Friday, 9 August 2019

Ways of Describing Combat

Tolkenian Heroic Expressionism
How many there were the Company could not count. The affray was sharp, but the orcs were dismayed by the fierceness of the defence. Legolas shot two through the throat. Gimli hewed the legs from another that had sprung up on Balin's tomb. Boromir and Aragorn slew many. When thirteen had fallen the rest fled shrieking...
-The Fellowship of the Ring 
A lot of the violence in Tolkien's work happens "off camera", so to speak, or is described in very broad brush strokes. Even when we get a "live" account, as in the scene above, it tends to be a sketch or a few edited highlights - the only blow-by-blow fight we really get in The Lord of the Rings, at least as far as I can recall off the top of my head, is the scene just after this one when Frodo gets stabbed by the orc captain's spear. (Possibly the fight between Eowyn and the Witch King of Angmar also counts.) The point is not to get into the nitty-gritty, but to express important plot points and depict the heroes as properly heroic.

Tolkien wasn't interested in the minutiae of combat, and certainly not in glorifying that aspect of war (perhaps for perfectly natural personal reasons). He was more interested in replicating the way in which combat is described in the medieval and dark-age literature which he enjoyed, which tends also to be a fairly terse or indirectly-reported affair. Fighting in those source texts serves the purpose of making it clear that the heroes are heroic - the idea that combat should in itself be realistically depicted or in itself entertaining is unheard of.

Replicating Tolkenian Heroic Expressionism in an RPG is hard if one is using a traditional combat system where the flow of combat is necessarily narrated round-by-round. ("You swing at the hit it...the orc misses you...") This, incidentally, is why the Rolemaster combat system was such a uniquely poor fit for actually replicating Tolkien's oeuvre, like so much else about MERP. Also incidentally, despite the hard-boiled nature of Zelazny's prose (so different to Tolkien's), he frequently adopts this kind of approach too.

Vancian Detached or "Bathetic" Realism
The assassin ignored Zarfo. To Reith he said, "Please do not make an undignified display. The process then becomes protracted and painful for us all. So then - "
Zarfo roared: "Stand away; have I not warned you?" He snatched up a chair and struck the assassin to the ground. Zarfo was not yet satisfied. He picked up the splint, jabbed it into the back of the man's thigh, through the rust-ochre corduroy of his trousers. "Halt!" wailed the assassin. "That is Inoculation Number One!"
Zafro seized a handful of splints from the splayed-open wallet. "And here," he roared, "are numbers Two to Twelve!" And with a foot on the man's neck he thrust the handful into the twitching buttocks. 
-Servants of the Wankh
As in every other aspect of his writing, Vance's accounts of combat are detached and somewhat arch, but it is also possible to detect in them a genuine understanding of how violence tends to unfold in the "real world" - in a messy and entirely unromantic way, and almost never on fair or equal terms. Nobody is really edified by it (except in the boxing ring).

Vancian Bathetic Realism is the way in which combat almost always unfolds in RPGs my experience, at least in your average non-crunchy system like Basic D&D which doesn't artificially "balance" encounters. It is an untidy affair, it very often explodes without warning, and it has nasty consequences. (Rolemaster combat is much more like this, too.)

Wolfeian Hyper-Realism
The slave with the scorpion advanced first, lashing the air to make a savage sound he must have hoped would frighten me. I stepped forward and slashed at the rawhide lashes. He jumped back and in doing so impaled himself on one of the javelins held by the man behind him.
The terrible thing was not that it killed him, but that it did not. With the head of the javelin in his back, he remained alive, bleeding and gasping like a fish on a gig as he dropped the scorpion and flailed about with his arms.
I caught it up - and as I did so, saw that Pasicrates was almost upon me. Its stock was of some heavy wood, and the leather-tipped lashes looked as though they might easily entangle a man; I threw it at his legs.
He was too quick for me. The stock rang against the bronze facing of his hoplon. I swung Falcata in the downward stroke that is most powerful of all. Again he was too quick, raising his hoplon to block her blade, but it bit the bronze like cheese, cut the hoplon to its centre, and leaped free as a lynx springs from a rock.
-Soldier of the Mist
In Wolfe's books we do often get blow-by-blow accounts of combat and they are exciting to read: there is a genuine thrill in his depictions and also frequently a certain poetry ("bleeding and gasping like a fish on a gig"). There is a bloody, often almost sadistic, realism to his fights, but it is not the genuine realism of Vance - it is, if you will, realism with knobs on: there is a cinematic quality to it that makes it, if not melodramatic, then at least deliberately entertaining. I would include George RR Martin's depictions of combat in this category also.

Wolfeian hyper-realism is what a lot of crunchier RPG combat system tend to aim for. These run the gamut from Warhammer Fantasy Role Play 2nd edition, to Cyberpunk 2020, to Shadowrun, to GURPS. In these systems, fighting is itself a kind of sub-game, and is designed to in itself be both fun and sufficiently detailed that it feels real and consequential.

Mievillian Comic-Book Cinematism 
But then, at that moment, as Bellis retreated from that hot carnage of pig- and sheep-blood and drained offal, the repulsive frenzy of the anophelii repast and then their bloated torpor, a mosquito-woman looked up from the sheep she had arrived at too late to drain, and saw their retreat. She hunched her shoulders and flew dangling towards them, her mouth agape and he proboscis dripping, her stomach only a little swelled by her sisters' leftovers, eager for fresh meat, angling past the cactacae and scabmettler guards and bearing down on the terrified humans, her wings awail, and Bellis felt herself jerked by fear back towards that confused trash of disjointed images, and she saw Uther Doul step forward calmly into the mosquito-woman's path, raise his hands (carrying two guns now) and wait until she was nearly upon him, till her mouthparts jutted at his face, and he fired. Heat and noise and black lead exploded from his weapons and burst the mosquito-woman's stomach and face.
-The Scar
'Nuff said. Combat here is stylised: for all its detail, it is not a realistic depiction of a fight, and nor is it meant to be - it is about enjoying the visceral, almost-visual thrill of violence for its own sake, more comic-book than film.

Mievillian Comic-Book Cinematism has its paradigm expression in D&D 4th edition, of course, though there are other systems which aim to produce something like it - Exalted, I suppose; Rifts; and GURPS in some of its guises.


  1. In a book the first two methods are my favorites. It seems like a lot of modern fantasy authors are lot closer to the last two examples and I find myself just skimming over the combats to get to more interesting parts of the story.

    I don't know if you've read Patrick O'Brien or Bernard Cornwell but I think they show a similar contrast in their depictions of (hand to hand at least) battles. O'Brien is pretty close to Vance, battles are quick and long on chaos and short on deliberate actions. Cornwell tends to read like a Conan novel with exceedingly detailed description of all actions in a fight - much closer to the latter examples. I tried to read some Cornwell after reading several O'Brien books and I couldn't get past the superheroics.

    1. I broadly agree, although I think Cornwell has mellowed quite a bit in recent books. His "Azincourt" was really good.

    2. I'll have to give him another shot. I started with the first "Sharpe" and that's a pretty early work for him. I really have liked all the TV adaptions of his work.

  2. Updated this old post with a link to this one. Good stuff! :D

    1. I think undoubtedly films - particularly martial arts films - have an influence, as well as comic books. Most SF and fantasy writers are nerds across other media as well. There is a generic set of "geek interests" which are getting more and more uniform and universal.

  3. For the Tolkien one that works well with a lot of Indie scene instead of task resolution mechanics. Traditional games like old school D&D are pretty terrible at running Tolkien since they always end up sliding into Vance, which they work far far far far better for. As good as Tolkien is it's almost a shame he became so popular in gaming circles as a lot of people (including me as a teen) wasted a long time trying to jam square pegs in round holes.

    Vance-style has the merit of being probably the easiest to translate into RPG mechanics, most of the others are harder to really get to work at the table for various reasons as the cool bits tend to get drowned out by the sort of behavior that it actually tactically useful when it comes to keeping your character alive, while with Vancian fights it's pretty easy to translate into RPG terms. Old School D&D combat can get pretty tedious if you try to jam it into one of the other modes though...

    1. Yes, I agree with all of that really. I think old school D&D combat CAN be good at running Tolkien if you think of the combat round as being 1 minute and hit points as being an abstract representation of combat-readiness encompassing physical and mental endurance. More on that in another post, perhaps.

  4. I really love Vance's descriptions of action-oriented scenes, especially in Lyonesse. Though another author I have a soft spot for is Eddings - especially when it comes to "high-level" character types in the Elenium/Tamuli.

    The real interesting point with Eddings is the pacing of the rare "knight vs. knight" fight: rather than a steady rain of blows, it comes across as studying each other, going for a maneuver, and then going back to studying. It comes across as very close to the sort of thing you get with two Lords going at it. In contrast, a fight involving knights vs. "normal men" is going to end very badly for latter.

    1. It has been so, so long since I have read anything by David Eddings. I must still have the Elenium and Tamuli somewhere but can't really remember the fights. Maybe I'll go back to them at some point.

  5. How about Moorcock? I want Moorcock. Why are you giggling?