Tag Archives: writing tips

Q&A: Gunshot Pain

How much does getting shot actually hurt? I’ve heard lots of anecdotes about it just feeling like a punch, or the person not even noticing it, but that probably has a lot to do with adrenaline, I imagine. It almost certainly varies by Caliber, but in general how much does it really hurt?

ride-ai

Mercifully, I can’t speak from personal experience. I’ve had guns pointed at me, but I’ve never been shot.

Surprisingly, it doesn’t seem to vary much based on caliber. The body doesn’t know what to do with a bullet wound, so the victim will feel the impact, they know they’ve been hit by something, but may not realize they’ve been shot.

Adrenaline does mute the experience of pain, I can speak from personal experience there. However, with gunshots this seems to reduce the burning sensation. So, a bullet in flight is going to be quite hot. This is also true with spent shell casings. Again, I’ve never felt a bullet in flight, but fresh shell casings are unpleasant. If you’re putting a lot of rounds down range, it’s possible to burn yourself on the weapon. (We could do an entire discussion on the engineering to managing heat in firearms. It’s a real challenge in firearms design.)

The testimony I’m looking at, frequently equates the injury with either being struck by a large blunt object (baseball bat, hammer, ect.), a sharp jabbing pain, comparable to a bee or wasp sting, a burning sensation or some combination of the three. This appears to be (at least partially) agnostic of whether they were experiencing an adrenaline rush at the time. (This is a little tricky to quantify, because I’m having to make educated guesses.) My suspicion is that the exact point of contact determines which you’ll experience, but I do not know.

So, the short answer to, “how much does it hurt?” seems to be, “not much,” with a lot of caveats.

If a bullet hits a nerve, things can go really wrong. This can result in paralysis, numbness, or constant pain (ranging from a mild annoyance, to perpetual agony.) This damage can be persistent and the victim will continue to experience it for the rest of their life. Nerve hits can also result in an electrical (or tingling) sensation from the wound. (Though, I haven’t seen one of these as a persistent wound, it’s probably possible.)

Shrapnel is worse. If the bullet ricochets and carves up the skin, it will hurt quite a bit. (Incidentally, this also applies to explosives.) The testimonial I’m seeing meshes with my experience from knife wounds. There’s little to no pain in the moment, but it’s starts seriously hurting shortly afterwards. (Again, this is not the result of adrenaline muting the sensation. It simply takes a little while for the body to catch up and start yelling at you.)

Shrapnel can also present a long-term complication. It is possible to end up with shrapnel that cannot be safely extracted. This can result in a persistent pain from the embedded chunk of metal.

Ironically, in some cases, the stippling hurts more than the gunshot itself. This is the unburned powder ejected from the muzzle when firing. Gunpowder burns at around 2700 Fahrenheit. I don’t know the exact temperature of the stippling after it leaves the barrel, but it’s going to cause burns at close range. (Postmortem, this can be useful to estimate the distance between the shooter and victim.) These won’t cause serious injuries in most cases. You’re dealing with flaming particles. However, it will hurt. Heavy clothing can soak that, though it will be damaged.

There’s a related situation. I don’t have any victim testimony on this one, but I’ve seen it enough times in autopsy photos and medical reference. When the muzzle of a firearm is pressed into the victim, the burning gasses are forced into the wound. This will form a bubble just under the skin, tearing in a star shaped pattern. Again, I can’t find anyone explaining what this feels like, but, I’m willing to bet it’s singularly unpleasant.

Long term, any lasting damage is something the victim will have to live with. Damage to bones or nerves can result in lifelong impairment and pain. Even in the short term, gunshot wounds need to be carefully managed to heal properly.

Every gunshot wound, and victim, is unique. I’m also fully willing to admit, the number of reports I could find is limited. (I’m also rather annoyed because one collection I read was a shameless repost from an r/AskReddit thread.) This isn’t a topic people like to talk about openly, so when I’m talking about, “why,” that’s semi-educated guesses.

I hope this helps, and if anyone has some personal experiences they’d like to share, I’ll collect those in a follow-up.

-Starke

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Q&A: Wrestling Rules

I was wondering how you’d go about writing a wrestling match. If you could help that would be great. To be more specific, I need to know what the common body types are and whether it’s all grappling or if punching and kicking are involved. Appreciate it.

Both of the questions you’re focusing on will depend on the organization overseeing the match.

Any competitive sport will require a (theoretically) impartial organization overseeing each match. They need to establish and enforce a uniform set of rules on all participants. The organization doesn’t need to be solely focused on governing one specific sport.

Things get tricky because what one organization may consider entirely acceptable could be disqualifying in another. This goes directly to your question of whether it’s all grappling or if direct strikes are permitted. This question is simultaneously, “yes, and no.” Some forms of wrestling strictly forbid direct strikes during matches. However, some grappling martial arts include striking techniques, and competitive matches based on them would permit strikes. Though, there would likely be restrictions on the specific strikes.

Normally, I’d just look at the dominant organization, and tell what their rules are, but there’s a problem here. Because of a number of factors, competitive wrestling at a professional level is basically non-existent as a professional sport in the US. Instead we have the unholy lovechild of soap operas and Saturday morning cartoons dominating Pay-Per-View.

There is an organizational body, United World Wrestling. They oversee multiple wrestling styles internationally. Greco-Roman and Freestyle are two specific wrestling forms that are Olympic sports. In both cases, direct strikes are prohibited. Greco-Roman also prohibits hold below the waist.

As for body type, Wrestling as a martial art places a premium on physical strength. This results in fighters with very developed muscles. Things get a little weird in the US, because a lot of people are probably thinking of Scholastic or Collegiate Wrestling. In the former case, you’re dealing with teenagers, so you’re going to get teenagers. In the later case, you’re dealing with amateurs, so it’s while it will affect their body type, it’s going to be less pronounced than if they’re competing professionally, or at an Olympic level. (Assuming they’re not training to go into the Olympics.)

As for general advice on writing a wrestling match? Watch competitive matches. Read up on it. Do your research.

-Starke

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I hope it doesn’t show in the post above, but I’m still not at 100%, and Michi’s tied up dealing with work at the moment. I am sorry about the short hiatus, and I’m not entirely certain when regular posting will begin again.

Q&A: Stabbed in the Neck

What are the chances of survival if you get stabbed in the neck? For instance, by a six-inch knife? Where is the worst spot to take a wound like that, and where does it offer the highest chance of survival?

candelantern

The chances of survival are not great.

So, normally, the rule of thumb is: Three inches of penetration anywhere on the body is enough to kill. The thought process is that, if you’re going that deep, you’re going to hit something that’s either necessary, or that will cause the victim to bleed to death. When we’re talking about the neck, everything is a lot closer to the surface.

You need your spinal column. That’s pretty well armored, but it’s still vulnerable. Hit it with enough force, and you can knock the third or fourth vertebra out of position, severing the spinal chord, and killing them on the spot. Run a blade horizontally between those two, and you should be able to do the same with slightly more finesse (for whatever that’s worth.)

You need your arteries. That’s the carotid which is mirrored on each side. Sever either, and your life will be over in minutes.

There’s the trachea and larynx. You need those to breathe. They’re protected by a layer of cartilage, but that’s it. If it gets carved up, you’ll asphyxiate. This is survivable with immediate medical attention. But, this is well beyond normal first aid training. You someone with actual medical training on site.

There’s the upper esophagus which is important, though not immediately life threatening, but that’s shielded between the trachea and vertebrae.

There’s no place to get stabbed in the neck that isn’t immediately life threatening, everything’s either muscle or vitally important to your survival. Six inches of penetration will go all the way through, probably damaging multiple vitals.

Stabbing someone in the neck is a fantastic way to kill them. You’re almost guaranteed to hit something that will quickly end their life.

The most survivable neck injuries would be superficial slashes that don’t actually get deep enough to damage anything important.

Damage to the trachea is survivable if they can get immediate medical attention. But, again, you need a paramedic or doctor right there. This isn’t a case where, “I passed my first aid cert,” will cut it.

The worst, is a toss up. Anything that severs the carotid will kill them. Someone who knows what they’re doing could execute this pretty efficiently. They just need to drive a blade through the artery and open it up.

Running a blade into the spinal chord will also get the job done. That requires more precision, but this isn’t better. And if they’re striking from behind, aiming for the base of the skull is going to be easier and more reliable.

These are both really lethal outcomes, but realistically, if you’re running a six inch blade through someone’s neck, they’re dead.

-Starke

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Q&A: Duel Structure and Weapons

I had this idea about having a rule for certain duals in my world being use your opponent’s weapon/skill (with agreed time for practise). A recent post you had was talking about how no one can be experts at everything, which means unless all are impossible experts like that, one may be severely disadvantageous or both look like sloppy amateurs who can’t fully use the weapon/skill especially if it’s very different. So.. is my idea good or not?

No, not as stated. Let’s talk about why, because there is something adjacent that, the best of my recollection, was a practice.

In real history (and in your world) dueling was a highly ritualized activity. There was an entire process that was necessary to “legitimize,” a duel. The exact steps varied through history and between cultures. The goal was to provide a form of dispute resolution, but the rituals evolved to minimize the risk of bloodshed without taking the option entirely off the table. If the process was skipped, then you just had two people trying to murder each other.

Generally speaking, you do not want someone planning to kill you handling your weapon. There are far too many ways to covertly sabotage it when you have it in hand, and are appearing to, “practice.” If you’re not above poison, you could even booby trap your foe’s weapon if given the opportunity.

There’s a few things about dueling worth discussing.

First are the seconds. The second was a personal friend who served a critical role in dueling process. I’m unsure exactly when the process started, though it was well established by the 19th century.

Seconds had a number of responsibilities, including: Coordinating the duel’s schedule (usually the duelist who accepted the challenge could dictate this, within reason, and it fell to the seconds to lock down the details.) Making any necessary preparations. Procuring, inspecting, and providing the weapons. (Depending on the culture, this might include examining In the case of pistol duels, the seconds were responsible for loading their duelist’s weapon. Finally, they were tasked with talking their friends out of killing each other.

Dueling sometimes had very specific rules regarding the kind of weapons used. This changes based on when and where you are. In some cases, the duelists would have some freedom, (as with the location, if there was a choice, the responding duelist would usually be allowed to make this decision, within reason.)

The important takeaway is, while one of your duelists may have a significant skill advantage, their weapons should be evenly matched, if not outright identical. There’d be no benefit to, “practicing,” with your foe’s weapon, because you already, effectively, have a copy.

All of this is distinct from, “dueling,” in narrative. This has nothing to do with dueling rituals; dueling in fiction refers to a specific, small scale (usually one on one), combat cadence. The fight occurs with alternating flurries of violence, interspersed with quiet lulls. In some cases, those lulls will include dialog, where the characters verbally spar, though in others, it will feature downtime while the characters reposition, or while the focus cuts away to other characters. This structure works very well on film, and is extremely popular in screenwriting.

Because of their structure, duels can extend far beyond a single scene. While you can have a simple single fight duel, like Obi-Wan and Vader in A New Hope, you can also drag this out over an extended period of time, moving between different environments, such as Luke’s duel with Vader in The Empire Strikes Back.

Narrative duels can also extend beyond a single character. Many nautical novels include dueling ships. Each ship is (functionally) a single participant in the overall combat. Science Fiction often takes inspiration from nautical sources, alternately patterning starship combat off of sea combat, submarines, or, sometimes, modern aircraft support. For example of this, the majority of Wrath of Khan can be described as a protracted duel between the Enterprise and the Reliant (or between Kirk and Khan as the respective captains), while drawing heavy influence from both submarine combat and the Horatio Hornblower novels.

The identifying characteristic to identify a duel like this is if the combatants remain under threat of immediate violence from one another, even when they’re moving through different spaces. I realize this is a little subjective. If you want a more definitive set of thresholds, if either character is defeated or fully escapes, the duel is over.

If you’re working within the narrative structure, it’s entirely possible that one character will end up with the other’s weapon via some means. They may have simply disarmed their foe and are now pursuing with both weapons in hand. As far as tension goes, this is a good idea, as it forces your character to find a replacement under pressure.

-Starke

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Q&A: No One Decides How Many Chances You Get (Except You)

flowerapplejacks said to howtofightwrite: I have always felt that the phrase “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is not only patently false but harmful and ignorant. It seems to romanticize the concept of pain and suffering always leaving potential for individuals to grow. Often times the reality is completely opposite. Pain cripples and stunts, it doesn’t help you grow. What are your thoughts?

So, what is the alternative? Lie in a corner and hide from the world, and hope it all goes away? It won’t. You can roll over and wallow in the pain if you want. Sometimes, you need to. Sometimes, you’ve got to nurse your wounds. The problem is you can’t lie on the floor forever. In the end, you’re gonna have to get up and figure out what you’re doing next.

You can’t stay on the floor.

You shouldn’t stay on the floor.

Don’t give up.

I say this as someone who’s lived with clinical depression since I was thirteen, I’ve lost most of my family members, lost my dog, broke my leg when I was twelve. I’ve learned from my pain. My mistakes have taught me a lot. I wouldn’t be where I am today (or who I am today) without them.

I’ve been in the pit. I climbed out. It took twenty years, but I made it. I wouldn’t have, if I was avoiding pain.

One of the truths about life is that it’s painful, often in a variety of different ways. You can learn a lot from pain. You learn about yourself, about your body, about your personal weaknesses. You’re often stripped of the illusions you had about yourself, about your bravery, about how far you’d go to protect your ideals, about the kind of person you are, which can be damaging all by itself.

What I don’t like about the statement “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is that it’s passive. It assumes a positive outcome rather than acknowledging the courage, hard work, and emotional toil which often comes with overcoming traumatic incidents, overcoming injuries, or even just getting up to try again after you’ve made a mistake. I think what you’ve missed is the core message of the statement, which is that if it didn’t kill you then you still have the opportunity to make things better, to rectify your mistakes, to be better than you were before. If you’re dead, there are no second chances. That’s it. That’s the end. There’s no more you.

Pain is your body’s response to getting hurt, and also for saying, “don’t do that.” Like all natural instincts, it’s not always right. Not all pain is bad for you, and some of it, like the kind you experience from change, is unavoidable. Learning to distinguish between the two is a natural part of living. Learning to distinguish between the pain from a stubbed toe and a major injury is important. Learning to push past the limits your mind has set for you, that’s important. It’s just like learning to ignore or push past your fear when it’s standing in the way of what you want. Just because you’re afraid doesn’t mean you should be. You need to learn which fears are valid, and which are standing in your way.

My feelings on pain are very simple. Pain is one of life’s constants. You will experience a lot of different kinds of pain throughout your life. Emotional pain, pain from fear, from disappointment, from rejection, from loss, from embarrassment, from change, from growing up, from your memories of past, painful experiences. You’ll experience physical pain from injuries major to minor, you could break your leg, you could bump your head, or just walk into a door. You experience low-grade pain from working out. Your stomach hurts when you’re hungry. You’re gonna feel pain from stubbing your toe. Getting hurt is an eventuality.

My approach to pain is the Rafiki quote, “you can either run from it, or learn from it. So, what are you going to do?”

If I took your advice, that pain should be avoided at all costs because pain is bad, I wouldn’t have two functioning legs. I wouldn’t have eventually reached acceptance with my father’s death, which has taken most of my adult life. I wouldn’t have three black belts. I wouldn’t have gone to college. I wouldn’t run a successful blog while also managing clinical depression. Hell, I wouldn’t be managing my depression. My depression would be managing me.

When I was twelve, I fractured my tibia (the big bone in your leg) doing martial arts and I needed to get surgery. The break itself was incredibly painful, yes, but so was the recovery. Learning to use crutches was painful, I made mistakes and those mistakes hurt. Every day, I had to work on stretching my leg and performing exercises to keep the musculature up in my leg. I had to learn, among other things, to navigate a world not designed for people with physical disabilities. I had to learn to deal with my situation when my circumstances were no longer novel to my friends, when they didn’t help anymore. I had to learn to deal with the stares and curiosity, and even bullying.

However, I learned from it. I learned how to open doors while in a wheelchair when there was no one around to do it for me. I learned how to navigate and get to my classes on time. I learned how to get around on one leg with just my own internal balance. I learned how to handle classmates who hid my crutches. I learned how to get into a house that had only stairway access. I learned how to take showers without getting an infection. I learned how to not just live with my broken leg, but thrive with it while I worked toward recovery. I had school counselors who’d tell me the story, years later, about how they were so impressed with how I figured out how to open my junior high’s heavy, double doors in my wheelchair. And do you know why I figured it out? I couldn’t sit around waiting for someone else to do it for me.

Yes, pain hurts. Pain can be uncomfortable. Pain can be horrible. Crippling? Only you really get to decide that. Stunted? Again, being emotionally stunted is something you can address.

You’re going to get hurt no matter what you do, even if you spend your life trying to avoid it. The act of learning… anything, really, is painful. You’re going to make mistakes, and making mistakes can be painful. It’s also unavoidable. Life is short. You’re going to get thrown by the horse while learning to ride, and I say that having been thrown by many horses. You’re going to lose people you care about. You’re going to face rejection. You’re going to be disappointed. You’re going to fail. You’re going to fall down. You’re going to get injured. You’ll face setbacks.

However, that pain can help you develop resilience. You can develop emotional strength, and the courage to face what you’re afraid of. When you encounter setbacks, you learn how to push past disappointment. You realize the pain isn’t as big a hurdle as you thought, that you are tougher than you previously believed.

When you get knocked down, you have two choices. You either get back up or you stay down. And, you know? Some people do choose to stay down. Some people choose to wallow. Some people never try again. Some people need time before they’re ready. Getting back up isn’t always easy, but the more you do it the easier it becomes.

No one ever gets to tell you how many chances you get.

The question of what you do after the pain occurs is what matters. Just because you got hurt doesn’t mean you should give up. Maybe you should take a step back and reassess before trying again, but you should, probably, try again.

I broke my leg trying to do a tornado kick. Now? I can do a tornado kick. I could have given up, but I didn’t. I could have avoided dealing with my father’s death, I could have run from it and there were certainly points where it felt like I’d never feel anything again, but now I get to celebrate his memory.

Pain is a learning experience, but what you learn from it is up to you. You’ll experience so many different kinds of pain. You’ll learn to distinguish the good from the bad and the mild or middling from the terrible. Hurting yourself more to get better might feel like an oxymoron, but, sometimes, you need to.

Celebration of survival isn’t irresponsible. Sometimes, the simple act of existing requires courage. Courage deserves recognition. If you’re bothered by someone saying, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” then you might not have come out the other side yet. You might not be ready to celebrate how your experiences and what you’ve gone through have made you the person you are. In the end, it’s not really any different than saying, “you know, we went through some rough and tumble times but we made it!”

Do you stop playing on the jungle gym because you bashed your funny bone? Probably not, but you might be a little more circumspect about where you put your elbows.

-Michi

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Q&A: Low DPS

I have a fanfic where a character has a whip as a weapon for Evil Overlord Aesthetics. She thinks she’s in a video game, and when she realizes she’s actually in a dangerous situation she ditches the whip for an improvised weapon (sharpened rebar) that’s easier to kill with. Is this a plausible change, or is it easier to kill with a whip than I assume? While fear is affecting her judgment, if you can kill with a whip and she knows how at least in principle, maybe this isn’t a leap she’d make.

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You don’t need to justify a character taking a poor weapon choice into an encounter in a video game. There’s plenty of reasons you might take garbage gear into an encounter. Achievements, grinding unlocks, because individual weapons and attacks level up from use. This is before we get into novelty, thematic, and RP builds, which is what you’re talking about.

There’s a legitimate point in games, where you can start screwing around with non-optimal setups. You’ve gotten comfortable enough with the mechanics and the game cannot punish you for abusing it. Usually, this is due to system knowledge, it’s not just, “my reflexes are so good.” When you know how a game will behave, you gain a lot of freedom.

This should be obvious, but, the rules of a game do not have to mimic reality. In many cases, they won’t. What did you find was the most realistic element of Skyrim? The ability to yell at people so hard they’d vaporize? Being immune to hypothermia? Becoming a vampire? The ability to recover from near fatal wounds by freezing time and instantaneously consuming one-hundred-and-forty-five carrots. Owning your own house? Games operate under their own rules; rules which can get away with barely paying lip service to the real world. When you’re writing in a game world it is very important to create (or understand) how those rules work, and the effects they’ll have on player behavior. After that, the real world doesn’t matter.

This is part of why the, “she’s in the real world but doesn’t realize it,” doesn’t play for me. Something like Star Trek‘s holodecks not withstanding, video games are nothing like the real world. Even hardcore simulation games tend to have weird idiosyncrasies. Before we talk about graphics or the interface.

Because the rules are artificial, new players will try things that don’t work, but look viable. The technical term for this is a, “noob trap.” Generally speaking, these are regarded as poor design, but they still happen, and experienced players learn to navigate around them.

Some games will actively encourage you to swap out your gear, sometime for less optimal choices. The logic is fairly straightforward: If you let a player simply run the same loadout for 20-60 hours, they’ll get bored. To quote Soren Johnson, lead designer on Civilization 4 and Offworld Trading Company, “Given the opportunity, Players will optimize the fun out of a game.” Players will take the most risk averse, tedious, approach to a game, and then blame the game for their choice to play it that way.

There’s a number of ways you can counter this: Including gradually aging out existing items (either by providing a drip feed of better gear or by causing existing gear to decay), a focus on situational weapons. This can result in situations where you’re best option is use something that would normally be sub-optimal, because it’s the best option in the moment. In the right circumstances, that could include your character’s whip.

Developers will also implement mechanics designed specifically to counter this kind of play. An example close to Johnson would be the Firaxis reboot of XCOM, and it’s eventual sequel. Players used overwatch, inching forward with soldiers covering one another as they moved up. This somewhat mimics a real military tactic called a staggered advance, where soldiers will cover each other as they move forward. However, it also slows the game down and trivializes a major risk; charging into a pack of aliens you didn’t see. XCOM2 addressed this by using mission timers aggressively. You couldn’t advance slowly and methodically, because you only had X turns before very bad things happened. Similarly, the spiritual successor, Phoenix Point, tied its overwatch mechanic to a depleting resource. Again, invalidating the optimized strategy.

Here’s the problem: Low damage isn’t fun. As a concrete example: This is the problem with high level combat in Fallout 4. Enemies continue to level with you. Your level is uncapped. But your maximum damage output caps off at level 49. You, and the enemies, continue to get tankier, as your health pools grow, but you will never hit harder than you could have at 49.

Why do I bring this up? Few things in video games kill the fun like low outgoing damage.

Few players would choose to take a very low damage weapon simply for the aesthetic. (Note: “Very” is the operational word here. Everyone has slightly different tolerances for what they’ll accept. However, if the character is considering using an improvised weapon, clearly the whip is well below what they’re happy with.)

Either their whip is a valid weapon choice, or your character’s decisions leading up to this moment don’t make a lot of sense (even from the perspective of being in a video game.) There are whips in games that are legitimate options. For example: Bloodborne’s Threaded Cane, or the Vampire Killer from Castlevania. If it’s something like that, then the whip will still do its job. (Unless, the real version is nothing like the game counterpart.) However, if that’s not the case, your character is taking fetish gear into a fight. That’s going to be messy and unpleasant for her.

If you have the room to use it, the whip is a good defensive tool when dealing with unarmored opponents. So long as your character doesn’t need to kill their foe in this scene, the whip gives them a lot of options to create an opening so they can break and run, or buy time for reinforcements to arrive.

If she wanted to kill people, she would have brought a weapon to achieve that. If she’s using a whip is for fun, bringing it to a fight won’t be. I would think she’d have learned this before now.

-Starke

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Q&A: How to Catch a Bullet

Is it possible to actually catch a bullet in your teeth? Or would that just ruin your mouth?

Most handgun cartridges can still punch through a thin layer of steel. Your teeth wouldn’t do much. The bullet would pass through your mouth striking the brain stem. It wouldn’t just ruin your mouth, it would kill you.

This is also a popular magic trick, so let’s explain that. You have the magician, and their assistant. One of them has a pistol loaded with blanks. Sometimes it’s a starter pistol, but really could be whatever. A particularly ambitious magician could have a live round loaded to demonstrate that, “no, really, it’s a real gun,” though this creates a very real risk of a catastrophic failure.

If you see them load the bullet, they’ll probably use a dummy round for safety. This will look like a live bullet, but without powder or primer, so it’s effectively, “safe,” if an error occurs. They’ll palm the dummy replacing it with a blank during the loading process. This is slight of hand, but that’s about as tricky as this illusion gets.

At some point, the magician will conceal a bullet in their mouth. Under the tongue or in the cheek will work, and it can stay there for awhile. If they’re smart, they won’t actually use a lead round. Lead poisoning is not a joke, and if this is a standard part of their act, it can result in health issues later in life.

The assistant will stand at least 2 to 3 meters from the magician, aim for their mouth and fire. The magician will then produce the bullet placing it between their teeth before opening their mouth to reveal the bullet they’ve, “caught.”

Because you’re dealing with a blank cartridge, this is an act where you really do not want an audience volunteer for your assistant. That is still an option, but the magician can still be seriously injured by powder burns if the blank is fired too close to them.

Catching a bullet with your hand is a very similar illusion. You simply palm the bullet in your hand when you load the blank, and then reveal it at the appropriate prompt.

So, there’s your explanation for how professional magicians do this. Please don’t try it at home, because if anything goes wrong, the results are catastrophic.

-Starke

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Q&A: The Drawbacks of Teleportation

bakahimesama said to howtofightwrite:

I’m trying to write battle scenes in a war with an overpowered MC. The main character is 1 of only 5 mages in the whole world (she gained the favor of a God). Her power is the ability to teleport herself, and up to 2 other people, anywhere she can see. She has been knighted, and is currently being used as a “secret weapon” against to weaken and confuse the enemy. Would guerrilla style tactics be the best method? And how would the enemy effectively counter her, without a mage on their side?

When you call a character overpowered, it’s because you’ve already decided in your mind that they’re unbeatable. This is bad for your tension, and your combat sequences, and your story in general.

If you don’t know how a character can be beaten, then it’s because you haven’t given them, their powers, their strengths, and their weaknesses enough thought.

Your character is only one of five mages in the world who can do magic, but if all she can do is teleport and is limited to being able to see where she’s going then that’s not really overpowered. You just need to acknowledge the power’s weaknesses. She’s also not going to be a “secret weapon” for very long, extended encounters with enemies will solve that problem. (If you’re justification is, “no one will believe that!” then you may want to re-think it. First time? Yes. The next five or six? No.) If she’s actively using her powers and lacking in mental modification powers like telepathy, she’ll never kill enough of them to keep the secret safe. At some point, the secret will be blown. Likely sooner than later. Also, just in general, people talk. If your character was a nobody who got knighted after they received their powers, people (not just the enemy) are going to want to know why.

Don’t underestimate the characters without powers and their ability to both acknowledge and adapt to new situations. Don’t underestimate intellectual curiosity, or curiosity in general from side characters. Many writers do to their detriment. Remember, your main character isn’t the only one who can affect the world around them or the narrative.

Now, let’s talk about teleportation.

Teleportation:

By itself, teleportation isn’t actually an OP superpower. Like all superpowers, it can feel overpowered in the right hands with a character who can use the skill effectively and creatively. Teleportation can have devastating results, but, by itself, with a character who can teleport themselves (and two friends) rather than teleporting other people at range, they’re already limited in what they can do. If their reaction times are human (rather than supernaturally enhanced), if they don’t have the ability to read the situation before they jump then they’re going blind, and they’re even more limited. They’re also not that difficult to counter.

A character who can’t teleport an opponent at range, can’t teleport their opponent into space, into the sun, into the Marianas Trench, or kill them with fall damage (and the added psychological horror of dropping them on their comrades) without significant risk to themselves. They also can’t teleport themselves to total safety if things go wrong. If they have to look and see where they’re going as opposed to seeing where they want to be in their mind (like say five miles in the air or on a mountain peak), then their ability to use teleportation in combat will be significantly slowed.

If they can only teleport places they can see, then they can’t get to someone who’s outside their line of sight. They can’t conveniently get to high priority targets like commanders and generals who may not be on the front lines, and are unable to surgically disrupt the enemy’s ability to plan their battle without significant effort prior. There’s no casual, “your general’s encampment is way over there, right? Imma gonna go kill him. Peace.”

The teleportation/telepathy/precognition combo is brutal if the character is an assassin. Rip the secret location from your enemy’s brain, check what trouble you’d get into if you went there, and then go there.

If the teleportation is a conscious decision which requires focus rather than a reflexive ability, allowing for movement without thinking, then it’s combat advantage is also more limited.

Martial combat, for reference, is reflexive. The goal of training is for you to be able to decide what to do and do it without needing to think about the mechanics. You’ve trained your body to react to specific stimulus, meaning you can react and even attack before your conscious mind has time to catch up. When the focus is in your conscious mind, requiring concentration, you can only perform one action at a time. This means your MC would be at her most vulnerable in the moments before and after her jump, and that would be the point an enemy would exploit.

This translates into: teleport then attack versus teleport and attack.

One way to get around this issue is to have some physical component to the teleportation which allows for the port to also become an attack by itself. There’s lots of singular teleportation powers/gap closers in games which do this, but it’s something to consider for your mage character.

Personal Transport versus Ranged:

The problem with singular teleportation versus ranged teleportation is your only real advantage is surprise. It’s a great power for someone who specializes in ambush tactics, but can quickly turn into a one trick pony if the writer and character aren’t careful.

The key to understanding any power is grasping both it’s strengths, and it’s limitations. Most characters you see in fiction that have OP teleportation skills like Ciri from The Witcher or Nightcrawler from X-men either have a subset of secondary powers they can utilize to enhance those powers or the teleportation itself is a secondary to their greater abilities. 

For example: if you want a character who can appear multiple places and attack the same enemy in the same moment like Ciri does in The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, then you also need a character who can control time and space. In Ciri’s case, her teleportation abilities are a byproduct of her true powers, which are primarily instantaneous dimensional travel and the ability to control the flow of time. 

Teleportation does not allow you to appear in multiple places at the same time, unless you’re also breaking dimensional physics, have the ability to spawn clones, or speed up the flow of time so it’s actually your after image someone else is seeing as you complete multiple attacks (seemingly) in a single moment.

The problem with ambush tactics are they’re not built for prolonged conflict, if the MC’s reflexes aren’t better than the individual they’re attacking then it’s possible they and their teleportation could be defeated or driven off by an unpowered human opponent of superior combat ability.

Combat teleportation can come with a lot of issues: 

  • Visual Tells —  when the character is moving in and out. 
  • Audible Cues — sound of the air they’ve taken with them disappearing and reappearing, or similar disruptions. 
  • Timing – time delays for them in the moment they disappear and reappear. If they’re not actually carving holes and moving through a different dimension for travel, they may not be able to completely control the timing of their re-entry. So, they have to mentally calculate it. This means if their opponent figures out their attack patterns and strategies, they can predict where they’ll reappear and be waiting with a surprise of their own.
  • Reflexes – a character who is gifted with powers, rather than having them naturally occur, is going to need to train their reflexes even more thoroughly for combat teleportation than the one who came by it naturally. While regular teleportation isn’t going to be much of an issue, short burst teleportation in a high stress environment where you could be coming out into an opponent’s weapon, or getting shot at range is a different beast. If teleporting isn’t a reflexive action to protect from danger that doesn’t require concentration, this is easier.

Remember, a character can only protect themselves from dangers they’re aware of. This leaves them incredibly vulnerable to weaponry, tactics, and ambushes outside their perceptions. They are limited by what they know, what they see, what they hear, and their own strategic and tactical abilities.

Don’t get so caught up in your character that you give them access to everything you know about the world they live in. You need to keep them separate from you and let them make their own mistakes. When you’ve got a character who is supposed to be hyper-competent, your first instinct might be to cheat for them. If they’re your protagonist, do yourself a favor. Don’t.

Countering Superpowers: Target the person, not the powers.

This one may seem counterintuitive, but it shouldn’t be. Counters are about your techniques, yes, but long term strategy is also about sussing out the habits and preferences of your opponent. Their strengths and their weaknesses. An army is not one person, it’s a lot of people working together toward a common goal. They have an advantage your MC doesn’t: multiple creative minds working to solve a problem. More importantly, the combat strategists and tacticians are also usually backed up a solid network of spies and informants about all the strategies/advantages their opponent has.

The longer a technique is in the wild, the more opportunity the enemy has to see it and develop counters around it. The clever enemy general will use battlefield observation and your MC as their guinea pig for developing a means to kill them.

The problem of the teleporter is you don’t know where they’re going to show up. This is true if you don’t know who the teleporter is, but familiarity breeds contempt. The more your MC participates in battles, the more familiar their enemies are going to become with their style, their strategy, their preferences, how their morals and personality quirks affect their battlefield choices. They can move quickly, yes, but they can’t take an army with them.

There are some easy counters like ranged weapons. (Can they escape a bullet, an arrow, or a cannon barrage if they don’t know it’s coming?) Martial combat is predictive by nature, put the blade where they’re going to appear and let them impale themselves (less difficult than it sounds.) Bait and bodyguards, wherein you set a rather nice trap and put everything you’ve learned about them to use. 

If teleportation relies on concentration — disrupt it. 

If the teleportation is reflexive — exploit it.

You don’t attack the powers, you attack the person wielding them. If you don’t need to kill them to achieve victory then this is even easier, all you have to do is distract them away from the battlefield. Distract them. Delay them. Feed them poor information. Lead them away from the fight so that by the time they realized they’ve taken the bait, hook, line, and sinker, the battle is over.

Your MC is both empowered by and held back by human emotion. Their feelings like fear, rage, embarrassment, hatred, overconfidence, etc, can be used against them. You need to figure out their personality flaws, and then craft enemies who can use those against them.

Don’t just think about your MC as the only target for these villains. If they’re fighting an enemy army, then that army will be interested in more than just them. Your MC is an impediment.

Your villains also need to stand on their own as strong characters. Find the internal and external antagonists for the narrative. Your villains should get just as much love, if not more love, and care as your hero. Antagonists are the backbone of the novel. Without a strong one, you’re dead in the water.

– Michi

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Q&A: Magic to Power

So I’m writing a story where magic exists. But it’s not exactly outlawed In the kingdom. But there’s a bunch of superstitions involved that they don’t use it. And the king actively encourages those super stations albeit not blatantly. My question is the king still employes people with magic from a group or some sort of organisation that trains these people in secret. How would I go about forming that? Would they work better as spies or independent contractors? This is set in roughly about 1700.

They’re not going to be, “independent contractors.” I’d say, “not in the eighteenth century,” but, given the circumstances, no, not at all. So, let’s talk about how these things would have to function.

For mages to be independent of their government, one of two things has to be true. They must either be powerless, meaning the magic they perform is trivial and ineffectual, or they must be more powerful (either individually or collectively) than the governments that seek to control them.

If their magic is utterly powerless, there’s no reason to pay attention to them. They’re irrelevant. If your world’s mages struggle light a candle with their magic, they may be scapegoated by groups, but governments wouldn’t care unless they wanted to get in on that.

Basically, if magic works as advertised, that’s going to be an asset to any ruler. It doesn’t matter if someone is a soothsayer, a healer, or able to throw fireballs around, their powers are useful.

If you are an eighteenth century noble, you do not want the peasantry to have that kind of power. Inevitably, they will use it to kill you. This is before you consider the kind of damage a single disgruntled mage could cause to your kingdom. The ability to project fire (or any other element) could completely destroy your agricultural base. Fire in particular opens up the possibility of remote detonating gunpowder stores. Prescience or clairvoyance could be used to sabotage your economy. Simply put, having a rogue mage out there could wreck your domain.

So what do you do? You make them work for you, or kill them if they refuse. If you need to, you can justify a public execution by pointing to all the harm they could have caused, and whatever harm other mages had inflicted in the past.

At this point, the way people learn magic and gain magical power, becomes really important. I’m mostly interested in two categories, and grouping everything else in.

The first group gain their powers spontaneously. It could be random, exposure to something in the world, demonic possession, really, whatever. The end result is the magic user gains magical powers intuitively and they can pop up anywhere.

If you’re dealing with this group, your goal will be to find and shut them down before they become a problem. It’s also an issue because you could potentially get a rogue mage in your peasantry. So, this needs to be quickly dealt with. Given the time frame we’re talking about, it’s not out of the question that one of The Holy Inquisitions is specifically rooting out magic users.

The second group gain their powers predictably. You know who will become a mage before they gain their powers. This could be the traditional academic wizard, who learns magic through study, and finding hidden lore, it could be your superhuman martial arts masters, it could be people that gain magical powers through their bloodlines. The short version is, you don’t have to worry about a surprise peasant mage, and any rogue mages are an espionage problem.

If it’s academic, it’s very likely that court wizard is an established position. Similarly, if superhuman martial artists are part of your world, they may also have a permanent court position. If it’s a bloodline, then those are probably very powerful families who have a lot of political influence, if not outright control.

Depending on which group your mages fall into will determine how your ruler needs to worry about magic. If it’s completely random, then it’s more about damage control; securing (and recruiting or eliminating) mages before they can become a problem. Mages become an incredibly valuable asset in dealing with other rulers, because you don’t know if they have mages. Tipping your hand about your resources to other nobles becomes very dangerous.

Further, if magical talent manifests randomly, it is extremely likely that any unified control over them would rest with the governing religious bodies, not with your king. It’s entirely possible a single mage is powerful enough to kill your ruler, but to take on a continent wide religion that’s been in power for over a thousand years? They’ll know how to deal with an inexperienced spellcaster.

Note: This also applies if you’re dealing with a large, well established, empire, like Rome at the height of its power. They would also have the capacity to locate and detain new mages.

If we’re talking about religion, then we have a perfect justification for magic being good when the organization needs it to be and evil when someone does it else does it. When a member of the church casts a spell, “it’s a miracle,” “it’s a holy act,” “an implement of divine will.” When a heretic does it, “it’s witchcraft.” Church affiliated mages might even look at the aggressive use of magic as, “fighting fire with fire,” or “turning The Devil’s tools against his own.”

It’s also distinctly possible that you have multiple kinds of spellcasters. So it could be your church affiliated mages are using entirely different spells from the ones used by rogue mages.

This is the problem with, “superstition.” It needs to be based on something. For people to shun a mage, the magic they use has to be dangerous, unpredictable, or both. For example: If there was no, “beneficial,” magic, just curses, people would be a little circumspect about interacting with a mage. Or, if magic required the intervention of a demon, and you could never be completely certain it would do what it was told, same result.

How would a king form a secret organization of mages? With the stroke of a pen. He may simply hire from registered guild mages, offering them a job. He might form a covert group of witchhunters, possibly even hiring veteran inquisitors, with the task of finding willing, unaffiliated recruits. The options are open. What he can’t do is, have a secret cabal.

If you live in a world where magic is real, you’re going to become attuned to the idea that people use it to advance themselves. Even if you can’t, even if no one you know can, you know people can and do. A king propped up by a hidden cadre of mages will stand out. Even if this is standard practice. Even if magic is subtle. You may not be able to prove that your king is in power because of mages secretly backing him, but if the mages are helping him in a meaningful way will be somewhat obvious: Things go too well.

At the same time, if magic is subtle, it would be a boon for any court spymaster. Either directly or by employing their own mages. This isn’t a problem your king would be dealing with directly. That’s what his spymaster is for. As to a question of whether mages make good spies, it depends on your magic. Even if your magic is overt, an individual mage may make a good spy simply from their non-magical talents, and being a mage may get them access to places that a non-mage wouldn’t. Conversely, if magic is persecuted, it would also be a liability for any spy. Get caught practicing magic, and they’ll kill you for that, without even realizing you’re a spy.

Ironically, forming good relations with a magical power base is a vital skill for a king in a magically active world. He needs mages that are at least friendly enough that they won’t wipe him out for a rival. It would also, significantly alter the balance of power from what we saw in the real world, where, by the 18th century, the Catholic church was dealing with losing power in much of Europe, and the modern nation states were on the rise. For a religion empowered by spellcasters who can inflict religious edicts directly, the results would be considerably different.

When we’re talking about alternate histories with fantasy elements, there are a lot of historical events that could go very differently, which I couldn’t even begin to list here. The big thing I’d suggest considering is that if mages were aligned with multiple groups, you could easily see a “cold war” type situation, with proxy wars playing out, or a even a magical, nuclear detente.

What you have here digs pretty deeply in your world building. It’s not simply, “1700s, but with mages,” or at least, shouldn’t be. You need to reevaluate history up to that moment, and try to figure out what would have happened with those changes.

-Starke

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Q&A: Multiple Martial Arts

A lot of times in the comics/superhero stuff somebody will have this whole long laundry list of different martial arts they’ve studied. I can see how it could be beneficial to dabble a bit in different styles, but is there a point where it would be better to just stick to one style and learn that really well? Is there truth to the “knows every martial art” master, or is it mainly just the author trying to make their character sound impressive?

This the result of someone trying to make their character (or themselves) sound impressive and in the process, cuing you in to the fact that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Achieving mastery of a single martial art is a lifelong exercise. This will take decades of hard work. Even if you were to live forever, there simply wouldn’t be time to learn every martial art, as they evolved and changed. There isn’t enough time to keep up with everything, to say nothing of catching up.

If we focus on getting a character’s martial arts to basic combat proficiency, instead of actual mastery, that’s still going to take years in most traditional schools. You learn the fundamentals, and gradually learn to apply them.

If you’ve been paying attention to the blog, you’ll know this is the exact opposite of how practical hand-to-hand training works. If you’re studying something like the modern law enforcement variant of Judo, or MAP, you’re going to be learning how to use it on someone immediately, because you need to be up to speed within eight weeks of starting the class. This is proficiency, not mastery. You’re also going to need refreshers and updates because this is not static.

To an extent, when you start learning a new martial art, you need to start over. It’s not like you master a martial art, and then you can just roll over and pick up another one. You need to go through the basics, because they will be different. In many cases this is a point of failure. You have trained your muscle memory to do things one way, and you’re now being asked to do it differently. You’re being asked to do it, “wrong.”

I was supremely lucky. In college, I took Shotokan for the phys ed credits. The class’s Sensei was an off-duty cop who taught Karate as adjunct faculty. This meant he was more understanding of the residual Judo positions in my muscle memory. For example: he was more concerned that my curled knuckles on a palm strike were in a braced position, rather than that my fingers were extended. From a Karate perspective, I was trained to do it, “wrong.”

For many martial artists who try to start a new discipline, they will not have the benefit of an instructor who shares their background. Quirks that are a result of their previous teaching may be viewed as flaws. If you have a solid foundation. If your hand to hand style has a solid identity, this is fine. It will result in conversations with your instructor, and they may, or may not, be accepting of that. If the differences are irreconcilable, it may be impossible for you to learn this martial art.

So, we’re basically left with three real groups who practice multiple martial arts.

The rarest are actual masters. They’ve mastered a martial art, and now they’re auditing others. They’re not masters of those arts. They’re not even practitioners. They’re looking for something new to learn. In some cases they may be looking to start their own martial art. This is slightly more common than you might think. Most often these new martial arts are referred to as a school or style of the original martial art. The basics are the same, but there will be distinct elements that reflect the school’s founder. In some cases, you may see entire “genealogies,” where one school resulted in another, and another.

You can find masters who have extensively studied two martial arts, with the intention of producing a unified style. An example of this would be Ginchin Funakoshi, who fused two of the Okinawan schools of Karate together to create what would become Shotokan.

I skimmed over this, but it is easier to learn multiple schools of the same martial art. The fundamentals should be compatible, and even at more advanced levels, there will be similarities that make life easier for the martial artist. In contrast if you step out of your martial art entirely, you are, at best, starting over.

The second group are practitioners who have a martial art, and are looking for any techniques they can adapt. This is similar to the masters above, but tends to occur on the practical side. These are martial artists who are looking to expand their repertoire. Being able to perform the martial art as a whole is less important than being able to replicate specific techniques for themselves.

Mixed in with this group are experienced martial artists who are looking for, “something.” I made this sound a little mercenary earlier, but it can be philosophical, or even spiritual. A martial artist can take classes in another martial art simply because they’re curious about that style’s philosophy.

The final group have no idea what they’re doing. They’ll join a school, take classes until their interest wains, wander off, and then their interest is piqued, they’ll scamper in someplace new, and repeat the process. They have no foundation, or worse, it’s an unworkable mess of a half-dozen other martial arts. These are the ones who will proudly proclaim, “I’ve studied a dozen different martial arts.” You’ve studied eight, do you have belt rankings in any of them? Of course not.

Now, in defense of the last group, it is important to find a martial art that fits you, and that means you might jump through a few before you find one that’s a good match. That’s not who I’m talking about. I’m talking about the ones who bounce the moment things stop being fun.

Learning martial arts, particularly in traditional schools is not easy. It takes time and dedication. You need to find the drive to keep going even when you feel like giving up. You will be pushed beyond the limits of what you thought you could do. That is difficult. I would argue, it is worthwhile.

The funny thing about this entire concept is, there’s no point. Okay, so martial arts have their own strengths and weaknesses. Learning a second martial art can help shore up some of those weakness, in theory. In practice, if it’s a reputable martial art, those weaknesses won’t matter much. You were trained around those weaknesses, and they probably can’t be exploited in any meaningful way. Most of the time, picking up a second martial art wouldn’t benefit you. (Yes, there are some specific edge cases, where two martial arts may compliment each other, but that gets into very technical territory.)

Learn your style. Stick to it. The value in “dabbling,” is in expanding your knowledge of how other people solve the challenges they face. It can be valuable, but don’t do it at the expense of furthering your training.

-Starke

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