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Q&A: Effective Use of Torture

I am disappointed by how often you excuse and promote misinformation about torture just because “experts” use it. You have stated it doesn’t harm torturers much (not true) and it can convince people not to oppose your organization (not true). You also have many posts against police brutality and many about the price of violence and I wish you would apply that to your torture apology. You can start by believing victims and prioritizing their accounts instead of un-critically believing torturers.

I don’t do this often, but this deserves to be broken down into individual pieces and examined in depth.

However, it’s been a little over a year, so I guess we were due to get another one of these tantrums from someone with poor reading comprehension. So, let’s take this shit show apart… again.

I am disappointed by how often you excuse and promote misinformation about torture just because “experts” use it.

Even if we ignore the leading tone, we don’t talk about torture very often. From a writing perspective, it’s a somewhat dull subject, and there’s not really that much to say about it. I checked, the last post on torture was in 2019, and the one before that was in 2018. Yeah, I wasn’t joking about this gradually turning into an annual thing.

From an ethical perspective, it’s not much more nuanced. We could spend six paragraphs going over how it’s bad and wrong, but anyone with three functioning brain cells could have told you that, and dedicating 2k words to the subject would be a waste of everyone’s time.

Well, I thought it would be, but every year someone wanders through who doesn’t understand that, and throws a tantrum. So, here we are.

However, I do love this attack on experts. No, wait, that’s the wrong word, I actively hate this kind of willful ignorance. It’s the same thought process that fuels anti-vaxers and flat earthers. “I read it on the internet, I’m an expert now,” used to be a joke, however we live in a world where someone believes they are better suited to discuss torture than people who have actually studied the subject in a professional capacity.

Now, in fairness, I’m coming from reading primary and secondary sources, not from actually torturing people. But, I’ve also got an academic background in history and politics. Short version? This really is my field.

This kind of anti-intellectualism can be harmless in some situations, however when it comes to torture, this simple surface read allows people to sign off on torture. It’s not enough to understand that torture is a bad thing, it’s important to understand what it can and cannot do, because real people in the real world employ torture to further their goals. If you believe torture serves no purpose, you will poorly equipped to understand what they’re doing, and the results they achieve.

You have stated it doesn’t harm torturers much (not true)…

First, I don’t remember saying that. We’ve cited Tony Lagouranis in the past, including his his book Fear Up Harsh. So, if we didn’t talk about the psychological consequences to the torturer, that would be somewhat surprising.

Torturers do suffer some psychological damage. I’m sure we’ve mentioned that before. If it seems like I don’t put a lot of emphasis on it, it’s because, frankly, I don’t really have much sympathy for them.

Second, it’s important to understand that concepts like morality and ethics are heavily based on our cultural backgrounds. The idea that these are universal is an excellent route into xenophobia. However, one thing, I hope most of us can get behind is the idea that torturing someone is evil.

So, the only reason you’d want to really dwell on the psychological damage is because you’re trying to woobify the torturer. Which is fucking repugnant.

You want us to feel sorry for them? You want us to empathize with them? Go fuck yourself.

And before you drag out the, “I was only following orders,” excuse, no. A soldier has a legal obligation to disobey any illegal orders they receive. If someone tells you to break the law and you do it, that was your decision as much as theirs. You are a part of that crime now. The argument wasn’t convincing at the Nuremberg trials, and it’s not convincing now.

…and it can convince people not to oppose your organization (not true).

This one is entirely true. Ultimately, it’s one of the two things that torture does very well. Obviously, if you’re getting tied down to a chair, and having your hands amputated a bone at a time, it’s not going to convince you that you made a mistake. However, it will convince others that, maybe getting involved is a bad idea.

Now, it’s not 100% effective. Not much in life is. But arguing, “torture isn’t effective because it doesn’t convince everyone,” is a bit like arguing that “because seat belts don’t have a 100% survival rate, we shouldn’t wear them.”

The systematic use of torture has severe chilling effects on political activity in a nation. There are significant diminishing returns. As torture becomes more widespread the unrest it causes will eventually start to outweigh the chilling effects.

This dynamic isn’t unique to torture, and most forms of political suppression will foment varying degrees of unrest. This is a problem that most totalitarian regimes face. The more coercive force they exercise, the more the population will become restless. Also worth knowing that this does scale based on the population’s size, so, a massive nation can apply significantly more coercive influence to it’s population without things boiling over.

However, it does suppress politic activity. Which was the entire point of this exercise. Torture as a tool of political oppression is not about the torturer or the victim, it’s about how that threat affects the population’s activities at large. So, yes, being told that if you express your political beliefs you and your family will be disappeared by the state is a huge disincentive to political activity. It works.

In case this is somehow confusing to you, yes, suppressing political speech is a bad thing. It may shock you to realize, some people don’t give a shit. They really do not care about being seen as a good person, and are willing to do things you would find unpalatable. Explaining what they’re doing is not the same as endorsing their actions.

It may be comforting to shove your head in the sand, insist that none of this is real, and angrily lash out at anyone who threatens that fantasy; but this is real, and trying to ignore it empowers those who would use these methods.

You also have many posts against police brutality and many about the price of violence and I wish you would apply that to your torture apology.

So, this might confuse you, but police brutality is torture. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cop repeatedly tazing a victim, sodomizing them with a broom handle in a Manhattan precinct house, choking them, or just beating the ever living shit out of them. It’s torture.

But, according to you, we should feel sorry for the cops and the emotional trauma that they suffer, because they got to live out their deranged, fascist fantasies, and it wasn’t as much fun as they expected? No, fuck that.

Ironically, you can actually see the efficacy and limitations of torture as a political deterrent through police brutality. When you see people standing at the sidelines as the cops choke someone to death, that’s the deterrent in full swing. They won’t get involved, they won’t express their opposition, because they know that if they do, they’re next.

So, bystanders pull out their cameras, and the police threaten them with violence. Hell, in some cases, the police outright shoot them, claiming they mistook the camera was a weapon. Camera phones are the line they can’t fully cross. The political activity of witnessing the event and sharing it with the internet allows spreading the unrest generated in the moment to the population at large. It is the point where the use of torture is causing more unrest than the torture is suppressing. As torturers, the police understand that this undermines what they’re doing, but those videos escape beyond their grasp.

You can start by believing victims and prioritizing their accounts instead of un-critically believing torturers.

Ironically, uncritically believing torture victims is one of the amateur mistakes that helps perpetuate the practice. The average person is far too willing to trust statements extracted under duress.

I’ve seen actual academics who willingly accepted confessions extracted under torture by the goddamn Spanish Inquisition at face value. Far too many people are willing to accept statements from torture victims without question.

So, what do you expect to learn from a torture victim? That torture is bad? No shit. You don’t need a living torture victim to realize the practice is vile.

Accepting the statements of a torture victim perpetuate one of the greatest lies about torture: That torture can be used to collect intelligence. It’s a lie told by regimes that that torture serves an intelligence gathering role. It cannot.

However, if you believe that torture serves no purpose, that it has no effect, and that you should accept the statements of torture victims at face value, you have primed yourself to accept false confessions. After all, if torture doesn’t work, “why would they lie about those things they did?”

Transparent lies, like, the ones associated with torture are truly insidious. If you accept the lie that you can collect accurate information from torture, then you will accept information collected via torture. If you believe that torture does nothing, then confessions extracted under torture are still accepted because the torture, “did nothing.”

When someone is torturing you, you will do anything in your power to get them to stop. Torturers, torture victims, and the experts all agree on this. When someone is torturing you, you will say what they tell you to in order to make it stop. This happens without regard for what will come next.

The real apologists here are the ones who say, “torture gets usable intelligence,” and (ironically), the ones who say, “torture does nothing.” The former perpetuate the lie, the latter legitimize the results.

Torture isn’t about getting information, it’s about using force to put words in the victim’s mouth. Saying that it doesn’t achieve that is denying those victims, and ignoring the real evil.


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Q&A: D&D by Gaslight

Not 100% writing related, but my friend – who’s very knowledgeable about military history – wants our D&D campaign to be as realistically medieval as possible while also maintaining the fantasy elements. This is explanation as to why there aren’t many female warriors/soldiers/etc, and the ones we DO encounter will be magic users, because if someone can do magic you’re going to put them on the front line. He’s a great friend and a brilliant DM, but am I wrong for having an issue with this?

No. Intentionally or not, you’re seeing someone try to justify their misogyny using logic that is internally inconsistent. The problem is really fundamental, fantasy elements, especially D&D’s, preclude medieval power structures and military strategy. It also, very transparently, exposes their misogyny, without them even realizing it.

So let’s start with that last one. The argument for excluding women from front line combat roles is that they’re unsuited to combat. This is an argument made in the real world where the list of sapient species capable of fulfilling a combat role is somewhat short. It’s also bullshit. It has no historical basis. Women have operated as frontline fighters throughout human history. Not everywhere. There have been mysogynistic cultures. But, the idea that women cannot fight, and never fought is shockingly unsupportable. I can’t remember the last time we linked, We Have Always Fought, by Kameron Hurley, so, here it is, read up, enjoy.

But, when we’re talking about your game of D&D, we’re not talking about the real world. We’re talking about a world with Orcs, Minotaurs, and other races, all of which have innate attribute bonuses to their strength and constitution. They are, quite literally, stronger and more durable than human fighters.

The inverse is also true, (while 4th and 5th edition changed this), used to be Elves had a penalty to constitution, making them less suited to frontline combat roles. Again, if someone’s trying to say, “women aren’t suitable for combat,” while gleefully signing off on male elves, that’s misogyny.

It is reasonable to have basic stat prereq stats a character would need in order serve in a military. For example, they might not be allowed to enlist if their STR, or CON scores were below 10 or 12, there’s even some realism in that, most militaries don’t want recruits who are physically or mentally infirm. If you think every stat should be at least 10, cool, easy. However, female characters would have no difficulty hitting those thresholds.

Short version: If you’re saying that women can’t serve in your D&D military, you’re also saying that humans are unfit to serve, across the board. There’s some potential worldbuiling to be had there. For example, in Dragonlance, Minotaurs are frequently employed as sailors. Their physical stat bonuses make them ideal for a rough life on the seas, and many take to it happily.

And, to be clear, those physically beefier races are pretty well distributed through the population in Forgotten Realm’s Faerun. You don’t see a lot of half-orc infantry units, in general, because of social stigmas against them, and their numbers aren’t that high, but that doesn’t play well with the idea of a medieval power structure, or really the way power tends to work in general. In any plausible, medieval, world, those half-orcs would be conscripted into military service in some capacity. This highlights something about D&D, and high fantasy in general, that is easy to overlook: this is not medieval.

Medieval Europe was shaped by a lot of factors. For our purposes, the utter lack of individuals with godlike powers is a fairly significant factor to look at.

Let’s start with a specific phrase: “if someone can do magic you’re going to put them on the front line.” This is very questionable thinking. How, exactly, are you going to convince someone who can cast Cloudkill, that you want them in an infantry role?

Warfare is not fun. It’s not an enjoyable activity. When you’re talking about a medieval conflict, a lot of your forces are going to be conscripted. So, how, exactly, do you conscript a wizard? Even at level 1, they have access to a host of dangerous abilities that makes forcing to do you want incredibly risky. This before you consider that not all magic users are wizards, and some are decidedly more dangerous to harass.

Wizards in D&D draw their magic from an education in the arcane arts. This means, many wizards actually come from academies or larger organizations. Organizations that would not appreciate having their members poached by a local despot. A local despot who would be hard pressed to survive the ire of higher level wizards and basically 5th or higher level spell.

Clerics, Paladins, Druids, and Rangers draw their spellcasting abilities from their gods. (In the case Druids and Rangers, it’s technically nature itself, but the distinction is more about the spell lists and fluff.) Ironically, if you wanted to see front line magic users, Clerics, Paladins, and Rangers are high on the list. Rangers often serve as scouts, while Clerics often serve as combat medics and Paladins are, literally, holy crusaders.

There is one more spell caster that draws power from an outside source: The Warlock. Warlocks get their power from bargaining with Demons, Dark Gods, Edlrich Horrors, or even more terrifying powers. Yeah, trying to force one of these guys fight for you sounds like a horrible idea.

There are two more magic casters in standard D&D. The Sorcerer and Bard both draw magic from within. Where the Wizard learns spells through study, or the Cleric prays to their god, the Sorcerer just kinda throws a fireball. They don’t really understand the intricacies of arcane magic, they simply “know” how to cast intuitively, much in the same way dragons do. Unironically, one common origin for a Sorcerer’s powers is a dragon somewhere in their family tree. Their magic tends to be chaotic and unpredictable, meaning they’re not a particularly good fit for any regulated military.

Personal builds aside, Bards are very similar to Sorcerers. As a player, you can make some pretty beefy builds, but as a part of the world, they don’t fit well with military campaigning. Though, a chaotic good kingdom could, plausibly, recruit and send bards to war to boost morale of their troops, that’s not really part of any campaign settings. (Incidentally, said chaotic good kingdom probably wouldn’t engage in conscription to begin with. That’s more of a lawful activity. They’d also be less likely to care about the gender of their recruits, because, again, chaotic good.)

I’m also skipping over some of the weirder classes that haven’t, necessarily, made it into 5th Edition, like the Spellsword, Favored Soul, Spirit Shaman, Archivist, or Warmage. There’s a lot of variation here. The important thing to understand moving forward is that, you can’t force a mage to fight for you, and you can’t have a fantasy version of Medieval Europe if it includes a single level 20 Wizard.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. You can’t have a fantasy version of Europe if you have any characters over ~ level 10.

Something a lot of people miss about D&D is how far up the power scale goes. Figure that your average military will never have characters above level 5. Elite forces and singular champions might get to 10 (though 8 is also a pretty reasonable ceiling for them.) The kings and warlords may get into the elite range, but they could easily be on par with the rank and file soldiers, ~level 3 – 5. And, you expect a level 12 warlock, who got their powers from bargaining with the forces of hell to just bend knee and go die for a petty little mortal?

When you start looking at character progression, after level 10, your character is, pretty much, a fantasy superhero. Your challenge rating table starts rolling over from bandits, druids, mages, and assassins, into mythical creatures, and other “big ticket” enemies. Your level 13 party shouldn’t be encountering mercenaries, they’re up to the task of going after adult dragons.

In case you thought that was just your character having the stats, the abilities that your classes unlock in the 11-20 range starts getting out of hand as well. For example, a level 11 Barbarian can, literally, be too angry to die. A level 13 monk gains the ability to speak and understand any language. They can also be understood by anyone. And then at level 15, they no longer need to eat or drink anything. I’m cherry picking, a little, but these abilities transcend the humanly possible.

This loops back to a fundamental element of D&D: The game is a power fantasy, and it’s built around that. You could not drop a level 11 character into 11th century Europe without them fundamentally altering the course of human history. They are that powerful.

When you’re creating wars in that kind of setting, saying, “I’m going to stick to medieval warfare,” doesn’t track. The short version is that you can’t have a medieval era in a conventional D&D campaign setting. The diversity of conflicting religions, backed by their own gods, mean you (probably) would not see a unified religion (or any other single body) taking control over a massive territory and forcing the society into a technological stasis.

Magic, frequently, replaces far more advanced technologies. I’ve written about this at length before, but if you have battlefield spellcasters, you now have mobile artillery, advanced communications, remote reconnaissance, and a host of other, “modern tools of warfare.” As a ruler, you now have political problem, because you need to secure the loyalty of those mages. It may be enough to secure personal loyalty from the individuals, but in larger scale warfare, you’d need the loyalty of the organization training and overseeing them. You cannot simply force to serve you, the way you could round up another batch of peasants for use as shock troops.

The, “problem,” with Forgotten Realms as a medieval setting is, it’s way too cosmopolitan. There’s a lot of physical mobility. There’s a lot of cross-racial interaction. Granted, not all interactions are positive, but you have a world that far better understood than what medieval Europe had. It’s also more technologically advanced.

Remember how I said that mages mean you have access to a bunch of modern technologies on the battlefield? Magic has also seriously impacted technological development. Firearms exist, but are vanishingly rare. This isn’t because they’re new, it’s because they’re kind of irrelevant. Magic can already do the things that made firearms revolutionary in the real world, and have been able to do that for quite some time.

While medical technology is less advanced, clerics and druids gain access to spells which will outright cure diseases at low enough levels for that to be a fairly accessible service. Even bringing someone back from the dead isn’t difficult, (though that is expensive.)

The power structures of the world tend to center around higher level characters (usually in the borderline-superhero range.) With that world in place, it’s basically impossible to recreate the real Medieval Europe with any kind of logical consistency.

There is one last part here, your friend is subverting the intended spirit of D&D. Wizards of the Coast recently published an article on diversity:

One of the explicit design goals of 5th edition D&D is to depict humanity in all its beautiful diversity by depicting characters who represent an array of ethnicities, gender identities, sexual orientations, and beliefs. We want everyone to feel at home around the game table and to see positive reflections of themselves within our products. “Human” in D&D means everyone, not just fantasy versions of northern Europeans, and the D&D community is now more diverse than it’s ever been.

The entire article is worth reading, and I encourage you to do so. However, this a takeaway, if anyone your roleplaying group is engaging behavior that makes you feel excluded, or marginalized, it’s something that needs to be addressed.

If your friend is an, “expert,” on medieval warfare, and thinks that women never fought, it seriously undercuts his research.

One of the ironies with Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla‘s release were the idiots who threw a fit over the option to play a female viking. It almost feels like a straw man example, because Ubisoft preemptively released comments on the subject:

But the fact is, and I think what’s really important, is that it was part of their conception of the world. Sagas and myths from Norse society are full of tough female characters and warriors. It was part of their idea of the world, that women and men are equally formidable in battle…

Thierry Noel

The archaeological problem with vikings is that earlier archaeologists were determine gender based on whether the individual was buried with militant goods without checking if the skeleton was actually male. Meaning, they assumed that all raiders were male, therefore, all raiders they found were male, without checking to see if that assumption was true.

The debate, now, is that quite a few women were buried with militant goods. If we take the original assumption, that means viking raids were coed. Or burying them with a sword meant something different. However, Noel is right, looking at their culture, their myths, and then saying, viking women placidly stayed at home while the men, and only the men raided, is dubious at best.

Throughout history, women have fought in warfare. Not in every nation. Not in every time. But they have fought. Saying, “but it’s not historically accurate,” has no place in the real world. To say nothing of a world of elves, dragons, wizards, and bards seducing the goddamn spiders.


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Q&A: IMI Desert Eagle

Just out of curiosity, why did you class the desert eagle as idiocy on the last post?


Because it is.

The longer answer is that the IMI Desert Eagle is an interesting firearm that serves no real purpose beyond bragging rights.

Designed in the late 70s, the Desert Eagle entered production in 1983. It was not the first semi-auto .44 magnum to hit the market. I believe that recognition goes to the Auto Mag Pistol which entered production 12 years earlier. (Thought, there may be an earlier example I’m not aware of.) By the time the Desert Eagle was in full production, there were a number of other .44 automatics on the market.

If you need, or want, a gun for anything, you can get one for a fraction of what you’d pay for a Desert Eagle. Expect to spend at least $1,600 (USD.) You can sometimes find them cheaper than that, but these are very expensive guns that fire very expensive ammo.

There are two, plausible, uses for the Desert Eagle. The first is recreational shooting. You can do that, and if you’re the kind of person that wants a Desert Eagle to go out on a range and show off that you have a Desert Eagle, cool. At that moment, one of the major downsides of the gun actually becomes an advantage.

Desert Eagles are very heavy guns. This means, they can soak a lot of recoil. If you don’t control it, you’ll get a face full of chrome and stainless steel. If you do control it, it will be a more comfortable experience than, pretty much anything else chambered for that cartridge.

On the range, the Desert Eagle is a luxury gun, and it’s priced to match.

The second plausible use is big game hunting. For that, you are better off using a long arm. It will be cheaper and significantly more accurate.

There’s no real application for using the Desert Eagle as a combat pistol. The capacity is low, the weapon is heavy. You will get more value out of a high capacity 9mm or .45 service pistol. Carrying extra magazines only multiplies this difference.

For a simple example, carrying a .50AE Desert Eagle with two spare mags will leave you with 21 rounds. Carrying two spare mags for your USP .45 will see you with 36, and if you’re just dropping mags into a pocket or pouch instead of a mag carrier, you’re going to be able to carry more magazines than if you’d gone with the Desert Eagle.

Now, I do need to clarify something, there’s no value in the Desert Eagle as a combat pistol today. When it was designed, the prevailing perspective was that bigger bullets with higher grain loads were better. The 9mm was seen as an under-powered cartridge, and the .44 magnum was viewed as more effective than the .45. A lot of things have changed. There has been a lot of ballistics R&D, (the 10mm research comes to mind) and that has changed perspectives on cartridges like the 9mm.

Similarly, it’s much easier to conceal a normal sized service pistol, for those times when you really don’t want to announce you’re carrying around a hand cannon.

I’m going to point this out again, the Desert Eagle is a huge gun. These are over a foot long. They weigh over four pounds. (Coming in just under 2kg.) This is double what you’d expect from a full size handgun. It’s a big gun, you buy because you want to be able to brag about how you’ve got a big handgun.

(Worth noting, there are smaller versions. However, the differences are not that significant. The 6″ barrel still results in a gun that’s over 10″ long.)

Also, I’m going from memory here, it’s been a few years since I handled one, but my recollection is that the grip is borderline uncomfortably large for me. I say this as a guy with relatively normal size hands. Like the rest of the gun, the grip is huge. This is, strictly, an engineering consideration. The magazine is large, so the mag well needs to be large, meaning the grip needs to be larger.

Now, I’ve said that I like firearms from an engineering perspective and an aesthetic perspective, and this is the one place where I do have to hand it to IMI and Bernard C. White. The Desert Eagle is a beautiful gun. Much like 1950s muscle cars, it’s impractical as hell, but visually very appealing when covered in chrome. It’s also a very mechanically unusual gun.

Most semi-auto handguns operate off of various blowback designs. It relies on the force generated by burning powder to cycle the bolt. This works best for lower power rounds, and is a natural fit for most handgun cartridges. There are some variations, ranging from short recoil, to roller delayed systems which will allow pressure to build before cycling the bolt (usually giving the bullet time to leave the barrel before the action cycles.) This is not a good fit for rifle cartridges. Most of the time because the chamber pressure is too high for these designs.

The Desert Eagle borrows elements from rifle designs and uses a gas operated system. This is something you’d usually see on rifles, and as a result, the Desert Eagle is very unusual. As with being a .44 automatic, it’s not the first gas operated pistol. The oldest example I’m aware of was a .45 prototype dating to 1919.

Internally, the Desert Eagle is the unholy lovechild of several different rifle designs. So, it’s interesting, or at least, novel. It was also an approach being taken by other weapon designers who were trying to create magnum automatics at the time. So this wasn’t just a flight of fancy.

The result is that this is a massive, expensive, handgun; who’s only real purpose is to show how much money you spent on it. In fairness, the line about the gun being stupid reflects more on its owners than the weapon itself. This is a gun that appeals to people who think a bigger gun is always better.

It also also appeals to collectors, for a number of reasons. I’m going to badmouth someone for thinking the gun looked good. It does. However, if you’re thinking you want a gun, and you’re looking at the Desert Eagle, it’s just not worth the money.


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Followup: Runtime

The False Flag story involving a South African was from The Fourth Protocol by Fredrick Forsyth. They made a film of it with Michael Caine and Pierce Brosnan.

Thanks, I couldn’t remember. I think I’ve griped about this before, but there’s something really unfortunate about The Fourth Protocol‘s film.

It’s fairly common for multiple edits to exist of a given film. Usually we think about this in the context of theatrical and extended cuts. The former is the version seen in theaters, while the latter is a longer version saved for home video release.

Sometimes there’s dependencies between the director’s preferred version of the film and what the studio releases to theaters, resulting in a an eventual director’s cut. Ironically, these have become something of a marketing ploy to drive home video sales. The marketing idea is, “this is what the director intended for you to see,” even in films where the theatrical cut really was the director’s vision.

In rare cases, the theatrical and director’s cuts will be radically different films. Payback (1999) is one of the rare examples where we can see both versions of the film. The studio, at the direction of Mel Gibson, fired the director and reedited a crime film into a borderline comedy. DVD releases exist for both films, and director Brian Helgeland goes into detail in his commentary track. If you want to see how much editing and some reshoots can change a film, this is an amazing example.

Beyond that, there are also frequently multiple TV or broadcast cuts. These will trim the film so that it can broadcast with commercial interruptions and fit in a standard time slot. These is they have very strict time requirements. In the US, the film needs to be in increments of 45 minutes. (45m, 1h30m, 2h15m, 3h, ect), in the UK the magic number is 50 minutes. (So, 50m, 1h40m, 2h30m, 3h20m.) Once you add commercial breaks, these will lock down to full hour time slots. So, in the US, if you have a film that runs for 1h43m, and you want to put it on network TV, you need to cut thirteen minutes to fit into two, one hour timeslots.

There are extremely rare exceptions. In ’97, there was a (mostly) unedited airing of Schindler’s List (1993) on network TV. From what I remember, the only advertising were unique 15 minute commercial slots from Ford before and after the film. They may have also run one during an intermission.

Outside of that kind of exception, you can’t cut the ads. That’s how the networks make money. So, if it’s a choice between cutting parts of a film that are necessary for it to make sense, or cutting back on ad buys. The film is a secondary consideration.

In rare circumstances a film will run longer on TV than in theaters. Usually this is because the film is running close to moving up a bracket. So, if you have a film that’s got a run time of 1h28m, and you’ve got some random footage you can splice in, you might add two minutes of material to the film so can be sold to TV markets. One example of this was Heat (1995), where Michael Mann was offered the option to add 17m of material to bring it up to a four hour time slot. Mann declined, and the network cut 40m to take it down to a three hour slot.

Length is also a serious consideration for the theatrical runtime. The longer a film is, the fewer times a theater can show that film on a given screen in a single night. This is why theatrical run times over three hours are exceedingly rare. A theater needs have time to run the film, clean up the theater after a showing and prepare for the next showing. When films get above 3 hours, that starts to seriously cut into how many times a given film can be shown per screen, per night. Meaning, the less money the theater makes. You can see this in action if you look at the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films. Fellowship and Two Towers are two minutes and one minute short of three hours long, respectively. Return of the King coming off the previous two blockbusters managed to sneak up to 3h21m, but by this point the theaters were comfortable with the idea that the film would be a reliable moneymaker for the 2003 holidays, and was worth losing screenings.

Lord of the Rings is also an example of how studios could break away from that requirement by having extended versions released on multi-disk sets after launch. Now, the specific example was a bit complex, because the three films were shot together, there was a three year release schedule to begin with, and the extended cut DVDs were a blatant marketing tactic to keep people paying attention to the films throughout the year.

So, what does all this have to do with The Fourth Protocol? I really want to be able to recommend the film. In my, entirely subjective, opinion, this is the best performance I’ve ever seen from Pierce Brosnan. He plays a better James Bond here than in the actual Bond films. (And, by that, I mean, more in keeping with the literary version of the character, rather than the cinematic version.) This is a film where he’s playing the villain, and delivers an excellent performance.

Michael Caine is great. That shouldn’t be a surprise, he is a fantastic actor, but he is in his element here as an aging intelligence officer who’s being pushed to irrelevance.

So, it’s a really good film. But, it’s impossible to see. Or, at least, it was the last time I went hunting for it.

The version of The Fourth Protocol available on DVD today is a seriously shortened cut. I watched a cable TV version back in the mid-90s, and there was a lot of material that was completely absent from the DVD version when I tried to introduce Michi to it a few years back.

I don’t know what happened. My original thought was that the version I saw on TV must have been extended for an extra hour. This is plausible, because the film’s official runtime is 1h59m, meaning it would need to split up over a third hour, with an extra 16m of footage for American TV. Except, I think the version I originally saw, on TV was close to the theatrical cut, while the version available on DVD is (for some reason) a TV cut. It edits out a lot of important plot points, and the entire film suffers for it. One specific example that comes mind was Matt Frewer’s character basically just disappearing without warning. In the 2012 DVD cut, he literally stumbles off screen drunk, and disappears from the film entirely. There is a lot of missing content, and it wouldn’t surprise me if that version of the film is missing 30 minutes of material. (I can’t find the disk to verify the run time, and Amazon insists it’s a complete cut, which is not the case.) Which sucks. It’s definitely a product of the mid-80s, but there was a lot to recommend the film. It’s just really unfortunate that there’s a garbage cut getting passed off as the theatrical version. Among the things that were cut, we lose a lot of interesting depth to Brosnan’s performance, and even Caine’s character gets reduced to more of a cliche.

In case it’s not apparent, this disappoints the hell out of me. A lot of times, this kind of thing happens because no one checks the data. A production company has, “a copy,” of a film or TV series they released, and then doesn’t check to see what the state of that is. This isn’t even situations where the originals were lost, it’s simply a substandard version got added to the pile as, “the official,” copy.

So, this doesn’t mean that original cut of The Fourth Protocol is gone forever. Just, the last time I went looking, I was very harshly disappointed. I would have chalked this up to a faulty memory. It wouldn’t have been the first time I misremembered the plot or individual scenes from a film I caught on TV once. However, when I went looking for it, I found I was not the only one who remembered a longer cut of the film.

If you can get the full cut, I do strongly recommend Protocol. It’s a better film than you’d expect. It’s certainly a product of late Cold War anxieties, but it is a solid film. Unfortunately, I’m not sure you can find an intact copy today.


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Q&A: Even Prodigies Have To Learn

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite:

OK I know you said that martial arts needs a lot of practice to be good. But how about real savants? I mean in real life Varsha Vinod has a black belt at age 5. This type of thing truly is possible obviously. Or are you talking about grades beyond black belt? I don’t know much about that. But perhaps there is obviously still a difference between actually fighting a bad guy (but not trying to kill you. bad guys do have limits too or don’t want a murder rap.) than training??

There’s an unfortunate assumption that a lot of people make about child prodigies: they put in less time and effort.

To be a black belt at age five, Varsha Vinod started training at roughly age zero. Yes, I am saying she was literally trained from infancy. Time compression means more training rather than less. She had a father with two black belts. He could train her all day, every day, and he did. While you were learning to walk, she was learning stances. While you were playing with your friends, she was learning katas. The first five years of her life were karate. If you think that sounds fucked up, well, it is.

There are a lot of kids out there like Vinod, I’ve known some of them or known people who trained with them. Ernie Reyes Jr was competing in adult divisions at twelve. They are very impressive, but gaining that kind of skill that early comes at significant cost.

While Vinod has (or had) impressive hand eye coordination and muscular control for her age, acquiring adult level technical skill requires an extensive daily time commitment. (We also don’t know if she had adult level skill. Unlike Junior, she didn’t compete in the adult divisions.) The time commitment is more than if you mediated out your training. For most of these children, that “youngest female in the world to ever achieve a first degree black belt in karate” will be the high point of their lives. The vast majority fade out or fade into the sea of similarly talented individuals who started later but are also more driven because they were given a choice about what they wanted. You’ll notice Vinod has not continued her trajectory, her meteoric climb through the ranks ended at five.

The second assumption you made is actually a common one as well, which is the idea physical talent or skill equates with intellectual and emotional maturity. Child prodigies are not little adults, they’re still children. Vinod had a technical proficiency at five which qualified her, under the standards and grading systems of her martial art, for the rank of first degree black belt. This doesn’t mean she could, at five, fight an adult on equal footing. More importantly, karate is a traditional martial art and a recreational martial art. It has a very specific range of application, which is the Japanese annexation of Okinawa. Karate is unusual because it’s not a reconstruction, but it reoriented its purpose. Karate is designed for fighting samurai at a very specific moment in history and is very good at what it does, but you’re unlikely to be fighting a samurai anywhere in the world today. What I’m saying is: you can’t use karate to fight bad guys.

My shotokan instructor specifically pointed out that you can’t use shotokan for self-defense, and, since he was also a police officer, I trust his assessment. We’re talking about someone with seven black belt ranks who needed to leave the US and test with the grandmasters in Japan. Journeying to the origin of your martial art is a customary practice in many martial arts traditions when you achieve a certain high rank.

There’s the final major issue of your question. You’ve assumed a black belt means more than it does. When you strip away all a black belt’s mystic, what you’re left with is a certification. In karate, a black belt means you’ve memorized a fixed number of katas with an acceptable level of technical proficiency. This certification is also fluid. It changes based on who is doing the grading, what school it is, and who the student is. It shouldn’t, but it does.

There are a lot of kids like Vinod, some of whom are far more famous. Jet Li was the national Wushu champion in China at twelve, Ernie Reyes Jr competed against adults in the forms division and made some significant strides in Hollywood as a child martial artist, Rhonda Rousey is another individual who was trained from a young age in Judo. She has an Olympic gold medal. The irony is they aren’t any different from Simone Biles or any number of other high level athletes. They’re not warriors. They’re athletes engaged in competitive sports. As a UFC fighter, Rousey and Ernie Reyes Jr (who competed in StrikeForce competitive kickboxing) could charitably be considered gladiators. This is still entertainment.

You’ve confused skill with intent, and it is a common misconception put forth by anybody outside the martial arts community. There’s a lot of mystique surrounding martial arts and martial combat. For the East Asian martial arts, there’s a lot of orientalism to go with it. All of which are problematic because it gives an inaccurate impression of a skill set which primarily breaks down into a lifestyle —  personal empowerment, spiritual enlightenment, self-betterment — and a sport. These aren’t skills comparative to those learned in a modern military. You aren’t collecting a new weapon.

This is why I suggest parents enroll their kids in martial arts programs. Their kids aren’t going to learn to kick ass, what they will learn is mental determination and how to overcome adversity. These are important life skills anyone can benefit from. If you train a child to become a weapon, what you eventually get is an emotionally broken adult. 

If you want a standout warrior as an adult you need to follow the pattern gifted to us by a millennia of warrior cultures. What you’ll notice about these cultures (with the exception of the Spartans, who produced emotionally broken adults) is they let children be children. Instead of condensing their training, they stretch it out. They learn other skills in association with martial combat like strategy, tactics, command, and hunting. They structure training exercises as games. When the child is old enough, in their pre-teens or early teens, they are assigned an apprenticeship with another seasoned warrior. They don’t start engaging in serious combat until their mid to late teens, and complete their training at twenty.

You can throw a child into combat at twelve. There were plenty of cultures who conscripted soldiers that young. It doesn’t normally work out. There are exceptions, but they’re not the rule.

I know the idea you can cheat past the acquisition of skill is appealing, but it’s also as much a fantasy as a unicorn. This attitude ultimately devalues the time, effort, and dedication it takes to become skilled. You lack appreciation for how much work and sacrifice was made for Vinod’s achievement. You also lack the context to understand those sacrifices were not her decision. They were made for her by her father. The irony is, because she was so young, she needed to put in more effort and more time on a daily basis than a child twice her age. Karate was Vinod’s positive reinforcement, and it’s a fucked up thing to do to a kid.

The treatment of prodigies as magic in fiction bothers me, and the villainization of them also bothers me. Talent does not replace learned skill. Talent is just a building block letting you start a little further ahead of everyone else. You’ve still got to put in the time. The younger you are, the more talented you are, the more likely it is you’ll be putting in more time than other kids your age. And, honestly? That sucks.


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Q&A: Covers and Legends

How do spies pretend to be from certain countries when it is very difficult for foreigners to become 100% fluent? Or is it more that they were raised with more than one language m, or make up a convincing reason they should be in that country when there is a war going on?

The short answer is that you’re looking at this backwards. Do not ask a spy to adopt a cover they cannot sell convincingly. If you need a spy of a given nationality, look for candidates who grew up in that country, but are are loyal to yours. The children of diplomats, and military personnel who grew up in that country are ideal, though, really, however that’s not an exclusive list.

If that’s not an option, and you have time, a good alternate option are sleeper agents. The entire idea is that if you don’t have someone who can pass for a native, you simply make an agent you do have a native years, or decades, before you need them. The downside is, the sleeper won’t be doing any intelligence work for the next decade or two, so this really rewards planning ahead, and hoping they don’t flip in the end.

For a spy’s cover to be effective, they need to be able to inhabit it. If they need to be able to pass as a native, they need to have an ILR score of 4+, preferably a full 5. Yeah, you’re right, that’s not easy.

For reference, the ILR is the International Language Roundtable score. It’s a measurement of proficiency in a given foreign language, with a 0 indicating that you may know some stray words and phrases, but can’t speak the language, up to 5, which is full lingual, and cultural fluency. It’s not just enough to understand the words, you need to also understand the culture. That’s where things get really difficult, because radically different countries sometimes share languages. For example, even if you have an ILR5 English rating for American English, you probably could not swing a similar score for the Australian, British, Canadian, Irish, or Scottish, versions of the language. To say nothing of dialect variances within a given country.

It’s also not, just, about learning the language. As I mentioned, ILR5 requires significant cultural familiarity as well. While you can, theoretically, learn that from intensive study, chances are the only way you’ll get there is immersion. This is why it’s

So, we loop back to where this began, don’t ask a spy to be someone they don’t understand. Ask them to be someone they do understand. This is where things get interesting, because it’s not critical your spy appears to be a native, they simply need to avoid being assumed to be from the hostile nation. If your spy can pass as a being from a neutral, or better yet, allied nation, then they can operate in hostile territory without drawing the same kind of attention, assuming their legend (their fabricated documents) are convincing enough, and that they can sell the illusion of being who they say they are. To use the example above, there are differences between American and Canadian English, but expecting a non-native speaker speaker to be able to distinguish between these is less likely.

A fictional example I remember had a KGB officer passing themselves off as South African in the UK. While it’s unlikely that the spy could pass themselves off as British, their mark wasn’t able to distinguish between East German and South African, even though German and Dutch are distinct (if similar) languages. While it strains credibility that a senior military official wouldn’t dig into that, the overall structure does illustrate an excellent way to get a spy into a country who could pass for native.

During the Cold War, South Africa was excluded from a number of NATO intelligence treaties because of international opposition to Apartheid.

The fictional officer disagreed with those policies, and believed he was passing intelligence to a South African agent, without realizing they were actually passing extremely sensitive information to a Soviet agent.

(I think the example above was from Sandbaggers, but I’m going from memory.)

Now you have a spy who doesn’t need an artificial cover. Their cover is the truth. They don’t know who they’re working for. They think they’re acting to further their own ideological beliefs. In short, the perfect spy. Even if they’re discovered, proving they were your agent will be basically impossible.

That’s the potent skill for a spy. It’s not about sneaking in, and living out your James Bond fantasies. It’s about bribing a cleaning lady to give you any documents that end up in the trash. It’s about conning an enemy official into believing you speak for their allies. A spy’s job doesn’t need to be about stealing secrets, it’s about cultivating a network of contacts who work for them and give them access to what they want.

Getting spies in a country is more about identifying and flipping assets. (By “flipping,” I mean, convincing them to come work for your spy.) You don’t need to do the impossible and train an agent to blend in perfectly, if you can get an actual native working for you.

On the final part of your question, yes. A spy needs a convincing reason to be where they are. This isn’t unique to wartime, any effective cover needs to do this as much as possible.

A spy who needs access to bank records would benefit from a cover with an NGO focused on economic development, while one who needed access to military intelligence would be better suited to being a consultant for a PMC, or some other security contractor. If they need freedom to move around outside of cities, then you’re looking at things like agriculture or mining interests being ideal.

Once your spy does have a cover in mind, they need to build up the associated skillset. If they’re part of an Agro-development NGO, they need to be able to play the part convincingly. In fairness, that’s not as difficult as it may sound. Your spy doesn’t need to a master of their new field, they simply need to credibly pass for someone who makes a living doing their job.

So the short answer is, if you can’t pass for a native, don’t try. However, it’s not about whether you can pass for native, it’s just about not looking like you’re the enemy, and having a compelling explanation for who you are, why you’re there and what you’re doing. In a lot of cases, that’s a simple as, “not looking like a spy.”


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Q&A: Self-Defense Curriculum

(1/2) Hey, experts! I have two different questions, I hope that’s okay. I’m writing a story about a young guy (no older than 22) who gets mugged and decides to take a self-defense class because he doesn’t want to feel helpless again. What kind of knowledge would he have with only two months of classes (weekly) under his belt?

Eight weeks is enough time to cover an entire self-defense curriculum. This will vary based on the instructor and the course structure, so this isn’t an exhaustive list. Also, the sequencing will vary depending on the instructor’s goals.

You’ll learn threat assessment. This is a mix of different pieces of information, and that will be tailored to the situations your instructor expects you to be in. This includes simple things, like staying aware of your surroundings, which in turn, makes you less appealing as a prospective victim. This the most important component in self-defense training, and it is not a combat skill at all.

Learning how to avoid being in a situation is worth far more than knowing how to get out of it. Now, realistically, that is not always an option, which is why the rest of the training exists, however, anyone who has been through self-defense training will have a dramatically improved ability to assess potential dangers. That does not mean they cannot make poor choices, simply that they’re less likely to blunder into a bad situation because they didn’t see the potential threats.

You’ll learn some basic stances, though this really isn’t the focus. It’s more a necessary component for the other things you’ll learn. For someone from a traditional martial art, this can be really mind bending. Stances are one of the most important components in martial arts, but self-defense quickly covers them and moves on, without putting a lot of focus on them.

You’ll learn how to break out of holds, joint locks, and throws. Breaking out of holds is something that will probably be useful, and several transition fluidly into throws. Joint locks are very useful when you want to restrain or subdue a foe. Each joint can only move in certain directions, and your entire body is connected. Joint locks rely on pushing one joint to its natural limit, and then using that to lock down the rest of your foe.

You will probably learn ground fighting. This is combat from a prone position and primarily involves maneuvering using your hands, while striking with your legs. This has some significant advantages for a fighter with limited experience. Because self-defense doesn’t spend much time on stances, you’re going to end up on the ground, and training for that eventuality pays off in that situation. Being able to retain mobility while on the ground means you cannot be knocked down, and you can drive a lot more force with your feet. Ideally, you’ll position yourself with your legs between yourself and your foe, lashing out if they attempt to close the distance.

You’ll learn some basic hand to hand, including some kicks. This will be far more advanced than you’d get from a non-practical class, and the priority will be on being able to actively use these strikes. These will, probably focus on knee and elbow strikes, rather than hands and feet. It’s much easier for an inexperienced fighter to accidentally injure their hands while striking, and full kicks are more challenging to execute (unless you’re already on the ground.)

You’ll learn how to create an opening and escape. This sounds a lot more involved than it is. “Creating an opening,” simply means inflicting enough harm on your opponent so that they cannot pursue you right now. Escaping may be as simple as bolting and running while your opponent is trying to get their breath back.

At the upper end, creating an exit plan is something you should start doing, whether your training really sets that up for you or not. I know, I didn’t really get into the head space of keeping exit plans in mind until years later. The basic idea is, if you’re going into a place, you should have plans for how to get out if things start going wrong.

Finally, you’ll probably learn to deal with armed assailants, including ways to defend against knife and firearm attacks. Worth remembering that gun and knife disarms are extremely dangerous, and have no margin for error. It’s very easy to take a bullet or get carved up trying to take a gun or knife away from an attacker. However, the training is included in the event that you really do not have a choice. If someone is going to kill you anyway, it’s better to know how to get that gun away from them and have a chance of living, than not.

I’ve said this before, but it is important to remember, the goal is to hinder your foe long enough to make an escape, not to, “win the fight.”

It’s also important to remember, a lot of this training is simply presented, “as is,” so unless you’re consistently practicing, you’ll lose a the more demanding techniques. Throws, in particular, require a lot of finesse, so your ability to execute one in a combat situation is very dicey.

The other major point of failure is that if you don’t internalize your self-defense training, when you’re presented with a situation a lot of this stuff just gets lost. It’s not that you don’t remember how to do it, you don’t remember your options in the moment. I know; it’s happened to me.

So, looping all the way back to the original question, there’s a fundamental scenario here that’s entirely realistic and plausible, but self-defense training won’t do what you expect. More specifically, it will be what you’re asking for, but not in the way you’re thinking.

Self-defense combat training is something you use when you have no choice. Self-defense is useful when someone will kill you. They will rape you. They will disfigure you. They will abduct you and do any or all of the above.

Self-defense combat training is not something you use when someone is asking for an item you can easily replace. If someone wants your wallet, give it to them. Don’t carry cash. Keep everything on plastic. Call the bank, shut those down, and they get nothing. The plastic is meaningless. If someone wants your smart phone, hand it over. One conversation with the carrier and that phone is unusable. They can’t fence it, they can’t sell it, and if they try, they’ll get the cops knocking on their door. More than that, if your phone is insured, you lose nothing. Same with your debit and credit cards. You can replace those without cost.

You won’t feel as helpless. You know they can’t escalate to violence without opposition. But, the safe answer when someone asks for your money is to hand over your wallet. Random muggers are pretty low on the threat scale. They can be managed. You can never be completely certain that it will be a safe interaction, but you can minimize the threat as much as possible.

Taking self-defense classes and then interpreting that as the ability to go hunting muggers is a losing proposition. It will end with you face down in a gutter.

Taking self-defense classes does mean you won’t feel that powerless again. It’s just not for the reasons you were expecting.


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Q&A: Zombie Apocalypses

What if I wanted to write characters who are 10 and 8 years old in an zombie apocalypse defending themselves with krav maga and weapons? I’m not sure a 10 or 8 year old would have a strong grip on a gun or does it depend on the gun? I want them to be cute because looks can be deceiving. Is it too unrealistic? a form of self-defense and physical training, first developed by the Israeli army in the 1940s, based on the use of reflexive responses to threatening situations.

If they’re too young to use a firearm, they’re not going to be able to fight off zombies in hand to hand. If we’re talking about conventional zombies, Krav Maga is a pretty horrible choice. It’s fine for dealing with human foes you can incapacitate, but going hand to hand with a rotting corpse that can (eventually) kill you with a single bite is a spectacularly bad idea. Especially if we’re talking about fast moving zombies.

Zombies vary wildly depending on the fictional setting. Even the term itself is inconsistent. This ranges from, literal, reanimated corpses that are kept up and moving to actual viral infections of various descriptions.

Regardless of the situation, there are a few constants. You’re dealing with a former sapient creature (or sentient in the case of other animals, like dogs) that have been rendered permanently hostile. In the case of zombie apocalypses, the zombies need a way to replenish lost numbers. Finally, the zombie is significantly more dangerous than they were when they were alive, though this last one is a somewhat subjective statement.

All of those traits are necessary.

Fair warning, I’m going to use a lot of game references on this one. Horror works better when the underlying rules are left vague. This means, we don’t really have, “the rules,” for something like John Romero’s films. We have the inferred systems, but when you’re the author, you need to understand the rules, even if they’re hidden from the audience.

Non-hostile zombies don’t produce a zombie apocalypses. And, there are settings with non-hostile (or selectively hostile) undead. D&D’s Forgotten Realms comes to mind as the immediate example, though it’s not alone. Zombies, skeletons, and other forms of undead are sometimes used as burial guardians, Alternately, undead raised by a necromancer may serve them, without attacking anyone unless the necromancer directs them to. (Or, if I’m remembering the rules for Raise Dead correctly, much of anything really. It will just shamble around aimlessly, unless commanded. EDIT: I was not. Raise Dead is a weak resurrection spell, while I was thinking of Animate Dead.)

Zombies need to be able to replace their lost numbers. This doesn’t need to be from the zombie itself, though that’s often the case. The Walking Dead comes to mind as an example, where anyone who dies will rise as a zombie, whether they were bitten or not.

The bite, or some other direct infection vector is favored. It expedites the process and keeps individual zombies dangerous. Take that away and a single zombie is not much of a threat. I’ve said before, human bites are really nasty on their own, so transitioning that into a guaranteed kill in addition to creating a new zombie.

The problem is, if the zombies can’t be replaced, they can be cleared out pretty quickly. The image of a zombie horde is impressive and intimidating, but it relies on the zombies being able to produce more of themselves faster than trained combatants could deplete their numbers. If your zombies aren’t able to reproduce into full hordes, you’re never going to see a zombie apocalypse.

Looking back at the Forgotten Realms example, the reason you don’t see zombie apocalypses in Faerun is because Raise Dead Animate Dead is a fairly involved spell. Getting zombies who will serve you takes time and effort, as does maintaining your control over them. Directing them as an assault force is great, but it will take time and effort, and they’re not easily replaced. The best a power hungry necromancer can hope for is to unleash a bunch of uncontrolled zombies and hope they can do their damage before being wiped out by a party of adventurers on their way to godhood.

When it comes to military applications for zombies, I’d look at Warhammer Fantasy. Zombies are a disposable front line unit for the Vampire Counts. They’re something the game’s fans refer to as “tarpits.” These are fairly inexpensive, and ineffective, units that tie up enemy forces. You don’t field zombies because you expect they’ll kill anything. You field zombies to soak up shock cavalry charges, and tie up enemy infantry, while you get your elite units into position to flank. If you’ve got necromancers who can field armies of zombies, your zombies can become a very effective meat shield for your more dangerous units.

The real danger with zombies is numbers. It’s not enough that they can maintain those numbers, they need to grow the horde, or they’d never have gotten into this position in the first place.

If you have a zombie that can be beaten to death (redeath?) by a child, you’re never going to see an apocalypse from those zombies. No, seriously, never. It doesn’t matter if the kid knows Krav Maga. If a child can beat them, an adult can dispatch them. If the zombies are that toothless, there’s no way they chewed through standing military forces, impromptu militias, local law enforcement, or even angry blue collar workers. There’s no way this turned into an apocalypse.

The hurdle for zombie apocalypses is critical mass. You need creatures that are individually dangerous enough to overpower the foes they’re facing until their numbers are sufficient to overwhelm everyone. In a conventional fantasy setting, if you have zombies picking picking off peasants and growing their horde before going into combat against the actual military forces, that makes sense.

In the modern world, it makes significantly less sense. A zombie will provoke a law enforcement response, and get shut down. Even if we’re working under head shot rules, that’s still going to stop the zombies at their initial outbreak. Any secondary outbreak from injured police will be in a contained environment, and that will be the end of it.

Think about it. You have some sheriff’s deputies called in to deal with some, “weird druggie,” and they lunge at the cops, they’re going to get put down. If the succeeded in biting one, that officer’s going to be taken to a hospital. Even if they turn, there would be an immediate and overwhelming police response to that, and the infection wouldn’t get out of that hospital.

The only way you could see a zombie apocalypse in a modern setting is if it starts with overwhelming numbers. The Walking Dead‘s scenario where anyone who dies returns, would set up a scenario like that, as you’d be looking at a vast, dispersed, base of infections. With no way to wipe it out, as any human who dies returns as a zombie.

Even then, zombies need to be dangerous enough to pick off a human. If they’re fragile enough that a child can beat them in hand to hand, there is no way they’re dangerous enough (even in numbers) to progress into a apocalypse. A zombie outbreak like that would fundamentally change the world, but you wouldn’t have an apocalypse. Zombies would become a kind of persistent pest that needed to be cleared out when discovered.

I’m going to make a quick aside here, wanting the kids to be cute for shock value has severe diminishing returns. It’s not going to work the way you want. The zombies don’t care. Any post-apocalypse zombie world is already going to be extremely jaded, to the point that, the kids standing out like that is actually a warning sign for any group of competent survivors. “How did these kids survive out here? Something’s not right.” It would work with survivors who aren’t wary enough to pick up on it, but that’s doomed group, because they’re also going to miss critical cues to other threats as well. Meaning, this only exists for your audience. Even then, it won’t reliably work for your audience, because they’ve seen this before.

The problem with Krav Maga is that (like all martial arts) it was designed to fight humans. Living humans. It’s a very aggressive fighting style that’s designed to quickly incapacitate and kill. It is not designed to decapitate the foe. It isn’t designed to deal with a foe who has been dead for six weeks and doesn’t feel pain. It will put your limbs in chomping distance, because most humans aren’t always trying to eat you. Krav Maga was not developed to fight zombies. It’s designed to operate in very tight quarters, with a lot of strikes that a zombie simply would not care about.

To be clear, military Krav Maga, is an excellent urban combat martial art. It was designed for use in tight spaces. If you’re dealing with a human, and you want them dead, it will work. If you’re fighting zombies or other supernatural threats, it’s utility diminishes sharply. If two kids can incapacitate a zombie with basic Krav Maga, imagine what the IDF could have done. That’s the problem.

I’m not even touching on the firearms thing. Guns work. I nearly lost a knee to a kid with poor muzzle and trigger discipline. Unless you’re talking about something stupid, like a Desert Eagle or a S&W .500, it doesn’t matter. Of course, if guns work, how the zombie outbreak get this far?

If it sounds like I’m being overly harsh, I’m not a fan of zombie media. I like Dead Space, I enjoyed The Walking Dead comic, until it just got too bleak to continue. I enjoy the hell out of Resident Evil, but that’s more of an unintentional parody of zombies at this point. I can’t point to a single zombie movie I liked. I respect the Romero films, even while I don’t enjoy them. Zombies in prose don’t work for me. It’s probably quite telling that the first favorable reference that comes to mind is, “zombie adjacent,” rather than a conventional zombie series, and this is coming from someone who really does love horror.

Romero turned zombies into a commentary on consumer culture in Dawn of the Dead (1978.) I’m not saying anything original to observe that if you wanted a monster to embody the self-destructive impulses of modern consumer culture, the zombie is a natural fit. I’m sure there are other potential metaphors that could be applied. However, Romero’s version of Dawn of the Dead is an excellent film, and if you want to work with zombies, it’s probably something you should study it closely.

The problem is, zombies are bland. They’re boring, and I don’t say that about entire genres lightly. If zombies are your thing, I’ll help you to the best of my ability, but the genre has (basically) never worked for me. It’s a variety of monster that works best as a background world element. If zombies are the focus, then you really need to have something to say about them.


Um, in D&D terms, Raise Dead brings someone back to full LIFE. You’re thinking about Animate Dead, which creates a skeleton or zombie.


You’re 100% correct. I completely derped that one up. For reference, there’s at least three spells to bring people back from the dead in D&D’s core books, and probably more that I’m not remembering.

Thank you for reminding me.

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Q&A: Hypothermia and Alcohol Intoxication

Any tips on writing dialogue featuring a character suffering/recovering from hypothermia? At a glance it seems like hypothermia makes you act kind of like you’re drunk, is that accurate?


I’m not completely sure. I’ve never seen severe hypothermia first hand, so I’m going off diagnosis guides and making a guess. That said, I have seen a few warnings about potentially misdiagnosing hypothermia as alcohol intoxication, which makes me suspect these are very similar.

This is a little more complex than that, because, from my limited research, alcohol intoxication seems to exacerbate hypothermia. Your body temperature crashes faster, and you stay intoxicated for longer. This is because hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) interacts viciously with hypothermia, and excessive drinking can result in (temporary) hypoglycemia.

If you’re wondering, “if it’s that dangerous, why would anyone drink in the cold?” The answer is fairly simple, alcohol makes you feel warm. This is why there are traditions about consuming hard liquor to endure or recover from the cold. The biological reality is that warmth is an illusion, but the experience led people to believe that alcohol helped dealing with the cold.

To your question about dialog; Hypothermia’s slurred speech and impaired cognitive function could look a lot like alcohol intoxication. However, when it comes to, “acting drunk,” not so much. There’s a number of specific physical symptoms beyond the slurred speech and confusion associated with hypothermia. Hypothermia will result in drowsiness, so no matter what kind of a drunk you normally are, hypothermia will look like a sleepy drunk. Beyond that, there’s shallow breathing, a weak pulse, and of course shivering.

So, hypothermia doesn’t look like alcohol intoxication, however, the slurred speech, mumbling, impaired coordination and cognitive function do. It’s close enough that hypothermia can be mistaken for alcohol intoxication in a cold environment by someone without medical training, but not so close as to say that it’s just drunk in the snow.


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Q&A: Hunter/Hunted

Upon learning that the people the MC worked with for some years are going to kill him/her as they believe him/her to be a threat/no longer safe to work with, the MC makes a run for it. Can you shine any light on what it may be like to be on the run for several weeks and, on the flip side, what it may be like to be the ones trying to find this MC?

This is a variable question, based on the organization. Obviously, being on the run from a slightly unhinged HOA would look very different from someone who was working for a Bond villain.

When you’re getting into world building, you really need to know how extensive your organizations will be. Everything about this question will hang on the organization and the character’s training.

For your purposes, you need to decide three things about the organization. How much capacity does it have, how much intelligence can it gather, and what is its reach?

Let’s start with the influence. Any organization will have limits to how far it can reach. If you’re dealing with a small organized crime outfit, it’s going to have difficulty applying it’s influence a couple states over. It may still be able to send people out, but their ability to operate will be limited in unfamiliar territory.

If the organization has an extreme reach, then your character can’t slip their perimeter and disappear. Again, the Bond villain example above isn’t that far off the mark. Shadowy conspiracies, or global criminal empires aren’t going to be thrown off (much) by running. Your character may still be able to escape by leaving the planet, but may not be a viable option.

A quick warning here, before we continue: If you are going with a massive global conspiracy that your character worked for, you really want to nail down who these people are. You, probably, want to share some of that information with the audience. There’s a lot of potential for a thriller about a character running from a massive conspiracy they don’t understand, but, at the very least, you do want to keep your audience at least up to speed with your PoV characters.

The amount of intelligence an organization can collect is critical for evaluating how effectively they can track someone. In the modern day, it’s remarkably easy to collect significant information about someone from publicly available information. Last month I watched someone parlay a Twitter bio into the individual’s full name, address, and current place of employment in under twenty minutes, using only public data. Do not underestimate how much information you put out there.

At the same time, there’s a huge difference between being able to run someone to ground using public information, and getting access to confidential databases. If your organization has money, they can buy plate reader data, and track your character’s location in real-time if they’re taking their car. If they have access to law enforcement databases, they can track your character through far more means, (potentially) including facial recognition technology, real-time tracking of their credit/debit card usage, and immediate flags if your character’s ID pops up.

This means, “hiding,” may be as simple as crashing on an old friend’s couch, or it could require significant tradecraft to drop off the radar.

The final thing you need to lock down is the organization’s capacity. Can they send one guy with a handgun? Can they send a kill team? Can they flag your character in federal databases as a terrorist, and send in SWAT teams to kill them.

There’s two parts here, the organization’s own manpower, and their ability to co-opt other authorities. This will factor into their ability to gather intelligence, if they can piggyback on someone else’s surveillance work, they don’t need to do that themselves. It keeps the organization safe. This could be a data tap, or by having people in the other organizations. It’s the signals vs human intelligence balance, either possibility will work. Either option could blow back on the organization, or they could have legitimate authority. If they have the ability to co-opt other authorities, you can assume they have access to the manpower and intelligence gathering capacities from those organizations.

Depending on how you structured the organization, their operations could be virtually anywhere. You’d need to lock down how they operate. However, we’re only half done here.

Your character’s experience will alter radically based on their own background and approach, so let’s split this up into pieces as well. You need to establish your character’s resources, their skills, and their paranoia.

Being on the run is expensive. Both, before and after you start hiding. You need to pay for your safe house, that means renting or buying another place. Because it’s a fixed location, if it’s compromised it’s gone. If you’re staying on the move, you need transportation, that costs money. You need food, that costs considerably more if you’re out in the open collecting it. You need someplace to lay low while you sleep and prepare (if you’re going on the offensive.)

The end result is, your character is going to need considerable resources to go into hiding. For our purposes, resources is collective, it refers to contacts they can use, vehicles, weapons, other equipment, false identities, safe houses. Even their ability to collect intelligence against their former employers would be a form of resources. Anything on this list has the potential to be useful when trying to stay out of sight, or if they’re trying to shut down their former associates.

The important thing to remember here is: This isn’t a bank balance.” However, your character will burn through the resources they have as they try to stay out of sight. Any resource they use is another potential piece of evidence their foes could use to track them down.

For example: if your character used their old sidearm to fight off an enemy, and the cops run the ballistics, there’s a real chance the conspiracy could get that info and immediately know your character was there.

One of the major dangers when facing off against an organization with extensive intelligence operations is that all of your bank accounts are now being monitored. If your character had money hidden under a false identity, they still have that money, but there’s a real potential that pulling out their credit card will bring the metro PD running.

Your character’s skillset will heavy affect how well they approach this. Someone with a more covert background will probably have an easier time blending in. They’ll have a much better grasp over what actions they can take safely, and which ones will light them up for their foes. They may also be in a much better situation for evaluating when to, “misstep,” in order to provoke a response. There’s an entire skill to knowing when you should appear to make a mistake in order to draw your foes out.

Now, I’m talking about this with the assumption that your character is an assassin or spy, but the truth is that a lot of people will cultivate those skills. If your character was a cop, private investigator, bounty hunter, or career criminal, they’d probably know most of this, even if they eschewed violence.

Remember, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” How much prep your character did before this situation hit the fan will affect their ability to walk away and disappear. Some of this bundles in with the idea of resources above, but if your character expected, or at least prepared for the potential that they’d need to go into hiding (potentially permanently), they may have set up multiple exit plans to get out and disappear. If they have a plan, and backups, to simply drop off the face of the earth, they’re probably going to be able to execute those. They would have been in a situation where they could accurately assess the organization’s intelligence, and probably had a good idea how to leave no trace. An especially paranoid character may even have set up some dead man switches in the organization to make tracking them even more difficult when they disappeared.

Of course, it’s possible something would cause the character to abandon their exit and switch over to hunting or dismantling the organization. This kind of a decision is very contextual, based on your character and the people in their life, so it’s a bit difficult to chart and say, “it’d be like this.” However, it would be an excellent mid-story turning point for the character, where they go from being the hunted to being the hunter.

Beyond this, everything’s character. The relationships between the characters will determine how this, “feels.” Once you have an idea for the kind of characters and organizations you have, you can start to research the details and lock this down.


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