Question(s) of the Week: Fantasy Fight Scenes

Tyler Walpole sets Oparal and Bastiel against Radovan.

Tyler Walpole sets Oparal and Bastiel against Radovan.

How do you like your fantasy action scenes?

Do they always have to be fights? What was the last great chase scene you read? What other action scenes can be as exciting as a fight?

Do you prefer the detailed blow-by-blow or the quick, impressionistic approach?

Is it important to you to see the grim effects of violence, or do you prefer a swashbuckling style?

When magic is part of the action, do you want to know the rules of the system in advance, or do you prefer it mysterious and unexplained?

How much action is too much, and how much isn’t enough?


4 thoughts on “Question(s) of the Week: Fantasy Fight Scenes

  1. Fights are different than chases, or infiltrations (another similar trope) but they are fun! They don’t need to be in a story– all thieves, Ocean’s Eleven– but when they are, I like them. I was talking about this with my wife after seeing Thor. The Marvel movies are more cartoonish with their violence, but the repercussions of that violence are real; people get hurt, or get PTSD, from meeting a god. DC movies on the other hand are just gritty without context; that “trying too hard” desperation I dislike.

    Magic should always be mysterious; you’ve done a clever thing using the magic systems of Pathfinder to be the character’s ways of understanding magic; you walk the line of nodding toward the game while not getting trapped by it.

  2. I’d definitely fall among those who prefer the quick and impressionistic – if nothing else because that’s what being in one is like (or a football-match grown a little too heated) – or maybe something in the middle.

    Nothing bores me more than the blow-by-blow kind of writing you get in, for instance, the early Driz’zt novels – I think the only fight scenes that go into detail like that I’ve actually enjoyed are the fencing scenes in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, and that’s because rather than describing the moves, we’re told their names as the characters make them, and a name like “Heron Wades in the Rushes” doesn’t really mean anything, so I can supply my own imagining to them; making it more impressionistic again, despite occasionally going on for two or three pages.

    The best written fight scene, in my opinion, is the Musketeers vs Cardinal’s Guard fight early on in The Three Musketeers – you get quite a bit of detail of d’Artagnan’s battle against Jussac, quick mentions about the other three (Athos is nursing a wounded shoulder and is having to fight left-handed, if memory serves, and is having a hard time because of that), then back to d’Artagnan and how he beats his foe and can come to the aid of his hard-pressed friend, and quick mentions of how Porthos and Aramis defeats their opponents.

  3. I like action that keeps the story going at a good clip, that pushes the narrative forward rather than fills pages. I do like to see a mix of different kinds of action scenes in a book. A chase, an epic battle in an interesting location (where the terrain has an effect on the fight). The fight should be informed by the rules but not beholden to them.

    I mean, I get bored when the story has too much in the way of talking heads. Explanations can be garnered via context (He grabbed that idol, it must be important! Stop him!). But conflict takes many shapes eg:

    A character stuck in a slow but deadly trap, his companion can disable the trap but not until he gets some manner of confession. Tense, also possibly comedic.

    Trying to do anything underwater, completely out of most people’s element. Especially when someone should have cast water breathing first.

    Riddles in the dark was a great conflict and there wasn’t a single buckle swashed.

    Multiple factions hiding from something big enough and scary enough to kill everyone, both sides trying to divert its attention to the other.

    Hmm, I’m starting to realize that I like tension before the explosion of action.

  4. There’s a place for gritty detail, like someone trying to stuff their intestines back in, or somebody taking an hour and a half to die a slow agonizing death from a gut-wound, but I don’t care to read that sort of stuff. More Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser, for me, where bad guys kind of fall off-screen after being stabbed, and anybody who fell down as the grace to be quietly dead immediately, and not moan in pain or cry to their gods or whatever.

    As for the more mechanical detail of the moves and counter moves, I wouldn’t want them for every fight, and ‘mooks’ should just get stabbed and fall down, but for the big fights with the big threats, descriptions of parrying with one weapon while thrusting with another, or feints, or counters, or the impact of the giants club on your shield causing it to splinter and your entire shoulder to go numb from the force of it, all good stuff. The detail should be in service to the plot and the narrative and the feel being sought, so, if the fight is supposed to be a nail-biter, then descriptions of near misses, or of injuries weighing down the protagonist, or of a weapon getting fouled up or a hand slippery with blood from another injury making a strike uncertain, then yeah, that’s all important to the drama of the moment. If it’s not important, then ‘stab’ and ‘the goblin falls, to be replaced almost immediately by two more’ and done.

    For magic, if it’s a story based on a system that *has* mechanics, such as D&D or Pathfinder, then I’d prefer if the spells followed those rules. If not, then I’d prefer that they follow their own internally consistent guidelines (so that if the hero can do X, and has been shown doing X, I don’t want to see him constantly struggling with challenges that he could *easily* overcome in later books by just doing X, which he’s clearly been shown to be able to do in previous books). For readers not familiar with whatever system is being used, some level of detail should exist. ‘Throwing a fireball’ doesn’t mean 33,000 cubic ft. of flame to someone who plays GURPS, or plays no RPGs at all and got their idea of what a ‘fireball’ is from reading Madwand, it could mean ‘he creates a tiny ball of fire in his hand and throws it at a single person, who may then catch on fire.’ So some level of descriptiveness is definitely warranted there, and is a great chance to put some ‘magic’ back in the spells of a game system that tends to ignore descriptive flavor and just present ‘magic’ as a series of mechanical effects with no real ‘magic’ to them.

    So, describing the bog-standard ‘fireball’ as wrenching open a portal to a plane of endless fire and allowing it to bleed over into our world for a second, presenting hellish glimpses of vast creatures composed of magma turning at this unwelcome intrusion into their world, could be more ‘evocative’ than just ‘fireball. woosh.’ Similarly, the spellcaster seeing it as millions of dancing motes of air in the target area spinning *just so* and momentarily transforming / agitating into open flame (and the natural world resisting this transformation, so that it almost immediately ‘resets’ to become air again, the fire vanishing a second later, as unnaturally as it appeared in the first place), could be another way of presenting it (with less of a planar flavor), and make it feel more alchemical and mysterious and magical.

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