All posts by Michael Schwarz

Starke is not a Real Doctor for Elves

Hi! I’m writing a short story in a fantasy universe where a character (an elf, hard to kill by human standards) is chained to a wall and then lifted up incredibly high by the unhumanly tall antagonist and let go. The back of his head hits the wall, he’s (possibly?) knocked out for an undescribed period of time. Would this cause brain damage? Specifically, damage to the cerebellum? If so, how would that affect the characters?

Yes, probably.

So, with humans, getting knocked out from blunt force is some degree of brain damage. In a best case scenario, there’s little (or no) detectible impairment, but we are talking about someone suffering a concussion serious enough to nearly kill them. Even in that best case scenario, getting back up afterwards would be extremely difficult and painful. In a less ideal scenario, there would also be some long term damage.

The problem is, your character isn’t human, and even when we’re talking about something like elves, there’s a very real potential for some seriously weird physiology going on there.

Setting that aside, for a human, you’re looking at all the normal symptoms of a concussion. Headaches, nausea, slurred speech, hypersensitivity to light and sound, cognitive impairment, and memory issues. I’m not 100% certain if that’s damage specifically to the cerebellum (though it’s certainly possible) or if those are just the greatest hits for bouncing your brain off bone.

Not everyone will experience all symptoms, not all symptoms will have equal intensity across all cases. Every concussion is a new and unique trauma.

You may notice I didn’t include loss of consciousness in the list above. It’s one of the more severe symptoms. Getting knocked out, especially for more than a few seconds, is a very serious medical situation. As in, “you could die, or be left a vegetable.”

Now, returning to what I mentioned earlier, it’s entirely possible that the elves in your setting are physiologically extremely different from humans, (at least neurologically, if not across the board.) It’s entirely possible they cannot suffer concussions at all, in which case the experience of having their head bounced off paving stones may be unpleasant but not particularly dangerous. This may even be likely if your elves are supposed to be that resilient, as the head and brain, are particularly vulnerable to injury.

As for getting knocked unconscious? With humans, that is brain damage, every time. And concussions are cumulative, meaning your average protagonist who gets clubbed over the head on a weekly basis would be dead in short order.

-Starke

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No Such Thing as a +2 Chair Leg of Wounding

How distinct are weapons like clubs from improvised weapons? I have a player (in Pathfinder/3.P) who insists that since clubs have no cost (are easily made), any improvised weapon that could use club damage is a club (i.e., is as easy to use as a club, so no attack penalty). I can’t help but think that the improvised weapon rules exist to simulate something realistic, like balance in hand, but I know basically nothing about weapons in real life.

feyariel

It really depends on the club, or the quality of the improvised weapon in question. I mean, there isn’t going to be a huge quality difference between a broken off chair leg, and cheap wooden club. But, at the same time we are talking about Pathfinder, so, realism isn’t exactly the highest priority.

In theory, Pathfinder’s (and D&D’s) improvised weapon rules are built around the idea that you’re just grabbing whatever is at hand. It probably doesn’t have a proper grip, it may be flimsy, it could still be attached to something in the environment. Whatever it is, it’s certainly not a weapon, and the rules are generally meant to reflect that. If he wants to convert a broken chair leg into a proper club, that’s what the Craft (Broken Chair Legs) skill is for.

You have is a player trying to minmax. I’m not 100% certain about Pathfinder’s improvised weapon rules, but in 3.5 it was a flat, you do not get proficiency from any improvised weapon. So, you take a -4 penalty on all rolls to hit. (There’s actually a boatload of additional rules which you can apply if you think the player is trying to pull a fast one, such as actually tracking hardness and item HP to destroy their, “club,” from use.)

That said, Pathfinder is a little different, because there are feats (Catch Off-Guard and Improvised Weapon Mastery) which ignores the non-proficient penalty, and grant bonuses to improvised weapons, there’s a level 1 spell that allows the caster to convert an improvised weapon into its simple or martial counterpart (Refine Improvised Weapon in the Wizard/Sorc, and Cleric spellbooks, among others,) there’s a PRC (the Nature Warden) that gains the ability to do the same as an Extraordinary Ability (meaning, it’s non-magical for them.) And, there’s an entire Rogue archetype that focuses on using improvised weapons (in the Melee Tactics Toolbox.) There’s probably a ton of other specific rule interactions with improvised weapons in Pathfinder I’m unaware of.

What you have is a player who is trying to circumvent the rules to munchkin their character. If they want their character to use improvised weapons on a regular basis, without taking a penalty on every attack roll, there are multiple, explicit, paths to achieving that, and I don’t know exactly what your player’s end goal is, but this is a case where they’re asking for a free feat. It’s okay to say, “no,” no matter how concrete their logic seems. If they want want to use Improvised Weapons, Catch Off-Guard exists for a reason and has no prerequisites.

-Starke

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Firearms in Fantasy: A Deceptively Simple Concept

Hello. I don’t know if this belongs here but y’all know about weapons so maybe you’ve got ideas?

I’m writing a fantasy story that’s got some anachronistic elements but it leans towards futuristic or modern. However I have characters using swords even though logically they should be using firearms. There’s no lack of technology or resources limiting them from using guns so how can I explain the absence? What makes it trickier is certain firearm/projectile weapons do exist, like an arm cannon that shoots fire.

How can I make this work without implementing a system like the character job classes you find in RPGs?

Thanks!

So, the problem here is that firearms are, in their design, incredibly simple. At the simplest level, a firearm is just capping a tube, dropping something “chemically energetic” in, adding a projectile, and igniting the propellent.

If you have a setting with reasonably functional metallurgy, and flamethrowers, you have guns.

If you have a setting with the internal combustion engine, you have guns, because it is the exact same method of power generation, the only differences are in the chemicals used and the ignition method. After that, there is a difference in how the power is channeled and used, but they operate on the same intermingling of physics and chemistry.

This gets even worse when you start digging into chemistry. Gunpowder has been around for over a thousand years. The development of very basic powders came from the use of sulfur and potassium nitrate in early alchemical experiments. While modern accelerants are quite sophisticated, basic black powder can easily be produced with bronze age technology. In fact, it is easier to make gunpowder than a gun barrel that can withstand the resulting pressure.

Now, you might have guns that look very different from what we’re used to. Moving beyond a basic 14th century handcanon, there is a lot of iterative technology that has gone into firearms. Being able to open the breach, prepackaged cartridges, barrel rifling and replaceable magazines, are all quite modern innovations. We’ve had the gun for nearly a millennia, but those are (mostly) less than two centuries old.

How can I make this work without implementing a system like the character job classes you find in RPGs?

This would not work. I trust we’re all familiar with that scene from Indiana Jones. The problem with the firearm is it effectively negates other weapon options. In RPG terms, it hard counters nearly every non-gun build.

It doesn’t matter if your ageless swordsman has spent a thousand years studying the blade, they can’t stop a bullet, and very few people can continue to operate after you’ve pumped a couple rounds through them.

So, here’s where things get a bit more complicated. In fantasy you may have enemies who simply aren’t susceptible to gunshots. Vampires and Werewolves are the normal urban fantasy examples, though there’s certainly options for things like golems, demons, and other flavors of undead to simply not care about bullets at all. This is before you get into edge cases that might not be susceptible for other reasons, such as mages who are able to cast effective shields against gunfire, and creatures such as dragons who are supernaturally resistant to injury. I mean, if you’re going to go hunting dragons, taking a Glock is a phenomenally poor choice.

This leads to another possibility that probably shouldn’t be overlooked: Gun control. Just because the M82 exists, doesn’t mean you can get your hands on one. Even in the US, getting your hands on military hardware such as automatic firearms is prohibitively difficult and expensive. It’s not difficult to envision a society where even access to handguns is excruciatingly difficult. I say it’s not hard, because there are real-world examples like Japan or the UK, where private firearm ownership is excruciatingly difficult. Ironically, both Japan and the UK also heavily regulate possession of ammunition (not, only the firearm itself.)

Something that flies in the face of a lot of popular fantasy literature is how foundational the firearm is in our technological history. I don’t mean the effects of the gun, that caused massive sociopolitical changes, but how the technology itself contributed to overall technological advancement. Something that can be deceptively difficult when writing a fantasy setting, is understanding how one technological innovation lead to another, and the rather startling way that all of this advanced science as a whole.

You may also want to check out this article on warmages from a couple years ago, as it covers a few concepts we sort of skimmed over here.

-Starke

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The Impracticality of a Climbing Axe in Combat

Hello! This may seem a bit odd and I’ve searched your page but nothing came up for it, apologies if you have answered this before.

But a character of mine uses an ice pickaxe/ice tool as a weapon, and often for climbing as well. As the hook is at an angle and the handle is curved, I was wondering the pros and cons as well as it would be handled as I’ve never handled one before.

Also, thank you for the content, it’s saved me quite a few times when learning how to make a realistic fight 🙂

We have covered this in the past. Specifically we did a post on the climbing axe a couple years ago.

The short answer is, it’s not a particularly good weapon of choice. It’s a survival tool first, and while you might be able to turn it into an improvised weapon with a well placed strike on a distracted (or unarmed) foe, it’s not designed to be a direct combat weapon, and doesn’t really support being used like one.

The problem with the angled hook is it robs the weapon of reach, meaning you basically need to be in hand to hand range. The curved handle on ice axes is supposed to reduce kinetic feedback into the user, so that’s not really relevant to combat one way or the other.

The basic process of using one would be to haul off and swing, sort of like how it’s used normally. The problem with that is it has a very clearly profiled strike in most cases (remember, the human eye tracks the edges of objects more easily than distinguishing what’s going on inside the profile, and this makes the strikes easier to defend against if the target can see the attacker’s limbs moving outside of their silhouette, which would happen here.) If the target can’t see the attack happening, then it will have some armor penetration (it is designed to punch through hardened surfaces.) However, if the attacker can see the strike, their reflexes would be able to respond faster than against a weapon striking from inside the attacker’s silhouette. Note that if the target is unarmed and unarmored, their only real option would be to get out of the strike’s path, but they’d still have an advantage to do so.

So, not a great weapon. Ice axes and climbing axes are not weapons. As improvised combat tools go, they’re reasonable choices. If your character doesn’t have access to legitimate weapons, these end up at the top of the heap for improvised weapons, along with things like crowbars. But if your character can get a legitimate weapon, the ice axe will be outclassed extremely quickly.

-Starke

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A Quick Reference for How to Choose Your Weapon

you mentioned it in another post, so: do you perhaps know where your “how to pick a weapon for a character” post(s) is? i’ve used a bunch of keywords and searches and cant find it. thank you for your time!

chaotic-queer-disaster

It took a minute, and there are a couple associated posts.

Your Character’s Weapon is also a Character is probably the post you were looking for.

There’s also How Do You Choose A Martial Art, which isn’t about weapons but does go into more detail on the process of selecting a combat style for your characters, and by extension, the advice here will apply to your characters’ weapon choices.

There have been some more recent articles, like Weapon of Choice, but that’s a lot more focused.

If you have a more focused type of weapon in mind, (or set of weapons), then you may simply want to ask about those directly.

-Starke

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Swords & Rapiers: A Singular Moment

Re. That Gideon question, were long swords and rapiers used concurrently in real life?

Yes, with a few minor caveats. The Rapier dates to the 16th and 17th century. By that point in history, the longsword was in the process of being replaced by the sabre as a military sidearm, but they still existed and saw use. This also puts the rapier in the same timeframe as the two handed swords (like the Zweihander and claymore.)

The tricky part about this is that the rapier was never a military weapon. Some did see battlefield use, but the rapier was designed as a civilian defense and dueling blade. The lighter weight even made rapiers attractive as fashion pieces for a few decades. In the 16th and 17th century, if you were part of the up and coming middle class, it was fashionable to carry a rapier as a sign of wealth.

In that sense, there is a reasonable attitude of someone with military training in the 17th century looking down on the rapier. It’s an incredibly lethal weapon in trained hands, but most of the people carrying them wouldn’t know how to use them effectively, and that could certainly reflect on an individual’s attitudes for the weapon as a whole.

If you’re a military veteran with decades of experience campaigning on the frontiers of the empire, who came home to see all those pretty boys and stuffed shirts flourishing ineffectively with “French needles,” you could easily think that the sword was as useless as it’s wielders.

The civilian applications of the rapier meant it stuck around after it was no longer viable on the battlefield. The 16th and 17th centuries are the tipping point for European gunpowder infantry. So, while the rapier continued as a fashion piece, soldiers were moving to muskets as their primary weapons, while their sabres were restricted to situational use, and (for officers) emphasizing orders.

I’m unsure on exactly when the longsword fell completely out of use. The problem is, longswords, sabres and greatswords moved into more ceremonial roles over time. Sabres are still used ceremonially today (technically, so are longswords), but the easiest one to track are the greatswords. Because they were a primary weapon (and not a sidearm), these only saw battlefield use for a few decades in the 16th century (I think it was ~1500-1550, but I could be off by a few decades.) So, we’re talking about a very specific moment in history there.

It’s also worth remembering that the term, “longsword,” encompasses over two dozen different major varieties of blades (ironically, this includes the greatswords, which is why I keep bringing them up), dating back to the 8th or 9th century, so while there were longswords that were contemporary with the rapier, some had fallen out of use centuries earlier, while others were relatively recent developments.

So, were they contemporary? Yeah, kinda. There were other swords that were contemporary with the rapier, but is one of the last iterations of the sword.

-Starke

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Maybe Don’t Carry a Big Sword on Your Back

Why do characters in fantasy always carry longswords on their back? Then pluck them off to fight like the only thing holding the sword on his magnets or something. I cannot figure out how this works. It seems like it’d be rlly difficult to get a sword in and out of a scabbard that’s carried across the back. So how are longswords actually carried? Is the sword on back thing actually real? And if it is, how on earth does it work?

pleasespellchimerical

It’s real, but it is unusual. Normally, you would carry a scabbard on your hip. This has the downside of the sword hanging off your belt and potentially getting in the way (especially as a longsword is likely to protrude out in some direction, usually to the back), but it is extremely accessible.

As for why it’s so popular in fantasy, I’m not completely sure, and I suspect there isn’t a single, universal answer. In some cases, I’m sure it’s simply chosen because it looks cool. In others (particularly games) it gives the player the opportunity to see the weapon they’re carrying and about to draw. It also allows a character to sheathe a greatsword, which would be fairly difficult otherwise.

You can pull a longsword off your back, however it’s awkward. If the scabbard is articulated, and can swing away off the back, you can pull the sword forward, directed across your shoulder. In an emergency you could certainly get to it, but it would be less convenient than if you carried it on your hip. Putting it away is a similarly awkward process.

So, why is this a thing? Because in some situations you’d want to keep your sword on your person, but wouldn’t need to access it on short notice, and you may not have wanted the scabbard flapping about.

For example: If someone was traveling, they may sling their sword over their shoulder (they’d want it when they got to their destination), but when moving through crowds, having the scabbard bashing into members of the crowd could create an awkward situation. If they expected trouble, they’d be likely to unsling their sword and either return it to their hip, or carry it openly (depending on the situation.)

I know it’s real, but I’m not sure how widespread it ever was. I remember running across a historical manuscript which told readers that they should instruct their students not to carry their sword across the back. This sounds like the practice was fashionable at some point, but it could have been a singular example that pissed off the author.

If you were traveling, then you might carry your sword on your back, otherwise, you would be unlikely to do so, unless you were making some ill advised fashion statement.

-Starke

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How Adrenaline Affects the Perception of Pain

I hope this isn’t a silly question… Is it possible to be stabbed and not notice it immediately? It doesn’t matter if it’s in an extreme condition or not.

Yeah, it happens. Same thing with getting shot or other minor injuries. An adrenaline rush dulls your ability to feel pain, and it’s frighteningly easy for someone to suffer mortal injuries during a fight and not realize it.

This is why you see characters depicted checking themselves for wounds. This is sometimes played for laughs, but it is a practical behavior. If you’ve just escaped from someone attacking you with a knife, (or getting shot at), you need to know if you have an injury you’re not aware of.

This also happens with minor cuts or bruises. Those are less important, and you’re much less likely to notice them in the moment. (Actually, you won’t notice bruises in the moment, because it takes a few minutes for a bruise to fully form.) But you’re unlikely to identify the injury until after the adrenaline wears off.

I’ll do you one better, I remember the hit that caused the scar on my index finger. I wasn’t under an adrenaline rush, and I barely felt it. Initially, I thought the blade hadn’t connected, as it was just a white line and looked kind of like a welt. Then, after a few seconds, it started bleeding.

So, yes it is entirely possible to suffer a slash or stab from a knife and not realize the severity, or that it even happened. This is especially true if you’re in a life threatening situation, and are experiencing an adrenaline rush or intoxicated.

Technically you should feel the hit, but without an associated pain response, you could easily miss it.

-Starke

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How we Select the Questions we Answer

Hi! I was just wondering if you answered most of your asks or if there was a general time span for how long it takes to answer one? I totally get if you don’t want to answer something and I really don’t want to be like that person or anything, but I know sometimes tumblr doesn’t send right and the other person never gets it. I also don’t want to like resend something a bunch of times and bother you (I love your blog, it’s super helpful), so I just thought I’d ask since I didn’t see an faq (1/2)

(2/2) anywhere and figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask. I hope y’all are having a great day!! And I hope this doesn’t come off as impatient or rude or anything, I don’t mean it like that. Thanks for all you do!! 🙂

The short answer is, we try, but only about 40% of questions get answered. The slightly longer version of this is that there are currently ~4700 questions in our inbox, and we’ve published ~2250 posts over the years. (At present, I think the actual percentage of questions that get answered may be a bit lower.)

As for turnaround, it tends to be within a few weeks, but most of what happens is a choke point on available time. I would love to be able to go back to 2015, when we had the time to pump out multiple answers in a day, but unfortunately, that’s not an option right now.

There’s a little bit more to this, and it comes down to scheduling issues, and content.

So, when we get a question, there’s a few considerations that we need to weigh:

The question needs to land in a sweet spot between too vague and too specific. If a question is too vague, it may not be possible to offer a valuable answer. You’ll see the edge of this in our published posts, sometimes, when I end up offering multiple, mutually exclusive, potential answers because I’m simply missing too much information, and I’m making an educated guess at what the person wanted to know.

The alternative is, some very general questions will get a more abstract article. For example, “what would be the best weapon for my character?” is way to vague to answer definitively, though we have written articles off of questions like that about how you pick weapons for your characters.

When a question is far too specific, it’s likely to be ignored, simply because it’s not going to offer anything useful for others. For example, if you’re the one asking about a fight between a 7″1′ and a 4″6′, “not quite humans,” I don’t really see that getting answered. (Though in that case, it actually lands outside the spectrum on both sides, because it is both too vague, and specific, for us to offer much meaningful commentary.) To the person who sent that ask, I’m sorry, we can’t really do anything with that.

There’s also a subset of questions that run a high risk of getting passed over, where someone will ask how their fight scene would look. This has two problems, the first is the specificity above, and the second one is that you probably don’t want us publicly laying out a fight scene for you. Michi sometimes posts snippets of her fiction on here, as a general rule, I do not. But, as a writer, you don’t want someone else writing scenes for you. Especially writers with well developed personal styles.

Finally, it probably goes without saying, but the occasional trolls. MRAs, and the odd death threat don’t usually get responses. There are rare exceptions where we’ll slap one of them around, though usually only when we can make it both informative and entertaining.

Normally, we post three times a week: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Patrons get to see a draft version the day before on Discord, so Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday. Michi has been working a full time job for the last few years, and that’s why her posts have become far more infrequent. She simply does not have the time to get posts up, and do her own writing, and work an 8 hour day job with two additional hours on the road each day.

In late August, Michi’s previous job fired her with basically no warning. That’s part of why you saw more posts from her in September, while she was looking for a new position, and also why my posts have been more inconsistent this month, as I’m having to help with her commute, and that means I’m on the road right when I’d usually be working on these posts.

As a result, a lot of questions fall through the cracks.

If you think Tumblr ate a question, you’re not bothering us if you resend it. In fact, there have been a few questions that we know Tumblr ate over the years.

While I realize we need to update the Patreon reward tiers to better represent what you’re getting, the basic Discord access does have a private inbox, (it’s a separate text channel on the server), and we do make a point of responding to those questions on the same or next day. It’s a bit different from what you’ll see on the blog, because it tends to be more of a discussion about the topic, rather than a mini-essay. It also means some of the issues like a question being too vague or too specific isn’t a problem. It’s not being written for a larger audience, so it can be far more direct.

Normally I use a boilerplate for our Patreon plug below the signature, but, to our patrons, you guys have really helped keep us going, and I’m especially conscious, and thankful for that. Especially given how tight things have been for everyone over the last couple years. Also, most of our Patreon fulfillment is via the discord server, so if you’re a Patron, and not on that server, check out the official feed, and link up with the bot to get an invite.

If you have a question that’s time sensitive, or extremely unique, it’s probably better to get in contact on the Discord server. However, because that’s paygated, I fully understand why that may not be an option for you (or others.)

-Starke

A Friendly Little Stabbing

So we know that there’s no 100% non-fatal or “safe” place in/on the body to shoot someone. (That one scene in the first Divergent book where Tris shoots someone in the shoulder to get him to reveal information without killing him makes me cringe every time) What about stabbing? Where is the “least fatal” place to be stabbed, if there is any at all?

Very lightly.

Okay, so, deep penetration has a very high likelihood of hitting something you need to continue functioning. Again, getting stabbed in the torso is worse than the limbs, though this does depend on exactly what gets cut.

Your bones are slightly better at handling an object trying to impale you than stopping bullets, which isn’t saying much, but it can stop a light blade if you’re lucky.

Cuts to the limbs are less likely to be life threatening, and your arteries are somewhat better shielded against slicing and cutting trauma. That said, if someone drives a knife into your inner thigh, you’re (probably) already dead.

The rule of thumb I was introduced to is, “three inches,” if the strike goes deeper than that, it’s probably going to hit something vital. Also, it occurs to me, that does nicely cover most places where you’re not likely to suffer a vital hit. For example, you can get stabbed through the hand with minimal risk to your life (though, you are going to lose the use of that hand, at least, until it heals.)

That’s a larger problem you should remember. The muscles on your body are not (as a general rule) vital to your continued breathing, however, they are necessary to move and function. So, if you get a deep gash on your upper arm, it won’t kill you, but it will impair or weaken some direction of movement as those muscles are responsible for controlling your limb.

The real danger with stabbing is (usually) blood loss, and the further the injury is from your core, the lower the risk of bleeding out. Again, taking a hit to an artery will end you, and this can even happen on your wrists (though the bleedout will generally take longer, as the volume loss per second will be lower.) The nature of the cut matters, because in some cases it’s relatively easy to staunch the blood flow. As with gunshot wounds, the lethality of a given injury isn’t really about how “lethal,” it is, it’s more about how quickly you’ll lose blood.

There is an interesting caveat with getting stabbed or impaled: Do not remove the intruding object unless you absolutely have to. If someone gets stabbed do not pull the knife out. In some situations, the blade (or other object) will be preventing further blood loss, and pulling it out can be fatal. I’ve been told this is especially true of situations where someone’s been run through with rebar, to the point that it’s actually better to cut away the rebar if possible and bring it along, as the texture is exceptionally good at digging into the wound and limiting bleeding. (Obviously, cutting rebar for transport to a hospital is going to require construction or other lifesaving equipment, and not exactly a do-it-yourself solution.) The result of this caveat is, you can take a knife to the chest without dying, so long as the knife stays where it landed.

As with getting shot, there isn’t a great place to get stabbed, but it can be survivable if you can get medical attention before the blood loss is fatal.

-Starke

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