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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.

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