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Jun 072011

“Foozle McKillicutty planted his mighty legs and waited, like a great oak bristling with leaves of murderanium. The bandits could attack, if they dared, but they would not move him.”

Welcome back. Last week, we discussed the fantasy arsenal, and some of the misconceptions that have crept into writing about weapons and armour. Today, we’ll talk a little less about the tools, and a little more about how to put them to use.

The thorniest question when it comes to depicting combat is: how much detail? There’s no right or wrong answer, unless it’s “lots” and we end up with “matriculate the ion drive in hyperthrust frequency” gobbledygook that’s recognizable as a fight only by dint of the use of words like “blood”, “knife” and “Vinnie Kneecaps”.

But in order to pull it all together and make the right decisions, we need to understand a little about our building blocks.

The first thing to note is that there’s a very real difference between lines of infantry clashing on a historical battlefield, and one bravo stabbing another in an alley. This post will deal with combat on a personal scale, because that’s what I have (very little) direct experience with, and because that’s where most fantasy stories tend to end up.

Buckle that swash. Or swash that buckle. Whichever.

Movement is key. Yes, the chances are good that you swing your favourite implement with your hands, but in order to do it right, your whole body needs to get into the act. Adherents of the ancient art of ‘base ball’ may notice that when a pitcher hurls a ball, he twists his hips, takes a step, and leans forward. A pitcher’s arm gets all the glory, but it’s the muscular tension throughout the rest of his body that does most of the work.

Fighting is no different. Any depiction of a battle that doesn’t impart a sense of movement feels wrong. Fighters circle each other, they test each other’s defenses, they duck and dodge and weave and twist. They do not stand square with each other and trade blows until somebody’s hit points are whittled away. Movement is at once offense and defense; it gets you to where you need to be in order to avoid a blow or to strike one, and it grants your attacks the power and speed to get through somebody’s defenses.

While we’re on the subject of standing square, a proper fighter’s stance minimizes the size of hittable area; that is, people face each other side-on or in a three-quarter sort of stance, not chest-to-chest. The less area you need to defend, the easier it is to not die.

If you’re fighting with a shield, that’s your leading arm – obviously, you want this thing in front of you. Attacks, in this context, are launched from the back, like a boxer’s cross. Most commonly, you’ll just shift your balance a bit to bring the weapon to bear without flinging the shield aside. Sometimes, the shield acts as a sort of door, swinging open to allow an attack out. A thrust coming from behind a shield can be a tricksy thing, because you get a little less time to recognize its angle. This is doubly true if you’re wearing any sort of helmet, because seriously, that shit is impossible. Even something as innocuous as a fencing mesh cuts off peripheral vision and makes a haze of whatever’s in front of you. Imagine what it would be like to fight the man-in-a-can way, with only a thin slit of vision.

If you’re fighting without a shield – that is, with just a weapon, or perhaps a weapon in either hand – your weapon will be held out in front to cut off access to your soft bits. Yes, if you watch old samurai flicks, you’ll occasionally see Toshiro Mifune or somebody who looks just like him standing there with his chest exposed, a sword way above his head or else held out behind him. This is because samurai were crazy. The proper kendo response to a bokken arcing its way towards your head is not to parry or move, but to hit the other guy first and better.

An important thing to note about having an empty hand is that this hand, and indeed any other natural weapons, can still be put to use when spears and swords are out. You can pull, punch, poke at eyes. You can knee somebody, or try to kick out their leg. Nearly any period fighting manual you care to look at (and these are an excellent resource) will spend a fair amount of time on wrestling. We don’t typically picture Errol Flynn shoulder-barging his opponent to the ground after deflecting a thrust, but an experienced fighter will have little tricks like that in his back pocket.

Dual-wielding, being the use of a weapon in either hand, is all over fantasy writing for reasons having more to do with video games and tabletop roleplaying games than history. There were indeed some cultures in which the use of two weapons wasn’t entirely an oddity, but it was never terribly common (except in the Spanish school of fencing, on which more below) and virtually invisible on the battlefield. Some people blame the learning curve – the idea that only true masters could possibly blah blah blah – but this is nonsensical. Kali, which I’ve practiced, spends a fair bit of time with two weapons. Sure, it’s a little harder to learn to use two sticks than one, but as it turns out, people are pretty good at using both sides of their bodies. Did Muhammad Ali ever have trouble hitting with both fists?

Dual-wielding generally comes in two styles. If the two weapons are of the same length (as in kali), it’s likelier they’ll be used interchangeably, with stance shifts, strikes with both weapons at the same time (from different angles or the same). If the weapons are not of the same length (as in the fencing schools that used a sword and the basket-hilt dagger known as a main gauche, or “left hand”), this becomes a bit more awkward, and they’ll be more specialized. In the fencing example, the main gauche was mostly for parrying (indeed, some translate it as ‘parrying dagger’) while the rapier did the killy work. That isn’t to say the knife didn’t stab when an opportunity presented itself, of course.

The main reason dual wielding isn’t as common in history as it is in fantasy novels and video games is that it simply isn’t as practical as fighting with a shield or a two-hander and as such wasn’t widely taught. A shield offers far superior defense, and can still be used as a weapon. A two-handed weapon offers the advantage of range, which is pretty significant. I think it was Miyamoto Musashi that believed a humble wooden staff was at an advantage over the katana, simply because it allowed the wielder to engage from outside a sword’s range. Miyamoto Musashi was a crazy-ass samurai who beat a few people to death with an oar. An oar. I think we all should assume he knew what he was talking about.

So, with that all in mind, what does weapon combat actually feel like? Well, it’s tiring, both physically and mentally. You’ll spend a fair bit of time prowling about an opponent and feeling them out with attacks that are designed mostly to test reflexes. You’ll parry a few of these, or just duck out of their range. Contrary to popular belief, parrying a weapon doesn’t generally numb you with great impact. It certainly can, but that’s usually when you’re caught flat-footed or hurl up a desperate I-didn’t-think-you’d-do-that wall. Most of the time, a parry is just a smart movement coupled with a deflection of your opponent’s already existing momentum.

When the fighting actually starts in earnest, it’s usually quick, ugly, and results in a swift death or a swift return to circling about. Key targets are, of course, the head and torso, but arms, legs and whatever happens to be nearby are just as popular. One of the greatest lessons kali taught me was just how easy it is to strike at an attacking opponent’s hand. We wore hockey gloves for a good reason.

The other thing kali taught me was that fighting is – surprise, surprise – pretty fucking dangerous. Many MMA schools make use of a fun little activity to demonstrate why it’s a better idea to avoid fights than instigate them, particularly once the weapons come out. Students wear old shirts, and are handed red felt-tip markers that are meant to simulate knives. Then, they have at, using the skills they’ve learned to that point. Inevitably, whoever ‘wins’ is as badly marked up as whoever doesn’t.

Finally, there is such a thing as instinct. Remember the first time you drove a car? How you could have recited from memory each and every turn and lane change? How about now? You get into your car, pop in a CD, and somehow you’re at work.

Fighting’s the same way. I remember sparring with one of my classmates, and avoiding a blow by throwing my head back and leaving his stick to fly through the air where my nose had been.

I have no clue how that happened.

I didn’t see his blow coming. I wasn’t warned that this would be part of the drill. I just knew where I was open, and his body mechanics told me that he did too.

I also remember – and the word ‘remember’ is a bit odd, given the circumstances – a (wooden) knife fight against another student. At various points, I had one knife, then both knives, then no knives, then I was down on the ground on top of him, then I was kicking him off me. Even then, with the match fresh in my mind, I had absolutely no idea how we got from Point A to B to X.

Putting it all together

The bandit proffered a knife and a nasty grin.

“Is this what you want, then?” Foozle asked.

“You made me look a fool.”

a) A moment later, Foozle wiped blood from his blade and lamented that thugs, these days, just didn’t have their priorities straight.

b) The bandit lunged at him, steel leading the way. Foozle danced away from a wild swing and tore his swords from their sheaths. He parried a second blow, and a third. He would not allow a fourth. Foozle’s left-hand sword took a hand; his other, a head.

c) Foozle saw only a gleam, and then he was rocking back on his heels, twisting this way and that. He wanted to call to the gods for help, but his throat constricted. The bandit’s arm flicked out again, and Foozle became dimly aware of a stitch in his side. He had been wounded enough times to know he’d be in much more pain when the terror wore off.

If he was lucky, anyway.

Three different approaches, three different Foozles.

The off-screen victory in scenario a) tells us that that Foozle means business, and it doesn’t bog us down with unnecessary detail. If our thug is such a wimp that defeating him barely qualifies as drama, it can make sense to elide the fight and cut straight to the inevitable result… but this would not be an appropriate approach if Foozle was a novice.

The somewhat mechanical here’s-how-it-happened in b) is a sort of workhorse approach. It’s appropriate to most any level of Foozle with a bit of tweaking, but this approach is not always terribly exciting, and it’s the most prone to weird mistakes. If you intend to write a detailed blow-by-blow account, try to visualize the scene all the way through. You may even want to act it out if you’re uncertain whether something works.

The internal approach of c) deals not with the fight itself, but rather with what’s going through our plucky hero’s mind. This, again, is an approach that will work for all Foozles, except perhaps the most blase. If your Foozle wears a trenchcoat and mirror shades, and fights with katanas that shoot katanas, a mechanical approach may be more appropriate. After all, he’s already forgotten how to feel, man. That’s just the kind of badass he is.

Combat scenes can present more opportunities than just a bit of spice or a conflict resolution. Done well, they too can be used to characterize, to raise or reinforce themes, and all that other boring literary shit. But to get there without making pedantic wankers like me giggle, it helps to understand the anatomy of a fight.


Next time: I still have some things to say about mass combat and how it differs from the smaller conflicts described here, but I’ll leave that for another day. Next week: of frells, fracks and mudbloods. Swearing in fantasy.

May 312011

“Foozle McKillicutty dove, spun on his knee, and thrust both blades upward. They found the space beneath the hapless guard’s shield, and sheared through his steel breastplate as though it were a particularly bloody hedge. Foozle leapt, kicked off with both feet, and…”


He probably didn’t.

Welcome, readers, to today’s 101. Today, we’ll discuss weapons in (historical) fantasy.


First off: my qualifications in this field are, of course, lacking. Most writers are in the same boat. For better or worse (hint: better) most of us will never shatter somebody’s skull with a mace or tickle them with a cat o’ nine tails. However, I’ve done a fair bit of reading on the subject. I’ve also had the opportunity to learn a lot from an on-and-off love affair with martial arts; I’ve done a wee bit of fencing in my time, and I’ve been a neophyte practitioner of kali/escrima, the filipino art of hitting people about the head and neck with sticks.

Because this is a topic that few of us have any direct experience with, and one that many of us seem to feel no need to research, a number of misconceptions have crept, over the years, into fantasy writing. Today we’ll tackle a few of them and run down the historical arsenal.

Tools of the Trade

Say hello to armour. This is the single most important development in the history of weapon-making, and the quality and type of weaponry available in a given story will be influenced first and foremost by what sort of protection is available to deal with them. The number one thing that fantasy writers routinely fail to take into account is that armour works. Yes, you can shear through leather with relative ease, but chain is tough, and those big ol’ renaissance suits of angled plate are basically impenetrable. There’s a reason why so many European warriors eventually carried the estoc, which is basically a sharpened railway spike – it could punch through the chain protecting the joints of a plate suit, and it could work its way into the seams between plates.

The next misconception is that armour is incredibly heavy. I’m sure you’ve all heard the old canard that a medieval knight, once fallen from horse, had to be lifted back into the saddle with a crane. If you’ve ever fought, even in a playground scuffle, it should be immediately clear how little sense this makes. In order to fight, you need to be able to move. This was as true then as it is now. Sure, wearing a suit of steel is no picnic, but the weight was distributed in such a way as to make it bearable, and a trained man could even turn cartwheels in full plate in the gymnastics competition after each grand tournament (nb: medieval gymnastics competitions may be fictional, but knights were indeed able to run, climb, vault onto horseback and do a number of other things in full plate).

Next, the shield. This is not just a thing that hangs from your arm to block blows. It is also a weapon. Have you ever been hit in the face with a plank of steel-rimmed wood? No? I haven’t either. But I bet it hurts. Shields were not typically made of metal – this would be much too heavy. Instead, they were typically wood (still heavy), or hide stretched over a wooden frame. Metal was sometimes used as a reinforcement for the shield’s rim, or in other parts. Shields were also quite effective, which should be clear from the fact that practically every civilization made use of them. They come in all shapes and sizes, from bucklers that could be strapped to a wrist to, essentially, doors planted in the earth for archers to hide behind. Getting past a shield is no joke, and many weapons were designed for this very purpose; in the absence of those, one could always try to beat the shield with enough force to shatter the arm holding it, to outflank it, or to batter or pull it aside with one’s own shield. Shields (in the form of riot gear) are still in use today. They work.

The spear, pike, javelin or lance. It’s a pointy stick, or else a normal stick with a pointy thing affixed to the end, and man’s best friend over millennia of killery. It’s functional, it’s inexpensive and easy to make, it doubles as an excellent hunting weapon, and if it’s small enough it can also be effectively thrown. Alas, spears are the proletariat’s weapon, and as such they lack a certain amount of fantasy-cool cachet, despite that they vie with the club for most common historical weapon ever. Spears include: the Roman pilum, an awkwardly weighted javelin whose purpose was not to kill but to get stuck in a shield and drag it down with its weight; the standard-issue short spear, used with a shield in the off-hand and uniquely suited to lines of fighters on a battlefield because it requires no horizontal swinging room; tall-as-a-man spears that were frequently used without a shield, as a sort of combination quarterstaff/pokey bit (see: wuxia); and the Alexandrian sarissa, a spear so long and unwieldy that it absolutely required two strong hands and was only used in concert with a whole phalanx armed the same way.

Spears (and staves) are more versatile weapons than one might think. A common refrain is that the wielder is meat as soon as you make it past the spearhead; while there’s a wee bit of truth to this being an uncomfortable range, keep in mind that a spearman can shift his hands closer to the spearhead for in-close work, and that he may very well still have a shield, a sidearm, or a thousand similarly armed buddies beside him. Also, don’t neglect spear butts or the haft. A good swing with a quarterstaff can shatter your choice of bone into your favourite number of fragments. The same is true of its pointier cousin.

The club or mace. It hits things and causes blunt trauma. Clubs have been around since Thag brained Ug with a rock, in as many forms as there were cavemen to brain. They’re every bit as common as spears, and even less glamorous. Thing is, maces are actually incredibly useful, because they’re practically armour-agnostic. A sword can’t readily cut through a steel plate, but a mace can dent it and crunch the bones beneath or make movement (or breathing) difficult. For this to happen, it needs to be swung pretty damn hard, which is why maces were common horse-back weapons and not necessarily common line-o’-guys weapons.

The association of the mace with priesthoods and clerical orders in a lot of fantasy is often thought of as a D&Dism, but there’s actually a historical basis to this. See, Catholic priests weren’t supposed to spill blood, but *wink, nudge* that totally doesn’t happen if you use a club. (It totally does).

The axe. This is a combination of club and blade, and like the spear, it’s a weapon that will be widely available because it moonlights as a tool. Axes range from hand-held hatchets to bigger things, but what they have in common is that they cause really, really, really grievous wounds because they’re focusing the full force of a swing onto a smallish, wedge-shaped metal surface. These things cut down trees. They *can* pierce even strong armour, provided that the energy isn’t too dispersed across surface area (i.e. the fantasy battle-axe with an axe-head as big as the haft = dumb). Another interesting quirk is that an axe-head can often be used as a sort of hook to wrap around a shield’s edge and pull it out of alignment (but, of course, this can leave the axe-man rather open). The biggest problem with the axe is that the all-toward-the-front weight profile makes it a bit cumbersome, like the mace. And, like the mace, it requires a bit of room to maneuver. The biggest benefit is that your doughty peasants have been using these to cut down trees or split firewood for most of their lives, so the put-axe-in-man retraining process isn’t too onerous.

The sword. Ah, ol’ reliable. Here’s the rub, though: swords are frequently sidearms. They’re the pistol to your SWAT shotgun. Swords, in all their million varieties, can stab and cut… but they’re not as good at getting through armour as they’re frequently made out to be. A well made sword with the proper cutting angle can cut through impressive things, but the level of skill and craftsmanship required to that end is a bit wasted when you can just grab a club and hit real hard for similar or better results. Swords are excellent and versatile weapons if armour is light (for instance, in areas that are very hot, in Japan, and in historical periods before the proliferation of man-in-a-can), they’re perfect for cutting down routed peasants, and they’re great dueling weapons. But on a battlefield, against armoured men, they tend to play second fiddle. Again, think of a sword as a pistol. Sure, you may want one for personal protection if you’re a bravo striding a Venetian street, but you may want something a bit uglier if you happen to get drafted into Il Doce’s army.

But swords are iconic, they’re a status symbol, and they ooze class and expensive training. They’re the weapons of the nobility. They’re the Lamborghini on a city street; maybe there are more practical ways to get from point A to Stab Man, but it’s not always about that.

A bow is another of the hunter-turned-soldier offerings, and archers played a vital role in almost every pitched battle under the pre-firearm sun. Killing people when they’re still good and far away has always been a good idea. Arrows can pierce surprising things if they land flush (but if they don’t, they can also skitter off armour when it really seems like they ought to get through it), particularly if the bow has a big draw. And if it does have a big draw, you’ll need a strong-ass warrior to pull it.

There are two main things that fantasy writers get wrong when it comes to bows. Firstly, they’re not carried ready to go unless an archer is expecting to need to use the thing. Stringing a bow exerts enormous pressure on the wood (if it didn’t, you wouldn’t get any power from the weapon springing back into shape when the bowstring is released), and the wear and tear this creates is something to be avoided. Secondly, bows require a huge amount of training to use. Taking wind and the ballistic arc into account is not something any old farmboy can do, unless he’s been hunting with bows for all his life. The reason firearms replaced longbows is not that they were more effective – for quite a long time, they weren’t. Firearms replaced bows because they were dramatically easier to use, and thus easier to teach.

Finally, there’s anything at hand. People are pretty fragile, when it comes down to it, and weapons have been made from all sorts of things. The Japanese/Okinawan martial art of kobudo, for instance, is all about using farming implements to fight. The nunchaku popularized by Bruce Lee, Michaelangelo J. Turtle and Napoleon Dynamite started as a wheat thresher. Pitchforks, likewise, are farming tools that happen to also be pretty dangerous. The advantage to weapons like this is plausible deniability. “Why no, officer, this is wheat blood!” a hapless farmer might say.

Countless other weapons haven’t been mentioned, of course. Whips, halberds, jitte, etc. There’s not enough time to be exhaustive about that sort of thing. But the above are the workhorses of fantasy.


“Foozle’s blades of unalloyed murderanium gleamed in the sunlight.”

A final note on weapons: they’re made of things, and this has an impact. Bronze is an alloy. Please to not be mining bronze. It’s made of copper and tin (when you can get it) or arsenic (when you can’t and don’t mind some of your smiths keeling over now and then). It keeps an edge pretty well, but it’s heavy and brittle. A bronze two-handed sword would raise some eyebrows – the metal isn’t strong enough to withstand the stress of impact if it’s that long.

Iron runs into a similar issue, but it’s actually an element and can be mined.

Steel is also an alloy – iron and carbon, and initially made usually by mistake, until people figured out why exactly some of the swords they forged were so much better than others. Steel is light, flexible, and it keeps an edge well; it’s what allowed swords to get longer.

It is, of course, perfectly acceptable to invent new and wacky fantasy metals or woods or whatever else to get around historical limitations. An enchanted sword, or one made of elfglass or dwarf cartilage, may indeed be able to rip through full steel plate with ease. But such a sword would generally have to be rare and expensive; if weapons that obviate armour are too widely available, armour will disappear. That, in fact, is exactly what happened as gunpowder became more and more common. Why carry the extra weight on your shoulders, and deal with all the cleaning and straps and so forth, if it won’t protect you any better than a shirt?


Today’s was supposed to be a Magic: 201 post, following up on the last, but as I toyed with drafts I realized I had no way to say what I wanted to without spoiling a few of Pale Queen’s Courtyard plot elements. Perhaps I’ll return to that in a year or two. Next time, we’ll discuss what fighting actually looks like, talk about what it feels like to parry a blade, the difference between dueling and battle, and why, World of Warcraft aside, very few civilizations fought with a weapon in either hand.

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