One of the most important aspects in a fight, both in real life and in fiction, is skill. The term, however, is used in broad strokes to define many things, some impossible, some too limited. At times it is used interchangeably with speed, and at times it is measured not differently as how one measures the mililiters of water in a water glass, which is used to justify an easy victory over another character due to a lack of skill of their part.
But what is skill, really? It is a broad term which can be used to define one's aptitude at something, whether it is driving, cooking, talking, and of course, fighting. One thing to note, however, is that skill can be infinitesimally broken up, or at least close to it; a driver's skill can be further broken up into his skill of identifying objects and things approaching at high speeds, the intuition or subtle calculations he does in his mind to know the fuel usage or how long he needs to press the brakes to slow down by the exact amount he wants, and so on, and so forth.
Fighting is similar, any part of a fighting skill can be further broken up in components, and those can be further broken up, and so on, and so forth, and even when one skill should imply a decent comprehension of another, it often isn't the case; not rarely I've seen people in boxing that could perfectly measure the strength of their punches - as long as those were straights, not jabs, hooks or crosses, those the guy completely messed up. Why should it? The mechanics should be similar, yet, at times, the very fact that on their mind the person has distinguished even two virtually identical techniques makes the placebo effect act upon them. There is more to that, of course, but it just illustrates that skill is very hard to quantify.
In this post, I hope to explain some core concepts of skill, how it relates to powers, its limits, how fiction treats it, and more.
Combat V.S. Tactical
First off, there is an important distinction I must make here before I go further. I will divide fighting skills into two umbrella terms: Combat and Tactical. Those frequently overlap and there is a lot of grey area, but I'll distinguish the general characteristics.
Combat skills are, put simply, the direct application of one's aptitude with something in combat, such as swordsmanship, gunnery, unarmed fighting, using improvised weaponry. Tactical skills are those that are more relevant to a mindset rather than specific technique, such as a soldier's tactical movement, a character that intentionally gets closer but not too close to a metallic object so an electrical attack favours targetting the metallic object rather than him, and others. It is very important to have both in a fight, but it is indeed possible for a person to have lots of one and none of the other. In real life, a civillian who takes frequent shooting classes and reaches championship-level of marksmanship can often haver better gunsmanship abilities than actual soldiers. However, that is only a single component of a combat situation; a soldier, even one who is utterly incompetent on a fight, is often drilled hard into learning how to move, how to employ cover, to analyse situations and to do very tactical-minded thinking much more quickly and better than any normal person.
This distinction being made, I'll say that this post is more about Combat skills. Tactical abilities are just as (in my opinion more so) important than combat ones, but there isn't much discussion or problems with tactical skill. Combat however, and a part of tactical skill thar overlaps with combat skill, is a topic much more discussed and problematic to the wiki. That being the case, I'll focus on combat and only touch upon tactical skills if they overlap or on occasion.
What determines skill? As I said, there are way too many factors to be humanly possible to take account, and that is not even into getting tactical or even otherwise mundane, noncombat skills that overlap with specific situations. However, there are some things and aspects that can be, I think, safely put as general aspects of it.
This is a broad term, and will probably be the concept I'll talk the most about, not because it is complex, but because of some issues that are often related to it in the community. Technique, to put it simply, is what you know to do. How to throw a punch, a specific throw, the tempo and methodology. While technically everyone has roughly the same abilities on average, of body parts to move, to what extent and what is biomechanically possible or not, one's training (or lack of it) often dictates what they would even consider or know to be possible.
Most martial arts tend to drill people into specific technical skillsets as to not only ease their mastery of those techniques (the more you spread out, the more difficult is it to keep track of all of it - an MMA fighter can easily beat a boxer, as long as most conditions are equal, in an UFC match, but the moment you make it a boxing match by changing the rules and disallowing many of the things an UFC fighter can do, they tend to lose equally badly against the boxer), but to conform to a set of traditions, function and rules. Often, almost identical techniques have subtly different motions or even just different tempo. As you study martial arts from different sources, both armed and unarmed, you start to see more and more similarities between many styles. Of course, nothing is ever identical - two practicioners of the same martial art style, even under the same tradition and master can fight with significant difference.
However, under human constraints, there is a limit of biomechanical, effective moves that are possible on the human body. It effectively means that there is a hard limit to the amount of technique one can have, although a limit that's unlikely to ever be reached and that changes drastically with each person's difference in biology and against different targets in different situations, and even if hipothetically such limit was reached, the same techniques can always be practiced to be performed better, faster, more forcefully and efficiently (The topics I'll cover later will show that), and, more than that, it shows the core of martial arts. A wide hook has always existed since the dawn of mankind; the name wasn't there, but the motion was certainly known by at least someone. Techniques do not "belong" to a martial art, rather, it is the martial art that adopts a technique and gives it some detail, a fancy name and a maybe a variant on their moves. Why this is important, I'll come back to later.
Body control is, obviously, how much a person can control over their body. Making sure some minute spasms do not happen when handling a gun, making sure a punch moves exactly the way intended. It is closely related to technique, almost to the point they could be considered identical, but there are some differences. Body control is about one's biological aptness, and not only that, it is a limiting factor to technique; many movements in fiction are utterly impossible because of the body control required. Usually, technique and body control skill "levels" are usually the same, but the more pressure, the more tired, circumstances change and things happen, the more authority one must have over their own body to make sure that they stay there and do that movement.
Coordination is related to body control, but it is related to rhythm. Doing many things at once, being aware of one's individual body parts' actions, keeping a steady rhythm of vastly differing movement, that's all in the purview of being a coordinated fighter. It is of utmost important to many arts, especially those that fight in dual-wielding armed systems. Another aspect of it is delivering the same technique over and over without missing, and anyone with experience can attest how hard this is; well trained people, to test themselves in tatami cutting, often set up a series of tatamis to cut in sequence without stopping. It is hard enough to make a very good cut on one, but each additional cut makes it exponentially harder, even if the cuts are identical or a simple back-and-forth. It is hard to keep up a rhythm.
Precision is key to fighting. Without even mentioning ranged or small-contact weaponry such as whips and scythes, where precision is one of the absolutely most important aspects, precision is a very important thing in general, more than it seems. While it is generally easier to make a cut or strike to general parts of the body, such as the head, the neck, the chest, or something like that, the smaller and more specific the target is, especially if it is moving and unpredictable, the more precious this ability is. In particular, against particularly tough characters that may be just as fast as you are, it is essential to have a lot of precision - fighting an armored knight that is nimble enough to match you and you do not have any help requires a very good aim to hit weak spots. (or courage and strength to grapple him)
When fighting, there is no time (for the normal people at least) to have careful analysis such as dissecting one's posture, form, way of moving and detecting even the smallest of weaknesses. However, it is indeed important to be able to read subtle hints. Twitches, changes in expression and in the way of looking, sudden dispositions to move, minimal hesitations, exposed weak points. Those are vital to notice and keep track of, and in armed situations, especially when faced armored opponents, those are even more important, as weak points must be much more carefully noticed and accounted for.
Instincts & Awareness
This is a more general term, but no less important than anything else here. Combat instincts are some of the more important things and, truly, what matters the most in a fight out of the ring or against really fast people. Most people can't properly track strikes from, say, experienced boxers through eyesight alone, and the same stay true to things like sword slashes, or unexpected attacks. Part of what allows people to dodge such attacks is analytical ability that allows for predictions and to move before anything happens, part is a solid defensive technique, but a big part of it, especially when the attack is suden, is simple instinctual reactions. More than once, I've dodged or punched away something that I had barely even seen by reflex action.
Not only those instincts cover the reflex and thoughtless reactions, it is also essential to be aware of your surroundings even if unconsciously. Think of it as having trained your five senses, touch, sight and hearing in particular, as to not invalidate the smallest of impulses received. I've seen in both the Bujinkan dojo I trained at and in boxing that, at the higher level (Experienced green belts and black belts on the former, my coach in the latter), it is normal to train awareness by reacting to stuff while blindfolded, without warning. Of course, it isn't like in fiction, where a character perfectly dodges something with no indication at all of what was about to happen. Rather, there were many ways to train that, but usually by either slowly building a rhythm of increasingly faster things to react to, or the person reacted in situations with increasingly more disturbances to the training. (Initially training while no one could move or make a sound, and then increasing it)
To be honest, this is the most important thing in a fight. The first barrier to overcome, and the one that needs to be taken care of the most. The mentality of the fighter makes or breaks him. I won't go deeply into this honestly fascinating topic, but I'll already say that a good part of someone's strength, speed, courage and tolerance to injury comes uniquely from their mindset, which, once properly trained, allows for otherwise impossible victories. I've seen trained and stronger individuals lose simply because they couldn't mentally force themselves to employ their strength and skill.
More than that, mentality is important because it is also what allows people to fight effectively: The less ordered their minds are, the more disturbances to their psyche and the less capable they are of thinking about their actions, the more they need to rely on muscle memory and instincts to fight, which isn't exactly bad and is precisely the reason martial artists train for years, but a person that manages to keep their cool during a fight is a person that can fight more technically. The problem being, of course, that a fight naturally makes people lose their cool thanks to many factors, adrenaline being one of the most norable ones, and the situation becomes increasingly hard to keep calm the more hurt you are, if you receive a stunning blow, if you get tired, if too much noise occurs or too much light flashes into your eyes... All sorts of things disturb your mentality.
Another aspect to this is how one sees fights. This is more of a personality thing than a skill thing, but many people have a really agressive-minded mentality, others defensive, some prefer to start a fight by punching and then tackling, some by grappling, some by retreating... One thing to note here is that the mentality, in this aspect, isn't about one making the right or wrong choices, at least not consciously. A grappling maneuver and a striking one aren't exactly superior to one another without context, and it is possible for an extremely skilled fighter to kick against someone's leg, without knowing that there is some thing specifically on that leg he kicked that makes that a terrible choice. So, it must be kept in mind that, sometimes, even a very skilled character makes "mistakes" that seem dumb, but it is just that they lacked information.
Limits and Weaponry
Skill is a very important thing. However, it must be noted that it has limits. Not exactly limit on how much it can develop, but how much it matters. Not only is there a biomechanical limitation that far limits the valid and effective motions one can take at any given time (With many times one needing to sacrifice something in order to gain something else, such as sacrificing a bit of mobility to get a bit of muscle), but there are greater limitations.
As a general rule, the stronger, faster and more durable your opponent is, the less skill matters. This isn't to say that a normal person can't beat an untrained, but extremely strong bodybuilder; you can, it would be extremely hard disproportionate for the effort it'd take for someone of your physique, but you can. You cannot, however, outpunch a gorilla, knock down an elephant, submit a grizzly. Even with supreme and utomost skill by human standards, you can't beat opponents that much stronger than you.
Or can you? Well, you can't by yourself, but there are two options: Super skill and weapons. The first I'll talk about later and is only relevant to fiction, but weaponry is historically a game-changer against physical supremacy dominating human relations. Swords enabled much leaner and thinner man to overtake stronger men. Revolvers made that so even exceedingly frail men could beat true behemoths of men. Wild animals aren't exceptions to this, and weapons are such a force multiplier that they deserve an entire section to them here.
Under conditions where both contestants have similar physical prowess (By similar, I mean that it is the realm between tiers 10-B and low-ish 9-Bs comparatively, not the abyss that is, say, a 6-B to a 4-A) and if they both can harm each other with their methods, any weapon-wielding opponent has an inherent advantage over the unarmed.
I'm not saying that unarmed skill cannot defeat armed skill, far from it. It is very possible, albeit difficult, even in real life. The thing is that it requires significantly more skill for the unarmed person to overtake an armed opponent than vice-versa. But why, exactly?
The exact reasons depend very much so on the weapons, but in general, weaponry has these advantages:
- Reach: Weapons are usually more long-ranged than unarmed. That is a VERY big deal in a fight. A fighter that is in position to offend one without the other being able to do so is a very big problem for the challenger. In fact, that is the main reason why spears have dominated most battlefields until fairly recently.
- Energy Concentration: Most weapons can concentrate about the same energy as an unarmed attack over an extremely smaller area. While some weapons have some more energy and force behind them thanks to leverage and kinectics, even a weapon that somehow carries less energy than an unarmed attack would most likely still be able to cause much grievous and deeper wounds by virtue of distributing that force better and in a smaller area.
- Speed: Most weapons are faster than unarmed strikes. It doesn't seem like it as unarmed strikes in a very short distance are harder to react to due to smaller timeframes to dodge, but any weapons with enough mass to be swung or thrusted can usually cover space faster than a human hand can thanks to leverage. That's not even getting into ranged weaponry, which is usually way faster than people.
Combined, those three things makes so that, all other things being equal (Which, granted, is never true), an armed opponent has a natural edge against someone without weapons. Note, however, that many of those things depend on the weapon in question, and at times there are severe drawbacks, which is why improvised weaponry isn't always the best option over unarmed. Still, the range advantage alone is tempting enough to at least make improvised weaponry under consideration. There was a case of a black belt, experienced martial artist that was assailed by a man wielding a knife, and instead of attempting to use his fistcuffs, he simply grabbed a nearby trash can and used it to push the man away and keep him at bay. And the martial artist was right. It is foolish to try to fight an armed opponent, even if it is a knife, using unarmed techniques. What is an non-effective strike with a fist is a deadly and wide wound with even a badly-done knife swipe.
Copying: Merits and Problems
One of the main (and also most problematic) arguments for skill matches in VS-debating, especially characters like Garou and Yujiro, is the ability to copy martial arts with perfection and even improving upon them. It is treated as a supreme skill measurement; martial arts, after all, encompasses all that a person knows about how to move and perform techniques. Right?
As I've argued above, I disagree very much with that notion. Most (but now always!) times, the power of copying applies to the techniques of martial arts. It is an important, but small part of the whole that consists combat skill. While it also shows a degree of immense analytical skill, it should be noted that the definitions I put here are not only incomplete (I could give more), but also artificial and arbitrary, and can be broken down infinitely further up. Being good at analysing and mimicking someone's behaviour is a form of analytical skill (mixed with technical and body control), but it doesn't mean that the person is also good at capturing small behaviour cues in combat that allows them to exploit weaknesses. It is a part of the whole.
Of course, the power of copying can, at a certain degree, be used to nullify skill advantages, especially if the one who copies has a even more superhuman variant that allows them to mimick body control, precision, and all the other aspects. But it is far less important than people think, and, depending on the copying ability used and in the characters involved, it can be fully countered by someone savvy enough. Psychology, making up tricks, faking out, many tools exist to disrupt someone who attempts to copy styles.
Besides, another point I wanted to talk about is that copying isn't that relevant in most scenarios. In fact, unless the person is improving upon the techniques involved or has a very good mentality to not get tied to specific styles, it may make the fight more favourable to the person they are copying. You see, if you copy the techniques of a black belt karateca, and let's even suppose that you copied the same level of body control, precision and everything else. In the best possible scenario, that is a helpful boost, but I struggle to see where that would be significant enough to beat the karateca. Not only he should have experience fighting similarly skilled opponents, or even above him, but as I said, skill isn't a mathematical thing. There is no such a thing as someons with skill level 5, and someone with a skill level of 4. The definitions are woozy and, in fact, many times matter less than what people suppose. I've seen fights between very similarly skilled opponents end up in very quick and easy victories for both sides, prolonged fights, draws, hard but quick fights, all under the same conditions. The ebb and flow of a fight are such that even if everything is equal, even physical attributes, it will always go down very differently in each fight, or at least can go differently. So, by copying him, you bought yourself a chance, but only if you weren't competent enough to begin with. Of course, adding up his skillset to yours is a great thing, may shake up his psyche and may improve upon your moveset, but then it is more of a matter of mentality of both fighters than technique, really. And that is the best case scenario.
The worst? Congratulations, you copied a style and way of fighting that is adequate to that person's specific biology and methodology (Which shouldnt matter on the short run as most people have very similar biologies, but believe me - the copying one technique will break down before the one who is getting copied), and may make the fight better for him. See, a boxer fighting a taekwondo master who can also copy skills may have some difficulty in predicting and reacting to the stuff the TKD master does, as it is very different than what he is used to. But if the master copies the boxer's style and fights using it, without managing to effectively mix up the skillsets (Which is difficult. While I am against the mentality of secluding skillsets to specific martial arts, there is a good reason to do so: It is far easier to seclude stuff and do each one individually well, than attempt to mix all things up and do it well), the boxer's fight suddenly becomes far easier. Any boxer should be used to very consistent and long sparring, even against someone with similar skills, while the TKD master lacks the experience of fighting a boxer under boxing rules.
Which brings me to the next point.
Another very popular argument in skill matches is experience. Experience is simple: Said character has fought before similar beings or things to the one he is fighting against, so he has an advantage over the inverse, who has never fought anything like the opponent.
That is a very fair and valid argument, but before using it, one should consider it carefully. I've seen the argument being used that a soldier that has fought since the dawn of humanity has more experience than a mage trainee in WoD. It is true that he has more experience in life in a general term and in combat against most things have ever built or conceived, but trying to equate anything humanity has ever done to even a speck of what a mage does in World of Darkness is a dangerous idea. The mage has more experience in fighting against eldritch and accursed beings, and all the experience that soldier has will be for naught against a spell that makes lightning that turns what it strikes into mist. There is nothing similar to that, and I grabbed a very light example, which can be refuted, but not the idea of the argument. All the experience is for naught against a time stop, a soul burning or anything of the like.
I've seen martial artists with several years of experience in real life, with constant sparring, being stumped even by absolute novices in staff fighting because they simply didn't have the experience of fighting against staff fighters and couldn't believe how deft and quick staves could move, and how hard they actually struck.
Of course, experience in battle is a thing in itself, as it helps on the mentality of the fighter, but it isn't the be-all end-all. An experienced vampire hunter of, say, Twilight, would be completely stumped by vampires of Dylan Dog's universe, who would in turn be completely stumped by vampires in The Elder Scrolls universe. An experienced martial artist with thousands of years under his belt may be stumped by something as simple as a simple danmaku of fireballs.
There is of course a lot of cross-relation and I'm being a bit extreme here, but it is to illustrate that experience isn't easy to ascribe.
One thing I often need to remember people is that using the powers of characters effectively is also a form of skill. It seems like a no-brainer, but it is actually something that relatively few people have grasped. I'm not saying the skill involved of developing the powers and theory of them, but rather their very usage. What I mean by that is that, to properly measure combat skill, one should look beyond verse restrictions and say what they actually do with it.
If someone in a verse says that is very hard to manipulate fire to make it take the shape of a dragon, and it shows prodigious skill of the pyromancer by being able to do so, it shows that he is skilled in the verse's pyromancy logic, not that his actual usage of powers is good. Now, using a simple fireball to heat up several immense spikes impaled over a block, so they heat up and expand, thus cracking the block, and thus making the pieces fall down on the opponent? That is a good display of tactical and combat skill.
It is hard to exactly tell what consitutes as combat and theory skill, but a good show I would reccommend that analyses both of them in their episodes is Avatar: The Last Airbender, where we see both examples of in-universe bending limitations and workarounds that show skill in bending logic and in rationale in general, and even simple bending being used in very devious and smart ways in fighting. Dragon Ball Z also is surprisingly good at that, Goku's fight with Frieza shows Goku being very savvy with his ki usage, while also showing skill in ki manipulation logic.
Powers, intelligence, all that constitute as an essential part of skill, and can be very much (and should) be applied. But there is a fictional threshold that I should talk about.
Fiction - Super Skill?
Super Skill. A "power" that is actually quite common in fiction, and the culmination of everything I talked about here. Of course, it isn't a proper power per se, as skill, as I said, is the fusion of several aspects, that can be roughly summarised as the ability to put what you know into use in a fight. In that sense, skill doesn't seem like as something that has a super variant, but it does. When your capabilities of employing knowledge, and when the very knowledge you have, are beyond what is physically possible, it becomes a form of super skill, even if only in a specific aspect.
Most characters in fiction have that to a certain degree. They think too clearly and fight too well for it to be possible in fiction. They make things that do not work in real life magically work, like Ryu's Senpuukyaku or any character that throw a lot of wide kicks repeatedly, they manage to distort the laws of physics to make impossible amounts of energy and force transferring, like Kaku Kaioh's Shaori and Niko Style Demon's Bane, or generally have analytical, coordination and bodily control that are far beyond the norm, such as Yujiro Hanma and Musashi from Vagabond.
At times, the skill directly translates into other powers. Kenshiro can press pressure points in such a way that they cause exhorbitant effects on the body, and while said pressure points do exist in real life, he has the ability to make them work, when they shouldn't. Many Fate characters are described as having a level of skill that the human brain simply couldn't store that many details in it. In Choujin Sensen, there is a swordsman that can cut space out of the sheer precision of his cuts. Are those skill feats, or powers? Well, mostly the latter, but there is a measure of skill involved, allthough a level of skill that is impossible to achieve. Sufficient levels of something that consistutes as skill can be considered a power.
We already consider many things that martial artists can do in real life as powers. Information Analysis, Tolerance to Pain, Instinctive Reactions, Pressure Point striking, all that should be expected from a normal martial artist. However, it is very understandable their inclusion, as fiction push those far beyond what is possible.
I hope you guys liked reading this. I might rewrite and add some things later, so this might change up a bit over time, but overall that is my opinion. I've written as best as I could, as english isn't my primary language (in writing at least), so there may be minor mistakes.
Above everything, I hope this becomes useful as a guide of reference and to clear up some things about skill. If I could sum up what there is to take from all of this, is that there is no way to measure skill clearly (You can tell when someone is inferior to someone in general, but that's it), copying is overvalued, experience needs to be analysed better, and when comparing skill, one should consider skill not as a term that fully encompasses everything, but as a field that can be infinitely broken down in a fight.