Q&A: The Advantages and Weaknesses of Hitpoints in Games and Writing

You can punch with a stump. I would say you deal more damage as you don’t need to worry about breaking fingers and all of the delicate bones of your wrist are gone. This means the solid stump hits the target. Hard. d8 or d10 anyone?

skypirateking

Nope.

So, there’s three issues here, one far less important than the others, so let’s start with physiology, and the reason I’m not sure if you can even throw a punch without your hand.

Your forearm contains two bones, the radius and the ulna. This structure is what allows you to roll your wrist, instead of having it locked into a single orientation. It also means your forearm is not as structurally sound as it might first appear. Your hand helps anchor the entire structure together. These bones can fracture, and the results are pretty nasty. I’m not 100% certain how much more vulnerable these bones are if you’ve lost your hand, but that is the structure holding everything together. This is a large part of why I said, “you can’t punch without your hand.” Now, part of that was just me being pedantic, (you can’t form a closed fist if you don’t have a hand,) but even an in-line strike with the stump would probably be out of the question.

The caveat for a prosthetic is, really, just speculation on my part, that you could set up some kind of shock absorbing structure around the stump, to take a hit, (and may have that for simple comfort), along with the prosthetic’s harness helping to hold the bones in place. But, like I said, that’s speculation.

I’m assuming when you say a d8 or d10, you’re using D&D as your metric (and, if you’re thinking Pathfinder, that is just a tweaked version of D&D’s 3.5 edition.) Now, it is possible that you actually mean some other roleplaying system, though most of the ones I’m thinking of off hand would convert that damage into some kind of hilariously disproportionate hit.

If you’re unfamiliar, in D&D, a fairly normal battle axe’s hit will cause damage based on using one eight-sided dice, plus any relevant modifiers. This gets abbreviated to 1d8, (or sometimes 1d8+STR, as the primary modifier you’re going to be looking at is derived from the character’s strength attribute.) So, literally this is suggesting that being punched by someone’s stump will inflict more trauma on the victim than burying an axe in them or stabbing them with a sword.

Some monsters will do 1d8 with their claws, and the Monk class (mystical, martial arts superheroes), will eventually gain the ability to hit that hard with their unarmed attacks. (In 5e this doesn’t happen until around level 11, which by D&D standards is mid-to-high level.)

If you came to me and said you had a Monk in D&D who’d lost their hand, but continued fighting using their psychic powers to offset the loss, cool. But, we’re also talking about a game system (and setting) where martial arts masters literally become so good at fighting that their bodies are considered magical weapons. (And back in 3rd / 3.5e, a monk would eventually transcend their humanity and become a supernatural creature in their own right.)

As with all D&D adventurers, the monks are fantasy superheroes, and they represent an entirely valid expression of that. If you want a character who becomes so good at unarmed fighting that they can literally punch a dragon do death, the Monk is there for you.

So, having your character swing, and connect with the force of a fire axe, just because their hand is missing is a little disproportionate. Normally, unarmed attacks hit for 1+STR, no die roll needed. (This used to be 1d3+STR. There’s also an attack of opportunity, meaning your opponent gets a free shot on you if you try to punch them, unless your character is specifically specced for unarmed combat.)

D&D’s damage model has a few issues. And, because D&D was so influential, those issues have expanded far beyond just RPGs, and that’s the real reason I’m writing this response.

D&D’s health system abstracts injuries into a single durability meter. This has become the norm for the vast majority of games with detailed combat systems. It’s not just RPGs, even things like Doom run off a damage/HP system under the surface. (You can see the player’s HP, but monster are also operating under those same rules.)

This is so ubiquitous, because it’s simple, efficient, and works. It allows the designer to clearly signpost victory and loss conditions; it gives the player an easy to read assessment of how well they’re doing, and the ability to make informed choices.

And that’s where its utility stops. You can’t take “damage numbers,” and really apply them in a real world in any meaningful way. The abstraction doesn’t apply when you’re dealing with real people. You don’t take 5 or 15 or 500 points of damage from accidentally cutting your hand. You now a cut on your hand, and while it’s not life threatening, it also doesn’t affect your ability to survive a serious injury a few minutes later. (Or, at least, probably doesn’t.) But, under a hitpoint system all damage is cumulative, applying to the same pool. Stubbing your toe makes you less able to survive a gunshot.

There is a specific problem with D&D (and again, this is not unique to D&D, but it is less common), endlessly inflating stats. From a character building point, this always kind of bothers me. There’s no concrete meaning for a given stat value (aside from the six attributes. Where 10 average for a human character.) This is especially true of of their maximum health, which can range anywhere from 1hp (realistically, you’ll probably never see a character with max health below 3hp) to over 360hp. (I say, “over 360,” because I know full well, it’s possible to pump the value far beyond that.”.

This creates a situation where many characters can be downed in one hit from a longsword at level 1, but by level 10, can reasonably shrug off multiple, solid hits, from that same weapon. A character approaching max level, could easily have more than 100 health (depending on their class), and suddenly, that 1d8 hit is pretty trivial. The character literally gets to a point where they can shrug off weapons that could, and would, kill them.

Using official stats from Wizards of the Coast (D&D’s publisher), it’s entirely reasonable that a level 20 fighter, can take at least four .50 rifle rounds to the face without dying. That’s not, “oh, their armor absorbed the hit,” or, “it was a glancing blow.” That’s you shot them in the head four times with an anti-material rifle, and they’re still alive (and are probably able to survive several more headshots.)

(Seriously, D20 Modern, which is a variant of 3.5, puts the Barrett M82 at 2d12 per hit, if it crits that doubles to a maximum possible 48 damage per hit, meaning if your fighter has over 200hp (which is likely), four consecutive headshots are survivable. If it doesn’t crit, and you’re not getting max damage rolls, you could easily dump an entire mag into to fighter without killing them. And, if you’re familiar with D20 Modern, yes, that version has a level cap of 10, at which point we’re still talking about multiple headshots being survivable.)

Now, D&D tries to walk back some of this insanity with suggestions like the blow not penetrating armor, or skill developing to a point where the character knows how to avoid serious injury. However, the math doesn’t work, and hitpoints will (almost) always devolve into bizarre edge cases.

The problem isn’t D&D. While its implementation has issues, and various designers are always trying to, “make it more realistic,” which is a bit like slapping a band-aid on four .50 headshot wounds, the system itself can make for compelling experiences. Just, be very cautious about taking them out of that context.

The great strength of HP systems (beyond it being easy to read) is that it helps mitigate the extremely unpredictable nature of combat. (I’m not going to delve into concepts like, “exploding dice,” which exist in some games), but in most cases you can easily predict the worst possible outcome in a given combat situation governed by an HP system. (For example, being able to calculate the average and maximum possible damage from the sniper rifle example above.)

The issue is, that’s not how damage works in the real world. People can, and do, die from relatively minor injuries. A light blow to the head can result in a cerebral hemorrhage, which will kill you. A relatively light strike, at a bad angle, can fracture bone. A punch to the kidney can cause you to internally bleed to death over a matter of days.

In a very strange, and counterintuitive sense, the way we think about damage is a fantasy. We’ve recently had the longsword/rapier discussion floating around, and that’s an excellent example of how damage doesn’t work the way you think.

In D&D, the longsword is a 1d8, while the rapier is a 1d6, (technically, 5e finally changed rapier a d8, but for almost 40 years, it did less damage.) In the real world, both weapons are quite capable of ending a combatant’s life in a single hit. It doesn’t matter if you just picked up the blade for the first time, or if you’ve been dueling with it for decades. In D&D (barring special circumstances) it is impossible to kill a high level character in a single strike from either weapon.

The idea of breaking down damage to a number (or linear value) only works, when there’s no actual people involved. Damage suffered is a consequence of applied Newtonian physics, not arithmetic.

Hit point systems struggle when it comes to converting those numbers into detailed injuries. (Or mechanical damage when one of the participants is an object, rather than a living being.) For a writer, this is a huge problem.

As a writer, hit points are not useful on their own. You can’t write, “my character took 15 points of damage and was knocked prone,” while expecting it to carry the same weight, as your character getting kicked in the side, losing their balance, and falling into the mud, before taking a boot to the face. (I’m now reminded of that novel where a character uses an AoO to activate circle kick, and the really was just one step removed from identifying each action by the D&D terminology.)

Again, I do like D&D for what it is. I think it is a very good, cooperative, tabletop, strategy game. As a roleplaying game, it’s not my favorite, but that has more to do with your group and DM, and I’ve had a few terrible DMs over the years.

As a framework for a fantasy setting, I’m not overly opposed to D&D. Between the various campaign settings, there are a few that do some really interesting things with the genre. Planescape and Dark Sun still stand out as the highwater mark for me, and if you’re writing fantasy, you should probably develop a passing familiarity with both. Ravenloft has never been a favorite, but there’s a lot to recommend it. Dragonlance feels a little overrated in my opinion, but I suspect that’s because Hickman and Weiss’s novels carry the setting. Forgotten Realms is significantly better than it looks at a glance, but a lot of the interesting (post-apocalyptic) elements are easy to miss, and get lost. Spelljammer is weird, in a compelling way. Urban Aracana is debatably not a D&D campaign setting.

For understanding combat, or writing violence, D&D is not a good starting point. It is a slightly janky, but highly detailed squad-level, strategy game. It can be a lot of fun, and you can tell a fun story based on what the dice did to your friends, but any attempt to write a coherent narrative from it, will require you to spite the dice, rather than following their direction.

If you asked me to design a, “realistic,” damage system for a game, I’d probably lean towards more of an applied condition system. These do exist, but they’re somewhat rare because they require a lot of bookkeeping, and it can be difficult to assess how well a character is doing at any given moment. They also have the disadvantage that they can outright kill a character with little to no warning, and while that is true to life, and is advantageous in a narrative setting, it feels really bad when your character takes a dirt nap with no warning, due to events completely outside your control. (The best versions of this I’ve seen, use a shuffled deck of cards to inflict and track damage. Which opens up a lot of options for fine tuning damage consequences to the specific situation.)

To be clear, I don’t think that hit point systems are bad. I think their positives vastly outweigh their limitations, in a game. However, outside of games, hit points become actively detrimental. If you’re wanting to write violence, it’s something hit points are more of a hinderance than a help.

-Starke

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Q&A: One-Handed Fighters: Combat Prosthetics and Götz von Berlichingen

How can a disabled character fight (unarmed/sword/knife)? He only has one good hand, and the other arm ends at a stump at the wrist. Is a wristblade possible on the stump? Can he punch as normal (boxing skills)? Holds? The setting is fantasy, and military stuff isn’t needed at all.

Well, it’s been a couple years since we’ve talked about Götz von Berlichingen, so let’s remedy that.

Götz von Berlichingen was a German soldier in the early 16th century. During his career he served as a mercenary, Imperial knight, and even became a poet later in life.

Götz is significant, because in 1504, his right hand was blown off during the siege of Landshut. The full story was a messy succession war between the Bavarian duchies of Munich and Landshut. Having lost his hand, Götz had a simple prosthetic commissioned, and continued campaigning for 40 years. For context, he was in his mid-20s when he lost his hand, and continued fighting into his mid-60s. He would later go on to have a more advanced prosthetic crafted, which could be manipulated to allow him to hold objects. Most famously, this included a pen, which allowed him to write with his prosthetic. This is somewhat fortunate, as he left an autobiography, which forms much of the historical record we have regarding him.

Finding the autobiography (and even the play Goethe wrote) is fairly easy in the original German, though English translations are a bit harder to come by. (Translations of the play are a little more accessible, but Goethe took some significant liberties with history.)

While Götz is the most famous example, his use of a prosthetic hand was not unique in the era. The technology needed for these prosthetics were basic clockwork systems, and a similar level of mechanical sophistication to wheel lock firearms.

Since you’re working with a fantasy setting, it’s possible your world might have more functional prosthetics, potentially with more specialized applications. (Though, obviously, more delicate tools built into a prosthetic would make it less useful in combat. For example: If you have lockpicking tools built into the fingertips, you probably wouldn’t want to risk damaging them by punching someone.)

I’m not aware of any historical prosthetics that had weapons built into them. Wearable weapons are uncommon, but have existed at various points in time. It’s not impossible that your fantasy gauntlet could have a retractable blade built in. However, if the blade is damaged, the user would need to go through an entire process dismantling their arm and replacing the weapon, instead of just switching to another one.

Worth noting, it’s can be harder to break free of a hold, by someone who is missing a hand (and especially if they’re missing part of their forearm.) The easiest way out, usually involves manipulating the attacker’s fingers, and if they don’t have any, pulling their arm off will be more difficult.

Can you punch without a hand? No. It’s possible you could punch with a prosthetic (though, again, if it has mechanically delicate internal components, this may be a bad idea, depending on how it was designed.)

So, the historical answer was, prosthetics. This may be more true in your setting than in the real world.

-Starke

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Q&A: The Diversity of The Sword (and the Road to the Rapier)

im confused so did the rapier superseded the lo longsword (or what we call a longsword)?

Sort of, but saying, “yes,” would be a little misleading.

You can draw a direct evolutionary line from the 11th century arming swords (also sometimes called the, “knightly sword”) (which, you might identify as a longsword) to the Spanish sideswords, to the rapier. This can get confusing, because you could be forgiven for mistaking a sidesword for a longsword. It’s a specific blade, intended for use as a sidearm, but, “it’s a sword,” and long enough that you could easily call it, “a longsword.”

By the same logic, you would not be (completely) wrong for identifying a rapier as a “long sword.” This is why things can be difficult to parse, especially if you think of a longsword as a specific weapon.

Modern historians break medieval straight swords down into, roughly, 12 categories, named after the late Ewart Oakeshott. (Technically, is, I think the total is 27, because some types have multiple variants.)

So, the the Oakeshott Type X evolved into the Oakeshott Type XIII sometime during The Crusades, which in turn would evolve into the Spanish Sideswords (which, as far as I know, don’t have a Oakeshott Type associated with them, though the XVIIId and Type XIX aren’t far off, and are from the right era.)

The issue is, an Oakeshott Type X, and a Type XVIIId are both swords. However, those swords were manufactured based on the technology and materials available, the skill of the smith, and the intended function.

The sidesword was intended to be used as both a cutting and thrusting blade. It was intended to be light, and easy to carry, as it was a backup weapon. The rapier accentuated those traits. A lightweight blade is desirable, it’s easier to carry. The thinner blade may be aesthetically appealing, but if you have the technology to make it, the result is lethal.

So, looping back to the beginning, the real mistake is thinking that the longsword is a standardized weapon. The Oakeshott Typology allows us to categorize them into different groups, and it’s useful for tracking the changes in the designs over time, however, it’s important to remember that Oakeshott’s work was retroactively categorizing these weapons into groups. There’s no single moment that a smith sat down, stopped making Type X blades, and started making Type XIIIs. That transition happened over time. (They also would have been completely unfamiliar with the terminology, as Oakeshott was publishing in the 20th century.)

It’s probably, slightly, more accurate to think of the rapier as the result of people tinkering with, refining, and improving the longsword over the course of 600 years. (Or, longer if we include first millennia swords, in which case, you’re looking at more like 800 years of European sword design.) The rapier did not supersede the longsword; the longsword became the rapier.

If there was a weapon which superseded the longsword in Europe, it was the saber. For an extremely abbreviated history, the saber first entered Europe sometime in the first millennia, and found a home among cavalry in Eastern Europe. They started gaining popularity in the 17th century (both the sabers and the Polish Hussars who wielded them), which would eventually lead to the saber becoming the dominant military blade in Europe. You can actually see a replication of some of the transformation which lead to the rapier in how Western European saber deigns favored thinner blades. Smiths (and by this point militaries) took a design they liked, and modified it to better suit their goals. Now, the other thing which changed was the transition to gunpowder infantry. Sabers still saw battlefield use (partially among cavalry) into the 19th century, but the combat role of a sword on the battlefield was rapidly coming to a close.

So, the short version is, no, the European longsword became the rapier, and then was eventually replaced by changing fashions.

-Starke

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The Rapier: Seven Minutes in Hell Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (Gideon the Ninth and the Perils of Pop Culture)

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite:

Have you read Gideon the Ninth? What did you think of the swordplay? I found it ridiculous, Gideon is supposedly so “strong” she uses a “Greatsword” with one hand.

I’ll be honest, I got about seventy pages into Gideon the Ninth before I gave up due to the novel’s pacing issues. So, in terms of sins, the swordplay itself rated pretty low. The reason one reads Gideon the Ninth is for lesbian necromancers in space, and it’s good for that. I’ve no judgments on anyone who enjoyed it, dumb space fantasy fun is one of my favorite genres. Gideon’s combat sins are the same as pretty much every other novel, they’re the same legion of sins you see when any writer takes conventional wisdom and pop culture knowledge at face value without giving it any thought. 

The short answer to Gideon the Ninth and pretty much anything to do with swordplay from conventional understanding of weapon utility to training to the wisdom spouted by the main character’s titular teacher is: it’s all wrong, often hilariously so, to the point of being nonsensical. So wrong, in fact, that I question whether or not this character was actually trained to fight because she couldn’t grasp the fundamentals. (Longsword and rapier? Not that different.) However, while Gideon was exceedingly wrong with great confidence, she’s very in line with our cultural perceptions of swords.As a result, Gideon is very convincing if you don’t think about what she’s saying too much.

Let’s start with the basics:

  1. The longsword is the battlefield warrior’s weapon. 
  2. The rapier is the tooty fruity dainty noble’s fancy dueling weapon. (It’s super fancy because it’s French.)
  3. And if you just nodded along to those descriptions, oh boy, is this post going to blow your mind.

Here’s our first foray, rapier is not a French word, rapier is derived from a French word, but is an English and/or German word. They didn’t care enough to get the pronunciation right, which sounds exactly like the English and the Germans in regards to the French. It’s also a horrible mistake if you follow suit. The French happen to be great at stabbing people. You’re welcome.

I’m not going to focus on Gideon’s issues with the zweihander or claymore. We’ve discussed the weight of swords at length in the past and how these large weapons only weigh about eight pounds because, in the real world, you’re expected to use them all day. (No, really.) In this post, we’re going to focus on the sword Gideon truly does dirty in quintessential fantasy fashion and that sword is the rapier and it’s shorter sibling, the smallsword.

One of the major problems of Fantasy as a genre, usually pulling from Dungeons & Dragons, is it tends to look at the past as The Past. A bleary amalgamation of stuff slammed together in an incoherent jumble that doesn’t really make sense but seems like it does if you don’t look too closely. Any fantasy setting, for example, that lets you have a greatsword but not a single-shot handgun is a little confused about history. So, a lot of weapons that are actually sequential technological evolutions during society’s growth and progression toward the modern era get held up as the same as their ancient counterparts. Oftentimes, these are weapons separated by hundreds of years and, in some cases, thousands. The zweihander, for example, is not a medieval weapon, it’s early modern and post the invention of the gun. It’s a 16th century weapon, and requires the smithing technologies of the era in order to exist. Your DnD Barbarian patterned off the Visigoths or the Norse using a greatsword is the same as your hard bitten 1920s P.I. using a goddamn phaser. It’s anachronistic. Now, why is this important to the rapier?

The rapier comes from an era when everyone got to have swords and the swords themselves were seen as status symbols. The rapier was not just the weapon of the super rich, but the weapon of the rising middle/merchant class. While it did see battlefield use, they were also weapons carried for self-defense and in polite society. Due to its light weight, they could be carried as a fashion accessory, just like high heels for both men (and women.) Which is where our cultural bias for the rapier being a non-serious weapon comes from, but it was the military fashion of the time because it was the military sidearm. The rapier is a weapon for killing and it is very efficient at its job. The rapier, if you didn’t know, is one step off Europe’s pinnacle of sword technology. The epee stood at the peak, which was a weapon so quick it was famous for what was called the double suicide where the duel ended with both duelists killing each other at the same time. The rapier, the smallsword, and, really, all the thrusting swords epitomize, “you’ll be seven minutes in hell before the Devil knows you’re dead.”

This is a problem that follows the weapon into modern sport fencing where we have to use electronic scoring because it is too fast for the judges to follow with their eyes. As an Olympic sport, it’s one of the reasons why fencing really struggles to draw an audience because your brain genuinely cannot process what’s happening. Again, one of the most common injuries for smallsword masters (and these are instructors who trained others professionally) was the loss of an eye. The thrusting family is fast.

Ignoring for the moment that Gideon confuses the rapier with modern fencing as most pop culture does, the narrative runs into a basic issue when it comes to training. The narrative wants Gideon to maintain her smug attitude in regards to the rapier’s frippery, so Gideon never gains an appreciation for the rapier’s rather absurd lethality (even in comparison to other swords.) This is functionally impossible from a realistic standpoint because you can’t train on a weapon without gaining some appreciation for it, even if you don’t like it or it’s not your preference. 

I’d actually say the greatest sin of Gideon is the way it writes off modern fencing without attempting to understand it. I say modern fencing because neither Gideon nor the narrative is utilizing the historical techniques of the rapier but rather falling back on the audience’s conventional understanding of fencing, which is modern fencing. Modern fencing grew out of the military sabre and the smallsword or epee, respectively. It is important to note that Gideon is not using historical smallsword fencing either, but rather the idea of it. In essence, Gideon’s fencing is Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood yelling, “Parry, parry, thrust, thrust! Good!” at the Sheriff of Rottingham.

The problem is that any character who has a juvenile disdain for the weapon they’re training with is a major red flag for an author’s inexperience. Experienced writers who’ve worked with weapons will write characters who have disdain for certain weapons and preferences for others but the character will express a grounded, detailed reason for their preference. Those reasons may be petty, as real world complaints often are, but they can provide you with a reason regarding the weapon’s function beyond “this is a girly sword.” (The rapier is three and a half feet of fuck you. The rapier is a needle razor blade of death.) I’ll put it in blunt terms, at the beginning of the novel, Gideon essentially whines about one of the most lethal swords ever created not being masculine enough for her tastes. And to that, we all say, fuck you too.

This is why we do our research. Remember, the Musketeers carried rapiers. As did most other soldiers of the period. So, complaining that it’s not a battlefield sword is kind of stupid. Especially since the battlefields of Gideon’s setting aren’t really explained very well.

So, now, I’m going to go over some pieces from Gideon’s text that really stood out to me as wrong and we should address why they’re wrong so you don’t replicate them in your own work. Then, I’ll give you an example from an author who famously did it right.

“She spent six hours a day learning where to put her feet when she wielded a one-handed sword,”

Gideon the Ninth, 59

This is the sort of statement that sounds good when you don’t think about it, but I’m not actually certain what it means in context. The longsword, which is a 19th century term and usually what we think of when referring to the Arming sword (which can be wielded two handed when it has a longer hilt for greater leverage) can be wielded with one hand and often was either on its own or in conjunction with a shield. The rapier/the thrusting blade family are not the only weapons you wield with one hand, most swords can be, even those that normally use two.

The idea that martial combat is ultimately and fundamentally different between weapon types is untrue, the stances do change between weapon types but the same rules usually apply. So, if Gideon is used to training with swords, then the rapier wouldn’t be totally alien.

“Where to rest (what seemed to her to be) her useless, unused arm,”

Gideon the Ninth, 59

Raise your hand if you’ve ever looked at the fencing stances in films like Princess Bride or Robin Hood: Men in Tights and gone, “well, that’s just dumb.” You and Gideon have something in common, but you shouldn’t because Gideon is trained in swordplay. Gideon should understand the fundamental importance of balance. Gideon does not. (Gideon’s teacher does point out the balance part later, though rather nonsensically and the knuckle weapon makes no sense, but Gideon should already know this from her years of training.) The bagh naka and the katar/punch dagger are amazing melee tools in unarmed combat, but not useful as the offhand guard against a rapier.

Useful offhand tools for the rapier — the buckler, the parrying dagger, the cloak, and the whip. (Yes, Zorro was right.)

What is the point of that off-hand position in fencing? Balance. Yeah, those hand positions are about helping you maintain balance in your stance, allowing you to move and strike cleanly without falling over or stumbling. No matter what weapon you choose, even if you’re going hand to hand, martial combat is built around your central balance point. (In fact, there are a great many styles and techniques that focus specifically on disrupting your opponent’s balance to gain an advantage in combat.) If you haven’t guessed this, falling over is very bad.

The off-hand allows for a narrower sideways/diagonal stance (making yourself a smaller target/ more difficult to hit, more on this later) while maintaining your central axis, which also, ironically, plays into the importance of your footwork (more on this later.)

Another, very important, practical reason for the position of that off hand is it brings your shoulders into line while in your stance, allowing you to take the weight of the sword off your arm and carry it in your back. This way you take the strain off the arm, and fight longer, or fight multiple duels in succession. The rapier only weighs about two pounds, but with your arm constantly extended, it becomes a lever and the weapon grows heavier as time progresses.

One of the key aspects of martial combat that is most difficult is holding position in your stance, you’re in a constant battle against gravity and your own muscles. This is why, when you watch fights progress, you’ll see stances get shallower, hands drop from their defensive position, the arms fall out of line, etc. A well-balanced stance conserves energy.

Your shoulders being in line is one of the aspects you give up if you choose to duel wield. Why did some people just fight with one sword if other tools were convenient? Well, there are several, but one is conservation of energy.

Gideon being derogatory about this and not knowing makes Gideon look like a really shitty warrior. (Which, ironically, were my feelings at the time of reading the book.)

“How to suddenly make herself a sideways target and always move on the same stupid foot.”

Gideon the Ninth, 59

This one really caught me, “make herself a sideways target.” The weird thing for me with this is, why “suddenly” and why is being sideways bad? All martial combat happens on a diagonal, some more so than others, but everything is on a diagonal. Nobody fights squared up, nobody, no one. It’s a terrible position that is out of balance. You can literally destabilize someone by stepping between their legs and shoving their chest with one hand, and they will stumble. You fight sideways on diagonals, on specific degrees, your feet spread and in balance, with your central axis protected. Combat with a rapier is, ironically, not more sideways/on a diagonal than with a longsword.

Then, the second line “always move on the same stupid foot.” I get what this phrase is referencing, but it’s also wrong. In martial combat, you always move with the lead leg first (there are exceptions to this rule, there always are, but by and large) and then the back leg. Or, when moving forward (advancing,) the back leg and then the front leg. One foot always acts as your central balance point while moving so you don’t give your opponent an opening in your defenses or the opportunity to destabilize you. This is basic combat training. Gideon is whining about basic combat training which would apply with any weapon she trained on, including the longsword.

This is really how we tell a writer isn’t approaching combat with the idea of their character being at risk of dying. Gideon has no concerns about being up against other characters who have trained their entire lives with one of the deadliest swords, mostly because the author hasn’t fully processed that there isn’t a major difference in outcome between a battlefield and a duel to the death — both will kill you. Now, this should be a point of tension in the narrative, but it isn’t because Gideon doesn’t take the rapier or dueling to the death seriously. Your POV dictates how your reader responds.

Moving on, a very important one for all you swordsmen out there:

“This isn’t your longsword, Nav, you block with it again and I’ll make you eat it!”

Gideon the Ninth, 59

A parry is, essentially, a deflection or redirection of your opponent’s blade. Instead of taking the force, you redirect that force away from you and counter strike if the opening presents.

A block involves taking the full force of your opponent’s strike and stopping it cold. Which, I’m sure, sounds cool and tough. (Far more so than it actually is.)

You don’t block with swords, at least, not swords with edges. If you block with a sword that has an edge, you will damage the edge or break the blade. Both are bad to the functionality of the weapon. Hollywood has a variation of sword combat that’s called Flynning (after Errol Flynn) for eye-catching moves where the blades bang against each other, it looks very pretty and has no relevance to real combat. All swords parry, not just rapiers, sabres, and smallswords. Estocs can block, lightsabers (beams of pure plasma) can block, longswords? No. Or, at least, you shouldn’t.

I will forgive any reader for thinking they could because pop culture trains you to believe it’s a normal part of sword combat.

So, what does the response look like from a writer who understands the art of fencing. I’ll give you an example from Rafael Sabatini’s Master-At-Arms, which was written in the 1940s. For reference, Sabatini was popular in his time for his contributions to the swashbuckling genre.

This scene is a training scene between a main character, Quentin de Morlaix (our swordmaster) and Chevalier de Saint-Gilles (one of his inevitable rivals.)

The Chevalier complied. He launched the botte with which he had twice got home. This time, however, the stroke was not only parried but with a swift counter Morlaix hit the Chevalier vigorously over the heart.

He lowered his blade. ‘That should not have happened,’ was his quiet comment to the hotly answered: ‘That shall not happen again. On guard!’

The attack was repeated, with an increase of both vigor and speed. Yet once again it was met and answered by that hit in quarte.

The Chevalier fell back and spoke sharply in an annoyance that was shared by his scowling, startled brother. ‘But what is this, then? Were you trifling with me before?’

Morlaix was of perfect amiability. ‘You confuse a master-at-arms with an ordinary opponent, Chevalier. That is an effective botte of yours, to which I must suppose you have given much practice. The fault in its execution lies in that you offer too much body. Keep yourself narrower. Then if you are hit it will be less fatally. On guard again. So. That is better, but not good enough. Swing your left shoulder father back, more in line with your right. Now, hold yourself so, whilst making your attack. Allongez! Excellent. For whilst I counter-parry it thus,and make my riposte on the binding of the blade, I can only touch you in quinte. Thus.’

The blades were lowered again and Morlaix expounded to the discomfited swordsman. ‘That correction of your position to an unaccustomed one will have cramped you a little, so you have lost pace and force, and left it easier for the counter to get home. With practice, however, that will be overcome. When it is corrected we will come to your other faults,’ he promised, and added the cruelest cut of all: ‘You display so much aptitude it should be easy to render you really formidable.’

Master-At-Arms, 29

What should really stand out from Sabatini’s passage is the detail both in terminology and in explanation, a lot of writers skirt around detail and explanations because they don’t know and didn’t do the research. Research is hard, but when you have a solid grasp of what you’re working with, it ultimately creates better material.

The teacher who doesn’t explain, while an easy cheat, is a crappy teacher. 

What Sabatini is referring to with quarte and quinte are the eight classical parries and attack in foil fencing, basically the parts of the body he’s hitting. (I’ll point out, Quentin knows why you stay narrow and informs both Saint-Gilles and the audience: so you don’t die. Learn things, Gideon.) Interestingly, this chapter serves to establish both Quentin de Morlaix’s skill as a fencer, his rivalry with his cousins, Chevalier de Saint-Gilles and Constant which are central to the novel’s plot, and that he’s a little shit.

In short, given poor training, poor understanding, and dismal interest, Gideon would probably be murdered by a real duelist on the first strike of her first duel and then necro’d back to life. Fortunately, she lives in a setting where the rapier is not an effective weapon with which you might thoroughly humiliate your opponent.

-Michi

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Q&A: The Difficulties for Organized Crime Going Legit

How realistic is the Godfather trope of turning a mob family legitimate? I don’t mean “bad people becoming good,” I mean “taking a criminal empire and turning it into a purely corporate, political, or otherwise ‘aboveboard’ one.” Less about switching sides, more about leveling up.

To be honest, The Godfather isn’t realistic, it’s opera. This, also, isn’t what’s going on in the film. Now, as a brief aside, I’ve never read Mario Puzo’s novel, my only exposure to these characters was through Francis Coppola’s adaptations.

Regarding the character of Michael Corleone (Al Pachino), he stayed out of the family business growing up and appeared legitimate. Vito hoped his son would go into politics, providing influence to his family. While the character is more complex than this, keeping specific individuals associated with organized crime enterprises legitimate in order to infiltrate society in places they otherwise wouldn’t be able to is a real strategy. It’s not that the family is legitimate, it’s that certain members have no visible, criminal affiliations, and can operate covertly.

If it seems implausible that a member of a major Mafia family could get elected to office, I’d remind you of William Bulger, brother of Whitey Bulger. Whitey Bulger was the infamous leader of Boston’s Winter Hill Gang. No connection between William and his brother’s criminal enterprise was ever proven, but William was responsible for installing John Connelly into the FBI (via a personal letter written to J. Edgar Hoover.) Connelly would go on to be Whitey’s tamed fed, who kept him appraised of any investigation into his activities, and allowed Whitey to avoid arrest and prosecution for decades. (There’s way more to this than I’m getting into. The Bureau’s Boston field office had some serious corruption problems in the 60s.)

So, it does make sense for a character like Michael to have a deniable background, where he appears to be a legitimate member of society, while still being affiliated with the family. Ironically, the films are an inverse of the normal redemption arc, as Michael makes decisions which irrevocably tie him into the family, which he could have escaped.

The purpose for an entire family to, “go legitimate,” is more about the illusion rather than the reality. For a investigator, it’s much harder to prove a crime occurred when it’s hidden behind legitimate financial activity. Front businesses (particularly ones that deal with cash) are ideal, as they can also be used to launder illicit funds.

I’d argue that it is actually necessary for an illicit organization to have multiple legitimate fronts. It gives the organization a way to pay its members with funds that have already been laundered. It allows the organization to own or rent property (because, “rented by the local mob,” would raise eyebrows), in many cases it’s a critical step to further corruption (such as shipping skimming, though the New York gas tax fraud comes to mind.)

There is a lot of money to be made in illicit enterprise, and organized crime is adept at identifying exploitable situations. They identify points in the economy where there’s a lot of money moving around without much attention or oversight. Then, they use force (or the threat of same) to “muscle” their way in, and that is why they can never go legit.

Under normal circumstances, modern states exercise, and jealously guard monopolies on violence. A significant chunk of modern laws either build into, or articulate this idea. You, as an individual, do not have the authority to inflict violence on others, in exchange you’re protected (at least in theory) from having violence inflicted upon you. (At least, by non-state actors, with the caveat that said, “protection,” is often only deterrence, and any actual state response will likely to be after the fact, or posthumous.)

The problem is that organized crime aspires to become the state. Now, granted, very few criminal enterprises actually want the headache of becoming a nation in their own right. They’d be content with a simple patron/client system, which actually comes pretty close to how most organized crime operates. It is aspiring to be a small, feudalistic, government, operating autonomously under the nose of the legitimate state.

One of the authorities that organized crime (almost universally) seeks to usurp is the use and regulation of violence. Violence is used as a coercive tool, much like in many oppressive regimes, and is used as a form of, “foreign policy,” when interacting with other criminal organizations.

That last paragraph is why an organization can never, truly, go legit. It has a history of using violence as one of its methods of foreign policy. If it didn’t, it would have been obliterated by its competitors. This remains true, even if the organization never openly engaged in violence, and merely used the threat of same.

If one criminal enterprise disarms, it will be consumed by its competitors. In fact, this is a serious risk when there’s any weakness (including a regime change) within an organization. Aggressive competitors will look at that organization, it’s resources, and it’s inability to effectively protect them, as an opportunity.

There is an internal issue with using violence as a control mechanism. If your organization only keeps people in line at gun point, you’re going to have problems the moment you take that threat off the table. A criminal organization swearing off violence, would proceed to (figuratively) eat itself alive in shockingly short order. When the organization abdicated it’s monopoly on violence, that authority spilled down to the individual members, and it can’t (realistically) be returned to the legitimate state. (Worth noting, that a criminal organization who simply “refuses to use violence,” has abdicated control over it.)

Once your organization claims the authority to inflict violence, it is incredibly difficult to safely divest yourself of that.

So long as you maintain authority over violence, you cannot go legitimate. It’s illegal, and you can’t abdicate that authority without being murdered. (Either by your competitors, or your own people.)

-Starke

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Q&A: Spontanious Bullet Combustion and the Wrong Kind of a Cook-Off

I have a character who can trigger and inhibit combustion; I know him using his power to “cook off” the bullets in someone’s magazine would be a bad thing for the person holding it, I’m just wondering as to how bad.

Extremely.

This is going to depend on the weapon, and exactly what your character is doing.

It’s worth remembering that the normal meaning of, “cook off” doesn’t apply here. Under normal circumstances, a gun cooks off its ammunition when the chamber becomes hot enough (from sustained use) to ignite the powder in any freshly loaded round. On most automatic and semiautomatic weapons, this will cause a “runaway gun,” and it will proceed to dump its magazine quite quickly.

However, it’s nearly impossible for this to occur with a handgun. The fire rate in these situations would inversely related to the bolt weight. (The lighter the bolt, the faster it will cycle.) I’m guessing here, but most handguns would cycle at over 1k RPM if they could cook off. (For reference, the Glock 18 has a cyclic rate of around 1,200 RPM, so this number isn’t implausible.) The main issue with this is, that it’s not possible for a handgun’s chamber to get that hot (and it’s nearly impossible on any semi-automatic weapon.) You’re most likely to encounter runaway guns after heavy use of full auto weapons with deep magazines.

The absolute best case for spontaneous powder combustion, are single shot firearms with no spare ammunition. Breach loading shotguns, and some varieties of hunting rifle come to mind. Though, a pepper box style pistol, or double barrel shotgun would be a similar situation. In these cases, spontaneous combustion would basically just produce an accidental discharge.

Of course, if you combine this with poor muzzle discipline, you have a recipe for disaster.

This is also true for any muzzle loaded flintlock design. Though, the odds that a character wasn’t also carrying powder would be low. When dealing with black powder, I’m unsure how much benefit your character would really get from setting someone’s powder magazine ablaze. At least, in comparison to simply setting some of their foe’s internal organs on fire and calling it a day.

More modern weapons can become really problematic.

With revolvers, causing all six shots to cook off at once could have a variety of ill effects, and it would depend on the specific revolver. In particular, any round in line with the frame (specifically the bottom chamber in the cylinder in almost all cases) would cause catastrophic damage to the gun itself. This will render the weapon inoperable. This kind of a failure can result in shrapnel injuring the user (though, that’s usually more of a consideration with the cylinder failing due to overpressure rounds.) Bullets ejected down the barrel would behave (mostly) normally. Bullets ejected from any chamber with an unobstructed exit would tumble after exiting the gun, have relatively limited range (because they wouldn’t have had the entire barrel to build pressure and speed), and poor accuracy (as the round would be tumbling in flight, and not spinning, because it hadn’t passed through any rifling.)

What I’m not sure about with revolvers is, if the bullet strikes the frame (which could happen with all 5 out-of-battery rounds) whether the resulting back pressure would be enough to crack the cylinder. The thought process here is that the bullet would strike the frame and stop (causing some damage), but then the gas pressure behind the bullet would continue to build, and if it couldn’t force the bullet out of the cylinder, that force would then push outward against the sides of the cylinder. It is quite possible, particularly with high power cartridges, for that pressure to be enough to crack, or explode, the cylinder itself, causing the gun to literally explode in the user’s hands.

I’m not sure what would happen with tube magazines. Usually you see these on shotguns, though rifle and handgun examples of the design do exist. My suspicion would be that the magazine would (roughly) direct force away from the user, but I’m not sure exactly how that pressure would shake out. The other thing about shotguns is that they’re relatively low pressure weapons. It doesn’t take a lot of force to get shot or slugs moving, so they don’t. When you get into exotic rounds, such as dragon’s breath or flares, there might not be enough powder to cycle the bolt on a semi-auto shotgun. This means, while I’m not 100% sure, it’s possible if your character cooks off the magazine of a Benelli M4, all they’ll actually achieve is slagging the mag tube itself.

Of course, if you did load your shotgun with something like dragon’s breath shells, cleaning that mag out would be really obnoxious.

Detachable box magazines are norm for most modern firearms. Depending on the magazine, and the cartridges loaded in, this could get bad.

First, I need to explain something about basic firearms engineering. Firearms work off a basic, “path of least resistance,” principle. When you ignite a cartridge’s powder, you rely on the chamber to direct that force into the bullet, and push the bullet down the barrel. The entire mechanical system is designed to direct the force of burning powder. If you don’t do that, then the force will be (mostly) wasted. It will push against the least structurally sound part of the cartridge (which is the shell casing), and will barely move the bullet, (because that is the heaviest part of the cartridge.)

In fact, if you were to replicate the skillet scene from John Wick (which you really, really should not), you would likely end up with the bullets still in the skillet after they’d cooked, while the shell casings would have sprayed brass shrapnel in random directions, and probably bounced out of the pan. The dangerous thing about ammo in a fire is, often, the casings, not the bullets themselves.

With a revolver, bullets are always held in the chamber they’ll be fired from, and the gun rotates those cambers into line with the barrel. However, with autoloading designs, the cartridges are not secured in a chamber until they are ready to fire (and moved into battery.) This means, if you detonate those rounds, the casings will explode, while the bullet will (mostly) remain in place.

Importantly, what will not happen, is the gun firing all of the rounds forward from it’s magazine, tearing apart the user’s hand. Instead, the force will be directed outward, and the it may still tear apart the user’s hand.

Most modern box mags are made from aluminum, steel, or plastic. Which one you get will depend on the gun, and, in many cases, particularly rifles, you can pick which you want. Detonating the rounds within will probably (irreparably) damage the magazine. Possibly blowing out the sides. Depending on the specific example, this may be enough force to explode out of a lighter weight magazine. It wouldn’t surprise me if it’s enough to blow out the floor plate on some mags. If the magazine remains structurally sound, there will probably be a minor shrapnel blast out of the feed lips. (This is the only part I’d be seriously concerned about, without knowing what kind of gun we’re talking about.)

If the magazine is loaded into a rifle (so, most of the mag is exposed), the structurally weakest part (the floorplate) would be what I’d expect to see fail, blasting shrapnel down, and probably away from the shooter. If the floorplate doesn’t fail, then you might see the magazine mushroom, expanding with the igniting gasses. Depending on the rifle, this may force brass up into the chamber, jamming the action. But, without knowing exactly what we’re talking about, it could be difficult to know for certain. It’s also possible, depending on the exact mag release mechanism, for the expanding gasses to pop the mag lose, which would forcibly eject it from the weapon. But, you’d need to know exactly how the mags on that specific weapon are retained to judge how this would work.

If the magazine is held in the grip, (so, most autoloading handguns), if the magazine mushrooms, it’s possible that it will also deform the grip, making it impossible to remove. Again, I would expect the floorplate to fail before that happened, but it really does depend on the gun.

There are two special cases that deserve mention.

On some drum mags, it’s possible the front plate would break off, and that the combined force of the tightly packed rounds would direct a significant portion of the force forward. (Of course, once the front or back plate failed, I’d expect the wall to fail as well, so the the whole thing could come apart. This isn’t that outlandish, when you know that drum mags tend to be a mechanical nightmare under the best of circumstances.

The FN P90 is a very unusual gun in where it stores it’s ammunition. The magazine is stored flush across the top of the gun, with an unusual turret design at the back. Fifty rounds of 5.7mm are stored horizontally down the length of the gun, and physically rotated 90 degrees when they’re loaded into battery. It’s a very unique firearm. It also means that the magazine is right next to your face, and the only thing separating you from your ammunition is a sheet of translucent polymer. If those rounds were to spontaneously detonate, it would be very unfortunate.

So, while you could do a considerable amount of damage to the gun, and this dangerous, it’s not like you’d suddenly have all of those bullets spraying all over the place turning everyone in the area into chunky salsa. It just doesn’t work that way. At the same time, getting hit by brass shrapnel can injure or kill you. It’s not a bullet, and doesn’t have the range of one, but it doesn’t need to be.

Ironically, the more valuable thing here might be the ability to suppress combustion. As I’ve mentioned before, gunpowder isn’t, actually, explosive, it just burns extremely quickly. This means, your character could potentially prevent rounds from firing, and while it wouldn’t damage the gun, it would also create an obnoxious situation, as the operator would need to manually clear the dud round. Most firearms rely on the recoil generated from the previous shot to cycle the action, so when a cartridge fails to fire, you have to manually cycle the action.

For a more sadistic bent, this also means that the ideal time to detonate that round would be as the operator is removing it from the gun. As they cycle the bolt open to extract the “dud” cartridge, it detonates in their face.

Though, obviously, that would depend on how fine their control was. If they could simply cause things to ignite in an area, that’s going torch the people there as well. If they can suppress combustion over an area, then they could basically negate firearms when needed.

Q&A: Training Your Mage for Martial Combat

Let’s say I have a mage character who wants to “expand” their combat tactics, would it be easier/more efficient to learn to move in armor or learn to use weapons?

If you’ll give a moment to express my bias, I’d say learning armor would be easier.

Okay, let me explain that. I have a little bit of training with a sword. Not enough to say, “oh, I’m an expert on fighting with swords,” but enough to understand that there’s a lot of things to learn, and a lot I don’t know. Training to be effective with a sword will take a lot of time.

So, as someone with no armor training, that much be much easier right?

Kinda, not really. Training for heavy armor requires a lot of conditioning. So, theoretically, it’s easier to learn, but when you get to the physical training, that could take longer, and would require a serious commitment.

So, when you say, “which is easier?” That’s going to depend on the individual.

“Which is more efficient?” Is going to be more relevant to the specifics of your world, and your character.

There’s a lot of potential factors for how magic works in your setting that may heavily influence your character’s choice. An example we’ve talked about in the past is D&D’s arcane spell failure rules. These meant that wizards (and most arcane casters) could not wear armor, without it impairing their ability to cast magic. In turn, there were ways where a wizard could train to use a sword or other melee weapon setup. So, effectively, armor was (usually) not a viable option at all.

Warhammer 40k’s setting offers the opposite option, where psykers (mages), in some cases, can ignore fatal wounds for days. Meaning, weapons are far more valuable than armor.

While 40k trends into absurd power creep, it can be worth considering that mages in your world might not be particularly worried about physical threats. It’s also worth remembering that 40k has a special class of melee weapons (force weapons) that can only be wielded by trained psykers.

Much like your world, the kinds of magic your character practices can have a huge effect on whether they want weapons or armor. An example from D&D is a low level wizard spell called Mage Armor. This will provide the castor with a fairly significant defensive boost (roughly equivalent to wearing some decent armor), and will last for hours. They also have a spell called Shield which can be added on top of Mage Armor, and offers some additional protection, though only for a few minutes per use. When you put these two together, you can end up with a few minutes of armor, without penalty, that rivals full plate.

If your mage has access to those kinds of defenses, then why would they need armor? There may be situations where they would need them. Both D&D and 40k operate with variations of magic canceling fields, and if your mage is dependent on conjured armor to protect themselves, or worse, prevent bleeding out, getting hit by one of those would be a very bad thing. By the same measure, if your mage is dependent on their spells for offense, and they end up in an anti-magic field, they’re not going to be able to do much.

In rereading Mage Armor’s description, I’m reminded of one of the quirks of that spell. The armor itself is, technically, an ethereal field, rather than a physically conjured (and visible) object. This means it actually protects the caster against ethereal foes who can pass straight through conventional armor. This sets up interesting, potential, interactions, and it is the kind of intricacy that can help “sell the reality” of your magic system.

If your character expects to deal with foes who can bypass magical defenses, then physical armor is going to be something they need. Similarly, if they’re dealing with foes who have magical immunity, then resorting to physical attacks may be necessary. Either directly, or by ensuring they have soldiers or mercenaries to do the stabbing.

Another consideration is what your character’s magic can interact with. I mentioned 40k’s force swords a minute ago, but if your character has the ability to temporarily enchant their weapons or armor, that might be a significant consideration in their choice of which to learn. Or, if your setting supports it, you could easily see a battlemage who specifically focuses on channeling magic through their gear. If your mage can empower their weapons and armor to superhuman levels, the correct answer of, “which should I choose,” may be both.

So, which is easier? I’m not sure. It could go either way, though as I said at the beginning, my biases lean towards believing armor is easier to learn.

Which is more efficient? That’s going to depend on what’s possible with magic in your world, and what powers your character has developed.

If you had to pick one, I’d lean on the sword. Not because it’s easier to train, or because it’s more efficient to learn, but because there’s more utility in it.

If your character is under threat, having access to a weapon (especially one that doesn’t reveal they’re a mage), is going to be more useful than having armor. You don’t want to go into combat without armor, but you really don’t want to go unarmed.

This also going to be useful if your character can conjure weapons. In that situation, their martial training will continue to serve them while they’re using magic, and if they do lose access to their magic (for whatever reason) they’re not immediately defenseless.

So, if you have to pick, take the sword. If you don’t, maybe both. It kind of depends on what your character is doing.

-Starke

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Q&A: Symptoms and Combat Implications of Hemophilia

I’m writing a character that has to engage in hand-to-hand combat but she has haemophilia. So, fighting face to face would be the last thing she’d want to do. Is there any fighting styles/techniques that she would learn that would decrease her chance of getting a wound?

For those unfamiliar, Hemophilia is a genetic mutation that impairs clotting. Specifically, the mutation prevents the production of specific proteins responsible for coagulation of blood. This usually gets presented as the patient having difficulty managing injuries suffered, and that part is true; a hemophilic needs to be careful of any injury (including bruising) as it can potentially become life threatening.) However, it goes beyond that.

The reduced clotting factors do mean that injuries, particularly severe ones, will result in difficult to control bleeding. This is also an issue with post-surgery. Spontaneous bleeding can also result in joint stiffness or pain (from internal hemorrhaging around the joints), bleeding into the soft tissue, (which can manifest as bruising or hematomas), chronic, and persistent nosebleeds. A bleed, including a spontaneous one, in a vital organ can kill you.

The defect that produces hemophilia is carried on the X chromosome. This means that, while women can be hemophilic it’s quite rare. Their father would need to be hemophilic, and their mother would either need to hemophilic or a carrier (meaning one of their chromosomes had the mutation, and as a result were not symptomatic.) If their mother was non-symptomatic, there’d still only be 50% chance of their daughters being hemophilic.

Because it’s extremely unlikely to occur in girls, it’s rarely tested for unless symptoms have been identified. (With boys, it’s common to test for hemophilia at birth if there’s any family history of it.) In particular, two major symptoms for women that are tracked are extremely heavy menstrual bleeding, and menorrhagia (where mensuration lasts for more than 7 days.) As a result, it’s uncommon for (mild cases of) hemophilia to be diagnosed in girls before puberty.

Treatment is usually handled by administering concentrated clotting factor proteins to the patient. Keep in mind, this is, “treatment,” not a cure. With sufficient technology, it may be possible to use an implant to administer clotting factor proteins on a regular basis. Of course, it might also be possible to use a retrovirus (such as crisper) to modify and remove the genetic defect. If you’re in a less technologically advanced setting (alternately a disaster scenario that extends over multiple months, or a post-apocalyptic setting), prepackaged protein infusions probably aren’t an option.

When it comes to violence, hemophiliacs really can’t afford to get into a fight. Under normal circumstances, you’re going to end up with minor bruising from hand to hand combat. Add in hemophilia, and that bruising is going to be significantly more dangerous. You’re looking at an internal hemorrhaging risk that someone without the mutation wouldn’t need to worry about. At the upper end of the spectrum, this includes a real risk of seizure from blows to the head, even with a relatively mild cases of hemophilia. Relatively minor trauma can be life threatening for a hemophiliac.

Here’s a problem, martial arts training will include a lot of, “relatively minor trauma.” You’re going to end up with bruises on your arms, on your thighs, on your hands. You’re going to end up with bruises in places you can explain, and bruises in places you can’t. You’re going to get banged up. That’s normal. That’s not accidents. That’s not sparring. That comes from the training itself. You will do it to yourself, and not even be aware of it at the time. Accidents, when they happen, are much worse, and you can easily see broken bones or soft tissue injuries. For a hemophiliac, the normal wear and tear of marital arts training comes with a very real risk of death. This doesn’t mean a hemophiliac can’t train in martial arts (many do), but, it does preclude combat training (and full contact training of any kind.) Hemophilia even precludes joint manipulation, both applying and receiving. It’s stereotyped as the “gentle” form of martial arts, but the strain it puts on your body is actively hazardous to someone with hemophilia. It’s the kind of physical disability a dojo needs to know about, and needs to plan around.

To put this in context, I’m currently looking at a case where a middle aged man fell 3 meters (roughly 10 feet), and was hospitalized from hemorrhagic shock. Meaning, a relatively mild accident, which you or I would probably just complain about, but go on with our day, nearly killed him from blood loss, due to his body’s inability to clot. He was in the hospital for 10 days and had to undergo surgery to survive.

So, while someone with hemophilia can live a full life, mild trauma is life threatening to them. Engaging in violence will kill them. Barring significant medical treatment, they need to live carefully. Additionally, hemophilia among women is real, but is also quite rare, because the mutation needs to occur on both of their X chromosomes.

I’m inclined to say, “no,” there really isn’t this character could be getting into fights (and surviving), unless their clotting factors have been brought up to line with non-hemophiliac blood levels.

-Starke

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Q&A: Fight Like A Girl Or, Don’t

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite:

What do you think about Aiki Flinthart’s book on “Fight Like a Girl”? Like on the subject of girls fighting differently and I quote from an interview with Aiki.

“Women do fight differently to men, and anyone who says they don’t is making stuff up because women are physiologically, psychologically, emotionally and biologically different from men, and to pretend they aren’t is ridiculous.”

The reason why I ask this is that given it is hard to find a site or writer that has some experience in martial Arts and not invalidate female fighters. But the quote from an interview with a woman who has experience with martial art and survivor of assault throws me off and I wanted to ask this blog’s opinion on this book. Also this is one few books that directly tackles the subject on writing female fighters. I see this book alongside with this blog with seemingly contradicting statements.

So, what I will say as a female martial artist who started training at the age of five, who was trained by individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds, including female instructors, who earned three black belts before they were twenty, and who also taught martial arts is — we don’t train women differently.

Ignoring the fact that Aiki Flinthart’s statement has two redundancies, (Physiologically and biologically are the same, and psychologically and emotionally are also the same) the fact of the matter is the reason why you can’t find a lot of writing that focuses on female fighters is because most martial arts advice isn’t written with the gender divide in mind. The gender divide is irrelevant to technique and training. Everyone, regardless of age, is trained the same way, they learn the same techniques. They’re tested on the same skills. They largely express the same philosophies if trained in the same martial system. The reason why I say that men and women aren’t fundamentally different as fighters is because both use the same fundamentals. We fight the way we’re trained to fight.

Reality, ultimately, doesn’t support her argument.

The follow-up argument of, “well, there just aren’t enough female martial artists to know” is also patently false. There are hundreds of thousands of female martial artists all across the world, probably millions. There are enough for the Olympics to have women’s divisions in multiple categories per accepted martial art per country. There are martial arts like Wing Chun which were created by women, and those martial arts are practiced by men. Pick up any martial arts instructional book. The philosophy and/or techniques there all apply to you. Male or female, you could learn these techniques if you’re willing to put in the time and effort.

The irony is you actually do yourself a disservice by chasing for girls when looking to create a female warrior. It’ll lead you to feeling like you’re being excluded when you’re not. It’ll lead you to exclude perfectly viable combat options, attitudes, and learned behaviors because you assume they’re men only. Most importantly, you’ll start from a false position of “how does a woman solve this problem with violence” when the important question you should be asking is, “how does my character choose to solve this problem with violence.”

The one major component Flinthart doesn’t include, because it doesn’t support her argument, is the social differences between men and women. From birth, boys and girls are socialized differently due to cultural gender expectations for their societal role. Now, socialization is very real, but socialization varies heavily by individual cultures. What is socially acceptable for a woman in one society may be completely different from the expectations of another. 

For example, you may go, “there’s no real history of women warriors on film and tv.” (False, but let’s roll with it.) And my response is, “on who’s television?” Then, I direct you to Hong Kong and Chinese cinema where there’s a well established history of female martial artists because, culturally, there’s a well established history of female martial artists. You’ll often see multiple female practitioners per film on both the protagonist and antagonist’s side. Sometimes, they’re the protagonists. There’s television shows where the male characters have female masters who train them in the martial arts. (Seriously, go to Viki. Learn to love subtitles, and, if you need a place to start, Michelle Yeoh’s filmography is a good one. Girls with Guns is/was a major subgenre in Hong Kong action cinema.)

We can move the goalposts here at this point and argue, “but, Michi, male and female warriors aren’t treated as equals in Hong Kong and Chinese cinema!”

The answer is, of course, that many societies are still patriarchal and societal expectations for women still exist. However, male and female warriors still use the same techniques, so there’s clearly nothing biological going on there. Also, every one of those films needs female stunt doubles and the actresses are either trained martial artists going in or also trained by martial arts choreographers. This isn’t some small subset, this is an entire industry.

The problem for Flinthart is that socialization for both men and women is socially conditioned behavior, it’s no different than teaching your dog not to bark at strangers, to sit, or go outside to pee. Most of what you believe about the gender divide is social and not biological, and these behaviors are socially enforced by society at large. This is in the way they look at you, the way they treat you, the way they respond to you, and what they say to you. A lot of young women are afraid to learn martial arts due to socially conditioned fears that training for violence (or even sports) will make them less desirable, because these are “men’s things.” That’s complete bullshit.

A) A lot of the behaviors ascribed as men only are actually for everyone.

B) The vice versa is also true, many behaviors ascribed to women are also for everyone.

The sexualization of female warriors in cinema is, again, about retaining and reinforcing societal expectations for women. It has nothing to do with biology. As a woman, you may even be inclined to chase that sexualized presentation because it is safer and more culturally acceptable. If you need an example of sexualized presentation, take a look at Black Widow in Iron Man 2, Avengers, and (especially) Avengers 2 versus the portrayal of Black Widow in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

 Women are trained to believe objectification is desirable, we’re shown this relentlessly and constantly throughout our lives; starting at a very young age. Everything about sexual objectification is designed to take personhood, personal power, and the associated danger away.

Why should you describe a woman as fighting like she’s dancing? 

This is a really common one, a lot of writers describe female warriors as fighting like they’re dancing. Why? Because dancing implies beauty, and society says a good female protagonist must be beautiful, what is beautiful is desirable, and a woman’s first priority is to attract a mate.

Again, that’s bullshit. In combat, your first priority is to kill the enemy. However, that’s aggressive. We’re told being aggressive is a masculine tendency, and therefore undesirable. So, many women writers will shy away from aggression for their female fighters when they should run towards it. Women martial artists in the real world? They do.

I don’t know if anyone’s ever told you this, but female warriors are very aggressive. On average, they are more aggressive combatants than men. Not because they need to be, just because they are. It’s a side effect of what happens when you’re trained to be passive your whole life and the shackles come off. Take the sexist definition of a cat fight, now apply that to women fully trained to kill each other. It hurts.

If you haven’t realized it yet, women can be sexist. They can be misogynists. They can buy in, even female martial artists. The myth of the gender divide feels so good, it gives the people who believe it such a fantastic sense of superiority. You get to say, “I’m different from them” then “I’m different than” becomes “I’m better than.” If you’ve ever been hurt by the opposite sex, your next step gets to be, “I’ve got nothing in common with them.”

On this blog, we have never said and never will say that martial arts training is a guarantee against sexual assault. It can act as a deterrent, it may provide you with the skills you need to identify and exit a situation, but, ultimately, a sexual predator is a social predator. The belief society instills in you and insists on is that sexual assault involves being physically overpowered, but that’s only one potential aspect. A sexual predator overpowers you with fear, fear of social consequences if you say no. Fear of getting kicked from your sports team, a failing grade, a poor report to your parents, fear of reprisals if anyone finds out, fear of your word not mattering over theirs, even fear of the predator filing a police report for assault and battery. Sexual predators don’t exist in a vacuum and you don’t either. Violence in the real world has real world consequences, both legal and social. Sexual predators know society’s rules protect them, they strike from a position of power, and their gamble is on their victim being more willing to submit in the moment than face the long term consequences of fighting back. The situation is intentionally engineered to be a lose/lose. It’s all about social power. 

The fault is never with the victim, only the perpetrator.

The sad truth is those instincts are in all of us, male or female. We also all have the same capacity for evil. The high which comes from taking power from and exerting control over others is very real. I don’t blame Flinthart for her perspective, but the claim “martial artist and sexual assault surivivor” has a lot less validity in making her a source of authority than she realizes.

The truth is that if there were a fundamental physical difference between men and women when it came to martial arts, we’d have two separate training sets for both. You’d be able to find more of a focus in the martial arts community on it if it existed because women and women’s self-defense are a huge part of the market. (We’re talking millions upon millions of dollars.) Women are, in fact, so common within the martial arts community that most members of said community genuinely forget gender parity in training isn’t a well known fact. (I forget this all the time.) Rather, most people outside the martial arts community assume a masculine default when there isn’t one.

The economics aren’t there. The training isn’t there. The philosophy isn’t there. We can’t lie to ourselves by saying there aren’t enough women for it to be an oversight. I mean, you could, a lot of people do, but that doesn’t make it true.

Don’t make me drag out all the videos from that time the whole HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) online community had a collective conniption when right wing personalities/misogynists said women couldn’t lift a sword or wear plate armor. It was bullshit then and it’s bullshit now.

What’s uncomfortable for a lot of female writers when working with female warriors and looking for references is the sensation, “but, if I do this, my character is behaving like a man.” That’s natural, these behaviors (which are necessary to be effective combatants) have been designated by society as masculine. They aren’t though. They’re normal behaviors for someone who has been trained in this style to fight. The appropriate answer is, “my character is behaving like a warrior.”

Listen to the wise words of martial arts masters in instructional manuals and on YouTube. They’re as much for you as they are the men in your life. Take it from a kid raised in martial arts, I’ve often found I have more in common with male action heroes than female ones (unless they’re from Hong Kong.) There’s a reason for that, and it has nothing to do with the limitations of sex or gender.

-Michi

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Q&A: The (Limited) Implications of Left Hand Dominance in Combat

Does being right or left handed of any importance in a fight? This is probably broad but let’s keep it with weapons like swords, daggers, mace, clubs and the like??

Somewhat. When we’re just talking about using the weapon in a vacuum, it doesn’t matter that much. Similarly, when you’re talking about a duel, where both combatants have a sword, and nothing off hand, it’s not a huge deal.

Being a lefty becomes important in combat in some specific situations.

If you have an off hand tool, such as a parrying dagger, things can get nasty. Parrying works by redirecting the attack away from your body, usually by pushing the attack out. When someone parries with an item in their right hand, they’ll push the attack to their right (their opponent’s left.) Normally, with two right handed users with parrying tools in their off hands, this will allow them to parry each other’s weapon. However, when a left handed user parries a right handed opponent, they will redirect their foe’s weapon arm across, blocking any potential parry.

Worth noting that this goes both ways, and that a combatant facing a foe with the same dominant hand can choose to parry with their primary weapon to strike with their parrying tool, if it can be used that way. (Not all parrying tools can be used to stab your opponent. This is especially true with some varieties of swordbreakers.) Also, if you are parrying with your weapon, to shank someone with your off-hand, you’re going to close the distance.

None of this should really come as a surprise to an experienced soldier. Fighting a left-handed user isn’t as common, but it’s not unheard of.

Also, worth knowing that some duelists will specifically train to fight with their off-hand. It’s intended for showing off. A sort of, “I’m so good, I don’t even need to use my dominant hand.” I’d say it’s not a good idea, except it does have applications, such as if you cannot use your dominant hand for whatever reason. So, it’s probably more accurate to say that it’s not practiced with a practical goal in mind, however it can be useful in rare situations.

Most real castle architecture was designed to favor a right handed, defender. I’m going to use a specific example here, but many spiral stairways are designed so a defender, fighting from an elevated position, will have more room on their right side, giving them more options from which to strike. A right handed attacker will be close to the stone, and have limited options for striking. However, a left handed attacker will be able to exploit some of those architectural designs during the assault. A lefty climbing up the stairs will be able to strike with their less restrained arm.

This can also be seen with some external stairways, where the defender’s right arm will be out over open space, and free to move, while a right handed assaulter will have their weapon arm pressed up against the stonework.

While it’s not relevant to specifically melee weapons, hand dominance can be a major factor with modern firearms, to the point that some guns simply cannot be used with the wrong hand. The big offender are the controls. Safeties, slide releases, and mag ejects, can be ambidextrous, but it’s common to see those designed for a right handed user. Most firearms will eject their shell casings out the right side of the gun. This can be especially awkward if you are left handed. Some rifles (especially bullpups) cannot be operated off-hand, as they will gleefully pelt the user with spent shellcasings. Some grip contours will be uncomfortable, or unusable, if you attempt to hold it with the wrong hand.

This leaves the user with some very specific options. Some firearms can be reconfigured for left-handed use. (This can sometimes be achieved through configuring the weapon itself, though in other cases, you’ll need to replace specific components.) You can simply cope, and adapt your grip. Or, you can learn to operate the weapon off-hand. In my case, my experience with operating rifles right handed is simply because modifying the offending rifles wasn’t an option.

Many left-handed shooters will learn to operate firearms right handed, simply out of necessity. But it’s always nice when you’ve got the option to use a gun with your preferred hand, but, for a lefty, it’s not always an option.

So, does your dominant hand have any importance? Yes, some, but in the vast majority of situations it’s not going to matter that much. Being left handed isn’t that exceptional or unusual. It can affect combat, but it’s not a major consideration.

-Starke

Advice and suggestions for writing fight scenes.