Category Archives: Q&A

Q&A: The English Longbow

So say I had a female protag in a medieval setting (like game of thrones) and they’re handy with a long range bow. Is there any details I should consider?

Remember that she’s going to be ripped. Contrary to the popular image of archers in fantasy, drawing a bow is (basically) heavy lifting. When we’re talking about a longbow, you’re effectively having to pull the full weight of the draw. This means we’re talking about a character who can casually lift over 100 pounds with one arm.

I say, “casually,” because she’d need to be able to keep drawing the bow with minimal fatigue for hours. This is a character with incredible upper body strength.

Combat archers were not willowy, fragile, little things stuck behind enemy lines.

At least for English and Welsh longbowmen, this was a lifetime vocation. They’d start as children; the bows they’d learn to shoot with would scale as they grew. By the time they were adults, they were using bows that were functionally inoperable for archers who lacked that background.

Now, it’s possible her bow wouldn’t draw quite that hard. It might be shorter than an English Longbow, but you’re still talking about a character who is pulling at least 80 pounds with every shot.

Also, for range, on an English longbow, you’re looking at being able to punch through iron armor at over 300 yards. The kill range for steel armor would be shorter (though I’m not sure exactly how far out.) Also, the maximum range would vary based on the archer’s skill, so 300 isn’t a hard number.

The other major thing to remember (or at least look into) is historical context. This is frequently absent from fantasy, and results in a lot of technological anachronisms.

Game of Thrones is based on The War of the Roses, which occurred during the English Longbow’s final years. In fact, The War of the Roses is contemporary with the introduction of gunpowder weapons in Italy.

It’s worth remembering that, “medieval Europe,” involved over five hundred years of military technological development, and that it was never just a homogenous, “these are the weapons and armor we’ve always used.”

-Starke

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Q&A: Picking an Assassin’s Sniper Rifle

What would be the more suitable sniper rifle for my assassin protag? A semi-auto 7.62×54mmR SVD Dragunov or a bolt-action 7.62×51mm NATO Accuracy International?

So, I’m going to start with a pair of nitpicks, which are kind of important to know.

First, Accuracy International, technically, doesn’t make any rifles chambered in 7.62mm NATO. They primarily make .338, and .308 rifles. There’s also some .300 Winchester Magnum, .223, and .50 BMG variants.

Now, .308 is mechanically compatible with 7.62mm NATO, and you can load 7.62 into a .308 rifle, however, you cannot safely go the other way. The difference is that .308 is a hotter load, and it can overpressure a 7.62 NATO chamber.

From what I understand, the British Military used 7.62 NATO in their L118A2s, and it’s certainly possible that the Swedish military did the same with their Arctic Warfare rifles. AI designed their rifle to handle a .308 Winchester cartridge, but logistics just threw 7.62 at it and called it good.

Second, Accuracy International is the manufacturer, not the model. I’m assuming you’re talking about the Arctic Warfare, which was chambered in .308, though my first thought from AI is the L115A3, which is chambered in .338 Lapua Magnum.

I’ll admit, a lot of AI’s weapons do run together a bit. Their rifles are very iterative on their previous designs. That said, they do run together a bit.

Moving away from nitpicks, the SVD and the L115A3 are not even remotely analogous weapons. The longest range confirmed kill with an L115A3 is over 2.4km. This is, literally, a rifle you can use to remove someone over a mile away. In comparison, the SVD’s record is, “only,” 1.35km.

The SVD is a semi-automatic rifle. While the Russians use it as their primary sniper platform, it’s more analogous to NATO DMRs, such as the Mk 14 EBR (Enhanced Battle Rifle), the long barrel variant of the FN Mk 17, or the M110.

This doesn’t mean the SVD is a bad rifle, just it’s designed for an entirely different application, and comparing an AI rifle to a Dragunov is deeply unfair (to one rifle or the other depending on the criteria.) The L115A3 is designed for putting down a target at extreme range. The SVD is designed to deal with multiple targets at long range.

If those were your only two options, picking the right rifle would really depend on what the job required. If you need to take someone out at over half a mile, the L115A3 is the better choice. If you’re going to rapid follow up shots, especially at shorter ranges, the SVD becomes the more attractive choice.

Except, there are larger considerations. If your assassin is a freelance contractor, they’re going to be responsible for obtaining their weapons and ammunition. That means, they’re not going to want to reuse hardware unless they absolutely have to. It’s difficult for law enforcement to connect a string of unrelated killings, but if all of those killings are using the same weapon, any evidence left at one can be cross-referenced against the other investigations.

Given they’d be replacing their hardware, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to drop the money on a high end AI rifle when it’s not needed. (An AI rifle will set you back somewhere north of $4k.) Similarly, getting their hands on an SVD and Warsaw Pact ammo would be much harder in Western Europe or North America (where it’s a collector’s item), but might be the way to go if they’re operating in Eastern Europe, or Asia. It depends on what weapons are readily available wherever they go.

If your assassin doesn’t need the range of an L115, they could probably get away with just using a Remington 700, it’s much cheaper and far more disposable. If they’re in a NATO country, and can get their hands on DMR used by the local law enforcement, that will be a more anonymous weapon. If they really need extreme range, then the .338 and .50 rifles start to make sense.

The critical thing here is that an assassin’s tools should be as anonymous as possible. They can’t (or at least, really shouldn’t), keep their weapons between jobs, because eventually the police will realize the ballistics match, consolidate the investigations, and make things very sticky for the assassin. At that point, being able to replace a consistent model of weapon is a viable option, and having a (relatively) cheap, and reliable weapon wins out over having, “the best.” This is where the SVD really shines. If your character is in a part of the world with a lot of surplus Soviet hardware on the black market, getting fresh SVDs should be pretty easy. If you’re in the States, getting commercially available hunting rifles means rifles like the Remington 700 is probably the way to go.

These considerations also apply for nearly any other weapon an assassin uses. If they’re carrying a handgun as a backup, they’ll need to dispose of and replace it after any incident where they use it. Shotguns are a little more forgiving, because you can’t get a ballistic match on buckshot, however the spent shells can be matched to a general model of shotgun. (In this case, simply having something common, like a Remington 870, or a Mossberg 500, makes that match basically meaningless.) Also, because of the loading processes, there’s a real risk of fingerprints on the spent casings.

Also, as a personal bias, I’m not wild about trying to carry out an assassination with a shotgun. There’s certainly precedent, particularly with Mafia hits, but it’s not a weapon that strikes me as a good choice, even remembering that shotguns can be suppressed, and knowing that they’re lethal beyond handgun ranges.

So, which is the better option for your character? It depends where they’re operating, the resources they have access to, and what they’re trying to do. It is important to remember, when you’re writing a career criminal, their weapons and other gear are disposable. They cannot afford to keep anything that could tie them to their crimes. If something they use is compromised, they need to dispose of it as quickly as possible.

On the other hand, if your assassin is above the law (because they’re backed by the government, a conspiracy, or whatever) you can go wild. Give them a Walther WA 2000 if you want. Sure it’s a $75,000 rifle, and there are less than two hundred in existence, but it’s got style, and your character is above petty concerns like money, or cops knocking on their door.

-Starke

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Followup: Hybrid Builds, and Creativity in Storytelling

“…they’d also be less effective as a combatant than a dedicated martial fighter.” What would the point for a wizard, or just a mage, learning to fight then?

So, this is a follow-up to a previous D&D question. Unlike with that question, this time the answers are significantly different depending on whether it’s a build or a narrative choice.

I’ll come back to builds in a second, but it is worth remembering that D&D is a tactical board game. Character build decisions affect the effectiveness of your piece on the table. The class system D&D uses encourages hyperspecialization, because you’re trying to create a character who will be the most effective under specific circumstances you can engineer, rather than a character who will be effective under a broad range of situations.

In short, D&D encourages power gaming. There’s nothing wrong with this in a game. Most combat focused RPGs require this (to one extent or another.) It’s especially true in CRPGs and pre-written campaigns, where your build(s) will be tested against fixed combat scenarios. You’ve either optimized enough to clear the encounter, or you fail.

So, let’s start with the narrative reasons. Having more diverse background gives you more versatility. A character may learn magic to supplement their skillset. For example, you might see a thief, who studied the arcane to help them be a better thief. A monster hunter would certainly benefit from some basic arcane training.

Actually, lets step back even further: On a conceptual level, I’m not wild about fixed class systems for characters. However, there is a lot to be said for characters who bridge between classes. A warrior with a background in stealthy skullduggery has access to options that a “pure,” warrior would lack. They can sneak around effectively, and they could potentially get access to places that their unstealthy counterpart couldn’t. They’d also have a better idea of what someone who was trying to infiltrate would do, and could prepare more effectively.

The problem with all of that is, it doesn’t really reflect how people live. If a character is a soldier or mercenary, they’ll train in that job position. However, that’s not the entirety of who that person is. They (probably) didn’t decide in childhood that they wanted to go to war, and then spent the entirety of their life dedicated to that goal. (Now, you do see this with very select things, like athletes, but they’re more of an exception.) Even if you do hold to the course, you’ll pick up diverse skills and knowledge as you grow up, simply as a consequence of the world you live in. Class based character building doesn’t really reflect that (in most cases.)

Second, even if you’re starting with class based systems to prototype your characters, I do strongly encourage playing around with the idea of stacking a couple classes together to reflect a character’s background. I originally ran across this in Traveler T20 (a D20 version of the Traveler RPG.) That included specific classes for various kinds of military service, and an entire history system, which could see characters starting levels worth of backstory.

So, if you have a character who used to be a mercenary, or got their start as an enforcer for a local gang, but they managed to get out of that life, go to school, and study magic, you’ve got a character with the potential for an interesting skillset.

The inverse is also true, you could see a mercenary or thief who originally studied magic at a school, but parted ways for whatever reason. A magic college dropout as it were. They could still be a somewhat skilled mage, it’s just not what they’re doing now.

It’s also quite possible that your setting simply has arcane warriors who split their training between magic and martial skills. It’s not that they’re a better fighter than someone who only focused on that, or that they’re a better mage than a dedicated wizard, it’s that they have access to both and can use whichever better fits their current situation. These might be elite combatants, strategic experts, magekillers, really whatever their spells allow them to do.

Magic offers a lot of versatility (both in D&D, and out of it), so there are a lot of potential applications for battlefield magic, and having mages who can operate safely near the front lines is a huge advantage.

If you want a diverse collection of mages in your setting, hybrids a very good route towards that. I’d also suggest looking into the idea of having multiple kinds of magic, which aren’t entirely compatible to further differentiate them.

That said, this isn’t necessary, and if your world was built around the idea of highly insular mage lords ruling everything, and jealously guarding their arcane secrets, then hybrids might not be a good fit.

So, for rules, I’m going to stick to D&D. I’m also focusing on the two Third Edition iterations. This is because Fourth really didn’t work for me. I like what I’ve seen of Fifth, but simply haven’t gotten in. I also have passing familiarity with Pathfinder, and a lot of this applies there, though I haven’t looked at Second Edition Pathfinder at all. (Also, on the subject of Pathfinder, there is the Magus base class. This is an arcane casting class that gains armor proficiencies as it levels.)

There’s a number of other games I could talk about, but, it’s not relevant to this discussion, and stuff would get really out of hand. A very short version would be that, some games support hybrid casters better than others. D&D supports it, but it can be very finicky.

Now, why would a Wizard take levels in a non-spellcasting class? Three reasons: Fluff, splash, or PRCs.

Fluff means, “I did it for the roleplaying.” I used to play a Rogue/Sorcerer hybrid back in 3e. Now, if you’re familiar with D&D, you’re probably thinking, “but that’s just a Bard.” While the bard was a better mechanical fit for what I was doing, the idea of adding Sorc levels onto an established Rogue was conceptually interesting to me. (Also, I originally planned to take levels of Dragon Disciple, because I overestimated that class, but the character never got that far, and you could take Dragon Disciple as a Bard anyway.)

Splash is a concept where you take a level in a class for its introductory bonuses. D&D gives new characters a lot of bonuses for taking their first level in a class. This means, a level 1 character is functional, if a bit fragile. One classic example from 3.5 would be taking a level of Duelist on your Wizard. Duelist gives you Martial Weapon proficiency and lets you count your Intelligence modifier as additional Armor Class. Since your INT score should be fairly high, that’s a lot of armor for your mage for the cost of a single level. (There’s a major caveat coming in the next section.)

PRCs are the final major reason for a player to hybrid spec their spellcaster. This no longer exists in current editions of the game. PRCs existed in Third and 3.5 (as well as a lot of the D20 based games that were published by other companies.) Prestige classes are rare or highly specialized advancement routes for characters. These always have a mix of prerequisites before you can start taking them. So, they’re not open to new characters. You don’t start as a Dragon Disciple, or a Shadowdancer, that’s something that you gain access to as you adventure. In rare cases, membership in an organization can unlock access to an associated PRC. I’m specifically thinking of the Harper Scout, Guild Thief, and Purple Dragon Knight, all of which require membership in their associated organizations. If your character isn’t a member of the Harpers, they can’t take Harper Scout.

There are a lot of PRCs that require you to split your build between multiple classes. The Arcane Archer, Arcane Trickster, Eldritch Knight, and Mystic Theurge all require you to split off from a mono-class Wizard or Sorcerer build. The Archer can imbue their spells into their arrows, the Trickster is a Rogue Wizard hybrid that gets sneak attack bonuses for their spells, the Eldritch Knight is exactly what we were talking about last time, a Wizard (or Sorcerer) who continues to study magic, while getting a Fighter’s BAB advancement. The Mystic Theurge requires you have levels as both an Arcane and Divine spellcaster. It advances both at the same time, and can create some really whacky builds, given the character has two separate spell sets to pull from.

Also worth knowing that the Duelist, mentioned above, is a PRC. A level one character can’t start as a Duelist. If you were wanting to splash that onto your wizard, you’d need to wait until level 13, and by that point the INT bonus to your AC would be lackluster. However, it would qualify you for Eldritch Knight at Level 14. So, you’re splashing one PRC to gain access to another. You still gain the benefit of both however, so you’d have the INT AC bonus, and you’d only, effectively, miss out on two levels of Wizard (or Sorcerer). (The first level of Eldritch Knight and the level of Duelist don’t advance your Wizard’s spells per day, but EK resumes that advancement at the second level.)

So, PRCs were Third and 3.5 edition, (Pathfinder copies these from 3.5, while adding a few new ones.) Fourth Edition had the Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies. These were mandatory and would be selected at levels 11 and 21 respectively. In Fifth Edition, most of the work PRCs used to do was baked into subclasses. The subclasses don’t always match up with their original PRCs. PRCs do technically exist for 5e, but they only appear in, an “experimental,” online supplement.

From a game perspective, I’m torn. PRCs heavily warped character building in 3e and had very specific prerequisites. This created situations where you’d sometimes need to plan out your character in exacting detail to get access to the PRC you wanted. On the other hand, a lot of them had some really interesting conceptual elements.

Fourth Edition’s Paragon Paths were the epitome of, “when everyone’s special, no one is.” It did an excellent job of articulating what the level ranges meant in the game. Level 1 characters are fresh faced newbies. Level 10 is a veteran adventurer. (Also, D20 Modern, the Urban Fantasy version of D&D level caps at 10.) Levels 11 to 20 are getting into superhero territory. Levels 21+ are, “epic.” For a frame of reference, apotheosis is a realistic goal for an epic character.

Paragon Paths also solved the problem of players, “missing,” their PRC because they forgot to take a feat, or forgot to check the feat’s prereqs. This is why I said, “exacting detail,” above. While I’m fond of 3.5, it is a very unforgiving character progression system.

So, from a narrative perspective, there’s plenty of reasons a mage might spend some time studying something other than magic. It’s also entirely possible they used to be something other a mage, before they started studying, or gained access to their powers. This can also get flipped, where you have a wizard who left their studies, and is following some other path now.

For game builds, you need to weigh what you’re giving up, and what you get for that. In D&D, most of the time, giving up caster levels is a huge deal. In part, because high level Wizard/Sorcerers spells get really out of hand. However, from an optimization stand, it’s only worth considering if you have a specific goal in mind.

-Starke

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Q&A: Comparison of Voluntary Enlistment vs. Conscription

Would there be a difference in military skill/manpower or gender ratio between a country that has a mandatory draft for men and a country where military is completely voluntary? I’m completely aware there are a lot of other reasons for differences but what differences might tie in due to this particular reason?

This one is fairly simple with a few implications.

So, compulsory military service will have a larger number of troops available, than services that rely on voluntary enlistment. The numbers can get a little complicated when you consider that compulsory enlistment will (usually) result in shorter enlistment times (during peacetime), while voluntary enlistment is likely to result in personnel who remain active for longer (again, during peacetime.)

During wartime, drafts can push your overall numbers up, significantly. So, in nations with compulsory service, it’s not uncommon to see very large chunks of the population technically existing as reserve forces who can be called up if needed.

As for which is better? That’s much harder to quantify.

In theory, a force relying on voluntary enlistment will produce better soldiers, but in smaller numbers. In practice, things get a lot more complicated, and this theory hasn’t always been true historically.

Volunteer militaries are (usually) cheaper to operate. You need to spend less to equip and train them. (Turnover will be lower, which reduces training costs overall. You don’t have to worry about policing draft dodging, and desertion rates will be lower.)

One time this really flips is during prolonged, unpopular wars. In those, voluntary forces will usually choose to muster out their term of service is up rather than reenlisting. This means you need to spend more on training, and also need to increase pay to keep the military attractive as a job. This can create situations where a conscripted force would actually be cheaper. Though, is a problem where you’d have soldiers who were only there because they were forced to, and would desert at the first opportunity.)

Finally, there are hybrid systems, where you have a corps of soldiers who joined of their own volition, and a large pool of drafted soldiers filling out the ranks. If it’s technically unified, then it will look more like a conscripted force, with a few individuals who want to be there mixed in. Though, there are other potential situations, including special forces (where the main force is conscripted, but some of the specialist groups are there by choice.)

When you isolate cultural issues, voluntary military service will closely align with overall social demographics. You can see this in the US military when looking at racial demographics. At the same time, the US military is predominantly male, however, there are significant cultural considerations on that topic. There are examples of other nations, with compulsory service, that maintain gender parity in their armed forces, so it is theoretically possible (independent of cultural issues) for a volunteer force to also reach full parity.

If you have a conscripted standing force, it will probably be larger, but lower quality. If you have a volunteer force, it will be smaller, but the individual soldiers will be more effective. If either military restricts their demographics, that will harm their ability to find recruits. Technically, a conscripted force will probably work towards filling to a fixed quota, so, restricting conscription of women may have no effect on the overall size, but reduce the quality, by opening the door for recruits that would have washed out if better candidates were available. This is also true with volunteer force, where the more recruits you have to choose from, the pickier you can be.

Somewhat obviously, if one nation prohibits women from serving, and the other does not, then the latter will have more women in their armed forces.

So, in either case, the more people you have to pick from, the better your options will be.

-Starke

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Q&A: Build a Monster: Creating new Monsters for Your Fiction

I want to write a story about fantasy monsters but I’m finding it hard to make it recognizable with all the rules and such while making it original. Do you think this is possible?

I think it’s absolutely possible. You need to decide if you’re working with something, “real,” or if you’re inventing your creatures wholesale. Once you’ve made that decision, you’ll have a better path towards shaping your creatures.

If your monster is coming from some real world inspiration, you’ll have a wealth of literature to dig through. Pick any mythical creature, and you can read up on them.

There are two major warnings here:

First: Some creatures cross multiple cultures, and there are significant discrepancies between how they function between them. The excellent examples are vampires and dragons, which have many real world myths, and those myths are often contradictory.

Second: Some creatures have very specific cultural contexts which you probably want to have a concrete grasp of before you start playing around with them. The two examples that come to mind immediately are Skinwalkers and Wendigo (from First Nations myths.) These are not analogous to European Werewolves (and not analogous to one another.) So, if you’re looking for a creature, absolutely do you reading, but if you don’t understand how this creature fit into that culture, you might want to keep looking.

If you’re wanting to make your own creature, that’s where things get interesting. More than that, if you did the research suggested above, you have a head start here.

Nothing says the monsters in your world need to conform to the conventional creature lists. They don’t need to be recognizable, compared to someone else’s fiction. You do have the freedom to make your own monsters.

When you’re writing a monster, you’ll want to have an idea what kind of rules you’re working under. While you don’t need to explain these to your audience (and may not want to), you will need this for personal use.

You can break fictional monsters into roughly three categories: Mundane, Supernatural, and Mythological (or Folklore.)

Mundane creatures are simply animals (potentially very intelligent ones) that inhabit your world.

If your dragons are just massive lizards, with no magical powers, they would be mundane. If your werewolves are just normal humans who have been mutated by a virus, and can’t transform, that would be mundane.

Mundane doesn’t mean it can’t be interesting. It simply means that there’s a non-supernatural explanation for the creatures that inhabit your world.

Mundane fantasy can be interesting. There’s no mystical explanation for the elves and minotaurs inhabiting your world, they’re simply there.

When you’re looking at mundane monsters, you need to consider them as part of the local ecology. Yes, a race of massive, carnivorous lizards would be monstrous, they’d be a danger, but one that a sufficiently advanced civilization could plan around.

Limitations and weaknesses for mundane creatures should fit their status as living animals. You might see a nocturnal creature that has excellent night vision, but poor diurnal vision.

Mundane monsters are the cryptids of your world. They’re elusive, hard to find, and if you do finally identify it, it’s probably a crocodile, because those little bastards like to teleport.

Supernatural monsters break rules for conventional reality. Your werewolves aren’t mutated by a virus, they really are mystical shapeshifters. Your elves aren’t just another humanoid native to the world, they really are magical beings. Your minotaurs might be the result of a wizard’s human-hybrid research program centuries ago.

Where mundane creatures are limited by conventional reality, supernatural ones might exhibit behaviors, or powers, that are impossible to rationalize.

The rules for these creatures are open to the author to create. Now, obviously, if you’re starting with a conventional fantasy creature, some of this may already be completed for you.

Creatures that can go invisible, levitate, psychically manipulate their victims, shapeshift, conjure and control elements, and many other potential powers would be supernatural in nature.

Limitations for supernatural creatures are likely to be a function of the kinds of powers they wield. I realize that might sound obvious, but it’s worth remembering the limits of magic in your setting, and then tying similar limits into your supernatural creatures.

It’s also possible that supernatural monsters might specifically bypass certain limits which affect your world’s characters. For example, if it’s impossible for magic to heal wounds in your world, you might still see a monster with the ability to heal itself or others. Obviously, in setting, that’s a very big deal, and probably something that mages and academics would want to study.

Incidentally, if we’re talking about aliens, they’d end up on the mundane end of the spectrum. Even if they have technology that’s difficult (or impossible) to understand, they’re still a function of the universe, and not a whim of magic. (Though, if your aliens are space wizards, then everything gets a little strange.)

The last variety are mythological or folklore. I probably shouldn’t bundle these into a single header, because they do behave in slightly different ways. The important thing about a mythological monster is that’s it’s not just, “a monster.” It’s a character in the myths it comes from. It’s powers and limitations are a reflection of who it was in those myths. More than that, it has a role in the belief system that created it.

For example: when you’re talking about Jormungandr, that’s not just, “a dragon.” It’s a harbinger of the end times. More than that, it’s a harbinger of an apocalypse that already happened. This isn’t “a monster,” it’s “a monstrous character.” If your minotaur is “The Minotaur,” condemned to the Labyrinth of Crete, that’s a character with their own history and eventual fate at Theseus’s hands.

There’s a lot of room to play with mythological figures, but you’ll really want to read up on those myths, and the culture that created them.

If you want to create your own mythic background for your world, you’ll want to start by reading up on actual myths. Every major civilization has created their own myths (to one extent or another), and digging into this stuff can be very instructive for how those cultures viewed their world. Pay special attention to just how off-the-walls-bonkers everything becomes.

Folklore is similar to myth. In some cases, folklore overlaps with myth. The distinction (I’m choosing to make) is that monsters in folklore are more about enforcing cultural norms and discourages taboos.

One, classic, example of monster in folklore is the vampire. Now, I’m going to be a little reductive here because nearly every form of vampire can be boiled down to, “corpses are weird.” With that said, a lot of vampire folklore is about the proper handling and disposal of corpses, specifically with things going wrong if a corpse is mishandled.

Usually, if your monster has very explicit rules, they’re a folklore creature. If they can’t cross running water, or enter an abode uninvited, that’s folklore.

As with myth, folklore gets really wild, and so you can end up with really elaborate rules, where a creature needs to be in a certain state at a certain time of day, or something goes very wrong for them. Vampires are one of the most common folklore monsters in popular culture, that’s fully separated from myth, which is why I used them as an example above.

Slightly more problematic, but certainly a, “creature,” of folklore, are witches and hags. These are an excellent illustration of how you can blend across multiple genres with your story.

A witch could be a simple alchemist. In this case, I don’t even mean, “alchemy,” as a magical discipline, I simply mean, “alchemy,” as a precursor to chemistry. You have a character who is entirely mundane, but spends their time picking medicinal herbs, which the general population doesn’t understand.

A witch could be a magical practitioner, potentially even an inhuman one. This links into the suggestion above where magic doesn’t heal wounds, but a witch might be able to achieve that feat.

A witch could be a mythical figure. Russia’s Baba Yaga comes to mind as an example, though there are many more examples all over the world. Again, these are specific characters, so if your writing a character interacting with Hecate, you might want to read up on your Greek myths.

In myth and folklore, witches become a very complicated subject, because you’re looking at creatures (or powerful beings), which need to be treated carefully. They can offer powerful boons, but also are incredibly dangerous.

Related to myth and folklore are the concepts of geasa and curses. This is one of the reasons you want to be careful with these kinds of creatures. They may have the ability to apply either one to your characters.

Geasa (singular: gaes), are restrictions applied to someone. They may be required to perform some action, or prohibited from violating some taboo. Failure to do so could have dire consequences. Usually, the geas also comes with a boon of some sort, and violating the terms will break the spell.

A classic example of a Gaes is Cu Chulainn (from Irish myth), who had (at least) two. First he was prohibited from eating dog, and second he was obligated to accept food served to him by a woman. A crone (The Morrigan) intentionally served him dog meat, breaking his powers, and leaving him vulnerable ahead of a battle.

Curses are a little easier to keep track of. Something bad happens to the recipient. There may be a built in way to break the curse, requiring some specific feat. In many cases, those feats are designed to appear impossible.

The consequences of a curse could easily lead to supernatural monsters, separated from their mythic origins. For a pop culture example, Vampires in Vampire: The Masquerade are descended from (the Biblical) Cain. Cain is the first vampire, and a mythical figure. The vampires wandering around the 21st century are merely supernatural creatures.

Once you have an idea of the kind of creature you want, get out a notepad, and sketch out the power and rules you want to work with. For mundane creatures, it should look more like a zoological writeup.

Example: “The common minotaur lives in the lowlands, foraging for food in small tribes.”

For supernatural creatures, you’ll probably want to look at a short list of powers. Try to balance these powers against what you want from them in the context of your setting.

Example: “The Moorian Newt: amphibious, limited mind control. The newt frequently preys upon travelers who wander into the moors at night, using it’s ability to draw them into deeper waters, where it quickly drowns and consumes them.”

When you’re writing a mythic figure, that’s going to be more of a character biography. Possibly with some powers added in to keep things coherent.

With folklore, you’re looking at a writeup that will probably get a little out of hand. These can be fairly straightforward, but you can also engage in some pretty intricate whimsy.

Again, if you’ve never spent much time looking at myth and folklore, I strongly recommend you do some reading on the subject. The pure level of, “weird,” is hard to articulate.

Once you’ve written out some rules, and fleshed out your monsters, you’ve got a very important decision to make, how much do you share with the audience?

If your character is dealing with a common creature, one well understood and studied in the setting, then your character should have easy access to that information. Even if a creature is uncommon or rare, if it’s a normal part of the world, it’s probably been studied, and that information may be out there.

An excellent example of this behavior is The Witcher, where there’s in-setting scholarly research on the post-conjunction creatures wandering The Continent. The Witchers study that research, and supplement it with their own experiences. It is an excellent template for how you can handle a universe where monsters (including ones with complicated rules and behaviors) are a natural part of the setting. (Even if they are supernatural in nature.)

Except: Back near the beginning, I said you might not want to explain the rules to the audience. It’s an important choice to the kind of story you’re writing. Is this fantasy, or is it horror?

If your character is an expert in monsters, they might be able to identify the creature they’re dealing with and articulate the rules. However, if they’re not an expert, they might have no idea what the creature can do. Similarly, even if they are are a professional, they may still need to determine exactly what they’re dealing with (again, The Witcher is an excellent reference back to this point.)

In horror, there’s a real incentive to keep the full capabilities of your monster unknown. This can be through mistaking one creature for another, or mistaking a mythical creature for its supernatural counterpart (if the supernatural version is known to exist.) In the end, you’ll probably want your audience to have a grasp of the creature’s limitations, but you might never clue them in.

It’s important to have access to the rules for your own use. It is far less important that your characters (and by extension, the audience) has that information.

One final thing you may want to consider, if you’re creating a monster and it’s unrecognizable from the inspiration you started with, that’s not a problem. You’ve created a new monster. You can still use the old name (if you want), or you can call it something new.

I’ve said it before, my favorite, “vampire,” movie is Ravenous (1999). If you’ve watched it, right now you’re probably thinking, “there’s no vampires in that.” And, you would be correct; it’s about cannibals empowered by evil spirits. Except, structurally, it’s a vampire movie. The part where the monsters are distinct enough from vampires is a benefit, not a flaw. It helps keep the audience off-balance, it helps create an unfamiliar tone. It’s a fantastic film, and part of what elevates it is its willingness to eject vampirism when it doesn’t benefit the film’s themes.

So, yes, I believe it can be done. You can populate your worlds with new monsters of your own design. You can also sample myths and folklore for inspiration. You can invent your own creatures. The only secret is, “write it down,” which you should be doing anyway. Not everything you write will end up in your audience’s hands, so having a reference guide for yourself can be incredibly useful.

-Starke

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Q&A: Dungeons & Dragons Martial Mages

Would it be more difficult for a dnd style mage to learn to use armor or a sword? Could they learn both at the same time realistically?

Yes, or at least probably.

Okay, so, there’s two different reads for, “a D&D style mage.” The first is, straight up, the tabletop rules. The second would be a setting where magic works off the same basic rules of magic.

D&D uses a class based character progression system. This functions as a kind of template for how a character will advance and grow as they adventure. Depending on the class, it usually indicates a character’s professional background. In the case of wizards, you’re talking about a character who’s a professional academic. Their study of magic means they didn’t undergo extensive martial combat training.

That said, there are a number of magic users in D&D that do learn to use weapons and armor while also studying magic. The two most common are the Bard and Warlock. (There are other classes, such as third edition’s Warmage, or fourth edition’s Swordmage. When you get into more obscure classes, you start to see some real inconsistency on what appears from one edition to another.) So, depending on the edition, it’s not simply possible, there are arcane magic users who train in martial combat while they’re learning spellcraft.

It’s also possible a mage will take weapon or armor proficiency feats as they level, so in that case they would be learning to use weapons and armor as they were also learning to be a better mage. (Again, the rules for this vary based on the edition, but this discussion is already crunchy.)

In AD&D there was an entire system where a character would advance in two classes simultaneously. The rules were complicated and highly conditional, but it was possible for a character to advance as both a Wizard and Fighter at the same time. (Though, Fighter would level up faster than Wizard because of how XP per level worked in AD&D.)

So, if we go, “by the rules,” it is possible for a mage to split their training between learning how to use magic and learning martial combat. The most prominent spellcasters in the various campaign settings don’t do that, but there are disciplines who do.

There is a (fairly) consistent tradeoff across the board, if a magic user studies martial combat, they’re spending less time studying spellcraft, and that means they won’t be as effective as they could have been. (Different editions have varied approaches to this. It’s also entirely possible you’ll find classes, especially homebrew ones, that don’t take a meaningful penalty to their spellcasting.)

The tradeoff is a fairly big deal, because wizards and sorcerers will eventually advance into godlike power. Beyond that, magic tends to be a tool that can deal with most problems, and it leads to real questions like, “is it worth delaying my study of evocation so I can learn to use a sword, when I could just get some meat shield to stand in front of me while I cast fireball?”

So, in D&D, it’s entirely possible for a mage to spend time learning martial combat, there’s a strong incentive for them to specialize. Recruiting their own retinue, (in some cases, supplementing them by raising undead or summoning other creatures for additional protection.) A wizard can learn how to fight in combat, but they’ll end up behind the curve as both mages and martial combatants.

Obviously, some mages do pursue other paths. Some come to magic as a second career (if the rules of their setting allow it.) Some characters learn magic as part of a broader education (bards are the ur-example here.)

Sorcerers are distinct from wizards (in D&D). Wizards learn arcane magic through education, but sorcerers have instinctive access to magic in their blood (literally.) A sorcerer’s magical is hereditary, and may originate from a dragon, fey, or demon somewhere in their family tree, or it may simply be many arcane casting ancestors. While they have different casting rules from wizards, they follow the same general pattern, focusing on spellcasting and evolving their powers through constant practice and use. They can (potentially) follow other paths; the bard is another expression of this background.

When you step back from the rules, and simply look at the settings, battle mages are quite possible. It’s also entirely plausible you’d have a setting where front line spellcasters are simply part of that world’s military doctrine. There’s probably actual examples of this in some of the D&D campaign settings that I’m forgetting.

I’ve been ignoring divine casters (and Warlocks), but it is worth remembering that D&D does, straight up, include many spellcasters who train to use weapons and armor while they’re also learning to use magic. Difference being, they’re training to use spells that come from their patron deity (or the abstract concept of nature) rather than through arcane understanding of magic.

Classes can be useful for basic character archetypes, and they do (generally) present the more common varieties of adventurers in the various campaign settings. However, there is a lot of flexibility for how characters can approach magic in D&D’s various settings. The restrictions have more to do with the educational options your characters had access to, and how they gain access to magic.

So, could they learn martial combat at the same time they were learning magic? Yes. It’s absolutely possible. However, there is a tradeoff. If you spent 8 hours a day studying magic, you’d become a superior mage to someone who split their time between studying magic and training for warfare. Similarly, they’d also be less effective as a combatant than a dedicated martial fighter.

-Starke

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Q&A: Originality, Plagurism, and Standing on Referential Shoulders

Why do people claim writers copy others simply for having tropes or similar plots, then claim 50 Shades of Grey is original because the names where changed from literal fanfiction? That writer can’t even be sued, although she should be, and yet we have squabbles over copying because of biblical quotes and references to myths and common tropes. I don’t want to worry about originality ever again.

Because there are many idiots and trolls in the world. That might sound dismissive, but it is the real answer to your question. Some individuals latch onto the idea that they can discredit a work by claiming it’s a copy (or “ripoff”) of another.

Here’s the thing about that point: It’s fundamentally impossible to be 100% original. Saying, “someone copied from another source,” without any further qualifications is meaningless, because every author will be influenced by the world around them. What you read, what you learn, what you know, influences you. It is impossible to divorce yourself from everything that has shaped you as an artist.

The way tropes are used (by fans) is incredibly reductive. The problem is, “tropes,” encompasses everything from functional plot elements to highly specific character quirks. Saying two different stories share the same trope is (mostly) meaningless, when you remember that entire genres are codified as tropes.

There is a lot of value in tropes for new writers. Tropes are an excellent tool for disassembling a narrative into component parts. This can help you take something you enjoyed, and learn how to use it, without simply copying what you saw somewhere else.

Within that context, TVTropes is an excellent resource to get started on a lit review. If you want to look at a trope, it will provide you with a mountain of potential examples. The downside is that it’s still very easy to lose days on that site, if you’re just wandering aimlessly and don’t have anything in mind. (So, my recommendation is, never, ever, go to that site for recreation. Only if you’re looking for something specific. But, that choice is in your hands.)

The problem comes in when you have people who only see in tropes. They no longer see the synthesis of the story as a whole, they’re looking at the individual parts and trying to break it down into even more fragmentary bits. They’ll start trying to kludge in every possible trope, whether they fit or not, like they’re trying to pad a score.

When they try to write their own stories, they’re more interested in how many tropes they can use (or subvert) than in telling a coherent story. It’s never, “I want to tell a story,” and always, “I want to subvert this trope.”

It should be no surprise when someone who’s more interested in tallying tropes looks at Star Wars and Power Rangers and concludes the later is just a ripoff of the former. (I really wish I could find the infamous “Lord of the Rings ripped off Dragonball Z,” 4chan shitpost, but it’s been nearly twenty years, and I could not find a copy. It is a brilliant illustration of Poe’s Law in full effect.)

The thing about 50 Shades is that it’s more than just a word replace swap of the fanfic. It no longer resembles Twilight, in any meaningful way. (Also, it’s not like E. L. James is going to sue herself, as she wrote the fanfic that would become 50 Shades.) She reworked 50 Shades it so that it was distinct from Twilight. 50 Shades is not the story of a vampire dating a teenager devoid of any personality. Twilight is not a story that violates every tenet of the BDSM community. Meyers can’t sue James for the existence of 50 Shades. There might be some grounds to go after the original fanfiction, but that would be a difficult case. (Fanfiction as a whole is a legally complicated situation.)

Simply replacing character names is not enough to protect you from copyright infringement. The famous example here is the film Nosferatu (1922), which was a shameless adaptation of Dracula, with the names changed. This did not go well for the film’s director, and only a few (or one) copies of the film survived the resulting court ordered destruction.

At the same time, actually proving infringement generally requires that you copied the story in detail. It’s not like someone can write a road trip story and then sue everyone else who uses that basic structure. Now, if you have characters who are suspiciously similar, making most of the same stops, undergoing the same character arcs, and the only changes are minor details, things get much more questionable.

When someone claims that their, “idea was stolen,” that’s not covered under copyright. Using the same premise or character archetypes is not plagiarism. Plagiarism is where you copy another writer.

If you want a more detailed discussion, we’ve talked about fair use and copyright infringement in the past.

The other element worth remembering are the magical words, “public domain.” Public domain means that the work has passed from the hands of its author into the culture. Myths, folklore, the bible, and most religious texts, are all public domain. You can do whatever you want with them.

“Originality,” is a “No True Scotsman,” fallacy. Nothing can ever be entirely original. We are all products of our world, and things we write are products of our experience with it. It only becomes a legitimate concern when you’re actually copying from another source. (There is a fine line between quoting and copying. This has to do with whether you’re referencing another work, or trying to simply replicate it.)

I get the impression you can already see the difference between someone copying another work, and someone attacking a work for being “a ripoff,” because of tenuous similarities. The important thing to remember is that these are different.

We’re influenced by the media we’ve consumed. What you want to do is be creative with your influence. Say something new. Mix things together in ways you’ve never seen. Find something interesting, and tell that story. And when someone accuses you of ripping off an anime from 2003, you can safely ignore them.

-Starke

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Q&A: Catching a Bullet

If a superhuman who *could* catch a bullet fired at them with their hands or teeth, *would* they? Or will the stress shatter the bullet into shrapnel? Does it depend on the bullet/firearm?

knallis

Why would they?

I realize that might sound slightly rhetorical, but there’s a real degree of, “but why?” at work here. I can think of potential reasons, but they’re all very conditional.

Catching an arrow is real. It’s not something you can do in combat, but it can be done as part of a stunt performance.

Catching a bullet can be done as an illusion. Specifically the technique is that the magician will palm a bullet, and their assistant will fire a blank. The problem with this as an established stage act is, it’s a lot harder to get attention if you could actually perform the feat.

So, that takes out the idea of simply doing so as a stage act.

They might catch a bullet to protect someone else. There is a little bit of an assumption here. They’d need to be both superhumanly fast and durable. Simply being fast would only give them the opportunity to horrifically mangle themselves on the bullet.

If they weren’t durable, the bullet would simply blow through their hand. If they are that durable, then they could just take the hit. It probably wouldn’t matter.

Bullet fragmentation is a consideration normally, but it probably wouldn’t matter when you’re talking about being hit by a bullet. Maybe there’s some weirdly specific scenario where a character would be immune to the blunt impact, but sharp edges could pierce the skin. Though, that would be an extremely limited form of invulnerability. Immune to bullets and hammers, but a guy with a knife, or a bullet fracturing into pieces can end you?

There are possible reasons a character might try to catch a bullet, but asking what a hypothetical character, “would,” do is a more difficult question, simply because there’s no parameters. Does it make sense for them to catch a bullet? Not really, however, it’s still entirely possible a character would try to catch one (whether they really could or not), simply because it made sense to them.

I’m reminded of an old question where someone asked about characters diving into the path of a bullet. The problem with that is the bullet will (likely) pass through them and strike the person they were trying to protect. So, asking “would” a character do this, they will and do. Even though the act itself is ineffective.

Similarly, catching a bullet doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I’m sure I’ve seen Superman do this several times. Not because because it makes a lot of sense, but because it provokes amazement.

Fragmentation wouldn’t matter much if they’re catching with the palm, which they’d want to do if they could. Catching with the fingers might turn it into a blast of shrapnel, which would somewhat defeat the purpose.

If they’re fully impervious to bullets, it’s possible the round might ricochet off their palm. I’m not sure what the ballistics of this would be, but it wouldn’t be good for any non-invulnerable character who had the misfortune of catching it on the bounce. (This would actually be a risk for anyone standing near an invulnerable character who was getting shot.)

“Would” a character do this? Yeah. There isn’t a lot of reason to, but you will see characters perform this act, because they can. It doesn’t go much deeper than that. It becomes a character quirk. They could have survived the gunshot, but instead, they choose to catch the bullets. Maybe they think it’s intimidating. Maybe they think it’s impressive. Maybe they just do it because of a whim. It doesn’t, necessarily, go much deeper than that.

-Starke

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Q&A: Modern Pirates

I have a modern fantasy pirate setting. Would modern spearguns be good weapons to use?

No.

So, spear guns are a hunting tool. They have to be reloaded after each shot, and (depending on the spear gun) that can be an involved processes.

Spear guns are not designed for use out of water. Some cannot fire at all, and others will not react well. With band driven spear guns, the lack of water can cause the mechanism to fail, throwing the band back in the user’s face.

I don’t know what your max range above water would look like, but underwater, long range spear guns have max ranges somewhere under 10m. That might sound reasonable, but remember that most (decent quality) handguns and shotguns can reliably put someone down at 50m.

If the spear connects, that can kill someone, however that requires hitting them. If you’re underwater, the spear gun becomes a potential stealth weapon. If you’re above water, it’s not an option.

If you’re patterning off the modern world, you might want to look at what real world pirates use today. I don’t simply mean, “AK pattern rifles, and other ex-Soviet hardware that’s floating around.”

The Cold War, and the resulting proxy wars meant there was a lot of very durable military hardware circulating in countries that saw conflict. In the real world this is a very eclectic mix. As assault and battle rifles were the primary infantry weapons, these are the most prevalent. A pirate today could be using a rifle that was originally manufactured over half a century ago.

I’m not sure that an international bipolar structure is necessarily inevitable. We’re certainly moving beyond that into a multi-polar system now, and even during the height of The Cold War there were a lot of distinct international players, even if Soviet and NATO leaders wanted to view the world in a harsh black and white.

With that said, warfare is inevitable. The single factor that, most heavily, averts warfare is trade. When your economy is partially dependent on the actions of another nation, the last thing you want to do is pick a fight. (I’m oversimplifying slightly here.)

Even in the event that you have an (otherwise) peaceful world, you’ll still see a need for militaries, to deal with the disaffected. These are forces which are too well equipped and hostile for normal law enforcement responses. The cliché answer here are terrorists, but pirates are another case, one we don’t often think about.

A decade ago, the modern pirate was viewed as Somali by default. Somalia’s government had complete collapsed by the early 90s, leaving Mogadishu as one of the only real examples of a feral city.

Alone, a failed state wouldn’t have lead to pirates, but off the north coast of Somalia is The Gulf of Aden. Any shipping moving from the Atlantic or Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean must either pass through the Gulf of Aden, or around South Africa. (3,750 miles away.) Roughly 12% of all seagoing shipping passes through The Gulf of Aden.

The lack of a functioning government in Somalia, combined with rich shipping just off the coast, was a perfect recipe for piracy. And it’s happened more than once. In the second century CE, the Roman Empire deployed a permanent naval garrison to the Gulf of Aden to deal with pirates. This isn’t critique of the people, simply a consequence of the geography creating a natural choke point.

It’s worth noting, before we move on, that the Somali pirate is already (mostly) history. A coalition government was formed in 2008, and it’s been slowly rebuilding the country. Additionally, the entire region has seen a dramatic increase in naval patrols (from a number of countries.) Combined, it’s dramatically reduced regional piracy.

Now, let’s take that model for a second and apply it to the golden age of piracy. Economic exploitation of The New World was driven by European empires. The European powers were warring with each other, meaning the bulk of their navies were needed at home. (Both as defense and deterrence.) Shipping from South and Central America needed to pass through the Caribbean (the entire point was to move foreign goods to consumers in Europe), and military protection was limited. The result was nearly a century of piracy.

A weird quirk of the mercantilist economics practiced in Europe at the time contrasts hard with modern globalization. The European empires were trying to set up entire, self-sufficient, economies in parallel to one another, selling the final product to whomever would pay. This put them in conflict. In contrast, modern economics tend to run supply chains across national boundaries. (The is where the economic interdependence reducing wars comes into play, not simply, “we trade with them so we don’t want to go to war.”)

So, what do you need for a pirate infestation?

Having an area that is difficult to patrol, is a must. Failed states (and feral cities) are almost a necessity today (because civilization of one form or another basically blankets the planet, especially anywhere we take trade goods.) The Caribbean is far less attractive to piracy because of its proximity to a major naval power (something that was not true during The Golden Age of Piracy.)

A background war that ties up the major navies would be advantageous, but not necessary. (Though I doubt the average pirate would have the background in international politics to understand this point, and actively foment the war.)

Also relevant to the Golden Age of Piracy, and less so to modern Somalia, having wars going on in the background will result in experienced sailors who no longer have a job when hostilities cease. At that point, piracy (or privateering, (if letters of marque are being handed out) will be one of the few ways they continue to earn a living, while still using their skill set.

Depending on how different your modern fantasy world is from the real modern world, you could expect to see a lot of infantry hardware, and possibly even decommissioned military ships converted into pirate service.

The end result is, no, your modern fantasy pirates probably wouldn’t want to use spear guns. They’d probably be using normal guns. Rifles and shotguns, with the occasional handgun.

-Starke

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Q&A: The Roman Gladiator

Hello!!!! I’m writing a story about a gladiator and i was wondering… How do they fight? And which weapons do they use? Can they still fight well when they get out of arena?

How they fought is somewhat intrinsically linked to the weapons they used, so it’s kind of important to step and get some context.

The Roman gladiator was the sports celebrity of their day. A lot of the things we associate with modern athletes, including endorsement deals, were actually a thing. There were dedicated schools which would train prospective gladiators. They were overseen by a manager, and in some cases, there was even a separate sponsor funding them.

It’s something of a misconception to think of Roman gladiators as slaves, because, while many were, there were also many free gladiators who were career combatants. It’s a little less clear how well slaves fared against free gladiators, but the free gladiators were probably better educated and cared for (though, as stated, it’s not entirely clear.

Slave gladiators could be drawn from captured enemy combatants, and criminals. It’s worth noting that an Imperial Citizen could not be sentenced to the arena, however, certain crimes did allow their citizenship to be stripped, at which point they could be sent to the games.

Female gladiators existed, (though, the term “Gladiatrix” is modern.) We don’t really know much about them. The Romans appeared to view female gladiators as a novelty, and as a result, they were poorly documented. Ironically, we know more about them from Romans who mocked their existence, rather than about the women themselves.

The arena was a bloodsport, not a deathsport. The way gladiators were equipped when they faced each other were designed to ensure that combat would be drawn out and messy, but not lethal. (This was not true when gladiators were paired against wild animals or, later on, when they were used as executioners.) Gladiators, particularly successful ones, represented a significant financial investment, and were not simply thrown to their death on a whim.

One other bit of trivia worth revisiting is the thumbs up, thumbs down, gesture. In the modern day we have this, somewhat, switched. Thumbs up meant that the victorious gladiator was allowed to kill their defeated foe; thumbs down meant they were not.

The gladiator was, primarily, an entertainer, in a highly militaristic society. Just like modern prize fighters, most saw extended careers, deaths were relatively rare (with specific exceptions), and while a few were popular and successful, many more were not.

Gladiators had specific, “loadouts,” of weapons and armor. These would change over time, and it’s not entirely clear how standardized these loadouts were, because there are a lot of gladiator variants that are mentioned very sporadically.

Many of the loadouts were designed to resemble foes that Rome had conquered, though as the empire expanse slowed, and older conquered holdings were fully integrated, some of the earlier designs were adapted to be more culturally sensitive. Gladiator types would only be matched against specific circumstances. Many gladiators would fight other gladiators, but, gladiators that fought beasts did not use the same gear or fighting styles and would not be paired against other gladiators. (You certainly wouldn’t see wild animals dumped into the middle of an existing arena fight.) (Technically, venatores might not count as gladiators at all, because they didn’t face human foes in the arena.)

There was one variant, the provocator, designed to epitomize the Roman Legionary, however they would only face other provocators. Similarly, the eques (mounted gladiators) usually fought each other.

This gets back into the question of, “fighting style.” A gladiator would have their fighting style dictated by their gear. For example, a Cestus (a gladiator with heavy gauntlets on their fists, but no other arms or armor) would fight very differently from a retiarius (who fought with a trident and net.)

It’s worth checking specific combinations, to see if they faced one another. The example above, while accurate, probably wouldn’t happen in the arena, because the retiarius had a limited number of loadouts it was allowed to be paired against. These pairings were designed to prolong the fight, leading to a longer, bloodier, but less lethal spectacle. Again, this was entertainment, and much like a modern prize fight, you’re not there to see a 17 second bout.

It’s also worth knowing there were a number of non-gladiators who performed and entertained the audience between bouts. Some of these would be analogous to modern animal handlers (the venator) and stunt fighters who would engage in mock duels (the paegniarius.)

As a quick aside, there were at least three different, animal related, performers. The venator, mentioned above, the bestarius, and the lorarius. The venator would perform, or hunt them in the arena, and one of the few Gladiatrix we know by name was a venator (“Mevia “). The bestarius was condemned to die against wild animals. The lorarius was tasked with whipping reluctant fighters, be that human or animal.

While the gladiators get a lot of attention today, the Romans did have other forms of athletics entertainment, including things like horse and chariot races. These were distinct from gladiatorial exhibitions. The collective term you’re looking for is, “ludi.” This would refer to a wide range of Roman entertainment and festivals, of which the gladiatorial games were a small part. (The term “ludi is a little tricky to manage, because that was also the name for the gladiator schools.)

So, how would a gladiator fight outside the arena? That depends on their training. Some gladiators were drawn from foreign warriors who’d been enslaved after capture, and you can assume they’d have some combat training and experience. Some may have been trained in multiple roles (I’m not entirely certain how, or if this happened, so take this with a grain of salt), meaning they’d have a somewhat more diverse combat background. Some would have only been trained to fight in very specific ways, and those methods wouldn’t, necessarily, support quick, or clean, kills.

If you’re wanting to dig further into the idea of gladiators outside the arena, you might want to look into the history of Spartacus. (Specifically the history, rather than the dramatizations.) He was a gladiator slave who lead a revolt in the heart of the empire. The formal name is the, “Third Servile War,” which ran from 73 to 71 BCE. So, while I might have sounded pessimistic in the previous paragraph, the truth is that escaped gladiatorial slaves were remarkably effective against Roman forces.

More than most posts, this is barely scratching the surface, and you may want to do some more digging on your own, but I hope it helps.

-Starke

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