Tag Archives: Starke answers

How viable is muscle memory that it trumps amnesia? Say, Jason Bourne who doesn’t remember a thing, but still knows assassin-fu? Thanks for your advice!

Bourne isn’t running on muscle memory. He suffers from a variant of retrograde amnesia which affects his ability to remember who he is, but doesn’t affect his skills. From what I’ve read on the subject, it’s entirely possible for an amnesiac to retain basic knowledge, in isolation from specific memories. Which is to say, this can happen.

There are details about exactly how Bourne’s amnesia manifests itself that may be unrealistic. An individual can retain general knowledge, and skills, but that doesn’t mean they’re not impaired, and when you’re talking about something like tradecraft, being in full possession of your faculties is a little important.

For whatever it’s worth, the only time I’ve ever interacted with an amnesiac, they were suffering from anterograde amnesia. This is the inability to form new memories after a triggering event. (You can see this one demonstrated in Memento, if you’re wanting a point of reference.) So, I can’t really speak to how accurate Ludlum’s work was when it comes to that element.

In a 1986 interview, Ludlum claimed that he came up with the idea
for the Bourne trilogy after suffering retrograde amnesia and losing
about 12 hours. The old advice is, “write what you know,” and apparently Ludlum did, in this case.

I know I’ve recommended it before, but if you’re thinking about writing spy fiction, The Bourne Identity is a book you really should read. The 2002 adaptation is also good, but it uses the same premise to tell a very different story.

Normally, I would strongly caution writers against using
amnesia in their stories, unless they have something fairly creative
they want to do with it. This has more to do with amnesia plotlines
being run into the ground, and becoming horribly cliche over the years. Memento uses it as a jumping off point for an interesting narrative format. Bourne uses it to play around with the spy as a character archetype. Bourne also uses it to play up the traditional mystery of a character who doesn’t know who they are, or who they can trust. That’s one of the approaches you probably want to avoid.

Because amnesia works so well for establishing a blank slate, and giving the audience a point of view character who is exactly as unfamiliar with the world as they are, it’s become cliche. I fully believe there are methods to use amnesia as a useful narrative tool for your work, but a lot of the more obvious approaches have already been done to death.

-Starke

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Q&A: Flaming Weapons

How viable are non-magical flaming weapons? Like, coating the sword with a flammable substance and then setting it on fire. Would the trouble be worth it for the increased damage? Would they be more dangerous for the yielder? Would the fire negatively affect the blade?

No. At least not, that example. Also flaming arrows are out. The physics involved mean they either self-extinguish on launch, or they’ll ignite the user (I don’t remember which, and I kinda think it’s the former.)

That said, there are a lot of historical and modern military applications for flame.

The modern examples that come immediately to mind are napalm, dragon’s breath shells, and Molotov cocktails.

Napalm is, basically, jellied gasoline. It will burn, it will stick when it lands, and it will keep burning. Set something on fire and watch it melt. Napalm is, quite frankly, pretty terrifying stuff, and while the exact chemical formula is recent, the concept of launching burning liquids at people is not, going all the way back to Greek Fire. No one is exactly sure what Greek Fire was, but it would burn, could be lobbed onto ships or people you didn’t like, while burning, and would not stop burning once it arrived.

Molotov Cocktails are a medium ground here. You load a bottle up with alcohol, use an alcohol soaked rag as a fuse, light, and throw. There’s a little bit more going on here though. Alcohol solutions are only directly flammable if they’re more than 50% alcohol by volume. Most hard liquor is around 80 proof (40%), but, the vapors put off by the solution are still flammable (down to around 20%, if I remember correctly). So you can use a bottle of vodka as an improvised incendiary device. (Fair warning, it’s been a long time since I took a chemistry class, so those exact percentages may be a bit off.)

In spite of being named after a Russian Revolutionary, the idea of setting something on fire and chucking it someplace is not a new concept.

I know you can launch flaming payloads with a trebuchet, put them roughly where you want them, and set the area on fire. I’m not 100% sure of the military history, but it was used for centuries. Anything that will break apart on impact will spread the flame over a decent area and get a good blaze going.

Hot shots originally referred to cannonballs that were preheated before firing, with the intention of it igniting enemy structures or ships. This isn’t something we still think about (outside of the term “hotshot” seeping into idiomatic usage), but it did work, apparently.

The modern equivalent would be incendiary ammunition. There’s a lot of variety here, and they range from phosphorous rounds, which will ignite on contact with moisture, including the moisture in the air, to dragon’s breath shells which eject a mixture of highly flammable metals, such as magnesium, or potassium, which will ignite on contact with moisture.

Phosphorous was also a popular component for incendiary grenades, mortars, and other explosives. For example, one of the US military’s versions of a Molotov in WWII was produced by dissolving phosphorous and rubber (as a thickener) in gasoline). This mixture would self ignite on contact with the atmosphere (when the glass broke).

One variant of modern incendiary grenades use a Thermite variant
(called thermate)

to eject molten iron on detonation.

So far as it goes, most flare guns fire a 12 gauge shotgun shell. While the plastic ones won’t survive trying to put a conventional shell down range, the flare shell itself can result in horrific, and fatal, burns.

If you want a melee weapon to set someone on fire, you might be able to achieve that safely by heating the blade or using something like a thermal lance. The problem with simply coating a sword with oil and lighting it up is, they tend to drip. And, when you’re swinging the sword around, you’ll end up with burning oil getting splashed everywhere, including on the user. This is, “a very bad thing.”

Of course, shoving a torch in someone’s face is also a very bad thing, for them, and fits the definition provided.

So, the short answer is, yes there are a lot of real applications for setting someone on fire, especially when they’re all the way over there and walking is too much effort. Setting your own sword on fire is not a great idea, however.

-Starke

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Q&A: Balsa Staff Followup

peliaosfiendline:

add in, they’re the basis of many ancient infantry weapons. Knowing how to use one lends itself to spear and polearm fighting.

Also the sword, which may sound really weird, but there’s a surprising amount of techniques that transition over to the longsword with minor modifications. The staff is a very good “starter” weapon. A lot of the lessons you learn there can be adapted for use elsewhere.

Also bruised knuckles. All the bruised knuckles you could ever want can be found in staff training.

-Starke

Q&A: Not Enough Information

Not actually a fight question, but I couldn’t think who else to ask. My story has a living weapon type character who’s entire purpose is to kill the villain. But? Who are the weapon’s squadmates? Should I be basing them on Delta Force? Rangers? Green Berets??? It’s a landlocked mission so I’m figuring Army…Basically, who does a military send in when they need a dictator dead, and they don’t control the place the dictator is?

I hate to say it, but there really isn’t enough information to answer this question. Or, more accurately, the information I’d actually need isn’t here. I can offer some general advice which might help.

When you’re writing a story, once you’ve got your first idea in mind, your next step should be to conduct a lit review. That is to say, find other works that are playing around with similar concepts, and take a look at them. How did their authors put their story together? What did they do that you like? What did they do that doesn’t work for you? What can you learn from their efforts?

In this case, there’s a lot of material you can chew through. Ranging from bad 80s action movies staring Chuck Norris (Hell, The Expendables and Apocalypse Now both fit in this general theme), to a bunch of mid-90s XCOM clones (I’m specifically thinking of Jagged Alliance 2, here, but it was a thriving subgenre for a few years there), to loads of books, ranging from non-fiction to pure pulp. I can even think of a few comic books that might be useful, depending on what you want to do, (the Vertigo reboot of The Losers, and Queen and Country, come to mind immediately).

In the specific example of Video Games, they’ve become much more interesting for lit reviews in the past few years, with the rise of easily accessible postmortem analysis. A decade ago, I never would have considered looking at something like Ghost Recon: Wildlands and saying yeah, this might be useful, but the associated critical analysis and critique has been fascinating (even without playing the game).

Without knowing what you’re looking for, specifically, it’s kinda hard to pin this one down, and say, “yeah, this is what you want.” To be fair, I can usually make an educated guess at what someone’s aiming for. I can also be completely wrong; that happens too. So I offer the best advice I can, with the information given. It’s just, in this case, I’m honestly not sure what you’re looking for.

You do, however. You probably know if you’ve seen a movie, read a book, a comic, or played a video game that kinda conveyed the story you wanted to tell, or at least parts of it. You’ll know it when you see it. When you do, remember to look for things you can learn from what they did. Look for similar pieces. Look for what other people said about it.

-Starke

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Q&A: Balsa Staff

I’m unsure if this is a question to ask you, but how viable is balsa wood for a quarterstaff? And how viable is a quarterstaff in combat itself?

Balsa’s a bit fragile for a staff. Usually, when you want a light weight staff, the material of choice is bamboo. But, most durable woods can do the job. Pine is nice for this. Oak is the traditional choice for a quarterstaff.

Staves of any variety are very viable, this includes the quarterstaff. They’re easy to train people on, simple to use, and they can absolutely mess someone up. Even in the hands of someone who only kinda knows what they’re doing, they’re a good weapon.

-Starke

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Q&A: Cerebral Hemorrhages

would it be possible for the blood to come from the brain though? i remember in the Butterfly Effect the main character goes to the doctor who tells him part of his brain bleeds during his time-traveling, which led to his severe nosebleeds, but i’m not sure about the medical/physical accuracy

Yeah, cerebral hemorrhages are a little bit more dangerous than just a nosebleed. Specifically, these can (and usually will) result in strokes, brain damage, and death. In other words, not a medical condition you want to screw around with.

I can’t remember if I’ve ever actually watched The Butterfly Effect, so I don’t remember if that was explained in the film.

-Starke

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Q&A: D&D Raksasha

Would having backwards hands (Like a Raksasha from D&D) provide any kind of tangible combat benefit.

I kinda doubt it. Both my editions of the Monster Manual insist that it doesn’t affect their manual dexterity, which, I’m not so sure about that. They suggest that all it does is make the Raksasha look more disturbing.

I mean, if you spend enough time, you may be able to come up with some extremely situational examples, where their reversed hands would be an advantage. For example: They can claw you on a backhand, instead of a normal rake. Though, the value of that is kinda dubious. Mostly this detail is just to make the Raksasha more memorable and feel more unique. I mean, the 3.5e MM runs to over 300 pages, the Raksasha needs something to stand apart from the crowd.

Details like this can help to sell a fantasy creature you’ve created. Weird little anomalies you can use to make your world feel less generic. At the same time, these don’t need to be immediate, concrete, beneficial powers. Things like the Rakshasa’s reversed hands can just be there to sell your setting.

-Starke

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Q&A: Superspy Kids Going Off The Reservation

Hi! I was just reading Alex Rider and came across a part that mentioned Alex beating up a group of bullies and it got me wondering. If trained child combatant who was going to a normal public school how would the school as a whole (faculty, parents and students) react to of a story circulating regarding a kid taking on five and going to the ex-special forces levee of brutality to win? How could it be covered up?

Looking at the real world, if you have a kid who’s been getting training from their parent… look, this shouldn’t happen. Most responsible adults with advanced combat  training won’t teach it to their kids. Most. But, it does happen. You will occasionally run across kids who’ve had police or military hand to hand training. They have a parent who’s a cop, or spent tours oversees. The kid may be responsible with this information. Or, something like this could (and does) happen. Maybe it was some misguided, “teaching them to fight,” machismo by their parent. Maybe the kid just wasn’t quite stable, or simply made a miscalculation. There’s a lot of potential factors.

The result is pretty messy, however. Criminal investigations, of both the parent and the child. Depending on the severity of whatever they meted out, you may be looking at criminal charges, potentially being charged as an adult. A kid snaps, gouges out the eyes of an opponent, and kills another by crushing their trachea, and you could easily see a kid in modern America sentenced to +25 years in prison. This can easily spill over onto their parents. It’s not hard to see a situation where an older kid could get their younger siblings taken by CPS in order to, “protect,” them from the parent responsible for this training in the first place.

There’s also a real liability issue for the school and the kid’s parents. If you’re wondering about the idea of a cover-up in the real world, that would be stopped dead by civil litigation. Say whatever you want about America being overly litigious, but things like this are why tort law exists. This would also become a factor regardless of the bullies being alive after the encounter. Someone trained this kid; they’re responsible. Someone let this kid wander around free, waiting for something like this to happen (even if they didn’t know); they’re responsible. This means, even if he kills all the bullies, and there’s no witnesses, you still couldn’t bury this thing fast enough.

The irony here is, even if the bullies provoked this response, it’s still indefensible, and in the eyes of everyone the kid who went too far, and started turning people into meat origami, and they will be held responsible.

This is something every martial artist lives with’ the more training you have, the less force you’re allowed to use to defend yourself. The thought process goes (accurately) that you need to apply less force to ensure your safety, and that of others. It becomes far easier to become the aggressor, legally. This still applies to your kid. Age really isn’t a factor in that. It doesn’t matter if it’s a teen or an adult, with advanced hand to hand training. They go off and start killing people, even in self defense, it’s going to be viewed far more carefully than if a white belt screwed up and accidentally killed a mugger.

So, yeah, that’s not going to be fun.

There’s another factor here worth remembering, bullies are looking for easy victims. They don’t always succeed in finding them, and they probably couldn’t tell you how they identify their potential victims. Normally, bullies will avoid someone with combat training. This isn’t intentional behavior, so much as a subconscious response. Martial training builds self-confidence. In turn, this makes them look less like ideal victims to a bully. Somewhat obviously, it’s not 100%. Some people really are too stupid to live, but that tends to be a self-solving issue.

So, let’s put this back in its intended perspective for a minute. Or at least, as much as I can, having never read the Alex Rider books.

You’re an intelligence agency that just took complete leave of its senses and trained a teenager to be a superspy. They then took that training and used it on civilians? Your next phone call is to get a cleaner on site to bullet the kid in the back of the head, and dump them in a landfill, hog farm, or whatever’s nearby, then pretend that kid never existed in the first place. Let everything after that become one more mystery, because really who’ll notice?

After all, if you couldn’t trust them to keep their training secret, what hope do you have that they won’t flip and start spewing classified information to anyone with a badge or a gun? You can’t afford that. No one can.

Worst case, leaving the body where it landed won’t really lead back to your doorstep. There’s an awkward truth to homicide investigations: If the killer and victim are total strangers, it can become damn near impossible to identify them. A cleaner with an unregistered .44 can leave your teen spy in a pool of their own blood, and slip the perimeter before the local PD figures out what happened. They’re used to giving authoritarian regimes the slip; what are the NYPD going to do? Seal Manhattan over one homicide? Yeah, right.

Not killing the kid and just turning them loose will result in a psychologically unstable rogue agent who may have information you really don’t want in the wild, and their cover is now blown. So any rival groups could potentially make a play for them, or try to disappear them for their own use. That’s another big problem, but hey, it’s a tough world. Hell, even M threatened to have James Bond killed at least once, right?

Also, having a kid flip out like this is a training failure for your agency. I mean, it’s one thing when we’re talking about some guy who was teaching their kid Krav Maga in their basement,  but if you’re supposed to be a respectable intelligence agency, you really needed to make sure your spy would actually be able to operate in the field. That doesn’t mean shirking the issue of bullies, but it does mean finding other, more creative, ways to neutralize them. Not necessarily non-violent means, though those would be preferable. Planting evidence, framing them for crimes, or just straight up blackmailing them into public confessions are all on the table, but taking the direct approach for no substantive gain? No, that’s just bad tradecraft. It exposes the kid, it exposes your agency, and it does this for no benefit.

If there’s a lesson for your writing, it’s that no one is too important to kill if they become a big enough problem. I realize this kind of flips the script on the superspy genre. But, given the provided scenario, there’s no compelling reason not to snuff them. Any cover-up needs to start with tying up loose ends. That means the kid and anyone he confided in. Best case, just him. Worst case, it’s time to dig out the tarps and deep six a few friends and acquaintances. Just be quick, clean, and make sure there’s nothing left that can tie back to you, and you’re golden.

Now, this doesn’t mean that assassinating the kid needs to be successful. The odds aren’t in their favor, but they could find a way to survive. I mean, the entire Bourne film franchise is based off a rogue agent working against his old handlers (the novels are slightly different). But, it is the reasonable response, especially when working in a genre that goes through supporting characters like popcorn. It’s easy to sit back and
think, “well, that doesn’t apply to this character, because they’re one of the main characters.” Splat. Not so much, it seems.

One of the best ways to keep your audience engaged (in genre fiction) is to find ways to subtly violate the conventions of your genre by remaining true to the nature of your characters. Especially if those characters are baked into the genre itself. The superspy genre is (usually) very lethal, selectively. It kills off characters who aren’t important to the narrative. It will wax the mentor, the old friend, people your protagonist cares about, because it’s expected. But, it rarely turns around and puts a bullet in the protagonist because they became too much of a problem… unless you’re Sean Bean.

It’s probably worth saying, in closing, you really can’t train a teenager as a spy. Maybe for sigint, but not spies like you think of them. Working in human intelligence includes a staggering amount of psychological pressure. Most adults can’t handle it. Part of the training process is about screening out recruits that simply wouldn’t be able to survive the job. While you could subject a teenager to this, their chances of coming out the side as a functional operative, or even alive, are extremely low. It’s one thing to wave this for because you’re looking at the superspy genre, but that operates with a comfortable disconnection from reality. When you start asking, “but, how would this actually work?” Everything starts to come apart at the seams.

-Starke

Since I didn’t work a reference in along the way, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is still a fantastic look at spies, and absolutely worth your time. Amusingly, it’s not the first novel in the series, but is an excellent book.

Also, I’ll say it again, the first couple seasons of Burn Notice are a fantastic tradecraft primer. They’re not perfect, but the narrator offers a lot of excellent insight into how to exploit human nature.

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Q&A: Reflex Sights

Recently you talked about reflex sights – what are the differences/pros and cons of reflex vs red dot vs holo sights?

The short, slightly sarcastic, and not completely inaccurate answer would be, holo sights cost a lot more.

Reflex sights are optics that use a semi-reflective surface to provide targeting information. These will bounce a light off said surface, usually a red or green LED, which when viewed from the appropriate position, will tell you roughly where the object is pointed. I’m phrasing it like this because reflex sights are actually used for a lot of different things, including nautical navigation tools, telescopes, and even some disposable cameras.

The advantages for reflex sights are that they’re relatively cheap, and they usually have a fairly substantial battery life. The internals are just an LED and a reflective glass layer. (Technically, there are a few variations of the technology; for convenience I’m describing the one used with firearms.)

Holo sights are, as the name suggests, actually holographic. They use a laser diode to create the targeting reticle in three dimensional space. This opens up some additional functionality that’s either difficult or impossible to obtain with a reflex sight. The big feature is the ability to adjust for range and windage. Finally, unlike reflex sights, they don’t need to have a tinted layer to catch the reflected light, so the optics are slightly clearer.

The most common firearm reflex sights are red or green dot sights. These use a red or green LED to create the targeting point. That said, some holo sights use a dot aim point. In that sense a red dot sight is more descriptive than an identifier.

Picking a color comes down to user preference. In general, red light has the least affect on night vision. Also because of the prevalence of ruby lasers and red LEDs, some people do approach firearms with the feeling that red is the “right” color.

The human eye is more sensitive to subtle differences in green than any other color. This is part of why some night vision setups display their feedback in green monochrome. In theory, this makes green dot sights easier to see. For some people this honestly seems to be the case. Also why you’ll sometimes see green lasers used as targeters on firearms.

Red and green aren’t the only options. Common LEDs include blue, white, and yellow, so if someone wanted an amber dot sight, that is an option. (Though, you’re going to be paying extra.)

There are other factors. Red was used because red LEDs were very cheap to produce until relatively recently.

Blue LEDs only date back to the 1990s. There’s also the direct physiological factors. Historically red light has been believed to produce limited or no eye adaptation, and had the least effect on night vision. My understanding is, that’s not really true, and that green/blue light actually interferes less with night vision, but this is a discussion I’m not fully versed in.

The idea of a dot sight, as opposed to other reticles is purely preference. A dot has a cleaner profile, but provides less information to the user. Just a simple, “bullets go here (we think).” Ring sights, or lines can be useful for judging drift, and can help the user adjust their aim. Alternately, the reticle selected may simply be to speed up target acquisition. This one really is about personal preference. A ring sight isn’t better than a dot sight, it’s about which works for the user.

On more expensive reflex sights (and most holo sights) it’s fairly common to have the ability to switch out the reticle on the fly. So, picking the right one is sometimes about choosing what’s right for this moment, not just picking one and sticking with it.

I will say, video games tend to gloss over these things. I can’t remember the last time I played a game that actually tinted the window for a reflex sight (maybe Far Cry 4), and I don’t think I’ve ever played one that attempted to display a holo sight properly.

Incidentally, some stuff that you can, technically do, includes open reflex sights, where the glass layer exposed to the air. You probably wouldn’t want to do this, because of the potential for damage, but it is a real option, and (partially) open reflex sights do exist. Ultimately reflex sights do need a surface to bounce off of. The name “reflex,” is a shortening of, “reflective,” not a reference to the user’s ability to react quickly.

One thing you can’t do is have a free floating hologram over the weapon. Existing technology doesn’t really allow for this, so you can’t have those neat holographic heads up displays you’ll occasionally see in sci-fi. That said, it’s just not something we can do today, not something that’s impossible.

-Starke

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Q&A: Think About It

One of my characters rely on their mind more then physical , however, they are required to use a weapon for battling. What is an easy weapon they could use if they don’t have much fighting experience?

Unless you literally mean they have psychic powers, that is how people fight. It doesn’t matter how strong, fast, or tough someone is, if you can outwit them, they’re fucked. This is why, the ability to think, and adapt is the primary attribute for a fighter.

I realize people like to say, “my character is different, they think about how they fight,” but it’s really a lot like saying, “my character is different, they use the turn signals while driving.” Yeah, you don’t need to, but it’s not going to end well.

Stepping back from that a moment, a smart fighter learns a wide variety of weapons, and picks the ones that will be most useful for the opponents, terrain, and situations they’ll be facing. That means learning as many weapons as they can.

There’s a strong bias in media for characters who hyper-specialize on a single weapon. The master swordsman, master martial artist, the gunslinger, the sniper, the archer. You know how to stop someone like that? Pick a weapon or strategy they can’t defend against. It doesn’t matter how good you are with a sword if someone else guns you down.

Being adaptable and merely proficient with a variety of options is often far more dangerous than someone who was studying the blade while you were reading this.

-Starke

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