Q&A Followup: Assassins and Spies: Famous in Government

I’m not aware if you do part 2’s to Q&A’s but with your other post about being a famous criminal would it be under the same terms if the only the government was aware of the assassin existence?

Yes. Ironically, this can go either way, depending on the structure and scope of your story.

If the government who knows about your assassin is friendly, (as in, the assassin is a covert operative for them), then you have the situation where a character could safely build a reputation privately.

If the government is hostile to your assassin, then you have the normal downsides of your criminal’s behavior being well documented.

The irony is, both of these states would probably be true simultaneously. With the government (or at least the intelligence community) your character works for being aware of their existence, while simultaneously, hostile governments would be aware of, and on the lookout for them.

This is something that is sometimes capitalized on with James Bond. He is incongruously famous for a spy within his world’s British government, but, simultaneously, some of his villains are able to instantly recognize him, even though his cover is technically intact.

I didn’t specify this during the previous post, but that is a real problem for spies (and probably would be for assassins as well.) As a spy engages in espionage, they will get added to databases and official records. Intelligence agencies are notorious for maintaining files on anyone who ever catches their attention. As a spy’s career advances, and they are involved in more and more places, those dossiers will gradually out them, and it will become more difficult for the spy to operate covertly. I don’t know if this would also be true for an assassin, but it seems likely. Especially if they took on targets who were protected by government security services.

To a certain extent, it’s irrelevant whether an assassin (or any criminal) is publicly famous. The real question is whether the authorities know who they are. So, asking if the government knows, is really just cutting this one down the people who matter for the purposes of consequences.

-Starke

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Q&A: The hazards of Fame for a Professional Criminal

Are infamous assassins bad and are they more likely to be caught? Is it better to have an assassin who rather unknown than one who is infamous.

Yes.

This applies for almost any professional criminal: Their job will be easier and safer if no one knows who they are.

Realistically, being a world famous assassin or thief would be a nightmare. They’d be the first suspect whenever anything high profile happened in their general vicinity. They’d also be under tighter scrutiny, if they went anywhere publicly, they’d be carefully watched. (Either by the authorities, security, or both.) It would be significantly harder, or impossible, for them to do their job.

There’d be a real risk of being implicated in crimes they had nothing to do with. Fabricating a case against a famous assassin or thief would even be an effective tactic for anyone who wanted to neutralize them (either for revenge or to further their ambitions.)

It’s also, legitimately questionable how these characters could build up infamy. Murdering someone is, as you may be aware, somewhat frowned upon by polite society. So, if you have a character who’s built their reputation by murdering people, it raises the question, “How have they avoided the consequences?” The real answer would be, “by avoiding detection,” but being sneaky and escaping attention is the opposite of how one builds a reputation.

In the real world, there’s debate whether any, “master-class,” assassins actually exist. The entire nature of the job requires that they avoid detection, and if they’ve done so successfully, they’re effectively unknown. The assassins we do know about are the amateurs, and low-skill professionals, because they are identified and prosecuted. In that sense, becoming infamous as an assassin is somewhat analogous to being bad at your job.

Things could be a little different if your setting has some kind of legalized assassins guild. “World famous,” assassins are a staple in certain flavors of fiction. Some kind of secret society of assassins would give its members a safe space to develop their reputations, but they would be virtually unknown outside of their organization, (and groups it associates closely with.)

So yes, being famous (or infamous) would make an assassin’s job nearly impossible.

-Starke

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Q&A: Assassins vs. Spies

Not sure if this is the right place to ask and sorry if this is a dumb question in which it seems fantasy like. But is it possible for an assassin to have a to kill a spy who is undercover, not that the assassin is aware of that. Sorry if this is broad.

It depends on the degree of fantasy, but this scenario could play out. It’s entirely plausible someone could be contracted to kill an undercover operative without either the assassin or the client knowing the target’s real affiliation. This could even be a result of the spy’s activities being identified as a threat, without realizing that they’re a professional.

For example: Organized crime corruption could incorrectly identify a spy as someone gathering information for law enforcement, rather than a foreign power. Similarly, an operative’s activities could interfere with organized crime (either intentionally or not), and become a target without the organization knowing what they’re really dealing with.

It’s also possible someone could hire an assassin to deal with a spy, but not tell their assassin about the target’s true occupation.

There’s two problems with this question, the first is simply, “what do you think an assassin and spy are?” The second is the phrase, “have to kill.”

“Have to kill,” is a little strange, as phrases go. It implies that they need to kill their target, rather than they were simply hired to do so. There are situations where this could happen, such as if the spy was a witness, or if the assassin’s target was someone the spy was close to, and the assassin doesn’t know anything about them except that they need to be dealt with. However, in a lot of cases, if the assassin realizes they were hired to go after a spy, and that information was withheld, it’s entirely reasonable they’d cancel the contract when they found out (and depending on their status, maybe even blacklist the person who took out the contract in the first place.) Though, obviously, that might not an option if the assassin isn’t a freelance killer.

Spies and assassins are both careers that are radically distorted in popular culture. The James Bond style superspy is a superhero variant, with about as much relation to real world espionage as Batman does to being a functioning, well-adjusted adult. Similarly, master-class assassins like 47 or John Wick don’t appear to exist in the real world. (There have been a handful of assassinations which are hard to pin down, but at the same time, the entire point of being an assassin is to go undetected, and it’s the amateurs who fail to get away with murder.)

With that in mind, depending on the level of fantasy you’re imposing, your spy could just be an individual with exceptional social engineering skills, and a technical background slightly more advanced than you’d expect given their cover story. They could also be a superhero, living a double life, with a suite of implausibly advanced gadgets hidden in their home.

Depending on the level of fantasy, your assassin could just be some guy with a .38 and a dream, or they could be a professional contracted by a shadowy international organization, with decades of experience, with an access to an arsenal of hardware that starts with “top-of-the-line,” and quickly ascends into borderline sci-fi.

There’s room for stories at either end of those spectrums, though mismatching them could have peculiar results. Somewhat obviously, a superspy vs superassassin story is going to be very different from an accountant with social skills vs a cheap hitman. There’s also room for either character to be the protagonist in those stories.

It’s also worth remembering, when you’re looking at the skillset of characters like Bond and 47, they’re both very similar. Bond isn’t an assassin by trade, but he has the skillset, and assassinates people on occasion. 47 isn’t a spy, but, he is incongruously skilled blending into a crowd, (to the point of parody.)

Ironically, an excellent example of this similarity is Jason Bourne. In the novels, he’s a spy undercover as an assassin (when he loses his memory), while in the (Matt Damon) films he always was an assassin.

On the low end, with a, “realistic,” spy, it’s entirely possible that their killer never learns about their real job. On the superhero end of the spectrum, that would be need-to-know information, and the assassin could be reasonably put out with their employer for withholding that detail.

While not 100% reliable, if you’re an evil mastermind, it wouldn’t be the worst way to dispose of an assassin who was becoming troublesome. Send them after some James Bond proxy’s cover identity and let the problem sort itself out. Worst case: You’ve dealt with one annoyance (either the assassin or the spy.) Best case: They’re both dead and you can go back to your evil masterminding business uninterrupted. I mean, it’s not like they could team up and come after you together, that would just be silly.

-Starke

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Q&A: The Reasons Speed and Finnesse are so Important in Combat

Is there any form of serious real-world fighting that doesn’t care much about speed or finesse, and just wants to pick up a big, heavy object to clobber the enemy with? Or is this a fictional shorthand for “this character is a dumb brute” without a real-world referent?

tinker-tanner

Not really. I was going to start with a joke like, “axes, hammers, and cruise missiles,” but the truth is, those do require precision and speed.

You can’t do without speed, that is absolutely vital. Even in the cliché example of a character swinging a massive club, it’s physically dependent on speed to inflict harm.

A quick, and very basic, physics lesson: F=MA. That is to say, “Force = Mass * Acceleration.” In the case of clobbering someone with a massive object, you need to get it up to speed. Once you do that you can deliver a lot of force to the target, however, it’s also harder to get it moving. You need to expend energy to get that object going, and the larger it is, the more energy you’ll use. This is where a tradeoff happens in weapon design: A heavier weapon can deliver more force, however, it will require more energy from its wielder. If they can’t get it up to speed, it may actually underperform a lighter weapon.

(In general, lighter weapons actually come out ahead here, because getting them up to speed takes dramatically less energy. It’s been years but, my recollection is that the energy needed increases geometrically to linear increases in mass. So, if you keep the acceleration the same, doubling the mass of an object would quadruple the energy consumption. Someone with more of a physics background might be able to correct me there.)

Additionally, if you lack speed, your foe will have time to respond before you complete your strike. A lot of combat exists in a range where you’re pressing against the brain’s ability to process information quickly. Specifically, there’s some lag between when you see something occur, and your brain processes what happened. This is in fractions of a second, but when you slow down, you’re giving your opponent more time for their brain to catch up with what’s happening.

(This is also why most real combat styles focus on keeping your arms inside your profile, while visual media prioritizes placing them outside. Your brain identifies and tracks objects by finding the outline. If that outline is clear, tracking the object is easier, and significantly faster.)

For example, if you’re fighting with a baseball bat, it is significantly more effective to jab with the tip, rather than swing it. Swinging the weapon creates a massive, clear, outline that your foe can track, while simply jabbing them is faster and offers limited visual information. It may connect with less force, but it will reliably connect, where a swing gives your opponent plenty of time to interrupt the strike.

As for a fighting style that eschews finesse? That’s called, “the real world.” There’s a very noble goal for being able to manage how a fight flows, but in real combat, it’s not happening.

So, let’s pull this apart a little. In violence, finesse is a means, not an end. You’re trying to use as little energy as possible to inflict as much harm as you can. The thing about this is, you always want that. It’s a survival instinct. The less energy you expend to neutralize a threat, the safer you will be. The less energy you have after a fight, the less you’ll be able to defend against future threats (until you’ve recovered.) Getting into a battle of attrition is incredibly dangerous, because you can’t be certain you’ll outlast your opponent.

Finesse is being precise with your strikes to maximize their effect.

The problem is, precision in training and precision in combat are worlds apart. When you’re training (even when you’re using something big and kludgy) you’re going to train to strike for maximum effect. When you’re fighting, even if you’re fighting with, “a weapon that requires finesse,” you’re going to be struggling to land blows exactly where you want. Your opponent is moving and fighting back. While training may have prepared you for this moment, you’re going to have to adapt, and that adaptation will not be graceful.

Combat is not graded on who looked cooler. It’s not graded on who had the better technique. The only thing that matters is who survived and who didn’t. You train to be precise so that when the actual fight starts you have a better chance of ending it before it gets out of hand, and if that fails, you’ve got a better chance of getting in a decisive hit.

So, if the question was, “did people ever go out there and beat each other to death with hammers?” The answer is yes, but, the hammers were much more agile than you might have expected, and the people who trained to use them had a pretty good idea of how to be efficient with the things.

-Starke

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Q&A: Pike Walls, and Minimum Lethal Distance

Is it possible to engage in close quarters fighting with a Pike? What about halberds? How do you deal with weapons that have long handles in combat with somebody armed with a short sword. I vaguely recall that Pikeman typically carried side arms for close combat, but assuming that you couldn’t switch weapons what would be the best strategy?

Before we start, it’s important to remember that the pike and halberd are very different lengths. Your average pike was somewhere between 10 and 25 feet long. The halberd was 5 to 6 feet. You can absolutely use a halberd indoors, in tight quarters, and at close ranges. It’s ideal for use as a close range polearm, because you can easily adjust your grip to deal with a variety if situations.

The pike is a mass infantry weapon. Because of the length, it’s difficult to maneuver regiments of pike wielders in combat. They can advance, or hold position, but turning them without breaking formation can be a real challenge.

The pike’s primary value is a defense against enemy cavalry. You can’t charge directly into pike wielders and expect your cavalry to survive the experience. (You can charge their flanks or from the rear, if those approaches are unguarded, because the pikes are pointed in the wrong direction.) This is still true against charging enemy infantry, as they’ll still get pincushioned if they charge head long into a sea of pikes.

However, if a pike regiment gets overrun, or is attacked from behind, that’s why soldiers are issued sidearms. Their best option at that point would be to switch to their swords.

This leads to something that might sound a little strange at first. The pike is not a particularly good fighting weapon. It has real value on a battlefield, but it’s more about denying options to your foe. It seriously restricts enemy cavalry, and can form an effective barrier to protect artillery and ranged units (such as archers or handgunners) from enemy harassment.

So, it might be slightly more accurate to say, the pike is not a good weapon by itself; it only really shines as part of coordinated battlefield tactics.

I realize this is somewhat subverting, the intention of your question, but it is possible to circumvent pikes and fight the wielder in some situations. A lone pike wielder is not likely to be a significant threat. It’s one weapon and that can be fairly easily bypassed. Once you’re past the pike’s head, you have a foe who is defenseless unless they abandon their weapon and switch to something else. In some cases this might be as easy as simply grabbing the pike shaft and moving it away from your body. This is part of why I’m calling it a battlefield weapon.

For a pike to work, it needs to accompanied by many more pikes, and pike formations create multiple layers of weapons (sometimes five ranks deep) which means even if you neutralize one, you cannot close the gap to attack its user. If you manage to get past the outermost perimeter, there’s still multiple layers of pikes waiting to run you through.

The multiple layers, and massive safe zone around the pike wielder create two significant weaknesses. If a pike regiment has their weapons readied (forming the pike wall) they cannot turn to face enemies coming from a new direction. Similarly, it is very difficult for the unit to do anything other than advance. It is possible for pike users to engage in more complex battlefield maneuvers, but it requires either an extreme level of training and discipline, or for the unit to raise their weapons and reposition, before re-readying for combat.

There is a third weakness with the pike. Pike walls are not ideal for countering heavy infantry front lines. The pike shines when you’re dealing with horses rushing in at speeds where the individual weapons can’t be countered. If pike infantry is up against armored infantry units (particularly shielded ones), the pike wall will (eventually) collapse. At this point, the pike wielders probably hope they have less-specialized infantry behind them, so they can fallback through their own lines. However, because of the pike’s role, that wouldn’t always be the case.

The very short version is, that pike infantry has a real battlefield role, but it is a unit which has limited mobility once it’s readied for combat.

The pike is a really good illustration of something we’ve talked about in the past. Every weapon has a range where it can be used effectively. Very importantly, this is not just a, “maximum range.” It is both a minimum and maximum distance where you can effectively use the weapon. In the case of a 25ft pike, it cannot be used against a foe closer than about 20ft. The pike’s wielder can reduce the minimum lethal range by migrating their grip up the weapon, though there are still limits, because they’ll end up with an ever lengthening shaft behind them, limiting their ability to maneuver the weapon. My suspicion is that you’ll really start losing use of the pike somewhere around the mid-point on the shaft, but I don’t have any experience trying to fight with polearms that long. This also means that a 10ft pike could potentially be useful as close as 4 to 5ft, but you’d still have the back end of the shaft to contend with.

Also, if the shaft of a pike is broken, that also means the new, shorter, weapon may be useful at much closer ranges than the original. In extreme cases, this might even leave the user with an improvised, but effective, thrusting dagger.

The pike was a very important part of the late medieval and early modern battlefield. It has a very real tactical application. However, it’s not a particularly good weapon as a one-on-one dueling tool. A pike formation really is more than the sum of its parts.

-Starke

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Q&A: More Demystification of Martial Arts and Romance

autumnimagining said to howtofightwrite:

I just read your excellent response to the question about the martial arts romance. I was wondering if one way forward to help increase a sense of sexual or romantic tension would be to have the couple slowly go through the moves together, rather like a couple learning to dance. Slow, soft touches and gentle placements of each other’s bodies around each other. It would eliminate the intense physicality of sparring while still being consensual and might resemble a fight without risk of injury.

The irony is that the violence of the sequence doesn’t matter so long as the individuals are on the same page and the audience understands the context. The romantic tension doesn’t come from the activity itself, it’s about two people engaging in an activity they both enjoy separately together. Here’s an example of a character dynamic that, in isolation, doesn’t seem romantic but is within context.

In the 2010 action comedy R.E.D. (Retired, Extremely Dangerous), the KGB agent Ivan (Brian Cox) explains his longstanding, complex romantic relationship with the MI-6 assassin Victoria (Helen Mirren) to Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker) who is retired CIA officer Frank Moses’s (Bruce Willis’s) new girlfriend drawn into the plot’s craziness of Frank going to war with the American government after they put out a hit on him.

Ivan shows Sarah the scar on his chest where Victoria shot him as a parting gift when they parted ways at the end of the Cold War. A scar Ivan is still fond of to this day. Sarah visibly recoils, not understanding how Ivan could perceive Victoria attempting to kill him as romantic, and Ivan says (and I paraphrase), “she shot me in the chest, she could’ve shot me in the head.” What he means is, Victoria chose the maybe kill instead of the certainty. Giving herself cover to say, “well, I tried my best” when reporting in while giving him a chance to survive. This, for Victoria, was an expression of love and it’s one Ivan understands because he knows her well. They’re bonded together by a mutual shared understanding, respect, and admiration for each other’s skills even when they are, technically, enemies on opposite sides of a conflict. Ivan is one of the few individuals in Victoria’s life who knows and loves her for who she really is, a ruthless, badass, highly skilled, and extremely successful assassin. And his competence is a major reason why she loves him. (Enemies to Lovers, but We’re Still Enemies in the End.)

The problem is you’re still looking at it from the perspective of the physical interaction being what makes the interaction romantic, what shows the romance to the audience, but it isn’t. Violence isn’t romantic and martial artists physically touch each other all the time as a matter of practice. So, there’s nothing special or unique about them touching a specific person. What makes the interaction special is the context, what each character emotionally brings to the scene and their motivations.

If you’ve got two characters who really enjoy fighting and enjoy testing their skills against each other, you have the grounding for a scene where the fighting itself could become an expression of love (whether that love is romantic or platonic.) The street brawls of Yusuke Uremeshi and Kuwabara from Yu Yu Hakusho are a good example of platonic fighting that forms a foundation friendship. It’s not the fighting itself but the enjoyment of fighting for its own sake, the pride both characters take in their skills, and in testing those skills against each other which creates the bond.

Kuwabara comes back time and time again for another sound beating because he enjoys fighting a challenging, superior opponent. Kuwabara respects Yusuke’s raw, scrappy fighting talent (long before Yusuke ever dies and gains spirit powers) while Yusuke comes to respect Kuwabara’s bullheaded tenacity and realizes that his rivalry with Kuwabara wasn’t antagonistic like he thought but rather a gesture of friendship. This friendship wouldn’t work if both characters didn’t genuinely love fighting rather than using violence as a tool of domination or a means to take power over another individual.

One of the problems for some authors (mostly American authors) is that some cultures (American culture, especially for boys) are extremely touch-starved or engage in touch-starvation due to more rigid social mores and restrictions. So, the act of touching another person gains more importance, often being read by the audience as sexual even when there are other important connotations at play. The problem they face (which acts as a form of culture shock) is that martial sub-cultures are extremely touch-heavy by necessity, you can’t train without constantly touching someone else and being touched, so the expectations that might be perceived in the mere act of touching just aren’t there.

Example: the only characters who get really excited by an instructor laying a hand on their stomach to remind them to tighten their gut and breathe from their diaphragm is the neophyte and constant training quickly disabuses them of that romantic notion unless they choose to cling to it.

Now, the same action could become romantic. However, it’s the sort of the action which requires both characters to be on the same page, when screwing around instead of focusing becomes mutual as opposed to the same action detracting from the lesson.

What I’m saying is that it’s not martial arts that brings people together, but their individual love for the martial arts that brings people together.

The act of training is cooperative interaction, but we ultimately train because we want to become better. It’s difficult to focus when you’re thinking about how much you like (or would like to bone) your training partner. The martial arts trainee usually learns to compartmentalize and put aside those feelings for the duration of training. Romance becomes a secondary consideration dealt with in the before and in the after, rather than the moment. For romance to work it’s way into the scene, it has to be what the scene is about with both characters on the same page with both ultimately okay when it comes to screwing around.

The irony is, the same is true with characters in an all out battle against each other while on opposite sides of the conflict. If you can define your characters as idealogues who separate their personal interests or romantic feelings from their work, there’s nothing inherently abusive in them trying to kill each other. They love each other, yes, but there’s this belief or code or aspect of themselves which they love more. It’s when the romance is tied to the violence and the pain they inflict on each other that situation and romance becomes abusive.

Writing your character taking it too far in a training exercise, harming their romantic interest as a means to realize they have feelings, and using one character’s injury to justify them growing closer with the person who hurt them? That’s where the asymmetrical power structure and abuse are.

Two characters who really enjoy sparring, who especially enjoy sparring with each other, sparring together? That’s fine.

Characters training together? So long as they can put their feelings aside in the moment and knuckle down, it’s cool.

For romance to work at all, your characters need to be characters. What violence is useful for is creating challenging circumstances which push characters to grow, evolve, and change. The choices we make in response to violence and in committing violence can reveal us for who we truly are, stripping away the false notions and preconceptions common in the infatuation phase of a relationship. It’s very common for people to fall in love with who they perceive someone to be or who they decide they are, the person they create within their own heads, rather than the actual person themselves. (Ironically, it happens more commonly in the romance genre and fiction in general than most authors would enjoy to copping to.)

If you’re going to sit down and write a romance, regardless of whether it’s a romance with characters who are warriors or martial artists, ask yourself some specific questions:

  1. Why do they enjoy being with this person?
  2. What is it about them (beyond the physical) that they like?
  3. What hobbies and interests do they have in common?
  4. What are the quiet moments in your story where each of these characters looks at the other and goes internally, “I really like you.”
  5. What do they admire about the other character?
  6. What annoys them about the other character? (Not hate, annoys, irritates, gets under their skin.)
  7. Are the aspects that they admire and which irritate real or they are perceptions the character has that aren’t exhibited by the other character on the page? (Is what your character sees in their love interest representative of what the audience sees?)
  8. What do they believe in, in absence of their love interest?
  9. If they are a warrior, why do they fight? Who, or what, do they fight for?
  10. Are those feelings compatible with their lover interest’s goals?
  11. What do they respect about their love interest?

-Michi

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Followup: Damage Decks and the use of Playing Cards in RPGs

Wait what is the “damage deck” rpg called?

hueynomure

I was thinking, specifically, of two games. One was the FFG version of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, the other was Decipher’s Star Trek: Customizable Card Game. Both games are out of print, (The Star Trek: CCG went out of print nearly 20 years ago, and FFG lost the Warhammer license back in 2017.)

With Warhammer, I misremembered how the damage rules work, and it’s something of a hybrid system. Damage inflicted becomes “minor wounds,” which are tracked by face down damage cards. Under certain circumstances, a minor wound can become a “serious wound,” by flipping the damage card over, and at that point it has a persistent effect until the character is healed. The primary way minor wounds become serious ones is if the character is knocked out, in which case, one of their minor wounds will flip face up.

It’s a little unusual to see a mechanic like this in tabletop RPGs, but the mechanic of taking a persistent debuff after being downed in combat is significantly more common in CRPGs. Both the Dragon Age series and Pillars of Eternity use that exact mechanic to penalize characters who have been downed in combat.

It’s also worth pointing out that FFG is primarily a tabletop game publisher. This is very apparent in their Warhammer RPG, which features a lot of items you’d normally associate with a tabletop game, rather than an RPG. Player characters, their items, their skills, and the things they’ll fight are all tracked with cards. Keeping track of player characters between sessions was accomplished with custom tuck boxes. There are also a mountain of tokens for tracking many other things. So, in that environment, the use of cards to track damage isn’t that strange. It’s also why the box was nearly $100 USD when it was still in print. It’s beefy, and there’s a lot of stuff in there.

The Star Trek: CCG was one of the first imitators of Magic: The Gathering, and significantly, one of the first to really depart from the game structure of Magic. Where M:TG is about dealing 20 damage to your opponent before they do the same to you, Star Trek’s victory condition was acquiring 100 points from completing missions. Combat was not a primary focus of the game, and there was no direct victory condition through combat.

Over the years, Star Trek reworked its ground combat to be almost passible, but ship combat got a significant rework with the Blaze of Glory expansion. This saw the introduction of the “Battle Bridge side deck,” constructed from Tactic cards. Tactics had two parts to the card, the top was a combat modifier that you would select, and the bottom was the damage effect. Ship combat occurred once per turn, with your ships having the opportunity to attack your opponents, at which point, both players would draw the top two Tactics cards from the BBSD, select one, place the other underneath the deck, and then both players would reveal them at the same time. Tactics had varying effects, frequently increasing attack and defense values. If your attack was greater than the target’s defense, that was a “hit,” and if your attack was greater than twice the target’s defense that was a “direct hit.” At the same time, your opponent would make the same checks with their attack against your defense value.

Tactics cards would define what you did on a hit or direct hit. The default was to deal the top two tactics from your deck to your opponent’s ship on a hit, and the top four on a direct hit, but there was some variation. For example: One Tactics card (“Maximum Firepower,” I think), would deal the top three cards on a hit (if you were using one of a small subset of ships), but also had a defense penalty instead of a bonus. An entire subset of tactics (“Target Weapons/Shields/Engines”) would direct you to deal the top card off your deck (or top three on a direct hit), but was also placed on the target as a damage card when used.) (In the case of Target Shields, it would be applied even if you didn’t score a hit.)

As with Warhammer this is, technically a hybrid damage system. Each Tactic card’s damage section had a small text box which indicated what it did to the ship, this included disabling systems (such as the transporter or tractor beam), killing a crew member, causing the ship to be vulnerable to boarding parties, ect. It also applied penalties to the ship’s stats, and applied a “-%” to the ship’s hull. If the cumulative damage exceeded -100% hull, the ship would be destroyed. So, there is a health pool, but it’s gated by cards.

Now, significantly, this was not in the RPG that Decipher developed for Star Trek.

The use of cards as a game component in RPGs is pretty rare overall. The most prominent example I can think of is Deadlands, which used cards during character creation, and also when casting spells. Though, that was with a (mostly) standard 54 card poker deck. The only unusual element was the Jokers which were distinct from one another, and one had a special significance. Including, if I remember correctly, killing the player character if it was drawn during character creation.

The reverse is also unusual. You don’t often see card games which trend into roleplaying territory.

The (also, now, long out of print), Babylon 5 card game actively encouraged players to roleplay as their various characters during sessions session, and many of the cards in that game are primarily only useful as roleplaying aides. (There is a serious difference between competitive decks and casual ones.) However, there is no persistence between sessions. The game (unsurprisingly) has a card based consequence system, but, damage is just points assigned against a character’s highest ability.

FFG’s Arkham Horror card game is the inverse of B5 in many ways. You’re not actively encouraged to roleplay at the table, but your characters (or at least their decks) are intended to grow and change over the course of a campaign. Additionally, the game structure is more in line with an RPG, it’s cooperative between the players, with, “self-playing,” scripted scenarios that you work together to overcome. As with B5, there are persistent card effects that can linger on a character, but damage is simply measured against a health pool. (Technically two distinct health pools, Health and Sanity, but, this is H.P. Lovecraft inspired title.) (Also, there is an Arkham Horror board game. Same publisher, same setting, most of the same characters, but it is a different game.)

Now, my background with board and card games is not absolute, so I could easily be missing some other examples. (In particular, I haven’t played the board game version of Arkham Horror.) But, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and the Star Trek CCG’s ship combat are the two examples I was specifically thinking of when I mentioned that system.

-Starke

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Q&A: Martial Arts, Violence, Pain, Abuse, and Romance

Hello! I’m writing a martial arts kinda romance story thing (I’m a new writer and may have bitten off more then I can chew). I have the couple I want to eventually get together fighting in a consensual battle. They’re not intending to kill, but they will get injured (as anyone does in a fight; nothing too terrible though). Is this okay or does it promote abusive romance? Is it cringey?

Abusive? Probably not, but that’s a more complicated issue. Cringe? Yeah, “cringe” doesn’t really cover it.

Sparring is a real thing. The way it is frequently presented in popular media is as “play fighting,” or a safe way to stage duels between characters without risk of harm, is incredibly incorrect. Sparring in fiction tends to be a bit like hacking in fiction. Yeah, the term is technically real, but the fictionalized version is unrecognizable to reality.

In a lot of fiction, sparring is used to allow two characters to fight without worrying about them being horribly injured. Thing is, if you’ve got people who are just flailing at each other, someone’s going to get hurt, if it’s not stopped quickly, that risk will rapidly increase.

Hell, twenty-five years later, I still have a visible scar on my lip from where I took an elbow to the face during practice. We were practicing methods to break free from someone grabbing you from behind, which would end with you running your elbow into their face. My training partner was a little too enthusiastic, and as a result my teeth were permanently rearranged, and had a gash on my lip that would not stop bleeding.

So, are there, “martial artists,” who will, “spar,” as depicted in pop culture? Yes. And they will get weeded out, and ejected, from any competently run school. They are a legal liability. If you let the students beat on each other, someone is going to get hurt, and the school is going to get sued.

This is something you nailed perfectly. If you play around, “sparring,” with another student, someone’s going to get injured. It probably won’t be anything incredibly serious, but there is a real risk of inflicting (or suffering) a life altering injury. Spinal and cranial damage are the two that come to mind, but, my teeth are, literally, not in their original positions because of a training mishap.

The mistake is in thinking that those injuries are an acceptable outcome. Any sane school, which wants to continue doing business, needs to take steps to reduce that risk. This is also applies with militaries and any other system training you for real combat. The reason is that if you are injured, you can’t train and, worse, you will need to be retrained after recovering from your injury. Conditioning, which is your endurance, your speed, all those attributes your thinking of, have to be maintained through constant, daily workouts. If you slack off, you will lose your conditioning. It’s why a lot of people from high energy activities gain weight after they stop training at the levels they were at previously.

Instructors are not omniscient. Mistakes and accidents happen, and you can get situations where students go off-syllabus. This can result in students injuring one another because they weren’t given sufficient direction, or weren’t supervised. Either way, letting this progress to a fight is negligence by the instructors. A good instructor will shut that down before it goes that far.

Now, if you’re wondering whether your story promotes an abusive relationship, given the information you’ve provided, it is impossible to say with certainty.

This may sound strange, but not all violence is abusive. Also, not all abuse is violent. This is especially true when talking about forms of romantic abuse. One of the important metrics for evaluating abuse in a romantic relationship is determining whether both parties have equal agency in the relationship. This can be incredibly difficult to determine from an external perspective, as it hinges on the psychological and emotional states of both people.

The problem is that people can, and do, have entirely healthy relationships that may appear very aggressive or even hostile.

Granted, if they’re both trying to inflict physical harm on one another, that’s not a great sign. And, yes, some couples do use pain as foreplay, however, I’m drawing a significant distinction between, “harm,” and, “pain.” Harm is where there is a lasting injury (physical or emotional), while pain is a sensation.

If harm is involved, there’s an inherent asymmetry in the relationship. It doesn’t automatically mean it’s abusive, but you are walking a very fine line.

If you have a couple who are into inflicting and receiving pain, the priority is being able to trigger the sensation without causing lasting damage. Lasting damage stacks up, and means you have to wait for wounds to heal before you can go again, which just kills the momentum.

I can’t speak for every martial artist, but if pain is one of your turn-ons, I seriously suspect that extended martial arts training will numb you to that. Training is painful. You’re going to be pushing your body way past the point when it’s done with this whole, “physical activity,” thing. This will completely destroy the novelty of pain for you. And, that’s something you’ll find with most martial artists. Pain is just something we all live with at one time or another. It could still get you going if that’s your thing, but it’s probably not going to excite you.

It is also important to mention, in a fictional context, that the sexual tension of a fight scene is not drawn from the violence or the infliction of violence on their partner but from the characters enjoying each other’s company. What draws people to the Battle Couple is not that they are violent individuals. What people love is the way their relationship becomes an equal partnership with the two characters unconditionally supporting each other. In order to fight back to back with someone in battle, you need to trust them completely and trust they can take care of themselves. It’s a “partners first, lovers second” relationship.

So, sexual tension in two characters sparring comes from those characters engaging in an activity they each enjoy separately and doing it together. If your characters are not established as enjoying the practice of martial arts or taking pride in their skills, they will not enjoy sparring each other and the scene won’t be sexy. In the end, they’re not sparring because they enjoy hurting each other. They’re sparring because they enjoy testing and showing off their skills. This only works with two characters who are on the same page. Otherwise, it’s assault.

Hurt/Comfort resulting from a sparring match is one character abusing the other, and any blossoming relationship will be tainted as a result. Asking your reader to overlook one character’s potential romantic partner breaking the character’s arm because they took the competition too far is messed up. Also, a hard no. That is not love, that is abuse.

So, while I can’t speak for every martial artist, I’ve been the guy standing there bleeding from deep gashes on my hand thinking, “well this is fucking annoying,” not, “oh my god this hurts.” Incidentally, if you have the option, I do not recommend taking cuts on the fingers or palm; you way too many nerve endings there, and it is singularly unpleasant.

(Michi Note: When I’ve had the wind knocked out of me by some dude, my immediate response is “I can’t breathe” and not “oh god, he’s hot.” Times I’ve been attracted to guys on the martial arts floor (and I went through puberty doing martial arts so it happened a lot) was usually while watching them demonstrate, not from physical contact. I also don’t get warm fuzzies from guys from physical corrections, like putting my elbow into the correct position. Grappling was distinctly nonsexual for me in my teens and, my school was usually short on girls, I trained with a lot of guys of different age ranges. So, wrapping your legs around someone’s waist is not inherently sexual, especially when it ends with you choking them.)

Thinking, at least for me, the moment that changed was probably when I was dealing with that split lip, and having to tear away damaged tissue to get it to stop bleeding, but this outlook is not unique to me.

If you find experiencing pain sexy, I’m not going to judge you, but it is a completely alien concept for me. I understand it on an academic level, but I can’t relate. For you, it may be an exciting and intoxicating experience, “but for me, it was Tuesday.”

(Worth noting, I’m not talking about the BDSM community here, but I’ll come back to that in a second.)

If you want to avoid writing abusive relationships, my advice would be to make sure both characters are equal participants. That doesn’t mean they have to be the same person (they should be distinct individuals), but they both need to have an equal say in what they’re doing. When one of the characters has far more power or control than the other, you have a serious risk of an abusive situation. Especially if you have a situation where only one character has the option to walk away. This is especially a risk when one of the romantic partners is a teacher and the other is a student. An imbalanced relationship is not automatically abusive, but there is an extreme risk.

If you’re familiar with the BDSM community, a lot of the community’s rules are there to prevent abusive situations. As I just mentioned, when you have imbalanced power dynamics, you have a real risk of abuse occurring. The thing is, BDSM isn’t about the pain (it may be an important part of the experience for some, but it’s not the raison d’être), it’s about managing asymmetrical power and control dynamics between the participants, while keeping them safe from abuse. The rules that the community creates are there to protect them.

Again, no judgement on this count. I’ve known a few martial artists who were also in the community. Granted, not many, but, it’s also deeply personal information, so the number may be higher than I aware of. If you are going to delve into this subject, I strongly recommend you do your research on how the community actually operates. Their presentation in pop culture is often played for shock value or as a joke, which stigmatizes the community. The are real consequences for real people as a result.

As a new writer, you do deserve some serious credit here. Unpacking everything you’re wanting to do here would take some serious work, and this is tapping into some difficult subject matter. I would not recommend these topics until you’re comfortable enough in the full ramifications of those subjects.

Even as a non-writer, when you’re looking at these concepts, it is very important, for your growth as a person, to really sit back and consider what’s being said by the media you consume.

-Starke

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Q&A: The Advantages and Weaknesses of Hitpoints in Games and Writing

You can punch with a stump. I would say you deal more damage as you don’t need to worry about breaking fingers and all of the delicate bones of your wrist are gone. This means the solid stump hits the target. Hard. d8 or d10 anyone?

skypirateking

Nope.

So, there’s three issues here, one far less important than the others, so let’s start with physiology, and the reason I’m not sure if you can even throw a punch without your hand.

Your forearm contains two bones, the radius and the ulna. This structure is what allows you to roll your wrist, instead of having it locked into a single orientation. It also means your forearm is not as structurally sound as it might first appear. Your hand helps anchor the entire structure together. These bones can fracture, and the results are pretty nasty. I’m not 100% certain how much more vulnerable these bones are if you’ve lost your hand, but that is the structure holding everything together. This is a large part of why I said, “you can’t punch without your hand.” Now, part of that was just me being pedantic, (you can’t form a closed fist if you don’t have a hand,) but even an in-line strike with the stump would probably be out of the question.

The caveat for a prosthetic is, really, just speculation on my part, that you could set up some kind of shock absorbing structure around the stump, to take a hit, (and may have that for simple comfort), along with the prosthetic’s harness helping to hold the bones in place. But, like I said, that’s speculation.

I’m assuming when you say a d8 or d10, you’re using D&D as your metric (and, if you’re thinking Pathfinder, that is just a tweaked version of D&D’s 3.5 edition.) Now, it is possible that you actually mean some other roleplaying system, though most of the ones I’m thinking of off hand would convert that damage into some kind of hilariously disproportionate hit.

If you’re unfamiliar, in D&D, a fairly normal battle axe’s hit will cause damage based on using one eight-sided dice, plus any relevant modifiers. This gets abbreviated to 1d8, (or sometimes 1d8+STR, as the primary modifier you’re going to be looking at is derived from the character’s strength attribute.) So, literally this is suggesting that being punched by someone’s stump will inflict more trauma on the victim than burying an axe in them or stabbing them with a sword.

Some monsters will do 1d8 with their claws, and the Monk class (mystical, martial arts superheroes), will eventually gain the ability to hit that hard with their unarmed attacks. (In 5e this doesn’t happen until around level 11, which by D&D standards is mid-to-high level.)

If you came to me and said you had a Monk in D&D who’d lost their hand, but continued fighting using their psychic powers to offset the loss, cool. But, we’re also talking about a game system (and setting) where martial arts masters literally become so good at fighting that their bodies are considered magical weapons. (And back in 3rd / 3.5e, a monk would eventually transcend their humanity and become a supernatural creature in their own right.)

As with all D&D adventurers, the monks are fantasy superheroes, and they represent an entirely valid expression of that. If you want a character who becomes so good at unarmed fighting that they can literally punch a dragon do death, the Monk is there for you.

So, having your character swing, and connect with the force of a fire axe, just because their hand is missing is a little disproportionate. Normally, unarmed attacks hit for 1+STR, no die roll needed. (This used to be 1d3+STR. There’s also an attack of opportunity, meaning your opponent gets a free shot on you if you try to punch them, unless your character is specifically specced for unarmed combat.)

D&D’s damage model has a few issues. And, because D&D was so influential, those issues have expanded far beyond just RPGs, and that’s the real reason I’m writing this response.

D&D’s health system abstracts injuries into a single durability meter. This has become the norm for the vast majority of games with detailed combat systems. It’s not just RPGs, even things like Doom run off a damage/HP system under the surface. (You can see the player’s HP, but monster are also operating under those same rules.)

This is so ubiquitous, because it’s simple, efficient, and works. It allows the designer to clearly signpost victory and loss conditions; it gives the player an easy to read assessment of how well they’re doing, and the ability to make informed choices.

And that’s where its utility stops. You can’t take “damage numbers,” and really apply them in a real world in any meaningful way. The abstraction doesn’t apply when you’re dealing with real people. You don’t take 5 or 15 or 500 points of damage from accidentally cutting your hand. You now a cut on your hand, and while it’s not life threatening, it also doesn’t affect your ability to survive a serious injury a few minutes later. (Or, at least, probably doesn’t.) But, under a hitpoint system all damage is cumulative, applying to the same pool. Stubbing your toe makes you less able to survive a gunshot.

There is a specific problem with D&D (and again, this is not unique to D&D, but it is less common), endlessly inflating stats. From a character building point, this always kind of bothers me. There’s no concrete meaning for a given stat value (aside from the six attributes. Where 10 average for a human character.) This is especially true of of their maximum health, which can range anywhere from 1hp (realistically, you’ll probably never see a character with max health below 3hp) to over 360hp. (I say, “over 360,” because I know full well, it’s possible to pump the value far beyond that.”.

This creates a situation where many characters can be downed in one hit from a longsword at level 1, but by level 10, can reasonably shrug off multiple, solid hits, from that same weapon. A character approaching max level, could easily have more than 100 health (depending on their class), and suddenly, that 1d8 hit is pretty trivial. The character literally gets to a point where they can shrug off weapons that could, and would, kill them.

Using official stats from Wizards of the Coast (D&D’s publisher), it’s entirely reasonable that a level 20 fighter, can take at least four .50 rifle rounds to the face without dying. That’s not, “oh, their armor absorbed the hit,” or, “it was a glancing blow.” That’s you shot them in the head four times with an anti-material rifle, and they’re still alive (and are probably able to survive several more headshots.)

(Seriously, D20 Modern, which is a variant of 3.5, puts the Barrett M82 at 2d12 per hit, if it crits that doubles to a maximum possible 48 damage per hit, meaning if your fighter has over 200hp (which is likely), four consecutive headshots are survivable. If it doesn’t crit, and you’re not getting max damage rolls, you could easily dump an entire mag into to fighter without killing them. And, if you’re familiar with D20 Modern, yes, that version has a level cap of 10, at which point we’re still talking about multiple headshots being survivable.)

Now, D&D tries to walk back some of this insanity with suggestions like the blow not penetrating armor, or skill developing to a point where the character knows how to avoid serious injury. However, the math doesn’t work, and hitpoints will (almost) always devolve into bizarre edge cases.

The problem isn’t D&D. While its implementation has issues, and various designers are always trying to, “make it more realistic,” which is a bit like slapping a band-aid on four .50 headshot wounds, the system itself can make for compelling experiences. Just, be very cautious about taking them out of that context.

The great strength of HP systems (beyond it being easy to read) is that it helps mitigate the extremely unpredictable nature of combat. (I’m not going to delve into concepts like, “exploding dice,” which exist in some games), but in most cases you can easily predict the worst possible outcome in a given combat situation governed by an HP system. (For example, being able to calculate the average and maximum possible damage from the sniper rifle example above.)

The issue is, that’s not how damage works in the real world. People can, and do, die from relatively minor injuries. A light blow to the head can result in a cerebral hemorrhage, which will kill you. A relatively light strike, at a bad angle, can fracture bone. A punch to the kidney can cause you to internally bleed to death over a matter of days.

In a very strange, and counterintuitive sense, the way we think about damage is a fantasy. We’ve recently had the longsword/rapier discussion floating around, and that’s an excellent example of how damage doesn’t work the way you think.

In D&D, the longsword is a 1d8, while the rapier is a 1d6, (technically, 5e finally changed rapier a d8, but for almost 40 years, it did less damage.) In the real world, both weapons are quite capable of ending a combatant’s life in a single hit. It doesn’t matter if you just picked up the blade for the first time, or if you’ve been dueling with it for decades. In D&D (barring special circumstances) it is impossible to kill a high level character in a single strike from either weapon.

The idea of breaking down damage to a number (or linear value) only works, when there’s no actual people involved. Damage suffered is a consequence of applied Newtonian physics, not arithmetic.

Hit point systems struggle when it comes to converting those numbers into detailed injuries. (Or mechanical damage when one of the participants is an object, rather than a living being.) For a writer, this is a huge problem.

As a writer, hit points are not useful on their own. You can’t write, “my character took 15 points of damage and was knocked prone,” while expecting it to carry the same weight, as your character getting kicked in the side, losing their balance, and falling into the mud, before taking a boot to the face. (I’m now reminded of that novel where a character uses an AoO to activate circle kick, and the really was just one step removed from identifying each action by the D&D terminology.)

Again, I do like D&D for what it is. I think it is a very good, cooperative, tabletop, strategy game. As a roleplaying game, it’s not my favorite, but that has more to do with your group and DM, and I’ve had a few terrible DMs over the years.

As a framework for a fantasy setting, I’m not overly opposed to D&D. Between the various campaign settings, there are a few that do some really interesting things with the genre. Planescape and Dark Sun still stand out as the highwater mark for me, and if you’re writing fantasy, you should probably develop a passing familiarity with both. Ravenloft has never been a favorite, but there’s a lot to recommend it. Dragonlance feels a little overrated in my opinion, but I suspect that’s because Hickman and Weiss’s novels carry the setting. Forgotten Realms is significantly better than it looks at a glance, but a lot of the interesting (post-apocalyptic) elements are easy to miss, and get lost. Spelljammer is weird, in a compelling way. Urban Aracana is debatably not a D&D campaign setting.

For understanding combat, or writing violence, D&D is not a good starting point. It is a slightly janky, but highly detailed squad-level, strategy game. It can be a lot of fun, and you can tell a fun story based on what the dice did to your friends, but any attempt to write a coherent narrative from it, will require you to spite the dice, rather than following their direction.

If you asked me to design a, “realistic,” damage system for a game, I’d probably lean towards more of an applied condition system. These do exist, but they’re somewhat rare because they require a lot of bookkeeping, and it can be difficult to assess how well a character is doing at any given moment. They also have the disadvantage that they can outright kill a character with little to no warning, and while that is true to life, and is advantageous in a narrative setting, it feels really bad when your character takes a dirt nap with no warning, due to events completely outside your control. (The best versions of this I’ve seen, use a shuffled deck of cards to inflict and track damage. Which opens up a lot of options for fine tuning damage consequences to the specific situation.)

To be clear, I don’t think that hit point systems are bad. I think their positives vastly outweigh their limitations, in a game. However, outside of games, hit points become actively detrimental. If you’re wanting to write violence, it’s something hit points are more of a hinderance than a help.

-Starke

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Q&A: One-Handed Fighters: Combat Prosthetics and Götz von Berlichingen

How can a disabled character fight (unarmed/sword/knife)? He only has one good hand, and the other arm ends at a stump at the wrist. Is a wristblade possible on the stump? Can he punch as normal (boxing skills)? Holds? The setting is fantasy, and military stuff isn’t needed at all.

Well, it’s been a couple years since we’ve talked about Götz von Berlichingen, so let’s remedy that.

Götz von Berlichingen was a German soldier in the early 16th century. During his career he served as a mercenary, Imperial knight, and even became a poet later in life.

Götz is significant, because in 1504, his right hand was blown off during the siege of Landshut. The full story was a messy succession war between the Bavarian duchies of Munich and Landshut. Having lost his hand, Götz had a simple prosthetic commissioned, and continued campaigning for 40 years. For context, he was in his mid-20s when he lost his hand, and continued fighting into his mid-60s. He would later go on to have a more advanced prosthetic crafted, which could be manipulated to allow him to hold objects. Most famously, this included a pen, which allowed him to write with his prosthetic. This is somewhat fortunate, as he left an autobiography, which forms much of the historical record we have regarding him.

Finding the autobiography (and even the play Goethe wrote) is fairly easy in the original German, though English translations are a bit harder to come by. (Translations of the play are a little more accessible, but Goethe took some significant liberties with history.)

While Götz is the most famous example, his use of a prosthetic hand was not unique in the era. The technology needed for these prosthetics were basic clockwork systems, and a similar level of mechanical sophistication to wheel lock firearms.

Since you’re working with a fantasy setting, it’s possible your world might have more functional prosthetics, potentially with more specialized applications. (Though, obviously, more delicate tools built into a prosthetic would make it less useful in combat. For example: If you have lockpicking tools built into the fingertips, you probably wouldn’t want to risk damaging them by punching someone.)

I’m not aware of any historical prosthetics that had weapons built into them. Wearable weapons are uncommon, but have existed at various points in time. It’s not impossible that your fantasy gauntlet could have a retractable blade built in. However, if the blade is damaged, the user would need to go through an entire process dismantling their arm and replacing the weapon, instead of just switching to another one.

Worth noting, it’s can be harder to break free of a hold, by someone who is missing a hand (and especially if they’re missing part of their forearm.) The easiest way out, usually involves manipulating the attacker’s fingers, and if they don’t have any, pulling their arm off will be more difficult.

Can you punch without a hand? No. It’s possible you could punch with a prosthetic (though, again, if it has mechanically delicate internal components, this may be a bad idea, depending on how it was designed.)

So, the historical answer was, prosthetics. This may be more true in your setting than in the real world.

-Starke

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Advice and suggestions for writing fight scenes.