Tag Archives: writing advice

Q&A: Creating Supernaturally Secret Agencies

How would you go about writing a fictional agency, the one no one is supposed to know about. Things like the members, advisers, the place, etc.

So, before I get started, the process I’m about to detail isn’t, exactly, how I’ve gone about this in the past. Usually when setting up government agencies, I have a pretty solid idea of what it’s doing, and how it works before I start trying to nail down anything else. In some cases, I’ve let background details remain undefined because I’m confident they won’t become relevant and I’m not planning on revisiting that setting.

When you’re setting up background elements in your worldbuilding, you need to decide when something is important enough to dig into, or when you can just prop up a façade and let it ride.

So, with that in mind, you want by asking a few questions. It’s a little difficult to predict which will be most useful without detailed access to your worldbuilding. So you may want to think about related topics.

How secret is the organization? This is a much wider range than you might first think. There’s an entire spectrum between an organization which is technically public but not widely known, and one that is completely off-book.

An example of the former would be the DIA. Ironically, I remember seeing a YouTube comment from someone who assumed that appearances of the DIA in Fallout 4 were referencing the CIA. That’s incorrect, it is in fact the Fallout universe’s version of the Defense Intelligence Agency. The DIA is part of the DoD, and responsible for managing military intelligence. Where the CIA has more of a, “big picture,” approach to intelligence, the DIA is primarily concerned with military threats.

The DSS is another another American example. This is the Diplomatic Security Service, and it protects various diplomatically important individuals (both foreign and domestic) who don’t qualify for Secret Service protection, but still require dedicated protective details. This includes US Ambassadors. They don’t get Secret Service, they get DSS.

Again, both of these are real agencies, and you may have been unaware of their existence. There are a lot of agencies like this, which you’ve never heard of, and if someone pulled out a badge, you’d be left scratching your head going, “who?”

There are agencies that are (or were) classified, and their existence denied. The NSA is a high profile example of this. The Agency was originally founded via a classified memo from President Truman, and as a result the Agency’s existence remained a secret for decades.

Finally, there are real, “off-the-books” agencies. A defunct example which already appeared in this post would be the Bureau of Secret Intelligence. This was founded by Secretary of State Robert Lansing in 1916, to provide the State Department with a covert office to investigate information the State Department obtained and coordinate between the Secret Service, FBI, and the Post Office’s Inspection Service. I say it’s already appeared, because this group would become the Office of Security, which in turn would become the modern DSS. Much like the NSA, the DSS’s origins are more covert than its current incarnation, it’s simply undergone name changes, and restructuring, along the way.

This is all without getting into the range of agencies going rogue and dropping off the face of the earth. I’m sure there may be some historical examples, but I’m not aware of any off hand. Though there are plenty of examples of organizations shutting down only to open up under a new name shortly afterwards.

If your agency is still official, then you don’t need to wonder how it continues operating. Even if it is classified, your agents would probably carry identification for their unclassified parent agency. They’re still official in some capacity. If you’re looking at rogue agents, they probably don’t have that luxury.

If an agency is official, you should start to have an idea of what career paths would be necessary for recruiting characters. Depending on what the agency is dealing with, they’d need specialists. If it is a spinoff from a larger agency, then you already have part of this completed, as members will be preferentially recruited from that agency.

Not everyone involved will be fully read in on what’s happening. That’s normal clandestine bureaucracy. There isn’t a huge difference between staff and advisors in that sense. If anything, it’s likely that the agency would take advantage of whatever forensic resources were available without dedicating their personnel to that. (Though, obviously, if they’re working against something that would draw a lot of attention in normal channels, they may need to set up their own resources. For example, if you’re hunting alien infiltrators, you can’t leave an alien corpse with the local coroner.)

Using the US Federal Government again, as an example: It wouldn’t be that strange for an organization tasked with combating supernatural threats to be technically part of the FBI, DHS, or (in the case of something like vampires, werewolves, zombies, and anything else that can infect others), even the CDC. You might even see multiple clandestine organizations working in concert with one another. When your shadowy organization’s agents first show up, they’re just FBI Special Agents, nothing weird here. Importantly, that’s not a cover story, they really are Bureau agents, they just belong to a specialized team.

Ironically, it’s much safer for these kinds of secretive agencies to have a legitimate agency to hide behind. If they did show up claiming to be affiliated with one organization or another, and that was connection was false, that raises a number of problems for them. Claiming to be part of an agency your not is (generally speaking) illegal. And, any routine check into their story would start to fall apart relatively quickly.

The spur of the moment credential legerdemain of the Men in Black (of the films and comic series of the same name) is one of the jokes. Paying attention to who they claim to be affiliated with at any given moment will result in more laughs. The MIBs (much like the urban legends they’re based on) are every bit as paranormal as the extraterrestrials they’re investigating.

In particular, the Men in Black represent a specific kind of paranormal experience where someone on the outside can’t, really, be certain what happened after an encounter. There is potential value in having entities like this in a story, however, thinking of as an “agency,” may be shortchanging their true potential.

Actual claims of encounters with men in black are a somewhat uncommon element in Ufology. Setting aside questions of veracity for a moment, these reported encounters have elements that are difficult to reconcile. Either, there are embellishments, or the entire phenomena needs to be evaluated as something other than simply a “secret agency.” This starts with the MIB having inhuman traits (such a complete lack of hair or no actual facial features, such as lips), or behaving in ways that are similarly impossible, such as speaking without moving their lips, levitating above just above the floor, and telepathy.

With that context, the “flavor,” the films and comics may make more sense. The fictional MIB were designed to be an almost supernatural force just as inexplicable as the beings they policed. With specific comedic elements cuing off the agents’ being oblivious to just how peculiar they’ve become.

Whether you believe in the existence of real men in black, the concept, especially the unreal, and supernatural, elements of these encounters can be useful fodder for writing encounters with strange or otherworldly beings masquerading as government agents or other authority figures. There’s some real meat to work with , but if you want events like that, you don’t benefit from trying to sketch out their organization, or ground it into reality. it a case where less is more. The more your readers can parse out exactly what’s going on, the less threatening the scene will be.


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Q&A: Character Age for PMC Contractors and Special Forces

Similar to another question you answered, in a private military agency, how old should most of the members be? Also taking in the fact that some of them could also have other former training. (Ex: Navy Seal,)

Ironically, the age range is pretty similar. Most PMC contractors are going either be in their late 30s or 40s, though the reasoning is different.

Why specifically late 30s and 40s? There are two reasons. Most PMCs have mandatory retirement at 49 (at least in relation to their front line contractors.) This means, you’re not going to find many contractors in their 50s. (When you are, you’ll be looking at security consultants, or other non-combat roles.) You’re also not likely to find a contractor under 38. The reasoning here is a little different. If you serve for 20 years in the US military, you will collect a pension for the rest of your life. (This is calculated based on a percentage your highest base pay, so, if you’re getting promoted consistently, there is an incentive to stick around.) If you enlisted fresh out of high school, you’ll become eligible at 38.

Most PMCs would prefer that you have a military background. I’m sure there are some out there that don’t care, or will hire people without, but when you’re talking about front line contractors, it’s simply cheaper to grab ex-military types because they already have the training and experience the job requires.

This means, for most PMC contractors, moving into the private sector is a second career. These are not, generally, fresh faced kids who didn’t know what they were getting into because the company was hiring high school graduates. If they were, the company would need to spend money training them. So why spend that, when the government is already offering that training, and giving people hands-on experience at no expense to you?

As an additional incentive, training each soldier is quite expensive. Estimates vary wildly, but the US military pays somewhere around $50k-$80k to train each soldier. This spread across a lot of different expenses, so it’s not an easy number to peg down. Additionally, there are a lot of non-consumable expenses, such as training equipment. For a private company trying to replicate that degree of training, the costs could significantly higher. Meaning, it’s simply not worth it to hire off the street, and train, when national governments will handle that for you.

The irony is, depending on the PMC, prioritizing vets could extend into specialist roles and administrative positions. For example, if you need a doctor, mechanic, even office workers, you can find ex-military personnel who performed those roles when they served.

When you’re singling out ex-special forces operators, yes, some will end up in PMCs, but they can do a lot better than just hiring on as a PMC grunt, and an ex-SEAL (a real one) is far more valuable than someone with 20 years of Army infantry experience.

At any given time, there are less than a thousand SEALs in the US Navy (normally there should be 768, but I assume the number fluctuates slightly based on available personnel.) That means, if someone tells you they’re an ex-SEAL, they’re probably not. The same goes for any other Tier One special forces groups. There are not a lot of guys out there with those backgrounds, and they have a very desirable skillset. If a PMC is hiring a SEAL, it’s not just going to be so they can add another body to the pile, that’s someone who would be working in a senior position, or in some technical or planning capacity.

The irony is, when you’re looking at special forces, the ages skew down (into the 20s and 30s.) The training for most special forces (such as Rangers or SEALs), is unusually brutal. As you get older, the specific kind of grueling physical activity required of candidates will become more difficult. This is because the training serves a double purpose, it’s not just about training someone, it’s also about identifying those who are suitable for the job. The vast majority of candidates will wash out of these programs, and return to normal military duty. (With the SEALs that rate is roughly 70%.) Of course, once you’re in a group like that, you’ll probably spend the rest of your career there, and the leadership will be made up of people who’ve been there longer than you. Of course, once you hit 20 years in, you have a decision to make, whether you stick around, or leave for the private sector.


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Q&A: Character Age, Military Rank, and Command

First of all, I’d like to say that your blog is very helpful and contains a lot of resources which I can take my time and throughly read them. I do, though have several questions : 1) I’m writing a fiction novel, which have wars and battles in it. Consider it being a fiction, will people let the fact that my MC (a woman in her 20s) is a colonel and lead troops and hence, enter the army in a young age? 2) Is it possible to have both guns and swords in battlefields? thank you sm ?

So, taking the questions in reverse order, yes.

Firearms and melee weapons coexisted on the battlefield for over half a millennia. It was only with development of accurate, long-range firearms (particularly the development of rifling), and rapid reload firearms (such as trap door rifles and breach loaders) which ended the use of swords on the battlefield.

Technically, the sword persisted as a badge of office into the early 20th century.

As for making Colonel in her 20s, let’s put that down with some serious question marks. It’s not completely impossible, but it is highly improbable.

In normal infantry ranks, Colonel is the highest non-flag officer rank. This is fairly high up the chain of command, and they wouldn’t answer to anyone short of a General.

There’s a significant military divide between commissioned officers, and enlisted soldiers, with completely separate ranks. Historically, this had its roots in the social split between the nobility and peasantry. Enlisted are the soldiers while the officers command. Elements of that still persist today, and commissioned officers are still expected to be much better educated.

This is the problem, underage enlistment is depressingly common historically. However, underage commissions are much rarer. The only examples I’m aware of off hand are naval warrant officers, where an enlisted crewman took over the duties of one of the ship’s officers, and was granted a temporary commission. At the end of the ship’s tour, the admiralty could decide to permanently commission the warrant officer. It’s not impossible for something like this to happen as a battlefield promotion, but it is extraordinarily rare.

Additionally, promotion to Colonel within that timeframe would be (to put it mildly) a meteoric rise. It’s extremely rare to encounter a Colonel under the age of 40. During wartime, it would be possible to shave a few years off that due to battlefield promotions, but, trying to condense 20 years of commissioned military service into your 20s is a bit much. A character in their 20s would probably a Lieutenant or Captain. They might make it to Major by the time they hit 30, and could reasonably reach that rank if they’d been getting promotions to replace lost superiors, and performing well enough. Getting all the way to Colonel (assuming a modern military rank structure, is seriously pushing it.)

It’s also worth remembering that as you climb through the ranks in the military, the less likely you are to see direct combat. And, as a commanding officer, your colonel is unlikely to see any actual fighting. Their job is to command, not to fight.

So that’s the modern system, it’s worth looking at the history of the term. Originally, a Colonel was the commanding officer for a column. This only dates back to the 1500s, which is solidly in the timeframe of gunpowder and blades. At that point it would also have been plausible for someone in their late 20s or early 30s, with a prominent enough war record to become a Colonel in their own right. Probably by becoming the Lieutenant Colonel (which originally simply meant the Colonel’s Lieutenant), and then ascending to command mid battle if their Colonel was killed. Again, not likely, especially for a younger officer, but it is theoretically possible.

When it comes to reader expectations, it’s a little more complicated, because, it’s historically possible, given what the rank originally meant, however, most readers (if they’re familiar with military ranks) will assume that it’s far less plausible. They’re likely to understand (as I said earlier) that Colonel is a fairly senior rank, and that getting to O6 before you hit 30 is, effectively impossible.

The other major consideration here is that, as I mentioned, the higher rank your character is, the more it shifts their focus. This isn’t a problem, so long as you’re aware of it. If your protagonist is a Colonel your war story is going to skew away from front line combat, and be more focused on the strategic planning, logistical limits, battle plans, and adapting when battles don’t go to plan. I really mean, this isn’t a bad thing, but is different.

Similarly, when you’re putting younger characters into positions of authority, the younger they are, the more attention it will draw to their age. When you’re talking about a senior military officer who is unusually young, that will draw a lot of attention, and audience disbelief. If that’s the intent, then, okay. As mentioned, there are ways to justify that. However, it is something you need to be aware of. If you don’t want the focus on her age, then you’ll probably either want her to be older (in her 30s or early 40s), or lower ranked (such a Lieutenant or Captain.) This is even more true if you’re wanting to straddle between the actual front line combat, and strategy, where a lower ranked officer would have a foot in both worlds.


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Q&A: Hand to Hand Styles for a Monster Hunter

What should be the hand-to-hand combat style (or more) taught to a creature hunter? Just to have a reference to study. (Sorry for the bad english.)

I know we’ve said this before, but there really isn’t any unarmed fighting style designed for dealing with things significantly larger or tougher than humans. A lot of unarmed martial arts focus on fighting other humans, because those are the foes they’re expected to be used against.

That said, a lot of martial arts, particularly Eastern ones, incorporate weapon styles at more advanced levels. So, while you might start with unarmed techniques, you would eventually graduate to using a staff, a sword, a polearm, and eventually more exotic weapon (such as the urumi, or meteor hammer, depending on your martial art.)

When you view weapons as a natural evolution from unarmed training, a lot of martial arts, particularly from India and China, become very viable options, if they fit the tone you’re going for.

To an extent, I’d actually suggest looking at this the other way around. Take your setting, and then ask yourself, “what martial arts best fit that world?” For example, if your setting is based on India, then you would want to reference Indian martial arts. (And, there are many surviving Indian martial arts.)

China is a similar situation, if you’re wanting to work with an East Asian setting, you’ll probably want to look at the Chinese martial arts, of which there are many.

There are martial arts that will be much harder to research, particularly ones that have not been preserved. In the some cases, we’re sure that there was some kind of martial art in that culture, but we have no idea what it looked like. (This is especially true with many indigenous peoples. Paradoxically, this is also an issue with European martial arts, as Europe aggressively discarded combat systems as warfare changed.)

If you’re looking at a modern day monster hunter, you probably will want to look at practical martial arts, such as Systema, MCMAP, or Krav Maga. If you’re patterning of a fantasy pseudo-Europe, then you probably want to look at HEMA, though that won’t be unarmed. If you’re patterning off of some other historical setting, you’ll need to look at the martial arts relevant to that era.


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Q&A: Bodytypes

do you need a particular body type for certain sports or martial arts? like, skinny people are better at acrobatics for example?

No, though, martial arts will shape your body. The only thing you need is the perseverance to stick with training when it becomes strenuous.

There are two traits that can be very advantageous.

From a combat perspective, being an adult comes with a couple insurmountable advantages. Mental maturity means the ability to quickly assess consequences, and form a viable plan. Additionally, an adult skeleton will be far more resilient than one that is still growing. This doesn’t mean that children can’t (or shouldn’t) engage in martial arts, simply that they should not be fighting.

The second trait is a lower center of gravity. A lower center of gravity results in a more stable martial artist; one who will be harder to knock down or throw. There are two ways to have a lower center of gravity: One is to be shorter, the other is to be female.

Part of the purpose for stances in martial arts is to lower your center of gravity. For someone who is shorter, they get into a much lower stance than their taller counterparts. This is a significant advantage, but it’s not a filter.

The thing with acrobats is that weight is a pretty significant filter over whether you can participate in the sport. With martial arts the only filter is whether you can stick with the training.

Beyond that, high level martial arts will push you towards a body type (which will vary based on what you’re training in), but that’s more a consequence of the physical activity you’re engaging in; not a function of the community favoring a specific body type. This is true with most strenuous physical activity. If you’re engaging in that activity, it will cause your physique to develop in accordance with what you’re doing. However, it does not mean you can’t participate in martial arts based on your body type.

The only physical filter for martial arts is whether you can actually sustain the training. Martial arts can cause a lot of physical wear on its practitioners. Again, this isn’t that different from any other, similar, physical activity. If you don’t take care of your body, you will wear it down, and martial arts can contribute to that.


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Q&A: Nerding Out, There’s no Shortcuts for Research and Learning

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite:

Do you have any tips on thinking up interesting fight scenes and how to get ideas on movements, weapon use etc? 🙂

In a way, you’re trying to run before you can stand by putting emphasis on interesting. By interesting, I assume you mean spectacle, which isn’t a criticism. All Hollywood fight scenes in cinema (with a few rare exceptions) prioritize spectacle over realism. It’s important to remember that spectacle is visual entertainment i.e. the scenes are geared to specifically capture the imagination via movement that you watch. Spectacle doesn’t translate readily to the page because it’s a different medium. The “set you on your ass” realization which should come with that is every fight scene you watch in live action from the excellent to the terrible is choreographed by martial arts masters with decades of experience and a team of stuntmen whose entire job is creating an entertaining sequence in line with the director’s vision. This is in line with every published author you’ve read having spent decades honing their craft.

That’s why I say “don’t try to run before you can stand” because when you’re at zero the worst person to compare yourself to is master. It’s only after you gain appreciation for the art, learn how tall the mountain is, how much effort went into scaling it, and begin the climb yourself that you write interesting fight scenes.

The art of writing is really, at the end of the day, the art of being a perpetual student. You get ideas by learning what things are, how they work, and why. Martial arts from martial history to the uses of violence in the real world, the effect of violence on the psyche, the changes training makes to both the body and and the mind, to it’s use in modern day entertainment is all on the table to be learned. So, pick up a book, crack open YouTube, it’s time to study.

An interesting fight scene, requires an interesting scene, which requires an interesting story...

Consider you’ve been consuming violence through media for your entire life but when the time came to put your ideas to the page, you didn’t know how to bring them out. That’s because even though you’ve watched carefully sanitized violence occur on your television, you don’t understand the grounding behind it, how it works, and why. Learning and consuming are distinct and separate skills. Beginning to critically examine the media you consume to figure out how these stories have the effect they do and why is an important first step.

A good fight scene is ultimately built on the nuts and bolts provided by a lot of other scenes to build a good story. Violence in entertainment acts as a form of catharsis. Catharsis is the release of narrative tension rather than the building of it. After every fight scene you need to build tension again within the consequences of the action and the decisions made by your characters, unless that release of tension is at the end of your story.

A good fight scene is a payoff for the goals and motivations of your characters, and treated as intrinsic to who they are rather than the way they fight acting as a separate aspect or aesthetic bolted on top of them. On a functional level, violence is an act of problem solving. A fight scene is your characters choosing to solve their problem in this particular way and it is imperative that you, the author, establish the groundwork for their decision before the scene occurs.

Interesting fight scenes are created by interesting characters making interesting decisions and dealing with the resulting fallout from their choices. Consequences are part of what establish “realism” or create the suspension of disbelief.

When you write a story, you create a pact with your reader. A promise that your story will function in accordance with the rules and laws you’ve set forth that govern your setting. It doesn’t matter what genre you write in, whether that’s fantasy or contemporary. When you break your rules for whatever reason, even if it’s to save your characters, you break your audience’s suspension of disbelief and your fiction dies. Basically, if you write yourself into a corner with a villain who is too strong and/or imbalanced against your protagonists, be brave enough to let them win and learn to balance your narrative better next time.

The rules you create are intrinsic to your fight scenes and maintaining your audience’s suspension of disbelief, and you will be tempted to break these rules when you run into issues, such as characters being injured, or captured, or dying when you don’t want them to. Or not being willing to to put your main cast in real jeopardy, to risk their lives because you need them for other parts of the story down the line. Your story runs on its own internal logic and there’s a lot of ways you can completely fuck your stakes for a “cool” moment. And, honestly, you will. Failure is a key part of learning. You’ll learn by trying out ideas and coming up empty, but every failure feeds into every success. You won’t know how to balance tension in your story until you learn to balance tension in your story.

Basically, you’ll never learn how to write an interesting fight scene until you master the art of writing an interesting scene. You can’t get anywhere if your audience doesn’t care.

Think critically about the media you consume…

I know I said this above, but this is important. If you want to tell interesting stories, you need to learn how stories work and the best way to learn how they work is by critically analyzing the media you consume. The best ideas you’re going to get for your own scenes is through what you see whether that’s in fiction, live action film/television, comics, cartoons, anime, history, or from the people in your life.

Ask questions. Like, why did I enjoy this? What specifically about this scene did I enjoy? How did the author get me to feel this? What were the previous scenes that built into this moment within the narrative?

Art begins in imitation. There are no original ideas, just interesting interpretations and influences/inspirations the audience may not immediately recognize. The works of those you love will become part of you, they’ll inspire you, and factor into the stories you tell. We color within the lines until we become dissatisfied with self-imposed limitations and want to draw outside them.

By learning how the stories you love work and function, what inspired their creators, what influenced their work, you can choose what aspects you’ll take with you and what you’ll leave behind. Otherwise, in copying, you’ll grab a lot of the nuts and bolts working under the surface that you didn’t intend. It’s cool to love Star Trek and it’s characters, and want to adopt them into your own work, but if you don’t take the time to understand Rodenberry’s goals in his writing, his themes and intentions, then those themes, ideals, and beliefs (which are built into the character’s bones) are coming with you whether you want them or not.

A story is never just a string of actions. By stepping beyond imitation, by going full theft, sacrificing the original into the flames of your imagination, you leapfrog off inspiration to your own creation.

If you’re not sure how to do this, there’s plenty of excellent critical breakdowns of media properties all over YouTube to show you the way.

Love Star Wars and want to write a story like it? Read Dune. Watch Akira Kurosawa’s filmography, watch the Westerns which inspired Kurosawa, and then watch the Westerns that were inspired by him. Study the psychological texts and philosophy of Carl Jung. Then, watch Star Wars again. The interpretations of interpretations through the lens of an interpretation or inspiration can help you gain new understanding for how something you love is put together.

The only trade off is you’ll never see that work the same way again.

Learn all the things…

You want to get ideas for how humans move for your fight scenes, you need to learn how humans move.

Again, you can find inspiration for this anywhere. Go to the park and watch people run around. Take a martial arts class. Sign up for fencing. Watch videos online. Ideas are everywhere. Once you have an idea, once you see something you like, commit to learning about it, learn everything about it that you can. Start with regular Google searches and escalate from there. Become a nerd.

Seriously, become a nerd.

If you love Rurouni Kenshin learn about Kendo, Iaido, Jiu-Jutsu, and the other samurai arts, study the Meiji period of Japanese history and the real individuals a lot of the characters were based on. Read historical accounts of duels between samurai. Read The Book of the Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. Learn how the katana cuts in comparison to other swords of it’s type. Watch videos where sword nerds tear the myth of the katana apart. Hell, play Hakuoki for a completely alternative take on the Shinsengumi.

Be a nerd.

Personally, I watch the fights of the Fate/Stay Night series a lot. I maintain subscriptions to most streaming services. I kept all my college texts. My shelves are full of all kinds of pencil and paper RPGs, books of myth, books on magic including ones that catalogue real historical events people thought were magic, political texts, philosophy texts, books on martial arts from various different masters, comics, instructional manuals on writing, survival manuals, lots of fantasy novels, etc. I keep tons of reference material on hand from a lifetime of collecting, and you should start a collection too. You should also love the internet and your local library because we artists are poor.

Writing is an art, writing well takes work, but it’s a craft that can be learned if you’re willing to put effort into learning it. Learning to make use of a world full of reference material will help you.


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Q&A: The Disadvantages of Battlefield Brawling

How would a fighter class fight in a war? Especially if their main skill set is brawling.

If their main skillset is brawling, they’re going to need to learn a new skillset. Knowing unarmed fighting can be a useful skill for a soldier, but, it’s never going to be their primary fighting method. The biggest problem is the lack of reach, and the lack of natural weapons.

If you’re trying to wage war by punching people, and the other side has a bunch of spears, you’re out of luck. They just poke you to death before you can land a single hit.

The problem persists even if their armed with shorter weapons, like swords or axes. You still need the ability to close the gap, before brawling will become a viable option.

It is important to understand, there are applications for knowing how to throw a punch, even in the middle of a massive battle. Times when your character may not be able to use their weapon for whatever reason. A good example of this is if enemies are too close for a character’s primary weapon, which can occur in melee. However, it’s never going to be a soldier’s first choice, and even in very tight quarters, as a knife or dagger would be preferable.

It’s also not particularly viable to strap blades onto your arms, to augment your punches. Weapons like bladed gauntlets, wrist blades, and (worn) cestuses may look cool, but they’re wildly impractical in warfare. If the weapon is damaged, it cannot simply be discarded, and you’re stuck with a weapon you may not be able to use.

Beyond that, these styles of worn weapons will be slower than a carried blade. Because you need to put your entire arm into the strike, you cannot match the speed of a weapon that pivots on the wrist. That will impair your ability to block or parry incoming strikes, and quickly end with your death. There are very real reasons that worn weapons never caught on or saw widespread use; they’re impractical.

Now, having said that, there is a specific place where these kinds of weapons are ideal. Gladiatorial combat. It’s important to remember that, from a structural point of view, any kind of arena combat will be entertainment. That can be modern sports matches or Roman(-style) gladiators. In cases like those, having “non-viable weapons,” like wrist blades strapped to the participants is entirely legitimate, because it’s not about efficiently killing the enemy, it’s about having inefficient, and bloodier, combat for the crowd. While I can’t remember the name off-hand, I’m pretty sure there was a Roman gladiator variant who was armed with a pair of cestuses, and nothing else. You wouldn’t want to take that to war, but it would produce a bloody spectacle in the arena.

Fighter classes tend to be combat generalists. For most RPG systems, if you’re wondering what the infantry of that setting looks like, the answer are low level fighters. If you’re wondering what the elite units are comprised of, also low to mid level fighters. Who’s commanding? Probably a fighter. What about the city guards? Probably fighters. What about the gang enforces the guards scuffle with? More fighters. What are the gladiators in the arena? It’s yet more fighters.

Now, that’s not all RPGs. Some will break apart the fighter into distinct classes (or sub-classes.) So, it’s possible you’re looking a game where, “Fighter,” refers exclusively to a kind of gladiator, and there’s a warrior or solider class for characters with a more militant focus. I’m not familiar with any RPGs which do that, but it wouldn’t surprise me. (My first suspect is The Dark Eye, but I’m not familiar enough with that system to know for sure.)

Many RPGs encourage hyperfocusing on a single weapon for your fighter. Even D&D does this through the Weapon Focus and Specialization feats. While having a character who is a master of one weapon, but otherwise mediocre is a reasonable character concept, it’s not particularly realistic, or at least, it should be considered as a serious character flaw and/or limitation.

Being an effective combatant is about knowing how to use all your available tools, and a single weapon fighter can’t do that. They have one option, and only one option. All weapons are situational, and an unarmed fighter in a war is a long way from any of the situations that benefit them.


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Q&A: The Rapier, the Cloak, and the Whip

antiv3nom said to howtofightwrite:

hi! i know in the gtn post y’all did, you mentioned that capes and whips can be used as offhand weapons for rapiers, but i haven’t been able to find any good resources on how exactly that would work, so could you many explain some of the basics? apologies if this is outside your wheelhouse!!

I mean, a little, but we can get you moving in the right direction.

One of the best resources for historical martial arts is free and it’s Wikitenaur.

At Wikitenaur, you can read translations of historical martial arts treatises of created by fencing masters from the 14th to the 19th century from the German to the Engish to the French and the Spanish. Reading the treatises can be a little dense if you lack a grounding in martial arts, or any familiarity reading historical manuals that (while some have pictures) won’t provide too many definitions as they were written with the expectation readers already had a knowledge base. However, there’s a lot of great information here about all types of different weapons combat from the sword to the baton to medieval grappling techniques to fighting in armor versus without armor, all in addition to whatever else you might be looking for regarding the rapier. Useful to know about. Useful to use.

(This is where I found information on using the whip with a rapier, though I don’t recall which Master pointed it out. It wasn’t common, but it worked.) You’re probably better off looking at Filipino Escrima, or the whip itself separately. It’s a weapon that is very difficult to practice with safely, so you won’t find as many videos with people messing around with one.

I’ll discuss the whip’s general uses as a off hand harassment tool below.

Let’s talk about The Cloak:

The cloak is used in a way that somewhat similar as a tool of harassment, visual disruption, and also as a quasi-shield. It should make sense that the cloak was far more common as an off-hand tool. People wore cloaks, and any too you have already on hand is always better than a tool you have to remember to bring with you. The cloak is actually a really good one too.

Matt Easton discusses the uses for the cloak in fencing here. (He has a lot of really useful videos about Historical European Martial Arts.)

Giovanni Rapisardi gives a more in depth demonstration with the cloak. (Video is in Italian with subtitles.)

An hour long crash course from the Tavern Knight’s Barracks with a lot of discussion on the cloak.

Martin Fabian’s The Fabulous Cape video is Part 8 of his Learn the Rapier series.

This video from Salle Saint-George demos the Spanish rapier with the cloak, this might be helpful for some of you as the Spanish rapier is, at times, visually different from it’s Italian counterpart. I’ll include this video of Italian style versus Spanish style from DennisLuko for emphasis.

Then, two dudes from the Academy of Historical Fencing who show that just chucking a cloak at your opponent is a viable combat move.

Basically, the trick with the cloak is that if you wrap it properly around your arm, you create an excellent guard against cuts. (Thick fabric, there’s a reason you shouldn’t underestimate padded armor.) The cloak hangs over part of your body, obscuring your low-line from your opponent’s sight. You can use the cloak as a harassment tool, you can swing it at them to distract and visually cloak your own movements while thrusting (not unlike a matador), even wrapping and trapping an opponent’s blade for a disarm. You can even chuck it into their face. If the cloak is brightly colored, that adds to the visual confusion for your opponent as they attempt to hit you.

Useful, fashionable, and you were probably already wearing one.

Now, let’s discuss everyone’s favorite off hand for Zorro, The Whip:

This was never a popular choice. The whip was not a common weapon to see on the streets of Western Europe and, even the shorter lengths are difficult to use in densely packed streets. You can probably guess where it would be more commonplace without me having to tell you and the reasons why someone from the period might be carrying one.

The whip falls into the category of other soft weapons of it’s type, like the Chinese whip chain and the rope dart, where it’s a very powerful and useful weapon to understand how to use but also extremely difficult to master in a way that will be helpful during the frenzy of live combat.

As an offhand weapon, the whip is a weapon of pure harassment. For the most part, without modification to make it more lethal, it only does surface damage but when you’re hit with it? It hurts. It’s also loud, which is me saying you can use that cracking noise for intimidation. It has reach, quite possibly more than your rapier. The whip strikes on an arcing pattern that is nearly impossible to accurately predict or block, which, while your opponent is distracted by trying to counter the whip, creates the opening you need to thrust with your sword (assuming you’re close enough). So, you don’t use these two in conjunction so much as you’d use one to destroy your opponent’s guard to create the openings for the other. The whip, being the more unpredictable, requires more focus, making the rapier the secondary of the two.

However, for all its strong points, the whip can be undone by your opponent’s choice of clothing. It isn’t good for cutting, or going through heavier material. Basically, the whip’s threat is friction.

In summary, the whip is fast, potentially loud, difficult to see, difficult to predict, visually confusing, has reach, can tangle up, even disable an opponent, but is limited by its ability to only inflict surface damage, high skill level requirement (it’s one of those weapons where you either get it or you don’t), and complex nature.

Probably the best whip work I’ve seen for fight scenes on film come from Anthony Hopkins in Mask of Zorro and (if we remember Trevor Belmont’s whip is magic and animated) Trevor Belmont in Castlevania.

Probably better as the offhand weapon of a second string anime villain your protagonist has to overcome rather than in the hands of your protagonist themselves. Ultimately, also a better weapon for visual media rather than written. Still, if you can figure out how to make it work on the page, it’s a fun option to keep in your back pocket.

– Michi

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Q&A Followup: Assassins and Spies: Famous in Government

I’m not aware if you do part 2’s to Q&A’s but with your other post about being a famous criminal would it be under the same terms if the only the government was aware of the assassin existence?

Yes. Ironically, this can go either way, depending on the structure and scope of your story.

If the government who knows about your assassin is friendly, (as in, the assassin is a covert operative for them), then you have the situation where a character could safely build a reputation privately.

If the government is hostile to your assassin, then you have the normal downsides of your criminal’s behavior being well documented.

The irony is, both of these states would probably be true simultaneously. With the government (or at least the intelligence community) your character works for being aware of their existence, while simultaneously, hostile governments would be aware of, and on the lookout for them.

This is something that is sometimes capitalized on with James Bond. He is incongruously famous for a spy within his world’s British government, but, simultaneously, some of his villains are able to instantly recognize him, even though his cover is technically intact.

I didn’t specify this during the previous post, but that is a real problem for spies (and probably would be for assassins as well.) As a spy engages in espionage, they will get added to databases and official records. Intelligence agencies are notorious for maintaining files on anyone who ever catches their attention. As a spy’s career advances, and they are involved in more and more places, those dossiers will gradually out them, and it will become more difficult for the spy to operate covertly. I don’t know if this would also be true for an assassin, but it seems likely. Especially if they took on targets who were protected by government security services.

To a certain extent, it’s irrelevant whether an assassin (or any criminal) is publicly famous. The real question is whether the authorities know who they are. So, asking if the government knows, is really just cutting this one down the people who matter for the purposes of consequences.


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Q&A: The hazards of Fame for a Professional Criminal

Are infamous assassins bad and are they more likely to be caught? Is it better to have an assassin who rather unknown than one who is infamous.


This applies for almost any professional criminal: Their job will be easier and safer if no one knows who they are.

Realistically, being a world famous assassin or thief would be a nightmare. They’d be the first suspect whenever anything high profile happened in their general vicinity. They’d also be under tighter scrutiny, if they went anywhere publicly, they’d be carefully watched. (Either by the authorities, security, or both.) It would be significantly harder, or impossible, for them to do their job.

There’d be a real risk of being implicated in crimes they had nothing to do with. Fabricating a case against a famous assassin or thief would even be an effective tactic for anyone who wanted to neutralize them (either for revenge or to further their ambitions.)

It’s also, legitimately questionable how these characters could build up infamy. Murdering someone is, as you may be aware, somewhat frowned upon by polite society. So, if you have a character who’s built their reputation by murdering people, it raises the question, “How have they avoided the consequences?” The real answer would be, “by avoiding detection,” but being sneaky and escaping attention is the opposite of how one builds a reputation.

In the real world, there’s debate whether any, “master-class,” assassins actually exist. The entire nature of the job requires that they avoid detection, and if they’ve done so successfully, they’re effectively unknown. The assassins we do know about are the amateurs, and low-skill professionals, because they are identified and prosecuted. In that sense, becoming infamous as an assassin is somewhat analogous to being bad at your job.

Things could be a little different if your setting has some kind of legalized assassins guild. “World famous,” assassins are a staple in certain flavors of fiction. Some kind of secret society of assassins would give its members a safe space to develop their reputations, but they would be virtually unknown outside of their organization, (and groups it associates closely with.)

So yes, being famous (or infamous) would make an assassin’s job nearly impossible.


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