All posts by Michael Schwarz

Q&A: Asymmetric Armor

Hi! What is the real meaning for a character like Cloud Strife to have a single shoulder armor? Is it to rest their sword on their shoulder only, in a safe manner? I have a OC child who wears a shoulder pad just for fun but I want to know if it serves a purpose for real. Thank you, love your blog!

The short answer is that it’s to make the character look cool. It’s primarily there to help differentiate his design. I’m not clear on exactly how much was intentional, but I suspect the art design for most of the FF7 characters was heavily influenced by hardware limitations. (I know this was a consideration in the earlier sprite based games.) Because the polygon budgets and texture resolutions were low, the hardware heavily favored bold aesthetic designs. Cloud wears one massive oversized pauldron, and has hair you can roast marshmallows on because it helps keep the character visually distinct.

So, with all that said, asymmetrical armor was a thing, sometimes. There’s two important considerations, cost, and what you need the armor for.

Cost is always relevant. Armor is expensive; regardless who is paying for it. Doesn’t matter if it’s a lone mercenary or adventurer, then they’re going to have to make some difficult choices on where they spend their money.  Depending on the era, it’s entirely possible that even a professional soldier would have been responsible for purchasing and maintaining their own arms and armor. This could (and did) result in situations where someone had incomplete armor, because it’s all they could afford.

So, could you end up with a mercenary who had a single pauldron, and basically nothing else? Theoretically, yes. However, they’d be better off selling that, and getting some body armor instead. Though, if you had to pick one arm to over-armor, the left would be the better choice.

Depending on the statistics you look at, somewhere between 70% and 95% of the population is right handed. That means the vast majority of the foes you’d be facing on the battlefield would be far more likely to strike at your left arm and side. You’re more likely to take hits on that side (again, in a conventional combat environment), and as a result, it does make sense to add some extra armor on that side. That may simply mean a heavier pauldron, or just some extra weight in your gear. This wasn’t universal, and was rarely to the extent that you’d ignore one side entirely, but there is a little bit of logic behind these aesthetics. It’s also worth remembering, this is mostly a consideration after you’ve already got effective armor, and you’re thinking about adding some more. While there are reasons to put heavier armor on your left arm, that won’t do you any good if you’re run through, hence, the body armor suggestion earlier.

The most extreme example of asymmetrical armor is jousting gear. It’s probably better to think of jousting as a sport, rather than as combat. It was a competition, with strict rules, and supervision. The skills it used were based in combat, (specifically running down enemies with a couched lance) but, the two competitors in heavy plate with crowds cheering them on, was pure spectacle.

Jousting armor had enormously exaggerated protection on the left side. If you know what you’re looking for, jousting armor is instantly recognizable. In particular, the cuirass is often visibly asymmetric, sometimes with the left arm partially shielded, or fused directly into the cuirass above the elbow (technically, the term cuirass may be inaccurate in this specific example.) The helmet is sometimes asymmetric, again, favoring the left side, though this is less universal. In short, you’re looking at armor that expected the user to take a hard blow to the left side of their body, and wanted them to survive the experience.

I know we’ve said this before, but getting the right armor involves knowing exactly what you’ll be dealing with, and choosing accordingly. With that in mind, there was at least one situation where combatants intentionally went into combat with partial armor.

Roman gladiators had predesigned “uniforms,” that filled numerous distinct roles. As with Jousting, this was more of a sport, rather than true armor, but the goals were different. In particular, gladiatorial combat was interested in drawing blood, while simultaneously prolonging the spectacle. In these cases, armor that protected one (or both) arms, while leaving the torso unprotected was a pattern for many of the roles.

Worth remembering in this case, that both a gladiator’s weapons, and armor, were selected based on their roles, and they would be paired against opponents with roles that couldn’t easily counter them. In some ways it’s the opposite of what you’d normally look for in combat, but, the point was to create matchups that would be bloody without also being decisive.

There was a theme with the various roles. Gladiators were “playing the part” of various foreign civilizations that the Romans had already defeated. These caricatures would have been instantaneously recognizable to the crowds, much like how stereotypes in professional wrestling are instantly familiar (and, potentially offensive) to modern audiences. Although, significantly bloodier, professional wrestling is a good analogy to the Roman arena, so it might not be the best example of asymmetrical armor in combat, but it is another situation where this concept appears.

In general, when it comes to designing a character, overtly asymmetrical armor is often simply a method to make the character stand out. That’s what you see with Cloud. It’s not that there’s a specific tactical advantage, it’s there to mark him as your protagonist, and make his character model easier to identify at a glance.


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Q&A: Breath of the Wild, Game Design, and Combat Animations

How realistically/accurately does Link use swords/spears/greatswords/axes/bows in Breath of the Wild. I want to use his fighting animations as a visual reference for my fight scenes, but that only works if he’s a viable reference. Thank you!

The short answer: It’s not.

There’s some quick caveats, the spear usage isn’t, “inaccurate,” so much as incredibly basic. The bow draw is, “awkward;” it may be fine, but something looks off about it, to me, and, at a glance, I’m not sure what.

This is one of those times where I’ve got a vague sense of deja vu. I know I’ve addressed this with other games in the past, but I don’t remember if I’ve talked about it explicitly in the context of Breath of the Wild.

Games are, by their nature, not reflective of the real world. In some cases, you may seek to simulate elements of reality either because that’s the point of the exercise (most tabletop wargaming, and flight simulators are examples), or because you’re attempting to provide a sense of verisimilitude (weather effects that don’t affect gameplay, would be an example of this).

Game designers need to achieve many goals as part of their process. This includes reliably informing the player on the overall state of play. This includes considerations like what the other players are doing, or what options the player has to work with.

In a traditional poker game, the information the player has is restricted to the cards in their hand. They’re then asked to make assessments of the other players, and to evaluate their behavior. The state of play is the card combinations they can make, as well as the card combinations their opponents may posses.

In contrast, a game like chess provides the player with a clear, open, state of play. Both players have a clear, unobstructed, view of the board, and full knowledge over every possible move that can occur. The player is then asked to make assessments on their opponent’s potential strategies, and act accordingly.

If you’re wondering what this has to do with combat, the answer is simple, depending on your goals as a game designer, either approach is entirely valid for your game. Combat that is difficult to read, and hard to predict can create a sense of unfairness, but it can also result in far more tension during combat. In contrast, if you create a combat system that is easy to read, you can produce a more generally entertaining experience, which the player feels they have more control over.

Breath of the Wild is going for accessible combat. At any given moment you have a clear idea of exactly what the enemies are doing (assuming they’re not out of frame), and what your character is doing. This is actually accentuated by the art style, which keeps the visual noise down, and makes it significantly easier to track movement on screen. (To be clear, the art design serves other purposes as well, but we’re talking about the combat systems.)

In order to make the combat easier to read, Breath of the Wild uses very exaggerated strike patterns. This is true of pretty much all the weapons in the game. Link swings them around in massive arcs, which makes it much easier to know what’s happening at any given moment. Even with the spears, it’s taking a basic concept of that weapon, and playing it up to a borderline comical threshold.

This may sound like I’m being dismissive, but Breath of the Wild has a kind of cartoon aesthetic. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, and if you’re going for an anime or classic cartoon infused style of violence, then the game is absolutely fine as reference material. However, an important part of taking inspiration is understanding why your subject made the aesthetic decisions it did, and what those choices mean for the material as a whole.

In the real world, combat abhors the idea of large movements, like you’ll see in Breath of the WildSkyrimDark SoulsDragon’s DogmaKingdoms of Amalur, Darksiders, NieR: Automata, or any number of other action games. There’s two (major) reasons. First is inertia, and the second is because of how the human brain processes objects.

When you look around, your brain parses objects by finding the outline, and then extrapolating the object from its edges. If you remember back to Jurassic Park and the whole, “hunts by movement,” thing, that’s how some animals track objects, with humans, we’re looking for the edges and then our brain fills in the rest. This means, when you can’t clearly find an object’s outline, it becomes much more difficult to accurately determine if it’s there or not. This is also the basic issue with camouflage, the idea is to break up the silhouette, and as a result the brain has a much harder time saying, “yeah, there’s a person there.” Your brain does track movement, but finding the outline is absolutely vital to making fast assessments of, “oh, they have a sword.”

When you’re fighting someone, you want to keep your arms, and weapons, inside your silhouette whenever possible. Yes, you can see someone’s holding a sword or a gun, but it’s easier to see it, if it’s held away from the body at a clear angle.

For example: when someone raises their arm, and they’re holding a sword over their head, preparing to strike. All of the information is clearly presented in a nice, clean, profile, for your brain to parse, and it will, fast enough to respond.

When someone holds their sword, pointed at you, inside their silhouette, and prepared to thrust, you’re not unable to see they have a weapon. This isn’t some lizard brain malfunction, where, “oops, I thought they had a thing, but I guess not.” However, it’s much harder for your brain to process what they’re doing with the weapon. Again, not, “you can’t see something’s happening,” but your brain is going to need a few more moments to keep track of what’s going on, and in that time you’ve just earned a few new holes from their blade.

The other part is inertia. It’s easier, and faster, to make small, precise, movements with a weapon, than it is to make large arcing sweeps. There are times when a large swing is appropriate, particularly with axes, but even then, the way Breath of the Wild uses them is more for visual feedback than combat practicality.

I’ll say this again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with using something like this as an artistic base, so long as you’re not worried about realism. However, if you’re looking for brutally authentic fight scenes, then you’re better off looking at HEMA or classic training manuscripts.


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Q&A: The Assassin’s Children

Would it be reasonable for an assassin to be able to raise a family? I’m currently writing an assassin in a world of superheroes who tends to specialize in taking down superhumans. Do you think he’d be able to balance a home life and his “night life” or is that nota possibility ?

I don’t see why not.

Okay, that’s not true, but I don’t see anything that makes this intrinsically impossible. Being an assassin doesn’t preclude the possibility of being a good parent. It’s just extremely unlikely.

Strip everything else down, and being a good parent means being there for your kids, and putting their well-being first. It’s not impossible for an assassin to do that, but that is one of those inflexible jobs, where sometimes, they really can’t be there, because of work. Not being there stacks the deck against being a good parent. It’s still possible, but the odds are vanishingly small.

There’s a lot of degrees here, and intent can outweigh the results sometimes. A parent who’s there but resentful, and passive aggressive isn’t better than one who would be there if they could, but really doesn’t have the option. For a good parent, even under the best of circumstances, there’s a balancing act between what you can do, and what you want to be able to do. Unfortunately, if you’ve got a high pressure job, that requires you keep a strict schedule, especially with lots of travel, that weighs heavily against your character’s kids.

There’s no, simple, yes or no, here. Plenty of parents in the real world fall short of the mark with less on their plate than your character, and some manage to excel in spite of far more trying circumstances. So, this comes down to a couple questions.

Do you think your character is a good parent? This can go either way, and this isn’t a simple pass/fail. If your character is a good parent, then there’s no shame in admitting that they’re not going to get the balance right every time.

Your character can tick the technical boxes of keeping their child breathing and still be walking human wreckage. They’re not a good parent, but again, intent can carry a lot of weight here. We are talking about a deeply personal relationship between (at least) two characters, and those rarely break down into simple black and white.

Remember, your character doesn’t evaluate how well they do as a parent, their children do. If he’s simply not there, because he’s hollowing out some arms dealer’s skull in La Paz, that’s not going to justify missing birthdays or other milestones. Also, it’s extremely unlikely your character would tell his kids that he was out there killing people. That’s the kind of information you really can’t trust to children, at least not when they’re young, so he didn’t miss a birthday because of that; as far as they know he was selling database software in Cochabamba.

Also worth noting, this applies to cops, soldiers, and spies. There’s some social structures to help with the former two, but, you’re still talking about parents who have a job that requires their primary attention. It may make for dramatic characters, but it creates shitty parents, and messy divorces.

Over time, it’s worth remembering that mistakes and poor choices do have consequences.

Do you know what a good parent looks like? This one is a much harder question than it looks like. A lot of people think they had a pretty clear understanding of what a good parent looks like. This isn’t always, 100% accurate. Also, when the answer is no, it’s not always consistent what will tip you off. Personally, it was this article on Cracked, six years ago.

So, do you know what a good parent looks like?

I have seen writers, who never stopped to ask that question, put forward some pretty messed up images of their parents. This isn’t intended as a critique of yours, but, at some point you do need to step back and really think about this going forward.

For example: having a parent who will immediately employ violence against unknown children their house is not normal. Yes, I’ve seen a writer hold that up as normal parental behavior. No, I don’t want to know what gave them that impression.

As with any high stress job, being an assassin is going to make being a parent harder. It makes it more difficult to be there physically, it makes being emotionally available more difficult, it means you’re always going to be under some threat, meaning you can’t ever really relax. Kids pick up on that. Not consciously, but in more of a, “that’s normal,” kind of way. Over time, this can lead to some serious psychological issues. It’s not completely inescapable, but no matter how hard your assassin tries, he’s never going to be able to give his kids a “normal” upbringing. That doesn’t mean he can’t be a good father, but he’ll have to work a lot harder to get there, and it may be impossible for him to do his job and take care of his kids.

Remember his kids are people, not pets. They cannot simply exist to indicate, “no, really, my character’s a good person.” That kind of behavior actually makes your assassin less redeemable. There are people, real people, who do use their kids as pets. They parade them around, and (figuratively) use them to say, “look how normal, and successful I am.” Those people are human garbage. Trust me, I know. Remember, the kids know. They may not realize how messed up the situation is until later in life, but they’re there. They know.

And, the other part is superheroes; that changes a lot of things.

The entire idea of hunting down some world class assassin and kicking down the door of his apartment, before handing him over to the local police is mostly a dream in the real world. In a world where you have superheroes, the risk of identifying and tracking him down becomes a much more serious risk.

Once someone knows who he is, his kids are in permanent danger. If your character is out there hunting down superheroes or supervillains, it’s very likely that someone will seek bloody retribution for his kills, or use the kids as leverage. That’s another horrific option.

At this point, you’re going to want to answer some world building questions, and decide what you want to look at afterwards.

Who your character works for is very important. An assassin for hire, that works with the League of Evil as a contractor is going to have a very different life from someone who works for a Federal Agency hunting down rogue superheroes. Either one can be as stable or unhinged as your story calls for (though, the latter would need to hide their derangement).

So far as it goes, there are plenty of examples of superheroes and villains with their children. Hell, two of the three Batgirls are the daughters of super villains. Cassandra Cain is the daughter of a professional assassin who seriously abused her, and is a mute killing machine, while Stephanie Brown is the daughter of a D-Grade super villain, who’s spurred to heroism in spite of (or to spite) her father’s legacy (and idiocy).

There’s a lot of room for the children of villains growing up to be their own people either in spite of, or in the model of their parents.

This may sound harsh, but if you don’t plan for your character’s children to grow up into their own characters, I’d strongly recommend using them. If you don’t have a plan, you’re running a serious risk of using them as pets, which, as I said, is something you do not want to do. (Even if your character does exactly that.) These need to be characters in their own right.

When it comes to injecting some serious weight into the modern superhero genre, my first stop would be Powers. It’s about cops, not assassins, but it does a fantastic job of taking superheroes out of context, and putting it against the mundane texture of a criminal investigation.

If you’re willing to spend 100 hours working through the narrative, The Witcher 3, does an excellent job of putting you in the shoes of a man searching for his adopted daughter. On the whole, I usually recommend Sapkowski’s novels over the games, but this is the rare case where I can say a game is doing exactly what you’re asking for (even if it is a fantasy setting), but I’m not really going into full detail here.

Another slightly odd suggestion is Millennium. Set in the late 90s, this series was a rare example of Magical Realism as a genre. The main character is a retired member of the FBI’s Behavior Science Unit, trying to protect his family from the apocalypse. As with The Witcher 3, this is probably more apropos than it sounds initially.

If you want to look at a shitty parent having their child leveraged against them, the first season of 24 is pretty good. If you’re left wondering, Jack Bauer is not a good parent. The first season has some rough patches, but it does kinda illustrate the problem with this setup.

I’d still recommend taking a look at Collateral. Tom Cruise’s Vincent isn’t hunting down superheroes, but it’s not hard to see where his methodology could have real application. Also, if you have seen it before, listen to the what he says about his father. It’s not much of a stretch to say this may be the future your character’s kids would find themselves in. Especially if he tried to bring them into “the family business,” or even if he just tried to teach them how to protect themselves.


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Q&A: When to use Gun Disarms

So is it better to attempt a (good, learned) disarm or not? Like, if someone’s pointing a gun at you, there’s already a chance you could get shot anyway because gun safety teaches you not to point guns at things you don’t intend to destroy. Or, when writing criminals, should you disregard some gun safety rules because they won’t be following them?

The purpose for gun disarms is when you’re in a situation where someone is going to kill you. The logic is; if you’re going to die anyway, might as well die trying to survive, rather than letting someone else make that decision for you.

I slap some variation of “gun disarms will get you shot” in the tags every time the subject comes up, because it’s true.  Attempting a gun disarm is a very good way to catch a bullet. Thing is, you’re supposed to be using these in situations where that was going to happen anyway, so getting shot isn’t a step down.

You are not supposed to use gun disarms in situations where you probably won’t get killed. This is why any good self defense program will tell you to simply hand over your wallet when someone mugs you at gunpoint. Yeah, you’re losing money, but you’re not going to take a bullet, and the contents of your wallet aren’t worth your life. In a situation like that, attempting a disarm and failing is far worse than the alternative.

Most combat is pretty sloppy. Even for things like grabs, and joint locks, you don’t need to do it exactly, you just need to be, “close enough.” The same is true of firearms, put a couple bullets center mass, and they’re done. Being able to put pinpoint shots into a target at 50 meters with a handgun is impressive, sure, but if you can get two or three hits on a man sized target at that range while struggling through an adrenaline rush, that’s all that matters.

Gun disarms are fairly simple from a mechanical standpoint, but firing a gun at some idiot in close quarters is easier, and far harder to screw up.

Gun safety is very important, but, you’re right, some people just ignore it, and that behavior is not limited to criminals. I’ve seen some egregious mishandling on the range. I still adore this example of cause and effect (warning: mildly graphic.) I have friends (yes, legitimately, friends) who I will not go out on a range with, simply because their weapon handling is just that horrifying.

People do stupid things all the time, and this cuts both ways. People mishandle their guns, and get hurt, sometimes people die. More than a few martial artists have attempted disarms in situations that really didn’t warrant one and took a bullet, with varying survival rates.

There’s also, plenty of mass shooters that were tackled while reloading. Those are, by definition, one of the few times where you have nothing left to lose. If you don’t try, they’ll put a round in you, and anyone in the vicinity, so you might as well, make the attempt.

Yes, there are applications, but the only time you should seriously consider a disarm is when they’re going to kill you anyway. That’s the threshold to aim for.

That’s what that disarm from the knees was about. Someone’s lined you up, on your knees, and they’re going to execute you. That’s also a specific scenario that both of us were taught disarms for. You’re on your knees, they’re going to kill you, “really, what’ve you got to lose if you screw up?”


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Q&A: Using Violence

Hey I’m pretty far along in a book I’m working on, there’s a lot of hand to hand combat mixed with swords, bows and arrows and some guns (flintlock style). I’ve been doing a good job of keeping things fresh but as I’m coming towards the end of it I’m having a hard time varying the different styles so it doesn’t get stale. I was wondering if you had any tips to help my action scenes from getting stale? Thanks!

This is going to be one of those concepts that sounds utterly bizarre at first, but violence isn’t interesting.

It might be slightly more accurate to say, violence by itself is not interesting or engaging. Real world violence, especially, is not entertaining and violence for entertainment often follows when the violence is expected to carry itself. What makes an action sequence work is the mise en scène. Violence, in a narrative, has diminishing returns. If you prefer, you could phrase it as the audience builds tolerance to violence over time, but either term works.

So, let’s unpack these two pieces.

Violence, by itself is rarely interesting. This is, probably, the main issue you’re running into. The stuff that sells a fight scene is all of the stuff accompanying it. It’s the stakes.

When writing an action sequence, the important thing to remember is why your characters are there. It can be very easy to lose track of the larger context in the moment, but that’s what keeps the reader invested.

There are exceptions to the, “never interesting,” position. With some martial artists, the appeal really is simply the spectacle. They’re putting on an impressive physical performance, that’s engaging. Cool. But, it’s not the violence, which may sound like an incredibly fine distinction until you really think about it. You don’t watch someone like Jackie Chan, Jet Li, or Van Damme for the story or the acting, it’s the sheer spectacle of the physical performance.  Though, Jackie Chan may be a bad example, because you’re probably watching him for the comedy beats.

I realize this might sound slightly pretentious. “No one cares about your hero punching that guy, they need to experience why he punches them.” But, the reality is remarkably grounded. Your character decided to engage in this way. You need to convey that to the reader. And yes, sometimes the reason really is because: “damn that was cool.” There are ways to make that kind of spectacle work, but in general, it’s easier to remember why your character is acting, and keep their behavior rooted in who they are, and reflect that back to the audience.


The other thing is that violence is exhausting. This is true for both the real thing, and for your audience. The more violence you use in your story, the harder it will be to keep them engaged with the material. This also applies for severity, though it’s a little easier to see at work there; include a scene that’s far too brutal, and watch your readers disconnect from the material and wander off.

Unfortunately, precisely defining how much violence your story can support is not a hard and fast system. I would say, when writing and you come to a potential action sequence, ask yourself if you really need a fight there.

There’s a weird irony with violence, sometimes, the anticipation is better than the delivery. You can tease the audience with the idea that a fight is about to break out, and then find a way to release the pressure, rather than forcing your characters into combat. The anxiety over what could happen, especially if your characters are seriously disadvantaged, can vastly outweigh the impact of just another fight scene. As with outright violence, this will lose its impact over time, but it can help you keep your audience on their toes.

Over time, violence is fatiguing. Keeping fight scenes short and to the point can help. If you’ve got a fight that’s lasting more than a couple pages, you might want to consider breaking it up, and reusing parts for different encounters.

Repetition is another concept that can kill the flow of a story. If you’re writing another fight scene ten pages later, and it’s basically the same as the previous ones, just with one or two slightly modified details, it might be time to cut it. There are writing techniques that employ repetition, particularly in comedy, but that’s about creating callbacks and payoffs, not regurgitating the previous scene with slight variations.

As a writer, violence is a tool you can use. Using it can work, threatening it can also work, but, in order to keep its edge, you need to use it sparingly. Otherwise, the entire narrative can easily bog down in an endless procession of boss fights.

Now, I’m gong to contradict myself here a little, violence can be entertaining. However, you need to understand that the violence is there for entertainment. All the violence and fight scenes you see on television are devised with this in mind. When unsupported by every other narrative aspect, they exist purely to entertain. The difference between these choreographers and most authors is that they are professional fight choreographers often with black belts in multiple martial arts. They understand how to pace a scene, what will look good on film, which actions will be visually impressive and have a vast toolkit to work from in order to bring the entertainment portion of the fight to life. Violence is not entertaining on its own, it is created to be visually interesting and a massive amount of work is put into creating functional entertainment. What you enjoy when you watch an action movie is the work of the choreographers involved, the skill of the stunt doubles, the hard work put in by the actors, the musical scoring, the set design, and everything else which keeps the movie running.

To mimic this in fiction, you must internalize this understanding and learn to do similar work on the page. The writer is the fight choreographer, the actors, the stunt doubles, the set and costume designers. You are creating a musical score in the structure and rhythm of your sentences, in your visual descriptions. You are going to do the entire work of a full set crew in order to achieve about half as much. Creating interesting violence on the page requires understanding that martial arts choreography is an art form in and of itself. And it is, you know, there are entire divisions in many different martial arts tournaments now devoted to structured competitive choreography. These are creators who agonize over every punch and kick, every physical transition, every throw, carefully putting together the scene, practicing it out over the course of months, for, at most, forty-five seconds to a minute’s worth of action.

Writing convincing and entertaining action takes a great deal of practice, and involves actively working as hard as you can to learn everything you can about violence. In knowledgeable hands, two swords of slightly different lengths could become a tense fight where the protagonist faces a significant disadvantage and a hard uphill climb in a terrific test of skill. Or, it could just be a scene about two people with two swords. The trick is understanding concepts like reach, order of operation in fight progression, the advantages provided by different sword types, the techniques used by fencers, and more to make a fight work. The smallest differences in a fight can create incredibly tight stakes, but you need to know they’re there in order to include them.

Start by sitting down with your favorite novel sequences and movie fight scenes, start asking yourself what you liked about it and why it worked for you. Look into who created it, the work that went in, and what the surrounding narrative stakes are. What are the internal stakes within the scene itself, why is the protagonist fighting at a disadvantage? What caused their disadvantage? Why is that interesting? What tools are the characters using? Are they making full use of their available options? What is the decision making process? How is that helping and hindering them?

If you’ve reached the point where the violence is boring, then move on to understanding that you need to be the one who makes the scene interesting. You first must pinpoint why the violence has become boring, and usually that begins with a lack of stakes.


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Q&A: Crossbows and DOPE

For a character with a military background and proficiency in modern firearms, would any additional training be necessary for them to master a crossbow? If so, what kind?

For actual training? Not much. They’d need to be run through how to reload, and maintain the weapon. If they were a fairly quick study, that should only take a couple hours. Mastering the weapon would require lots of practice.

The problem is, the crossbow fires a much slower, heavier, projectile. This doesn’t invalidate basic concepts of how to aim and fire, but it does change the parameters where the weapon will be effective. Drop will be far more severe, meaning they’ll need to compensate for that, and the overall range will be much more limited (roughly 50 – 60 meters.)

In order to do that, they’ll simply need to spend time on a range practicing and gathering data on how the weapon performs.

When shooting, it’s very important to collect Data on Previous Engagements (or DOPE) for that weapon. This primarily involves learning how that individual weapon behaves at various ranges. (So, your character would be learning how their rifle or crossbow behaves, not necessarily all rifles and crossbows.) Some will keep DOPE as physical records, others will simply internalize the information based on how the weapon handles. You can collect some of this information online, but ultimately you need to confirm it with the actual weapon before you can count on it.

The end result is, they can probably swap over to a crossbow with a minimum of effort, but they would need to spend time on the range getting a feel for how the weapon handled, particularly in relation to compensating for bolt drop.

Drop is a concept in shooting involving the projectile as a physical object. While it is traveling away from you at high speed (~400 feet per second with a crossbow bolt) it is also falling. Gravity does not give bullets, bolts, or arrows, a pass simply because they’re already going in one direction. This is referred to as, “drop.” When aiming you need to account for this. Drop can be compensated by either zeroing the sights/optics for a specific range, or manually by the shooter.

For example, a shooter who zeroes their scope for 100 meters, will need to aim below the target at closer ranges, and above the target at ranges exceeding that range. To the point that at ranges over 500m the shooter may be aiming several feet above the target.

Factors like relative elevation can further affect calculating drop, with targets above the shooter requiring them to overcompensate for distance, and under-compensate for targets below them.

Another major factor is wind, which can affect a bullet, and may require the shooter to adjust their drop expectations, as well as left to right drift. (If the bullet has a backwind, it will travel faster, and as a result, will reach it’s target sooner, requiring less drop compensation. A headwind will slow the bullet, increasing the effect of drop. Crosswinds will require assessing the speed, and adjusting the aim point to compensate.)

Because the bolt is larger, and slower, all of these factors will be far more pronounced than with a bullet. Meaning a prospective crossbow user will need to collect new DOPE for that weapon. The rough values can be extrapolated from math that can be calculated from available data (the speed of the bolt, its mass, distance to target, ect), but that will only provide a starting point, it won’t be sufficient to really, “master” the crossbow. For that, your character’s simply needs to spend some time practicing, and getting a feel for their weapon.

Incidentally, all of this is also true for a character picking up a new gun. Those will be similar to comparable weapons, but even then, getting highly precise shots off requires spending time with that, specific, firearm. Practicing, and getting a feel for it. Now, with practice on a wider variety of firearms, collecting DOPE for new guns will become faster and more intuitive, but it’s still something your character would need to do.


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Q&A: Anti-Cav

What would be the most efficient way to blunt a heavy cavalry charge? My characters are part of a larger unit wearing heavier armour and ready access to shield and polearms like spears, halberds, and the like. Would these tools assist in reducing the chance of being heavily disrupted?

The very short answer is: kill the horses. Heavy cavalry without horses are just heavy infantry. Still dangerous, still with a combat role, but nowhere near as threatening as they were on horseback.

This may sound callous, or even cruel, especially in a modern context, but it’s worth remembering that warhorses are equal parts weapon, and a member of the enemy forces. It is neither a pet, nor an innocent participant. It is actively trying to kill you.

Depending on the situation, the easiest way to deal with enemy cavalry may simply be entrenchment. Rows of sharp spikes mounted onto a log (called a Cheval de Frise) is one excellent way of making sure that enemy cavalry can’t simply charge into your forces. Improvised ones may be as simple as lashing crudely sharpened logs together.

In more offensive situations, making sure your front line, particularly along the flanks, includes squads equipped with polearms (usually spears or lances) can make the force far more resistant to incoming cavalry charges. If they deploy those weapons in a rough phalanx, the first line of any incoming horses will get skewered, and the ones that follow will have to navigate their own dead in addition to the battlefield. (Also worth noting that films have lied to you. Most horses, even war horses, will not willingly charge into readied spears, even if its rider orders it to.) These soldiers may be reinforced with heavy infantry, who can move in and replace them when the enemy infantry reaches the spear wall.

One primary value of cavalry is the ability to flank an enemy force. Somewhat obviously, the horse can move far faster on the battlefield, which more than makes up for the additional logistical concerns, and that, while traveling, heavy cavalry will actually slow the army’s movement overall. This means that effective use of the horse includes moving past the the enemy’s formation, and then strike from the rear, or sides of their forces. This can potentially result in a situation where both sides field flanking cavalry, who engage with one another out away from the main force.

Carefully deployed skirmishers can break up a cavalry charge before it gets started. Skirmishers are light units who may be deployed in advance of the main force, with the intention of disrupting and harassing enemy forces before combat begins. While it’s less of a sure thing, skirmishers armed with ranged weapons can begin softening up the incoming cavalry before the fight even gets started.

Mounted archers (and later mounted gunmen) were more of a specialized unit, so not every force fielded them, but they could be exceptionally useful in a skirmisher role, taking shots at enemy forces, while still maintaining their distance.

Terrain can also be an important factor to control enemy charges. Holding high ground, like a ridge, can make it much more difficult for cavalry to charge up to you. They’ll still be able to get there, but they’ll be far more exhausted by the time they reach you.

Dense forests can also be incredibly disruptive for horses, as it’s much harder to maintain formation when there’s a tree in your way. Combine that with uneven terrain, and it’s just a terrible place for mounted combatants.


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Self-Defense: The Predator is Exploiting You

How practical are those self-defence (the kind learnt in a few lessons) moves being taught to women in a real life situation?

Editing Note: I, normally, never do this, but I’m culling out the rest of this question. There was some additional, irrelevant, inflammatory material tacked on, but this part is worth answering.

The very short answer is, “yes.” When you see someone practicing an adapted Judo wrist lock, or a throw on a YouTube video someone linked to your dash, it probably works. I’ve seen a few that don’t, but a lot of those are functional techniques that can be taught in an accelerated environment over 6 to 8 weeks. (Honestly, most of those can be trained, individually, in an afternoon.)

But, we don’t link those. Without exception, those techniques will not work without training. They’re also not going to be reliable if your only self-defense training was a six hour seminar fifteen years ago.

The most important lessons you will ever learn in a self-defense seminar are not about your body. They’re about your mind and your approach to a situation where you are in danger. People like to categorize this as “men” and “women”, but it’s not. Acts of violence are acts. Violence is about action. It is a choice made by one human being to do harm to another.  In these situations, you’re looking at an actor and a recipient of the action. The recipient is the victim, the recipient feels out of control, they’re startled, frightened, and they’re intrinsically playing catch up to a premeditated decision made by the other party.

This is the advantage of your attacker in any situation. Whether the abuse is physical or verbal, you must understand that they are decisions made by another person to do you harm. Because that decision precipitates the action, the attacker is already ahead in terms of mental calculations. A predator picks out their prey, they find a way to get close to their prey, they choose them. What you need to understand upfront is these acts are choices by an individual, and those choices are where their power over their victim resides. That’s what let’s them control the moment. Control, not strength, is victory.

Once you grasp this, concepts like strength become less important. A woman can overpower a man in a violent situation, a woman can be an attacker and an abuser. This isn’t because she’s necessarily physically stronger than the man, or because she’s an anomaly, but rather because she made the decision first. She got there first, she decided first. That’s her advantage. Those crucial seconds in decision making are the difference between victory and defeat, whether you are doing or having something done to you.

Self-defense is trying to teach the recipient how to be an actor. A good seminar is trying to train you to retrain your mind, the way you look at your environment, teach you how to make threat assessments, and how to quickly transition from paralyzing panic to launching yourself into action. That switch over within your mind is what will ultimately be the deciding factor in terms of victory or defeat. This is the major difference between a trained combatant and a civilian. Trained combatants are primed to go, often to preempt an attack and be ready when it comes. This doesn’t always work, but they’re better at it than the average person. They’re quicker on the mental rollover, and they know those crucial seconds at the beginning of a fight are the difference between victory and defeat. When it comes to male predators, active decisions versus panic, fear, and surprise is often mistaken for physical strength. They feel stronger because they’re attempting to initially overwhelm, and, once you’re overwhelmed, they believe you won’t fight back.

Self-defense training does work. However, like all training,  what you get out of it directly relates the effort you put in.

So, two parts. Simply seeing someone demonstrate a technique isn’t enough to replicate it. Practicing a technique for a few hours in a controlled environment isn’t enough to perform it reliably in a tense situation. This is the problem with those videos, and can be a problem with some self-defense classes.

For example: Yes, you can roll your hand out of someone grabbing your wrist, reverse it, and then use that as leverage to force them to their knees. Without checking, do you know where to put your thumb to make sure the second part of that actually works? Do you understand how to do the first part? Because it is simple, but it relies on an understanding of how the human grip functions, and which parts are strongest. You won’t get that from simply watching a couple in a .gif screwing around. That’s the technique you watched, but what do you do next? Because you don’t have much time to get your next action in motion before they’ll respond. It’s a good technique, and as part of a larger strategy it can, absolutely, save your life. However, it also requires you know what you’re doing, which you won’t get from watching someone from a video in 2014.

The second part is you need to practice your training. If you don’t practice until it becomes second nature, you will have to think about what you’re doing in combat. This will slow you down, and will get you seriously injured or killed.

Let me give you a concrete example of this: I can’t do throws. I mean, I understand the theory, in some cases I remember pieces of the technique, but I don’t actually remember how to do them. I can’t remember enough of it to make them work in a live situation. Now, if you’ve been around here long enough, and paid enough attention, you probably know my background is Police Adapted Judo. This is a martial art with a large number of throws. This is a martial art that will happily send someone to the ground, and then follow them there. Most martial arts won’t intentionally go to ground fighting and stay there, but this one will. I can’t remember the throws. I didn’t practice them after I learned them, and now, 20 years later, that’s gone. I could relearn them, and it would probably be easier than starting from scratch, but I cannot actually use those in a fight.

(To be fair, this isn’t entirely true, there are one or two Judo throws I still remember, but the vast majority are effectively gone.)

The entire reason why traditional martial arts training is slow, is because the goal is to “rewire” your reactions. You’re learning entirely new kinds of movement. You’re training new responses, and then working them in, until you get to the point where you can simply, “do,” the thing, and you don’t have to think about doing it. There’s no shortcut for that.

Self-defense, and a lot of accelerated combat training, turn the expectations around. Instead of working these new patterns into your movements first, and then learning to apply it, you start by teaching someone how to use this training, and then you get them to work it in on their own time. This results in a shorter turnaround, but you sacrifice versatility. You train to specific attack patterns rather than learning to assemble what you’re doing on the fly. It also results in training that is more volatile, meaning it’s easier to lose it if you don’t keep up with practicing what you’ve learned.

The end result is that, yes, the stuff you learn in those courses can be highly effective. Given time, training, and commitment, it can result in a martial artist who has an excellent skill set for ensuring their own safety.

There’s another, far less sexy, part to any comprehensive self-defense course: Risk assessment and avoidance. This isn’t about learning how to throw someone over your shoulder, or run your knee into their face, it’s how to avoid getting into those situations in the first place. Some of this is physical, for example, but a lot of it is teaching someone how to avoid being profiled as a potential victim. We cover some details of this from time to time. Things like maintaining situational awareness may not sound as cool as talking about how you could potentially break a dude’s wrist, but it is infinitely more useful in ensuring you can effectively avoid situations where you’d need to. These skills keep you safe.

Things like being able to quickly formulate an exit plan are also very useful , and any good self defense class will include them. As with the rest, this is an excellent survival skill, but it’s not about the violence; combat is simply one tool that you can employ to affect an escape.

As with all martial arts, the quality of your instructor will affect the quality of your training. However, assuming you have solid training, and you’ve kept up with it, this stuff can safe your life.

I mentioned people linking videos before, and honestly, there’s always something heartbreaking to me about those post. Someone always chimes in saying something to the effect of, “reblogging, because if I’d seen this, I could have prevented X.” I’m sorry, I really am, but, when it’s couched like that, it’s almost never true. If they’d known how to do that, then it might have made a difference, but watching an 8 second .gif is no substitute for training.

Training is not a panacea, but it does offer more options. It can keep you safe. What they’ve seen in a video is one of those options, usually an option of last resort that’s already somewhat risky, but it is an option.  However, taken by itself, one technique is not a universal solution.

Something else happens with martial arts training (doesn’t matter if it’s traditional, or accelerated) which can make you substantially safer: It builds self-confidence. This makes you less appealing prospect to people who are looking for potential victims. It will not eliminate all threats, but it is a major boon for giving you the ability to maintain control when others are trying to take it from you.

If those, “if I’d seen this,” comments resonate with you, either because you’ve been there, or you’re afraid of being there; I would strongly recommend finding a reputable self-defense class in your area and enrolling. Many colleges and community centers offer classes. Even your local police may run one as an outreach program. This stuff does work. It can save your life. But, you do need to learn the full skill set. Some local martial arts schools may offer effective self-defense training as well.

Self-defense and martial training in general are trying to drill into you the skills necessary to take the power back in a situation where your life is under threat. Those begin, first and foremost, in your mind. Your power lies in your control over the situation, in taking back the control from someone trying to wrest it from you, in taking ownership of the situation, and pushing back. To do that, you have to believe it. You can’t fight yourself and someone else at the same time. This is, ironically, where the quintessential Yoda quote comes in: “do or do not, there is no try.” There is no room for second guessing, for questioning, or wondering whether this will be possible. You must do. When you are in the middle of battling yourself, battling cultural conditioning, battling the inhibitors put on your behavior to prevent you from actively taking control, you won’t be able to effectively defend yourself from someone who has already made the decision to hurt you.

The difference between you and your attacker is in the Sun Tzu quote, “Thus it is in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.”

When you believe you’ve lost, well, you’ve lost. This is what the predator is banking on. They believe they will win, and you will accept that defeat is inevitable. When you begin with the assumption they’re stronger than you, you’ve let them fool you. You’re already well down that road to losing the fight before it ever began. After all, violence requires commitment. The predator is relying on your inability to make that commitment in the moment, to give up, and ultimately cede them control over what happens to you. The human predator is like every other. They aren’t here for a fight, they’re looking to exploit their victim for the easy victory. That doesn’t mean their victim is weak, either. A predator is looking for an easy victory because they are ultimately weak. They’re searching for a safe win. They want the odds stacked in their favor. They don’t want to deal with resistance. They want the situation to be under their control from the beginning to end because they don’t want to take any real risks.

After all, this isn’t about strength. This is about someone exploiting the way the human mind works under pressure, and the societal conditioning already in place. The predator isn’t stronger than you. He’s exploiting your natural behavior, he’s exploiting societal behavior, social norms, and expectations. He is structuring the situation to specifically put you at a disadvantage. The playing field is not level by intentional design. This has nothing to do with natural differences in physiology, and by thinking that way you cede them an advantage they don’t deserve.

They’re not stronger than you. They’re not better than you. They’re not smarter than you. They just made the decision before you did; knowing they could exploit your immediate, natural reaction. If you ever have to question what base instinct looks like in a human being, this is it. The predators are actively exploiting your fight or flight instinct with the expectation you will take the third option and freeze.

Before techniques, the the first truth you need to accept is that the scales are weighted unevenly by human hands; not by nature’s. Which means, you too have the potential to go and tip them right back into your favor. Or just break the scales.

You don’t have to fight by their rules.

-Michi and Starke

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Q&A: Secure Phones

If there was a secret organization, could they use regular cell phones to conduct business or would burner/pre-paid phones be the best option for staying under the radar when crime is involved? Do you know any about burner phones?

As with everything else, it’ll depend heavily on the nature of your organization. If your secret organization is just street level criminals or terrorists, then you’re probably looking at burner phones. If your secret society is a secret masters of the world, Illuminati style conspiracy, then they’d probably be using off the shelf secure phones, possibly with non-standard OSs and (maybe) firmware. There’s also a middle ground here, where you might be looking at some kind of NGO which could still use standard phones, with legal protections in place to somewhat mitigate the risks in using them.

A “burner” is a disposable cell phone. Technically, the term refers to the cell phone’s identity on the network, when you’re replacing the phone’s SIM card, you could easily end up with a top of the line smartphone that still functions as a burner, though that is a bad idea, because if the OS install is compromised, that doesn’t change when you swap out the SIM.

In this case, SIM stands for Subscriber Identification Module. It’s a small smartcard that, when slotted into a phone, gives that handset it’s unique network identity. It’s how the network can identify a phone when it’s trying to connect a call. When the SIM card has been replaced, the phone is effectively a new unit to the cell network.

Not that it matters for this question, but if you have two phones with identical SIM data, the network will connect with whichever handset queried the network most recently. In the real world, this is mostly useless info, but if you were dealing with time travel, dimensional copies, or some other kind of weirdness, then the cell phone connectivity might get a bit strange.

Additionally, first responders, such as fire, police, and EMTs often have SIM data that’s flagged for priority access in the event of mass cellphone congestion. Again, not a common occurrence, outside of the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack or major natural disaster, but a cop’s phone should work, when the network is otherwise overloaded.

So, if your secret organization is just a group of criminals, then all of this might not matter. Criminals are not a particularly bright group on the whole. It’s possible they could have a tech guy who understands how the phone network functions, but it’s also entirely possible they’d simply shuffle their SIM cards around on a regular basis (which has happened), on the idea that it would sufficiently conceal who they are. Also, most people without an intelligence or technical background are unlikely to know the full capabilities of surveillance and forensics.

If you’ve got a group that consults with law enforcement, but also engages in more direct behavior. For example, something Millennium, then it’s possible you might see ex-law enforcement, who know when to use burners, and how to work around police investigations when necessary.

At the far end of the spectrum, you’ve got a secret conspiracy that secretly runs the world, (or their little corner of it.) In a case like this, it’s possible that individual members may enjoy total immunity from prosecution for their actions, making any surveillance by mundane law enforcement meaningless. They may also have access to proprietary software and hardware that, while capable of interacting with the network, would be effectively immune to the methods I explained last week.

Loading malware onto a phone relies on knowing the operating system’s architecture. If someone were to hand code a new OS off of a new Unix fork, that would share enough with conventional phones to work with the network, while still having the potential of security. If you can’t run code on the phone, you can’t compromise it. Needless to say, this would be a serious undertaking, probably requiring a team of coders, so it’s not something that would be open to any small cabal.

Using Voice-Over-IP systems does allow for the user to make and receive encrypted phone calls. Technically, this can be done on existing systems as well, and you can use apps like Discord or Skype for mobile VOIP, but, depending on your data plan, this can get pretty expensive. Additionally, VOIP has the advantage of creating a phone that can go anywhere in the world, so long as you have internet access. (It also allows you to make and receive calls from your laptop or tablet, so there’s that as well.)

Additionally, some existing VOIP systems do offer end to end encryption. Usually, you’re talking about data plans that would be contracted to entire corporations. This would be somewhat expensive, but, it is possible with existing technology, and certainly within the budget of a major corporation or a massive cabal.

Secure smartphones are an existing market, aimed primarily at business and governmental agencies. These are not cheap, and the actual quality varies. However, they’re real, and available on the commercial market, if you’re prepared to pay for better equipment, the option is out there.

The weird thing about burners is, they have a home among professional criminals and spies, but as you wander out of those circles, the concept becomes much rarer. It never occurs to most people that their phones upload their geolocation data to the cell network on a regular basis, or that this info is stored. Hell, it’s not unheard of for amateur criminals who learn about burners to never ditch them, or only replace them when their plan is depleted, creating an even cleaner evidence trail.

That said, yes, proper use of a burner, will make someone much larger to track, via cell network data. Assuming they remembered to leave their main phone at home, and didn’t do something stupid like call a non-burner with that phone.

If your characters are trying to coordinate in the field, then some kind of secure communications system is necessary, but that doesn’t need to be phones (at least, not directly). As I mentioned earlier, VOIP services, particularly ones with end to end encryption, and chat room structures, would probably be more useful in the field. Though, there are other communication solutions, including short range radio handsets.


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Q&A: Surveillance Operations

How do you start a car that you stole? I mean bc you see it in movies but I’d like to understand what’s going on there. Also, how do you track a car on your own knowing the license of said car without going to the police, and in the case of a cellphone? Is it posible that, if someone inserted a GPS tracker in someone’s phone but this phone ends up severely broken (so the GPS doesn’t work), the tracker would be able to know where was the last time the GPS worked?

So, a bunch of different questions, so let’s just take them all in a row.

Hotwiring a car refers to bypassing the key lock, and starting the ignition by manually connecting the circuit using the pulled wires. This would might have worked 40-50 years ago, however there’s a couple problems. Even on older cars, the ignition is better protected than most films would suggest, meaning getting access to that wiring is a lot more involved than just popping off the steering column’s shroud, and pulling a couple wires free. The second issue is that modern cars actually have ignition lockout systems. There are a wide variety of these, but the result is you can’t manually bypass the key with the ignition. In many cases, the ignition won’t even power up without the key present, meaning this entire approach to hotwiring is no longer valid.

On the other side of this, modern cars with keyless entry and ignition systems are vulnerable to wireless spoofing. With modern cars, the most common variant is “relay spoofing,” where a team of two will split up, one has a piece of hardware designed to pick up the signal from the wireless key fob, the other has a relay. The result will convince the car that it’s fob is in close proximity, and then unlock the car and allow it to start. Older cars (from the mid 2000s) are vulnerable to fob cloning, where the keyless entry and remote start broadcasts are captured, and then can be replicated later. This is no longer possible (in most cases), because newer vehicles use rolling, semi-random authentication codes. Though it may be possible to circumvent these with sufficient technical skill.

Tracking a plate requires going through the police or local government. Note, I said through, not to. Vehicle licenses and registrations are kept on file by your government. In the US, the police have access to that, as will state and federal databases. In theory, this stuff is kept confidential, and general civilians shouldn’t be able to gain access to it. In practice, that’s not entirely accurate. There are a number of civilian occupations that require access to these systems to do their jobs. Companies that perform background checks, and bail bondsmen would be examples. Additionally, someone with police connections may be able to get access to information they shouldn’t. The cliche example would be a dirty cop, but the reality can be far more benign. Someone who owns and operates a security company will interact with local law enforcement agencies on a regular basis and will seek to generate a rapport with officers they interact with regularly, often becoming friends. In situations like this it’s entirely possible for such an individual to go to their friend and ask for licensing information that, legally, they shouldn’t be privy to, but “given the circumstances…”

I’m ignoring the hacking route here, because it’s not particularly applicable most of the time. That said, many outside contractors who work with law enforcement, particularly companies that sell surveillance or IT hardware are going to have a better grasp of how the software and network systems function than you might expect. The idea of getting access to a Federal database may sound like the work of elite hackers, but the reality is, if you’ve got a piece of software which has to interact with thousands of agencies, nationwide, there’s going to be considerable security lapses if you know how the system works. If you know where to connect, and who you need to claim to be at login, reality is as mundane as ever.

When you’re pulled over in a traffic stop, one of the things the officer does, when they return to their patrol car after asking for your license and registration is to call their dispatcher and ask them to run your name and vehicle through the National Crime Information Center. The NCIC is a database maintained by the FBI, which tracks people who are wanted on warrants and checks to see if the vehicle has been reported stolen. Additionally the National Highway Safety Administration maintains the National Driver Register, which keeps track of issued licenses nation wide. In the case of the NCIC, data is only added if you’re wanted for some crime, or if your vehicle has been reported stolen, however the NDR tries to keep records of everyone. In both cases, you’re talking about software that needs to be accessible to a wide range of agencies, nationwide, including a number of technical Luddites who can barely sign up for their own email address. Again, knowing how to authenticate to the network is access.

There’s a number of ways you can track someone. With a modern smartphone, the simplest one is simply malware. Most cellphones produced in the last 20 years have some form of onboard GPS system. There are a lot of ways you can load malware onto a phone, but the short version is: If you’ve compromised their phone, then you don’t even need a GPS transponder; you can get their phone to tell you where it is. At that point, you might be able to configure monitoring software to tell you where the phone is and where it’s been, but that’s really the tip of the iceberg. On a compromised phone, you can have full system access, see what their camera is pointed at (without starting the ap), listen to everything said in the immediate vicinity, access any texts sent or received from the phone and listen in to any calls (along with full call metadata, such as who they’re calling). In fact, malware used by law enforcement allows remote activation of the phone, so even if you turn it off, it can still be rebooted, to function as a traveling surveillance device. To be clear, none of this is even custom, it’s all off-the-shelf software designed for, and sold to, intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

Let’s add another scary thought on here. Most of the time we talk about our phones being broken when the screen fails. The system’s been abused, the screen’s cracked, and the LCD won’t power up anymore. Thing is, that phone isn’t destroyed. You can’t use it, because the interface is damaged, but so long as the phone can still be powered on, a lot of the functionality I described earlier will still work. Now, if the battery was destroyed, or the CPU is fried, then the phone is completely dead, but any data it already transmitted is still safe, remotely, at the other end.

Also worth noting about your phone, GPS data can be stored. Your surveillance team wouldn’t just know where your phone is, they’d know everywhere it had been, with some additional hints as to where the phone had been before they picked it up. Beyond that, if you’re dealing with intelligence or law enforcement agencies, historical data regarding the GPS tracking will be accessible to them without even needing to compromise the phone at all.

To be clear, compromising a phone like this is fairly technical. It would require direct access to the phone for a couple minutes to complete the install, (though there are a number of ways you can get access covertly). The technical aptitude necessary means you’re talking about private security or intelligence agencies, as this goes well beyond what your average gangster or corrupt beat cop could pull off. Also, if you’re characters are up against intelligence agencies, then it’s entirely possible the compromising update could be pushed remotely by the telecom company.

I don’t usually cite my sources here, but given the nature of this, it’d probably be helpful for you to see a few, so you understand this isn’t just deranged conspiracy theories.

Here’s an Ars Technica article from last month documenting smartphone malware found in the wild. Also, the TechDirt article from 2013 that served as my crash course on the subject may be relevant.

On the subject of remote vehicle access, reports of people having their cars stolen start back in 2008, though those early reports aren’t particularly credible, to the point that Snopes rates it as mixed. However, jump to 2017, and you can watch security footage of thieves employing the relay technique in the UK.

I didn’t cover this earlier, but because of the interconnection on modern vehicles, it’s now possible to hack, and hijack control of vehicles via their onboard computers. The Uconnect exploit got some press attention back in 2015, and, Ars Technica has some nice specifications on that issue.

There’s a lot more to discuss on these subjects, but, that’s the very abbreviated version.


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