Category Archives: Q&A

Q&A: Asphyxiation

i’m writing a story and in one scene, a character is being suffocated. i don’t really know how to write about it but i want to be realistic! would the body twitch or just go limp? would they go into a coma or die? sorry if this is too weird!!

If we’re skipping straight to asphyxiation, without any obvious cause, you’re looking at hypoxia. The victim may become tired, disoriented, or confused, and then pass out, slip into a coma and die.

However, if there’s a perceptible cause, such as someone strangling them, that’s going to provoke a violent response. With a major caveat, choking someone is not as easy as it looks. The import detail is that there are two kinds of chokes. Both rely on cutting off oxygen to the victim’s brain. You can do that either by preventing respiration, or by directly obstructing the flow of blood to the brain. The latter is far faster and more effective, but it’s not what you’d usually call “asphyxiation.”

Choking someone by preventing respiration it time consuming. We’re talking about having to continue to choke them, uninterrupted, for over a minute, while they fight back, and for several more minutes after they lose consciousness, “to make sure.” They will start to fade, and fighting back will hasten the process some, but in combat terms it’s still a small eternity. Just because they’ve gone limp doesn’t mean they’re going to die. Your body is remarkably skilled at breathing, especially when you don’t think about it, meaning there’s a real risk that they’ll begin breathing again after you stop choking them, conscious or not.

As for your other suggestion, they’re probably not going to be twitching. There’s a lot of things that can cause twitching, including messing with their nervous system directly, but the only thing I can think of associated with choking is in erotic asphyxiation. If that’s your thing, have fun, but I don’t think that’s what you were asking about. That’s also a byproduct, not a symptom. Maybe some kind of nerve agent could produce that result while also killing the victim, but I’m unsure.

Also, I usually reserve this for the tags, but I’ll remind you, I’m not a medical professional. I got my my First Aid and Medicine badges over twenty years ago, so this is outside my area of expertise. With that warning in place: You might also see twitching leading to asphyxia if the victim suffered a stroke or seizure. For example, a muscular spasm could close or collapse the trachea. However in that case, the spasm would be the cause of the asphyxia, not a symptom of it.

If it’s just something obstructing the airway that’s going to provoke the victim’s gag reflex, or get them coughing. This can also occur with some gases that will also interfere with breathing. The victim will respond, trying to clear the airway however they can. How well they can offset panic, and think their way through the situation will determine how well they respond. I’m aware a few anecdotal examples where people performed impromptu Heimlich Maneuvers on themselves using furniture, or other convenient objects.

Speaking from my personal, and somewhat distorted, experiences: Someone going for your throat is fucking scary. I’ve never reacted well to someone going there in a fight. You want to see a human being go into a frenzy? Go for their throat. You’re going to get hurt.

So, some unsorted technical information to work with.

Choking with two hands is, ironically, harder than with a single one. Your hands will get in each other’s way. A single handed choke has the disadvantage of being dependent one point of failure, but it is easier.

People do not react well to strikes that go towards the neck or face, (this is isn’t just me.) Or, perhaps, I should say, “they react too well.” Going for choke at arm’s length will give them a lot of time to respond. You’re getting very close to the center of their vision, so they will have an easier time tracking, and reacting to, this movement.

For someone with training, lifting their opponent off the ground with a single handed Darth Vader style choke is significantly easier than it looks, if their foe is against a wall. Downside is the victim will have all their limbs free. I guess if you’re a Dark Lord of the Sith it doesn’t really matter, but this kind of a move is better suited for theatrics and intimidation, not combat. It looks cool, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn David Prowse could actually dead lift someone with one hand. Buit, you don’t want to do this.

For those times when you need to fake a death with a willing partner, it’s remarkably easy to “fake” a choke in front of witnesses. Just make sure you’re not actually applying too much pressure, play the role, and make sure no one gets a chance to examine the, “corpse.” The major risk here is if you’re trying to fool someone who knows what to look for.

“Safely” choking someone out usually involves coming from behind and wrapping your arm around their neck. Depending on how you do this it could either be simple asphyxiation or a blood choke. One benefit is that you can do this with something in your main hand. Your off hand can be used to fend off their attempts to retaliate.

Preemptively defending against this is actually really simple: Tilt your head forward until your chin is flush with your chest. Any attempt to choke you from behind will now require getting through your jaw. This will defend against both arm bar, and triangle chokes. It even offers some protection against being garroted, and chokes from the front. The key is, it has to be done before the choke gets under the chin, after that it’s too late.

I hope this helps, and please don’t try any of this stuff at home.

-Starke

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Followup: Practical History

Thank you for breaking down the types of martial art schools. My brother and I attended the same school, but our focus made us take different classes with different instructors. I was being bullied and hit every day, so I took a lot of sel-defense and practical applications classes. I still learned katas, but they were secondary to my goal. My brother learned how to do beautiful katas, but he hated getting in a ring. Outlook and preparedness is everything, and something people overlook.

You’re illustrating something that I accidentally skimmed over; almost any martial art can be taught with a practical outlook. This isn’t just things like Muay Thai, where the application is obvious, it includes martial arts you wouldn’t expect, like Tai-Chi.

The key here is having an instructor who can teach you to apply what you’re learning in a real world context.

Karate is an easy example to dogpile on. Almost all practitioners you’ll find today will be recreational ones. You will find a great many who can’t apply what they know outside of the Dojo. Except, Karate wasn’t developed for self-defense, it was developed for guerrilla warfare.

Karate is not a Japanese martial art, it’s Okinawan. It’s easy to conflate these now, but this becomes a very important distinction when you look at Karate’s history. Okinawa was formally annexed by Japan in the Nineteenth Century, and the original Japanese invasion and vassalization of Okinawa dates back to the early Seventeenth Century. (I’m skimming over a lot of the history; if you’re interested, you should read up on this.)

Because of this, the Japanese were seen as an occupying force, and Karate was specifically adapted to kill Samurai. (Okay, I’m being a little reductive here, Karate technically dates back to the Ryukyu Kingdom, though, much of what we have today is a result of these adaptations.)

The modern incarnation, dating back to the Japanese vassalization of Okinawa, is designed to interdict and preempt entire segments of a Samurai’s combat training. Not all of this will be relevant today, and I wouldn’t recommend a low strike to prevent your opponent from cross-drawing a gun, but it will directly block an Iaido practitioner’s draw. (Note: I’m extending the definition of, “modern Karate” further back than normal. “Modern Karate,” usually starts with the founding of Shotokan in the mid-twentieth century,)

When we’re talking self-defense, Karate’s probably not going to be the right tool for the job, But, this is a martial art that was originally developed to kill people, and some of that can still be applied to interrupt and disable an assailant. The underlying combat philosophy of preventing your opponent from attacking with preemptive strikes has real applications. If you can understand how to bring this stuff into the real world, it’s viable. However, because it requires staying ahead of your opponent, you really need to know what you’re doing. That’s the weakness, this was designed to deal with foes who would act in very predictable patterns. If you don’t know what your opponent will do before they act, the value suffers.

That’s an example I’m personally familiar with, however, there are a lot stories like this, where a martial art started out as a method to kill or incapacitate your foes, and has gradually transitioned into something else. Again, if this stuff interests you, read up on it. Some martial arts have fascinating histories.

-Starke

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Q&A: Changing Focus

Is it posible for someone to go from display, competitive fighting to practical fighting if given the motivation and training?

Yes, and many do.

So, there’s a few things to understand. Most of these are fairly simple, but aren’t common knowledge outside of martial arts communities. The training itself will be structured differently. There will always be some, “leftover,” muscle memory from prior training, however this matters way less than it may sound. Your outlook, combined with what you know is probably the most important difference.

With some exceptions, martial arts training will assume you’re starting from zero. You have no hand-to-hand background. Even if you do have a background, you’ll go through the motions again. This is partially because there may be discrepancies between what you’ve already learned and the new martial art you’re picking up. In some cases, the martial arts may be completely incompatible. This is rare, but it can happen.

If you’re in a traditional class, you’ll start with the basic rules of the school. How to stand, how to prepare for class, how to interact with your class mates and instructors. From there you’ll transition to basic stances. You’ll be instructed on how to move, and how to hold your body. Gradually you’ll move into things that, as someone without training, you’d think of as techniques, such as basic strikes. As you go, you’ll learn the proper names. Gradually you’ll learn more complicated strikes, learn to move from one strike directly into the next. At some point you’ll learn set routines of moves which can be demonstrated. Along the way, you’ll be drilling with everything you’ve learned until you can execute the movements flawlessly.

In practical training, it’s also going to start with conversation, but the content is going to be very different. For self-defense, the first thing you’re going to learn is threat assessment. There is a similarity here, worth discussing, in both cases the instructor begins by talking about what is most important in your training. For a traditional school, that’s “planting the seed,” for the martial art’s philosophy. For a practical class, this is telling you how to apply what you’ll learn. From there it will quickly cover stances. After that, practical classes will go directly into specific techniques. You may never learn some of the basic techniques that a traditional martial artist would consider, “fundamental,” because there’s no application. You will never learn a kata. If you’re taught a combination, it’s with the express purpose of using it. You will get into things that traditional schools consider advanced very quickly. You’re going to be training with partners, possibly from day one, but long before any traditional martial arts school would let you touch another student. When the class is over, you will be ready to use what you’ve learned in the world.

You cannot compact years of training into eight weeks, however, you don’t need to. Real world combat is messy. While traditional martial arts will teach you to execute techniques flawlessly (eventually), practical training looks at that as unnecessary. If you’re going to use this in a real fight, it doesn’t matter if it’s flawless, the only metric that matters is, “can you make it work?”

I can’t speak for the methodology of competitive sports training, though I do know people who’ve transitioned from traditional into sports, and from sports to practical. I don’t, personally, know anyone who’s run through all three, but over a long enough timescale this should be possible.

It’s also harder to lock down what someone’s training would look like if they were coming out of a non-traditional school. The example that comes to mind are recreational versions of modern practical forms, such as Krav Maga, though some MMA schools would also fall into this category as well.

As I mentioned, muscle memory will linger. This can be a problem for someone with a practical background moving into a recreational martial art. You’ve trained yourself to execute very specific movements, and being asked to subtly adjust them can be remarkably difficult. The basic problem is that practical training tends to permit a kind of sloppiness. Because the goal is to be able to use it in a real situation, being, “perfect,” doesn’t matter. In a real fight, you’re going to be adjusting to fit the situation anyway. However, a traditional school wants to improve the technique, on the idea that if you can execute it perfectly, you’d be able to make those adjustments.

I’ve said this twice, so I should probably clarify, the sloppiness that practical martial artists exhibit isn’t a vulnerability. It’s not beautiful and it doesn’t need to be. It needs to work on another person in the real world; where fights get messy. I was once advised that, “every fight will end up with you both on the ground.” It’s not pretty, and it doesn’t fit the idea of how a fight, “should,” look. But if you’re looking for real things to match their cinematic counterparts, you’re signing up for a lifetime of disappointment.

Beautiful technique is just that: beautiful. It can be a real joy to watch, but, it doesn’t mean the martial artist knows how to fight.

Knowledge is incredibly important. It’s easy to think of “martial arts” a unified skill, but there really is a difference between technical proficiency, and an understanding of combat. This is where I really do not want to sell traditional martial artists short. An experienced artist has developed a great deal of skill, and they have come to a deeper understanding of their martial art, and possibly a deeper understanding of the world they live in. Someone with a combat training background will have a breadth of knowledge regarding how people behave in combat. In a real fight, the latter will be vastly more valuable than the former.

Outlook is a little murkier. This is your willingness to engage in violence. No martial arts instructor (regardless of their field) wants students who will casually engage in violence. It does not make good soldiers. It is actively counterproductive for sports and self-defense. It is a disaster for traditional martial arts.

For most people, the switch over to being willing to harm another human being is not easy. Obviously, this is not everyone, some people come to that decision far easier than others. Practical training will teach to evaluate the situation you’re in, and determine if you need to kick over. It will try to prepare you for that, but nothing short of a real situation can do so fully.

So, with all this said, yes, you can move between these.

Outlook isn’t a fixed thing, and you can change your approach in the moment. Knowledge of how people behave is critical for combat, but it is something that can be learned. Muscle memory can be a bit of a pain, but it’s not the end of the world. All martial arts are built (to some degree) around violence, and learning a new form of hand to hand is easier if you already have the fundamentals. Your muscle memory may mess with you in subtle ways, but it does come with the significant advantage of, “you already have it.”

Moving from one field to another is quite doable. It will take effort, and time, but if you already put the training in to learn one, you can do so again, it’s just a question of having the will to stick with it long enough to make it work.

-Starke

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Q&A: The Training Montage

Training takes time obviously. But how in some fictional stories I see characters amassing a lot of skill way too quickly. For example, in Disney’s Mulan, she failed in her all training and was sent home. But instead of leaving, apparently she trained overnight and the next morning completely wowed everyone with one accomplishment. The next few training clips, which can’t be too much time, shows her being the best at everything . Uhh like how??!!

Through the miracle of non-linear time.

For a good writer, the montage, or time skip can be useful to keep the story moving. It can bypass lots of repetitive text, or just ignore mundane elements that wouldn’t make the story interesting. If it’s not relevant to the story, or doesn’t advance the characters, you don’t need to show your character eating. There’s no reason to include the scene.

Training is a lot like this. You may want to include examples of their training, and specific lessons, but if someone was practicing the same technique for months, gradually improving, that’s not going to be interesting in detail. You only need to show the overall change.

If you have moments where something significant happens, that’s worth dwelling on. Your character comes to a new realization, they achieve something they’ve been working towards. When a lesson is important for the story, either as foreshadowing, for world building, or as character development, that should be included. When it’s just that your character doing the same thing they did yesterday, you don’t need that.

The problem is, training montages can easily turn into an ill-defined, “level up” session. Central to this is that the author exists outside of time for their story. They know the future, and have absolute control of how it will flow on the page (or screen.) This can lead to cases where the character’s training montage isn’t actually compressing time, and characters are simply gaining skill at an impossible rate.

The related problem is that you can have an extended time skip, but don’t cue the audience into this at all. I think this is what we’re supposed to take away from Mulan. She’s been training for awhile, but it’s not clear that there’s a time jump. The Empire Strikes Back has a similar issue. It’s unclear how long Luke trains on Dagobah, and it’s also unclear how long the Falcon‘s crew are on Cloud City. Both happen at the same time, and there some time skips, but it’s impossible to tell if Luke is training for hours or months. (We know it’s not years, because of the official timeline.) This is the kind of thing that could easily be addressed by showing a changing of the seasons, showing minor injuries healing, showing hair growth or even just kludging it by slapping a date slugline on everything or having a character remark about how long this has been going on.

I’m not opposed to montages per se, but I have seen them misused many times. It is extremely important for your audience to be able to understand that you just compacted four years of training into into a short sequence.

It’s also worth remembering that just because you’re pushing fast-forward for your main character, the rest of the world shouldn’t freeze up and wait. If you wanted them to walk away from their life and study esoteric secrets at a monastery for seven years to beat a villain, that villain’s plot should be fully realized and executed by the time they get back. Also it’s possible (read: this will happen) that their friends will be a little upset given they scampered off instead of helping.

There’s probably a punchline to be had in a “hero” who went off to engage in a training montage, only to discover that their original foe was defeated in their absence.

So, how does this work? It’s presentation. You’re informing your audience that your character spent time training, without going into excessive detail. It only becomes a problem when you sit back and go, “wait, what happened?”

-Starke

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Q&A: Wild Animals

As a recreational martial artist, your recent posts have been eye-opening for me. In terms of ‘danger level,’ it got me wondering: games tend to depict animals as less dangerous than medieval soldiers, individually. I tend to buy it because they don’t have a system of defense like armed guards do, but is this accurate? Or does the difference in stats and ferocity give wild animals an edge that invalidates melee weapons training and traditional ideas of ‘defense’?

densoro

I’ve been thinking about this recently. I started a NG+ Witcher 3 play-through on Death March, and the thing that’s been wrecking me more than any other enemy in the game are the wild dogs.

Sure the human foes are dangerous. They can two or three tap Geralt. The monsters can take huge chunks off the health bar. But, the real problem is those dogs. In every other playthrough those things have been popcorn enemies. I’ve never even memorized their movesets. They’re fast, hard to read, they hit harder than some of the big monsters, and they have a supernatural affinity for getting behind the camera and coming in from directions you can’t see.

Thing is, I can’t say that they’re unrealistic. Dogs are very dangerous animals. They are that fast, and they will drag you to the ground and end you. They will also operate in groups. One dog isn’t a problem, it’s when there’s five or six that everything goes off the rails.

That’s not even wild animals, that’s just dogs.

Moving away from that specific example, wild animals are extremely dangerous. Trained humans are extremely dangerous. Saying one is more dangerous than the other is both true and untrue. They’re dangerous in different ways for different reasons.

People forget that even herbivores can kill you. A deer can gut you with its hooves. You do not want to mess with moose or elk. Hippos are annually responsible for more direct deaths in Africa than any other wild animal.

Most, healthy, wild animals will avoid attacking humans. This includes predators. Animals are remarkably risk averse. If they have a choice between wandering off or risking their safety, they’re more likely to flee. However, if provoked, or cornered, they can become extremely dangerous.

If you have human foes, they’re more likely to become aggressive. Another person, particularly a trained soldier, will be much better primed to evaluate how dangerous their foe is. It’s not that a wolf is less dangerous, it’s that the wolf doesn’t have the information to perform that threat assessment, and in the face of potential danger, it’s more likely to leave.

A number of things can seriously screw with that threat assessment. If the animal already feels threatened, if they’re starving, if they have prior experiences with humans which lead them to believe that people aren’t particularly dangerous, that can all heavily influence how willing an animal is to engage. The example with hippos is because they are extremely territorial, and will attack anything that intrudes into their territory (including boats.)

Incidentally, the Witcher 3 example above does make a pretty compelling case that feral dogs are more of a threat than wolves. While the wolves don’t understand how dangerous someone is, and have a fear of humans, the dogs don’t have that, and as a result are far more likely to attack people. The game basically drops that, wild dogs remain low threat in a normal playthrough, and everything predatory in that game is unreasonably aggressive. (This is a pretty common thread in games.) However, the original argument does have merit.

So, are wild animals more or less dangerous than trained soldiers? Yeah. It’s not a quantitative tier system, it’s that different animals present different degrees of threat, varying on a number of conditions unique to that individual at that moment. Even then, managing large groups of enemies is orders of magnitude more difficult. This is something where a lot of games stumble.

A single wolf is a manageable threat for someone who’s been trained to deal with them. This is an animal that could quickly kill them. It is still quite dangerous, but, with the right tools, it is manageable. However, a wolf pack is lethal. The time you spend trying to deal with one is more than enough for the others to encircle and kill you. While the methods will vary, as the name suggests, pack predators will operate in packs.

This does not mean solitary predators are easier to deal with. Just because a bear isn’t traveling with a dozen buddies, that’s still a lot of angry murder meat when provoked or hungry.

I’d shy away from the idea that stats drive anything. Character stats are a very useful abstraction. I’m even in favor of using them for quick points of reference. It can be exceedingly helpful to have a character sheet on hand that will tell you how much your character can lift, or if they can juggle. However, it can lead to some implausible situations.

For example, stat blocks on animals are going to have some issues. I don’t see a way to fix this; it’s a necessary evil for creating a game. You need to know how much damage a wolf’s bite does. But can also result in some implausible situations when expanded upon.

Worse is when the combat rules from the game get carried over into the finished work. I’ve read a novel where the characters were engaging in combat by initiative order, with the protagonist taking attacks of opportunity. Specific, recognizable, AoO conditions being met. In one case, the AoO would have been a legal attack, but was also in violation of the laws of physics. A fact that escaped the author.

So, in short creating threat tiers for animals is not realistic. It’s not supposed to be. A lot of games present wild animals, particularly predators, as a learning experience. They give you an easy to read enemy, with a limited move set, and let you learn about combat. It also gives you more of a sense of progression when you “move up” to human foes. It does not reflect reality, where those animals can be quite dangerous. However, it does serve a purpose.

Thematically, it can also be used to indicate that your character’s default state is not fighting other people. It’s easy to conflate this with increasing power, but if you can step back from that, it can be an important aspect to your character, and can even inform how they approach combat. A character who stalks prey will deal with a squad of soldiers very differently from a fighter. Before someone assumes, no, I don’t automatically mean pick them off one at a time from stealth. A hunter may have much better justification for being out in the wild than a random mercenary, and may be able to avoid conflict entirely. Failing that, they will have better options for escape, as they’re in familiar territory. Because, just like wild animals, when humans travel in packs, they get exponentially more dangerous.

-Starke

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Q&A: Anemia

i’ve looked around and haven’t really found much on the topic, so i was hoping you guys would have a better idea. i have a fighter character who has anemia (as well as chronic pain). they definitely aren’t zipping around, but I’d be curious to what specific limitations these would give for someone who uses hand to hand and blades? thank you either way for your time!

Chronic pain is a problem, but anemia is a showstopper. The pop culture frame of reference is that anemia impairs or prevents clotting. If that was the extent of the condition, it would be serious enough to make combat exceptionally dangerous. If you can, literally, bleed to death from minor bruises, that’s going to make hand to hand exceptionally dangerous. However, that’s not what anemia is, and the reality is so much worse.

Anemia itself is a general condition where you lack sufficient red blood cells. The inability to clot is related to this, because the blood isn’t thick enough, however, this is only one of the symptoms, and while it can be life threatening, it’s not the biggest problem for a fighter.

Common symptoms for anemia include weakness, fatigue, and dizziness (among other things.) The simple version is that the body uses red blood cells to transport oxygen through to where it’s needed. In an anemic, there simply isn’t enough blood to transport enough oxygen. I can’t find concrete confirmation, but based on the cause, I’m almost certain that strenuous physical activity will aggravate the symptoms. This means an anemic fighter will exhaust very quickly, and is at particular risk for tachycardia (in addition to injury.)

Worth noting that anemia doesn’t, necessarily, prevent exercise, and in some cases it’s probably still a good idea, but the patient needs to be very mindful of their condition.

Also, not all forms of anemia are as dire as I’m making it out to be. I probably experienced mild anemia as a result of my excessive use of aspirin when I was younger. Seeing the symptom list now, I can say some of that was there, but at the time, it wasn’t severe enough for me to realize anything was wrong. The tipping point was when I was looking at watery blood from a nose bleed, and attributed that to aspirin being an anti-coagulant.

Additionally, anemia can be caused by a number non-self-sustaining causes. Aspirin is one (I suspect, the chronic use of any anti-coagulant will have similar results), heavy blood loss, and iron deficiency are also possible. In the case of blood loss, this is something your body will recover from with time. With iron deficiency, your body simply doesn’t have the materials it needs to make red blood cells, but if you adjust your diet, or take supplements you can manage this.

There are other causes, For example: I’ve been ignoring sickle cell anemia. In this case the blood cells exist, but they’re deformed, and can’t interact with the body properly. The resulting symptoms are similar, though the cause is distinct. I probably should point out that “pain crises” are a symptom of sickle cell anemia, if that’s the specific form of anemia you’re talking about, there’s a lot of literature on the subject, and some of the details vary significantly.

So, if your character has any condition which impairs the production of red blood cells, they may have very mild symptoms. They’re anemic, but might not even realize it, until they start losing blood. The problem comes in when their body can’t replenish lost blood fast enough. Initially their clotting factor may be close to normal. They won’t be impaired in combat. However, their injuries will stack up and over time their ability to recover, and even their ability to heal from prior wounds will go off a cliff.

Thing is, that can happen to anyone. An anemic condition will further aggravate, or jump start it, but if you’re losing a lot of blood, that will have knock on effects until you can fully heal. Again, serious blood loss will result in a form of anemia. It’s not a chronic condition, but your body simply doesn’t have enough blood, and it’s working to get back to where it should be.

If your melee fighter is anemic, it’s going to be a downward spiral. This is a condition where your body really cannot take a lot of abuse, and hand-to-hand combat places a harsh toll on your body. It’s even worse with blades, because you will bleed. That’s blood that you cannot afford to lose, and you won’t be able to stop bleeding.

-Starke

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Followup: Recreational Martial Arts is not Combat Training

Starke, as a recreational practitioner whose teacher is ex-police (and another who’s ex-Spec Ops), it may be worth noting that while military does put a premium on martial (in combat roles at least), MANY cops do only the bare minimum hand-to-hand & weapons training, and depending on jurisdiction that minimum can be a VERY low bar. I know plenty of ppl who only practice recreationally but could absolutely kick a beat cop’s ass 1-on-1

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So, if your instructor is ex-police, or a former special forces operator, that’s not a recreational martial artist. They may be teaching recreational martial arts, but their own background started with the idea that they’d be using their training on someone else.

I’ll say this again, in case it’s unclear: Someone who spent eight years in The Corps, mustered out, returned to civilian life, and practices Shotokan in the park once a week, is not a recreational martial artist.

It wouldn’t surprise me to learn there are lazy cops out there. In fact, thinking back to what a friend of mine went through trying to find a missing police cruiser, I know full well there are lazy cops.

Could a cop get away with blowing off their training? Yeah. If their superiors don’t care, and let things slide, it’s certainly possible. Here’s the problem with this thought process: Hand-to-hand training isn’t a luxury for a LEO, it is a vital survival skill. A cop who is lazy enough to blow that off makes me worry. Not for their safety, but, that they feel safe without it.

Police have more options than just hand-to-hand. They have tazers, they have firearms, and most importantly, they have more cops at the push of a button. If your goal is to pick a lazy cop from the crowd, you’re going to take a bullet. You don’t want lazy cops, you want responsible ones who take this seriously, because they are less likely to resort to “easier” solutions to their problems.

Recreational martial arts does not prepare you for combat. Full stop. A lot of recreational martial artists think that it does. It’s a lie they tell themselves. It’s a lie that most competent martial arts instructors will try to dispel. The real tragedy is that the world is littered with the corpses of martial artists who thought, “I’ve been training for this, I can take that guy,” and paid for that thought with their life. A fact that any responsible cop would have drilled into your head.

Want to know how to quickly identify a martial artist who cannot take a cop in a fight? It’s the guy who says, “I could beat that cop’s ass.” They haven’t thought it through. They don’t understand how to operate in a real fight. They’re still looking at it like it’s some kind of Hollywood showdown. They don’t understand that this is not a duel. They’re thinking about fighting the cop like it’s a test of skill, where the worst thing that can happen is you get some bruises, a chipped tooth, and a night in lockup.

The guy the cop should worry about is the person who looks at them, sees them as a problem that needs to be removed, and looks for a way to achieve that goal. That is not a recreational martial artist. It doesn’t matter if their hand to hand background is recreational, because their methods won’t be.

Here’s your problem: In the moment you attack, the cop can’t tell these two apart. They don’t know you’re expecting to engage in an honorable, pugilistic duel. They just know you’re trying to kill them, you suck at it, and you need to be dealt with immediately.

If your training was gearing you towards practical applications of force, that ex-operator of yours would tell you that there’s no upside to letting the other guy fight back. You ex-cop instructor would be telling you that, “what you’re doing right now won’t help you in a fight.”

If you do get into self-defense, the priorities will be on creating an exit and getting out before you get seriously hurt. There is no benefit to continuing a fight. The is no legitimate reason to let a fight go on for a moment longer than necessary. In the real world, fights are dangerous, and the longer you stay in them, the more dangerous they become.

Every martial arts instructor I’ve had has been a cop. When I say this, “I could take them in a fight,” attitude sets me on edge, because this gets people killed. Not cops. Recreational martial artists who thought that good in the dojo meant good on the street.

I know this guy. He’s a fourth degree black belt in Taekwondo, has at least a year’s worth of Ninjitsu under his belt. Dude goes to college, signs up for boxing. He’s a fourth degree black belt, in his mind, he’s that damn good. According to one of the judges, his technique was beautiful. First round smeared by a USN cadet. Thing is, it’s boxing, the rules are set. He lived. By normal logic, he should have triumphed. Dude’s been practicing martial arts since before he could read. Recreational doesn’t prepare you for a fight, in the ring or out, no matter how bad ass you feel. It’s a different mindset. Dude came to kick someone’s ass, the cadet came to neutralize a problem.

I meant what I said, a recreational martial artist will be at a significant disadvantage when they go up against someone with a practical background. The recreational martial artist wants to win a fight, that impulse will get you killed. If this is new information, you might want to take a long look at your instructors.

-Starke

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Q&A: Substitute Sword

Hi! Your blog is great and it helped me more than one time, because I’m not an expert but I’m trying to be accurate. One of my character is used to fight with a sword, but for a series of reasons she has to fight with a different one, which is shorter and lighter. What problems could she have and how should she adapt her style to the new sword?

Unless the differences are extreme, it’s not going to matter much.

For example: if your character’s normal weapon is a Zweihander, and she’s trying to use a longsword, yes, that’s going to require some adaptation. However, if they’re even close to the same size, that would only require fairly minor adaptation.

Similarly, unless the weight is so different as to be entirely distinct kind of weapon, it wouldn’t affect her much. Again, comparing something like a longsword to a fencing blade. Even then, she wouldn’t need to adapt because it was lighter, she’d need to adapt because it is a different weapon.

The two important things to remember are, swords are light weapons. There’s some variation, of course, but even the heaviest combat swords rarely exceed 10 pounds. Weight is important with a sword, but not the way you seem to think. More weight in a blade is a negative. You don’t simply hack away with someone using blunt force and the weight of your weapon. The heavier a sword is, the more it will wear you down, so there’s a strong incentive to keep the blade as light as possible. Using a lighter weapon would be less physically strenuous than she’s used to, so she wouldn’t tire as quickly, and that’s a net positive.

Second: Unless we’re talking about something very specialized, like a epee, estoc, or falchion, the sword is very versatile weapon. A shorter blade will not have the reach she’s used to, but that’s a fairly minor issue overall, and one that’s easy to adapt to on the fly.

If it is a highly specialized sword variant, it’s possible she wouldn’t have much experience using it. For example: give an Italian School fencer a claymore and the results will not be pretty for them. It’s a much longer, heavier blade. One that is not suited for their style of combat at all.

One worst of both worlds situation would be if she was used to using an iron sword, and the only weapon available was a bronze one. Bronze is a copper/tin alloy. It is heavier and softer than iron, meaning the sword would be shorter, heavier, and less durable. This would create a situation where she would have to fight harder, and the difference between the weapons would be appreciable.

The biggest issue for simply scooping a weapon up off the floor is, you don’t know its quality. You don’t know if it’s been well cared for, or if it’s damaged in some way. In the middle of a battle you cannot take the time to stop and assess it. This means grabbing dropped weapons can be risky, though in an emergency, if may be your only option.

A related possibility is that she’s scooped up a broken hilt. There’s still the fragment of a blade, and it may be usable in an emergency, but it’s not an intact weapon. In that case, it will depend on how much of the sword is still intact, and the overall condition of the blade, but she would be improvising, and working around the damage as best she could.

As for what to do? That will depend on a host of more specific information. In most cases, her basic combat drills should still apply. The exception being if it is a very different weapon, at which point you need to ask if this is a kind of sword your character understands how to use. If she does, then she’ll know what to do. If she doesn’t, she’ll need to come up with a way to use the weapon effectively under pressure.

-Starke

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Q&A: Practical and Recreational

Hey, there was a post when you said a modern person’s recreational skill was completely useless as a Roman soldier. Now, my story doesn’t do time travel, but I was wondering if there might be an issue in my modern day story with recreational martial arts practictioners having skill clashes with modern day jobs, anything from police officers to security guards. Whether it’s recreational first -> job or job first -> recreational.

I don’t remember that part of the previous question. The main point I was trying to make at the time was that the time traveler’s technological and scientific knowledge would be far more meaningful than any combat training.

As a general rule, someone with a practical background will have a significant (or downright insurmountable) advantage over someone with a recreational background. Someone with a competitive sports background (such as boxing or MMA) will land somewhere between these points, though it’s hard to quantify exactly where. Though, they fare well against someone with a practical background.

Police (or any Law Enforcement), military, and similar backgrounds will always land on the practical side, and their training will be kept up to date while they’re in active service. For our purposes, if a LEO also practices a recreational martial art, they’re still going to have practical combat training, though the philosophical elements from their recreational background will also be present in their personality.

There’s no hard and fast rules for a security guard. They may have old practical training, they may be up to date (especially if it’s a cop who moonlights as security guard), or they may have a sports or recreational background. The training they have will depend on whether their employer cares. A lot of security guards are simply tasked with observing, and passing that on to the police. Training them to martial arts is unnecessary for them to do their job, and may encourage them to intervene.

High end security firms will either put money into their employee’s training, or have some specific expectations for what they can do. When we’re talking about more specialized roles like principal protection (bodyguards) practical combat training is a must.

Private Military Companies will probably have military hand to hand training, though it may be slightly out of date, or second hand.

I’m going to make a slightly inaccurate generalization here: The difference between law enforcement hand-to-hand and military hand-to-hand is that the former is more interested in being able to subdue a foe, and the latter is more interested in being able to kill a foe. Now, that is a generalization, military training does have subdual options, and police can escalate to lethal force. In some cases, these will be part of the same martial arts family, or even the same martial art.

You could definitely construct a hierarchy of backgrounds, where, “this is better than that,” but that could easily degenerate into the non-productive, “my martial art is better than yours,” arguments. The simple answer is, recreational martial artists do not prepare for combat, and as a result are less suited to it. Practical martial artists train to use their abilities in live situations, and are better prepared when that happens. Additionally, practical martial artists need to continue updating their training on a semi-regular basis. This involves adapting their training to better fit the current environment their working in, and being “the most up to date” is a significant advantage.

-Starke

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Q&A: Flint and Steel Era Bows

Hi, I’m a great fan of your blog. I have this character who is basically a retired DnD Ranger in a world with magic and technology level near the Times of the napoleonic wars. Would you see any justifiable explanation for this character to use bow and arrow instead of flintlock rifles? I very much like the idea, but fear that it won’t be very realistic, given that in real world history bows went out of use centuries before, except for Native Americans that were unable to obtain firearms. Thanks!

ysengrinn

That last bit isn’t accurate. At least in the western United States, bows have never completely gone out of use. It’s not a First Nations thing, people still use bows today. Bow hunting and fishing is a little unusual, but the practice has continued. This ignoring that recreational archery still exists.

Bows were superseded by firearms in warfare, but that had more to do with contemporary European combat doctrine. Looking at the middle ages and into early modern era, archers were lined up like melee infantry and would fire in volleys. It’s wasn’t about direct fire, instead archers would pepper enemy infantry with arrows to soften them before they reached the army’s front line forces.

By the Napoleonic era, (late 18th, early 19th century), firearms, fired in volleys, at (relatively) close range were the dominant form of infantry combat. A front line would fire, then kneel and reload while the line behind them fired. With that approach, there wasn’t much point to a bow. It’s warfare usage was less efficient.

As a hunting tool, a bow would still be more accurate than a musket. Let’s talk about why. When you fire a smoothbore firearm, the bullet tumbles in flight. This can result in a somewhat erratic flight path. Which is to say, at range, the bullet will not go where you try to put it.

The technological solution to this problem was rifled barrels. The rifling will cause the bullet to spin in flight. This stabilizes it’s trajectory and results in a firearm that will perform more reliably. This is also why your character would live in an era of muskets and not rifles.

The first rifled barrels date back to the final years of the fifteenth century, however, it would be centuries before they saw widespread use. The problem is, it’s harder to muzzle load a rifled barrel. The rifling itself needs to hold onto and spin the bullet as it leaves. If you’re trying to shove a bullet into it, you need to feed down those grooves. There were a number of novel attempts to deal with this, including an elliptical design (the Lancaster Rifle) and a spinning hexagonal design (the Whitworth Rifle.) The Lancaster Rifle also used a longer more conical bullet, more consistent with a modern bullet than it’s contemporaries. Breach loading and shell casings were still centuries away.

So, while the gun was an incredibly destructive tool, it was also inaccurate. Incidentally, this is why the volley pattern fire was the dominant battlefield use for firearms until the late 19th century. One person couldn’t reliably hit another at range, but if you put 20 rounds in the general direction of the enemy, a few of those were bound to hit something.

In comparison to a musket, reloading a bow is trivial. With a musket, you have to go through the entire process. You need to measure and load the powder, place the wadding, place the bullet, pack it all down, and then prime the firearm before you can fire. Realistically this could be performed several times per minute by a practiced shooter. (The reported numbers range from 1 to 6 RPM.) With a bow, you need to retrieve, knock, and draw a fresh arrow.

If we’re going by D&D’s archery rules (at least for 3.5e), a level 20 ranger can get off 50 to 60 arrows per minute. That’s about five times what a real person could achieve. In comparison to 10 shots from a musket, which is also unrealistically high, but by a smaller margin. Granted, anything above around level 10 trends into the range of a fantasy superhero, and a level 10 Ranger could “only” sling about 40 arrows per minute, but that’s still way too many.

Even realistically, outside of D&D, an experienced archer would be able to fire faster and more accurately than firearm user in the Napoleonic era.

The trade off, in official D&D is that a bow does less damage than a firearm. There’s a game design logic here, there’d be no reason to jump through the additional hoops to use firearms if they didn’t outperform crossbows, (which wasn’t really the case in 3.5e.) As for the real world, that’s a harder one to justify. Bullets (even musket balls) are incredibly dangerous. Arrows are incredibly dangerous. Either one of these can kill you from a single well placed shot. The idea that one does more, or less, damage than the other has some basis, but it really is a game concept, more than a real world issue. Either way, both weapons can kill in practiced hands.

It’s worth discussing the difference in producing ammunition in the field for both weapons. Fireams require more specialized hardware. You need lead, you need a casting kit. You either need powder, or need the knowledge to produce it (which is feasible if your character has some knowledge of chemistry (or alchemy, since the terms are basically interchangeable.) For arrows you need a supply of straight wood shafts (doable but time consuming), arrow heads (metal will make better heads, but in an emergency you could make them out of other materials, fetching (there’s ways to obtain it), a glue of some kind (there’s a lot of potential options), if you’re improvising arrow heads, you’ll probably need a tough, sturdy, fiber of some kind, and you’ll need a knife. Both are real options, the skills are different, but it will be easier to replace lost arrows than spent bullets. Also, arrows (or at least components from them) may be salvageable for reuse. This is not going to happen with bullets.

It’s a little anachronistic to focus on this, but since we’re talking about a ranger, it’s very relevant that the bow is a nearly silent weapon. While Skyrim’s stealth archer builds play this up to parody, there’s a legitimate point where your ranger might be able to neutralize scattered soldiers without alerting the squad. For example: a hunting party. This is an era when suppressing a firearm is impossible. Given D&D’s rangers still focus on stealth as one of their core abilities, it’s a serious option.

I tend to roll my eyes at modern characters using a bow as their preferred stealth weapon, but it’s is a viable, if cumbersome, option.

I’ve talked about this one in the past, but one major risk with firearms, in a world of magic, is pyromancy. So, at a chemical level, all explosives are simply stored energy waiting to be released. This includes everything from a match to a nuclear warhead. Releasing that energy involves introducing enough energy into the explosive to cause it to detonate. (The more energy required, the more, “stable,” an explosive is.)

If you have a mage that can throw a fireball at an enemy infantry line, there’s a pretty decent chance you’ll detonate their powder magazines. (This is also true for artillery, and for fortifications. If there’s a powder store somewhere, a mage could potentially detonate it.)

As of Fifth Edition, wizards and sorcerers have a ranged fire cantrip. (Spells that can be used an unlimited number of times.) And whether lightning is, actually lightning (meaning it’s plasma), or electrical energy, that will also detonate powder stocks.

If this wasn’t bad enough, look at the 6th level Evocation Spells on your wizard and sorcerer list. Chain lightning has been toned down significantly in modern editions, but it would still ignite any powder someone was carrying. (Unless it didn’t, “because magic.”)

In a world with magic, firearms come with some serious drawbacks. To the point that I don’t fault high magic settings which never develop the technology. They already have effective ranged options which vastly outperform early firearms technology, meaning someone would need to synthesize centuries of technological advancement at once.

Given we’re talking about a high magic world, there’s also another potential consideration. I’m pulling specifically from 3.5e and D20 Modern, because that’s the only, official, modern D&D ruleset I’m aware of, but there is one specific oversight. D&D has rules for enchanting arrows, however, D20 Modern does not have rules for enchanting bullets (as far as I can remember, and based on a quick review of the appropriate books.) This could just be an oversight, or it could be legitimate world building. It may not be possible to enchant bullets. This could be simply because the overall mass is too low, there isn’t enough room to inscribe the bullets, the loading process would destroy the enchantment, the enchantment itself would immediately detonate the gunpowder on proximity, or even the bullet itself would tear the gun apart (magical items become significantly tougher in D&D, and when you’re talking about a bullet, that’s a problem.)

Now, in general, D&D, played by the rules, is not realistic. That’s not a knock against it. This is a game about becoming a fantasy superhero, and there’s a lot of compelling hooks that can be drawn from that. However, scrutinizing the combat rules tends to result in some pretty goofy things. Credit, where credit is due, Fifth Edition has ironed out a lot of the bookkeeping. Including some of the extra attacks per turn that get downright comical when you’re looking at how fast your character is firing a bow.

If you want to check rules for D&D in the Napoleonic era, without resorting to homebrews, your best option is probably D20 Past. This was a supplement for D20 Modern, (which was a standalone book.) The downside being both were based on the 3.5 era rules. Updating these to a later version of D&D should be possible, and I still really like the D20 Modern suite of books for transplanting D&D rules into different technological eras (The default is early 2000s, but, in addition to Past, there were supplements for Sci-Fi and post-apocalyptic settings.) (I also have a soft spot for the Urban Arcana setting, but that’s a different topic entirely.)

So, there are reasons your character may still use a bow into the Napoleonic era, especially if they’re not an infantry fighter. It’s a specific tool, but it does have real applications that couldn’t be mimicked with contemporary firearms.

-Starke

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