How to Make Aliens and Robots Fight Better

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From SWFA:

Human martial arts styles are biased: they’re specifically designed to fight other humans. Of course, watching Neo trade Kung Fu blows with Agent Smith is awesome, but perhaps our focus on human fighting systems in sci-fi affects our imagining of alien/robot bodies. Put simply, it makes composing fight scenes easier. By designing human-shaped Chitauri, we can then storyboard the stupendous Battle of New York with relative ease: a human Avenger like Black Widow can use the same techniques against a Chitauri that she’d use against the average street thug.

The prevalence of human-to-humanlike alien combat in sci-fi has even been lampooned in Star Trek: Lower Decks, where First Officer Jack Ransom needs only his barrel roll and double-handed swinging-fist to throw down–good-natured pokes at the limited repertoire Captain Kirk demonstrates when fighting an anthropomorphic Gorn (TOS, “Arena”) Yet people in the speculative fiction galaxy aren’t cookie-cutter humanoid, and their fighting styles shouldn’t be either.

Enter: Spec-Fic-Fu—the art of using martial philosophy to create enhanced sci-fi battles.

Primary Targets

First, consider an attacker’s primary targets. What must be protected? What should be attacked? Do your alien characters have the equivalent of Kung Fu paralysis points? Is your robot’s CPU located in its abdomen, making that a primary area to attack?

Breaking a human’s nose makes the eyes water, compromising vision and fighting effectiveness. Breaking a person’s xiphoid process could cause internal bleeding—death. 

Imagine a Klingon dueling a Starship Troopers arachnid. The bug bashes the Klingon’s nose! But the Klingon doesn’t cry—they don’t have tear ducts. The Klingon severs an insectoid leg with his bat’leth! Yet as stated in the film’s “Know Your Foe” PSA, a bug’s still “86% combat effective” with a missing leg. Instead, we should “aim for the nerve stem” to “put it down for good.”

Video game boss fights are actually master classes in attacking primary targets. Consider Samus Aran vs. Ridley. The player-as-Samus utilizes a fight sequence to expose Ridley’s critical areas. This sequence of movements is a technique—like those human martial artists drill in ordered rows. Techniques are algorithms for exposing an opponent’s primary targets. A jab-cross might dislodge the opponent’s guards, so a swinging roundhouse can strike the cartilaginous temple. 

What techniques do your alien or robot protagonists use to exploit an enemy’s vulnerabilities–especially enemies of differing physical morphologies?


Differing bodies mean differing fighting behaviors. In The Mandalorian, IG-11 rotates torso and arms to shoot in all directions. He doesn’t block or dodge gunfire. General Grievous uses four arms to wield gyrating lightsabers until Obi Wan severs two hands, forcing Grievous to adapt. 

Consider bodily modalities. The Decepticon Starscream charges the enemy in jet-form, then transforms into a robot, letting forward momentum add to his attack. Conversely, he leaps away in jet-mode, blasting opponents with his backdraft.

Also consider what’s expendable. An alien with one heart and three lungs might, on being forced onto a spike, try to fall so a lung is punctured yet the heart is spared. An octopus-alien with regenerating limbs might charge a lightsaber with abandon, regrowing whatever’s lopped off. If your robot warrior is T-1000-like—i.e., modular—it might form separate fighting components. 

Even animalistic beings like Godzilla or Mothra fight according to physicality. Earth bulls lock horns; pythons entwine and squeeze. 

Link to the rest at SWFA

10 thoughts on “How to Make Aliens and Robots Fight Better”

  1. All of this is true, as long as you don’t have to spend too much time in the middle of a fight in moments of excitement explaining how and why a blow is effective/ineffective, something you don’t have to do when fighting a python or a lion.

    • Text isn’t video.

      I don’t recall very many blow by blow unarmed or melee fights in the combat SF stories I’m familiar with, even in human-only fights. Most SF combat is generally posited as ranged weapons primarily, probably because of the classic RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK scene.

      It also reminded me of Brian Daley’s excellent DOOMFARERS OF CORAMONDE, which dropped a Vietnam war era APC into a fantasy world of magic, dragons, and knights. I expect that given a choice any advanced civilization will favor ranged weapon lethality over the “elegance” of unarmed or melee styles.

      This kind of thought experiment is probably better suited for video games.
      Otherwise you need very specific conditions, like ARENA, the Fredric Brown short Trek Adapted.

      • Until recently I would probably have agreed with you and would have referred you to Georgette Heyer’s historical romances for examples of blow-by-blow accounts of melee combat: duelling style sword fights seem to fit this trope rather well. However, of late I’ve been reading a lot of space opera and steam punk where close quarter – sometimes, though mostly not, unarmed – fights are quite common. The mixture of combat armour, genetical enhanced combatants and near indestructible androids rendering hand held “firearms” largely ineffective.

        I suspect that this downgrading of the effectiveness of various weapons reflects the authors’ desire to make their protagonists survival more probably, and that this has always been the norm in genre fiction. When the battlefield becomes too dangerous and survival is often a matter of chance rather than skill, the action moves elsewhere: James Bond fights the cold war in bedrooms and boudoirs and far distant places armed with his fists and his trusty Walther PPK (and before this the Three Musketeers mostly avoided the artillery and massed volley fire of the battlefield for skirmishes where their skill with the sword would win out, and their opponents’ pistols were slow to load, prone to misfire and highly inaccurate).

        On the SF battlefield – space opera version – the weapon effects in ship-to-ship combat are also downgraded by the common use of “shields”, meaning that even relatively small vessels can withstand multiple hits with limited damage. I suspect that this is less than realistic, and that combat would be a bit like WW2 Pacific carrier operations on steroids with whoever gets in the first strike triumphing, at least until their dying enemy’s last shot gets them. However, space naval MAD does not make for good plots.

        YMMV of course, as the SF field is now so broad that an individual’s reading can only cover a small sample of the available titles and one has no idea how representative this is.

        • DUNE played its own games with contrivances to allow for personal knife combat and the DARKOVER series had legislation forbidding any form of weapon beyond arms reach. When it comes to narrative demands, any contrivance is fair game.

          Especially in space opera.

          But in any space combat SF scenario aspiring to even vaguely resemble the real world, the vastness of space, control of high orbitals, and speed of light limitations should factor in. And personal combat stories need to at least layout reasons why ranged weapons aren’t used.

          Unlike Space Opera, though, SF does require plausibility and a minimum of handwaving. There’s dozens of pieces out there disecting space combat in movies and TV with horribly misleading presentations of stealth, manueverability, and engagement ranges.

          On video, BABYLON 5 did a fair job. On text the first are still the best, STARSHIP TROOPERS, with a focus on the boots on tbe ground. The HONORVERSE also does a good job there: Weber wanted to mirror the Napoleonic Wars so he set a handful of ground rules to enable age of sail tactics and then kept to them. As the series progressed, the stakes and scale grew but the ground rules endure. The series is throughly self consistent across some 20 volumes. A good case study.

          The question is really what does the story require and how rigorous and plausible are the necessary ground rules.

          STAR WARS, for example, shreds pretty much all the laws of physics (as thoroughly documented) be making things up as they go along. Which is fine for fantasy but not for actual SF. 😉

          • Respect for the laws of physics in SF can be overdone, but if you want to go that way my favourite source is (the older posts in particular, and recent posting has been sparse). I think that this overly constrains authors: I want my FTL drives, and stealth, and decent armour!

            I agree about Starship Troopers (the book that is, the movie was trash – though quite fun at times – and mainly proved that you need your Heinlein style mobile infantry equipment when taking the ground war to the Arachnids).

            As for Weber, there is a lot to be said for using the age of sail analogy in SF; the time it took to sail from England to India, let alone Java or Japan fits nicely into an expansive SF setting. I have to admit that I’ve never really liked to “wall of battle” idea as – like a great deal of space warfare in SF – it feels to me that it does not really reflect that the fight is in 3D, whilst all those naval analogies are 2D (to say nothing of their being influenced by the weather gauge).

            However, Weber carries it off pretty well so there is no reason why anyone should take notice of my criticism. Of course, very few of the hundreds of naval combats in 1893 to 1815 actually involved large fleets of ships of the line, so they can provide plenty of inspiration without ever needing a full line of battle.

            • Weber took notice.
              His long war evolved past the wall of battle of the early stories and indeed got way more *4-D*. 🙂

              My key point was his consistency; his space battles remained engaging even as the tech and tactics evolved. In the latter volumes missiles were flanking the “wall” or threading gaps. Plus he introduced carriers and fighters along with MIRVs. Starting with the age of sail gave him a lot of room to evolve his combat narratives.

              As an aside, recent analyses about potential space warps are suggesting a strong parallel with his gravity-field drive tech; namely that to generate actual movement some asymmetry or unbalance might be needed. The basic Alcubierre-type warps are looking more like a stasis field than a drive. Plenty interesting right there.

  2. I remember when SFWA was mostly cool/fun/useful stuff like this, decades ago. A pity they’ve gone so far afield, so completely, that something like this can be startling from them.

  3. Recently there was an article about fight scenes at, and what the article writer praised sounded pretty awful to me. and it was blow by blow. … oh heck… (quick search).. Here’s one example from the article: “He slashed at her, but instead of backing off she came in close, caught his sword, their hilts scraping. She tried to trip him, but he stepped around her boot, just kept his balance. She kicked at him, caught his knee, his leg buckled for the briefest moment. She cut viciously, but Ganmark had already slid away and she only hacked a chunk from some topiary, little green leaves fluttering.”

    YMMV, but while it details fight movements, to me it does not convey a sense of fighting. There’s no urgency to it. The only good thing I can say about it is it lacks the all too common ‘dance’ metaphor, which has become a fingernails-on-the-chalkboard cliche as far as I am concerned.

    • The author probably choreographed the whole scene, move by move, in their mind but forgot to consider how it would read. Some details are best left to the reader’s imagination to maintain the mood and pacing and if the whole scene only takes a paragraph or two, well, even in the movies sword fights only last minutes.

  4. Neal Asher does combat drones that make you care if they survive or not, and the space battles have good depth as well.

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