Insider 7-18-2011

One of the best things about working for a gaming company is sometimes your nerdy hobbies can offer you better insight into certain aspects of your job. Recently, I had an opportunity to put my love of full-contact medieval recreational sports (SCA, Belegarth, etc.) to work while I was working on WARMACHINE: Wrath.

I love to write combat scenes, and I especially like to write detailed, blow-by-blow combat scenes that involve melee weapons. Having done the SCA thing for so many years, I have a pretty good understanding of what melee combat is supposed to look, sound, and most of all, feel like. To me the little details of a combat scene are critically important. When I read or write one, there are certain questions I want answered. What types of weapons are the fighters using? How do those weapons dictate the fighting style of each combatant? What do those weapons do when they land a blow—do they hack, slash, or crunch? And so on.

To give you an example of what I’m talking about, take a look at the following short scene I wrote in WARMACHINE: Wrath:

Despite his bulk, Harkevich moved adroitly over rubble and corpses toward the charging bastion. The bastion’s halberd had considerable reach, far more than even Harkevich’s long-hafted battle mace. The warcaster spun away from the great steel blade as the Protectorate soldier lunged forward, obviously expecting a slower, clumsier opponent. Harkevich’s spin carried him past the bastion’s guard and allowed him to bring Minister around in a two-handed blow. Bolstered by Harkevich’s focused will and the steam-driven strength of his warcaster armor, the voltaic battle mace struck the bastion’s heavy breastplate like a battering ram. The armor and the frail flesh inside it crumpled. Broken but still alive, the bastion struggled to regain his feet, but Harkevich brought Minister down in an overhand blow, smashing the soldier’s helmet and skull with brutal finality.

Remarkably enough, the scene I described here is a matchup I’ve actually fought—mace versus halberd—so when writing this scene I drew on that personal experience. First, you’ll notice that Harkevich does not give ground, circle around his foe, or attempt to “fence” with the bastion. The reason for this is very simple. When faced with an opponent with a longer reach, you want to make him fight at the range of your weapon, not his own. Otherwise, you’re playing his game and you’ll likely end up dead—especially if your opponent is even passingly familiar with where the pointy end goes. So, like the battle-hardened veteran he is, Harkevich moves forward to engage his foe.

For the next part of the scene, I again drew from my own SCA battles. I knew once you get past a halberd’s head (or any polearm, for that matter) its wielder is all but defenseless. He usually doesn’t have the room or the speed to pull that big weapon back, and he’s typically forced to back-pedal, which is pretty much instant doom in a fight. When I was fighting in the SCA I had a shield, which I would use to slap the point of a polearm away so I could charge in and smack my opponent upside the head with my mace (a “mace” in the SCA being a cored-out softball attached to a rattan haft). Obviously, Harkevich is a stone-cold badass and doesn’t need any more protections than what his warcaster armor provides, but his spin accomplishes the same thing as my shield: it gets him past the head of the halberd. Once the Iron Wolf is inside the bastion’s guard, it’s all over but the cryin’ for the poor Protectorate soldier. Crunch goes Minister, and crumple goes the bastion’s armor, bones, and skull.

While being slavishly devoted to real-world combat doesn’t always work when writing a combat scene in the Iron Kingdoms, the basic steps of melee are still there. They serve as your foundation, and all the stuff that makes the Iron Kingdoms awesome—magic, warcaster armor, mechanikal weapons, and so on—is there to enhance the action. In my mind, warriors in the Iron Kingdoms use the same fighting stances and techniques you’d see throughout real-world history. And why not? Those things work. In the Iron Kingdoms, though, those same stances and techniques are just that much better when driven by steam-powered mechanika, bolstered by enchanted weapons, or enhanced by spells, feats, and animi.

In short, writing that blow-by-blow combat that I love so much is already a lot of fun, but getting to write it in the Iron Kingdoms . . . That’s just fun covered in win, with a side of awesome.