Tag Archives: writing reference

Q&A: Downtime

How much recovery time would a superhero without healing powers need after a typical mission? Should I include downtime in my story as necessary for going out again?

It depends.

It feels like I write this a lot, but in this case, it is extremely contingent on a long list of factors.

The first one is, if they were injured. This one should be obvious, but a character who’s been seriously injured will need to recover from that before they can safely return to the field. This is also (probably) the only time a character’s rapid healing would be useful for this discussion.

Downtime is necessary. Without it, fatigue will lead to injuries. There’s no mandatory timeline for how much downtime you need. It depends on what you’ve been doing, and how much strain you’ve been putting on your body and psyche. Regardless, you’re going to need to step away from that and recover before going back in. I’m being vague because that’s life. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about your day job, or superheroics.

The hard part about figuring out how much downtime you’ll need is there’s no immediate penalty for ignoring it. Things like sleep deprivation can stack up over time, but it is something your character could put off, “in an emergency.” This can become a problem if your character is ignoring things like muscle aches or minor fatigue. And, it is entirely possible they’d put their mission, or the safety of others ahead of their own comfort. In extreme cases, they may even be ignoring actual injuries to get back into the field. This is a superhero after all.

If your superhero is engaging in direct hand to hand, the necessary downtime to fully recover will be at least a couple weeks. That said, this is something you can afford to abbreviate without risking the audience’s suspension of disbelief. This is one of those things that has become baked into the superhero power fantasy, to the point that it’s, practically, a genre convention. Your characters recover from physical fatigue with inhuman speed because, “superheroes.”

On the other hand, it is entirely reasonable to chart out a character gradually wearing themselves out by not having any downtime. As mentioned, this is natural behavior for a superhero, and punishing them for that behavior is entirely reasonable. The only thing I’d caution you on this subject is making sure you’re consistent. Don’t have one character who goes out every night without a problem, while having another who’s falling apart, unless their powers justify different outcomes.

There’s no hard and fast rules for how you need to itemize this, or if you even want to cover your characters’ downtime at all. The normal advice is, if a scene doesn’t advance the story, cut it. Downtime is incredibly vulnerable to this. It’s often ancillary events that have no relevance to the plot as a whole, and can be safely ignored. You might write some as a character study, but (most of the time) it isn’t relevant to the story you’re telling, so out it goes.

Now, it’s entirely possible to have a story where there are significant elements explored while the characters aren’t out there doing their jobs. In cases like that, downtime may be the story. It’s also possible you’ve got characters who take work with them wherever they go, so things that happen in those moments are still relevant to working out the plot. Downtime can also be an opportunity to see how your characters interact with other people in their lives that they don’t work with. There are a lot of ways you can use scenes like this, but there’s no credible rule saying that you must.

-Starke

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Q&A: Flashy Martial Arts

If melee is all about not exposing yourself and not using up all your stamina, why are eastern martial arts so flashy? Like, with spins and flips? Wouldn’t an enemy just tackle them or stab them while they’re jumping?

Most of the time, Eastern martial arts aren’t particularly flashy.

The big exceptions are things like Wushu, where it’s performance art. That’s not about getting into a fight and winning, it’s about putting on a show. The same thing is true on film; the fight is about presenting an appealing set of visuals.

Turns out, when you have performers who are in excellent physical condition, and you ask them to put on a show, they can do a pretty good job of it. It has no relation to reality, and becomes a genre convention.

Why would you ask someone to engage in acrobatics for your fight scene? Because it looks really cool.

A lot of Chinese Wushu practitioners have been training since childhood. This includes people like Jackie Chan and Jet Li. They’re fantastic entertainers. They’ve spent their entire lives dedicated to martial arts, and as a result, when asked to put on a show, the results are amazing.

Now, that’s a performance, not a fight. In live combat, movement is generally minimized, stamina is conserved, and, anyone who knows what they’re doing will aim to end the fight quickly. Most of the time, that means the flashy stuff stays at home.

There are exceptions, and there is a reason. Stuff like Taekwondo keeps some elements. Those flashy moves, where someone leaps into the air and drives a spin kick into your head will kill you.

That’s not a joke.

That’s not hyperbole.

When you get your entire body moving, driving a strike into someone’s head, if it connects properly, can kill.

It’s risky. I was going to say, “in a real fight,” but Michi tore her leg apart doing a tornado kick. This stuff is not easy, and can seriously harm the practitioner if anything goes wrong. However, it can end the fight on the spot.

Spin kicks, of any variety, are no joke. They drive a shocking amount of force into the target. Kicks in general, are fairly advanced. Even basic kicks require prior training, and the flashy stuff is not easy. However, they deliver a lot of force.

There seems to be a semi-common perception by people who’ve never trained or experienced violence, that people are far more mobile than they really are. If someone’s doing flips to get away from you, you’re not going to be able to simply walk over and shank them mid-bounce. If they’re flipping towards you, you’re going to have a hard time lining up a strike before they connect. Now, you’re exceedingly unlikely to see someone flipping around in an actual fight because, as you mentioned, that’s extremely taxing, but someone doing that isn’t as vulnerable as you might think.

There’s some other stuff that looks flashy if you don’t know what you’re doing, but is practical. Throws are a good example of this. They look flashy. You just grab your opponent and bounce them around the room. The truth is, most throws are pretty easy to execute. They don’t take much energy, and you’re often using your opponent’s momentum to carry the throw. These are also very effective as your attacker ends up on the ground. They won’t end a fight, but they can quickly shift the balance.

Weapon tricks can also look flashy, but are low energy. Things like reversing the grip on a knife can be casually done by an experienced fighter. It’ll look cool, but it’s trivial in the moment, with practical uses.

So, the short answer is, if you’re watching martial arts movies, you’re not seeing how violence actually works. You’re seeing a performance. Those performances aren’t intended to reflect the real world. They’re supposed to be high-energy, and visually engaging. It is art, but it’s not emulating life.

-Starke

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I heard the Numidians had legionaries, or at least legionary style troops, despite being in the desert. Would heavy infantry actually serve any purpose in a desert climate, considering cavalry dominated the scene?

Yes, for a couple reasons.

First off, if you’re making a military, you want forces that you can take with you. Part of the problem for Numidia (and the Roman world) was you’d need to move units across water. It’s much easier to move humans, than horses. Water travel is very stressful for the animals, which can prove fatal.

Second, you can’t really make a standing military exclusively out of cavalry. Historically, armies that focused on cavalry faced serious threats from enemies which made extensive use of spear infantry. This is almost a hard counter. Polearms are the one thing a horseman does not want to face.

Infantry is still easier to move around strategically. I realize I’ve been throwing these terms around, and haven’t defined them recently, so let’s run over these:

In very general and reductive terms, there are three levels of warfare: Strategic, Operational, Tactical.

Strategic warfare is the entire campaign. It often includes things like large scale troop movements. The process where armies are moved around. If troops are being moved to take a city, that’s strategic.

Operational warfare is how you achieve your strategic goals. If you’re to take a city, you’ll need a way in. That could be a siege, it could be bashing down the doors, or it could be through subterfuge or other means. Those are Operations.

Logistics is a consideration at this level. Specifically, this is about keeping your troops supplied and ready to fight. (Also, why this might look like I just added a fourth tier, but, Logistics is a part of Operations.)

Tactical warfare is the ground level stuff. This is how you array your forces before the battle. Where your troops go. Who engages. Are you using your cavalry to protect your flanks, or are you using them to skirmish or flank your foes? Did you set an ambush?

Without sounding too much like a game, maintaining standing forces costs logistics (logistical resources, anyway.) You have to keep your soldiers fed, armed, and battle ready. Forces that are not fed and supplied are not under your control. Yes, they may fight for you when you ask them to, but you can’t stop them. You can’t prevent them from destroying the territory you just secured. You cannot reliably keep them from chasing after anything that’s dangled in front of them. They’re little more than bandits who are following your general suggestions at that point.

Cavalry is, logistically, significantly more expensive than infantry. You need to maintain the horses, and their equipment, in addition to the riders. Short version is: you can’t as many cavalry riders as you could infantry. There’s a real opportunity cost, where the resources you expend to field and maintain a rider could provide for multiple infantry. (I’m not sure what the exact trade-off numbers would be, because this depends heavy on many economic factors in the culture making the choice, and I’m hesitant to throw numbers around without any basis.)

We also just did the discussion about the tactical limitations of cavalry. They have significant advantage for dealing with enemy infantry, but as I said, they’re not an, “I win,” button. Even if you had a culture that made extensive use of cavalry, defensive positions, and assaulting fortified locations (like cities) would still require infantry support.

The Numdians made extensive use of light cavalry. I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say that fielding heavy and shock cavalry in the desert is probably extremely difficult. Simply as an environment and breeding issue. The same goes for heavy infantry.

Armor is exceptionally good at trapping heat. This can be a serious issue even in temperate environments. As the wearer fights and exerts, they’ll heat up, and the armor will, in most cases, prevent that heat from venting. Heat is exhausting, and in a prolonged battle overheated forces will start faltering much sooner.

I don’t know what the Numidian Legions looked like, but it would have been a factor for heavy infantry and cavalry. So, I’m not sure what they did, or how they dealt with those considerations.

The infantry is the backbone of an army. That’s as true in antiquity as today. For the time, the Roman Legions were the region’s gold standard of military forces, so it’s unsurprising that the Numidians (and other nations) emulated that structure, (with variations.)

So, yes, infantry is easier to field, easier to maintain, and useful in situations where your horses simply aren’t. Cavalry is a significant advantage, but it’s a specialized combat tool which excels at getting around and out maneuvering enemy forces. It’s not your only weapon, and unsupported it’s going to be forced into situations where it doesn’t excel. At that point, losses are significantly more expensive.

-Starke

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Q&A: Survival

So one of you is an Eagle Scout? That means you have survival training and stuff, right? If so, how much food could foraging possibly provide? For a few dozen people I could see it letting them live for a short while, but I find it very hard to believe some wild mushrooms and berries are able to feed more than that for longer than a day!

So, a quick caveat, while I do have wilderness survival, foraging is one of the topics I remember the least about. Some of this is just practice. My orienting skills are still fairly sharp, but I actually use those.

You’re coming to this from the wrong perspective. It’s entirely possible for a couple dozen survivors to live off the land indefinitely, but it’s going to depend on them working together, and their food supply’s going to be a lot more diverse than just some mushrooms and berries.

Foraging mushrooms is something with a very low margin for error, and something I’d personally avoid. Identifying and distinguishing between poisonous and safe mushrooms requires you have a pretty solid grasp of the local fungi. Screw up and you can kill everyone.

Berries are a similar story, though it is easier there to test and determine if they’re toxic in the field. This involves exposing yourself to trace amounts of the juices and carefully checking to see if you have any toxic reaction to it.

I do remember how to set up traps for small game, and how to obtain meat via hunting. It’s an entirely different skillset, but it will keep people fed. I also remember the methods for water purification, so, again, that’s a necessary step for keeping survivors alive. I don’t fish, but that’s also another food source that can’t be overlooked, if you’re trying to keep people breathing.

Also, worth remembering, your survivors need to be able to cook their food. First, it kills many potential pathogens, so your survivors are less likely to get sick from what they’re eating. This also improves your body’s ability to convert that food into energy, making the food (effectively) more nutritious.

Okay, so, let’s step back from this for a second. The real question here is how long can a group of survivors last, when one of the people in the group has survival training? The answer depends on their surroundings.

The community needs three resources, in this order of priority: Water: Without safe drinking water they will die, soon. Food: As with water, this will kill them, but it will take longer. Their ability to function will be impaired over time if this resource isn’t there. Shelter: This is critical for a number of less immediate reasons. Your survivors need to be able to avoid the worst of the weather, and a space where they can safely recover from the foraging or hunting. They’ll also need a cooking space, which is part of the shelter topic. This lets them turn the water they find into safe drinking water, and it allows them to convert the animals they can find into a food source. On a long enough timescale, the shelter will transition from an adhoc setup to a permanent structure, but that’s down the line away.

Foraging in temperate environments, particularly lightly wooded plains is pretty easy. The more hostile the environment, the harder it is to find food, and additional considerations start to filter in. For example, a group of survivors in a forest where the biggest threats are hostile wildlife, should be able to survive basically indefinitely, with a fairly solid protein diet.

When you’re looking at an alpine or tundra environment, food is less common, there’s still flora and fauna, but the edible plants are going to be less plentiful. There will be additional physical stress on the survivors because of the cold nights. There are a number of ways to help combat this, but cold nights are an issue for a wide variety of biomes.

If you’re looking at a scrub-land or desert environment, food will be there, but it’ll be harder to locate. You’ll also face greater issues with finding water, and extreme temperature shifts. In some environments this can even result in daytime temperatures that inherently dangerous, with nighttime lows. Finally, obtaining water becomes a serious consideration.

The upside with survival training is, most of it is easy to teach. So, if you have a group of survivors, and one of them has prior training, it’s very easy to teach other people what they need to know to start taking roles in keeping the group alive. This is also the critical part in, “how long can they last?” If they’re going to be operating in survival situations for long, it’s absolutely critical that the community start distributing the workload. Keeping two dozen people alive is too much work for one forager, but it’s an entirely reasonable goal for a group.

The equipment your survivors have with them will also affect how easy or difficult it will be. If they have some cooking gear, and small tools like hatchets and knives, that will make life significantly easier. If they don’t, they’ll need to improvise tools as they go. This makes life more difficult, but it is doable.

You’re right that one person foraging for berries and mushrooms won’t be able to feed a large group. The big part of survival training is understanding there’s a lot more in your environment, and how you can use that to stay alive.

-Starke

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Q&A: Aquaman & Atlantis

Watching Aquaman recently, I was struck by the thought that tridents, the Atlantean weapon of choice, didn’t seem particularly suited to underwater combat. What kind of weapons are, and does it change if the participants don’t have to worry about drowning?

trivialad

It’s not the weapon of choice. They’re using a mix of plasma rifles, and some kind of energy enhanced melee weapons, specifically swords and gauntlets. Those are pretty reasonable weapon choices. The tridents are ceremonial. So that’s not that weird, once you get past the idea of a civilization that was using cold fusion ~12000 years ago.

The trident is a fishing tool. You use it to spear a fish, and then pull it out. That’s the point of the barbed hooks on the tips. It’s a pretty terrible weapon in any circumstances. You can jab things with it, but by design, you’re not supposed to be able to pull them out again. It’s a nasty thing to be using in ritualized duels.

The Retiarius was a Roman gladiator armed with a trident and net. Which should give some hints to how bloody and impractical they are as weapons.

What you see in Aquaman is a mix of staff techniques, with a few embellishments, such as throwing them. So far as it goes, there’s nothing wrong with a civilization having ceremonial weapons that aren’t entirely practical when they’re used for specific combat environments. Example: The Retiarii. However, these aren’t practical combat weapons, and trying think of them as such is a mistake.

I’ve got reservations on the plasma weapons. This is mostly excusable, but the amount of energy required to fire a beam weapon with a visible energy path is insane. This is the problem with all high energy weapons, and, the civilization we’re presented with has certainly had time to work that out, but, it’s nuts. That the energy blasts have a sheath which allows them to operate underwater is, “odd,” though again, we’re past the point where considerations like that really matter.

I’d have more of an issue with the gauntlets, except they’re accompanied by powered exosuits, so, issues with drag start to become somewhat less important.

The swords make sense. The big thing about fighting underwater is drag. You’re not moving through air (maybe, this isn’t a consideration for the Atlantians, but for anyone else,) you need to push the water out of the way. This increases the exertion, and slows your movements. The bigger and more cumbersome the weapon, the harder you have to work to get it up to speed (or stop it.) This becomes a problem when you’re just trying to punch someone underwater. As a result, the most dangerous melee weapons underwater are knives. The swords that you see in Aquaman are a reasonable compromise. Short, aerodynamic (or, hydrodynamic in this case), and still offer some additional reach. They also seem to have some additional powered functionality, which makes sense.

There’s some fun details mixed into the film if you’ve done the reading, and I don’t mean the comics. The white and gold metal you see is probably supposed to be different variants of Orichalcum. The film calls this, “Atlantian Steel,” but the reality is a copper alloy. (Though, it’s unclear exactly what the copper was alloyed with. Probably, tin, brass, or gold) The golden version comes out of Greek literature sometime in the 7th century BC. Plato would later tie the metal to Atlantis, as their primary mineral resource, though the mines had been depleted for some time. White Orichalcum comes from a collection that was falsely attributed to Aristotle. (The real author of On Marvelous Things Heard probably wanted to lend their work more credibility, and claimed it was written by Aristotle. This was more common than you might realize. There’s even a term for it: “Pseudepigrapha.”) You can think of them as philosophical fan fiction, if you want.

Atlantis itself is an interesting topic, and there’s hints of this floating around in the film. So, kinda important to frame this. Atlantis is fiction, not myth. We know the author, it was Plato. He may have drawn inspiration from other sources, but Atlantis was primarily written as an example of his system of government from The Republic. It doesn’t actually appear in that work, but pops up an in depth illustration in some of the later Dialogues. You can think of it as a fourth century BC version of Starship Troopers. It’s not supposed to be read as a literal place, and more as an illustration of the author’s political philosophy, and how they believe government should work. (There’s some allegory there, as both Heinlein and Plato disliked the idea that republics allowed “everyone” to participate.)

I’m bringing this up, because in Plato’s genealogy for the island, the King Atlas, was the firstborn child of Poseidon and Cleito. That’s what the tridents are doing there. The original story tied the island to Poseidon. They’re using the tridents in ritual duels because they’re a symbol of their god.

-Starke

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Q&A: Size Matters Not, Medieval Shoes, and Knife Fighting

Hello! Recently I heard that there is no way that a 60 kg woman can defeat a man weighs more. Is that true? There is a rumour that woman are also mostly useless as policemen and firefighters because of their lack of strength. Is that so? You’re my most reliable source.

Whoever said this is a moron. The weight argument is the preferred stomping ground of idiots who have no idea what they’re talking about. They don’t regularly make arguments that a man who weighs 140 pounds is completely useless as a police officer compared to a man who weighs 180 or 220, do they? Remember, you heard it from them, all men who weigh 160 pounds need to give up on his sports dreams now and go invest in knitting. And a man who can’t get above 150? Forget it, he’s trash. (Remember, Bruce Lee weighed 60kg, 132 pounds.)

“Someone who is short can’t defeat someone who is tall.”

We take gender out of the argument and the argument itself becomes ridiculous. This is an argument that’s not based in facts or reality, but rather one based in gender bias and societal conditioning. The “science” argument is just there to legitimize their position, but has no real basis in reality. The argument is telling you a woman can’t defeat a man because she’s a woman. Ask, what about a 220 pound woman? And watch them sputter.

This person you were speaking to was fantasizing all violent conflicts as duels, or physical conflicts with no surprises. Violence is not a stats game. Weight will do jack all against a knife, for example. This fantasy man will go down like a wet paper bag from a blow by a tire iron. Let’s not talk about guns. Even with weapons removed from the mix, weight isn’t an issue except in grappling. Here’s the thing: weight is a main consideration to the untrained, the ones with no martial training.

They hyperfocus on size rather than technique because size is the only advantage they have. They think weight is unbeatable because it has always worked for them. Weight does matter on the playground, size is intimidating when you’re six and up against a bullying boy of twelve. Starke likes this comment from a police officer once told him which is, “most people haven’t been in a fight since high school.”

Martial combat places its focus on disruption. You roll your wrist against the thumb when someone grabs you to escape because the thumb is the weakest point in the grip. You block a punch before it extends, because you put your extended arm against a fist with the elbow still bent that fist is going nowhere. Step between someone’s legs and a simple push to the chest or head can destabilize their whole body. The force of a punch comes, not from physical strength, but from the hips and shoulders, from the momentum generated by your body. You can control a tall man by grabbing him by the head and craning it sideways so his whole body is off kilter. Where the head goes, the body follows.

Size has its advantages, and its weaknesses. Exploiting those weaknesses is what martial training is all about.

This person can’t conceive of a world where weight isn’t considered important, where it doesn’t really matter because you’ve already learned to deal with it. There will always be someone who is taller, someone who is physically stronger, who is physically faster, who is more clever, who is smarter, who is more gifted than you are. However, that’s no reason to give up.

There are policewomen and female firefighters, female soldiers, female EMTs, guerrilla fighters, mercenaries, a female soldier just recently qualified for special forces training this November. You can check out Samantha Swords if you want to look at women who practice HEMA. There are women all over the martial arts world. They own their own schools, they compete in tournaments, they are self-defense specialists who run their own seminars teaching other women.

“No way”, especially when used broadly about an entire gender that reflects half of the planet’s human population, is an argument you can ignore.

I’ve been researching, but I don’t know if I’m just really bad at it or what, because I was wondering if it would make sense for my medieval military to wear tall, slightly heeled boots kind of like Wonder Woman’s, and if the boots would inhibit their movement too much or if I should change their footwear

Historically high heels are riding shoes and they’re for your cavalry, so the foot stays in the stirrup. Your standard infantry would not wear them. Generally, the shoes word during the middle ages (depending on period) were completely flat. The high heel didn’t become a fashion item until the 1700s and, in the beginning, were still worn by men.

Here are some middle ages shoes. Here are more shoes. The sabaton is the piece of armor which goes over the top of the shoe and protects the shin. This is the armor, depending on period, your soldiers (who were able to afford the armor) would wear. Wool and leather were also armor worn during the period. You can also watch Lindybeige discussing the reenactment medieval shoes he ordered for his HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) and why they work well with sabatons.

Some other resources: Medieval Warfare, Scholagladiatoria, and Wikitenaur.

If you don’t mind helping, what type of build would a knife fighter need/develop? And how would they train/be trained? Thanks so much.

An athletic build like the kind you see off of long distance runners. Their muscles will be long, developed by hours of stretching them out versus thick like you get off weight lifting. This build will be more a product of their physical conditioning regimen than their training, and what you’ll get off most martial arts combatants who don’t run around in heavy armor or are bowmen/women. You do a lot of physical conditioning in any sort of martial training to build up your endurance. This means lots of running, lots of wind sprints, lots of development of the lungs, and the body’s core to build up balance. They’ll be doing a lot of sit ups.

How they were trained would depend on the era they exist in, the country where they live, and the kind of blades available. This is part of the problem with general questions like this because martial combat training is very specific to and heavily reliant on the world your character exists in. Combat and martial training are responses to environmental threats, so a character who has to deal with heavily armored opponents on the regular will be trained differently than someone who grew up in South Central.

Knife fighting is butcher’s work. You don’t need to be trained in the use of a knife to wield one effectively in close quarters. They’re a fast weapon that is used to gain significant advantage in hand to hand combat. Bull rush, stab a guy in the stomach six times, and he’s done. The knife itself is a utility tool in most martial arts systems and primarily used to support other weapons, or, again, as a hand to hand tool. You use the knife because you want an advantage in unarmed situations.

Ergo, your knife fighter will also be/should also be a skilled hand to hand combatant because if they have been trained to fight will start with hands first. Hands are safer, and in a structured system provide the building blocks which are necessary for the more deadly techniques.

Marc MacYoung’s “Knife Fighting Lies” is a good breakdown about the difference between knife fighting taught in martial arts versus knife fighting in the real world. Keep in mind when reading that he’s specifically discussing knives in self-defense and rebuking the fantasies of martial arts, but it is a good breakdown if you want to bring a knife fighter into your fiction.

When asking about knife fighting, I assume you mean systems like Indonesian and Filipino martial arts such as Silat and the kerambit. Or, something similar. The graceful, deadly knife fighter of fiction is going to come out of traditional martial arts systems that heavily emphasize hand to hand where the knife is a utility tool accentuating techniques the student has learned. This means the knife fighter’s training won’t really be any different from that of the standard martial artist. Their training will depend on the system used, and what that system prioritizes. Use of the knife will be the last thing they learn rather than the first. They will never train with a live knife, especially never with a practice partner. The practice knife will be made of rubber or wood or blunted metal (like all practice weapons, the only time you will train with a “live” weapon is sticks or staves, and even the ends of those can be padded during sparring.)

Knife fighting is deadly. Knife fighting is about killing other human beings. Knife fighting can easily end in a double homicide with both participants dead if they both have knives. Knives are ambush weapons, so practically its not good to think of them as dueling tools. Knife fights are usually over in a few moves, so we’re talking a fight that lasts (at best) thirty seconds. Most likely, the fight will be shorter than that. Any wound from the knife can kill you, and you won’t escape unscathed.

Sammy Franco has a good discussion of knife fighting you can find on his website.

Kill or Get Killed by Colonel Rex Applegate (1943) is still considered the go-to manual for Western style hand to hand combat. I’d say this is a good starting point for anyone with an interest in knife fighting from a modern combat/warfare perspective.

-Michi

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Q&A: Mounted Archers

What can counter horse archers? It seemed like they could counter almost anything that came their way, constantly just circling around an enemy and whittling them down with a constant rain of arrows

Shock cavalry would do the job. Also, if you can encircle an enemy force, they’re screwed. Doesn’t matter if you have mounted archers, or just on foot, if you can get behind your foe and attack from the rear, they’re going to be in a very bad state.

Historically, generals would seek to protect their forces’ flanks. Usually by deploying skirmishers to respond to anyone who tried to move past and strike from from some other direction. Mounted archers are far less threatening, when they’re being harried by your own light cavalry. They don’t need to actually kill them, they just need to force them to stay on the move, so they can’t function effectively.

Mounted archers had five major weaknesses. These aren’t exactly counters, but they’re factors which meant their usefulness was limited. In their environment, they were devastating, but these were extremely high maintenance units.

Strategic mobility is a problem for almost all mounted units. This may sound counterintuitive, because, “horses are fast,” which is true, but they also exhaust quickly over long distances. Figure that if you needed to move forces more than a couple day’s ride away, infantry would arrive sooner, and be in better fighting shape. As it turns out, humans are stupidly resistant to exhaustion; horses, not so much.

This also leads into another major, related, weakness: mounted archers are, almost exclusively, an offensive unit. You can’t move them around to respond to attacks. You may be able to engineer a tactical scenario that would benefit from them, but even in your example above the mounted archers are on the attack.

Logistically, mounted archers are very involved. This is hinted at above. The rider and mount both need to draw rations. For fast response units, you’d need multiple mounts at various way stations, as the rider traveled. (This is the easiest way to work around the horse’s limited endurance.) You’d also need to keep their ammunition supplied.

In contrast, with infantry, you just need to keep them fed and armed. What this means is that you can, reasonably, field a much larger infantry force than you could with mounted archers. Similar considerations apply for any mounted units, and also with any archers, but a mounted archer gets both, making them, logistically, expensive.

As a related thing, mounted archery’s difficult. I mean, archery’s not easy under the best of circumstances, the bow takes a lot of skill, but being on an unstable platform makes it significantly more difficult to hit your mark.

Worth remembering, while we’re covering this, historically, archers weren’t used for precision fire. That kind of accuracy was unusual. They were used for more general, “shoot over there,” rather than trying to pick off individual people. So, you’re really looking more at a unit that can deliver damage to a general area at range, and move if threatened.

Someone’s probably thinking about the Mongols right now. The short answer is, some of these factors were circumvented because of their nomadic nature, and the culture they lived in. If you build your entire culture around something, you’re going to have a lot of people who are exceptional in that field. With the Mongols, that was horses. This also bypasses a big part of the logistical issues, because you didn’t have to provide additional rations for a mounted archer, given the core of their forces were already mounted, the rations were a fact of life.

Rough terrain is a problem for any cavalry force. It’s not as severe for mounted archers, they don’t depend on their mounts to close distance quickly. However, it does still limit their mobility, which reduces their value. In some places you’d be better off with non-mounter archer support. In more severe terrain, the archers themselves will be a waste.

One of the biggest weaknesses for mounted archers are walls. Seriously, a fortified town or outpost is the end of the road for them. There’s no value for a horse when your opponent is immobile. At that point, it’s down to sieging, and the mount becomes a liability. It still has to be fed, tended, and taken care of, while it can’t contribute anything to the campaign.

This also works in reverse. If you have mounted archers, you get no value from the horse during the siege.

Of course, if the siege is successful, we’re back to horses being a liability during the assault on the city. Maneuvering in tight spaces, like street to street fighting in densely packed cities, is also not going to work well with the horse. This is another one of those cases where it’s not a problem for mounted archers, but mounted forces in general.

Now, close quarters is only an issue if your cities (and fortresses) are tightly packed spaces. Which starts to deal with something about how civilizations expand.

If there’s a lot of open land, cities are more likely to sprawl out. This is even true in pre-industrial civilizations. The overall population density will gradually rise, particularly around trade points, or along major routes, but it will be more gradual. As a result, buildings will be further apart.

If the available land is limited, particularly by geological features like mountains or water, then the population density will be higher. (There won’t be room to spread out, so, they’ll cluster closer together.) Those people will still need food, and as a result agricultural centers that can ship food into the city is a necessity. This may be up in the hills above the city, in the next valley over, or up the river. Regardless, there needs to be a way to get food into the city.

Another major factor is how aggressive nearby civilizations are. Even if there’s a lot of theoretically clear land, a city might be densely packed, because of enemy forces. In situations like this, you might see heavily fortified cities, with lots of, technically, usable land outside. In that case, food transport into the city would need to be secure. (Again, river travel makes sense. Though overland shipping becomes much riskier, and leaves the city more vulnerable to siege.)

Mounted archers were effective, but it’s one of those combat roles that has a very specific application, and outside of that it seriously starts to falter. Though, not letting your forces get flanked will go a long way towards preventing the situation you’re describing.

-Starke

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Q&A: Anachronism Stew

Could carrying multiple weapons at the hip be at all practical? My rogue knight, he’s paranoid so he carries a dagger, a tomahawk, a broadsword, and a scimitar on him at almost all times. Would this work in any way?

There’s a few questions here.

Multiple weapons is normal. That’s not even a paranoia thing. At the very least, a character would carry a primary weapon (maybe a spear or other polearm), and a sidearm (a sword, battle axe, or something similar.) They’d probably also carry a dagger. Historically these were a combination of eating implement, multipurpose tool, and emergency weapon. Depending on context, they may also carry a shield (which is, ultimately a weapon in its own right.)

A hatchet would end up in a kind odd state here. It’s reasonable for them to carry it as a tool. They probably wouldn’t use it in combat by choice, but if it’s the only thing you can reach, sure. This puts it in a similar class to the dagger, but carrying both would still make sense.

It’s also possible, depending on their culture, that they’d carry throwing weapons. Throwing axes or javelins are the two that come to mind. (Probably because you mentioned tomahawks.)

The term tomahawk throws me off a bit. The word is Algonquian. This isn’t a bad thing, but it is something to keep in mind if your setting is a pseudo-medieval Europe. Trade off is, if you’re wanting a “New World Colonization,” theme, then yeah, a tomahawk would make sense. Though, at that point, your character would probably be carrying a musket as their primary, a pistol (or several), a saber, possibly a bow, a knife, and said tomahawk. Again, nothing wrong with this if you want to step into an early modern setting (think 17th century), it is an incredibly interesting era that’s undeserved in popular fantasy. So, feel free. Though, you might want to do some additional research before you jump in.

There’s another weapon nitpick: the broadsword and scimitar combo is weird. The scimitar is Middle Eastern. The broadsword is an anachronism. Unless you have a character who’s dual wielding, I’d recommend only bringing one dedicated sidearm. (The pistols example above is an anomaly. Some combatants carried multiple black powder pistols and would simply swap out weapons instead of reloading them in combat. This was a rarity, and fell out of practice as faster reload systems became prevalent.)

So, we have an anachronism stew here. We’ve got a European knight, who’s using a Persian weapon, and a Native American weapon. This is a little odd. (The word, Scimitar, entered English from either French or Italian.) You can bring all of this together, but it’s worth remembering that weapons, (and martial arts) aren’t universal. Historically, these had regional roots. Picking them indiscriminately can, at best, result in an anachronistic mess, and at worst can be downright offensive.

I’m not sure what you’re after with, “rogue knight.” I mean, is he supposed to be multi-classed, because the real world didn’t work like that. A knight spent most of his life training for combat. There wasn’t really time for him to go out and develop a side career as a thief.

Now, if your setting has militant orders who train for clandestine warfare, sneaking in and around, that’s an option. There’s no real world equivalent. Modern special forces were an evolution of the extreme lethality of 19th and 20th century combat, though it’s possible a fantasy setting may have militant orders that operate like this.

Another possibility is that your character wanders around, basically of their own accord. In that case, the term you’re looking for is Knight Errant.

A former knight who’d been excommunicated could also be described as rogue. I’m not at all sure how that works out, but I’m confidant your character would have cause to be a bit paranoid if that were the case. Particularly if there are religious inquisitions on the lose. Most of the time we think of the Spanish Inquisition (15th century), but the inquisitions date back to the 12th. Militant orders date to the 10th, so there’s some overlap here.

Putting this together, it is possible, you have an excommunicated knight who fled to The New World to avoid inquisitorial scrutiny. This could get close to the specific combination of weapons you’re looking at, but we’re realistically talking mid 17th century here. Of course, with a fantasy setting, things start to shuffle around a bit.

So, in answer to your final question, could this work? Yes, but that loadout is a little awkward. You may want to do some further research on the era you’re looking at, before you start tweaking the world.

-Starke

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Q&A: Hide Armor

Would fur or hide prevent injury effectively? One of my characters, a barbarian, she’s wearing boar skin pelt over a chainmail shirt, and I want to know if the pelt itself would be able to prevent an arrow or sword blow?

For the arrow, probably not. For a sword blow, it might absorb a glancing slash, but a solid hit or a thrust wouldn’t stop it. But, there are some factors here worth considering.

The original animal the hide came from does matter some. If it’s a normal animal, that can be hunted with a bow, then a single layer of hide probably isn’t going to stop an arrow. (This includes boar skin.) I mean, it didn’t work when the creature was alive, now that it’s dead that hasn’t changed.

Here’s the caveat: a character might layer multiple hides together. So, while one deerskin wouldn’t stop an arrow, several layers might do the trick. (I’m not sure how many layers you’d realistically need.)

It’s also possible that the way the layers are attached to one another could significantly affect their protective ability. Three or four layers held together by a semi-rigid resin could offer some significant protection.

Finally, the if the hides, or even one layer mixed in, is something significantly tougher, it might do far better shrugging off abuse. Deerskin armor might not be a great idea, but in a fantasy setting, the armor may incorporate something far more exotic like werewolf hide. At that point, the rules associated with it will vary based on how that works in your world.

A fantasy barbarian could be wandering around in hides that include a couple more exotic beasties she’s snuffed out along the way. This is also a reasonable character affectation, as she just keeps accumulating the hides of things she’s killed, skinned, and treated, discarding the badly damaged outer layers as they become too mangled to offer much protection.

Personally, I wouldn’t want the chain shirt as the innermost layer. So, probably a layer of padded clothing (or, more likely, leather), then the chain, then her outer layers of hides. Other than that, layering armor is a real thing. Armor that’s well suited for one kind of assault may fail, at that point redundant protection is a good idea. For example: Plate Armor was almost always worn over a gambeson (padded armor.) (Usually with a layer of chain between the padding and plate, as I recall.)

Most things that get through the hides (even just boar hide) would be stopped by the chain. Direct arrow fire would still be bad news, but it would offer a lot of protection in melee. So, of someone did try to run her through, it’d (probably) go through the boarhide, and stop on the chain. (Though, some of the kinetic force would carry through, so that wouldn’t be fun. Though, again, a padded layer under the chain could go a long way towards blunting those hits.

The hides (again, even just boar hide) would be excellent at dealing with natural threats. Think wolves and things of that nature. Larger animals like bears or big cats would still be a significant threat, but against medium sized animals, it would help a lot.

Pelts are also an excellent way to manage cold temperatures. Boar wouldn’t be my choice (unless you’ve got furry boars in your world), but wolf or bear hides could do wonders for keeping her warm in arctic conditions. Again, in weather like that, I’d want a layer of insulation between the skin and chain, but it is a very legitimate way to keep warm. Hair and fur are excellent insulators.

If you presented the character to me, I’d assume the hide layers were to keep her warm, and the chain was for armor. Though the hide would take some abuse, it’s far more valuable against the cold.

-Starke

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Q&A: Supply Raid

Thanks for answering my ask, I didn’t notice because it wasn’t like all the other ask/answers. So for a different book, is there any way an infantry heavy force might be able to defeat armored vehicles? The protagonists are defending a coastal city they just recently captured full of food and oil but before they can ship it off or dig in, the enemy attacks with tanks they recently bought. I’d rather not end it abruptly with, “and then they were all run over. The end.”

technonecromancerderaxus

I’m just going to skim over the part where the other side just “bought,” their tanks. That’s not how a military usually works, and most mercenaries/PMCs aren’t going to be fielding tanks. So, that’s strange.

It would make sense if the enemy was redirecting tanks to deal with your characters. Especially, if they had previously used some form of misdirection to get their foes to deploy the tanks elsewhere. (For example: bad intelligence Misdirection and deception is a major part of strategic warfare. If you can get your foes to deploy their forces someplace out of the way, it’s almost as good as killing them, and can pave the way for that later.

Getting any mechanized warfare unit to deploy to the wrong place is an even bigger boon. Your foes need to spend fuel to move them around. This means, logistical damage has been done, even if it can come back into position later. It’s easy to think this isn’t a serious problem, but during long or massive campaigns, logistical resources can get stretched pretty tightly. This is on top of the part where your characters are getting ready to loot their fuel dump.

With that out of the way, there are a lot of options to deal with armor. Most of it specialized. There are plenty of infantry portable anti-tank weapons. There’s also anti-tank mines. If they just captured an enemy munitions stockpile, there’s probably a few things in there that could be used against a tank. There may also be some nastier improvised options, including flame traps using stolen fuel, or selective sabotage of the city’s infrastructure, so that it will fail under the weight of a tank, potentially neutralizing the vehicle.

The exact layout of the city matters for planning. Your characters need to hold the port long enough for extraction. That means the rest of the city may be reduced to territory that the hostile forces will need to clear, delaying their advance. Delay them long enough, and it may open the door to naval bombardment, close air support, or successful extraction.

So, a couple things to keep in mind. Tanks are heavy; most civilian streets cannot support their weight. Usually this isn’t much of a consideration, however, if you want to take a tank into a coastal village, things could quickly get squirrelly.

A lot of coastal ports tend to be built on inclines. If the terrain is too flat, the town would be on the tidal plain. This is even more likely if there’s a port present, because the water would need to be deep enough to accommodate sea going vessels. Trade off is, if you’ve got streets (and roads) designed to accommodate heavy shipping, they’re not going to have a problem with a tank or twenty. We’re back to sabotage here as a real option. Undermine the road (assuming your forces have time to), and you might be able to cut off the armored advance, and possibly put a few in the water in the process. (They’re probably not coming back from that.)

If the tanks get into the city, then you’re left with very dangerous threats that are not exceptionally mobile. In a larger city, they can’t exactly blast through skyscrapers without getting buried under the rubble, and that’s still a risk even in smaller towns. They can’t (safely) drive through buildings that get in their way because there is no way for them to know if they’re going in on solid ground, or if they’re about to fall into someone’s basement.

Also worth remembering, tanks are great for dealing with enemy vehicles. They don’t really excel at dealing with infantry in an urban environment. It’s like trying to kill a fly with shotgun slugs. It might work, but it’s not going to be efficient. Having said that, any competent armor column will have infantry support. They’re there to keep your infantry from sneaking up and chucking a satchel charge under the turret.

Assuming a competent column is coming in with full infantry support and your characters are in a bad state. But, this is where you need to remember their goals. Your characters don’t need to win the fight, they prolong it long enough to the oil and food extracted. That means, even if they’re in a losing situation, their main job is to delay the enemy as long as possible. Now, not going to lie, that’d get messy. You’re going to lose some characters. But, if the goal was to seriously hurt the enemy by stealing their supplies, your secondary characters are expendable ahead of that goal. Possibly even some of your main characters. It depends on the ending you’re going for.

It’s also possible that, in the end, your characters may decide to scuttle the depot. That’s one ending, and it still achieves a partial victory, even if there aren’t any survivors.

You need to decide what you want from your story. Then, you need to get creative. This isn’t an automatically losing situation, but it is a legitimate challenge for your characters, and there’s going to be some costs for them. Sounds like it has the makings of a decent ending to me.

-Starke

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