I have a love/hate relationship with fight scenes. I love to include them, but I hate to write them. I think it’s a hatred born of my time as a Storyteller at LARP, where on occasion we would have to try to manage fight scenes with 50+ characters. Everyone wanted to be involved in the action, and they wanted your attention right now. Thankfully when writing you only have to argue with the voices in your head, and perhaps your editor.
There are a few basics to keep in mind when writing fights. There’s a simple rhythm to it: action and reaction. If your hero throws a punch, his opponent will try to dodge it. In order to gain ground, someone has to lose it—like ballroom dancing, where one partner steps forward while the other steps back. I’ve learned a lot about the mechanics of fights from gaming. For example, in a video game such as World of Warcraft, a ring will appear when my warlock attempts to cast an area-of-effect spell, showing me where my damage will rain down holy hellfire on anything within it. I need to position that ring for the maximum effect, and that can be difficult, because you often can’t fit every monster inside of it.
This goes back to my discussion on the rules of magic. You need to know the limits of your character’s abilities. If she wants to cast a fireball, she knows that it will only hit a certain area, so she needs to be aware of where to throw it to maximize its effectiveness. Trying to plot that out in your head can be tricky when you’re adding in more variables like additional characters, their abilities, bystanders, the bad guys, and their abilities. In a RPG like Dungeons and Dragons players often use maps and figurines as a physical representation of their adventure. Below is a photo of a few of my husband’s figs arrayed on a grid map. Each space on the map equals 5 feet, so this allows a player to figure out how far he can move, how far the bad guys can move, how many of them will be affected by his spell, and so on.
(Yes, that is Raistlin Majere about to unleash hell upon that dragon, bonus points for noticing that.) But unless you are a geek yourself or you married one, you probably don’t have these things lying around the house to help you with your fight scene. Thus I bring you…Samhain Duckie versus the Evil Peep Army! (Yes, he is wearing a wizard hat, and apparently blue wizard needs Nutella badly.) These examples should help illustrate how taking a few minutes to set up a physical model can help you decide who does what to who in your fight scene, and how it plays out from beginning to end. Or it'll just be silly and vaguely entertaining. Either way, he looks cute in his hat.
Area of Effect and Position Bonuses
As I mentioned earlier, some spells, like fireballs, will affect an entire area. This is also true for other types of explosive damage like grenades. From his vantage atop the castle wall, Wizard Duckie can easily wipe out the Evil Peeps in one shot because they’re grouped together. His spot on the wall also gives him a tactical advantage—you always want the high ground, and your characters should try to get it if possible. From here he can attack them with his ranged spells, but the Peeps have melee weapons, and if they want to fight Wizard Duckie, they have to storm the castle.
Here Wizard Duckie has come down from the wall and prepares to face off with the Peeps in melee combat. Wizard Duckie has partial cover: by hiding behind the Nutella jar, he is harder to spot and harder to hit with a ranged attack like a spell or arrow. No matter how brave or overconfident your hero may be, it's always good to get some sort of cover if he's under attack. Also, though Peeps 1 and 2 can see him, Peep 3 can’t, giving Wizard Duckie full cover from Peep 3. Thus Peep 3 can’t attack him, but our wizard also can’t attack Peep 3. He could, however, cast a fireball that would hit Peeps 1 and 2. If he hid completely behind the Nutella Jar, he would have full cover from all three.
Dodge, Parry and Flanking Attackers
Mortal Kombat! Here Wizard Duckie is surrounded. He can engage the Peeps in front of him, with a chance to dodge and/or parry their attacks. Peep 3 is flanking him. Because he can’t see Peep 3, Peep 3 gets bonuses to attacking him. Nobody wants to be flanked. If you’re looking for a way to knock out your characters, this is a good way to do it. Rogues usually attack this way, burying their blades in your character’s kidneys before you can say “I took how much damage?!” Occasionally in movies you’ll see the hero managing to parry the attack of the person behind him, like “aha! I block your sword with my sword even though I didn’t know you were there, because I am just that good!” So yes, it’s been done, but I don’t recommend it. Remember, just because your characters are fighting throwaway minions who won't make it into the next scene doesn't mean that those minions won't try to take every tactical advantage they can get. Those minions want to live, even though you're going to kill them.
Charging and Attacks of Opportunity
In this scenario, the Evil Peeps stand between Wizard Duckie and the castle. To get to the castle, he’s going to have to get past them. He can break left or right, but they’ll get a swing at him as he goes by because he’ll pass through their threat area. This is the area around a character that they can reach without taking more than a step. Imagine you’re playing tag, and you have to run past the person who is It. They’re going to make a grab for you as you go by. The same goes for a fight scene. If you come close enough to reach, the bad guys are going to grab at you. Wizard duckie could charge the Peeps here, rushing them, but they’re going to swing at him when he does. He might whup them, or they might smack him down before he can take a second swing. It's often tempting just to bypass minions like these when writing a fight, because you just want to get your character from point A to point B, but the minions deserve to get at least a swing in, since you put them in there in the first place.
So those are a few fight scene basics. I hope Samhain Duckie has shown you the benefits of setting up a fight scene to help you work it out. Or if nothing else that you found him amusing. ;) Next week concludes the Storyteller extravaganza, and we will spin the Wheel of Morality and see what we’ve learned from all of this. (A special thank you goes out to my husband for helping with Samhain Duckie’s photo shoot.)