Is it just a trope that your MC can handle fighting multiple lackeys at once especially when they’re treated like useless who get cut down with barely a fight and then be evenly matched 1v1 with the big bad? or perhps this only makes sense if the lackeys are uncombat trained.
The way 1vX is treated in fiction as a method to establish the main character’s prowess and build up the Big Bad is just a fictional trope.
However, the 1vX is a very important (perhaps even foundational) trope for any sort of action narrative and there’s a real world reason (or, really, several important reasons) which provides the basis for both the trope’s existence and its popularity.
In the real world, fighting multiple opponents at once, especially without any weapons or armaments that provide a significant advantage against your foes (such as staff versus sword, even multiple swords, or unarmored versus plate) is nearly impossible. You are almost guaranteed death. Numbers matter, two people of mediocre skill or even no skill can overwhelm one well-trained individual. The scenario’s 1 has to manage a lot of incoming information at once with zero margin for error. A good analogy for 1vX is juggling live knives while someone hurls rocks at your head or shoots at you with a gun, one slip and it’s goodbye. Now, real people do survive these encounters, but that’s largely a matter of luck. Many more who find themselves in these situations, who are just as skilled or even more skilled, are critically injured or die. The real world doesn’t have skill plateaus the way fiction or video games do. Martial training is about giving yourself a better chance at survival, it doesn’t assure your survival. Nothing can assure your survival.
So, why is the 1vX so popular? The logic is simple. If your hero can survive fighting multiple enemies at once, or, even better, do so with ease, they must be supremely skilled. The commander of these opponents, especially the ones who pressure the skilled hero, must, by extension, also be extremely skilled as they’re capable of keeping these well-trained individuals under control. Better yet, a 1vX provides the opportunity to pressure and showcase your character’s skills in ways a 1v1 simply can’t. For visual mediums, these scenes are often visually interesting due to the constant movement and highly entertaining.
If you can successfully pull it off, 1vX is the ultimate form of show.
Honestly, the number of times I’ve heard players in various MMOs ask for “1vX builds” for PvP (it’s a lot) should tell you how popular and imagination grabbing the concept is. Coming across a skilled PvPer is one place in the “real world” where you can see the trope come alive. And, as someone who has 1vX’ed in Elder Scrolls Online, I can tell you, there’s a rush that comes with knocking off four other players at once or healing through the combined damage of a zerg. 1vX means Supreme Skill because very few people can 1vX well or successfully, placing those who can among the best, which earns respect. (Again, video games are not reflective of the real world outside of psychological warfare.)
So, in theory, a character who can 1vX is a character in a very small, elite skill pool. In theory, their opponent should be established as a better warrior than they are. The end result is an easy build up to a very interesting fight within your narrative. I say, in theory, because, like 1vXing in the real world, the reality of crafting a good 1vX fight scene is far more difficult than one might imagine it to be. It’s not enough to write your character fighting, they have to fight convincingly.
A bad 1vX scene can easily show the opposite of your intention, establishing your character as someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing or, worse, a character who’s victories come from the power of plot. A bad 1vX scene is the main character in Gameboard of the Gods, who, while trying to save her future love interest from a gang of six, stopped to put each one in a submission hold and left the others with plenty of time to kill the person she was trying to rescue. That’s bad.
1vX is about showing your character’s ability to prioritize threats. It is about showing their ability to manage the battlefield and control the flow of combat. These are highly advanced skills that can’t be learned from watching a couple of MMA bouts. It’s not just about their physical skill, but their intelligence, their cleverness, their battlefield awareness, their tactical capability, their ability to strategize on the fly, utilize their environment, and effectively choose which skills serve them best in achieving their long term goals. 1vX is not about fighting multiple opponents, it’s about managing threats and prioritizing the dangers within the group. It’s a masterclass in effectively selecting who dies first.
In 1vX, you can’t sit around individually fighting 1v1 or you’ll die. When your focus is locked on one opponent, the others will jump you. You can’t sit around fighting forever. When they wear you down (and they will), you’re dead. You need to knock off threats, remove their numbers, and lose the support players. Cleanly forcing submissions takes time, and, when you’re fighting against multiple opponents, you don’t have ten minutes to choke someone out and hope they won’t wake up five seconds later. You don’t even have thirty seconds for a blood choke. You’ve got about a second to stick your knife in your opponent’s carotid and hope you’ve got it deep enough that after you pull it free they bleed out.
The reality of 1vX on film is that you’re not really seeing 1vX, so much as you’re seeing 1v1v1v1v1v1v1v1v1v1v1v1v1v1v1v1v1v1 multiplied by the number of available stuntmen; with a maybe added bonus of 1v2 if your actor and stunt team are up to par. Film practices a system called queuing where the actor or their stunt double is only (stage) fighting one person at a time and everybody takes their turn, but the group is being shuffled in such a way that general audiences don’t usually notice. The practice is elevated to visual art by martial artists like Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, Jean Claude Van Damme, Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, and Chuck Norris. And can be painfully obvious when done poorly, or in low budget. (Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s early seasons are an example of queuing at it’s worst. Black Widow’s hallway fight scene in Iron Man 2 isn’t bad, but is a good example to really see queuing in action. Loaded Weapon used the stuntman queue as a sight gag.) It’s a visual sleight of hand, but is a useful system for authors to learn for a medium where you don’t have live bodies and actions only happen in words on the page. Queueing is about convincing your audience that your character is fighting multiple opponents, while making life a little easier for yourself.
If you want to be able to write good 1vX fights, you need to gain an appreciation for how much skill it requires for someone to fight 1vX. More importantly, you need to actually respect your mooks, and put in the work to establish them. If your mooks suck and are treated as useless, low level flunkies, fighting them doesn’t make your character look good or skilled. A threat that isn’t a real threat does nothing to establish a character’s prowess or your Big Bad’s effectiveness. A Big Bad with crappy flunkies isn’t that scary and does nothing to enhance your hero. This is the Cycle of Enhancement. Your mooks exist to make your hero look good, your mooks looking good enhances the danger presented by your main villain, your hero looking good beating your mooks enhances the danger presented by the main villain who is established to be more powerful than the hero.
Your audience can write off the supporting background characters, but you, the author, should never do so.
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PS: And because I walk my talk, here’s a screenshot from one of my quad kill matches in ESO.