she had parents who worked with bows and she grew up around archers. The bow would always feel more natural because she started learning to use one when she was five instead of fifteen.

It’s also important to remember that preference doesn’t always relate to talent. Your character might find learning to use a bow comes more easily to her or she has an “affinity” for it, but likes swords better. At the end of the day, the weapon you like better is the one your better at using because you invest more time into it. A character who uses a bow, might take their hand to hand training and get decent at using their legs for self-defense so they can defend their weapon as well as themselves.

Many writers use talent as an excuse to avoid explanation. Regardless of whatever you plan to write, you should learn as much about the subject as you can. There’s also this idea that you can only train in one thing and that there’s no crossover or blending. Learning to fight hand to hand or with a sword and learning to shoot a bow is no different than learning to shoot and learning to ride a horse. They are two separate skillsets which can be combined, so you can shoot a bow while riding a horse. Otherwise known as mounted combat.

At the end of the day, being a martial combatant is about having a diverse skillset encompassing a very large swath of possibilities in order to prepare for a variety of situations and eventualities. Fighting inside a castle is very different from fighting inside your local village full of houses with thatch roofs. Fighting in a forest is different from fighting on a plain. Fighting an opponent with a spear or staff is fighting a swordsman, or someone with a dagger. Fighting an opponent with a sword and shield is different from fighting someone with a single sword.

Combat is a form of problem solving. There’s never just one way to solve a problem, and you’ll never solve different problems the same way every time. If you choose to do so, your enemy will constantly be developing new ways to stop you and your solution will eventually be countered by new techniques and new technologies. The goalposts are constantly moving, even for characters who are the literal best at what they do.

Don’t hem your characters in, even if they prefer one weapon over others. Let them specialize, but don’t create a one trick pony. This gives you more options to when it comes to constructing scenarios and fight scenes for your characters. You’ll be able to plot a course of action reflective of both your narrative and your characters.

-Michi

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Q&A: More Bronze

I saw that recent ask about materials and it made me wonder… how much of a difference does the material of equipment make? Bronze versus steel, for example. Would having better materials convey any measurable advantage in a fight?

It’s significant.

There are a couple big things that happen when you’re switching materials, and jumping from bronze to steel is probably the best way to illustrate them.

First: Steel will hold an edge. You can sharpen bronze. Hell, you can sharpen silver, and some do still use silver cutlery. However, when you sharpen steel, that edge will stay much longer.

Second: Steel allows for much more mechanically demanding designs. The big thing here is armor, but this is also true with weapons as well. (Even if this isn’t what you’re thinking of when someone calls a weapon, “mechanically demanding.”)

Creating a structurally stable blade out of bronze is limited to a fairly short blade. I forget the exact length, but it’s somewhere around 24-36 inches. In modern terms, this is a shortsword. While the Celts tried to make bronze swords much longer, the result was not ideal, and the weapons would, “collapse.” in combat. A lot of this comes down to, bronze is a much softer metal. In contrast, early modern steel swords, like the Zweihander could exceed seven feet.

We’ve talked about combat range before, and how having a longer melee weapon is a significant advantage. In comparing bronze blades to steel ones, we have a return to the daggers vs longswords scenario. Someone with a bronze weapon can’t get close enough to stab someone defending themselves with a steel blade.

There is a major element here I’m skimming over. The predominant infantry weapon of the bronze age was the spear. So this isn’t quite as one sided as it looks. But, the advantage still stays with steel, as the sheer variety of polearms would explode with evolving smithing techniques.

Armor is a, mostly similar story. Bronze armor cannot replicate the mechanical complexity of articulated steel plate, and then take it into combat. Bronze being softer, the armor will wear and deform faster, and suddenly those articulated joints will jam. I’m making an assumption here, but I suspect the sophistication of armor designs advanced in step with the advancement of armor materials. This was true with weapons, and just looking at what you can do with bronze vs with steel, you can’t engineer that down to lower quality materials in most cases.

So, the end result is, you can make significantly better weapons and armor out of steel. Even when you’re replicating bronze weapons in steel, the result will be a more durable and effective.

The bronze to steel thing is a bit of an extreme example. You can see this more granularity when you’re looking armor and weapon advancement as the quality of the steel alloys improved.

To be clear, would a copper or bronze weapon BREAK from a single strike of a steel weapon? Or would the copper and bronze weapons/armor just need to be replaced more often than steel ones?

Probably not in a single strike, but there’s a few things I should address here:

First: You never want to parry blade to blade. Doesn’t matter what your weapons are, you’re going to risk damaging, or breaking, your own weapon.

Similarly, you don’t just hack away at someone’s armor; that’s also destructive to your weapon. Instead you’re looking for ways you can get your blade into vulnerable parts of their armor. So, joints for example. (There’s an exception here: If you have a hammer, just pound on them.)

Second: Weapons aren’t really disposable. You don’t travel around with a golf bag of blades and just swap to new ones as the old ones shatter. Historically, soldiers would carry a few backup weapons. A sidearm (usually a sword, or a handaxe), and a dagger, in addition to their primary weapon (usually a polearm), but people didn’t walk around with five or six swords strapped to them.

Most combatants would maintain their weapons, so it’s not like you’d just take a sword and keep using it until it broke. (At least, not if you knew what you were doing.) You’d be careful with its use to minimize the damage it suffered. You’d want to make sure that any minor damage was repaired to the best of your ability. That blade was kept clean and sharp. You never want to run a weapon until it’s destroyed.

Third: Bronze will not hold up in combat against steel weapons. That goes for both the armor and the weapons. I’m not sure a single strike would mangle a bronze weapon to uselessness, but it would not be in a good state, and a few solid hits would probably destroy it. (I’m a little fuzzy on exactly how much abuse it can take, because I don’t have a lot of experience working with bronze.

Ironically, that first point isn’t completely true if you’ve got steel weapons and going up against someone with copper (and possibly bronze), you might get some minor nicking along the blade, but it’s going to hold up far better than your experience would suggest.

Now, as I said, I don’t have a lot of hands-on experience with bronze, so I’m not 100% sure how durable it is, beyond, “not very.” I’m familiar with the history, but this specific match up never happened, which is part of why I’m shying away from saying, “yeah, it’ll take X number of hits.”

The thing to remember is that there’s a huge technological advantage in the materials your smiths can work with. This is at least as significant as the kinds of weapons you have access to. Also, the kinds of weapons and armor you can produces are, functionally, “gated,” by the materials available. The reason no one in 5AD had a greatsword isn’t because they couldn’t imagine the weapon, they couldn’t make with the materials available.

-Starke

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Q&A: Historic Materials

What are the best metals (and alloys) for creating armor and weapons for a fantasy society? I was considering silver, iron, copper, and bronze. Would steel also work?

One of the major technological progressions in human history has been the ability to work increasingly durable metals.

The earliest metal weapons were made from copper, roughly 6000 -7000 years ago. Early copper weapons were frequently produced using a naturally occurring alloy of arsenic and copper. While the arsenic made the copper slightly more brittle, it also helped it hold an edge.

Another alloy that can naturally occur is copper and tin. This produces bronze. Human produced Bronze began somewhere around 4500 years ago.

Iron weapons and armor began to appear sometime around 3000-3500 years ago. This gets a little complicated however. Because Iron was first worked by humans, almost 4000 years ago. The iron being produced wasn’t particularly useful for weapons (or most tools.) So, around 1200BC, the real innovation was the introduction of carbon into the iron smelting process. That’s technically a low-quality steel, so I’m a little uncertain when the exact line between iron and steel weapons occurred, but it’s somewhat academic because steel is just an iron-carbon alloy when you get down to it, and most iron weapons contained some carbon anyway.

The takeaway is, people have been making their weapons out of steel for over three thousand years. Most of the other materials you listed have seen use in warfare, but it depends on when. Bronze overtook and replaced copper, because bronze weapons were vastly superior to copper ones. Iron relegated bronze to history. Forging innovations have meant that, while we’ve been using steel in one form or another for thousands of years, the kinds of steel we’re using have supplanted previous iterations.

These materials are about technological progression. You’re also not going to see serious discrepancies in weapons technology in countries that have had extensive contact with one another. So, if one nation borders another, chances are, radical differences are going to even out fairly quickly. You might see some, specific forging techniques that are kept secret, but you wouldn’t have someone using copper weapons going to war with steel clad knights, when both states have shared a border for centuries.

What you won’t see is silver; it’s too soft for use in weapons and armor. You might see silver ornamentation, or silver ceremonial weapons. However, unless it’s some weird historical footnote, you’re not going to see silver on the battlefield. Now, I know you said, “fantasy,” and yeah, fantasy is one of the times when you’ll see silver used because it has a practical value beyond the normal material. So if silver weapons are the only way you can harm demons, or the undead, in your setting, then you’d see silver being used in weapons, but that’s a very specific case.

-Starke

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Q&A: Knockouts Are Brain Damage

in a lot of film & tv characters get punched so hard that they are knocked out. i was wondering how strong would the person have to be/how hard would the punch have to be to knock the person out? and how long could the person be knocked it for (realistically)? thanks so much!

We answered a question similar to this one in the article, The Force of a Knockout.

The short answer is that yes, you can knock someone out with a punch. However, it’s not the get out of jail free card that media often presents it as. When you knock someone out, you are inflicting enough damage to their brain that the brain shuts down to protect itself. A knockout is you essentially putting someone into a short term coma, and the injury is a very serious one. Normally, they’ll only be unconscious for a few seconds and anywhere longer than thirty to ninety can indicate serious injury.

You can watch about twenty minutes of The Best Boxing Knockouts of 2018, if you watch closely (it’s blink and you’ll miss it) you will see the eyes roll back in their heads as they pass out on the slow-mo. Even if they’re awake again when that knee hits the mat, the referee jumps in. If you think, “well, what about girls?” then here you go. (Warning for blood.)

That said, strength in not in the equation. The knockouts you’re thinking of are caused by precision punches to pressure points. Usually, this is a hook punch to the jaw. You can’t hit just anywhere on the jaw either. It has to be on the back, near the ear, at the point where the jaw connects to your skull. There’s a pressure point (your nerves) in the gap, which if you hit it with meticulous perfection, can cause someone to pass out. The other version is they hit them enough times in the face that the brain succumbs after being softened up by enough continuous hits.

Anyone of any size can do this, the restriction is either skill based or an incredibly lucky shot. There’s no strength restriction. The hook is not the only means of getting someone to pass out, but it is the one most people are familiar with. You can sit there and pound on the back of someone’s skull (where the bones are softest) until they pass out. There are nerve pressure points elsewhere on the body which if struck will cause the victim to pass out. You can cut off blood flow to the brain through the carotid artery with a blood choke, and they will pass out (and die if it goes on too long.) You can strike someone in the temple (where there is a gap in your skull) for direct access to their brain. You can asphyxiate someone with a standard choke, they will pass out and, if you deny their brain oxygen long enough, eventually die. You can drive someone’s face into a rising knee hard enough that they can, under some circumstances, pass out. You can bash their head into a hard surface like a concrete wall, a sink, a metal door, a wooden door, until they (again) pass out or just can’t get back up. You can also kick them in the head to deliver even more force, resulting in more damage. Upgrade this to a spin kick or a jump kick, or even a spinning jump kick if you’re feeling adventurous. In terms of force, kicks outperform punches.

Here, watch some kickboxing knockouts while we’re at it.

Again, a knockout is brain damage. You have convinced your victim’s brain that the injury inflicted to it is so serious that it must temporarily shut down in self-defense to preserve their life. If they’re down for longer than thirty seconds, their chances of long term to permanent brain injury increase substantially. And there’s always a chance something else will do them more harm in the intermediary, from the fall itself (which can kill them or cause another greater injury which kills them) to what happens after you walk away.

Fiction likes to present the knockout as the Saturday Morning Cartoon death. You can essentially kill a character without having to say you killed them while ignoring the subsequent guilt and/or consequences of murder. This is why I refer to knockouts as fiction’s “get out of jail free card”, and why you should consider the knockout carefully before you choose to apply it. A lot of fiction writers have a bad habit of thinking anything up to death is okay or preserves a character’s moral good. However, violence is everything you do to a person from short term damage to the long term injuries. There are lots of unintended consequences, which are seeds of interesting stories all on their own.

You should never trick yourself into thinking violence in any form is safe, there’s always a risk assessment and built in cost. Your brain is floating in fluid, every time you take a hit in the face you’ll be damaging it. That’s not counting the swelling, the broken noses, someone taking out your eyes with their fingers, lost teeth from the force of a hit, boxed ears disorienting you, stumbling from taking a hit to the back of your skull, losing hair or even skin when your scalp gets raked/your hair pulled, blood leaking into your eye when your eyebrow gets split or cut by your opponent’s knuckles.

Remember this adage: where the head goes, the body follows.

Protecting your head and face is your number one priority. If someone gets control of your head, they can take you anywhere they want. No matter how hard you struggle, you will go with them until you manage to break their grip. If you ever had a question about why hair pulling is a legitimate tactic, it’s because you take control of their head and you have direct access to all the nerves around your hair follicles. You can control where they go, and it hurts. Why punch someone in the nose? A) it hurts, B) it’s a soft target so you don’t risk hurting your hand on the skull’s bone plates, and C) the swelling will disrupt their ability to see which hinders their ability to continue the fight.

You’ll notice too with most professional fighters in sports that allow ground combat like the UFC, the fighters will follow their opponent to the ground and/or keep hitting them as they go down. They get pulled off by the referees. In the rush of adrenaline and focus, it can take time for someone to realize that they need to stop. You can guarantee your character will likely have gotten in consecutive hits after their opponent has fallen, doing more damage to them than is necessary because they don’t realize they’re unconscious.

The average street fight only lasts for twenty five seconds, but rarely ends in a knockout. You’re much more likely to end up putting your opponent in a position they can no longer fight than you are driving them into an unconscious state. The exception is if you intended to. You’re less likely to knock someone out with luck than you are with skill, but either way its never guaranteed because everyone’s body is different.

-Michi

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Q&A: Pacing

I’m having trouble writing a fight scene. I feel like I’m either going too fast and it’s all a blur or that the flow is choppy and awkward and I can’t quite figure out how to make it work better. Is there any advice as to how to get the right pacing and still make the scene…exciting?

geek-bait

Pacing a fight depends on the media you’re working with. I’m assuming you’re talking about in prose, as opposed to on film, or in a comic, but, the answer will be different for each medium.

In prose, the violence itself won’t be particularly exciting. I’m not talking about the fight as a whole, but specifically the blow by blow portion. What makes the fight exciting is dynamism and context.

Characters adapting to changing circumstances can carry a lot of the direct violence. For example: The exciting part isn’t where one character punches their foe; it’s that they did it to interrupt their opponent’s action. This can evolve into a complex web of actions and reactions, which can result in an exciting scene, but the critical part is to remember that each attack is just a means to an end.

This is, mostly true, for films and comics as well. The difference is both of those mediums have an easier time running on pure spectacle. You’re not telling a reader that your character punched someone, you’re showing it.

The other major consideration is audience fatigue. Violence tends to be very intense. Keep that going for too long and you will exhaust your audience. So, keep your fight scenes short, and to the point. Sometimes, prolonged fights are justified; consider those carefully. In those cases, you may want to pace yourself with interruptions between the violence, to give the audience a moment to recover.

The thing about violence is: It is fast. If your “fight scene,” can be adequately ended in a paragraph, do it. It’s going to be more shocking and exciting, than if you try to drag it out over six pages.

Even outside of violence, if your pacing feels choppy, it probably means there’s something that needs to be pulled. I understand that it can be difficult, but something you wrote didn’t work, and needs to go. I’d encourage you to get in the habit of looking at what you wrote and asking, “does this really need to be here?” “What does it contribute?” “What does this connect to?” If it’s not critical to the work as a whole, it might be time to excise it.

Also, if something doesn’t work for you, rewrite it. Tinker with it. Try different things. Practice. See what you can learn from the attempts that didn’t work.

-Starke

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