Tag Archives: writing weapons

Q&A: Don’t ask if the weapon works, consider what you did with it instead

I have a character whose weapon is a broomstick, like in Mulan’s training. I was pretty young when I came up with that, but should I change it ? Can a broomstick actually make a good weapon ? If not, what should I use instead ? All my characters have improvised weapons that they use for an extended period of time

Well, a broom is just a short or long staff with the side benefit of being able to potentially throw dust and detritus in the face of your enemy (and yourself) if wielded broom end first. (When did Mulan use a broomstick? Or a broomstick used like the staff Mulan trained with? Or when she was play fighting at home before she goes to training?) So, you’re asking if someone can do this with a broom? Then graduates into something more like this (starts 2:46,  for reference: this is high level martial arts choreography in competition from the SEA Games – Singapore (2015). This is equivalent to high level gymnastics. They’re choreographed fight scenes. Yes, there is a category dedicated to choreographed like a movie fight/dance sequence duels. Yes, this is one of the most popular and prestigious categories at some martial arts tournaments.)

The basic question to begin with is this: do you want the weapon to be a broom? Do you want the scenes to be serious or not? You can have a serious story with a silly weapon, but there is a vast difference between a Jackie Chan-esque fight sequence played for laughs when the experienced martial artist picks up the broom because it’s what they have available versus the character who has no idea what they’re doing and picks up the broom just because.

A Jackie Chan fight sequence will work like this:

 The experience martial artist finds themselves jumped by several guys, grabs the first weapon they come across. This weapon is a broom. They brandish it. (Pause.) The broom is a silly weapon, everyone (including the audience) laughs. Moment ends, and the fight begins. Experienced martial artist holds their own, kind of. Probably a few scenes where the broom head is shoved into someone’s face and used to wail about an enemy’s head. (This is Jackie Chan, so cleaning supplies may also be used.) However, this proves ineffective whenever the experienced martial artist attempts to fight with the broom end. They wield it like they would a staff, but only one end is helpful. They’re mostly free when more enemies arrive, someone brings an edged weapon.

New fight commences against more dangerous/experienced opponents. Experienced martial artist is pressed. Broom = advantage over unarmed enemies, less helpful against actual weapons. Fight sequence will have that broom head cut off by whichever enemy comes in wielding an edged weapon on the break beat. So, fight with the broom and kind of works; then broom becomes staff = accidental upgrade. Hero given new chance to make their escape.

Jackie Chan’s humor in his fight scenes, especially his early ones, is sophisticated in that it plays into your expectations and will subvert them several times in a single scene for laughs. We know the broom sucks as a weapon, so that brings in the uh-oh, but the martial artists/martial arts movie goers know the broom’s length and similarities to the staff will give the protagonist a slight chance against the enemies they’re facing.  Oh yay! Enemies underestimate the hero because their chosen weapon sucks. Hero proceeds to flail because the improvised weapon doesn’t behave the way a normal weapon would, hijinks ensue, but in the end they succeed… kind of. Hero either manages to make their escape from the bad situation or a new enemy shows up with higher stakes to raise the tension. (More skill, better weapon.)

Underdog > Winner > Underdog.

The beat goes like this:

1) We know the broom is a silly weapon. (Audience and Enemy expectation.)

2) After overcoming their own surprise/shock, hero does the first thing they can think of in line with their training: wield the broom like a staff. Proves to be successful. (Enemy and Audience surprised.)

3) Hijinks. (The hero turn tables and is winning… kind of. This is the period where the surprise is behind the hero, so they’ve a little room to mess around. Someone’s nose is getting tickled, or they’re taking a broom head to the face.)

4) The broom fails at key moments. (Enemy adjusts past their surprise.) Hero will find themselves in a position of accidentally striking with the broom head; which does nothing because, (surprise), you can’t wield a broom exactly like a staff. (Hero and weapon incompatible.) The hero becomes pressed as smarter enemies come up with new strategies.

5) Weapon conveniently breaks to create the needed staff against stronger enemies. Hero still at disadvantage.

What Jackie Chan does is a pretty sophisticated in the balancing of audience expectation combined with an understanding of how to balance weapons, enemies, and genre convention to create both humor and tension. That’s the root of his success as a choreographer, and why I do recommend watching his fight sequences compared to other less successful martial artists. His storytelling through action is much better, especially when you want unconventional surprises.

He understands the boundaries of realism, and incorporates the failings of an object into his fight scenes as well as the successes. He’s thinking from multiple angles, which is what makes his characters so relatable. Jackie Chan is king of making his fight scenes feel spur of the moment, his characters go with their gut and training when put under pressure. However, the situation doesn’t always fit that training perfectly (broom =/= staff) and so this creates new problems for the hero. He shifts the hero’s advantages into disadvantages and their disadvantages into advantages, this happens on multiple levels in the scene.

Hero has superior fight training (advantage), but there are too many enemies (overwhelming disadvantage) so they must run. Hero finds a weapon similar to one they’re used to using (advantage!), but the weapon is improvised (surprise disadvantage!), their training works to fend off multiple enemies (advantage!!), but fails to be totally successful so they end up only holding their own (disadvantage!!), then new enemies arrive with better weapons (overwhelming disadvantage!!!), and the pattern repeats with higher stakes.

The problem with improvised weapons is in the name: improvised.

A broom can be wielded like a staff but, when wielded just like one would a staff, it will fail at key moments. The broom is not a staff, a broom is a broom. For the most part, you can only use one end of the broom successfully where a staff uses both ends. For a character (like Jackie Chan) who is utilizing Chinese staff work, this is a big problem they’ll end up stumbling into. Staves are either used with the tip to stab if wielded by holding the bottom like one would with a spear, or from the center where they rotate between top and bottom in their strike pattern. A staff can strike at your head, and on the next strike at your opposing thigh. As a weapon, the staff is one of the most versatile and very easy to use. However, in this case, you’re going to end up switching between hard end/soft end on every second or third strike. (You can use this for humor too because humor is in patterns and expectations broken at surprising moments.) Hard (ouch), soft (fine), hard (ouch!), soft (fine?), hard (ouch!!), soft (fine?!), CRAP! Both characters glance at the broom head. Enemy smiles. Hero starts wailing on enemy with the hard end, and breaks the pattern.

Jackie Chan knows how to fight and understands audience expectations (primarily Chinese audiences) and genre conventions (primarily wuxia action scenes), which is why his visual gags work. He’s, honestly, in a class of his own when it comes to fight choreography because of this. Like most martial artists, he knows you can take the broom end off and then you’d just have a staff. Like a great choreographer, he’ll see the potential failings and weaknesses in the improvisation. Then, he’d plan to incorporate them into his scenes for humor. Funny comes from failure and surprise success.

The version of this for the character who has no idea what they’re doing (and therefore is not using Chinese martial arts), is Rapunzel from Tangled and her frying pan. The frying pan is an unexpected weapon, but it works and serves to emphasize to the audience that Rapunzel has no idea what she’s doing when it comes to violence. This is where a frying pan is different from, say, a machete or a tire iron. So, again, there’s humor in subverted expectations. We don’t expect the frying pan to work, then it does more than she expects. We’re consistently reminded that the heroine doesn’t really know what she’s doing and she’s never given a real weapon, which keeps her safely in the non-combatant role while allowing her to be active/assert herself at key narrative moments. Her character has other skills that are more useful, and the frying pan shows the audience Rapunzel’s resourcefulness as a character.

In fiction, weapons show us something about the character and create certain expectations that are based in genre cliches. The hero who picks up a named sword is the narratively anointed Chosen One, whether that is played straight or not. Improvised weapons serve primarily as a means of showing resourcefulness, but they are either props (like in the Jackie Chan example) to be discarded when a better weapon comes along or they’re character defining like in the Rapunzel example where the weapon is a symbolic representation of personality and role.

Rapuzel, as a character, doesn’t know enough about martial combat to reach beyond what works in the moment whereas a Jackie Chan protagonist isn’t going to stick with the broom because they know the broom won’t work long term. The threats a Jackie Chan protagonist is going to face will be primarily physical, and the resourcefulness he exhibits is the “whatever works” mentality. Meanwhile, Rapunzel’s on an emotional journey of self-discovery and her primary antagonist is Mother Gothel.

Mother Gothel’s violence is entirely emotional. Flynn using the frying pan is a callback to Rapunzel using the frying pan which serves late story as a means to firmly unite the two characters together on a thematic level, so we the audience no longer question his loyalty. It also serves the character on a “well, it worked on me” level. We understand why Flynn might think using the frying pan is a good idea, which is the dual overlay you need. Internal justification to serve the narrative’s external thematic needs.

So, the question about using a broomstick as a weapon is entirely on you. It will certainly work in general as either a scene prop or an expression of identity. The question is whether or not it will work for the story you’re telling and the challenges your characters are facing.

An improvised weapon is spur of the moment. You can wrap the toaster to your hand and use it as an impromptu set of brass knuckles, but that doesn’t make it the same as brass knuckles. If you had a choice between the toaster and brass knuckles, you’d probably pick the brass knuckles. There’s the recognizably violent improvised weapons associated with mobsters and gangs like tire irons, baseball bats, crowbars, wrenches, etc; and those will put your character into the (middling) combatant category. There’s the machete which is practically a sword, and the sledgehammer which is practically a two handed warhammer, and the shovel which is potentially a spear. The last form of improvised weaponry is chemical warfare with household items and bomb building. The closer we get to the weapon category, the closer we get to live combatant territory. The narrative expectations are different for non-combatants and combatants, the behavior is also different.

The warrior is going to be looking for the better weapon. You’ve got a character with Mulan-style Chinese military training then the first thing they’ll do once they’re in a safe space is break off or cut off the broom end to make either a staff or a sharpened end for a spear. They’ll modify whatever they have to make it more dangerous. They’ll find the kitchen knives or the box cutters or whatever else is lying around that’s sharp. They’ll grab the tire irons and the wrenches; they’ll grab multiple objects because that’s how their mind works. They’re looking for what’s going to give them an advantage in the situation, especially when they don’t know what that situation is.

The staff is a helpful weapon because of it’s reach advantage. As I pointed out in the Jackie Chan example, you can use a staff to fend off multiple attackers and gain an advantage when you’re overwhelmed. Numbers are overwhelming, in that situation you’re better off armed than unarmed, and the distance the staff provides means keeping multiple enemies at distance is easier. In the Jackie Chan scenario, the broom is actually a great choice. The surprise is the broom doesn’t seem like it would be on the surface because we don’t think of brooms as staves. However, the underlying theme in the Jackie Chan scenario is you use the weapon until it ceases to be useful. While the drawbacks are funny, they’re also realistic.

The non-combatant like Rapunzel will grab what works and, for the most part, they’ll stay there. They have no experience, so if it worked once then it’ll likely work again and they’re going to approach every scenario the same way until personal experience or the wisdom of another more experienced character teaches them not to do that anymore. For example, Rapunzel wants to escape from the guards. She doesn’t want to fight them. They’re outside of what she’s capable of handling as a character, and violence is not her purpose. Her advantage is surprise, and the fact her enemy underestimates her because she is seemingly helpless, she’s a genuine, kind, mildly confused young woman without a combat background, and gives no sign of being dangerous to someone else who is vastly more qualified. Her character arc is her learning to stand up for herself. (Never make the mistake of believing “female” is universal for being underestimated. The character’s background is more important and more influential than their gender/sex.)

One of these setups has the violence at the forefront, and in the other the violence is on the back burner. There’s action and conflict, but the physical violence is not what you’d get in a wuxia film or Hollywood big budget summer action flick. You’ve got to answer which story you’re telling. That has nothing to do with whether or not the broom will work as a weapon and is entirely dependent on who your characters are. (For example, they can’t use a broom like a Chinese staff without training but they certainly could use it successfully as a self-defense weapon.)

Like with Rapunzel, an improvised weapon can be a great limiter that allows you to set a character’s ability at a certain level and say, no further. It is a hard limit, reflecting their personality; emphasizing what the character is capable of both in terms of their combat ability and their resourcefulness. It limits the kind of violence you’re going to allow in your story, because it limits the potential violence your characters can successfully participate in, and potentially the level of graphic detail.

In fiction, a character tackling a Navy Seal head on with a broom is going to be a joke and an act of desperation whether it’s played straight or not. You could certainly tackle a Navy Seal with a broom, you might even win, but it wouldn’t be a good idea. That’s the point of the improvised weapon, they’re weapons of desperation. You use it until you can figure out something better.

Or, they’re magical. Everyday household item imbued with magic to transform it into Weapon X is a weapon the protagonist is just stuck with. See: The Spoon of Perpetual Torment. (“It’s perpetually tormenting me, okay!”)

If you plan to play this for laughs, the broom and other improvised weapons aren’t a joke that will last you 60,000 words. The spoon of perpetual torment won’t last that long either. You’ll get a scene out of the gag, maybe two if you’re clever. They require you understand how to use the broom, creativity, and an understanding of how staves work in combat in order to pass the gist on.

Humor requires you keep moving because you’re subverting patterns and expectations. The surprise broom weapon is a surprise once, the nervousness and tension accompanying its use will last you one scene. This is why, in a wuxia setup, the broom gets broken at an opportune moment to become a staff. We continue with the surprises by turning the tables one way or the other in order to keep the audience invested.

The weapons your characters choose are reflections of their decision making, they will say something thematically about them whether you wanted that connotation or not. Fight scenes are built on stacking advantages against disadvantages. Instead of just building a single chessboard, you put the chessboard on a spit, play for a bit, and then spin it to rearrange all the pieces when a new challenger enters. That shifting tension is where the interesting parts of the fight scene happen. How you get that tension doesn’t matter, really. The first step is recognizing that it’s there. The underdog serves an important conceptual purpose when balancing out what the character can and can’t handle.

That’s the external logic.

There’s also the character’s internal logic of why they chose this particular weapon. It can be as simple as they ran through the hall closet or past a bunch of cleaning supplies left out by the janitor.

They started by grabbing the bucket, threw gross soapy water at their enemy, then ran out of things to do with the bucket. So, they threw it at their enemies and grabbed the mop. The enemies slip on the soapy water spread over the floor, buying the protagonist time. The mop worked okay at keeping the enemies away, but the head was heavy because of the water and didn’t swing well. So, they threw it and ran. The time their enemies spend getting past the mop buys the protagonist time to find a new weapon, but less than last time. The bad guys are almost on them when, finally, they locate the broom. Trapped in an empty hall without a good exit, against three (now soapy) enemies. They went, “well, why not?”, whip around, and brandish it broom head first.

They look at the bad guys, the bad guys look at them. Then, the three bad guys look at each other and laugh. While they’re distracted, the protagonist lunges in. Attacks with the broom.

In this example, you see the internal logic based on character’s choice of action combines with the Goldilocks pattern of threes.  We know the third option is just right. The second is we get closer and closer to the right/best available choice.

The bucket didn’t work, and has no reach. The worst that happened was the bad guys got wet. However, the water on the floor provides the character time to get to their next weapon. The mop sort of worked, but the head was too heavy. When they throw it, their enemies trip over it, buying them time but less than before. The broom isn’t perfect, but we’ve seen how its a better version of the mop. However, the situation has changed and the protagonist is now in a worse situation than before.

The audience receives catharsis, has confidence in the character’s choice, but new problems have arisen to create new tensions. On top of that, the scene has served the secondary purpose of showing the character’s problem solving skills.

The changing environment gives the protagonist a chance to shine without hampering the tension provided by the three unnamed mooks, whom we know are dangerous because the protagonist wants to escape from them. The protagonist isn’t trying to beat the mooks, they’re trying to escape (because they’re smart, they know three on one is terrible odds. Take note from The Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai. Six bullets, seven enemies. Numbers kill.) They try to run, but the situation forces them to fight their way out.

Here’s what we learned from the scene: they picked the best weapon available to them, they’re capable of using their environment to help them, the change in terrain can provide an advantage (enemies trying to get across a slick floor), long weapons are good against multiple enemies (they create barriers), and light weapons with smaller heads are better than heavy ones.

Our protagonist is clever enough to turn a situation where they face overwhelmingly poor odds that should get them killed or captured to their advantage. The audience gets a tense fight and a chance to become invested in the main character’s survival. We answer all our narrative questions.

This is how you show a character is good at fighting. It’s not beating an enemy that matters, it’s how they did it, what the odds were, and how well you paced the fight itself.

The answer with everything is that it doesn’t matter if it’s a good idea or not. Stories don’t exist in “good ideas”, they exist in “what happened when these two things combined?” What happens when a Chinese martial artist skilled at staff combat picks up a broom to defend themselves? What happens when a teenager picks up a broom? Both situations equally have the potential to be interesting. The question is, what happens? Munchkining your character to victory won’t help them, giving them better odds just means you do more work to stack the odds higher against them.

The odds and outcome will decide for the character whether their choice was right or not. Every weapon will have strengths and drawbacks. There is no one size fits all. A gun is great, provided you stay at distance but, eventually, you’re going to run out of bullets. Swords are great, if you know how to use them, but there’ll be situations where they won’t work. Both sword and staff could get stuck on a doorframe. Too many enemies is absolutely certain death, even for the most skilled combatant. A fight scene is heavily dependent on where it’s occurring, what’s happening around it, and where the priorities of the combatants are.

This is where the narrative’s internal logic is important. As the author, you can decide lots of things externally and be focused on Point A and Point B. You can get caught up on external themes. You can get caught on the plot you’ve envisioned, or the decisions you made prior to starting the story. However, if your characters aren’t justifying those choices through their actions in the narrative then all you have are dolls getting smashed together.

Essentially, like lots of authors, you skipped the question of: why the broom?

I don’t care why you decided on the broom. At some point in your life, author you thought it would be cool. No, I care about why your character decided they were going to carry this broom around with them. Why did they pick it up? Why did they decide to keep it? Spend some time thinking about the broom, and not as a combat weapon. Think about the logistics of carrying this thing around, what your protagonist is going to do with it, how other people react when they see it, how they feel about the broom. If this is challenging, just take a day and carry a broom around with you in a public place. If that’s too intimidating, then do it inside your house. Every time you move, everywhere you go, pick it up and carry it with you.

I can tell you, having had to carry staves around before, it’s gonna get annoying pretty quickly. However, you will figure out how to set it so it doesn’t fall over, rest it on your shoulder, and all the other day to day bits your character will need to do when they’re not fighting with it. Your ability to convey the broom and its importance to your audience is what matters, and the most important bonding factors have nothing to do with its usefulness to fighting.

She uses a broom because she either knows how to use it, is comfortable using it, or is confident in her ability to use it rather than another, better weapon. Or, ditch the broom and go with the staff. It is one of the most innocuous weapons.

Lastly, unless you’re really stuck on Mulan, I advise you to focus on figuring out basic staff movements in the cross-pattern before getting stuck trying to figure out (much less write) Chinese martial arts. Wushu is very pretty, but you may break your brain trying to figure out the mechanics of the neck spin trick as seen in the broom fight scene from Cowboy Bepop. If you haven’t figured out or conceptualized the concept of attacking with two ends interchangeably, grasping the reasoning behind the circular sweeps might be difficult.  (For reference, this is what the Mulan staff work translates to in real life martial arts competitions.) The question you need to answer is not just why your character fights with a broom, but why would they choose to if they were trained to fight with a staff? It is really easy to take one and get the other. So, why keep the broom intact?

-Michi

(Starke and I are still sick, so I apologize for any grammatical errors, slips in this post, and nonsensical sentences in this post.)

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Q&A: Amnesia is Autopilot

Hey! Are individual fighting styles recognizable? I’ve got a character who is a master with the glaive and before the story she has an encounter with another character who sees her fight. Neither recognize each other when they meet up again because he couldn’t see her face due to her armor and she lost her memory. However I don’t know how common the glaive was during its use or how recognizable an individual’s fighting style is so is it possible that he might recognize her by watching her fight?

Style requires there be more than one version of the weapon discipline. This is likely. Mastery requires an individual style that has been practiced long enough that it has been formally recognized by whichever group is the decider, and has taken on students or linked to a martial school or the single individual who created it. So, you wouldn’t have a “master of the glaive” but instead a “master of the Black Rose style, specializing in the glaive, recognized by the Seven Sisters.”  Unless the whole style itself revolved singularly around the glaive and even then it’s, “trained in Master Ferro’s glaive style.” or “the western reaches glaive style” or “farmhand glaive” or whatever. Beyond that “glaive” is just one term for the weapon and weapon family, there are others. It could be called something completely different in a different country. The naginata, for example, is a glaive. The Russians called it a sovnya. Usage of the weapon varied based on country and culture with a variety of styles surrounding its use. The most unrealistic thing in Protector of the Small series regarding Kel’s glaive/naginata is that the contemporary European Tortall didn’t have an easily recognizable version of its own.

It’s possible to identify what style a person has been trained in, but less likely to identify the individual unless they’re famous or practice a unique style. If the onlooker is familiar with the style or the style is incredibly unique as in its passed on specifically from master to apprentice and only two people in the world know it. That would require your female character killed her master as a graduation test, like Kenshin was supposed to when he finally completed the Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu. That or the weapon just doesn’t exist in the part of the world where she’s traveling or uses a style wholly alien. Even then, the other character would have to know the singular individual who practices it and, like with Himura Kenshin, that opens her up to being recognized by everyone. Even if she is the progenitor of her own style like Bruce Lee and has taught it to others, she won’t be recognized on style alone due to being an amnesiac. That’s a severe hit to skill level, and she won’t be anywhere near at the level she’d need to be in order to be recognized as a famous warrior or master. (That is the point of an amnesia plot.)

The people who can identify a personal style are:

Your Master. (This is the person who raised you, they are your martial art parent. They know you, possibly better than your own parents do and they’ll recognize you anywhere.)

Your Training Partners. (This is not trained with them once, this is trained with them for years, as good as family, and are sworn brothers. People the character has spent a lot of time fighting with.)

Your Students. (Like with a master, students can recognize their teacher. Like a child recognizes their parent. They spend a lot of time watching them.)

Your Sworn Enemies. (These are the people you’ve spent a lot of time fighting. If someone spends a lot of time trying to kill you and you trying to kill them, they can usually recognize the threat at a distance without help.)

So, unless this other character is one of the above, him recognizing her by watching her fight is unlikely. He’d need to be someone who saw her when she wasn’t at her best, when she struggled in the beginning, or what she looks like when she’s either at her worst or on a bad day. If his only experience is he saw her once at a tournament or on the battlefield in passing then he’s not going to associate the current article with the distant memory. He’d be more likely to recognize her by fighting her, if he’s fought her in the past. The likeliest outcome is he’d recognize her as a talented beginner or at an intermediate level who is worth training further, which leads him to seek her out. That, or, they share the same style and had the same trainer so he feels comfortable going to talk to her. This outcome requires their civilization have some sort of training and patronage system.

I’d abandon the idea she still fights as well as she used to, and roll reacquiring of her skills into her character arc. Otherwise, you’ll end up with the same problem lots of writers run into when they make a character too good. If the character doesn’t struggle, the fight sequences suffer and lose their tension. If you apply the term “master” to a character they will be expected to win. Tension is challenge based.

A character who is at pinnacle skill level must fight characters at a similar or greater skill level while taking into account all that skill and experience implies. With hyper competent characters, we get more out of challenging them where their skills are lacking like Geralt from The Witcher dealing with politicians or solving puzzles where violence is the worst possible choice. This is why you should always be careful when metering out between beginner, intermediate, skilled, very skilled, and exceptional. The trade off for characters at the top of their game is they’re limited. There’s less about them to make them interesting, and new growth is required outside their attained skill set. Unless amnesia sends them back to start and they’re regaining skills faster than they can handle, it won’t be enough to change that.

Most of what makes a style unique to an individual happens cognitively in the choices they make and the skills they choose to utilize rather than what’s based in their muscle memory. A character fighting on autopilot (which is what’s happening here) is going to be very different from a character who is actively making choices based on past experiences and prior knowledge. Unless she’s working with Jason Bourne type amnesia (and even if she is), the amnesiac character is going to be missing key pieces that bring her style up to a master’s level. (I’d also rethink mastery if she’s anywhere under thirty-five, especially if you’ve never spent time around martial arts masters.)

A martial arts master is not a character who is very good, exceptional, or at the top of their martial art.  You can be all those things and not be a master of a particular style. Mastery is, ironically, not skill level. Technical skill is one part of it, the other half is esoteric and very difficult to explain. Mastery is more than just the all-encompassing technical understanding. It is all-encompassing understanding. You’re unlikely to find one under the age of forty, even if they’ve attained the belt rank because it is a state of being that requires enlightenment born from personal experiences. That enlightenment is developed through rigorous training and difficult tests of character.

More than that, one cannot be a master if they have not taken on students even if it is just a single disciple. A master is not just someone who is at the top, they are the head of and entrusted with carrying on the traditions of their particular style. Their time on the battlefield is, for the most part, done, and they have retired to instruct the next generation. Only the most extreme threats will force a master out of hiding because they don’t have the patience for that crap. Teaching others is required. Sifu, Sensei, Sabumnim all are just terms for teacher. It’s like calling your professor a professor. They teach. That’s their job.

In literary terms, a master is a mentor. They serve the same purpose in fiction that they do in real life. They’re there to facilitate the growth of the next generation and guide them on their path to becoming masters themselves. They are parent, teacher, and spiritual advisor. Unless you know how to work with them and the tropes surrounding them, they will kill your narrative even as an amnesiac. There is nowhere for them to go as characters within conventional arcs. A master’s character development and narrative arcs are entirely spiritual. Their best use comes from the teacher/student dynamic like the kind seen in The Karate Kid. Or as a character struggling to reach that state. They are one of the most difficult character types to write, especially if you have no prior experience. They are impossible to write if you lack an understanding of the martial style they practice. If they’re not your protagonist, you can fudge it like with Yoda or Master Li or any number of other quasi-masters seen in fiction. If the master is your protagonist then you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is, all the time and in every scene. Even then, their job will still be facilitating the growth of the characters who surround them rather than growing themselves.

Without their memory, this character is no longer a master and if they never took on the responsibility of training others then they aren’t one anyway. Renown for their skill at arms and a master are two very separate characters, and it is best not to get them confused. For example, Inigo Montoya is not a master swordsman. Goku, Kenshin Himura, Yuusuke Urameshi, and other shounen characters of similar power are also not masters. Meanwhile, Yoda and Obi-wan Kenobi are both Jedi Masters.  They’ve reached a point where they’ve taken on students, and while they may still have adventures those adventures still revolve around their position as teacher. We have the some of surviving training manuals of some the master swordsmen who came out of Europe, and they had students. You can find them on Wikitenauer.

“Master” sounds good, but you’re going to want a full understanding of what the term means before you apply it.  The terminology has a long history of use in fiction, especially now as we’re getting more media from China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. Your readers are going to know what it means in concept, even if that wasn’t what you intended. So, you want to be sure of what you want from your character before you start applying it.

A master is literally one of the worst characters to have as a protagonist, unless you know the story you want and their purpose fits with those needs. They’re like an admiral. If you want to write a story around an admiral being an admiral, then that’s great. However, the admiral cannot just take off for parts unknown or lead a battlefield charge. Well, they can but there’s going to be fallout for that failure of leadership. They’ve reached a point where they can delegate and they’re far better at facilitating growth in others than they are at being the main event. Masters are perfect for telling stories about teachers, a teacher struggling with their inner demons as they grow in a new skill set.

In martial arts, teacher is the next step on the road to mastery. Teaching is a method of self-discovery and gaining greater understanding of your martial art. In teaching others, we attain a greater technical understanding of our skills than we did before. We approach our old skills in a new way and with new eyes, learning from our students as they learn from us.

“Those who can’t do, teach” is a faulty statement. A good teacher may be less renown than singularly focused professionals but is often the most skilled person in the room. They’re the ones who can translate what they know into new contexts so they can be understood by beginners. When one focuses on themselves alone, they reach a skill ceiling they can’t break through and at which point they no longer grow. It is through reevaluation of those skills through new eyes that they discover new ways they can be applied. Martial artists often develop their best techniques through teaching. In the process, they build communities.

Think for a moment about all your favorite teachers and those you’ve loved in your life. What would happen if they suddenly vanished without explanation? How would you feel?

This character is a master of the glaive, so where are all the people who went looking for her after she disappeared? A master martial artist isn’t like a spy, they don’t usually travel alone and even when they do someone is going to go looking for them when they disappear. The amnesiac martial arts master is a trope in Hong Kong and Chinese cinema, but by the time we reach the third act (or even the second) their students have come barreling in and found them. If it wasn’t one of their disciples who located them to begin. “Master went missing (again), we need to find them” is an actual narrative arc. This is also, usually, kickstarts a traditional master/student narrative with whomever takes the roving amnesiac in hand and helps them recover their memory.

A character who is an amnesiac takes an extreme hit to their skills, so this character is not going to be fighting on the level she was before if she can at all. Autopilot is still autopilot, and autopilot will screw you over against anyone who knows what they’re doing. It is entirely likely she will have an entirely different style, if she can fight at all. Muscle memory is one part of the equation, experience and the knowledge necessary to use learned skills is another. She won’t be able to strategize, for instance, or have any tactical awareness. Her pattern recognition will probably be shot, which means that while she can block and counter she’ll be reacting instead of acting. Reaction may be good, but she’ll be at the whim of a more experienced actor. In a tournament setup, she’s going to end up middling at best and low tier at worst. She’ll make most of the same mistakes beginners will, but she’ll have the skills to get herself into deeper trouble and lack the necessary experience to get herself out.

High level martial skill is experience, not technique. Being good at dueling is based in experience, understanding how to react and counter is experience. Decision making is experience, as is understanding the full range of techniques available. Your female character’s technique may look fantastic due to her muscle memory and her reaction time may be flawless, but understanding feints and tactics requires a level of experience she either no longer possesses or what she’s gained in new experience up to this point. Those new experiences will have changed the look and feel of her martial style, as she is ultimately a new person. This character is in the process of uncovering and rediscovering her skill set, but she cannot and may never use them the same way she used to. It’s pretty common that when some of that experience goes, it is gone forever.

Outside of that, she’ll still need to practice those skills she can remember on the regular to keep them up to snuff. Failing at either, she’ll fall behind. This means she’s likely working off a limited number of techniques rather than the full scope  she previously possessed. If she has been trained by someone else, it will likely be in another style using the glaive and that will change her style as a result. If all she’s done up to this point is rely on her own muscle memory to provide her techniques, then she’ll only have control over those she’s remembered and practiced. The new ones she remembers in battle will occur on autopilot. Autopilot is outside her control, and that is exceedingly dangerous both to herself and whomever she’s fighting. This means she could kill someone in a friendly bout or end up using a controlling technique when she needs to kill. Blind technique is blind technique, the body moves according to its own will. Trained reflex is the same as instinct, it cares nothing for situation or circumstance. Her body will act in accordance with what its been trained to do with no guiding input from the head. The head is where the morals and contextual understanding are, the head understands the importance of limitation and behavioral changes depending on circumstance. The body doesn’t. Use of force is cognitive. The body just responds, and what it responds with will be what it is most used to using. These are usually the basics, and while basics are foundational, most people from beginner to intermediary levels understand how to counter them. Advanced fighters know how to take advantage of them. Advanced combat happens entirely with the head, utilizing controlling and changing circumstances.

(This is a common thread in the martial artist amnesia plot, the amnesiac formerly skilled martial artist can fight off the untrained and beginners by rote muscle memory.  They struggle against the intermediary usually to the point where they either lose or almost lose, and are demolished by advanced combatants. This is often before they hit their final antagonist, which prompts them to realize they need to train and meditate to recover themselves. Then, their past catches up with them.)

Limited experience with specific weapon types will probably mean her body doesn’t know how to react to them at all, because it didn’t have enough time to get them down by rote. That is what her muscle memory is. Rote. The techniques she didn’t regularly practice will be gone, the techniques she used but rarely will return later to last, and her ability to change her fighting style depending on situation is entirely beyond her control and entirely reliant on what her body remembers how to do. This isn’t a magic switch.

If she recalls some of the experience with the technique in fragments of memory, then she’ll inevitably create openings. An experienced fighter will take advantage of those. It may happen in a fraction of a second, but that fraction is the difference between a block and a killing blow.

This other character may look at her and see something in her style reminiscent to someone he once knew, but the level is so below what it once was that he dismisses it. Maybe he seeks her out wondering if she’s a student of a friend or copying a style she saw in passing, only to discover she’s the master and an amnesiac but that would require her having a school with students. The same would apply if he was impressed by her talent, but working under the assumption she needed more training.

Skill without knowledge or experience necessary to use it is a recipe for disaster.  An amnesiac has to learn all over again, and what they re-learn will never be exactly what it was before. The shades of the other self are there, the muscle memory is there, the skills are there in part, but they aren’t the same person in total and they can’t be used to the same degree of finesse. The technical aptitude is missing. There is a vast difference between being able to recall or copy a sonnet you wrote versus being able to compose one that is entirely new.

Basically, if you’ve got one character going through the motions and the other character looking at them but to recognize them they’d need to be going full throttle.

The solution is probably going to be he seeks her out on the basis of her talent, only to be surprised to discover she’s the master he planned to send her to and now in need of his help. (Not that she wins, she may lose and probably should but that this mystery warrior is talented enough to warrant the offer of training.) He’s more likely to overlook her if she’s exceptional. The middling to intermediate are the ones who get sought out at tournaments by more skilled instructors. There’s not much reason for a skilled warrior to seek out a skilled warrior if they weren’t planning to in the beginning, they’re more likely to ask around about the mystery person.

Tournament social groups break down by skill level, previous experience, and likelihood of consistent attendance. New people usually keep to themselves or are introduced to a group by more experienced attendees, while those who frequent the circuit gather together. There are the social butterflies who hang with each other until they’re called and watch the matches. The ones who linger alone on the sidelines, watching. The serious ones won’t spend time with anyone else, who limber up and practice alone. To immediately get attention from a stranger at your skill level, you need to be exceptional. One punch or single hit exceptional, and over in less than five seconds. Otherwise its slowburn.

She’s probably been killing a lot of people just off rote muscle memory. It’s going to be worse in a tournament where similarly skilled martial combatants will be in attendance and quite likely more familiar with dueling than she is or was in her previous life. (Master doesn’t mean master of everything or can handle everything.) If she’s not knocked out early, the end likelihood is her killing another participant entirely by accident after they’ve pushed her body past the limit of what its comfortable with and it begins responding outside her control. Again, muscle memory does not mean your body will do your fighting for you. It isn’t an out to give your characters high skill levels when you the author doesn’t know what those skills mean or how they appear. Reflexes and muscle memory mean the body will do what they’ve been trained to do regardless of circumstance and if the head doesn’t know what that is then the head can’t control it.

Basically, an amnesiac participating in a tournament in order to quickly regain their skills sounds like a great idea but the problem is the character is not in control of what’s going to happen. This happened in The Bourne Identity, Bourne wakes up with no memory, is attacked, and then kills his attackers. This may have been for the best, but he had no control over what he did or how he did it and it took him awhile to recall how to do the same thing intentionally. The Long Kiss Goodnight is another good one, but she’s still fighting mostly on memory and her memory is getting mixed up with her cover identity.

Amnesia with combat skills is rolling the dice. You don’t know what will set them off or what’s going to happen when they do. They could disarm the guy, they could crush his throat. Amnesia with weapon is the fast track to accidental death and dismemberment. There’s a lot more at stake and many more opportunities for the situation to go wrong. The basic attack patterns and combinations are going to revolve around killing. That’s the purpose a weapon like the glaive. Meanwhile, they have no ability to defend themselves while fighting on autopilot and completely cede control of the field to someone else because again, how their body behaves is outside their control. The most skilled character fighting on autopilot will end up at the mercy of any character marginally able to hold their own and function on all cylinders. Advanced skills and their application are beyond what muscle memory can provide. They can retrain but they will never fight the exact same way they did before they lost their memory, and, unless they are very lucky, will never be the same person.

New people make new choices and therefore fight in new ways, and the person is the one who creates stylistic identifiers. The act of recovering her fighting ability will change her fighting style in minute ways, enough to ensure its no longer personally identifiable.

-Michi

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Misconceptions of the Rapier (Women do the Thing)

I don’t know if you’ve answered this before, but I’ve read that a rapier is actually harder to learn to use, then another sword (i think the longsword was the other comparison) if that’s true, how easily would a woman be able to wield it, with the proper training and teaching?

I’ll link Matt Easton’s video about misconceptions with the rapier.  It talks about what the rapier is in comparison to the longsword and what it isn’t, which is lighter and faster like a smallsword.

The question about women is irrelevant, swords literally weigh two and a half pounds. How easily would a woman be able to wield it? The same as it would be for a man.

I know the man versus woman debate is the initial knee jerk for most everybody, so the question on its own is not your fault. However, now is the time to start ridding yourself of it. When you’re looking to write action heroines that question is going to debilitate you far more than help. Cling to “can a woman do it?”, and you’ll never find the action hero’s mindset.  That question is valuable when looking at lens or perceptions through which others might judge the character, the questions the character asks themselves, or their own internal struggles against enforced gender norms, but has nothing to do with actual physical ability.

Skill in martial combat is a matter of training and experience. Patience, dedication, a willingness to try, and a teacher are all one needs. Arguments over sex and gender have even less value when it comes to weapons than they do when looking at hand to hand. Weapons are the great equalizers, they are designed to overcome the body’s advantages. The playing field is never level, not for anyone. However, writing female action heroes begins with the understanding that the challenges women face are social rather than physical. Just because society at large says, “not for you” doesn’t mean it’s true and that goes for everyone.

As for swords? Swords are designed to suit difference purposes. The rapier is a long sword (not a longsword), and primarily designed for its reach advantage rather than a speed advantage. It is longer than the longsword, which means it is more likely to hit first in a standard duel.

As for training? Asking about the difficulty in learning a basic subject is pointless, because your character is simply not going to have many choices when it comes to learning. The weapon you choose locks you more or less into the time period where the weapon comes from, and further limits the available choices. Weapons are designed to deal with the dangers of the times they exist in, they’re specific design choices rather than arbitrary. In this case, your needs against the opponents you’re facing are as important as your desires. An easy way to decide a character’s weaponry is this:

Time Period > Education Level/Income Bracket/Social Status > Available Training > Weapon.

Now, the rapier like many variants of swords was available for all levels and the skill level varied.  So, this is more a question of research ergo: “my character is an English peasant living circa 1568 AD” or “I’m basing my fantasy setting on the War of the Roses, my character is a noble…” etc.

Or we do our research in reverse:

Desire > Weapon > Time Period > Education Level/Income Bracket/Social Status > Available Training

Your character begins with a desire, “I saw X in a duel when I was five and decided I wanted to learn to wield a rapier like him!” then goes out to find a teacher, convinces teacher to teach them, learns weapon, then fights with weapon.

This is the evolution of how humans choose to pursue the combat arts. Inspiration creates a Desire, the desire then becomes a Goal, the goal leads them to Pursuit of Action, and that is their origin story.

We become good at a thing based on our enthusiasm for the thing, and that applies as much to martial training. The only time this rule doesn’t apply is when your character is a Chosen One, which yes, they have to do the thing regardless of whether they want to or not.

The world your character exists in decides which weapons they use. Weapons that no longer suit the field of combat are discarded, and new weapons are created. Those new weapons are not necessarily better than the old ones, they simply change based on survival needs. Weapon advantages and disadvantages aren’t universal either, so it’s best not to try and munchkin our way to victory in the stat pools.

If you were in a HEMA club and trying to decide which sword style you wanted to study first then a question of difficulty would be relevant. (Though the answer about difficulty will differ depending on who you ask, so its usually better to go with what interests you.)

There are women throughout history who wielded all sorts of weapons in combat. You just won’t hear about them if you don’t go looking for them.

There are tons of women who do HEMA.

The question as to whether or not a woman can fight with a rapier is dependent on a single question:

How much time has she dedicated to becoming proficient?

If she’s not practicing or isn’t consistent with her practice, then the answer is no. She isn’t.

If she is then the answer is probably.

-Michi

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Q&A: Self-Defense Staves

Is it possible to get into how would someone train if they were to choose a staff as a weapon? In my story, I have a young girl that wants to learn basic self defense and staff training sounds plausible enough, I don’t want her to be an absolute badass and she’s just learning in case of an emergency. I hope this makes sense ):

You can gain sufficient skill with the staff to use it as a self-defense weapon within a few weeks. You won’t master it in a month, but it’s conceivable to fight with it. It is one of the fastest, simplest, and easiest weapons to learn. The most important thing she’ll need to remember to do is maintain her body’s conditioning (exercise) and keep her basic skills sharp (practice). Self-defense doesn’t work as a one off training and forget, it’s a situation where you either use it or lose it.

The holistic martial arts discipline where you progress through hand to hand to weapons combat is a mostly Eastern tradition in martial arts, this includes India. European tradition isn’t anywhere near as structured, you can start with the staff. Unlike other weapon types, staff training often begins with a real wooden staff, and if we’re going with European tradition then the weapon will most likely be made out of oak. Oak is heavy, heavy staves hurt when they hit you… a lot. You will get hit in training… a lot. In weapon’s training with a partner, we pay for our mistakes with bruises. Getting past the fear of being hit is one of the major components of this training type. Your partner’s weapon can easily slip, slide down the shaft, and hit your unprotected fingers. Learning how to stop that from happening is part of the training.

This is the truth of every weapon type in training: the weapon will punish you when you make mistakes with it. The more dangerous the weapon, the more detrimental the initial injuries.

The staff starts with deep bruises and, if you’re truly unlucky, broken bones (especially broken fingers). Broken collarbones are not outside the range of unusual. This is nothing compared to a weapon like the three sectioned staff where even beginner’s training can net you a concussion.

Unironically, the post I made recently about Nine Steps for Training Techniques applies to how we go about training on weapons. The staff has a straightforward basic move set, the strikes form a cross-shaped pattern across the body high (head) low (thigh) to low (thigh) high (head), then thrust to stomach, bring down on top of head or low the other way into the groin. When partnered with another human being, you practice these strikes together with one person performing the strikes and the other the blocks. The blocks for the staff are matching to the cross-shaped pattern, high low to low high, then bring the staff up horizontal to catch the strike to the top of the head, and a half step back from the thrust to knock it away with the tip of the staff. You can also bring the staff across the body to strike either side of the rib cage. A practiced staff user can shift between all these strikes without the pattern.

The staff is sized to the wielder, usually coming up to around their forehead rather than the top of the head. Your hands on the staff act like a fulcrum, redirecting as you go. You want your hands set wide enough to keep a solid, balanced, and controlled grip on the weapon while also providing you with the freedom to go at speed. This is difficult because your hands are going to want to naturally come together as you practice

The most important thing to remember about the staff is that both ends are weapons. Unless you’re gripping it by it’s bottom, one end is always going to be moving behind you. Most common staff injury when training is bruised knuckles. You can also break your fingers. When sparring with a heavy staff, you will be wearing pads and you will still get bruises. Those bruises may be deep, and sometimes go all the way down to the bone.

Never forget, your weapon senses your weakness. Soft defense leads to debilitating injury, even just in practice. You must be firm, fierce, focused, and unafraid of the pain you will inevitably receive. Learn to be stalwart. (Yes, this is a learned attitude and not one we start with.)

A weapon is never safe.

After practice, your arms will be tired due not just to moving but being on the receiving end of impact when the staves clash. There is no way to avoid this, you simply build resistance via experience. Learning how to keep hold of your staff in the middle of conflict that is trying to knock the weapon from them with each hit made by you or your enemy is necessary. Vibration will travel down the length of the staff to your hands, and that’s what you need to worry about wearing your arms out rather than weight.

Staves can and do break or fracture bones on impact when moving at speed, arms, legs, ribs, heads, feet, etc. They are bludgeoning weapons. When moving at speed in a practice bout, this can happen to you especially if you’re not wearing protection. (Wear protection.) This is not a gentle weapon or a soft one. It is useful too because of its range advantage over shorter weapons, but keep in mind that range means range. The closer the enemy comes, the less useful the staff gets. Your character is responsible for maintaining the fight range at which her weapon is useful. She’s going to need to get creative if the fight starts right next to her.

She’s gonna get her staff knocked out of her hands by whoever is instructing her the first few times because holding onto it does hurt a lot more than we anticipate when we start practicing defense. They’re going to teach her how to defend first though. You learn techniques then ratchet up at a steady pace to ferret out holes in defense.

It is natural for her to be nervous or even afraid of the weapon in the beginning, though she’ll overcome that. No one likes pain, and pain is an unavoidable side effect of weapon’s training. Hand to hand works it’s way up to basic injuries, but weapon’s will nail you coming and going. We’ll hit ourselves, our partner will hit us, we’ll make mistakes, and we pay for them. Usually, it’s just bruises.

There are, of course, stances and footwork associated with staff training but that’s ironically more complex than it needs to get right now.

For endurance training with the staff, outdoors on a variety of terrain is helpful. This includes beaches, on uneven terrain, in forests, in fields, in rivers, etc. All these will help the student learn to navigate different terrain and learn the detriments of fighting in various environments. They also build strength. Sand and water will both sap away strength due to the focus required to maintain balance on soft surfaces and water’s resistance/drag when it comes to movement. They may also teach her how to fight on stairs.

Staff training will provide her with the base necessary to move on to polearms like spears or even some swords if she wants to in the future. Staves with their heads and butts shod in iron as a defense against blades (and extra damage) were also common.

Due to this being self-defense, the focus of her training is going to be on using her staff to create escape opportunities rather than engaging in prolonged conflict.

For more on this topic, you can check out our staff training tag.

-Michi

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Q&A: The Vampire Killer

Is it at all possible to use a whip like people do in movies? Like in Castlevania, Trevor uses it to cut someones finger off and rip another persons eye out. Thanks!

The whip Trevor Belmont is using is called “The Vampire Killer” and it’s a mystical weapon, but I don’t know whether that’s the one he’s using in the anime or if he gets it later. You can assume though that the Belmont’s have mystical powers. What Trevor Belmont is using is a bullwhip, if you want other examples of the whip being used in film there’s Indiana Jones and The Mask of Zorro.

You can put someone’s eye out with a whip, but you can’t rip it out and you can’t get enough force going with a leather whip to cut someone’s finger off.

A chain whip? Oh hell yeah. You can take a finger off with that.

What I will say is worth taking from the new Castlevania anime is not what Trevor does with the whip so much as how he handles it. A good example is the final fight with Alucard. Where he uses it to trip, where he uses it as a disarming tool, and does a good job of showing how it always remains in motion. One aspect Castlevania does get right with Trevor is the use of the secondary hand for guidance when rapidly changing direction, when he wants small circles or very specific strikes he’d be unable to achieve with just his wrist.

The whip as a weapon is a useful secondary or supporting weapon to your primary. It works better as a harassment tool, a means to create openings, trip your opponent up, lash them, and wear them out. Whips and chain weapons travel on circular strike paths that are difficult to block. In the hands of a master, they can rapidly change direction mid strike and circle around the sword or spear to hit their target.

If you want to take a finger off, then you’ll need to attach a blade to the end as seen in the whip chain, the rope dart, or (to crush it) the meteor hammer.

The basic beginner stage to ground your understanding of how this works is the yoyo.

The whip has it’s place as a secondary weapon in multiple martial arts, and the tip will give you some serious burns. If you want to look into the whip as a defense tool, Anthony De Longis is a good place to start.

Keep in mind, however, that the weakness of all chain/rope/whip weapons is space. You need space to be able to get the techniques off. Even with lineal striking, you need room. It is a ranged weapon, and one that requires a lot more space to work than a gun or a bow.

So, yes, you can use it as a weapon. You probably also want your characters carrying weapons that are more versatile like the sword or a knife or a gun, that can make up for the situations were the whip falls short.

If  you’re in an open space and you want to keep five attackers on the defensive then it’s great. You can scare the shit out of them and keep a full defense going. However, you can’t really do it in your living room.

-Michi

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Q&A: Mismatched Weapons

Hey I’m trying to write a scene where one character is fighting using hook swords while the other is simply using a mace. I want for the fight to end in the mace user winning, however I’m having issues figuring out some weaknesses to using hook swords online and I’d rather have them win the fight in a more creative way than just brute forcing it since even though physically the mace user is stronger, they’re effectively on the same level as far as actual fighting goes. Any suggestions?

You’ve got a serious problem and that problem is mismatched weaponry.

A mace is twenty six inches long.

A hook sword is roughly thirty three and a quarter.

That’s an almost eight inch difference in length, and it’s only the first issue.

The hook swords are faster with a longer reach, lighter, and there’s two of them. The blades on the hilt and the pommel mean they can still be deadly in close range, even potentially switching into a reverse grip.

The second point is these weapons were considered difficult to master, and due to Chinese traditions with martial combat come with the experience of an entire martial art behind them. That’s one of the northern styles like Northern Shaolin. The one aspect to ground yourself with about Asian martial arts tradition is: the more advanced the weapon, the later it’s learned.

For the purposes of these traditions your basic weapons serve similarly to the basic hand to hand techniques learned when we begin training in any style, and these weapons form the foundational understanding of all weapon types. We cannot battle the sword if we do not understand it, we cannot battle the staff if it is unknown. The technique used when wielding a basic staff are the foundation for those utilized with the three-sectional and so on.

European training systems don’t really work this way and were far less formalized, though it’s much more difficult to know what their training looked like. Either way, the mace has a much lower entry level in terms of skill.

Add to that, dual wielding weapons is extremely difficult and the longer the weapon the more difficult it becomes. Your hands and arms need to be able to perform complex techniques simultaneously, together and separately, with a balanced body. Your mind must track both weapons, and utilize both tactically against your opponent or the one you’re not using becomes a liability. A well rounded dual wield system will utilize one weapon (or in this case both) as a means of defense, to block, deflect, or disarm incoming strikes while the other attacks. Or, they attack together. Two weapons can blitzkrieg on a multitude of angles, strike one after the other, left and right, high and low, forcibly keeping their opponent on the defensive.

It is a very aggressive form of combat and difficult to master. When it is, (with workable weaponry designed for dual wielding) you’ve got a very dangerous fighter.

So, we have a the wielder of a complicated, unusual, difficult weapon designed for speedy, unarmored civilian combat and from a system requiring significant time investment against a guy with a mace.

Unless the one with the mace has armor and a shield, the hook swords have the advantage. They are also designed to be used in unarmored combat, and function in that role far better than a mace. The mace is a specific weapon with a very limited battlefield role as it’s meant to use blunt force to crack open tin cans.

There’s the additional point that dual wielding effectively in battle also requires a fairly high level of training, as there’s much higher risk of the blades catching on each other. Also, given one weapon is European (assuming we’re discussing the European variants of the mace) and the other is Chinese (including the information that the hook sword was a fairly rare weapon to see in use) the idea that they’re on the same level so far as training is unlikely.

Two people from two different styles are unlikely to ever be “equally matched” due to stylistic differences and training approaches. This is part of why two different people trained in two different styles are so exciting when they’re fighting because “equally matched” is thrown out the window into the unknown. And anything so far as versus with these two is merely supposition anyway as the two cultures were at very different technological points when they encountered each other.

In fairness, the hook swords would be similarly mismatched against the rapier due to its length and might be cut to pieces about as quickly. What advantages the hook swords have versus, say, a spear, are out against longer bladed weapons.

Chinese weaponry like the hook swords tend to favor circular motion, the whole weapon is bladed, and falls towards cutting as opposed to striking with the tip. The dual hooks allows them to hook weapons for a disarm, or stop them midstrike. It can also hook arms, legs, or around the back of the neck, with blades on the pommel and handguard meant to keep it’s use in range transitions.

The mace is a weapon that also moves in circles because of how it gains force, the problem is it’s slower. The heavier head on the mace is means by which it generates force, creating greater momentum as it swings. It’s not a matter of strength, but physics and not entirely dissimilar in concept to a baseball bat. However, the heavy head means it will be slower compared to a light blade like a rapier or an epee which are closer in type to the jian and also designed around the idea of unarmored combat.

The one with the mace needs a shield. They needs some way to get close enough to their opponent to bring their weapon into play, otherwise they’re just sitting there with their thumb up their ass as they’re being carved to pieces.

The big issue with weapons is if the other guy can hit you before you can hit him then you’re in serious trouble. I’d worry less about brute force. If you want the wielder with the mace to win, they need a way to get close enough to hit before any other consideration comes up. Then there’s the hook swords’ and their ability to create an escrima stick like defense with blades. Blades whose design intent is to be wielded together.

There’s nothing equal about it, the character with the mace is at a serious disadvantage. One which will get him killed in a straight fight.This isn’t the kind of disadvantage which can be brute forced through, your hero is going to need to be clever. That cleverness begins with utilizing his environment in order to limit the hook swords utility and ability to move.

The answer to dealing with the katana in a modern environment is a tight hallway, preferentially with furniture. Best case, they unsheath it and it ends up in a wall. Worst case, they’re stuck with thrusts. The katana doesn’t thrust that well compared to other swords.

Figuring out potential ways to defeat a weapon in combat begins with understanding how the weapon moves and what you plan to bring against it. It’s not statistics. It’s not physical strength. It’s not equal levels of training. Or anything outside what’s happening in the moment. You have the person and you have the weapon, and it starts by figuring out how both work together (and separately).

Any “here are two cultures who never encountered each other, who had better weapons?” question invites fanboy infighting that usually benefits no one. Besides that, while there’s more available information on Eastern martial cultures than there used to be, the Chinese martial traditions are still insular. To really understand the weapon you’d need to have a conversation with those who practice with them, preferable the masters. Cross-referencing history for when the hook swords were in use and what kind of combat they saw would also be helpful. Fortunately, Chinese cinema and Hong Kong action films will provide you with lots of choreography to chew through.

The Chinese did have a mace variant called the
Chuí, which eventually lost it’s head and moved on to beating people with two metal shafts.

I have no idea if any of this helps, but hopefully it gives you some grounding to work from.

-Michi

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Some swordsmen I guess ‘wear’ their swords on their waist or strapped them to their backs. Most of the time people put them on their waist because it seems practical and rarely for the backs. Is there any pros and cons to the position of their swords? Or this is just merely aesthetic purposes?

“Wear” is the correct term.

Carrying a blade on your belt, (usually on opposite side from your dominant hand) is an entirely practical consideration. It’s not really possible to draw from the back in combat. You can do it, but it involves either some juggling of the blade, or unslinging the scabbard, pulling the blade, and then returning or discarding the scabbard.

Alternately, you can simply reach across your waist and draw a sword. Faster, simpler, easier to do in combat. It’s also going to be out of your way most of the time, while one on your back could become an issue. Finally, while drawing it, you’re putting the blade between yourself and your opponent almost instantly, which can have sometimes have applications in defensive situations.

It’s hypothetically possible to design some kind of scabbard that would hold a blade on the back for easy access. For instance, a sci-fi setting where they use strong electromagnets. It would also be possible to store a collapsing sword on the shoulder, or across the small of the back.

In the real world, slinging a sword (or other weapon) across your back usually meant you intended to ready it before combat, rather than during the melee. Remember, historically, swords were actually a sidearm, and almost never used as a primary weapon. So a soldier would need their sword someplace they could get to it quickly, should their primary weapon (usually a polearm or ranged weapon) fail.

If your character carried a sword as their primary weapon, for example a Zweihander or claymore, then it’s entirely possible they’d carry that across their back, with a sidesword on their waist while traveling. Before a battle, they’d unsling their primary, prepare it for use, and then put their scabbard with their kit. If they were ambushed on the road, it’s far more likely, they’d simply use their sidesword, rather than trying to get at a weapon on their back.

-Starke

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You recently said in an answer “The sword is not the best weapon, it is a secondary weapon or sidearm.” What would you consider the best weapon?

There really isn’t one. The debate on the “best weapon” takes place all over the internet much in the same way people argue over the “best martial art” or the “best character in Star Wars”. Usually when someone tells you, “the best weapon is X”, they’re either working off of personal preference or referring to a video game where statistics mean that X really is the best weapon. Though, there will probably always be someone who makes a case for another one.

This is probably a good time to remind everyone that people who love martial combat and weaponry are just as nerdy/geeky/fannish about it as everyone else with their respective loves.

The best and clearest analogy I have for how weapons are used in the real world is that they’re like tools in a toolbox. You’ve got your different families of tools, your wrenches, your hammers, your screwdrivers, and they’re all designed to handle different problems you come across when building. You don’t take a hammer to a screw because it’s counterproductive, and screws come in varying sizes and types so you need different screwdrivers to deal with them.

Weapons are the same way. There are generalist weapons (weapons that are designed and have multiple uses in a variety of situations) and there are specialist weapons (weapons designed to be most effective in specific circumstances).

For example, you can take your sniper or hunting rifle into a duel happening at fifteen to twenty feet but it gives up most of its advantages. This is why we also carry a handgun, so if the enemy gets into a range where the rifle is no longer a workable choice then you have a weapon to fall back to.

We get a lot of questions like, “should I give my character a knife or a gun?”

The answer is always: you should give them both.

The handgun is a ranged weapon, it’s meant to be used at range. The knife or dagger is a close quarters supplement for hand to hand. It’s meant to be more effective than your fists when it comes to fighting.

Now, this might lead you to saying, “so the gun is the better weapon?”

The answer is actually no. Much as you might like, you won’t be fighting at range 100% of the time. Fights don’t always start with an enemy twenty feet away. Sometimes, they begin with an enemy right next to you. The time it takes to draw, aim, and shoot can be all the time it takes for the guy or girl with the knife to have driven the blade into your gut several times. (This isn’t theoretical, this is real world, people die this way in muggings.)

The “best weapon” is the one that’s most suited to the job in front of it and that’s situational. Warriors throughout history carried multiple weapons because they didn’t know. You go to battle and the situation changes, you don’t want to be short changed because it could cost you your life.

Archers also carry swords.

Soldiers carried polearms and swords.

Comprehensive martial training involves training in the use of more than one weapon, you will learn how to use multiple weapons. The reason for this is because not every weapon will work in every situation and it’s good to have a range of options on which to rely.

The sword is called a “sidearm” because it is a secondary weapon, support weapon to your primary weapon. That does not mean the primary weapon is the better weapon. It’s the one that’s usually most situationally useful first i.e. a polearm because it has the furthest reach and combat is most likely (but not always) to start at range.

Even then, there are usually several other weapons designed by different people for a similar or parallel purpose. Just look at the family of polearms. Some of those weapons might look silly to you, but they showcase technical ingenuity. Someone designed a new kind of armor or weapon to bring to the table and they designed a counter.

Like war, weaponry is fluid. You create X to counter B, then in a few months they’ll create Z to counter X. We have countless examples throughout history and it is happening right now in whatever country you live in.

War is just as much science as everything else. The difference being a failure can be anything from the cost of sovereignty to people’s lives. If there are two sides to a conflict, you can bet both sides are working hard on ways to stay ahead of the other. This can be anything from strategy to weapons types, to enhancing or bettering the weapon into something more useful to the current climate.

Every weapon has strengths and limitations, every weapon has circumstances where it shines. Instead of trying to find a key that fits all the locks, just use different keys.

Cheesy as it sounds, at the end of the day, the best weapon is the human brain.

The person who wields the weapon is the one who trumps all.

-Michi

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Two young (say, early 20s) female fighters square off against each other. One is fighting with a bo-staff, the other with a rapier. I understand that these two fighting styles couldn’t be more different, but is there any possible way for it to be a fair fight? Or would one style greatly/laughably overpower the other?

Oh, one of these is definitely going to laughably overpower the other. I’m just not sure which one it’d be. The staff has reach, the rapier has speed and has the advantage of stabby stabby over blunt force trauma. It’s really going to be a question of whether or not both fighters know how to use their weapon’s advantages to the fullest extent. What’s going to keep it a “fair” in the understanding that any non-same weapons used in a fight is never fair, then it’s going to come down a question of skill.

The staff wielder is going to have the advantage so long as she can keep the other woman with the rapier at a distance. The woman with the rapier will have the advantage if she can find a way to maneuver herself into striking range without taking too much debilitating damage from staff strikes. The rapier has to be aggressive in this situation, while the staff wielder is fighting a battle of attrition. All they need to do is wear their opponent down and keep giving them knocks until they can’t lift the sword anymore. They can also attack the legs and feet more readily and safely than the one with the rapier.

All I can say is whoever takes the initiative here is going to keep it and that’s not at all helpful, I know.

I’d look at Scholagladitoria’s Quarterstaff vs Sword, pt 2, pt 3.

Then, look at this video from EnglishMartialArts in response to those videos about the merits of the quarterstaff.

Now, these are about quaterstaffs versus sword because the quarterstaff is the standard European staff and the bo-staff is a Japanese staff.

When I’m responding in these videos, I’m basically assuming that these two women are training in the same style. It should go without saying that bojutsu and other styles are meant for combat against weapons from their same region. On some level, there’s going to be a lot of similarities with staff techniques (though looking at the wide variety of usages and developments of the weapon worldwide, that’s not necessarily true) but what a weapon style was designed to deal with will obviously massively effect the techniques used. There is no comparative sword to the rapier in Japanese martial arts. Whereas techniques with the European quarterstaff involve the skills and strategies for facing a wide variety of swords because there was a greater likelihood of facing one. So, the movement patterns one might use to fend off a katana won’t completely translate (at all) when faced with a rapier.

So, I’m just throwing that out there.

One of the trickiest aspects of writing with weapons is realizing that most of them, even if there is a similar version present in another culture, are limited by what their practitioners expected to face. If you’re using from a weapon that comes from a culture with a lot of cross-pollination and a lot of variance because it’s people were constantly dealing with different cultures or a lot of massively different styles of combat then it’s going to have an inherent advantage over a weapon and style that comes from a culture that doesn’t have that. (That weapon will probaby still have an advantage in it’s home environment though.) There’s more expectation of the unexpected, more variance, more likelihood you may be facing a kind of opposition or new tactic that you’ve never seen before.

I am, however, assuming that these two are from the same school and trained in the same style, they are just using different weapons.

-Michi

Weapon Primer: Archery

With 2012 being jokingly called “Year of the Bow,” it was inevitable that we’d end up doing a primer on it.

The Weapon

The bow is an ancient weapon, it is in fact one of the oldest weapons in the history of mankind. Almost every civilization that has ever existed and perhaps ever will exist has invented the bow in one form or another. It is important then, to note where you choose to draw your inspiration from because there are many varieties of this weapon. Combat with a bow is not unique to any one civilization or society, just as combat tactics have mirrored each other in similarity between different civilizations throughout the centuries. It is also important to remember that unlike other weapons of war, the bow was not invented for the sole purpose of murdering the wielder’s own species. This is a utility weapon, one that is meant to fulfill basic needs such as providing food for survival.

Because of its history, this weapon should be 100% recognizable to any and all serious characters as a dangerous threat. They will know what it is and what it can be used for. This is a weapon that will be noted and noticed by any city guard or local authority, so you’re character better have a damn good excuse for carrying it around (even if it’s not true). In a society that restricts access to weapons, such as futuristic fascist cultures, the bow will not be allowed. The reason for this is that even though the weapon itself may be outdated, it is still a dangerous weapon and any intelligent culture you create will know that and act accordingly.

The bow is still used in modern combat, though it has lost its edge. That said, historically, the bow is not used as a primary weapon for single combat. It has a select set of uses but ones that have it fall short of other weapons like the spear and the sword. The bow takes a great deal of time to master, it lacks flexibility of movement, and a single archer must always be accurate and thus their sighting will be slower. No matter how good your character is, they will always end up in melee, the bow is designed for hunting not killing and there is a vast difference in both technique and tactics between these two approaches.

Historical Bows:

There are many different bows throughout history, many different versions of the longbow and the recurve, many reinventions of the same weapon over and over through time. Some versions are designed for combat on horseback and some are not. So, be specific to which one it is, research how it is cared for, any reader who is familiar with the care and maintenance of this weapon will know if you ignore it. A bow is high maintenance and finicky, you can skip over a lot with some weapons but you can’t with a bow.

An older, wooden bow requires more strength to draw than a modern one. More importantly, the care for the weapon will impact how easily it can be used. Historical bows require a lot of maintenance, even more than their modern counterparts: the wood needs to be oiled frequently, the bow needs to be kept completely dry, transport over long distances requires unstringing and wrapping the bow, finally fletching a half decent arrow involves a lot of skill, even with modern tools and resources. Any responsible archer must be able to fletch their own arrows or risk being unable to use their weapon. This requires a whole skill set, one common in history but harder to come by in more modern times. This is especially important if the character is alone and without resources such as an army or placement in a lord’s household.

The projectiles are just as important as the care and maintenance of the weapon. This is less true in a society or culture where arrows are more readily available for purchase and the bow is a common weapon, but in a world where it is rarer, then the character will have to fend for themselves.

Arrows are weight your character must carry, if they fire the arrow they must retrieve it or lose it. Arrows do not self-replicate through magic. They are a limited resource and that resource must be considered. So, always ask: how much does the character’s gear weigh? How many arrows can they carry in the quiver reasonably without a huge loss of stamina? How do they protect the arrows from the weather? Arrows are made of wood. If wood gets wet it warps. The sinew that holds the arrows will also warp. The metal heads of the arrows will rust. The quiver needs as much careful protection as the bow itself to maintain functionality and combat readiness.

Also: don’t set arrows on fire. It’ll put itself out the minute you fire it. Self-immolation is not a thing your characters signed up for. Though if you want them to for the sake of the story, go right ahead.

(Michi Note: So, when working with or reading about an archer, always stop and ask yourselves a simple question: where do they get their arrows from? If the storyteller cannot answer that or has not put the answer into the text, then they’ve made a critical error. More than that, where are they getting their bowstrings from?)

Modern Bows:

Modern bows are usually either fiberglass composites or the more mechanical, compound bows. Composite bows match the general idea of a classic longbow. Compound bows are the ones using pulley systems. Composite ones require upper body strength, to draw. Compound bows tend to have a catch, early in the draw, where the pulleys take over and the bow’s mechanics take a lot of the draw weight off the archer. Because of the mechanical systems, there’s a lot that can go wrong with a compound, and more than most weapons, mishandling will destroy one.

Most modern arrows are hollow aluminum shafts that are bought pre-fletched and have a plastic nock already mounted. The tips can be easily removed and swapped out for convenience.

Target tips are small pointed cones, about the size of the arrow itself. These are easy to pull from a target, and they’re slightly less likely to deal lethal damage if they catch you.

Hunting tips are flying razor blades. They’re usually three or four blades held at an angle working their way towards a tip. They’re designed to cut arteries as they pass through the target. Most also feature barbs that further tear the meat if something tries to remove the arrow.

Hunting

Hunting is the traditional use of the bow. The reason for its creation and evolution is pretty simple and most of you can probably guess why. This is: firing a projectile at an animal (such as a boar, a deer, or a buffalo) is much safer than trying to go into melee with it using a spear. Most humans who hunt as a profession (not as a sport) prefer some measure of safety and security in their job. When fighting an animal in close quarters there’s a risk of being gored by a tusk or horn, missing the animal with the spear, or frightening it off which is a waste of time, energy, and resources. It is important, though, to keep in mind that hunting an animal or hunting a herbivore is different from hunting a human or a predator. In nature, most of the hunters we hunt will hunt us in return. (Michi Note: This is part of the reason why we domesticated dogs.)

This usage of the weapon has remained popular among some hunters and is part of the reason why the bow can still be purchased today. The reasons of modern hunters, however, are completely unrelated to its value as a practical weapon. For hunting, the bow is an excellent choice. I’m told that killing game with a gunshot kills result in a different flavor to the meat, and of the two, bow killed meat tastes better. Of course, the people who’ve told me that have been bow hunters, so there’s your caveat.

A lot of bow hunters enjoy the additional challenges in taking an animal down with a bow. It’s a similar mindset to those hunters who use a revolver. That said, when you’re choosing a weapon for its “additional challenge” it’s not something you want to take into a fight.

Historical Combat

Historical bow combat was built around massing archers and using them to send a lot of arrows in the general direction of the enemy. No, seriously. The idea wasn’t to hit a specific enemy, but to put a lot of arrows in their vicinity, and hope that a few would hit something useful. In many ways, archers are more analogous to mortar teams or artillery on a modern battlefield, than snipers, or even riflemen.

A mass regiment or company of archers was incredibly dangerous, especially to cavalry, but they were almost never in amongst the footmen or on the front lines. The medieval combat disposition was to put a line of skirmishers in front of the archers to protect them from enemy infantry. This is because the bow really does suck in close combat and has no real defensive capability.

Modern Combat

There are a few places where bows excel over firearms: armor penetration and stealth. A skilled bow user can easily dispatch heavily armed and armored opposition, provided they can remain undetected.

That undetected part can be a real problem. The bow is very sensitive to movement by the shooter, meaning it’s impossible to fire on the go. Arrows are more sensitive to air movement and have a sharper ballistic trajectory than bullets, meaning it’s harder to fire quickly and accurately. This means that once a combatant is seen, their bow becomes dead weight, very fragile dead weight.

Finally bows are very short range (compared to modern firearms). You’re working with around 20 to 80 feet, or within shotgun range, meaning they need to get uncomfortably close to their enemy to use it, increasing the risk of detection.

Injuries

Even when hunting tips sever arteries, arrow wounds take a long time to kill. Tracking animals for hours, after they’ve been shot, is fairly common for modern bow hunters.

Arrows tend to seal up the injuries they create, a lot like knife wounds, so even if your archer severed something vital, it’s entirely possible that the character they’re trying to kill will survive for hours. There are confirmed cases, in the modern world, where people have taken an arrow, and survived for ten to twenty hours before receiving medical attention.

So, if your character is shot with an arrow, please do not have them rip it out. Much like the knife, the projectile must be removed carefully or stay within the body to prevent the character from bleeding out. Also, an arrowhead can do as much damage leaving the body as it did going in, so research how to remove an arrow or your character will die, if they don’t already die from infection in a medieval, fantasy, or even a modern day/futuristic setting. (Michi Note: GERMS!)

Character Options:

More than most weapons, bows represent a major commitment when constructing your character. It takes a lot of time and dedication to become proficient with a bow outside of combat, and it can easily take a character’s entire life to truly master the use of one.

In fantasy settings, you can pretty easily give the bow to any adult who spends a lot of time in the wilderness and lives off the land or hunts for a living. In a fantasy setting where firearms exist, bows become less common as guns become more accessible. These characters are more likely to use an axe or sword for actual combat, even if they have a firearm, instead of a bow.

In most historical or fantasy settings, you can have professionally trained archers, who operate as part larger military force. Just remember, these characters will have been trained to fire arrows over longer distances, without any real accuracy. As with the above option, these characters will gradually phase out as guns become more common. Historically: firearms started appearing in Europe and the Middle East in the 14th century.

In a modern setting, you’re basically left with bow hunters, and sport shooting enthusiasts. For these characters, they choose the bow deliberately, over more convenient methods of killing because they enjoy the challenge, prefer the purity, or like the idea of being self-sufficient.

In a post apocalyptic setting where bullets are hard to obtain or produce, the bow has some potential, both in the historical military applications, and for hunting.

In a distant future setting, a variation of the bow might make sense for its stealth and armor penetration aspects, particularly if characters are outfitted with equipment or implants that allows them to aim and fire more efficiently.

In a horror setting with traditional vampires, the bow might be an effective choice for vampire hunters, though, at that point, modern crossbows would probably be a better weapon choice.

I’m just going to go out and say, in a fascist/dystopic setting, unless bows are explicitly permitted or regulated, they’re a very poor weapon choice, because of the difficulty in concealing them, and the amount of training and practice required to gain proficiency with one. (Michi Note: the recognizability and difficulty in concealing them is the kicker here, it’s better to go with a weapon like the sling or the slingshot which is still quite dangerous but considered to be a children’s toy by many, so the adults will be more willing to overlook it and it’s much easier to hide.)

-Starke