Monday, April 02, 2012

Of Combat Acrobatics and Not-So-Frustrated Novelists

While doing research for the sort of project that will never see the light of day, I came across this comment from R.A. Salvatore regarding fight scenes:

It seems to me that fight scenes used to be vague descriptions of the chaos happening around a major character or characters, who were often more interested in accomplishing something within the context of the fight rather than winning the fight itself. Even 30 years ago, I remember reading Terry Brooks's excellent Wishsong of Shannara. I love that book and adored the character of Garet Jax. In the climactic scene for that character, Garet Jax battles a demon. The fight starts, Terry cuts away, and we come back to see the result. Not the fight, but the result. This is tradition. Go back to Homer and Virgil--they don't describe the fights in actual terms, but in symbolic and grand gestures.

So why did it change? Partly, I think it's got to do with the amazing choreography in movies like The Princess Bride.

I think Mr. Salvatore overstates the case a bit, but he does have a point. Take, for example, this famous fight by Dumas, in which D’Artagnan first draws sword alongside the three musketeers:

This contest at length exhausted Jussac’s patience. Furious at being held in check by one whom he had considered a boy, he became warm and began to make mistakes. D’Artagnan, who though wanting in practice had a sound theory, redoubled his agility. Jussac, anxious to put an end to this, springing forward, aimed a terrible thrust at his adversary, but the latter parried it; and while Jussac was recovering himself, glided like a serpent beneath his blade, and passed his sword through his body.

Jussac fell like a dead mass.

It’s not quite the cut-away that Mr. Salvatore describes, but neither is it the detailed recitation of every thrust and parry, every feint and stratagem, every step of the “dance” as Mr. Salvatore calls it. Here's an example of a more modern fight scene from the novel Tiassa by Steven Brust, a noted fan of Dumas' rather droll style:

I pulled a knife from each boot and tossed them underhanded at the two in front of me--one missed, the other poked a guy in the side; both of them flinched. I drew my blade and slashed the nearest, ruining his pretty face, which gave me time to skewer the other in the middle of his body. He dropped his lepip and doubled over; must have gotten a good spot. I slashed at the first again, but missed as he fell backward.

I took the opportunity to turn around, which was just as well; one of them had gotten past Loiosh and was coming at me. I didn't like the idea of his heavy lepip against my little rapier, so I pulled three shuriken from inside my cloak and sent them in his direction. One shuriken scratched his forehead, one missed, and the last almost clipped Loiosh's wing where he was tagging around the other one's head.



And I’m willing to go along with his thesis blaming the movies. Consider this flash of blades, the ring of steel-on-steel, but it’s not easy to tell what’s going on, or why Captain Blood won the fight. A few years later, we get the same duo dueling in "The Adventures of Robin Hood".

(Seriously, follow the links. It's fun stuff. I'd have embedded, but apparently it was disabled for both of them.)

Again, the swift and ringing swordplay is difficult to follow with the eye, but in the end, it’s clear what happened: the fiendish Sir Guy cheated, drawing his dagger to get a sneak-attack on poor Robin, and, thus proving his villainy beyond any shadow of doubt, was slain!

Now, compare that to this:

Aragorn gets a brief burst of flashing blade near the end, but for the most part, this fight is all about special moves and impacts. This is a post Rocky IV/Die Hard movie, where the hero takes a pounding, but stays on his feet to win in the end. The hero proves his right to victory by sheer stubborn endurance.

And notice how slow and big the moves are. Even with the editing to add a sense of speed and danger, it’s easy to see what each of them is doing with their weapon, what part of the body they’re aiming for, the results of every swing and thrust. It’s all about the big moves, the sudden reversals, the equipment, and the moments of impact.

The comparison to D&D style combat is obvious. TSR-era D&D has its 10 second and 1 minute combat rounds, the action is vague with the clash of steel, and the sudden end to the fight. One moment, both combatants are fighting to their utmost; the next, one of them is dead.

Meanwhile, 4e is about the slow whittling of resources: healing surges, daily powers, action points; special individual moves like “Fury of the Sirocco” and “Cloud of Steel.” There are even mid-fight transformations to the combat in the form of the “blooded” status. The fights are less climaxes to slowly rising action and more events in and of themselves, sometimes with nary a preamble.

I don’t expect 5e to do much to reverse this trend, but it’ll be interesting to see what they do with it. The 4e/”modern” style combat requires more time, more resource tracking, and more granularity to pull off. The reward is really detailed combats. Getting the latter without the former would be an interesting trick to pull off.

UPDATE: 8/8/2019 A more literary analysis over at Monsters and Manuals on this topic.


Unknown said...

It's interesting, because you really can't get away with the "cutting away from combat" technique in film. Consider the howls of rage that eminated from numerous homes during the 3rd season finale of Heroes, where Peter and Nathan engage in the battle royale with Sylar, while the audience is treated to colorful reflections in Claire's eye as it looks through the keyhole. Was it an interesting scene, sure, but it wasn't what the audience wanted. To be honest, I'm not sure how much of that has leaked into print media, how much is our societal desire for more and more realism, even within our escapist fantasies, and how much of it is authors padding their page count.

Roger G-S said...

You beat me to it. After my comments on the disconnect between high level D&D combat grinding and its literary sources I was going to point out the tendency to write extended fight scenes into post-D&D literature and point out several grinding combats in the Game of Thrones saga for example.

Your film example nails it. I can't prove it, but I firmly believe that D&D combat (possibly filtered through its CRPG heirs) is responsible.

Though yeah, "padding their page count" is a possible alternate explanation.

Anonymous said...

You should read a bit about Basil Rathbone as well if you haven't already.

Military Cross for Bravery. He was also a fencing champion. Another great fight he did was in the comedy The Court Jester, where he parodies the fights you showed!


Alex Osias said...

I'd like to also throw in the works of Arturo Perez y Reverte: The Fencing Master and the series of Alatriste novels (which were Dumas-inspired, of course) as examples of detailed combat descriptions.

Aos said...

Many REH stories have pretty detailed fights,as do some of the works of Leiber.

Philo Pharynx said...

Movie fighting has to be big and bold. Most real sword fights don't look nearly as good on the screen. The moves are more contained, the blows look repetitive to the untrained observer, there are points where nobody actually attacks - they are jockeying ofr position and testing their opponents. Movie fighting also developed from Stage fighting where they needed to be big so that people in the cheap seats could follow the action.

trollsmyth said...

purestrainhuman: Cutting to black is absolutely verboten in modern fantasy writing, and has been for quite some time.

What's interesting is how often the greats did that. Tolkien, for instance, was notorious for drawing the curtain across scenes of violence (Bilbo being KOed by a tossed stone at the Battle of Five Armies, for instance).

trollsmyth said...

Roger the GS: Possibly, but so is the simple need to top yesteryear's fights. Compare the Captain Blood fight, with it's duel on a beach and threat of slippery rocks, to the Robin Hood fight, up and down stairs, falling candelabra, the shadow-fight, the army clashing behind them at the end. Compare the "Troy" fight I linked in the post to the brutal but (by comparison) rather flat-footed Battle of the Mounds from "Conan the Barbarian." It's always got to be bigger and better and more epic than last time.

Which makes me wonder what they're going to do for "The Hobbit." Sure, there's nothing like Smaug in the LotR, but the Battle of Five Armies isn't quite the siege of Minis Tirith.

trollsmyth said...

Anonymous: I'm a huge Danny Kaye fan, so yeah, "The Court Jester" is regular viewing around the trollcave. :D

trollsmyth said...

Alexander Osias: I have yet to read those, but I've heard really good things about them.

trollsmyth said...

Aos: I was thinking the same thing, though I was hesitant to say so, uncertain if what I remembered was Howard or de Camp. So I took a look, and I think Howard can clearly be seen as a mid-point between Dumas and the modern writer:

Murilo saw that the barbarian had locked his legs about the apeman's torso, and was striving to maintain his position on the monster's back, while he butchered it with his poniard. Thak, on the other hand, was striving to dislodge his clinging foe, to drag him around within reach of the giant fangs that gaped for his flesh. In a whirlwind of blows and scarlet tatters they rolled along the corridor, revolving so swiftly that Murilo dared not use the chair he had caught up, lest he strike the Cimmerian. And he saw that in spite of the handicap of Conan's first hold, and the voluminous robe that lashed and wrapped about the apeman's limbs and body, Thak's giant strength was swiftly prevailing. Inexorably he was dragging the Cimmerian around in front of him.

- Rogues in the House

JB said...

Roger Zelazny's excellent Amber series is masterful in its understatement of "fight details" while still telling a colorful, action-packed story.

I think multiple media sources (including the still images of comic books) can be considered as contributing to the stew. Unfortunately, trying to translate this detail into an RPG is not (in my opinion) very effective at I was writing about earlier today.