Well-written action scenes are an integral part of many sci-fi and fantasy stories, from swashbuckling sword-and-sorcery to motorcycle chases through cyberpunk neon streets. Good combat sequences and action scenes happen fluidly and are part of the story's flow. Satisfying action scenes are simple to read but not so easy to write. In this series, I'm investigating what goes into a successful action sequence.
Weapons as Window
Weapons can be used as a window into the fantasy or sci-fi world. In the post-apocalypse, maybe all the weapons are hundreds of years old and must be maintained by specialists. Perhaps, in your fantasy world, the only weapons are wands, the crafting of which is an esoteric art. At the very least, your weapons should match your world, and if they don't, there needs to be an explanation as to why.
Fantasy Weapons and Armor
'"Mithril! All folk desired it. It could be beaten like copper, and polished like glass; and the Dwarves could make of it a metal, light and yet harder than tempered steel. Its beauty was like to that of common silver, but the beauty of Mithril did not tarnish or grow dim."
– Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring
I highly recommend using reading up on historical weapons, especially for a fantasy setting. You'll want to know the difference between a shortsword and a broadsword or a crossbow and a longbow. Not everybody has to wield a sword, either. Whips are extremely handy in combat, for example, and there are a bunch of different kinds.
Similarly, there are all sorts of armors that have varying degrees of permeability and maneuverability. Some armors are so hard to get on and off that the character will need aid when dressing for battle. Considerations like these are what make the special touches that help your readers feel immersed in your world or, at the very least, suspend their disbelief.
Of course, in some fantasy settings, the primary weapon is magic. I’ll be covering magical combat in the last blog in this series. Weapons with magical effects need to be considered as well in any fantasy setting, from sword-and-sorcery to urban fantasy and everything in between (I’m looking at you steam-punk). Figure out the rules that guide your magic weapons and armor and follow them, even if you don’t spell them out to the reader.
Sci-fi Weapons and Armor
Similar to magical weapons, weapons of the future have rules. Still, unlike their fantasy counterparts, sci-fi weapons must follow the laws of physics and, unless we’re talking alien tech or far future, they have a developmental lineage. This is good news because it gives a blueprint for futuristic weapons and a frame of reference for readers.
A nerve-paralysis gun, for example, is a weapon I just made up (although it’s probably not novel). It shoots out nanobots that temporarily paralyze the victim. The linage of the weapon is still there, even though it’s nearly unrecognizable. The user points and shoots like a gun. Maybe it has a safety and a trigger. The futuristic elements of the nerve-paralysis gun tell us a little about the world it came from as well. We now know about the nanobots and, once you know about them, there’s no going back.
“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”
― Marcus Aurelius
Often in fantasy and sometimes in sci-fi, procuring a special or superpowered weapon is a significant plot point. Perhaps your characters are searching for a sacred sword lost to history. Maybe, they have to wrest a mighty scepter from an evil sorcerer.
Whatever the quest, it’s essential to handle the physical acquisition of the weapon properly. Often, the story ends when the main character secures the quest weapon or shortly after. This makes it, so the writer doesn’t have to deal with the issues that arise when your character suddenly becomes superpowered by wielding her new weapon. If the story doesn’t end, then the author has to figure out some way to curb the weapon's power. This could include the need to destroy the weapon for the good of the world, a curse upon the weapon wielder, or a limited number of uses.
Building epic weapons, figuring out characteristics, and coming with lore can be a fun way to add to your world. The features could be anything usually achievable by magic or potion, including poison, flame, luck, healing, sure strike, and so on. Tying the weapon’s power to the world’s history can be an incredibly revealing narrative element.
Other Blogs in this Series:
From swashbuckling sword-and-sorcery to motorcycle chases through cyberpunk neon streets, well-written action scenes are an integral part of many sci-fi and fantasy stories. Good combat sequences and action scenes happen fluidly and are part of the story's flow. Satisfying action scenes are simple to read but not so easy to write. In this series, I'm investigating what goes into a successful action sequence.
I'm a lifelong Dungeons and Dragons player, and I use many D&D techniques when writing (see my entire series on using alignment to write characters). Even if you're not a D&D player, you can still use a 20-sided die (D20) to aid in writing combat scenes. Using die rolls adds an element of chance to action sequences, making them easier to write and more realistic.
If you're familiar with D&D, you might want to just write up a whole character sheet for each of your main characters and, maybe, a less detailed one for any other characters involved in combat. Character sheets are a great way to create a "sketch" of your characters, even if you're not going to use them for battle. You can find a collection of blank and prefilled character sheets here: https://dnd.wizards.com/charactersheets
As you can see from the sheet, you give numbers to your character's attributes. A lot of these, such as charisma and wisdom, are primarily for character development. But, many of them are useful for combat and action scenes. Attribute ranking for most characters will range between one and five. Five, however, should be used only if the character is very proficient or even a master in the category. A negative score indicates an area of weakness.
Character statistics are added (or subtracted) from die rolls, then it's up to me to decide what those die rolls mean.
As the author, I know how I want the scene to turn out. I know who is going to win and who is going to wound. Rolling for combat adds an element of guided chaos to my action scenes. Here's an example of how I might use the D&D technique to create an action scene:
I have two characters: Robin the fairy and a troll name Rax. Robin is small, so she has stats that give her a roll modifier of -1 in strength, a +3 in dexterity, and she has 8 hit points (hit points are the number of points of damage she can take before she goes unconscious or dies). Rex has +2 strength, -1 dexterity, and 12 hit points. Robin has a dagger that does 1d3 (one three-sided die roll) of damage, and Rex has a sword that does 1d6 of damage.
For simplicity, let's say that both characters are not wearing armor, which makes their armor class 10 plus their dexterity modifier. So, Robin has an effective armor of 13, and Rex has 9. These are the numbers the other character must overcome to make physical contact.
Already we see that the size and skills of the two fantasy characters are represented with the numbers. There's a whole system for deciding who goes first in combat, but we're going to skip that today too. We'll assume that Robin goes first because her high dexterity means she's generally faster.
Here are the rolls and how I interpret them for combat:
Robin Rolls 19(-1) total: 18
Rex's Armor: 9
I think: This is more than enough to make contact and is a lucky strike for Robin. I roll a d3 and determine that she makes 3 points of damage. If I want, I can even use a body die to roll where Robin hit Rex.
What I write:
Rex watches for a moment as the little fairy comes barreling down the trail, her wings furiously beating as they carried her along at top speed.
Is she really going to try to attack me? Rex lazily looks down at his scabbard, wondering if it was worth it to draw the sword or if he could just swat her away. In the millisecond he wasn't looking, Robin flew to his side and jabbed her deadly sharp dagger into his ear.
"Bugger," Rex yelled as he unsheathed his sword and clasped his hand to his bloody ear.
Rex Rolls: 7 (+2) total: 9
Robin's Armor: 9
I think: Rex's hit doesn't overcome her armor class, but it almost does. It's not a great roll, and I need to reflect that in the story.
What I write:
Still grasping his ear with one hand, Rex swings wildly with his sword. His sword is so big, and Robin is so tiny, he almost crushed her with the broadside. Robin flitted away, searching for her another chance for a swift attack.
… and do on…
I might also watch the number of hit points left to determine when a character is wounded or killed, or I might use my own judgment. Usually, it's a mix of both.
I don't have to write out a whole character sheet to determine the outcome of a combat situation or action scene. For quick encounters, side characters, and short stories, I might just quickly roll a 20 sided (or any-sided) die to see who wins an encounter and by how much. In these cases, it's more of a writing prompt or a way to keep the words flowing without having to stop typing for long.
If I already have a character sheet made, that makes die rolls even quicker and backloads with more information. Die rolls can also determine the outcome or act as prompts for magic duels or attempts at magic and non-combat situations like trying to persuade or trick a character.
Other blogs in this series: