Tag Archives: writing tips

Q&A: Adrenaline

hello! so, i’ve been reading your posts for some time and i was wondering about how the adrenaline really works in a fight. i read an article saying that adrenaline, specially when “normal” people fight (not pro fighters), works like an advice to run for your life. not like something that inspires you to fight. but, i can’t confirm this information, because i can’t find another person talking about it. so, may u write something about how adrenaline works in real situations? thank u so much!

hwfflepff

The short answer is that adrenaline is a hormone. When threatened, your adrenal gland secretes epinephrine (adrenaline.) Like most hormones, it affects a many organs uniquely.

I’m going to be a little reductive here, the major effect is that adrenaline increases the conversion of sugar into energy, and reduces the production of insulin, meaning you’ll keep that energy longer. It also increases your respiration rate, hyper-oxygenating your blood, and your heart rate, getting that hyper-oxygenated blood to your brain.

Adrenaline increases your pain tolerance significantly. Though, I’m not sure what the mode of action is for this effect. It also increases your apparent strength, though this is a little misleading. Humans are, in general, much stronger than most people realize. However, we moderate to prevent self-injury. Because adrenaline reduces pain, in combination with the other changes, this results in a significant strength increase. The reason you wouldn’t normally do this is that you’ll pull, wrench, and sprain muscles. This is still true during an adrenaline rush. You just don’t feel the pain, but it doesn’t make you more resistant to damage.

The entire result is vaguely analogous to, “overclocking,” your body. It will function more effectively for the duration, but the process is very stressful for your body overall. It’s a biological function that prioritizes immediate survival over general health.

After the immediate threat passes, the individual will be left with a lot of nervous energy from the rush. They’ll be jittery. This leads to a comment I’ve made before; I deeply dislike adrenaline rushes. It’s useful in the moment, but in my experience it always outlasts the provoking incident. Though, I’m fully aware my experiences are not universal. While it’s not going to be true for everyone, figure your adrenaline will crash roughly an hour after the initial rush. (The exception would be if you’re under constant stress. In those cases, the heightened adrenaline levels can persist for the duration.)

When your adrenaline crashes, you’re going to feel exhausted (and potentially nauseous.) This is the normal consequences of what you just put your body through. You will become aware of injuries you sustained during the rush, including some of the muscles you overtaxed.

If heightened adrenaline levels are maintained for long periods of time, this can have disastrous effects on the heart. You really cannot safely sustain the elevated heart rate, and eventually it will fail. Because adrenaline rushes are triggered by stress, they can be caused in situations where they’re neither useful nor helpful. This can include constant adrenaline production because of stress. PTSD is one situation where adrenaline rushes can be triggered by an inappropriate stimuli. This can pose a real health threat. This can kill you.

Adrenaline will not grant you insights into fighting. The fight or flight response is a biological response to danger. It’s important to understand, “fight or flight,” is a single response. It’s not like you have a, “fight,” response, and, a separate “flight,” response, it is a single biological response for either course of action.

Adrenaline is not “blind instinct.” While it will affect your brain, it’s not going to shut you down into a feral fugue. You’re still (theoretically), a rational, sapient being. Adrenaline doesn’t change that. You will be thinking faster, but not smarter, so if you’re prone to making dumb decisions you can now expedite that process.

In two words, “not fun.” Adrenaline is a useful survival tool. It can be the difference of living and dying, however, it is just a chemical your body keeps around in case things go horribly wrong.

-Starke

Q&A: Mary Sues: Deja Vu Edition

how can i write my protagonist as accomplishing stuff without them turning into a sue?

Didn’t I just cover this?

It’s entirely reasonable for your character to be skilled. It’s entirely reasonable for your character to have past achievements. The only question is, “does it meshes with their history and focus?”

The problem with the Mary Sue label is that it’s over applied to female characters, and drastically under applied to male characters. This means there’s a lot of people who don’t understand the term. They’re sure that being a Sue is a bad thing, but all they understand is it’s pejorative for characters they don’t like, and a label to cry about when it’s attached to a character they like.

I’ve provided multiple definitions, many times, but the very short version is that a Sue is an uninteresting character who trivializes the rest of the story they appear in. The result is that the character overpowers the work as a whole. You don’t get a compelling story. You don’t get anything else of interest. All you have is this single character, and they tend to be fairly boring.

Okay, so, here’s the problem, most Sues (male or female) are going to be overpowered. When you don’t have a concrete grasp of what a Sue is, it’s easy to mistake any powerful character for a Sue, and just apply that label whenever you dislike a character, while arguing that characters you do like couldn’t be Sues.

What this means for you is, if your character is interesting, and doesn’t overwhelm the story, they can be powerful without becoming a Sue. Like I said, I’ve gone into far more depth on this in the past.

Something else I’ve said before, and I’ll repeat it for those in the back, misogynists are always going to label your powerful female character as a Sue. It doesn’t matter how well written they are, whether they fit their world, whether they’re actually overpowered, or just powerful enough to participate in the story. They’ll attack, and there was nothing you could have done to avoid it.

Do not be afraid to write powerful characters. Be careful, but not afraid. Someone will lob the term, “Mary Sue,” around because invoking a fifty year old parody fanfiction might hurt your feelings. As critique, it’s mostly meaningless.

If something in your writing doesn’t work, don’t be afraid, work on it, and fix it. But don’t give up the dream because somewhere a “well akshully” neckbeard feels threatened.

The only important thing to remember, when writing any character: Your loyalty is to the story not the characters. The story you’re telling is what matters, there’s no value in making things easy on your characters. The harsher their trials; the sweeter their tribulations.

You will always have people who dislike your work. That’s life. If they can articulate things that don’t work for them, you might see weaknesses in your work that you can improve. Don’t take criticism as a personal failure, look at it as an opportunity to improve. If a critique doesn’t tell you anything, it’s not useful and you can junk it. “Your character is a Mary Sue,” without any further discussion is not useful.

How can your character be powerful without being a Sue? Tell a good story with compelling characters.

Be unafraid.

-Starke

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Q&A: This Will not be on the Test

I was wondering what are the standard teachings that comes with fighting? I mean, what else do you learn? You seem knowledgeable about medical stuff. Is it your merit or do people get taught about those along with their education etc.

There isn’t a single, “standard,” here. Martial arts classes will teach you whatever the instructor feels is relevant to your training. If they think you need anatomical knowledge, they’ll teach you that. If they think you’ll need to learn about human behavior and psychology, they’ll cover that instead.

So, with that said, I didn’t learn this in martial arts. My medical training, such as it is, comes from two sources.

First, I’m an Eagle Scout, including some limited medical training. I don’t remember how many medically related badges I have. At least two, probably more.

The second source is more informal. I was raised by a clinical pharmacologist, and a Methodist Minister who decided he wanted to become an EMT after a midlife crisis. While we’re not close, I also have a brother who’s an MD. The short version is, I grew up with an unusual amount of medical information getting thrown around, and picked up some more along the way..

My exposure to medical ethics came from psychology classes I took in college. It’s the only field where I maintained a perfect 4.0.

So, as I say in the tags on every medical post, I’m not a doctor. I can render first aid and that’s close to the end what I’m willing to do to another person. However, I have enough knowledge that I can offer advice from a writing perspective. Also, because of the informal background, I rarely have issues understanding online resources.

My formal education is, I have an associates in Computer Programming, and a Bachelors in Political Science, along the way I ended up 3 or 6 credits short of a minor in Psychology. Yes, that’s a weird educational path, and no it’s not a medical background.

Scouts included some medical training. Now, anyone who sticks with scouts will get some basic first aid training, however I also went back for merit badges on the subject, so my medical training was more extensive.

If anyone’s wondering, “how could you have forgotten which badges you earned?” I have over 40, I could not give you a list from memory if you put a gun to my head. I can’t even remember the names for all of them looking at my sash.

One of my self defense classes, the one in the late 90s, was explicitly from the Boy Scouts. The Scout Master was a Captain in the Air Force, he grabbed a Sheriff’s Deputy he knew and put the entire Troop through a couple weeks of training. Ironically, this was the least responsible round of training, as it prioritized the hand to hand component rather than focusing on situational awareness, threat assessment, creating an opening and extracting.

If you want to learn medicine, go to school for it. There’s certainly a need for medical professionals in the world. Just, be aware that it’s a very unglamorous profession.

If you want to learn martial arts, take a course. You can do both, unless you’re in your residency.

In general, a well run class (of any kind) will include the information you need to understand the material presented. (Or, in academia, will have published prerequisites.) There are definitely martial arts classes out there where you’ll learn a bit of A&P along the way. I probably learned some anatomy from martial arts and simply didn’t realize it. However, you’re not going to get medical training from enrolling in a martial arts class.

-Starke

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Q&A: Shot in the Leg

So I read your post on gunshot wounds to the leg and it was very helpful, but what I’m looking for is a little more specific. My character gets shot in the leg, clean, nothing major hit. The wound is bandaged. But immediately after she gets shot, she passes out and isnt aware of anything. Is that believable? If the wound was bandaged right away, would she survive being carried for an hour before even reaching the hospital?

So, what caused her to pass out?

There’s nothing wrong with being able to survive for hours after taking a bullet if it didn’t hit anything vital. Some gunshot wounds can take a long time to kill you. Bandaging it is a good idea, because it will slow the blood loss.

Blood loss can result in losing consciousness. You lose a lot of blood, go into hypovolemic shock, lose consciousness, and bleed to death. If a patient loses consciousness shortly after suffering a gunshot wound, that tells you to look for serious blood loss. You may want to double check and make sure you didn’t miss any internal hemorrhaging.

You know will not cause you to pass out? The pain from getting shot. I feel like I’ve written this recently, but pain does not make you lose consciousness. Pain will keep you awake. While I’m a little less confident of this, I’m pretty sure getting shot will keep you awake. Even if the pain doesn’t, the adrenaline will.

If someone gets shot and passes out, they’re losing blood fast. You lose consciousness when you’re down ~20% of the blood in your body. You die when you lose between 30% and 40%. Napkin math says, if someone gets shot, and it takes 30 minutes for them pass out from blood loss, you’ve got a bit less than 15 to 30 minutes before they’re dead.

So, you have a character who gets shot. Their leg gets bandaged, but they lose consciousness within five minutes of the wound, they’re not going to survive for an hour without medical attention. Even if it takes two hours for them to lose consciousness, taking another hour to get them to a hospital would be an extremely risky decision.

Now, if they’re semi-conscious for most of the ride. Say, the first 50 minutes, and lose consciousness about 10 minutes out, it’s going to be touch and go, they’ve still lost a lot of blood, but that is survivable. If they pass out ten minutes earlier, it’s distinctly possible they’ll be dead on arrival.

If she’s being carried by hand, that carries extra risks because it could aggravate the wound and accelerate blood loss. Especially if they’re carrying her with the gunshot wound at a lower elevation than the heart. The ideal situation would be to lay her out on a vehicle’s bench or a stretcher, with the injured leg elevated above the heart. If you’re bleeding to death, don’t let gravity help finish the job, make your heart work to kill you. It will buy you time.

Also, hand carrying another human being for that long will be exhausting. It’s not impossible, but unless someone’s in excellent physical condition, they might not be able to carry her the distance, and shuffling her between carriers runs the risk of aggravating her wound, making things worse. This is less of an issue if they’ve got her on a stretcher or some other kind of stable platform.

Now, it’s possible she lost consciousness due to some other factor, but I can’t think of any off-hand, that would improve her odds for her survival.

If she lost consciousness shortly after getting shot in the leg, it’s a very bad sign. She’s probably losing blood much faster than anyone realized and would be dead in minutes. My suspicion would be an arterial bleed, which can be managed to a degree by keeping pressure on the artery to reduce blood loss. However, we’re talking about a character having to shove their finger into her wound to stop the bleeding (which requires some fairly specific anatomical knowledge.) Given how fast she lost consciousness, I’m pessimistic about it buying more than a few minutes without serious medical attention.

So, is it believable? No. It’s entirely believable she’d remain conscious, going into shock. It’s entirely believable she’d lose consciousness shortly after the injury, and die a few minutes later. Unfortunately, it’s one or the other.

If she’s bleeding out, her initial symptoms would include a headache, vertigo, nausea, and increased perspiration. These aren’t particularly worrying. She’s loosing blood, but she’ll probably live. However, over time, she’d start manifesting more serious symptoms. These include losing body temperature (and feeling cold), starting to suffer from impaired cognitive function, particularly confusion. Her skin would become cold and clammy, and would get paler as blood pressure dropped. Her pulse would get faster and weaker, also as her pressure dropped. It would become harder for her to remain conscious. Eventually, she would lose consciousness. The faster these symptoms manifest, particularly the more severe ones, the more dire the situation. If she’s going straight to passing out, and help is an hour away, she’s already dead.

I’m sorry, but if she drops after the firefight, you just killed your character.

-Starke

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Q&A: Thigh Highs

I’m sorry if this is more of an athletics question rather than fighting but how easy would it to fight in thigh highs? Either in boots or socks. I’ve sometimes seen it being a common design choice for female fighters (usually anime or video games), even in more realistic settings. I assume that it would be a bit constricting, especially on the knee and the part where it ends off on the thigh. But maybe Im overestimating how much of a hinderance it is?

It’s there because it looks attractive, not because it’s practical. So long as it doesn’t interfere with your mobility or balance it basically doesn’t matter. There’s two potential problems, is if it too stiff and impairs bending the knee and if it has high heels.

Elevated heels started with a practical use, it makes it easier to keep your boot in a stirrup and remain mounted during cavalry combat. The earliest use of high heels in women’s fashion were deliberately playing off of this.

Over the centuries, high heels have exaggerated, going higher and pushing the wearer off balance. They barely resemble the military riding boots that inspired the trend, and are completely unsuitable for combat now.

Heels affect the wearer’s posture by forcing the pelvis to tilt forward, forcing the wearer to compensate by bending the spine and accentuating their chest. It’s not a stable stance to fight from. You’ll frequently see characters in high heels, fighting, sprinting, and generally engaging in activities that are functionally impossible with their footwear. As you pointed out, this is very common in media where reality can be distorted without having to account for an actress undertaking the acts described. In addition to animation and video games, comics are another common source for this.

Much like cosmetics, high heels are designed to increase the sex appeal of the wearer. If you’re fighting to save the world, or even just your own life, this is probably low on your list of priorities.

The question about how much it constricts will come down to the individual article of clothing. While it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the majority of women’s thigh highs heavily constrict movement, and are completely unsuitable for combat, you can reinforce a leather boot going up the leg, and allowing articulation at the knee. At that point, if the leather is thick enough to offer some protection, and the knee can move with minimal effort, it’s armor. Leather doesn’t make the best armor, but a layer of the stuff can protect against a lot of minor injuries. It’s also sturdy enough to use as a base for mounting heavier armor components.

However, we’re probably talking about a boot designed to make the wearer look good, rather than something that allows freedom of movement, and at that point it becomes a liability.

The only real potential use for a thigh high combat boot would be in situations where you wanted to armor the thigh, had a boot with a flexible knee joint, and it had a flat, or nearly flat heel. Ironically, riding boots are one of the rare moments where these would make some sense, as it would protect most of your leg from minor injuries, and if you did loose some mobility in the knee it would be less of an issue, since you’re not going to be running around on foot anyway. That said, you’re not going to get much more protection than you would with lower boots and heavy pants. So the value is limited.

Assuming the character is wearing shoes, their socks are not going to matter much. If they’re not wearing shoes, then socks can have serious issues with lack of traction, but that’s not what you’re talking about. Also, if they’re wearing heals that will still have a negative effect, but we already discussed that.

Since we haven’t mentioned this, a skirt isn’t a problem, so long as it’s lose enough not to interfere with movement, and isn’t long enough to get caught.

The real answer is thigh highs are used, mostly, for aesthetic reasons. While there are some potential uses, they’re vastly outweighed by sex appeal. You dress a character like this because you want them to be attractive, not because it’s practical combat gear.

-Starke

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Q&A: Insert Witty Banter Here

Can two people really have a proper conversation while fighting? It’s my first time writing a fully engaged fighting and I keep remembering 1) all the action movies I’ve watched where they either fight as they talk or stop between moves to taunt each other 2) a tv channel that showed different martial arts completions and there were waiting between moves but no stops. So I’ve been wondering if it’s actually realistic or not.

To abuse a quote I can’t remember the source of, “No, but also yes.”

You’re not going to have a coherent conversation mid-fight. It’s a bad idea that will end poorly. Basically, when you’re in a serious fight you don’t want to split your attention between the person trying to end your life, and sounding witty at the same time.

In a firefight, you don’t want to announce your location to people armed with weapons that can blow through whatever you’re hiding behind, so belting out threats and taunts isn’t really going to work there at all.

However, in melee, there is value in distracting your opponent. While I’m hesitant to classify anything in the 1989 Batman film as “realistic,” the idea of asking someone, “have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” has some merit. (Or, at least, would in a world where that film doesn’t exist.) It’s a very strange question that has the possibility of confusing your foe. It won’t work on a disciplined enemy, it won’t work on the same person twice, but having a weird question or two, that you can spout off without thinking has some value.

Similarly, taunts, screams, and weird noises, all have uses. At best, they’ll distract, confuse, or unnerve your foes. At worst, you’re going to be exhaling as you strike anyway, so you’re not giving up much.

If you’re not trying for a, “real world,” feel, there’s a lot of justification for including witty banter, or clever dialog in your fight scenes. Characters talking shop while trying to kill one another creates a comedically mundane feeling. For them, the act of fending off assassins has become so mundane they’re tuned out. It replicates the feeling anyone working a mundane job has felt but transposes it into a context that should be exciting. Except that novelty has worn thin for the characters, and now it’s just business as usual. This can be darkly comedic, and the is some reality here as well.

People who deal with violence, or the aftermath of violence, on a regular basis, can develop an unusually dark sense of humor. Police, soldiers, doctors, EMS, and anyone else who deals with violence or its aftermath on a regular basis will start to normalize this, and at that point, their unfiltered sense of humor can become truly disturbing to the uninitiated. That even extends to us. I remember once accidentally horrifying an Australian over Discord because I was joking about a Mafia assassination from the mid-1930s with Michi while on a hot mic.

This would never result in comparing notes with someone trying to kill you, but that mindset isn’t completely unrealistic, and the humor of it isn’t as out there as it first appears.

Characters bantering with one another can be valuable for you. It will help keep your fight interesting. It allows you to play with characterization you wouldn’t normally see. (If your characters would never sit down and snark at each other, having them do that over crossed swords can let you explore that material.) If the end result is entertaining, it has done it’s job. It’s not true to the real world, but that was never the point.

The high water mark here is, probably The Princess Bride. That has some the best combat banter you’ll ever encounter. It’s high tempo, so it never drags down the fight. It’s punchy when it needs to be. It explores character relations and motivations. It helps you get to know these characters. Finally, it is eminently entertaining. That cast had a beautiful chemistry going, and the end result is some of the finest banter you’ll ever see on film.

In the specific context of film, breaking for dialog is also very useful from a production standpoint. It gives the actors time to pause and recover between bouts of action. Somewhat obviously, this is not something you’d want as a real combatant, you want your opponent exhausted and then dead, but when you’re making a film, that would be a less desirable outcome.

As for martial arts competitions, it’s there the name, you’re competing with the other participants. Even if there’s no ill will, you’re going to maintain a degree of discipline between techniques / bouts / rounds / whatever. This is less true with competitive sports like boxing or MMA, where attempting to psych out your opponent is part of a legitimate strategy. So, the exact downtime interactions will depend on the sport’s culture and competitive rules.

Professional Wrestling is a good example of the boxing / MMA behavior amplified to the point of parody. Interactions between participants will have their own scripted theater events outside of the bout. Again, it’s not real, but it was never supposed to be.

Incidentally, the wrestling likes this for the same reasons it’s convenient in film. It gives the performers time to recover. There’s also a few other non-verbal variants there, including some of the holds, which are designed to give both performers a breather without looking the match is stalling out.

Now, there are a few real applications for trying to talk to your foes, instead of fighting them. However, note that last bit, “instead of fighting.” If you’re trying to defuse a situation, or stall for time, talking can do that more efficiently than fighting (and is generally much safer.) That said, this won’t be interspersed into a fight. When you’re writing a scene like this, the dialog is carrying the tension, because if your character miscalculates, the situation could turn violent.

So, you won’t see witty banter mid-fight in the real world. At least, not unless both participants think, “that’s how it’s supposed to work,” and are playing into the cliche. It won’t end well for a character who tries this against someone who knows better. Yelling at your opponent, trying to distract or confuse them, does work, and you may see that, but it would be more in the range of, “weird nonsense,” rather than true snark. You can use words to defuse a dangerous situation. That’s real, though there’s complex psychology involved.

However, you will see witty banter in fiction because it’s very useful for many reasons. This isn’t a mark against fiction for being “unrealistic,” when it is useful, and the work as a whole benefits.

So, as I misquoted at the beginning, “no, but also yes.”

-Starke

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Q&A: Games as Inspiration

When you talk about video game stats not translating to real fights, is the assumption usually that both fighters are ordinary Homo sapiens and that things like magic potions and “Clarke’s third law” tech aren’t factors? Or does that vary depending on the exact scenario and what “stat” you’re referring to? Example: Would an elixer that temporarily halves the amount of calories you burn with any activity (so a stamina boost) give you an advantage in a fight?

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So, stats are a complex subject, and I’ve been dancing around this for a couple months. I thought there was a comprehensive post on the subject already, but I don’t see it, so it probably doesn’t exist.

The short version I usually go with is, be careful about trying to translate stats into fight scenes, and this is part of why. If you’re making a game, it’s reasonable enough to say, “yeah, this consumable increases your stamina by 3 points.” However, when you’re trying to use that as a narrative device, it can become harder to justify. “Why would an elixir that modifies the speed at which you get hungry increase your hit points?”

The stats you create for your story are abstractions for much more complex topics and mechanics, distilled into (hopefully) an easy to manage format. It’s fine to sit back and say, “okay, my character has a Combat stat of 5, the other fighter has a Resilience stat of 2, so, I’ll deal 3 damage when they ambush them, leaving them with 2 health,” and go from there to write a fight scene where your character ambushes another, leaving them in a wounded state as the fight proceeds.

It’s not a terrible idea to stage out the fight on a map. Move your characters around, see what other characters might observe the fight, and think about how those bystanders would respond.

This only becomes a problem when you start focusing on the rules, or when the rules you’re relying on start to break the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

I think I’ve used this example before, but let’s look at D&D. (Specifically I’m looking 3.5 Edition, some of this does carry forward, some has been changed.) A 7th level fighter could reasonably have 66hp. (I’m using a dice rolling site right now.) If they’re critically struck by a character using a longsword, they’ll take 1d8 damage, doubled. So, up to 16 of damage. This means your character can be stabbed in the chest and shrug it off. This isn’t an example where the blow doesn’t connect. D&D does, explicitly, allow characters to suffer superficial damage to explain how they’re getting hit without it seriously affecting them, but crits are supposed to be the hit actually connecting.

Now, it’s possible to write a scene where your certified badass hero suffers a mortal wound, and keeps on fighting until they collapse. The problem with the example above is, that Fighter isn’t mortally wounded. They took a blow which would outright kill a human without dying. If their armor held, or the blow was glancing, it wouldn’t be a critical hit. (In fact, a glancing hit off the armor occurs when you manage to clear their Touch AC, but don’t beat their full AC. Armor in D&D is both simple and stupidly complicated at the same time. If you don’t understand, don’t worry, it doesn’t matter.)

So, it allows for a character who takes what should be a mortal wound to then shrug it off.

Having just trashed that, you can make a compelling scene from that scenario. Your fighter gets hit and they’re seriously injured, they’re fighting what could easily be a losing battle. Afterwards, if they survive, they can address the injuries. Maybe with a health potion, maybe with help from a healer.

What you want to do is remember that hit points are an abstraction, and that as your character is injured, those injuries will pile up. Maybe they can keep going for a little while if they have the will to keep fighting, but they’ll bleed to death and die. Strength is an abstraction. Your character really knows how to fight, and is probably a fairly solid combatant. The rules you have facilitate this, and can remind you that your character isn’t invincible, but also lead you into a situation where you forget your character just took a blade to the intestines, and probably isn’t doing too well right now.

So, I’ve been talking about how not to use stats, let’s flip this around and talk about how stats and rule systems can be incredibly beneficial to you as writer.

Games tell stories. I don’t mean in the sense of a written story presented to the player. I’m not talking about passively consuming cutscenes, and for the most part I’m not talking about the writing itself. I’m talking about the systems, and what you can extract for a story.

A cliche, and remarkably difficult example is chess. The game itself tells the story of a conflict between two equally matched forces, with the overt structure of an iron age battlefield. It’s cliche due to overuse. Writers (who use it) will frequently drop literal chess games into the background of their story. It’s also difficult because chess is extremely abstract even in the context of an infantry skirmish. However, it can open your eyes to a world of strategic possibilities. You probably don’t want to cue the audience in to each piece individually, but when you sit back and look, you can see the king (who must be protected at all costs)/queen (who is far more mobile, deadly, and ultimately expendable) structure repeated all over the place in pop culture. (Though you’ll rarely see eight fleshed out antagonists with cannon fodder to go up against eight protagonists with their own minions.)

When it comes to blocking out stats for characters, the kind of story you’re telling is the most important thing. You don’t need to (and realistically can’t) account for the entirety of a person in a brief stat block. So you choose the factors that are most important for the story you’re telling. D&D has a standardized stat block of Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. The stat range is nominally 3-18, with 10 as “average.” That’s a fairly nice general collection of stats. But, doesn’t know the kind of story you’re telling, so it tries to pull in everything. This is where things get strange as Charisma mixes in any social skill along with appearance. Wisdom is your character’s perception, their willpower, and their skill in medicine. Because Medicine isn’t an Intelligence based skill. Because, in D&D, medical training is not about what you know, it’s how self-confident you are. Right.

Okay, let’s pull an old counterexample out. The out of print Babylon 5 Card Game had three stats, (technically 5, but I’m not going to worry about that.) You had Diplomacy, Intrigue, and Military. The game didn’t bother tracking any of the D&D stats, because any combat would happen within the context of other actions. If you attacked someone with diplomacy, it was (probably) an attempt to get them removed from treaty negotiations, maybe it was a court case or an op-ed. In rare cases it might have been a formal duel. If there was an attack in intrigue, that might have been a blackmail effort, or an attempt to expose the character’s contacts, or it could be violence. Military was ship to ship combat. Fleets would engage with one another. In rare cases military conflicts might be non-violent, but there was always the fear that you were one action away from someone opening fire and turning the entire situation into a shooting war.

Note the difference: D&D is attempting to systematize the person. Each character is a piece on a fantasy battlefield. B5 was interested in systematizing the person’s influence. This is how effective a character is diplomatically, this is how well they play the spy.

There’s no right answer for this. If you want a story where you’re focused on ground level combat, you’re probably going to want a physical stat block. However, if you’re more interested in a free flowing story, you’ll benefit far more from tuning your stats to mesh with the story you’re trying to tell.

If your setting has magic, maybe that should be a stat. If you have a heavy political theme, maybe that should be a stat. If you’re not going to be distinguishing between ranged and melee combat, you probably don’t need Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution.

The important thing is, no one will see these stats, so you can be as abstract as you want.

There’s also no hard rules about what a specific number needs to mean. If you want to calibrate stats between 1 and 10 (like Fallout), you can do that. If you want to mark a character’s stats from 1 to 5, (like World of Darkness), you can do that.

The only guidance I’ll give on stat ranges is: “Be consistent.” If you have an upper cap, do not break that without a very compelling reason. Make sure each value has a specific meaning to you; one you understand. The stats are meaningless if you cannot turn that into a description without tipping your hand.

Incidentally, for creating stat blocks, if you want to use a system you’re comfortable with, have fun. For example, I would not create characters using D&D, because I find it has too much tedious bookkeeping. However, that’s me. If you want to prototype your characters in D20, it’s your pencils, have fun. (Also, on the specific subject of D&D, character level is a stat. That has meaning, it tells you how far a character has traveled from being a rookie adventurer into a wandering demigod.)

With that said, there is another major thing about games. The systems themselves can forward narrative concepts. I’m going to explain this one with examples:

In 2001, Decipher Inc. got the license to the Jackson Lord of the Rings films. The card game they produced had a very novel cost system. The player controlling the fellowship could play as many cards as they wanted (until they ran out of cards.) However, each card had a “Twilight” cost. The player controlling the forces of Sauron paid for their cards using that “Twilight.” So, the structure that resulted would encourage Fellowship players to inch forward, and cut corners wherever possible, because anything they played would give the Shadow player more resources to hunt them down and kill them.

In a broad structure this meshes with The Lord of the Rings. Theoretically the Fellowship had almost unlimited resources, but they’re traveling light to avoid detection. Armies could be rallied, but that would bring Sauron’s attention, and massively increase the risk of The Ring corrupting someone.

It’s a simple mechanic, but if you’re writing a story about characters who are being hunted by a powerful foe (or foes), it’s a concept that can be adapted fairly fluidly. If anything you do will draw attention, you’d need to plan very carefully, to ensure your actions had the most effect.

Another mechanic that comes to mind is a ticking bomb. This one isn’t exclusive to a single game, I can think of many variants. The short version of this is, “you have X (time) until something bad happens, and you need to prevent that.” This a common narrative device as well, as it puts pressure on the protagonist to keep moving forward. The reason you see this is, it works. Timers prevent characters from sitting down and waiting it out. If you find a game with a good timer system, like XCOM2, you might want to take notes.

If you’re going this route, you want to become conscious for how the systems affect play, rather than just going, “okay, here’s a thing.” As with stats, you don’t, usually, want to be overt about systems you pick up. (Though a looming deadline could easily be something characters would know about.)

When you’re looking at systems, look for rules and mechanics that tension against one another. I didn’t go into detail with it, but the timers in XCOM2 do exactly that. This is a game where slow, methodical, deliberate play is vastly superior, so timers are added forcing you to act more aggressively, and take risks you’d otherwise ignore.

The short version of this is, a game experience can tell a compelling narrative. It can also produce a jumbled mess of events. As a writer, you can extract those moments where everything came together, smooth it out, and run with it. However, the real danger is getting into the weeds with how the rules function, instead of how they affect the story being told.

The worst thing you do is try to apply the rules over the story. This includes the potion suggestion above. You have a potion that allows your character to engage in physical activity for far longer than they would normally. Cool. It doesn’t need a rules explanation. The reader doesn’t need to (and shouldn’t) know that potion grants +3 Stamina for the next 8h. It doesn’t mean a consumable like that couldn’t exist in your world. It doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t affect their stats. It just means that you do not want the audience cued in on that. The advantage of magic (and Clarke’s Law tech) is that you don’t have to explain why it does what it does. “Why would a potion that is intended to reduce fatigue also make you more durable in combat?” Who knows, that’s just how the magic works. Same reason you wouldn’t ask, “how does a health potion heal a punctured kidney?” or, “how does it replace all that lost blood?” Doesn’t matter, all we know is that it does that.

Stats and game systems are one of the best lies you can learn as a writer. If you’re careful, and you let them, they will keep you honest, and help engineer creative situations.

Stats and game systems are one of the most dangerous practices you can pick up as a writer, because there will always be a temptation to game the rules to the expense of your story.

Have fun, be careful.

-Starke

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Q&A: Zealots and Martyrs

What’s a good starting point for creating and understanding a zealous character e.g. characters with “I recognize what I’m doing is wrong, but the outcome is worth it” and/or “I will kill or die for my beliefs” mindsets and what are some things that should be avoided when writing one?

Remember these are rational people. People you don’t agree with. People who will do things you’d never do. People who do not care about the same things you hold dear. However, they are people.

If you’re focusing on the outcome, and willing to do anything to achieve that goal, you’re engaging in a philosophy called, “Ends Justify the Means.” It really what it says, the “ends” you’re working towards justify whatever, “means,” you used to get there. It’s an ethical slight of hand, designed to disregard the negative consequences of your actions, based on the positive outcomes.

This can either be explored honestly or hypocritically.

If you’re being honest, it can be a house of cards. If your positive outcomes are sufficient, they outweigh your negative consequences and, “hey, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.” If the negatives outweigh the positives, you’ve done a lot of damage without anything to show for it.

However, even if you’re being honest, the entire philosophy is flawed, or at least a gamble: You are betting that the outcome will be positive, enough, to justify what you’ve done to get there.

Then there is the hypocritical side, where someone espouses this as a way to excuse their actions. Frequently this is presented with the positive outcome as an absolute good. “Save the world,” “protect the cause,” “achieve our goals,” rather than in concrete terms. This is because it’s harder to qualify an absolute. “Sure, you killed all those people, tortured a bus full of kids, but what does that compare to protecting The Truth?”

Again, there is a fundamental flaw: If you are sacrificing your cause’s morals to support the cause, you’re actually sabotaging it. Undermining the movement, and over time this can result in serious damage. People break off and leave. They will come to suspect the entire movement. In extreme cases it can even poison against your cause, and give your enemies the opportunity to recruit.

The entire ideology is problematic in its own right. It requires the practitioner to very carefully self-regulate, while rewarding successful escalation. If you broke the rules to win, why would you go back to following them?

This can all get worse if someone is operating in an echo chamber. They go more extreme, the people around them take that as the new normal until someone suggests they all dial it further. This is how we end up with self-radicalized zealots. (It’s also a critical component for radicalization in general.)

On the other side of this, we have people who are willing to die for their cause. These are martyrs. The term is loaded with religious symbolism, and the implication that they’ll be remembered, if not venerated, after death.

The only important thing to remember about a martyr is that they’re willing to die for something. That can be belief in a cause, opposition to another. It can be because they don’t see another option, or because they don’t want to be there to see the aftermath. The options are open.

There is one critical part; they need to have the conviction to follow through. Generally, one does not choose to throw their life away frivolously. From an external perspective, this is debatable, but they believed in their action, no matter how misguided.

There is correlation, the more fanatical someone is, the more willing they are to sacrifice lives in pursuit of their cause. Presumably, others first. If someone is willing to die for their cause, they’re probably willing to kill for it. They have identified something as more valuable than their life, and as a result they probably see it as more valuable than any other life. There’s a potential edge case with people who are, philosophically opposed to violence, but still willing to die for their beliefs.

The, scary thing about this is, it’s not that hard to get into the headspace. It’s comforting to believe that this requires some kind of altered state. To tell yourself, “I could never become that.” However, the only difference between you and them is that you haven’t ceded your moral compass to a cause, and you haven’t found something you’d die for.

Now, there is one significant possibility here worth discussing. Someone from an extremist organization may have a warped understanding of how the world works. Particularly when it comes to the fields where their organization is most radicalized. You can encounter this even in semi-mainstream organizations that have fringe inclinations. When you get to a topic that actively threatens to undermine the cause, things get weird.

Most of the time this starts with people in the organization presenting the subject in the least favorable light to other members, warning them away in the process. At this point it can devolve into a game of “telephone,” where information gets more distorted over time. Anyone who’s ever had conversations about pop culture with people raised in fundamentalist Christian communities have encountered this. Of course, with an organization, this can easily trend into conspiracy theories, or serious misinformation.

If your character is not in a radical organization, then warped perspectives become optional. It is possible if you have a character who is mentally unsound, they may have some, lesser warped perspectives. It’s also possible if they’re operating in an echo chamber, that they’d have perspectives which were exaggerated within their community. Though, this isn’t necessary for your question. Someone with a sound view of the world can decide that the ends justify the means or that a cause is worth dying for.

-Starke

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Q&A: Motivation to Violence

I hope you don’t find this ask inappropriate. I wanted to ask this to someone who knows a form of martial art and I happened to see your blog, which even if it wasn’t for this question, would make me very happy. Why would someone learn how to fight if they don’t plan on using it on someone? Just for the atlethic aspect of it, maybe? Still, I have a bunch of characters training in a school and to think they’re pacifist doesn’t add up.

The fundamental misunderstanding is that people are training to fight. When you’re studying a martial art, you’re studying that martial art, in most cases, you are not learning to fight.

Relatively few martial artists train to use their skills in combat. They’ll train for fitness, they’ll train for spiritual reasons (and, no that’s not a stereotype), they’ll train to simply learn a new skill. It’s a hobby, and people engage in it for the same reasons they’d pick up any other hobby; to better themselves. A lot of kids are enrolled in martial arts classes by their parents as an extracurricular activity.

Martial arts can become a job. It can be your gateway to the entertainment industry. If you’re good enough (and lucky enough), there are places for martial artists in exhibition, competitive sports, stunt-performers, and fight choreography.

The only thing that would be, “training how to fight,” in that list is competitive sports. This is also not an exhaustive list, I took Shotokan in college for the PhysEd credits, as did most of my class. It sounded more appealing than some of the alternatives that fit my schedule, and I needed those credits to graduate.

I’ve mentioned this before, but if you’re training in martial arts for live combat, you don’t train to fight, you train to eliminate your foes. This is a very fine distinction, but if someone trains to fight, and you train to kill, when they try to fight you, you will kill them.

Let me explain this a little more extensively. Training to fight has an end goal of the fight itself. The fight will continue until one or both combatants are exhausted and cannot continue, or until one yields.

Training to kill has your foe’s death as its goal. This means, you can dispense with as much of the fight as possible. Just kill them. To be efficient, you need to work towards that goal with every action. Turns out, if you know what you’re doing, you can get there very quickly.

Self-defense is similar; it doesn’t take much to create a situation where your foe is in no condition to peruse you. You don’t need to fight them. You don’t want to fight them. You need to delay them long enough to escape. That’s easy, and (say it with me now) you can get there very quickly.

So, let’s step back and talk about something completely different, pacifism and self-confidence. There’s nothing wrong with being a pacifist. It’s not a binary state, most people will have a spectrum where they’ll eventually say, “okay, violence is now warranted.” This may be in response to violence. It may be to protect someone else. It may only be to protect themselves. It’s a rare case where someone will adhere to their convictions and refuse to use violence to defend their own life.

If you’re studying martial arts for spiritual enlightenment, it’s entirely possible, probable even, that you’ll start to develop a pacifistic streak. You’re looking at the world differently now, and you’ll probably see violence as less necessary.

If you’re studying martial arts for any other reason, you’ll probably start to develop a pacifistic streak. If you’re having trouble following that thought process, let’s talk about violence.

Nobody goes to violence as their first method for problem solving. However, for some people, violence is the first available method. Either, they don’t see how other methods could achieve their goals, or they don’t believe other methods would be effective. So, they resort to violence.

If you don’t believe in yourself, it’s difficult (or impossible) to believe you can defuse a situation. If you need to project raw confidence, that’s not an option.

If you lack self-confidence, even minor slights can be perceived as far more biting than intended.

Humans are territorial animals, and if you’re insecure, anyone invading your territory can be very threatening. (This can mean literal space, it can be social, or it can be intellectual.)

In any of these cases, a provocation can result in violence if one party does not see a non-violent option.

The irony is that martial arts training will boost your self-confidence. Meaning you’re more likely to see viable, non-violent options when antagonized.

For an example, take a kid, put them through rigorous training that gives some real self-confidence, and they will be better equipped to deal with the adversity the encounter in their life.

Now, martial arts is not a panacea, not everyone reacts the same way, but training can help you see non-violent options. It can help you differentiate between situations where violence is appropriate, and ones where it unwarranted. It can give you the confidence to defuse a dangerous situation.

In the strictest sense, this is not pacifism, however, from the outside, the difference is academic.

Now, to think that everyone in a martial arts class will have identical outlooks is a little unrealistic. You’ll always have outliers. You’ll always have differences of opinion. These are still people, not a hive mind. However, you are going to find that any long term students will have some degree of respect for violence. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have remained.

-Starke

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Q&A: Body Hopping

My story is sci fi and how can characters who can move their consciousness into another body and use that body to fight with work? The character may have years of fitness training, but what if the body is not strong enough to wield heavy weapons at ease or are exhausted easily, or how about the simple fact of it’s a different body that doesn’t feel the same way.

This is an open question. There’s no solid answers. We can’t, currently, transplant your psyche to a new body, and as a result there’s no, “real world,” answers.

The closest similarity is a poor comparison. Limb transplants have a lot of considerations that simply wouldn’t be a factor here. For example, they have difficulty with fine motor control, but that has more to do with their own nerves growing into the transplant, rather than a consideration that would apply with swapping bodies.

In spite of the name, muscle memory is (probably) stored as chemical chains in the brain. This gets into an awkward problem with this entire idea. A significant chunk of who you are is stored as complex chemical data in your brain. This isn’t an insurmountable problem, with unlimited technology you could probably move these between subjects. So, if you’re able to move memories between bodies, you can probably also move muscle memory. However, the transferred muscle memory might not match the recipient body, meaning it could be useless or even actively harmful.

There’s also a difficult topic mixed in. If you’re moving memories around, even replicating “the consciousness,” you’re still not moving between bodies. There’s no continuity of self. You’re moving the data, and then (maybe) deleting the original source, but that doesn’t mean you’re actually in a new body, it just means a copy of you has been created. This is a very specific variant of the Ship of Theseus paradox.

Ship of Theseus is a fairly simple thought experiment, if you replace every single part on an object over time is it still the same object? The titular ship was put on display, but as components aged and decayed they were replaced with fresh ones. After a century of this there were no original parts left. At that point the question became, “was it still the original ship, or had the complete replacement over time transformed it into a replica?”

When you’re talking about someone’s identity, the stakes get a lot higher. It’s an abstract question about an inanimate object with some sentimental or historical value, it’s a very pertinent, and immediate question for someone who’s living in a world where they might not be the person they think they are.

When you start digging into what makes an individual who they are, things get really messy. A lot who you are chemical data stored in roughly 3 lbs of tissue with a consistency similar to butter. Some of it is volatile electrical data, though that may be directly tied to the structure of the brain. The idea that there is a concrete, “self,” is very comforting, but as we dig into this, the reality seems to be more of a gestalt.

So, on the topic of the Ship of Theseus, are you the same person after switching bodies?

I don’t have a definitive answer. No one does. We have speculation, but even if you were presented with the actual phenomena, it would still be a challenging question.

As for heavy weapons, that’s not going to be a problem. As we’ve pointed out many times, heavy weapons aren’t that heavy. Greatswords weighed less than a house cat. This isn’t as true with heavy firearms. Anti-material rifles or automatic support weapons can be difficult to haul around, but you’re not going to be running around with them, you’ll set them up and operate from a stationary position. It doesn’t matter if your 12.7mm rifle weighs 30lbs, you’re going to be laying down, with it partially concealed before you start firing. Also remember that heavier machine guns will operate from vehicles or stationary mounts.

For hand to hand, body hopping is probably a serious issue. If you’re overwriting the muscle memory, then all of your reflexive reactions and your conditioned responses will be, “miscalibrated.” If you’re not overwriting the muscle memory, that suggests the technology allows for significant editing of what does, and does not, get transferred over. We’re back to the Ship of Theseus problem, but things got even more complex, because now we’re only copying, “parts” of the subject. Also leads to a weird question of: What’s left in the new host brain from before the jump? How is that going to affect who they are?

Since I got distracted a moment ago, if the muscle memory is being retained from the original host, then the transferred user will be limited by what the previous owner(s) conditioned into their body.

This raises fundamental questions about how much we adapt to our bodies. The human brain is a very adaptable organ, but this is a scenario where there really isn’t any good comparisons.

If you want some other thoughts on this, Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon is an obvious choice. In his case, the characters store their consciousness digitally on a implanted data storage device. He also posits the use of “hard wired reflex packages,” which allow users to have functional muscle memory and combat capacity after swapping bodies.

On the other end of the spectrum we have SOMA from Frictional Games. This one is interested in persistence of self, and if someone is the same person after being moved between bodies. The specific questions you’re asking don’t apply with this one, but the game may be useful for feeling out larger philosophical themes.

-Starke

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