Tag Archives: history

Medieval Footwear

I’m sorry if you’ve already answered this, but I’ve been scouring your blog and I haven’t seen my precise question asked yet, so: what kind of boots are most practical for a hunter-slash-fighter? I know you mentioned potentially breaking toes in steel-toe boots, and this is a medieval-ish world, where my character spends half her time living in forests or traveling on-foot, and the other half fighting magical creatures to protect nearby settlements.

So, as a quick caveat, this is not my area of expertise. I’m also going to be a little sloppy here, because depending on your definition, Medieval can cover roughly a thousand years.

You’re probably looking at soft, pliable, leather boots or shoes. Possibly with multiple layers stitched together to provide additional protection and stability, particularly on the soles. Earlier medieval footwear was a bit softer than what we’re used to.

During the middle ages, there was a common practice of wearing pattens while going outside. These were wooden platforms which would fit under the shoe, and protect it from damage when worn outside. These were then held in place with leather or fabric strips. Pattens still saw use, in women’s fashion, into the 19th Century.

Soldiers are a little different. The actual footwear would still be leather shoes or boots, but, depending on their means, if they had any additional armor, it would likely be greaves. Greaves are a shin guard (usually made out of metal), which date back to the bronze age. Ironically, they fell out of use for a few centuries around the end of the first millennium, before reappearing. So, if your setting is contemporary with the Viking conquests, greaves were becoming quite rare, while if you’re setting it a few centuries later, they would have started reemerging.

Protection for the foot itself would be the sabaton. These are articulated plates which fit over the foot. These start popping up in the 13th century. As with greaves, sabatons do not replace the boot your character would wear; instead they would fit over the boot. Sabatons would likely be part of a full suit of plate armor, and also probably indicate that the soldier in question was very well equipped, or wealthy in their own right.

Ironically, the modern steel toed boot is a 20th century invention. Now, the sabaton existed before that, and it’s entirely possible someone may have sewn metal plates into their footwear before that, but as far as I know, the steel toe cap only dates back to the 1940s. So, not something your medieval hunter/fighter would have been hauling around.

So, the short answer is, it’s likely she’d wear soft-heeled leather boots. Depending on the timeframe, her armor might include greaves, or not.

-Starke

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A Brief Primer on Dueling Weapons and Rituals

Hi I have just stumbled upon your blog and it is amazing 😀 Thank you for all the effort you put in every question it is really helpful as a writer having a guide in things some may not know about 🙂 Hoping to not bother you Could I ask you which kind of swords were generally used in medieval and later on in 1800 ; which kind of reason there could be for a duel in medieval times and how it will be executed? All of of my questions concern particularly France for a WIP I am working on thank you for keeping up such an interesting blog Have a nice day : )

Starting with the question of, “which kinds of swords? That’s a huge swath of weapons, and these weapons changed significantly over time. The Oakeshott typology identifies 13 distinct categories of medieval sword (numbered X through XXII), which saw use between the 11th and 16th centuries, with additional subtypes that are similar to the main 13, but show significant variations.

(Incidentally, if you’re looking at older posts, and wondering why the number went from 12 to 13… it’s because I screwed up. I subtracted 10 from 22, and said, “ah, there are 12,” without considering that Type X is one of Oakeshott’s.)

Oakeshott was expanding Jan Petersen’s classification of Viking swords, Petersen defined nine types from, roughly, ninth to eleventh century. (Though, without checking, I think some Knightly Swords or Arming Swords do fit into the Petersen typology.)

The important takeaway here is that there were a lot of variations in swords. Ranging from the one-handed arming swords up through the greatswords.

By 1800 France, you’re looking at two distinct varieties of swords. You had lightweight dueling weapons, like the epee or rapier, and you had military sabers. (Along with a lot of older swords that still existed, and may have been in circulation or on display.)

The Saber came to popularity in military circles in the 17th century (originating with the Polish Hussars), so by the 1800s it had become the primary military sidearm across most of Europe. (It wouldn’t surprise me if there were nations that hadn’t adopted sabers at that point.) So, if you’re looking at early 19th Century France, students from military academies, and military officers would have been using sabers.

The Rapier was a product of continuing development of the longsword. However, unlike the Saber, the Rapier (and other lightweight dueling blades), found a home with civilian users. Specifically, the rapier was an evolution of the side sword, a kind of straight blade intended for use as a sidearm. The earliest rapiers were French blades in the fifteenth century. Lightweight dueling blades were extremely popular among the rising merchant middle class, and they would remain a popular status symbol and self-defense tool into the 19th century. (There’s a technical distinction here, the rapier would be replaced by the small sword, dress sword, and epee, over time, however, these are extremely similar weapons, to the point that distinguishing between them requires knowing what you’re looking at. In the case of the dress sword, it was sometimes used as a pejorative term for these kinds of dueling blades, rather than an actual type of sword.)

Also, “épée” is the French word for, “sword.” It is a specific, lightweight dueling blade, but the name itself is a simple French word.

By the early 19th century, pistols were already becoming a popular dueling weapon. So, it’s quite possible that a duel in the 1800s would have used dueling pistols rather than blades.

As for the cause of a duel? That could be nearly any dispute. If one party was believed to have caused offense to the other, that was enough. In theory there was a complicated ritual, with both duelists designating a trusted friend to function as their Second. The Seconds had an obligation to attempt to avoid bloodshed (at least in theory), and they would handle communication between the duelists. In more formal situations, a lot of these messages would be transmitted in writing, so there’s a fair amount of surviving primary sources if you want to dig up the exact language.

Dueling persisted to some degree up into the 19th century, and there are still cultural remnants of it in some subcultures today. If you’re asking specifically about 18th Century French dueling, I would assume that would be the aggrieved duelist would challenge their foe, probably verbally, with a statement of cause, and then throw down the gauntlet. (In this case, literally taking their glove and throwing it in the path of the individual they were challenging.) At that point, seconds would be designated, and it would be the seconds’ responsibility to schedule the duel, select the weapons (usually we think of swords or pistols, but this could be anything; in one 1843 French duel, the duelists fought using billiard balls), and attempt to prevent the duel entirely if possible (remember, these are the friends of the duelist who they’re representing, and probably not acquainted with one another, so their loyalty is to keeping their friend alive, meaning it’s quite possible they wouldn’t be able to avert the duel.) On the day of the duel, they would need to be present, and oversee the execution of the duel, they would inspect the weapons to ensure there was no foul play by the other party. Then, two people would try to kill each other. My understanding is that the defeated duelist’s second would be responsible for any arrangements related to a corpse, but I’m not sure, and it’s not a topic I’ve seen come up very often.

By the 19th century, duels were falling out of favor among the general population. French royal decree had outlawed dueling in 1626, but this hadn’t ended the practice. While it was illegal in the 1800s, the legal penalties were slight.

Dueling in the Medieval era was a little different. Depending on exactly when you’re talking about, it was a legally recognized, judicial practice. You can think of this like a modern court case, except the method of dispute resolution was violence. The last judicial duel in France was in 1386, though there were legally sanctioned duels into the sixteenth century. I’m not familiar with the specific legal procedures for a fourteenth century French judicial dual. I know there was a degree of very specific ceremony involved, but anything beyond that is a little outside my area of expertise. The Last Duel by Eric Jager covers this in more detail, if you really want to get into the historical context.

One thing that makes this a little tricky is that the medieval era is roughly 5th to 15th century. Early modern is 15th to 18th. Modern is 18th to present. I’m not completely certain what you’re asking for in medieval dueling. Depending on your definition, this could include things like Viking Holmgangs, and while I’m not aware of any that occurred in France, I’d be genuinely shocked if there were no Holmgangs in tenth and eleventh century Normandy.

So, this is a question about roughly a thousand years of history, and it leaks forward into the modern era. This does make it a little difficult to pin down exactly what you’re looking for. These processes and rituals changed dramatically over time.

-Starke

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Swords & Rapiers: A Singular Moment

Re. That Gideon question, were long swords and rapiers used concurrently in real life?

Yes, with a few minor caveats. The Rapier dates to the 16th and 17th century. By that point in history, the longsword was in the process of being replaced by the sabre as a military sidearm, but they still existed and saw use. This also puts the rapier in the same timeframe as the two handed swords (like the Zweihander and claymore.)

The tricky part about this is that the rapier was never a military weapon. Some did see battlefield use, but the rapier was designed as a civilian defense and dueling blade. The lighter weight even made rapiers attractive as fashion pieces for a few decades. In the 16th and 17th century, if you were part of the up and coming middle class, it was fashionable to carry a rapier as a sign of wealth.

In that sense, there is a reasonable attitude of someone with military training in the 17th century looking down on the rapier. It’s an incredibly lethal weapon in trained hands, but most of the people carrying them wouldn’t know how to use them effectively, and that could certainly reflect on an individual’s attitudes for the weapon as a whole.

If you’re a military veteran with decades of experience campaigning on the frontiers of the empire, who came home to see all those pretty boys and stuffed shirts flourishing ineffectively with “French needles,” you could easily think that the sword was as useless as it’s wielders.

The civilian applications of the rapier meant it stuck around after it was no longer viable on the battlefield. The 16th and 17th centuries are the tipping point for European gunpowder infantry. So, while the rapier continued as a fashion piece, soldiers were moving to muskets as their primary weapons, while their sabres were restricted to situational use, and (for officers) emphasizing orders.

I’m unsure on exactly when the longsword fell completely out of use. The problem is, longswords, sabres and greatswords moved into more ceremonial roles over time. Sabres are still used ceremonially today (technically, so are longswords), but the easiest one to track are the greatswords. Because they were a primary weapon (and not a sidearm), these only saw battlefield use for a few decades in the 16th century (I think it was ~1500-1550, but I could be off by a few decades.) So, we’re talking about a very specific moment in history there.

It’s also worth remembering that the term, “longsword,” encompasses over two dozen different major varieties of blades (ironically, this includes the greatswords, which is why I keep bringing them up), dating back to the 8th or 9th century, so while there were longswords that were contemporary with the rapier, some had fallen out of use centuries earlier, while others were relatively recent developments.

So, were they contemporary? Yeah, kinda. There were other swords that were contemporary with the rapier, but is one of the last iterations of the sword.

-Starke

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The Problem with Citing Paulus Hector Mair

I know that you’ve answered a bunch of questions about scythes before but I’m surprised there haven’t been any mentions of Paulus Hector Mair’s (a master fencer’s) writing on the matter. He also writes about sickles.

kizoqt

First of all, we have mentioned him before. He last came up about four years ago in response to a question about scythe dueling.

Calling Paulus Hector Mair a master fencer is overstating his qualifications. He was was trained as a fencer, but worked as a civil servant in sixteenth century Augsburg, Germany. He was eventually executed for embezzlement of city funds in 1579. Ironically, that crime is why we’re talking about him today.

Mair would have been a forgotten footnote in Augsburg city politics. He was a minor noble who burned through his family’s fortune before turning to embezzlement to support his hobbies. One of those hobbies was the collection of various dueling treatises.

He spent an absurd amount of wealth collecting various historical fencing treatises, and then edited and compiled a swath of them into, what’s now referred to, as his work.

You can think of him as the sixteenth century equivalent to your weird friend who obsessively collects rare RPG sourcebooks, and then and them compiles a massive single version, complete with some homebrew modifications, without any regard to citations. Good luck figuring out what came from where, and what’s been modified.

Mair is relevant, and even somewhat important today, because he collected a lot of material that was not otherwise preserved. The problem is, he wasn’t particularly careful about documenting what he had, or where it came from. Some portions can be properly attributed to their original authors. Unfortunately, the section on scythes is not one of these cases.

There are ten illustrations of scythe techniques. Mair attributes these to, “the ancients,” though it’s unclear which civilization he was referring to. (In some other cases he uses “the ancients” to refer to Alexander The Great’s campaigns, so it’s possible he meant pre-Hellenic Greece.) It’s also unclear what the source was for those scythe techniques. It’s quite possible Mair was simply, “making it up as he went along,” and to the best of my knowledge, there is no known source for that text (ignoring Mair himself.)

Also worth noting, the illustrations in the surviving Dresden manuscript appear to be contemporary with Mair. So, even if he was referencing much older artwork, we don’t have that. We only have the Renaissance era diagrams and Mair’s text.

When you try to research the use of the scythe (not including the war scythe) in combat, the vast majority of sources track back to Mair, but Mair never used the scythe in duels. He explained how to use the scythe in duels, but didn’t actually say where, when, or even if that ever happened, simply attributing it to, “the ancients.”

In that sense, Mair is the only real source for scythe dueling, but he’s also not an entirely reliable source. In researching this, I’m left in the uncomfortable situation that it’s kind of like looking at a Renaissance era Know Your Meme article. Here are all these goofy pictures of people dueling with scythes, and completely straight faced text explaining what you’re looking at. Did anyone ever actually do this, or were the pictures a joke that eluded Mair?

-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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The Mafia Gas Tax Skim

Didn’t the NY Mafia sort-of try this, I may have the details wrong but in the mid-late 70s they began operating “fake” gas stations. Something on the order of close to a billion dollars in unpaid taxes? Correct me please, it’s late and I’m too tired after work to be bothered googling

dumnhpy

You’re very close, and the details are pretty interesting. There have been multiple rounds of this, the one you’re talking about was the late 70s early 80s. It popped back up around the turn of the millennium, with Russian mobsters.

The issue wasn’t fake gas stations, it was fake gas distributors. These are the companies that sell gas to the stations themselves. At the time, they were responsible for collecting any sales taxes on the gasoline. So, a real station would buy gas from the distributor. The distributor would keep the 9 cents a gallon, to hand over to the IRS and any relevant state revenue services.

In the mid-70s, some people in the distribution industry realized that there was a potential loophole. If the distributor that collected the tax money no longer existed or was bankrupt by the time tax collectors came for their payout, there was no money to take.

There were (at least) four geographic areas where this scam started gaining traction, Southern California, Southern Florida, Houston, and New York City. I don’t have firm numbers on how long this continued undetected. By the late 70s, a couple of The Families had learned about this, and muscled their way in. At that point, the Mafia started skimming off the stolen tax money, so for roughly five years, the Mafia was getting one cent for every gallon of gas sold in the Tri-State area. (I’ve seen some conflicting numbers for how much money was taken, though estimates put this at a billion dollars over the life of the skim, though I’m unsure if that was the Mafia’s cut, or if that was the total skim.)

So, it wasn’t a Mafia plan, so much as the Mafia sniffed out corruption (which they are very adept at), and then inserted themselves into the processes. (It’s also worth noting that the operations in SoCal, Florida, and Texas never came under Mafia control. Those remained independent operations.)

It’s a little unclear whether Mafia involvement accelerated the skim’s discovery. There were already criminal investigations going back into the 70s, trying to figure out where the money was going. At the same time, the Mafia brought their signature degree of violence, and lack of subtly.

By the mid-to-late 80s, this was mostly exposed, and shut down. There were changes to make this kind of skimming operation more difficult. As mentioned earlier, it didn’t completely prevent this kind of skim, and there was a brief resurgence twenty years ago, again in the Tri-State area, but it failed to take hold and remain undetected.

It is an interesting footnote and worth digging up. As I mentioned, the Mafia had a real knack for sniffing out corruption or graft and then inserting themselves into the process.

-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: Time Travel

My character is a modern guy, an avid swordfighter and has had a bit of basic military training. He then time travels to the Ancient Rome and joins the Roman Imperial Army. How easily could he adapt, since he’s never fought in armour and with a shield before? Would his modern techniques cause issues of integration? Also, if his swordfighting skills aren’t set for killing as he learned it as an art form, would that be an issue too?

Ironically, any combat training he’s had will be among the least useful skills he takes back with him. Basic, modern, knowledge you take for granted is far more significant. Particularly anything technical. A basic grasp of chemistry, medicine, or even metallurgy could radically alter the course of history.

So let’s start with the sword fighting. HEMA practitioners do not fight using historical techniques; they use recreations. We have the training manuals but we don’t have access to the masters themselves. Meaning there’s a huge skill drop.

In martial arts, it’s extremely important to have a trained practitioner on hand while you’re learning. They can see the mistakes you make, and correct those as you go, so you do not train them in.

In the case of HEMA, because there were no living masters, any mistakes made by the people studying initially became baked into the martial art itself.

Training in mistakes is a serious issue, and is one that can haunt a martial artist. When your muscle memory tells you to do one thing, and you’re not supposed to, it’s very hard to break that behavior. This is something that could be a serious issue for your character, though, honestly, all of their training is going to be irrelevant.

HEMA seeks to recreate a fighting style that saw use in European warfare. The modern use is recreational (or educational, if you prefer), it’s not intended for actual battlefield usage.

If a HEMA practitioner is honest with themselves, they’ll admit that they would not stand a chance against actual soldiers from the timeframe they’re recreating. Their training just isn’t good enough to keep up with people who leaned this stuff to avoid death.

Beyond that, HEMA is still sampling from a specific timeframe. One which, for the most part, does not overlap with Imperial Rome. There are Roman Legion reenactments. It is possible your character did that. But, when you’re talking about “an avid sword fighter,” that’s either someone who follows either Italian or German school fencing. In either case, you’re talking about training with a weapon that won’t exist for, at least, another thousand years.

One thing your character may have in spades is a level of strategic skill that is uncommon or impossible to replicate historically. This is due two things, first, if they have a background in military history (even if it’s just as a hobbyist) they’ll have extensive knowledge over what’s been tried and worked, or hasn’t.

In some cases, they may even have a pretty good read on who their facing.

Another hobby that can pay dividends is strategy games. Now, there’s nothing new about the idea of wargaming. Chess is a wargame. But, the level of sophistication, and the variety of potential scenarios has increased dramatically over time. The war games today are far more instructive on commanding a large force than historical games would have been.

None of this matters if your character isn’t in a command position (and they probably wouldn’t), but it’s worth remembering.

Basic medical knowledge, the kind you passively pick up, living in the 21st century, has numerous, significant, advantages over someone living in the first century AD. For one thing, you know to disinfect a wound. You know you can use clear alchohol to do that. And you understand that if you don’t, the wound could become infected. You also probably know you could boil bandages to kill anything on them (even if we don’t do this today, because bandages are usually disposable), and that you should change the bandages out for clean fairly regularly. All of this to prevent bacterial infection, because that will kill you.

Your average Roman Legionnaire did not know this. Your average soldier in the mid-19th did not know this.

Modern wound care, something so basic, you’ve probably learned about this from entertainment, is an enormous technological advancement over what the characters in the past would know.

If your character has an actual medical background, (a doctor, a nurse, an EMT, even just a veterinarian), they have just become the most skilled medical practitioner in the world. The information they have is literally thousands of years more advanced than anyone else. This is far more valuable than their ability to swing a sword.

If your character has background in chemistry, buckle up. You can synthesize black powder using a mixture of carbon (so, charcoal will work), sulfur, and sodium nitrate (saltpeter). You’ll need to work a bit on getting higher quality metals, but that’s not much of an ask for a chemist. Congratulations, your time traveler just invented guns using reasonably available materials. They aren’t particularly good guns, but a bullet’s a bullet.

I’m also going to point out, for someone with a background in chemistry, this is one of the least disruptive things they can do.

If you took chemistry in high school, you probably made a potato battery. There’s a lot of ways you can generate electricity if you know it’s a thing, and want to do something with it. You can make liquid batteries that can be refilled. Now, if you’re living in the first century, this is a big, “so what?” You wouldn’t know what you could do with the stuff. For someone with a modern background? You know what you can do with electricity. It’s easy to think, oh lights, but, if you understand how the components are put together, you might be able to construct something like non-portable radios. Sure, you can’t actually talk through them, but that’s why things like Morse Code exist.

Metallurgy is another one that can get downright nuts. If your character knows how to make crucible steel, and understands basic, modern, forging techniques, they’re going to be able to make weapons that are without peer in the past. Sure, it’s not guns, but being able to take, even low quality, modern steel blades into combat against foes equipped with bronze and iron? That’s not going to end well for their enemies.

When you’re dealing with time travel, your character’s combat prowess is one of the least useful assets they have. Their weapons (if they brought any), are more significant, but your character’s technical knowledge is real advantage here.

I know I focused on it, but in many cases, it’s not even, really, the combat applications for skill sets. Their non-combat skills are immensely more valuable to the civilization they just landed in. Hell, even just a modern understanding of economics would be world changing for a merchant in the first century.

It’s easy to look at what you know, and think that this stuff is obvious, and everyone must have known this. Truth is, we stand on the shoulders of giants. The world we live in today, the knowledge we have today, is the product of millennia of advancement. Fold that over, send some of that information back, and everything changes.

Have fun.

-Starke

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Q&A: Writing Dungeon Treasure

In my WIP, my characters find a shield left in a thousand year old ruin. Are there any metals that the shield could be made out of so that it might still be useful if preserved properly in a locked chest or something? I immediately counted out iron because of rust, and maybe copper and bronze corrode too much. I was contemplating gold because it seemed to be the most durable age-wise, but maybe it’s not that useful weapon-wise?

Gold won’t corrode, but it’s far too soft for use in combat. Bronze, iron, and copper will oxidize. This doesn’t mean they can’t be preserved for thousands of years, but they wouldn’t survive in an ancient ruin’s chest.

As a bit of trivia, when copper and bronze oxidize, they turn green, not brown.

So, this whole thing builds off a fundamental world building problem of challenge/reward structures in games. This is relevant for writing, because it can affect how you build parts of your world, and you should consider the reasons behind your choices. So while I’m talking about game design for the moment, think about how this applies to writing.

If you’re asking the player to fight through an extended dungeon sequence, you need to give them something at the end. That doesn’t need to be a physical reward. For example, Skyrim’s word walls which provide tangible abilities the player as a reward are fine. In a more abstract sense, information can be an entirely valid reward. That’s fine. It’s also true to life, somewhat, because the real treasure of most ruins is information about the people who built it and lived there. There’s also a boss chest in there with a random assortment of items, that makes no sense.

The problem with the boss chest that awards random, level appropriate items, is when they player is the first person to walk those halls in thousands of years. Any tangible weapon, would have rusted, or rotted away. Skyrim is an excellent example of this, as the various tombs, ruins, caves, and other dungeons exist in a weird kind of suspended animation. No human (or elf) has been in that ruin since the Metheric Era (at least 4500 years ago), but the candles are still burning, and there’s a chest with Dwarven gauntlets that are thousands of years more advanced than the ruin’s builders. What?

This works for a game, because as a player, you’re looking for that dopamine hit. You get a cool item, you feel good about it. It’s reductive to boil games down to a Skinner box, but in this case, the comparison is apt: Push the button; receive treat.

This doesn’t work in writing. There’s a lot of pieces to why, but the short version is perspective. In a game, you are the protagonist. In a story, you are witnessing the protagonist. So, when the player gets a piece of junk gear that’s marginally better than what they’re wearing, that’s a dopamine hit. It’s something cool you can use, and you will get the opportunity to play with it.

In a story, you don’t care if one of the characters finds new leather gloves in a ruin, unless there’s something special about those gloves. You’re there to see them grow as a character, and their gear is incidental to that. If that gear facilitates new options, or spurs character growth, then you’ll care. If those gloves belonged to someone the character knew, and they’re a hint to what happened to them, then the reader will care. If the gloves have special properties which can help with a challenge the character is already facing, then the reader will care. If the gloves offer two extra points of protection (whatever that means), the reader will not care.

A thousand years is a long time. If you’re talking about today, a one thousand year old weapon might be a low quality steel sword. A thousand year old shield may have been wood, which would have rotted away unless carefully preserved. So you’d be left with the iron frame for a shield. Or, you might have a low quality iron shield.

Many fantasy settings exist in a kind of technological stasis. I mentioned Skyrim a minute, so let’s look at that. The games span a little under a thousand years (Elder Scrolls Online takes place 952 years before Skyrim). In that time, there’s been no meaningful technological development in the setting. This also not even an egregious offender on this front, Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Star Wars are also guilty of this, with, literally, thousands of years of history where no meaningful technological advancement occurs.

Contrast to the real world where the last thousand years saw the development of civilization from fractured city states into unified nations, the development of mechanized transport, near instantaneous worldwide communication networks, and space travel. Most of that, in the last century.

When you’re sitting in the moment, looking at the past, it’s easy to see things as static. “Yeah, people fought with swords for thousands of years,” but, when you start looking at the details, you realize, nothing is static. The swords taken on crusade in 1096 were substantially better than the swords the Roman Legions were using in 96. And those Roman Legions were terrifyingly well equipped in comparison to the Greek Hopolites in 404BC.

There are settings that can justify long periods of technological stasis. In Warhammer 40k invention is seen as religious heresy in almost all cases; this is an example where technological development would stall out. This is further reinforced because of how jealously the Machine Cult guards their technology, while still viewing it in religious terms. There’s something sickly amusing about the idea of a religious cult that would worship a toaster, but, it could explain this kind of stasis.

Post-apocalyptic settings (including 40k) have some justification, because the people who knew how this stuff worked are dead, so the survivors have to play catch-up. Insert a religious order that blocks technological progression, with the political power to enforce it’s views, and you’ve got some justification for technology lying fallow.

This is where the boss chest makes sense. (Sort of, anyway.) If the world has fallen from some forgotten golden age, it’s possible that whatever’s at the end of the dungeon could be weapons or armor made from some lost alloy, that survived the millennia unharmed. It’s even possible it was stored in a climate controlled armory, rather than in a wooden chest that should have rotted away centuries ago.

Golden age gear can also work as story hook, on the idea that this stuff is significant enough to be an important step in preparing your characters to face whatever they’re dealing with. It’s the rare moment where you really can get away with a loot hunt in a non-interactive story.

The other possible payoff to all of this is a shaggy dog. Your character goes through all of the effort to get through the ruin, and they find a ruined artifact. They put hopes and dreams on this chunk of corroded bronze because they believed it was their key to victory, and now they have nothing to show for it. Remember, your reader isn’t here for the loot, they’re here for your character. How your character deals with that, how they move on, that’s the reader’s payoff. That’s what they’re here for. There’s nothing wrong with screwing your characters over, so long the result is interesting to read.

I’ve said this before, but your job as a writer is not to make life easy for your characters. Your job is to make their lives interesting.

-Starke

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Q&A: Arms and Armor

I was wondering if you would have any tips on good armor for my characters. I’m having a little trouble figuring out what would be the best option for combat. I’m also having trouble figuring out what weapons would work out the best too. Any help is much appreciated!!

There’s a similar answer to both of these, it’s contextual. “Good weapons” are ones that can kill your foes without killing you in the process. “Good armor” is gear that can protect you from your foes weapons without getting you killed in the process. Both are going to change significantly depending on the world your characters live in, and what they’re doing.

Here’s a quick example: If your character is a 17th century sailor, heavy armor is far more dangerous to your character than going unarmored. If they fall off the deck, they won’t be able to swim, and they will drown. (There’s a decent chance that they couldn’t swim anyway. Ironically, swimming was not a common skill among sailors in the 17th century.)

Their best options for weapons are short barrel firearms and swords. This is because they’re going to be engaging in very close quarters during boarding actions, where long muskets and polearms will get caught on the environment and can’t be used. When going ashore, they’d probably draw long muskets and breastplates from the ship’s armory (if it had one.)

In modern infantry warfare, those weapons would be suicide. Most modern combat happens at ranges where a smooth bore, black powder pistol simply can’t connect.

If your character is infantry in 11th century Europe, it’s probably going to be a cloth gambeson, and polearms, which won’t work for any of the examples above.

Picking the right weapon for the situation is all about understanding the kind of conflict your characters will be seeing, and the technology of the world they live in.

It’s easy to look back at history and the get the impression that nothing changed over long stretches. This is not true. Military technology has been a constant progression. This can be seen in the advancement of armor and weapons throughout history. The swords the Roman Legions used were fundamentally different from the swords wielded in the 18th century, and a smith from two thousand years earlier could not have replicated them.

This is before you consider specialized weapons like the estoc. Which was specifically designed as an anti-armor weapon against plate. Obviously, if your characters exist in a world where plate armor isn’t a thing, the estoc’s not going to be a real weapon. (Not just, “not a good one,” it probably won’t exist.) A shocking number of weapons originate in these kinds of “problem/solution” dynamics, and armor follows suit. The original term, “bullet proof,” referred to early modern armorers “proofing” their armor’s effectiveness by shooting it with a pistol. To demonstrate that the armor would hold up on the battlefield, where firearms had started coming into prominence.

So, weapons evolve to deal with armor, and the situations they’re used in. Armor evolves to deal with the weapons used against them. Sometimes, weapons have a technological surge, leading to new innovations that seriously change the nature of combat. Such as the development of bronze, iron, steel, and firearms. Each of these stages dramatically changed weapons and armor. Even within those fields, refinement of existing technologies kept things moving forward.

One excellent, and recent, example is World War I. The introduction of fully automatic weapons completely changed the face of warfare, and, in less than a year, brought an end to millennia of human combat doctrine. Fundamentally, the answer to your question changes completely when you move from 1900 to 1920.

The best I can offer is, consider the situations where they’ll need to use the weapons. Research any historical allegory for your world, and try to build it from there. It’s not perfect, but it might give you some ideas. For example, if you’re making your characters in the model of Scandinavian heroes, you might want to read up on Viking warfare. If it’s the Romans, then read up on the Roman Legions. There’s no harm in reading up on history and trying to learn from it. Even if things don’t match up 100%, you’ll learn things about how people looked at conflict, and how they responded to it.

-Starke

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