Tag Archives: science fiction

Q&A: Energy Weapons and Penetration

Wouldn’t “lower power” so to speak be desirable to reduce overpenning in urban combat situations? Not necessarily with a large bulky gun, but even SBRs can fit some definitions of “big”.


It depends, but it’s quite possible that penetration may be distinct from overall weapon power. Especially if we’re talking about non-kinetic weapons.

The two examples that come to mind immediately are Babylon 5 and Star Wars. Both settings use plasma based weapons as their dominant hand weapon technology. In B5, this was explicitly stated to be because the PPGs were less likely to rupture starship hulls and cause explosive decompressions.

Of course, in Star Wars, magnetic shielding which turns blasters into a remarkably high stakes version of Pong.

In both cases, you have high power weapons with a low risk of penetration.

This is also often a characteristic of beam weapons in science fiction. Where you have weapons that will selectively discriminately between punching through armor but not burning through unarmored structures or vehicles. In some settings there’s justifications for this, such as advanced computer control systems built into the weapons, or hulls and other objects being constructed out of materials which resist the beam weapons. In others it’s strictly authorial fiat without any in setting justification.

That said, high energy weapons could easily end up in a situation where you don’t have much power, while the weapon is still pretty heavy. This is the reason we don’t have things like hand-held laser weapons in the real world. You simply can’t generate enough power to create a functional weapon with current power sources. If you want a hand laser that can vaporise someone, it will need a power reserve greater than the output of a major hydroelectric facility for each shot. You could carry something very heavy (or vehicle mounted) which would mildly inconvenience (or blind) someone, but it would be significantly less effective than just bringing in a conventional rifle.

That’s part of why, “heavy, low power weapons,” wouldn’t be a thing. If your weapon is heavy and is low power, you’d revert back to the lighter, higher power weapon. If you have a setting where your basic energy weapons are very heavy, and less powerful than kinetics, you’d see people using projectile firearms.

There’s one major caveat to this. If you have highly specialized weapons, like some kind of EMP projector, you might see something that is technically low power, but is being used in a specific support role. Especially in anti-material roles.

For an example of this, you can look at Aliens. If you pay attention to the background details, you’ll see the Sulaco carries a wide range of energy weapons, including particle beams (for electronic warfare) and even uses lasers for its point defense weapons. But, the Marines use M41a Pulse Rifles (which are kinetic auto rifles) and the support gunners use M56 Smart Gun (which are a target assisted autogun.)

Also, in the Aliens example, the kinetic weapons are designed to minimize structural damage. Both the Pulse Rifles and Smart Guns are loaded with 10mm explosive tip caseless rounds, which were intended for dealing with lightly armored foes, but not intended for punching through walls, or armored vehicles. (Though, they still do some structural damage.)

Even in the modern world, it’s becoming possible to separate penetration from power. Frangible rounds, like Glaser Safety Slugs are designed to shatter into dust on impact with a hard surface, making them less likely to cause structural damage, while still being an effective weapon.


This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you, and come join us on Discord.

I remember seeing a question about why swords would be brought back for combat due to the ineffectiveness of guns, and it reminded me of a cool example why: in the Old Republic for Star Wars, melee weapons were brought back due to energy shield designs and armor that deflected projectiles and energy blasts, but a strong sword could still tear through the right armor, and the shield would not be designed to resist. Just adding a thought

Yeah, Star Wars isn’t actually a good counter example there. Even just looking at the Tales of the Jedi era stuff. There’s a lot of primitive worlds where you don’t have advanced ranged weapons, and when you’re dealing with them, plasteel armor and a blaster will still offer an insurmountable advantage. The only reason the Jedi can get away with using a lightsaber is because of their superpowers.

I mean, this is worth talking about, because you can legitimately have characters who approach combat from a melee perspective in a setting with advanced ranged weapons. And Star Wars is one of those settings, but you really need to evaluate who can and can’t get away with using melee weapons.

You don’t want to arm Rebellion Era Stormtroopers with vibroswords because their armor won’t fully protect against blasters. We see enough getting gunned down in the original trilogy to make that point. Now, their armor does (apparently) save their lives sometimes. There’s a scene at the beginning of A New Hope, where the Stormtroopers are checking their fallen buddies, poking them. The assumption is to see if they’re actually wounded, but still alive.

If I’m remembering correctly, The Empire still issued vibroblades to some specialized Stormtroopers as a backup. Because, if your primary weapon fails, and you really need to kill someone, it’s a good idea to have a contingency.

It’s the same reason modern militaries still issue combat knives. It’s not that you’re expected to kill people with them, but if you’ve got nothing else, it’ll still do the job.

Star Wars does occasionally throw in energy shields to protect against blasters. It also occasionally says these are far too heavy to be man-portable, and so you can use them to protect capital ships, facilities, and (sometimes) very heavy vehicles, but the setting is infinitely creative in finding ways to negate that. Energy shields don’t protect against guided projectiles. I can’t remember how widespread the PLEX troopers are in the legacy EU, but there are plenty of counters to energy shields, including concussion rifles, sonic weapons, disruptors, and classic slugthrowers. You can probably engineer armor to deal with some of these, but not all of them (and as far as I know, Star Wars’ disruptors are a kind of “screw you and the rules you rode in on, bzzzap” option that really doesn’t have an effective counter.)

In the middle of this, you do have characters who are superhumanly agile, prescient, and can negate most incoming projectiles. Saying they carry melee weapons, because it’s a badge of office isn’t really that strange. Especially when you consider their full power set.

The idea that you’d intentionally give front line combatants melee weapons in Star Wars, without also gearing them up in ways the setting doesn’t normally support, and doing it for non-cultural reasons, is a lot less plausible.

Also, Knights of the Old Republic’s “cortosis weave is everywhere” argument has always struck me as really stupid. Cortosis is this rare, brittle, ore that shorts out lightsabers on contact. You see it in the Tales of the Jedi comics, which is what Bioware was specifically adapting from… or was supposed to be adapting from when they made KOTOR.

Thing is, even in that timeframe, Jedi are vanishingly rare. So, even if the Star Forge can produce the stuff en mass, for the Sith (before it’s destroyed), it doesn’t explain why every biker gang and Tusken Raider you encounter is using this rare and expensive anti-lightsaber material in their weapons and armor. Which is even weirder when you consider you could just take that money and get a disruptor for less. “Jedi problem? Just blast through them, same as everything else from pesky Jawas up through Krayt Dragons.”

The reason you don’t see more disruptors is because they’re not cost effective. The things they counter are rare enough that it’s not worth the expense, which applies even more strongly when looking at Cortosis. Because you’re far more likely to run into someone with an energy shield or heavy armor than one of the handful of lightsaber users in the galaxy.

The focus on melee is a gameplay consideration. KOTOR (the original game) pushes the player towards a melee build because they’re going to be giving you a lightsaber. That’s supposed to be a surprise, even though it’s also, literally, a bullet point on the back of the box, so you’re quietly encouraged to go that route, even though it would normally be a very bad idea.

There are sci-fi settings that use front line melee combat, with specific considerations to make it plausible.

Dune brings out the melee weapons on Arakis because (if I’m remembering correctly) the atmosphere does horrific things to Las weapons. The books still use ranged weapons, though. It also brings out melee weapons, for ceremonial reasons, in formal duels. Star Wars’ lightsaber duels are a kind of similar reason, and it’s also part of the justification for Star Trek’s Klingons keeping their ridiculous bat’leths around. That Klingons are also exactly the kind of dudebro idiots who would run into gunfire waving a sword is also probably a factor.

The hunters from the Predator films are an in between. Their melee weapons are, mostly ceremonial. So they’re using them in combat as a kind of macho affirmation. It’d be a lot less forgivable if their entire civilization wasn’t built around trying to hunt sentient creatures through stealth and guile. Also, given they tend to start their hunts with plasma casters, and then switch down to melee weapons when the odds are less unfavorable, or the caster brakes, it’s fairly clear they don’t think they could just wade in and use those exclusively.

Star Trek also has the Hirogen, and Jem’Hadar. The Hirogen are basically knock-off Predators. Again, they’re using stealth to get in close to use melee weapons. But, they’re also happy to stay at range, and obsessed with mounting improbably large skulls on their walls. The Jem’Hadar use personal invisibility to outmaneuver foes. As with the Klingons they do use melee weapons in combat, but they’re a lot more selective about that. Switching over when they’re either low on ammunition or in very tight quarters, like boarding enemy ships and stations.

Warhammer 40k includes a lot of units that can take absurd amounts of punishment, so they can actually close to into melee while getting shot. Or, with Tyranids, where it doesn’t really matter if you kill them, because two hundred million of their buddies will be dropping by while you’re reloading.

40k’s melee units also tend to be highly mobile. There are exceptions, but from Assault Marines to Warp Spiders, if they can’t kill you at range, they probably have a nasty way to get in touch.

The xenomorphs from Aliens are another legitimate melee user. In the films that skew towards individual aliens, they hunt through stealth, picking off lone characters. It is a horror movie monster after all. But, especially for something that can go up any surface, in a dense industrial environment, that is a real option.

In the films that focus on hives, it varies, but we’re back to the Tyranids’ solution to the problem, more bodies. There are more of them than you can kill before your Pulse Rifle runs dry. It also helps that the second film is an allegory for the Vietnam War. So, the tactics the aliens are engaging in, and the technological disparity between the marines and xenomorphs serves a thematic purpose as well.

I’ll blame Jim Sterling for reminding me of this, but another example is Dead Space. The Necromorphs are sculpted from dead tissue. So, there isn’t really a way to kill them. All you can do is carve them apart. Which only stops that necromorph temporarily. There’s no permanent way to get rid of them, and because they’re already dead, conventional firearms won’t do much. The games solve this through horrific application of power tools. But, again, that’s a temporary solution.

Come through a deck in the first game once, and you’ll see the dead and dying everywhere, and leave some more necromorph corpses on the way through. Come through again later, and all the corpses will be gone, because they’ve been retrieved and recycled by the infestation.

Of course some Necromorphs do have ranged attacks, including bone spikes and acid spit, but the melee enemies that use reshaped bone blades make sense once you realize they’re (basically) a renewable resource, and that the infestation can change up the creatures it’s producing to deal with the situation at hand.

There are legitimate reasons to have melee weapons in a setting. The problem is, you can’t forget about ranged options. And, as a general rule, if someone does find a way to counter your ranged weapon, you’ll have a significant advantage if you can figure out away around that counter before they can. This is the exact same technological evolution that took us from the Tu Huo Qiang to the AK74, and M16a1. If you build better armor, and someone else is going to build a better gun.


What styles/weapons would you suggest for a fighter who is a bit shorter/stocky, and is modified (scifi style) and has to deal with multiple, large, or powerful opponents(aliens and such). She’d need to fight both ranged and up close and personal, and she would need to be able to completely dispatch opponents as well as remove them from a fight without (too) serious injury. (I know, far fetched) And does personality affect what style someone uses(in your opinion)? I’m sorry if this is too vauge.

We get these questions about body type a lot, especially in regards to fighting and what style an author should pick. Ultimately, it’s more of a perspective issue and it’s understandable since the vast majority of Hollywood and Anime have a love affair with the “Five Man Band”. Anime often puts forward unique and individual fighting styles which match a character’s body in order to make them more visually distinct i.e. the big guy usually wields the big honking ass sword and relies on physical strength and the rail thin glasses guy is a tactician who is dexterous and quick, often with flawless technique. The Five Man Band is a very successful technique, at least visually. It works under the same rules for writing which state that you shouldn’t give characters similar sounding/looking names because it because it becomes difficult to distinguish them.

It’s probably the worst decider when it comes to choosing a fighting style for a character. Training itself changes and molds the body. If your female character starts out lithe and lean, learns a combat art which heavily favors the upper body such as boxing or kick boxing, she won’t remain that way for long. She’ll develop musculature in her chest which widens it (her breasts will also, probably, shrink), her legs will become thicker and more stocky, she’ll become more weighted in her upper body, her neck will thicken from the development of her shoulder muscles. Depending on her dedication, she’ll gain some very nice definition in those arms. You can expect a little thickness in the jaw. Depending on the kind of training and how long she’s been doing it, she may possess a scar across one eyebrow and her nose probably won’t be entirely straight.

Training molds you to it. Stop and take a look at professional or Olympic athletes like gymnasts or runners. Look at the U.S. Armed Forces, especially by division, and you’ll see something similar. Even though there are slight differences, there’s also a fairly impressive uniformity of body type. That’s the training. If I had to state a real pet peeve, it’s that this gets routinely ignored for female characters because it often leads to them possessing an “unconventional” body. By unconventional, I mean that they aren’t often within the standards or weight range of what society considers to be feminine or beautiful.

There’s a part to training where the body is sculpted and can significantly change what a person looks like. Professional trainers in Hollywood who cater to actors employ different training regimens to achieve different looks, to create a specific type of body. It’s actually something to keep in mind when looking at any actor: you’re seeing months, if not years, of dieting and specific physical training to achieve a singular result.

The kind of training a character engages in won’t change their height or the length of their arms, but it will have a significant influence on what they look like. What that is depends on the training involved.

So, what are the deciding factors?

What are they doing? What are they fighting? What is their job? What is their background? Who is training them?

The problem with “short/stocky woman” faces “multiple larger/more powerful opponents” is that’s the life of every short woman ever and they will need to learn to deal with it regardless of the martial style they pick. Martial arts are designed around the idea that the opponent will be a human being, and everything from the approach to the psychology is geared toward that. You don’t go box a bear and expect it to work the same way, because a bear and a human come with different considerations, different dangers. Now, people did box with bears. Bear boxing was a real side show performance, but bear boxing and regular boxing are different. Why? One of them is a bear. Also, the bears were historically abused and mistreated by having their teeth and claws removed in order to make it possible. Or, the boxer would have died.

My point is that the enemy one faces is the deciding factor in how one fights. You don’t go hand to hand with a Xenomorph. You don’t go hand to hand with a tentacle monster. You can go hand to hand with a Klingon, but it will be unpleasant.

The problem is that there is no one size fits all solution, not in real life and not in a future where everything is much, much more complicated.

Combat is a form of problem solving. To figure out what you’re solving, you have to figure out what the problem is. Then, you justify the solution. Martial training is used to support a setting, but to have one you need an enemy and aliens come in all shapes and sizes. And, the more variety there is, the more new and inventive ways one must come up with to counter the threat.

Subduing an opponent is all well and good, provided the character has a means to support that approach. This could be through tools such as handcuffs or weapons like a taser or a futuristic form of stun gun. The question is looking at the right group for the solution you want. In this case, if you want a character who uses a form of professional combat that predominantly focuses on non-lethal takedowns and subdual, you’re looking at police, their martial techniques and their H2H. When you’re looking for professional groups with a combat focus that orient on using violence as a non-lethal means to solving problems that’s law enforcement. It’s their job, they develop down that route. Other combat professionals don’t have the luxury. A great example of a fictional militarized police force is the Peacekeepers from Farscape.

Martial arts that come off of bloodsport are the runner up with varying degrees of success. The reason is that unless we’re talking about a death match, bloodsport is primarily entertainment and the goal of the fight is to entertain so it shies away from quick kills or more pragmatic combat. It becomes a war of attrition. However, these are martial arts with a primary focus on dueling and fighting single opponents. If there’s one lesson to take from Gina Carano’s Haywire, it’s that putting the wrong kind of combat on a character is debilitating. Carano is a fantastic martial artist, but MMA is far too slow and discordant for a spy thriller.

Making combat work will require a decent amount of worldbuilding from you for each alien type, plus hammering out technology and how that affects combat. (Ray guns, stun guns, cybernetics, etc.) Martial combat is a form of both individual and cultural expression, showing their values and priorities, how they respond to threats. To know how a character fights, you need to understand the culture they belong to and how they navigate it. This goes far beyond a character’s moral makeup or their pragmatism, the values their culture ascribes to and the threats they faced are the deciding factors in how a combat style developed… which shapes a huge portion of their lives and who they are.

Start to think about creating a toolbox for this character, much in the same way you would if you were writing a paranormal story. Different strategies for different types of enemies. Depending on setting rules, you don’t use the same approach to dealing with zombies that you do with werewolves and the same is true of vampires.

Dealing with a genetically modified human will require a different approach, just like dealing with a psychic will require a different combat approach.

Dealing with different alien species will require navigating their culture as much as their combat. After all, their culture defines how and why they fight. Every alien is an individual with their own reactions and responses to the social mores they follow. And, depending on the advantages the character in question possesses, they might not even be able to go into hand to hand so they’ll need a tool to deal with that.

A character’s personality may lead them toward the job type, institution, or training they sign up for, but the training itself will have the greater affect on their personality. Whether they are an actual participant in the system or hold the job is up to you, but if you want a character fight like a professional combatant then they need a professional’s training. Which means a teacher who is a professional of some kind.

In the end, it’s really a question of what you want and the kind of story you want to tell.


References, Resources, and Recommendations:

Farscape – We recommended this one just recently, but really. Farscape.There’s a bevy of aliens here, with characters having to make use of minimal resources in order to survive.

Babylon 5 – We usually recommend this for politics, but I recommend it for it’s worldbuilding. Everything from accounting for different alien physiology to the handling of telepaths among different races, to various martial styles based on alien cultures, to hilarious misunderstandings based on translator errors, this series has a a lot to love for any writer looking to craft science fiction.

Stargate SG1 – This may seem like an oddball recommendation, but a lot of science fiction settings have all their cultures progressing at the same rate. Stargate is all over the map and it’s an interesting look at the different ways cultures develop when dealing with or faced by advanced technology. Campy as it is, you might find some neat ideas hidden in this one.

Psycho-Pass – We rarely recommend anime, but Psycho-Pass is a wonderfully well-developed dystopic future that’s a love letter to many older cyberpunk settings from Ghost in Shell to Blade Runner to the cult classic Johnny Mnemonic. It references 1984, Gulliver’s Travels, and a surprising amount of literature in its first season. It’s for mature viewers only and is fairly disturbing. But the reason why I’m recommending it to you is that it does an excellent job with the idea of a computer deciding who lives and who dies, of guns that won’t fire unless a person is above a certain number and that will kill only if they reach another threshold beyond that. It’s cops attempting to hunt down killers in a society where their very emotions and ability to do their job are their own enemy. (I’d actually watch this one after Law & Order and Southland.)

Law & Order Law & Order isn’t just important for understanding cops, it’s actually very important to understanding people and why people commit violence.

Southland – I recommend Southland because it’s set in Los Angeles and, much like New York, there are a lot of different racial tensions that the cops need to navigate on multiple levels. It’s very informative for teaching you about how to look at and think about an environment, even one that we don’t initially perceive as hostile.

Trinity – This was a science fiction roleplaying game from White Wolf. The setting itself does a good job of bridging between real world politics, and a near future spacefaring civilization with exposure to alien civilizations.

We don’t usually add supplements for games to the list, but the Trinity Technology Manual is an exception. This goes into a lot more detail on the specific hardware in the setting, and if you’re wanting to think outside the box for dealing with enemies, this might give you some additional ideas. Just, be aware, you’ll need to have read the core book to fully understand a lot of the stuff being thrown around.

Shadowrun – As with Trinity this is another sci-fi roleplaying game. The setup is a little different, instead of traditional sci-fi, this is urban fantasy cyberpunk. You (probably) don’t need to worry about magic in your setting, but even ignoring that, this is still a setting where characters will routinely go toe to toe with things that are larger than themselves and inhumanly resilient. So it might be worth a look.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution – this game is really good for dealing with and getting you to think about the different ways of dealing with transhuman enemies. Also, the tensions brought in by transhumanism itself.

Crysis 2 – Really good if you want to write a character who has been heavily modified, doing the impossible, being put through inhuman amounts of physical abuse, and treated as interchangeable by the people around them.

Alien and Aliens – How to deal with an enemy you cannot face in single combat.

Predator and Predator 2 – Stupid, yes, but relevant. These movies are all about dealing with aliens that are predatory and as intelligent as the humans with goals of their own. Predators have some great limitations and weaknesses, but they’re not human ones and aren’t what we expect.

I’ve started writing a sci-fi novel where a female soldier, after being critically injured, is “volunteered” to become a host for a colony of nano machines as part of a super-soldier project and AWOL’s afterward. How do you think a woman who wakes up with abilities comparable to Captain America and a “utility fog” would fight hand to hand? Is there anything you think the nanites should or shouldn’t be able to do, i.e. disintegration?

Disintegration is a fantastic suggestion. It ensures that the weapons platform that you just spent billions of dollars building can’t be reverse engineered or interrogated if it’s captured. Also, it makes a pretty solid failsafe, should it go rogue and turn against you… wait, you meant disintegrating other things, didn’t you? Well, this is awkward.

Let’s just get the combat training out of the way, your character will be trained in whatever they knew from the military. That can be whichever hand to hand set is most appropriate. Just remember, their combat training will have them using firearms, and this isn’t something they’ll just ignore.

So, here’s the thing. You, as the military, spend fifty billion dollars building a better soldier. Obviously, that kind of cost is not going to fly on a mass rollout, and the modern military is all about mass production, but, for the moment, your prototype cost a lot of money to research and build. You do not want to lose that money. You don’t want another faction simply scooping your prototype up off the street, hauling them off to the dark side of the moon, and taking them apart to figure out how they work. So, you’re going to need failsafe systems.

One of the easiest ones is GPS tracking, along with a communications package. This means, wherever your prototype goes, you can always call it up, and know exactly where it is and what it’s doing. For something like this to actually work it cannot be something the character can just switch off whenever they want. They’ve got a radio in their skeletal structure now, and like it or not, they can’t do anything about that.

More aggressive failsafes will probably be prudent. No matter how good your psychological screenings are, there’s always a chance you’re giving someone limitless power, and they’re just going to take off and start murdering their way through the government. That means you (still, as the military) need to be able to, at least, shut down their enhancements, if not outright kill them remotely.

This brings us back to the disintegration option. If your prototype is captured by some organization that wants to reverse engineer your technology, you need a way to stop them remotely. Also, if you’re doing clandestine things with your prototype, it’s always nice to have an “I don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re evidence melted? That’s preposterous!” out, if they’re captured.

I say “melt,” rather than “evaporated”, because, for the most part, setting nanites to break everything in their general vicinity, is believed to result in a grayish sludge, though they could be set to incinerate anything around them, so it’s all up to your preferences.

Okay, now, what else can they do? Nanotech is fairly fluid, at least in science fiction, so there isn’t really a shortage of options. The Crysis and Deus Ex (except Human Revolution) games both feature nanotech augmented player characters, so those might be worth looking at. Crysis 2 in particular does spend some time poking at the plausible applications for the technology, so if you have the time and aptitude for first person shooters, it’s probably worth looking at. Also, it will get you thinking about (relatively) realistic firefights with superpowers.

What superpowers your character gets are ultimately up to you. I’d actually recommend against areal dispersion, though. Nanites are just tiny robots, so they need a medium to traverse, that can be a human body, water, solid surfaces. But, throwing them in the air is more weapon-of-mass-destruction territory than a superpower.

Some fun possible superpowers are cloaking, limited shapeshifting (can’t change size, or gender), rapid healing, improved resistance to damage (armor or improved pain resistance), heightened reflexes, improved strength. You know, the usual super power set. Your character might be able to interact with nearby electronics if they infest them with their own nanocolony first. Though, that would mean they’re depleting their own reserve of nanites.

On the supervillian side of things, nanites could be used to control individuals, Star Trek’s Borg Collective and the 2009 GI Joe film both have examples of that. This isn’t a good option for a military with loyal disciplined soldiers, but, for a supervillian who needs stormtroopers for their volcanic fortress, it’s a possibility.

I mentioned psychological screening earlier, here’s the thing, unless the entire point of the experiment is only for rapid healing, then picking a critically injured soldier is probably a poor choice. The reason is fairly simple. You need to run extensive psychological screening for any kind of prototype technology, before integrating it. So you don’t stick it in someone that will immediately pull a Robocop 2. Any traumatic injury runs the risk of psychologically destabilizing the patient. I don’t mean they go insane, but things like depression, anger, obsessive tendencies, hell, even PTSD are all things you DO NOT WANT, when you’re trying to test out some new high end cybernetics. If these do emerge, you’re going to be left asking if it was the result of the injury or if it was the result of the implants.

The major exception is if her nanotech infusion was only to speed her healing. Obviously, this is wandering off the entire super soldier concept, but, then the only thing she’d gain would be the ability to heal from egregious injuries (possibly including death) quickly. In a situation like that, you might not need anything beyond the infusion. Including failsafes. To be honest, if that’s your character’s only superpower, that’s probably enough, provided they’re creative. Also, I find it stresses credibility a little that the military would pick someone for this treatment, if there was the slightest risk of them just taking off after treatment.