2020, Writing Advice, Writing Fight Scenes

Regarding Fantasy Fighting Styles: Dashing, Dagger-Wielding Rogues

So, this was originally an answer I typed up on Quora in reply to someone’s question of, “How can I make a character that wields only daggers as good as other characters?” by Amanda Jakle

I enjoyed it so much I decided to share it here, too!

A couple of my favorite prop knives, with my hand for scale. While not as large as daggers, they are much smaller than swords, polearms, or any kind of mace or war-hammer.

Ooh, this is such a great question! Thank you so much for asking- I’m excited to dive into this!

So, this largely depends on the character and context, but what I’m about to go through will be more or less universal for any dagger-wielding rogue dashing enough to jump into battle. For the sake of this answer, I am going to assume that your rogue will be fighting well-equipped opponents. I’m going to call the dagger-wielder a female and her opponents male so the pronouns aren’t confusing, and because there are some parallels that can be drawn between a woman/rogue and a man/knight. You can adapt the circumstances accordingly, of course, but I, as a female, would experience many of the same physical challenges fighting against a male as a dagger-wielder would against her better-equipped opponents for the reasons below.

Although video games often make it seem otherwise (Skyrim and Assassin’s Creed, I’m looking at you, here), there are some very real differences in capabilities, physical requirements, and fighting style that come from wielding different weapons and wearing different armor- if any at all.

Dagger-wielders are going to be at a disadvantage for several reasons.

  1. Daggers have a very limited reach, meaning that your character will have to get up-close and personal with any opponent, which means a much higher risk of wounding or injury.
  2. Due to this inherent necessity for closing with the enemy, your character must be able to outmaneuver the enemy and slip under his guard. Thus, your character won’t be able to wear heavy armor that will slow her down. She’ll have agility on her side, but this will leave her lightly armored and quite vulnerable.
  3. The daggers themselves have little weight behind them. Unlike swords, polearms, and blunt weapons such as warhammers and maces, your character cannot depend on using the weapon’s own weight to build momentum behind a strike. She must therefore rely on her own strength of arm to help her cause damage. It will take more effort on her part to wound her opponent.
  4. The required agility for her fighting style, combined with having to use her own strength to cause the majority of damage, would be physically exhausting.

So, those would be just a few of the bad things about only wielding daggers. These would cause a rapid onset of physical exhaustion, leading to clumsiness, which would lead to your character getting hurt, and things would only deteriorate from there. Your character would be overcome rapidly by a better-armed and better-armored opponent.

(Keep in mind, I’m speaking from a normal human woman’s perspective. The same would be true for a normal human man, save that his stamina and upper-body strength would naturally be greater than that of a woman, and that is simple biological fact. You will obviously need to make adjustments in fighting style, etc. if your character is not human, is enhanced in some way, or anything else.)

Knives such as these would make good secondary weapons. Not so great for primary weapons.

The ways that a character might compensate for the weaknesses inherent in fighting only with daggers are only as limited as your character’s own ingenuity.

Here is how I would adapt in combat to give myself an edge over a bigger opponent with better arms and armor:

  1. Don’t enter into direct combat in the first place. As a woman, I have grown up knowing how to assess potential threats. Knowing when I would be physically outclassed is second nature to me. If I were to find myself in a physical struggle with someone better trained than I am, or who has greater strength than I do, I would go down fast. It would be better to do everything I possibly could either to avoid conflict with that person in the first place, or to extricate myself from that situation posthaste. Basically, GTFO ASAP.
  2. Use the environment to her advantage. Is there a barrel she can fling down to trip up her opponent? Is there a stand of trees she can shelter in where her opponent’s longer weapons will be ineffective or a hindrance? Can she escape into a bog or sewer, or someplace else where her enemy’s heavy armor will weigh him down, or where she can crawl into a space that his greater physical stature will prevent him from entering?
  3. Use her enemy’s body against him. Give your character some martial arts training that teaches her how to use an opponent’s momentum against him. This is one of the first things my father (a 10th degree blackbelt with 40 years of experience and training under said belt) taught me when he started teaching me martial arts. I learned how to take an opponent’s balance, throw his weight around, manipulate his joints, and so forth so that I could incapacitate him with minimal exertion on my part while causing maximum pain to him. Judo is a good discipline to draw from, and certain types of karate teach the same. I recommend Okinawan-school karate.
    1. Personal recommendation: Don’t ever look to Tae-Kwon-Do for efficient fighting styles for a rogue. It has its uses and strengths, but it’s too flashy. If your character is going up against opponents who are bigger, stronger, and better-equipped than she is, she will need a conservative style that will prioritize economy of motion. She needs to conserve her energy for the eventual moment when she either strikes or makes her escape.
  4. Wear him down. Have her be nimble enough to avoid his strikes and wear himself out before she can go in for a critical strike.
  5. Give her a working knowledge of all the body’s most vulnerable points, and have her expoit them. Yes. This means fighting dirty and slitting throats- and other things.
    1. She should learn the locations of the body’s major blood vessels. The jugular vein and carotid artery are located in the neck, but any armor-plated knight would know this vulnerability and protect himself with a gambeson or coif or even a hardened leather collar. The heart can be reached through the left armpit, if the knife is long enough and doesn’t get tangled in the ribs, and that’s also IF your character can get close enough to strike there- and IF her enemy gets careless enough to let her. The subclavian artery is located just below the collarbone, but that will of course be armored. The brachial artery is located on the inside of the upper arm, which is usually lightly armored, if at all. The femoral artery is located in the inner thigh, and also is usually lightly armored. Nicking or severing any of these blood vessels will result in fountains of bright-red blood (or slightly darker blood in the case of the jugular vein) and her enemy will bleed out within minutes.
    2. Yes, this also means throat-punches, face-scratching, nose-breaking, eyeball-gouging, kicks to the groin and instep, and throwing sand into his eyes. She’s fighting to survive, not to be fair.
  6. Your character should always aim to kill. She does NOT have the luxury of aiming to incapacitate. Doing so would be dangerous and a waste of energy, and most of the time an “I was only trying to incapacitate him” wound will turn fatal anyway from a misjudgment of aim, a worsening of the wound through further motion, or worse, a slow death from infection. An enemy is going to be trying to kill her, and a wounded enemy is a pissed-off enemy that can come back to try doubly hard to kill her later. The safer option, if less altruistic, is to aim to kill, and is more likely to result in your character’s continued survival.
  7. Have your character learn how to use different weapons. “Adapt and overcome.”A character who can’t (or won’t) adapt is a dead character. When she has a chance to use a ranged weapon, she should take it. A crossbow would be a good alternative- it takes minimal training to learn to use it, and if she has the strength to load it, she has a tool that can not only keep her enemy at greater distance (resulting in less potential injury to herself), but most war-crossbows were powerful enough and their bolts sturdy enough to pierce plate armor. If your character has the chance to keep an enemy at range rather than closing with him, she SHOULD ABSOLUTELY TAKE THAT CHANCE. Adapt and overcome.
  8. Give her other advantages such as stealth, poison, ambush/guerrilla tactics, and assassination skills. Have her coat her weapons in fast-acting poisons that will slow down, disorient, sicken, or paralyze her enemy. Whenever possible, she should attempt to sneak up on her opponent and take her time analyzing the weak points in his armor. Where are the gaps in his armor? Does he favor one side over the other? Does his armor cover any of the vulnerable spots I listed above? Can she hit him over the head with a rock and knock him out, thus avoiding fighting him directly? Can she sneak up behind him and slip a dagger between his ribs? She must play to her strengths as best she can and try to remove any advantages that her opponent may have.
  9. She should carry smoke bombs, knockout gas, pepper bombs, or flash-grenades at all times. If your character finds herself surrounded, she stands absolutely zero chance of fighting her opponents and making it out alive. It is better just to GTFO and live to fight another day than dying hopelessly outnumbered and outclassed.

TL;DR: A character relying strictly on daggers as weapons is at a terrible disadvantage on all fronts. Fight smarter, not harder. Adapt and overcome. And for Pete’s sake, learn how to use weapons other than daggers in a pinch.

Thanks for asking this awesome question! This was an excellent mental exercise, and I really enjoyed thinking it through.

I hope this helps! Good luck writing this character- it sounds like an interesting challenge!

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