Tag Archives: time travel

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.


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I just found this blog and I absolutely love it. Here’s my writing question. Through an alternate universe / time travel situation, I’ve got a man trained in kendo (and experienced in modern American combat) going up against a Rennaisance Italian Duke in the Duke’s home turf. A terrified Victorian lady is standing by with a pistol that she more or less knows how to use, to help out our modern man. Any opinions on how you think that might go?

Not well for him. Kendo will teach you how to handle a katana. It won’t teach you how to use a sabre, rapier, or whatever stray implement of death and dismemberment was convenient.

It would be like asking, “my character has spent the last 25 years mastering Blackjack. How would they fare in a Texas Hold ‘Em tournament?” Yeah, they both involve cards, but it’s the wrong skill set, with an entirely different set of considerations.

So, if he’s not using a katana, all of his training is worthless. He’s literally trained in the wrong weapon.

If he is using a katana, he’s still screwed, both because of the weapon itself and because of his training. The katana is not designed to deal with the kind of combat Italian school fencing delivers. It simply isn’t agile enough. Generally speaking, the katana isn’t a particularly adaptable weapon. Take it out of its native environment, and it suffers.

His training is a problem because, well, he’s trained in Kendo. Kendo is not, and never has been a practical combat form. It’s the modern descendant of Kenjitsu, which was the art of murdering people with a katana. The problem is, as with a lot of European sword schools, Kenjitsu basically died out with the sword on battlefields. (Specifically in the mid 19th century for Kenjitsu.) Modern Kendo and Iaido salvage some techniques and katas from Kenjitu, but the result is similar to modern reconstructionist European techniques; potentially lethal, but nothing that compares practitioners from when they were living combat forms.

There’s an added wrinkle here: because of the social structures at work in Japan, particularly the insular nature of the class system, it would be literally impossible for your character to obtain training in Kenjitsu.

You know the cliche: “the right tool for the right job”? In this case a katana, and Kendo in general, is the wrong tool.

There’s also a pretty strong whiff of orientalism coming off this post. Best to kill that now.

There’s nothing particularly special about the katana. I know, this flies in the face of all the anime you’ve ever watched, but
when we’re talking about the sword itself? Technologically? It’s a
fairly standard early iron age longsword.

There’s nothing particularly special about Kendo. It’s a sword form. You can kill people with it, but that’s not saying much. The biggest problem with Kenjitsu is that it was an insular style. It evolved to deal with other people who were using similar weapons, held similar combat doctrines, and had similar training.

European sword forms evolved in an environment with far more diversity, and the result were far more adaptive combat styles. They expected people to pull weapons and techniques they weren’t familiar with. For your Duke, the question wouldn’t be, “what is this sword? It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.” Because he’d certainly seen curved single edge blades. It would be, “why is this guy so terrible at using it?” Assuming he didn’t simply think, “filthy peasant” before running him through and going on with his day.


What do you think a fight between two time travelers would end up like?

Ignoring technology? Not that special. As we’ve said many times, martial arts adapt and evolve to the current combat climate. With no shared climate, whichever one had an advantage would probably snuff the other in short order.

Time traveler is kind of it’s own occupation, which throws a monkey wrench into picking up multiple styles, you just wouldn’t have the time… unless they’re also immortal. And even if they do, marital arts training does atrophy from disuse, so the twenty years your time traveler spent learning a new style would actually make them worse at a style they’d learned earlier, simply because they couldn’t practice it openly without creating some kind of paradox.

If they’re immortal, or have some kind of advanced future technology that makes them invulnerable, or guns that fire plasma, or mind control nanites that force marmosets to do their bidding, or… whatever. But, that’s more of a “who has the best toys” kind of question.


I have a character who is the daughter of a very minor anglo-norman house (1090s) who time-travel ( access to several periods, the latest is the 1980s, can’t transport technology). Since the age of 6, she has trained in multiple martial arts, (renaissance fencing, muay thai, etc). At 14 she is fighting under the future Henry I. I want her first kill to be inelegant (she loses the upper hand, she is fighting a conscript with inferior training & gear) What is a rookie mistake she might make?

So many problems here.

I’m a little fuzzy on this exact moment in history, but we’re not talking about an enlightened era in British history. Henry I may have felt his daughter was fit to rule, but he didn’t feel he could put her on the throne unmarried.

When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman is a really good look at the events following Henry’s death in 1135. So, this is probably something you should read regardless.

Women, even noble women were being explicitly denied access to education, and there’s a legitimate question of if your character would even be literate. (Expect language to come up again in a second…)

For her family, she’d be too valuable as a potential political bargaining chip to simply send off into combat. They could marry her off in exchange for concessions from another house, or to cement an alliance.

As a member of a minor noble house she couldn’t even rely on her opponents capturing and ransoming her on the battlefield. She’d be just another random combatant they didn’t recognize and snuff her.

Now, if she’d run away from home, disguised her gender and joined a mercenary band, this would make sense. And it wouldn’t actually be anachronistic.

Seriously, if you’re wanting to run with this character, running away, disguising herself as a man and signing on with mercenaries is probably your best route.

With that in mind, there’s a couple things to note: She’d be defying the single most powerful political organization in Europe at the time, and would probably be engaging in activity she’d been taught was “evil” her entire life. Getting exposed would be incredibly dangerous to her and she’d need to build up a powerbase that would stand by (or behind) her when her gender was revealed.

Okay, let’s talk about the time travel issues before we get into the issues with mixing those and martial arts.

The first is viral. You have no acquired immunity to small pox, and neither do I. Cited as the single greatest achievement in human history, we effectively wiped it out in the 20th century. No one alive today under the age of about 50 has any immunity. Your main character just introduced a fresh strain into the 1980s… that’s a minor viral apocalypse right there. To say nothing of anything virus or bacteria she’s carrying that modern medicine has never seen.

Also, she doesn’t speak English. No, really, she wouldn’t. She’d speak Middle English, which marked the introduction of French into the English language, but, she’d be incomprehensible to someone in modern day, outside of someone with a doctorate in English lit. And of course, any modern speaker would be incomprehensible to her. If you want to get an idea of what her language would look like, Chaucer isn’t a bad place to start.

So your character would need to learn a new language everywhere she went.

Third issue with time travel is culture shock. She needs to jump into the distant future, decide, “no, wait, I understand these car things” and all the other random insanities we consider mundane. There’s a lot of fodder for humor at the expense of your character here, but honestly, it is a serious issue. Again, your character isn’t stupid, but, at the same time you can’t simply shrug off a thousand years of technological and social advancement in her quest for superpowers.

If you’ve never seen it, watch Farscape. I know, it’s sci-fi and has nothing to do with time travel… most of the time, but John’s constant spaz outs, and the way the rest of the crew view him as slightly defective or insane isn’t that off tone for what you’re character would be facing. Also, seriously, if you haven’t watched it, you need to, if only for Aeryn.

Also, the major thing to take away from Farscape or, even if you don’t watch it, just to understand, your character wouldn’t be stupid. The people around her wouldn’t be stupid. People haven’t mysteriously gotten smarter over time. She’d be uneducated but not stupid.

The fourth issue is one of perspective. In the middle ages it was popular to view the world as fallen. The church certainly capitalized on this, saying sin, and the fall of man was attributable to The Garden of Eden and Eve’s actions therein; this was also what The Church used to justify the misogyny your character would be dealing with on a daily basis. But, there was a real feeling that humanity had fallen from previous golden age. It doesn’t matter if she’d look to Ancient Greece, Rome, or King Arthur, your noble would be more likely to use time travel to go back, looking for some lost mythic era. Rather than looking forward to a world she, by definition, can’t be aware of, and wouldn’t expect to be any better.

Here’s the problem with training on a rapier, she’s using an arming sword: they’re different weapons. They’re used differently, and you can’t swap out and use one like the other. You also can’t use an arming sword like you’d use a longsword or a zweihander. They’re all swords, but they’re all different weapons, with different characteristics. There’s some overlap in how some of them are used, but the rapier is one of the most specialized swords out there, so that would literally be wasted training.

Even if whatever system she’s using doesn’t consider the rapier technology, and no mistake, it is technology. It wouldn’t do her much good in the eleventh century. You see, starting with the introduction of the gun, in European combat, armor initially increased in weight to deal with incoming fire, but over time, as firearms improved, armor shifted towards lighter more mobile designs. The rapier evolved to exploit the vulnerabilities of lighter looser plates and the transition to more mobile combat forms, which your character wouldn’t be facing after she jumped back home.

The same thing is true of unarmed forms. Modern Muay Thai isn’t the worst possible martial art to take into an eleventh century European battlefield, but it’s close.

Martial artists will, inevitably get asked what the “best” martial art is. The smart (and/or honest) ones will respond with something along the lines of, “there isn’t one,” or “they all have something to offer.”

It’s probably better to think of unarmed forms as a toolbox for solving combat problems. Some deal with certain circumstances better than others. The forms that will handle a given problem best are usually ones that were built to deal with that specific situation.

That is to say, Muay Thai isn’t built to deal with armored opponents. In some cases you could kludge it to deal with one in an emergency, or you could improvise. But, the form itself isn’t really going to help you.

Muay Thai is built for dealing with single unarmored, unarmed opponents, and under those circumstances it excels. But, that’s not what your character will face on an open battlefield.

Ironically, none of the modern martial forms are really designed to deal with someone in plate armor. It’s not a situation that we have to face anymore, so none of the prominent styles have a specific, “oh, this is what you do when dealing with someone wrapped up in enough steel to make a ‘57 Chevy.”

Some of the reconstructed European styles have techniques that deal with plate, and it’s a safe bet the historical styles did too. Europe had a terrible habit of tossing martial arts on the pyre once they’d outlived their usefulness. It’s inconvenient for us, and means your character’s better off looking for hand to hand techniques in her own era, rather than time traveling for them.

And here’s the real reason I just spent the last twelve-hundred words taking your teeth out: Your character doesn’t need to go time traveling for superpowers in order to fight alongside the men in her era. She can do that fine on her own, without any special advantages. Either your story is about a time traveler, or your story is about a woman who ran away from home and went to war because it’s what she believed in. But, saying she needs superpowers to be on par with a conscript is saying, “my character’s inherently flawed because she’s a girl” and, I’m sorry, but, that is just bullshit.

There’s this horrible trend in writing female characters, where the author goes hunting for some super special way to say, “no, really, my character has superpowers that bring her up to par with the boys.” You don’t need superpowers for that. Superpowers are about being more than anyone else, not about being “just about equal” to unpowered men.