doctor alan grant

Simultaneous Action, Writing 1vX combat

“But no, not Velociraptor. You stare at him, and he just stares right back. And that’s when the attack comes. Not from the front, but from the side, from the other two raptors you didn’t even know were there. Because Velociraptor’s a pack hunter, you see, he uses coordinated attack patterns and he is out in force today.” – Doctor Alan Grant, Jurassic Park

You may think that using a quote from Jurassic Park about raptors to discuss writing when fighting groups of individuals is strange. However, for all the talk of lone wolves, humans are pack animals. They are very capable of working together, even those who have never been trained, to overwhelm through even haphazardly coordinated action. The better the group of opponents are, the more practice they have at working together, then the more dangerous they will be.

There isn’t a “level limit” like in video games in real combat, and there really isn’t for dealing with groups of enemies. In movies and television (which follows into books and other media, then vice versa), we fall prey to the trait of the “most badass stands alone”. A single individual facing multiple people is challenging, even when those enemies don’t know anything about fighting.
Groups bring: Communication, coordination, tactics, strategy, and the ability to limit movement. They come together, use each other as distractions, circle, and come at angles that you can’t defend yourself well from. It gets worse when they know the terrain and can use the environment to their advantage.

Much like fighting groups in real life, writing groups is actually a very difficult endeavor because of those qualities. It’s probably one of the most difficult aspects of writing fight sequences and the easiest to botch. Whether you’re writing semi-realistic fiction or combat with magical/super powered elements, there are some things that are commonly forgotten.

The action is fast, it comes in multiples, and is nearly simultaneous. Take this example below:

Dirthara reappeared, lunging toward her. Her feet blurred on the on the ground, magic pumping through her legs. Both blades drawn back, she swung in low.

Eirwen flicked her sword up, catching Dirthara’s first strike along the edge of her blade. She knocked it away. The deadened trails of their energy filtered through her. The second blow would come toward her ribs. No.

This was wrong.

Behind!

Blade tip rotating, she flung Dirthara’s second blade up and threw herself sideways.

Revas spun past her. Blades wheeling in a dizzying spiral around his body, he shot through Dirthara. Black tendrils dripped from their edges as a dark shadow lengthened out across the stone behind him.

Unharmed, Dirthara straightened. Holding her blades out before her, one high beside her cheek and the other low before her chest, she resettled into a deep stance. The right foot extended, it pointed directly toward Eirwen. The back lifted onto the ball, turned on a slight angle.

Slowing, Revas also stood. The blades in his hands parallel to the ground. His head swung. Blonde hair drifting across his forehead, the long nose of his profile clear and distinct under the moon’s light. The curving tendrils of his tattoos shone brightly on his cheek as a single, visible, blue eye narrowed.

Behind them, Fals remained motionless.

“Well,” Eirwen muttered. I can’t afford to be defensive. She stepped back, turning sideways as she leaned on her rear leg. Left hand secure on her hilt and the right on the pommel, she lifted it until the blade until it was nearly perpendicular to her cheek. And I can’t afford to be offensive. “This will be tricky.”

I wrote this while messing around with more Anime-esque combat and it’s not really accurate for conventional confrontations, but this is essentially the principle. Attacks are coordinated, enemies will circle if they can and they’ll come from multiple angles. If you’re choosing to have the character stand in fight, then the one in the 1vX is going to be primarily on the defensive. They’ll be ducking and dodging, blocking and pushing, trying to control their terrain, keep all their enemies in front of them. It’s a lot like juggling, they’ve got to keep all the balls in the air or they’re dead.

This means that you as the writer can’t focus on any single opponent, but you can’t afford to waste time either. One of the biggest failures of a 1vX scene is queuing like you see stuntmen do in the movies. The author will focus all their attention on one opponent or they’ll assume that a single hit will be enough to take someone out. It won’t.

It’s true that you want to take out the X number of opponents very quickly, but you can’t just stand around trading blows. You must keep the defending character moving. A character can only afford a few hits at a time, they have to create their own openings through delaying tactics and by forcing their opponents to fight each other.

The ground shook beneath her feet. Fals brought the hammer down, shattering the stone ahead of him into a few hundred tiny pieces. Some fell into the gaping hole. Others floated up, caught in the pull of Myrian’ magic.

Shit! He’s bringing this platform down.

She jumped back, letting Dirthara sail past her. Her body twisting in time to catch the edge of Revas’ spinning blades with her sword, she levered hers up and slid out of the way in a spray of sparks. Heel skidding across the rock as she spun out.

Foot catching on the stone, Revas’ ankle rotated about, and his whole body whirled back. Racing toward her with stomach nearly parallel to the ground, he came in low. The tip of his left blade swung toward her middle.

She shot forward and, instead of letting their blades meet, passed through his body. Landing behind him, she let her gaze rise to the stones ripping up out of the ground. Dirthara’s energy was on a rapid approach from her right. Felas’ hammer was coming down again. That one. Another hit and the whole platform would fall.

Sheathing her sword, Eirwen raced across the fracturing ground. Her index and middle fingers flicked down. Magic flooded them. Cutting between the rising shards, hopping off the stones that gave way beneath her feet, she leaped over the gap protecting Fals with the other two hot on her heels.
Tethers from her mind flung out, spearing down through Myrian’ control to hook into his brain. She seized them with mental fingers and hauled him up short.

Stop.

Eirwen landed, crouched atop his war hammer. It hovered just centimeters off the ground, utterly still. Her eyes snapped up just in time to see his widen. A faint smile curved her lips and she launched upward. Palm slamming down on his helmet, she twisted over his head. Magic flowed down off her fingers, embedding itself on the inscribed runes in his armor. She hit the ground on the other side and cranked her knee to her chest, slamming her foot into the small of his back.

“Sorry, friend,” she said. “This is where you get off.”

Fals stumbled forward, head turning in time for her to register his surprise.
Her fingers flicked out, eyes narrowing as the magic she’d left behind sank into the runes. Three, two… Her smile widened.

His armor buckled.

One.

Exploding outward in a dizzying blast of blue, Fals cried out. As fire licked up his body, his voice rose to an eerie scream. The magic ate away at his skin, cracking down his exposed arms, his eyes burning with white flames. His hammer fell to the loose ground and the rock beneath his feet gave way.
Fals dropped, vanishing from sight as he plummeted toward the icy mountains below.

Dirthara leaped over him. Legs a blur, she landed on a surviving piece of the platform and flung herself forward with a maddened scream. Wicked daggers gleamed in the moon’s red light.

Eirwen brought her hands up, blue rippling over her shoulders.

Revas lunged from the shadows behind her, winged blades whirling toward her spine in another deadly spiral.

The ground rolled and rocked beneath Eirwen’s feet, disappearing as quickly as Dirthara advanced.

We’re going down.

Focusing on one of the larger floating pieces of stone overhead, Eirwen closed her eyes.

Revas spun through her ghostly shape, leaving a cold shiver as he went.

With a sharp inhale, she disappeared as the ground fell away beneath her.

Reappearing, her feet dropped lightly onto a much smaller piece of rock. Large enough for one. A hot burn spiked her center. Hand clenching over her chest, she dropped to her knees. Can’t expect that to work too many more times.

Teeth sank into her lower lip and she bit down, blood welling on her lower lip. Swallowing, she sat up. Her fist tightened on her chest. She let it go, forcing the pain to recede.

Below, the first of Myrian’ platforms crumbled. Great pieces of granite tumbling down to crash into the distant, smoking ground. Other pieces, more structurally sound pieces, were rising. On them, Dirthara and Revas stood. Their eyes locked on her.

Well, she sighed, left hand settling on her sword hilt. It’s not like I expected that to stop them.

Overhead, the battlefield restructured itself. New platforms populated the air, held together by winding silver staircases. Among them, Myrian’ disk had grown wider as he ripped more and more pieces of the temple out of the ground below.

It’d be an easier to fight if she managed to land on any of them.
That’s quite a long way up, though.

Simple short range teleportation, even the advanced form she’d recovered through her memories was not enough to cover such a distance.

I’ll have to outrun them.

Below, Dirthara and Revas had begun to move. Leaping from one floating rock to the next as they made their way toward her position.

The chances of that? Unlikely.

Eirwen smiled and freed her sword from its sheath.

Only one path left, I suppose.

Green fire rippled along its edges, tiny runes lighting beneath the cross-guard as they raced down the length of the blade. Her right hand extended out and the rune embedded in her palm crackled. A thin circle of green energy appeared beneath her fingers. It spun, rotating around and around as heat simmered on her skin.

She leaned off the edge, focusing the primary portion of her magic into her feet.

Then, Eirwen flung the chakram down and dove after it.

So, how do you do it?

Writing a 1vX is like juggling, you have to bounce between characters. You can’t have the character stop and duke it out with one guy and ignore everyone else.  They have enough time to land one hit, which is unlikely to be permanent, and continue to fight so they can create openings. Even when fighting with a plan to kill, this is difficult because multiple enemies working in tandem have way more options than a single character working alone.

It’s a race against time.

As combat goes on, we get more tired and, as we get more tired, we begin to make mistakes. You’re at your best when you’re fresh. The more energy that gets expended now means that less will be on the table for later. The defending character can’t expend too much energy on any one person because it means they won’t have that energy for the others that are still fresh. A group can share the burden of the expended energy, an individual can’t.

1vX group combat is interesting because it forces the character to start making new and different choices, immediate choices based on their survival. If there’s yet another enemy waiting in the wings, then those choices get even harder. The character must finish them or provide themselves with some means of escape before they become too exhausted.

They must be flawless. Every hit they take is dangerous, because all openings in the defense will be exploited. Every attack they make when they open up their defense must count (and it might not), they must pick their targets carefully, and constantly remain on the move or find a more easily defensible position so that they’re harder to get to.

Control the field.

A character who lets multiple enemies do their thing in a 1vX is lost. Being surrounded means having portions of your body that are left open. You can’t really just stand and fight.

Prioritize the enemies.

The character has to pick their targets for who they’re going after first. It’s easy to be overwhelmed, but they need to start looking for where the threat is and go after those. The enemy which gets prioritized may not be the most dangerous. Even if they’re just faceless mooks, when it comes to creating a clear picture it’s easier if you name them. They don’t have to be their usual names: “the big guy”, “the short one”, “the blonde with blue eyes”, “the guy with nice teeth”, “Frizzy hair”, “Seahawk’s jersey”, etc.

In the above example, Eirwen prioritizes Fals because he’s attacking the terrain while the other two distract her. If she stopped to finish her fight Revas and Dirthara, then she wouldn’t be able to control when the platform went down. Fals was the least dangerous of the three overall, but the most dangerous in the moment. By getting rid of him, she could focus on the other two.

Emphasize teamwork.

If you’re writing combatants who are supposed to be good at what they do, then they need to be using teamwork. Dirthara and Revas come one right after the other, nearly simultaneously, while Fals focuses on bringing the platform down. They’re working together as a distraction to keep Eirwen off balance (if they kill her in the meantime, it’s all good) while Fals destroys the ground they’re on so they all tumble to their deaths.

Punish them for using the same tactic over and over.

Change up the routine. You want to create an adaptive environment, one where the enemy observes and responds to what a character is doing while their fighting. Counters are a huge deal in combat. The main way they’re developed is by witnessing how a technique works, then working out a means to disrupt or stop it. If your character is using a “signature” move, it won’t be signature for very long. Besides, forcing a character to change their battle tactics when they’ve gotten too comfortable is an excellent exercise for the writer who has also gotten too comfortable.

If you start thinking a character is unbeatable, then change the routine. You don’t need MOAR POWER, but what you do need is creativity and characters that are focused on problem solving. See one technique enough times and the game starts to change, the enemy starts figuring the character out. Change or die.

-Michi

We’ve talked about a single individual combating groups before:

Fight Scene Strategies: the Individual versus the Group

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