Category Archives: Q&A

Q&A: Even Prodigies Have To Learn

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite:

OK I know you said that martial arts needs a lot of practice to be good. But how about real savants? I mean in real life Varsha Vinod has a black belt at age 5. This type of thing truly is possible obviously. Or are you talking about grades beyond black belt? I don’t know much about that. But perhaps there is obviously still a difference between actually fighting a bad guy (but not trying to kill you. bad guys do have limits too or don’t want a murder rap.) than training??

There’s an unfortunate assumption that a lot of people make about child prodigies: they put in less time and effort.

To be a black belt at age five, Varsha Vinod started training at roughly age zero. Yes, I am saying she was literally trained from infancy. Time compression means more training rather than less. She had a father with two black belts. He could train her all day, every day, and he did. While you were learning to walk, she was learning stances. While you were playing with your friends, she was learning katas. The first five years of her life were karate. If you think that sounds fucked up, well, it is.

There are a lot of kids out there like Vinod, I’ve known some of them or known people who trained with them. Ernie Reyes Jr was competing in adult divisions at twelve. They are very impressive, but gaining that kind of skill that early comes at significant cost.

While Vinod has (or had) impressive hand eye coordination and muscular control for her age, acquiring adult level technical skill requires an extensive daily time commitment. (We also don’t know if she had adult level skill. Unlike Junior, she didn’t compete in the adult divisions.) The time commitment is more than if you mediated out your training. For most of these children, that “youngest female in the world to ever achieve a first degree black belt in karate” will be the high point of their lives. The vast majority fade out or fade into the sea of similarly talented individuals who started later but are also more driven because they were given a choice about what they wanted. You’ll notice Vinod has not continued her trajectory, her meteoric climb through the ranks ended at five.

The second assumption you made is actually a common one as well, which is the idea physical talent or skill equates with intellectual and emotional maturity. Child prodigies are not little adults, they’re still children. Vinod had a technical proficiency at five which qualified her, under the standards and grading systems of her martial art, for the rank of first degree black belt. This doesn’t mean she could, at five, fight an adult on equal footing. More importantly, karate is a traditional martial art and a recreational martial art. It has a very specific range of application, which is the Japanese annexation of Okinawa. Karate is unusual because it’s not a reconstruction, but it reoriented its purpose. Karate is designed for fighting samurai at a very specific moment in history and is very good at what it does, but you’re unlikely to be fighting a samurai anywhere in the world today. What I’m saying is: you can’t use karate to fight bad guys.

My shotokan instructor specifically pointed out that you can’t use shotokan for self-defense, and, since he was also a police officer, I trust his assessment. We’re talking about someone with seven black belt ranks who needed to leave the US and test with the grandmasters in Japan. Journeying to the origin of your martial art is a customary practice in many martial arts traditions when you achieve a certain high rank.

There’s the final major issue of your question. You’ve assumed a black belt means more than it does. When you strip away all a black belt’s mystic, what you’re left with is a certification. In karate, a black belt means you’ve memorized a fixed number of katas with an acceptable level of technical proficiency. This certification is also fluid. It changes based on who is doing the grading, what school it is, and who the student is. It shouldn’t, but it does.

There are a lot of kids like Vinod, some of whom are far more famous. Jet Li was the national Wushu champion in China at twelve, Ernie Reyes Jr competed against adults in the forms division and made some significant strides in Hollywood as a child martial artist, Rhonda Rousey is another individual who was trained from a young age in Judo. She has an Olympic gold medal. The irony is they aren’t any different from Simone Biles or any number of other high level athletes. They’re not warriors. They’re athletes engaged in competitive sports. As a UFC fighter, Rousey and Ernie Reyes Jr (who competed in StrikeForce competitive kickboxing) could charitably be considered gladiators. This is still entertainment.

You’ve confused skill with intent, and it is a common misconception put forth by anybody outside the martial arts community. There’s a lot of mystique surrounding martial arts and martial combat. For the East Asian martial arts, there’s a lot of orientalism to go with it. All of which are problematic because it gives an inaccurate impression of a skill set which primarily breaks down into a lifestyle —  personal empowerment, spiritual enlightenment, self-betterment — and a sport. These aren’t skills comparative to those learned in a modern military. You aren’t collecting a new weapon.

This is why I suggest parents enroll their kids in martial arts programs. Their kids aren’t going to learn to kick ass, what they will learn is mental determination and how to overcome adversity. These are important life skills anyone can benefit from. If you train a child to become a weapon, what you eventually get is an emotionally broken adult. 

If you want a standout warrior as an adult you need to follow the pattern gifted to us by a millennia of warrior cultures. What you’ll notice about these cultures (with the exception of the Spartans, who produced emotionally broken adults) is they let children be children. Instead of condensing their training, they stretch it out. They learn other skills in association with martial combat like strategy, tactics, command, and hunting. They structure training exercises as games. When the child is old enough, in their pre-teens or early teens, they are assigned an apprenticeship with another seasoned warrior. They don’t start engaging in serious combat until their mid to late teens, and complete their training at twenty.

You can throw a child into combat at twelve. There were plenty of cultures who conscripted soldiers that young. It doesn’t normally work out. There are exceptions, but they’re not the rule.

I know the idea you can cheat past the acquisition of skill is appealing, but it’s also as much a fantasy as a unicorn. This attitude ultimately devalues the time, effort, and dedication it takes to become skilled. You lack appreciation for how much work and sacrifice was made for Vinod’s achievement. You also lack the context to understand those sacrifices were not her decision. They were made for her by her father. The irony is, because she was so young, she needed to put in more effort and more time on a daily basis than a child twice her age. Karate was Vinod’s positive reinforcement, and it’s a fucked up thing to do to a kid.

The treatment of prodigies as magic in fiction bothers me, and the villainization of them also bothers me. Talent does not replace learned skill. Talent is just a building block letting you start a little further ahead of everyone else. You’ve still got to put in the time. The younger you are, the more talented you are, the more likely it is you’ll be putting in more time than other kids your age. And, honestly? That sucks.


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Q&A: Covers and Legends

How do spies pretend to be from certain countries when it is very difficult for foreigners to become 100% fluent? Or is it more that they were raised with more than one language m, or make up a convincing reason they should be in that country when there is a war going on?

The short answer is that you’re looking at this backwards. Do not ask a spy to adopt a cover they cannot sell convincingly. If you need a spy of a given nationality, look for candidates who grew up in that country, but are are loyal to yours. The children of diplomats, and military personnel who grew up in that country are ideal, though, really, however that’s not an exclusive list.

If that’s not an option, and you have time, a good alternate option are sleeper agents. The entire idea is that if you don’t have someone who can pass for a native, you simply make an agent you do have a native years, or decades, before you need them. The downside is, the sleeper won’t be doing any intelligence work for the next decade or two, so this really rewards planning ahead, and hoping they don’t flip in the end.

For a spy’s cover to be effective, they need to be able to inhabit it. If they need to be able to pass as a native, they need to have an ILR score of 4+, preferably a full 5. Yeah, you’re right, that’s not easy.

For reference, the ILR is the International Language Roundtable score. It’s a measurement of proficiency in a given foreign language, with a 0 indicating that you may know some stray words and phrases, but can’t speak the language, up to 5, which is full lingual, and cultural fluency. It’s not just enough to understand the words, you need to also understand the culture. That’s where things get really difficult, because radically different countries sometimes share languages. For example, even if you have an ILR5 English rating for American English, you probably could not swing a similar score for the Australian, British, Canadian, Irish, or Scottish, versions of the language. To say nothing of dialect variances within a given country.

It’s also not, just, about learning the language. As I mentioned, ILR5 requires significant cultural familiarity as well. While you can, theoretically, learn that from intensive study, chances are the only way you’ll get there is immersion. This is why it’s

So, we loop back to where this began, don’t ask a spy to be someone they don’t understand. Ask them to be someone they do understand. This is where things get interesting, because it’s not critical your spy appears to be a native, they simply need to avoid being assumed to be from the hostile nation. If your spy can pass as a being from a neutral, or better yet, allied nation, then they can operate in hostile territory without drawing the same kind of attention, assuming their legend (their fabricated documents) are convincing enough, and that they can sell the illusion of being who they say they are. To use the example above, there are differences between American and Canadian English, but expecting a non-native speaker speaker to be able to distinguish between these is less likely.

A fictional example I remember had a KGB officer passing themselves off as South African in the UK. While it’s unlikely that the spy could pass themselves off as British, their mark wasn’t able to distinguish between East German and South African, even though German and Dutch are distinct (if similar) languages. While it strains credibility that a senior military official wouldn’t dig into that, the overall structure does illustrate an excellent way to get a spy into a country who could pass for native.

During the Cold War, South Africa was excluded from a number of NATO intelligence treaties because of international opposition to Apartheid.

The fictional officer disagreed with those policies, and believed he was passing intelligence to a South African agent, without realizing they were actually passing extremely sensitive information to a Soviet agent.

(I think the example above was from Sandbaggers, but I’m going from memory.)

Now you have a spy who doesn’t need an artificial cover. Their cover is the truth. They don’t know who they’re working for. They think they’re acting to further their own ideological beliefs. In short, the perfect spy. Even if they’re discovered, proving they were your agent will be basically impossible.

That’s the potent skill for a spy. It’s not about sneaking in, and living out your James Bond fantasies. It’s about bribing a cleaning lady to give you any documents that end up in the trash. It’s about conning an enemy official into believing you speak for their allies. A spy’s job doesn’t need to be about stealing secrets, it’s about cultivating a network of contacts who work for them and give them access to what they want.

Getting spies in a country is more about identifying and flipping assets. (By “flipping,” I mean, convincing them to come work for your spy.) You don’t need to do the impossible and train an agent to blend in perfectly, if you can get an actual native working for you.

On the final part of your question, yes. A spy needs a convincing reason to be where they are. This isn’t unique to wartime, any effective cover needs to do this as much as possible.

A spy who needs access to bank records would benefit from a cover with an NGO focused on economic development, while one who needed access to military intelligence would be better suited to being a consultant for a PMC, or some other security contractor. If they need freedom to move around outside of cities, then you’re looking at things like agriculture or mining interests being ideal.

Once your spy does have a cover in mind, they need to build up the associated skillset. If they’re part of an Agro-development NGO, they need to be able to play the part convincingly. In fairness, that’s not as difficult as it may sound. Your spy doesn’t need to a master of their new field, they simply need to credibly pass for someone who makes a living doing their job.

So the short answer is, if you can’t pass for a native, don’t try. However, it’s not about whether you can pass for native, it’s just about not looking like you’re the enemy, and having a compelling explanation for who you are, why you’re there and what you’re doing. In a lot of cases, that’s a simple as, “not looking like a spy.”


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Q&A: Self-Defense Curriculum

(1/2) Hey, experts! I have two different questions, I hope that’s okay. I’m writing a story about a young guy (no older than 22) who gets mugged and decides to take a self-defense class because he doesn’t want to feel helpless again. What kind of knowledge would he have with only two months of classes (weekly) under his belt?

Eight weeks is enough time to cover an entire self-defense curriculum. This will vary based on the instructor and the course structure, so this isn’t an exhaustive list. Also, the sequencing will vary depending on the instructor’s goals.

You’ll learn threat assessment. This is a mix of different pieces of information, and that will be tailored to the situations your instructor expects you to be in. This includes simple things, like staying aware of your surroundings, which in turn, makes you less appealing as a prospective victim. This the most important component in self-defense training, and it is not a combat skill at all.

Learning how to avoid being in a situation is worth far more than knowing how to get out of it. Now, realistically, that is not always an option, which is why the rest of the training exists, however, anyone who has been through self-defense training will have a dramatically improved ability to assess potential dangers. That does not mean they cannot make poor choices, simply that they’re less likely to blunder into a bad situation because they didn’t see the potential threats.

You’ll learn some basic stances, though this really isn’t the focus. It’s more a necessary component for the other things you’ll learn. For someone from a traditional martial art, this can be really mind bending. Stances are one of the most important components in martial arts, but self-defense quickly covers them and moves on, without putting a lot of focus on them.

You’ll learn how to break out of holds, joint locks, and throws. Breaking out of holds is something that will probably be useful, and several transition fluidly into throws. Joint locks are very useful when you want to restrain or subdue a foe. Each joint can only move in certain directions, and your entire body is connected. Joint locks rely on pushing one joint to its natural limit, and then using that to lock down the rest of your foe.

You will probably learn ground fighting. This is combat from a prone position and primarily involves maneuvering using your hands, while striking with your legs. This has some significant advantages for a fighter with limited experience. Because self-defense doesn’t spend much time on stances, you’re going to end up on the ground, and training for that eventuality pays off in that situation. Being able to retain mobility while on the ground means you cannot be knocked down, and you can drive a lot more force with your feet. Ideally, you’ll position yourself with your legs between yourself and your foe, lashing out if they attempt to close the distance.

You’ll learn some basic hand to hand, including some kicks. This will be far more advanced than you’d get from a non-practical class, and the priority will be on being able to actively use these strikes. These will, probably focus on knee and elbow strikes, rather than hands and feet. It’s much easier for an inexperienced fighter to accidentally injure their hands while striking, and full kicks are more challenging to execute (unless you’re already on the ground.)

You’ll learn how to create an opening and escape. This sounds a lot more involved than it is. “Creating an opening,” simply means inflicting enough harm on your opponent so that they cannot pursue you right now. Escaping may be as simple as bolting and running while your opponent is trying to get their breath back.

At the upper end, creating an exit plan is something you should start doing, whether your training really sets that up for you or not. I know, I didn’t really get into the head space of keeping exit plans in mind until years later. The basic idea is, if you’re going into a place, you should have plans for how to get out if things start going wrong.

Finally, you’ll probably learn to deal with armed assailants, including ways to defend against knife and firearm attacks. Worth remembering that gun and knife disarms are extremely dangerous, and have no margin for error. It’s very easy to take a bullet or get carved up trying to take a gun or knife away from an attacker. However, the training is included in the event that you really do not have a choice. If someone is going to kill you anyway, it’s better to know how to get that gun away from them and have a chance of living, than not.

I’ve said this before, but it is important to remember, the goal is to hinder your foe long enough to make an escape, not to, “win the fight.”

It’s also important to remember, a lot of this training is simply presented, “as is,” so unless you’re consistently practicing, you’ll lose a the more demanding techniques. Throws, in particular, require a lot of finesse, so your ability to execute one in a combat situation is very dicey.

The other major point of failure is that if you don’t internalize your self-defense training, when you’re presented with a situation a lot of this stuff just gets lost. It’s not that you don’t remember how to do it, you don’t remember your options in the moment. I know; it’s happened to me.

So, looping all the way back to the original question, there’s a fundamental scenario here that’s entirely realistic and plausible, but self-defense training won’t do what you expect. More specifically, it will be what you’re asking for, but not in the way you’re thinking.

Self-defense combat training is something you use when you have no choice. Self-defense is useful when someone will kill you. They will rape you. They will disfigure you. They will abduct you and do any or all of the above.

Self-defense combat training is not something you use when someone is asking for an item you can easily replace. If someone wants your wallet, give it to them. Don’t carry cash. Keep everything on plastic. Call the bank, shut those down, and they get nothing. The plastic is meaningless. If someone wants your smart phone, hand it over. One conversation with the carrier and that phone is unusable. They can’t fence it, they can’t sell it, and if they try, they’ll get the cops knocking on their door. More than that, if your phone is insured, you lose nothing. Same with your debit and credit cards. You can replace those without cost.

You won’t feel as helpless. You know they can’t escalate to violence without opposition. But, the safe answer when someone asks for your money is to hand over your wallet. Random muggers are pretty low on the threat scale. They can be managed. You can never be completely certain that it will be a safe interaction, but you can minimize the threat as much as possible.

Taking self-defense classes and then interpreting that as the ability to go hunting muggers is a losing proposition. It will end with you face down in a gutter.

Taking self-defense classes does mean you won’t feel that powerless again. It’s just not for the reasons you were expecting.


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Q&A: Zombie Apocalypses

What if I wanted to write characters who are 10 and 8 years old in an zombie apocalypse defending themselves with krav maga and weapons? I’m not sure a 10 or 8 year old would have a strong grip on a gun or does it depend on the gun? I want them to be cute because looks can be deceiving. Is it too unrealistic? a form of self-defense and physical training, first developed by the Israeli army in the 1940s, based on the use of reflexive responses to threatening situations.

If they’re too young to use a firearm, they’re not going to be able to fight off zombies in hand to hand. If we’re talking about conventional zombies, Krav Maga is a pretty horrible choice. It’s fine for dealing with human foes you can incapacitate, but going hand to hand with a rotting corpse that can (eventually) kill you with a single bite is a spectacularly bad idea. Especially if we’re talking about fast moving zombies.

Zombies vary wildly depending on the fictional setting. Even the term itself is inconsistent. This ranges from, literal, reanimated corpses that are kept up and moving to actual viral infections of various descriptions.

Regardless of the situation, there are a few constants. You’re dealing with a former sapient creature (or sentient in the case of other animals, like dogs) that have been rendered permanently hostile. In the case of zombie apocalypses, the zombies need a way to replenish lost numbers. Finally, the zombie is significantly more dangerous than they were when they were alive, though this last one is a somewhat subjective statement.

All of those traits are necessary.

Fair warning, I’m going to use a lot of game references on this one. Horror works better when the underlying rules are left vague. This means, we don’t really have, “the rules,” for something like John Romero’s films. We have the inferred systems, but when you’re the author, you need to understand the rules, even if they’re hidden from the audience.

Non-hostile zombies don’t produce a zombie apocalypses. And, there are settings with non-hostile (or selectively hostile) undead. D&D’s Forgotten Realms comes to mind as the immediate example, though it’s not alone. Zombies, skeletons, and other forms of undead are sometimes used as burial guardians, Alternately, undead raised by a necromancer may serve them, without attacking anyone unless the necromancer directs them to. (Or, if I’m remembering the rules for Raise Dead correctly, much of anything really. It will just shamble around aimlessly, unless commanded. EDIT: I was not. Raise Dead is a weak resurrection spell, while I was thinking of Animate Dead.)

Zombies need to be able to replace their lost numbers. This doesn’t need to be from the zombie itself, though that’s often the case. The Walking Dead comes to mind as an example, where anyone who dies will rise as a zombie, whether they were bitten or not.

The bite, or some other direct infection vector is favored. It expedites the process and keeps individual zombies dangerous. Take that away and a single zombie is not much of a threat. I’ve said before, human bites are really nasty on their own, so transitioning that into a guaranteed kill in addition to creating a new zombie.

The problem is, if the zombies can’t be replaced, they can be cleared out pretty quickly. The image of a zombie horde is impressive and intimidating, but it relies on the zombies being able to produce more of themselves faster than trained combatants could deplete their numbers. If your zombies aren’t able to reproduce into full hordes, you’re never going to see a zombie apocalypse.

Looking back at the Forgotten Realms example, the reason you don’t see zombie apocalypses in Faerun is because Raise Dead Animate Dead is a fairly involved spell. Getting zombies who will serve you takes time and effort, as does maintaining your control over them. Directing them as an assault force is great, but it will take time and effort, and they’re not easily replaced. The best a power hungry necromancer can hope for is to unleash a bunch of uncontrolled zombies and hope they can do their damage before being wiped out by a party of adventurers on their way to godhood.

When it comes to military applications for zombies, I’d look at Warhammer Fantasy. Zombies are a disposable front line unit for the Vampire Counts. They’re something the game’s fans refer to as “tarpits.” These are fairly inexpensive, and ineffective, units that tie up enemy forces. You don’t field zombies because you expect they’ll kill anything. You field zombies to soak up shock cavalry charges, and tie up enemy infantry, while you get your elite units into position to flank. If you’ve got necromancers who can field armies of zombies, your zombies can become a very effective meat shield for your more dangerous units.

The real danger with zombies is numbers. It’s not enough that they can maintain those numbers, they need to grow the horde, or they’d never have gotten into this position in the first place.

If you have a zombie that can be beaten to death (redeath?) by a child, you’re never going to see an apocalypse from those zombies. No, seriously, never. It doesn’t matter if the kid knows Krav Maga. If a child can beat them, an adult can dispatch them. If the zombies are that toothless, there’s no way they chewed through standing military forces, impromptu militias, local law enforcement, or even angry blue collar workers. There’s no way this turned into an apocalypse.

The hurdle for zombie apocalypses is critical mass. You need creatures that are individually dangerous enough to overpower the foes they’re facing until their numbers are sufficient to overwhelm everyone. In a conventional fantasy setting, if you have zombies picking picking off peasants and growing their horde before going into combat against the actual military forces, that makes sense.

In the modern world, it makes significantly less sense. A zombie will provoke a law enforcement response, and get shut down. Even if we’re working under head shot rules, that’s still going to stop the zombies at their initial outbreak. Any secondary outbreak from injured police will be in a contained environment, and that will be the end of it.

Think about it. You have some sheriff’s deputies called in to deal with some, “weird druggie,” and they lunge at the cops, they’re going to get put down. If the succeeded in biting one, that officer’s going to be taken to a hospital. Even if they turn, there would be an immediate and overwhelming police response to that, and the infection wouldn’t get out of that hospital.

The only way you could see a zombie apocalypse in a modern setting is if it starts with overwhelming numbers. The Walking Dead‘s scenario where anyone who dies returns, would set up a scenario like that, as you’d be looking at a vast, dispersed, base of infections. With no way to wipe it out, as any human who dies returns as a zombie.

Even then, zombies need to be dangerous enough to pick off a human. If they’re fragile enough that a child can beat them in hand to hand, there is no way they’re dangerous enough (even in numbers) to progress into a apocalypse. A zombie outbreak like that would fundamentally change the world, but you wouldn’t have an apocalypse. Zombies would become a kind of persistent pest that needed to be cleared out when discovered.

I’m going to make a quick aside here, wanting the kids to be cute for shock value has severe diminishing returns. It’s not going to work the way you want. The zombies don’t care. Any post-apocalypse zombie world is already going to be extremely jaded, to the point that, the kids standing out like that is actually a warning sign for any group of competent survivors. “How did these kids survive out here? Something’s not right.” It would work with survivors who aren’t wary enough to pick up on it, but that’s doomed group, because they’re also going to miss critical cues to other threats as well. Meaning, this only exists for your audience. Even then, it won’t reliably work for your audience, because they’ve seen this before.

The problem with Krav Maga is that (like all martial arts) it was designed to fight humans. Living humans. It’s a very aggressive fighting style that’s designed to quickly incapacitate and kill. It is not designed to decapitate the foe. It isn’t designed to deal with a foe who has been dead for six weeks and doesn’t feel pain. It will put your limbs in chomping distance, because most humans aren’t always trying to eat you. Krav Maga was not developed to fight zombies. It’s designed to operate in very tight quarters, with a lot of strikes that a zombie simply would not care about.

To be clear, military Krav Maga, is an excellent urban combat martial art. It was designed for use in tight spaces. If you’re dealing with a human, and you want them dead, it will work. If you’re fighting zombies or other supernatural threats, it’s utility diminishes sharply. If two kids can incapacitate a zombie with basic Krav Maga, imagine what the IDF could have done. That’s the problem.

I’m not even touching on the firearms thing. Guns work. I nearly lost a knee to a kid with poor muzzle and trigger discipline. Unless you’re talking about something stupid, like a Desert Eagle or a S&W .500, it doesn’t matter. Of course, if guns work, how the zombie outbreak get this far?

If it sounds like I’m being overly harsh, I’m not a fan of zombie media. I like Dead Space, I enjoyed The Walking Dead comic, until it just got too bleak to continue. I enjoy the hell out of Resident Evil, but that’s more of an unintentional parody of zombies at this point. I can’t point to a single zombie movie I liked. I respect the Romero films, even while I don’t enjoy them. Zombies in prose don’t work for me. It’s probably quite telling that the first favorable reference that comes to mind is, “zombie adjacent,” rather than a conventional zombie series, and this is coming from someone who really does love horror.

Romero turned zombies into a commentary on consumer culture in Dawn of the Dead (1978.) I’m not saying anything original to observe that if you wanted a monster to embody the self-destructive impulses of modern consumer culture, the zombie is a natural fit. I’m sure there are other potential metaphors that could be applied. However, Romero’s version of Dawn of the Dead is an excellent film, and if you want to work with zombies, it’s probably something you should study it closely.

The problem is, zombies are bland. They’re boring, and I don’t say that about entire genres lightly. If zombies are your thing, I’ll help you to the best of my ability, but the genre has (basically) never worked for me. It’s a variety of monster that works best as a background world element. If zombies are the focus, then you really need to have something to say about them.


Um, in D&D terms, Raise Dead brings someone back to full LIFE. You’re thinking about Animate Dead, which creates a skeleton or zombie.


You’re 100% correct. I completely derped that one up. For reference, there’s at least three spells to bring people back from the dead in D&D’s core books, and probably more that I’m not remembering.

Thank you for reminding me.

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Q&A: Hypothermia and Alcohol Intoxication

Any tips on writing dialogue featuring a character suffering/recovering from hypothermia? At a glance it seems like hypothermia makes you act kind of like you’re drunk, is that accurate?


I’m not completely sure. I’ve never seen severe hypothermia first hand, so I’m going off diagnosis guides and making a guess. That said, I have seen a few warnings about potentially misdiagnosing hypothermia as alcohol intoxication, which makes me suspect these are very similar.

This is a little more complex than that, because, from my limited research, alcohol intoxication seems to exacerbate hypothermia. Your body temperature crashes faster, and you stay intoxicated for longer. This is because hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) interacts viciously with hypothermia, and excessive drinking can result in (temporary) hypoglycemia.

If you’re wondering, “if it’s that dangerous, why would anyone drink in the cold?” The answer is fairly simple, alcohol makes you feel warm. This is why there are traditions about consuming hard liquor to endure or recover from the cold. The biological reality is that warmth is an illusion, but the experience led people to believe that alcohol helped dealing with the cold.

To your question about dialog; Hypothermia’s slurred speech and impaired cognitive function could look a lot like alcohol intoxication. However, when it comes to, “acting drunk,” not so much. There’s a number of specific physical symptoms beyond the slurred speech and confusion associated with hypothermia. Hypothermia will result in drowsiness, so no matter what kind of a drunk you normally are, hypothermia will look like a sleepy drunk. Beyond that, there’s shallow breathing, a weak pulse, and of course shivering.

So, hypothermia doesn’t look like alcohol intoxication, however, the slurred speech, mumbling, impaired coordination and cognitive function do. It’s close enough that hypothermia can be mistaken for alcohol intoxication in a cold environment by someone without medical training, but not so close as to say that it’s just drunk in the snow.


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Q&A: Hunter/Hunted

Upon learning that the people the MC worked with for some years are going to kill him/her as they believe him/her to be a threat/no longer safe to work with, the MC makes a run for it. Can you shine any light on what it may be like to be on the run for several weeks and, on the flip side, what it may be like to be the ones trying to find this MC?

This is a variable question, based on the organization. Obviously, being on the run from a slightly unhinged HOA would look very different from someone who was working for a Bond villain.

When you’re getting into world building, you really need to know how extensive your organizations will be. Everything about this question will hang on the organization and the character’s training.

For your purposes, you need to decide three things about the organization. How much capacity does it have, how much intelligence can it gather, and what is its reach?

Let’s start with the influence. Any organization will have limits to how far it can reach. If you’re dealing with a small organized crime outfit, it’s going to have difficulty applying it’s influence a couple states over. It may still be able to send people out, but their ability to operate will be limited in unfamiliar territory.

If the organization has an extreme reach, then your character can’t slip their perimeter and disappear. Again, the Bond villain example above isn’t that far off the mark. Shadowy conspiracies, or global criminal empires aren’t going to be thrown off (much) by running. Your character may still be able to escape by leaving the planet, but may not be a viable option.

A quick warning here, before we continue: If you are going with a massive global conspiracy that your character worked for, you really want to nail down who these people are. You, probably, want to share some of that information with the audience. There’s a lot of potential for a thriller about a character running from a massive conspiracy they don’t understand, but, at the very least, you do want to keep your audience at least up to speed with your PoV characters.

The amount of intelligence an organization can collect is critical for evaluating how effectively they can track someone. In the modern day, it’s remarkably easy to collect significant information about someone from publicly available information. Last month I watched someone parlay a Twitter bio into the individual’s full name, address, and current place of employment in under twenty minutes, using only public data. Do not underestimate how much information you put out there.

At the same time, there’s a huge difference between being able to run someone to ground using public information, and getting access to confidential databases. If your organization has money, they can buy plate reader data, and track your character’s location in real-time if they’re taking their car. If they have access to law enforcement databases, they can track your character through far more means, (potentially) including facial recognition technology, real-time tracking of their credit/debit card usage, and immediate flags if your character’s ID pops up.

This means, “hiding,” may be as simple as crashing on an old friend’s couch, or it could require significant tradecraft to drop off the radar.

The final thing you need to lock down is the organization’s capacity. Can they send one guy with a handgun? Can they send a kill team? Can they flag your character in federal databases as a terrorist, and send in SWAT teams to kill them.

There’s two parts here, the organization’s own manpower, and their ability to co-opt other authorities. This will factor into their ability to gather intelligence, if they can piggyback on someone else’s surveillance work, they don’t need to do that themselves. It keeps the organization safe. This could be a data tap, or by having people in the other organizations. It’s the signals vs human intelligence balance, either possibility will work. Either option could blow back on the organization, or they could have legitimate authority. If they have the ability to co-opt other authorities, you can assume they have access to the manpower and intelligence gathering capacities from those organizations.

Depending on how you structured the organization, their operations could be virtually anywhere. You’d need to lock down how they operate. However, we’re only half done here.

Your character’s experience will alter radically based on their own background and approach, so let’s split this up into pieces as well. You need to establish your character’s resources, their skills, and their paranoia.

Being on the run is expensive. Both, before and after you start hiding. You need to pay for your safe house, that means renting or buying another place. Because it’s a fixed location, if it’s compromised it’s gone. If you’re staying on the move, you need transportation, that costs money. You need food, that costs considerably more if you’re out in the open collecting it. You need someplace to lay low while you sleep and prepare (if you’re going on the offensive.)

The end result is, your character is going to need considerable resources to go into hiding. For our purposes, resources is collective, it refers to contacts they can use, vehicles, weapons, other equipment, false identities, safe houses. Even their ability to collect intelligence against their former employers would be a form of resources. Anything on this list has the potential to be useful when trying to stay out of sight, or if they’re trying to shut down their former associates.

The important thing to remember here is: This isn’t a bank balance.” However, your character will burn through the resources they have as they try to stay out of sight. Any resource they use is another potential piece of evidence their foes could use to track them down.

For example: if your character used their old sidearm to fight off an enemy, and the cops run the ballistics, there’s a real chance the conspiracy could get that info and immediately know your character was there.

One of the major dangers when facing off against an organization with extensive intelligence operations is that all of your bank accounts are now being monitored. If your character had money hidden under a false identity, they still have that money, but there’s a real potential that pulling out their credit card will bring the metro PD running.

Your character’s skillset will heavy affect how well they approach this. Someone with a more covert background will probably have an easier time blending in. They’ll have a much better grasp over what actions they can take safely, and which ones will light them up for their foes. They may also be in a much better situation for evaluating when to, “misstep,” in order to provoke a response. There’s an entire skill to knowing when you should appear to make a mistake in order to draw your foes out.

Now, I’m talking about this with the assumption that your character is an assassin or spy, but the truth is that a lot of people will cultivate those skills. If your character was a cop, private investigator, bounty hunter, or career criminal, they’d probably know most of this, even if they eschewed violence.

Remember, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” How much prep your character did before this situation hit the fan will affect their ability to walk away and disappear. Some of this bundles in with the idea of resources above, but if your character expected, or at least prepared for the potential that they’d need to go into hiding (potentially permanently), they may have set up multiple exit plans to get out and disappear. If they have a plan, and backups, to simply drop off the face of the earth, they’re probably going to be able to execute those. They would have been in a situation where they could accurately assess the organization’s intelligence, and probably had a good idea how to leave no trace. An especially paranoid character may even have set up some dead man switches in the organization to make tracking them even more difficult when they disappeared.

Of course, it’s possible something would cause the character to abandon their exit and switch over to hunting or dismantling the organization. This kind of a decision is very contextual, based on your character and the people in their life, so it’s a bit difficult to chart and say, “it’d be like this.” However, it would be an excellent mid-story turning point for the character, where they go from being the hunted to being the hunter.

Beyond this, everything’s character. The relationships between the characters will determine how this, “feels.” Once you have an idea for the kind of characters and organizations you have, you can start to research the details and lock this down.


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Q&A: The Khopesh

Do you have any tips on researching historical fighting styles? I’m specifically interested in writing fight scenes involving a khopesh, and I’d really like to be able to include tactics/techniques accurate to the weapon and its historical users (rather than go the typical Hollywood route of giving every swordfighter kali moves and calling it a day). However, the khopesh isn’t particularly common/popular, and I don’t think it’s used in any living arts. Where should I start my research? Thanks!


This wasn’t a rare or unpopular weapon. Several khopesh have been uncovered in the tombs of Pharaohs, among the grave goods. The khopesh was used the Egyptians for over a thousand years. This isn’t a popularity issue. This wasn’t an exotic weapon. This was over three thousand years ago, and the weapon hasn’t been used since.

I’m shaky on some of the details, but there were three major, interlinked, elements.

First, the khopesh was a bronze weapon. It was possible to manufacture iron khopeshes, and some were produced. However, because it was a bronze weapon, it was also quite short. Historical examples were around 20-24 inches long. While you could produce longer bronze weapons (like the Celts did), those weapons would be considerably weaker. The Kopesh was reportedly used to pull enemy shileds, something you couldn’t do with a flimsier weapon.

Incidentally, you can’t simply make a bronze weapon, “heavier,” to compensate, as bronze is already a very heavy alloy. Weight becomes a serious issue.

Second, Egypt had limited wood resources. This may sound like a strange detail to include, however, producing iron required charcoal. Very importantly, this was a regional problem. By the final centuries of the second millennium BCE, Egypt was facing enemies who were outfitted with iron weapons and shields, while struggling to equip their own soldiers with similar arms.

That’s the third problem. The khopesh fell out of use during The New Kingdom. I can’t say with absolute certainty, but it looks like the khopesh was caught between the decline of the Egyptian military, and being rendered obsolete by superior arms.

Martial methods are very difficult to study historically. This stuff is a living art, and if it falls out of active use, it can be very difficult to reconstruct. Sometimes, there are surviving illustrations which can offer some insight, but that’s still limited.

For example: modern HEMA is not the same as historical European combat techniques. Some of the techniques may be accurately reproduced, but the system as a whole is, “a best guess.”

We don’t know how the Egyptians used swords 4500 years ago. We don’t know how that usage changed over the next 1200 years. All we can do is guess, and look for, “hints.”

There is a hint, but it’s a limited one. Tahtib is not a sword combat style. It is an Egyptian stick-fighting martial art that dates back to The Old Kingdom. It still exists as a sport, and as a dance. There’s been an effort in recent years to reconstruct the original combat form, but no guarantees that’s how it was actually used. There’s also no certainty that the stick fighting techniques matched the contemporary sword techniques, though it’s likely that there were similarities.

So, all that’s left of the historic khopesh use is a 4500 year old sport, that may have originally shared elements with sword training from that era, assuming it didn’t significantly change over time. However, given the nature of martial arts, it’s almost certainly changed beyond recognition in that time, and there are elements of Tahtib that simply wouldn’t work with a sword style.

That’s the best I can offer.


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Q&A: Embrace Limitations

(Part V – I hate this low limit on characters in an ask) The difference in reach would be diminished even before that by at least some of the bad guys having spears. Thanks for any help/advise 🙂

Yes, this is part 5 of 5, and no I’m not going to be revisiting the rest of this question because I’m not answering it. They’re not the only person who struggles with the ask box size limit, and I’m sympathetic. However, I’ve written articles for this blog shorter than this question, and it highlights a real issue, you do not have unlimited words.

Anything you write for professional publication will have word count limits. Now, if you want to write a 300k word epic, no one will stop you. However, no one will buy that. You won’t get an agent; you’d need to self-publish. You’d need to have an established platform to sell to, this isn’t impossible, but it won’t work because the problem isn’t the word count, that’s just a symptom.

The real problem is bloat. Just because you have more words doesn’t mean they’re good. In fact, the more words you use, the greater the risk of some being wasted.

Bloat can be insidious. It can be purple prose. That’s a best case scenario, because the text can simply be culled. It can be elements of world building which are tangential to the plot. Nearly any fantasy story that spends a lot of time creating a full history for its world runs the risk of this. It can be plot threads or characters that felt important originally but ultimately became red herrings. This can be some of the most difficult bloat to identify and remove, as you’re more likely to view it as an integral element of the story.

Be efficient. If it’s on the page, it needs to be there for a reason. Those word count limitations are helpful. They’ll force you to evaluate your content more critically.

To an extent, the ask box is no different. The lessons you learn working under a 500 character limit, are the same lessons you’ll eventually face on your word count. Is this word, phrase, or concept really necessary?

I know I’m not always the best example. However, working within those limits can help make you a better writer.


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Q&A: Magical Warfare

How would a magical war go? Like, what would be the set up for platoons specifically?

How magical, and what kind of magic?

The problem with a question like this is that, from a world building perspective, magic basically takes the form of alternate technology. It exists and develops alongside technological advancement. In some cases it may evolve faster, but, the overall concept is identical.

So there’s two factors we need to look at. How powerful is your magic, and, how common is it?

The more powerful your magic is, the more it will disrupt how warfare is fought. This is also true for overall political power in your world. The more powerful your mages are, the more they’ll be able to completely exclude non-mages from all power structures.

For example, if your mages can casually obliterate non-magical infantry, your world won’t have much use for “conventional,” infantry. You might even see mages waging war against one another directly via spellcraft, rather than any conventional concept of warfare.

Why invade a resisting city when you can rain fire on it, or consume the souls of all it’s non magical residents turning them into a kind of zombie? Why not just drop it into the sea, and be done with it?

This is where the exact nature of magic in your world becomes very important. You need to create rules for how magic works and then plan accordingly.

How common magic is in your world also heavily influences warfare. If magic is incredibly rare. If mages only come from a few noble bloodlines, you’re not going to see a lot of magic on the battlefield.

On the other end of the spectrum, if magic is relatively common. If anyone can be taught to cast basic spells, you could easily see a situation where combat magic is the norm. Where every soldier in a battalion was expected to understand a basic ranged spell, and a shield against incoming spells.

Worth noting, when I’m talking about how common magic is, there’s a few potential factors to consider. How often can someone cast? Are there any significant costs associated with magic? How hard is it to teach? And of course, who can cast magic? Obviously, if your setting allows anyone with some education to cast magic, that’s going to look very different from a world where magic is exclusively the purview of a few hereditary bloodlines.

If magic is powerful enough, but it takes some time to train up magic users, you might see a situation where military forces constricted significantly. Where a few squads would be considered enough to secure and occupy an entire city.

Similarly, if spells have a considerable cost associated with them, or can only be cast on very restricted schedules, that will have less of an overall impact on the way your world develops than if they can cast at will.

Another important question is, “what are they fighting for?” Historically, more wars have been fought over resources than ideas. When your world allows for basic transmutation of one good into another, for example converting something into gold, then gold has no value. You can’t fight over gold, because it has no value. If a mage can conjure up enchanted plate, then steel isn’t going to have much market value. If a mage can easily produce enough food to feed a thousand, then you won’t have a need for farmers or agriculture. Things get weird. Do empires war over magical materials that are consumed to produce goods? Do they battle over nexuses of magical energy? If they can use portals to bounce around at will, do they even bother securing their own borders, or do they operate out of heavily fortified enclaves leaving everyone on the outside to fend for themselves?

As a writer building a world, magic is open to your imagination. You can do, nearly, anything you want. The only thing you’re tested on is how creative can you be? Can you create a scenario that fits the shape of the world you want? Magic in warfare can be anything from magical artillery to squads of superheroes. The only question is, “what do you want to do?”


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Q&A: Bruce Lee & ESPN

espn published an article ‘could bruce lee win a real fight’ that left me somewhat confused but not sure if I was just vastly out of my depth. the writer draws a line between ‘martial arts’ and ‘real fighting’–the latter referring to UFC/public sport matches seemingly–that seemed unclarified, and referring broadly to a unified principle of ‘martial arts’ being about conquering yourself not an opponent. am i just confused bcs of inexperience?

So, a couple things floating through here. The short answer is, no, this doesn’t reflect on you. Dotun Akintoye, the author, makes a common mistake among prize fighters, and their fans, classifying prize fights as, “real fighting,” without remembering that violence exists in the real world as well.

We’ve talked about this before, but there is a divide between traditional martial artists, sport martial artists, and combat training. When you live inside the competitive sports martial arts bubble, it’s easy to forget that real combat exists. When you train for competitive fighting, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that you’re not training for combat.

Similarly, if you’re training for a different purpose, you’re not going to excel in competitive martial arts. This an observation that Mr. Akintoye gets from Mike Moh (who played Lee in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), when Moh states that he’d need need months of specialized training before going into MMA. He has a fifth degree black belt in Taekwondo, but that’s not competitive MMA. He’s very well trained… to do something else.

In that sense, Akintoye may have a point, even if he’s correct for entirely the wrong reasons. It’s difficult to track down the details, but Lee was involved in street fights growing up. This what led to his eventual martial arts training. So, if we’re talking about, “real fighting,” as experiencing combat, Lee did that. Additionally, it seems to have affected his view of how to train with, and use martial arts. This is someone who saw a three minute fight as lasting too long.

According to Akintoye, it was a specific three minute fight against another martial artist that caused Lee to abandon many of the tenets of Wing Chung, and develop Jeet Kune Do into a full martial art.

That three minutes is a problem for competitive fighters. You can’t have a three minute prize fight. It’s way too short. For competitive sports fighting, you need to draw out the action. People paid a lot of money to come and see the bout, and if it’s over in seconds, they’re going to leave disappointed. This is the fundamental problem with “real” violence and entertainment. Violence is over quickly. Mr. Akintoye even reports a fight between Lee and Yoichi Nakachi where Lee defeated him in 11 seconds.

So, could Lee have been a professional prize fighter if the organization existed during his life? I’m inclined to say, “yes,” but I doubt it would have appealed to him. We’re talking about someone who looked at Wing Chung, and decided the martial art was too slow, before retooling it into something more efficient, while also pulling in techniques from other martial arts. That’s the behavior of someone with a practical combat focus, not what we associate with traditional martial arts, or competitive sports fighting.

Additionally, Akintoye even recounts Lee’s flirting with competitive fighting in the day, and how Lee didn’t enjoy it. Specifically citing the padding on boxing gloves as something Lee disliked. In case it needs to be said, the purpose of boxing gloves is to draw out the fight by weakening the strikes each participant receives.

Mr. Akintoye puts a lot of emphasis on Mike Moh’s appearance in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but, I’m sorry, that’s not evidence of anything. There are many positive things you can say about Quentin Tarantino, and I have in the past, however his relation to historical authenticity is, “extremely flexible.” Weirdly accurate in some respects, and completely missing the mark in others.

Tarantino chose to draw from the fight between Lee and Gene Labell. The real history is that Lee had, apparently, been rough with the stunt actors while shooting The Green Hornet, and the stunt coordinator told Labell (who was already a heavyweight Judo champion) to restrain him. Labell picked up Lee in a fireman’s carry and started running around the set with him. Observing that Lee didn’t even try to counter him, probably due to surprise.

If you wanted historical accuracy from Tarantino, you might have missed Inglorious Basterds. In OUATiH, the audience is offered a fever dream that barely relates to reality, and involves a prolonged fight which never occured.

As Akintoye mentions, it was the beginning of a friendship between between Lee and Labell. Both taught each other, and it’s extremely likely that the grappling techniques that Lee incorporated into Jeet Kune Do came from Labell.

It’s also very important to remember that Labell was not just, “some guy,” he has two separate tenth degree belts, and a ninth. While he wasn’t that advanced in ’66, he was already a world class martial artist. This guy is one of those singular examples who have mastered multiple martial arts.

The article on ESPN’s site leads with a snippet from an interview with Stephen Thompson, who suggests Lee was a pioneer in mixing martial arts together. I don’t usually think about it, but I suspect he’s correct. We probably wouldn’t have modern MMA without Bruce Lee. It’s a very interesting observation that’s easy to miss.

While it’s petty and unrelated to anything else, I’ve got a hard time taking Mr. Akintoye seriously after he puts Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme’s names next to each other as examples. I understand why, but the inclusion of Seagal betrays how little he knows about martial arts beyond The Octagon. This is even more significant, when you remember that Van Damme was a competitive kick boxer before breaking into acting. I don’t hold it against him, but it did affect my perception of the article, and I need to acknowledge that.

I didn’t see what you said about Kung Fu, so I’m not 100% sure where that’s coming from. However, there’s a real reason why we almost never use the term on the blog. Kung Fu is not martial arts.

Okay, that’s not true, Kung Fu can be a martial art, but it can be a lot of other things as well.

Before I go further, it’s important to understand, I don’t speak any Chinese languages.

So, here’s what I’m sure of: Kung Fu can be any art which demands dedication, and persistence from the practitioner. This means it does include martial arts, but also includes many other activities. If you dedicate a chunk of your life to a skill which required focus and dedication, that’s “Kung Fu.”

The extreme end of this would be the idea that a concert pianist would be an example of, “kung fu.” They spent time, energy, dedication, and in the end, mastered their skill.

This where you can find the philosophy that, “kung fu,” is making yourself a better person. You’ve taken this time and energy to focus a skill into excellence. Now, I don’t know how accurate that is, and I’ve never seen it discussed outside of fictional contexts. So, either this a cultural norm, or it’s incorrect, and I don’t know which. As I mentioned, I don’t have the lingual background to make that assessment.

You can look at self-improvement as a struggle against yourself. You don’t need to be perfect, but you do need to be better than you were the day before. Is that, “Kung Fu?” I don’t know. Maybe?

Martial arts is a way you can seek self improvement. So, the idea that you’re facing yourself and pushing on has merit.

The short version is that you’re not out of your depth. Mr. Akintoye has a very specific perspective on what constitutes, “real fights.” That idea is not real world violence. His perspective then distorts his presentation of the facts. He’s pulled some very specific examples, sometimes without context, and constructed a narrative from that. I can’t blame him for that, every one of us will sometimes let our perspective distort our presentation of the facts. That’s just dealing with human beings.

There’s some interesting stuff in the article, but, Akintoye is working from the idea that Bruce Lee wasn’t good enough to be an MMA fighter, which doesn’t mesh with what we know about the man.


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