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There are several varieties of tails that I am interested in:

  • Fully Prehensile Tails, able to manipulate objects, carry weapons/ shields (though note they may not be able to wield them effectively)
  • Flat tails (think stuff like a beaver's, able to make a slapping attack)
  • Fluffy tails (a fox's or dog's tail, or perhaps even a deer's)
  • Stiff tails (think along the lines of what a lizard man or kangaroo man might have)
  • Flashy or distracting tail (peacock's tail)
  • Thin round tail (cats/ great cats)
  • Rattling tail (rattle snake)

How could a bipedal creature use their tail in combat? Would it help much? Could such creatures design weapons for their respective tails? Or would it be an irritation that causes more problems than they're worth?

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    $\begingroup$ What, no thagomizer-bearing tail? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Aug 24 '16 at 2:05
  • $\begingroup$ @JDługosz most animals nowadays don't have spikes sticking out of their tails, so it didn't enter my mind! $\endgroup$ – Jesse Cohoon Aug 24 '16 at 2:09
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    $\begingroup$ But that is the tail I would want for combat. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Aug 24 '16 at 2:13
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    $\begingroup$ Would be funny if someone used a really really fluffy tail to entice people to relax and enjoy the feeling of it. $\endgroup$ – Skye Aug 25 '16 at 13:05
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Point by point:

  • Fully Prehensile Tails: if they are dextrous enough to use weapon in a fight, then they are, for all practical purposes, an extra arm - or rather, a tentacle. For this to work, the tail has to be quite long though. If it is not that dextrous, but is long enough, it can use to grapple/strangle an enemy. Might also help with Judo/Jiu-Jitsu moves, by giving extra grip to existing techniques and making new techniques possible.

  • Flat tails: two words: houndhouse tailwhip! Seriously now, you have an advantage that humans don't have - you can attack someone who is right behind you without having to rotate your torso for a back kick. It may also be a very strong, fierce attack.

  • Fluffy tails: if it is long enough, you can use it to distract your enemy by rubbing the tail against their face. Consider: such a tail might not do any physical harm in most situations, but you try and fight with a duster shoved against your face. The fur may also cause damage to eyes if it is hard enough.

According to east asian myths, foxes that have lived long enough will have an extra tail for each millenia they have lived. Such tails are connected to different kinds of magical or divine powers depending on the source you look up. If your world allows for magic, you might want to research about it.

A deer tail provides insignificant protection to your behind if you fall on it at best, and provides enemies with something to aim if it contrasts with the background at worst.

  • Stiff tails: another version of the flat tail. Effectiveness will depend on the freedom of movement the tail has. You can always used for a roundhouse tailwhip too.

  • Flashy or distracting tail (peacock's tail): you could maybe use bioluminescence - or, lacking it, some lights attached to your tail - to mesmerize or confuse your opponents. You can add a mix of taunts or awkwardness to enhance the effect. Bonus if you sing a song while doing it.

I wanna see your peacock!

This is going to buy your allies a few precious seconds for them to disappear while your enemies beat you down.

  • Thin round tail (cats/great cats): these may be a little help in keeping balance, but this depends on the percentage of the body mass they represent. This should be much more effective for a small house cat than for a humanoid cat being.

  • Rattling tail (rattle snake): if you mean only the tip that rattles, it is no use in a fight. If you mean a snake-like tail, it works just like the prehensile tail from before.

One last, very important piece of info to add: while each of those tails could have different positive effects for their owners in a battle, they all have one single negative effect in common - it's one more limb for your opponents to use against you - by grabbing it, slashing it (causing you to lose blood), twisting it to immobilize you through pain etc. Your fictional creatures should be aware of this and include the necessary combat caution in whatever martial arts they develop.

Edit: To answer the following comment:

The only thing I was hoping someone would cover but no one did is if you had stiff tail that could support your weight, could you use it to momentarily balance on and kick your opponent?

As kangaroos do in comics, to kick with both feet at once. You could. This could probably work on a one on one fight, such as in a kick-boxing ring. In a brawl, though, that would provide your opponents with something to give a sweeping kick to from behind. Also such a tail is good in the open, but if you have to put your back to a wall, that might be the worst tail to have.

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  • $\begingroup$ The only thing I was hoping someone would cover but no one did is if you had stiff tail that could support your weight, could you use it to momentarily balance on and kick your opponent? $\endgroup$ – Jesse Cohoon Aug 24 '16 at 1:49
  • $\begingroup$ @JesseCohoon I added something about that in the answer. $\endgroup$ – Renan Aug 24 '16 at 2:06
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    $\begingroup$ Wielding a weapon with a prehensile tail would be rather like someone without fingers or thumbs trying to use a sword; there's no way to manipulate it properly. A tail isn't likely to match an arm for bearing weight; even holding a sword (a few kilograms) can be tiring when you're using the thing. There's also concentration; fighting with two swords at once is not for amateurs, and trying to use one behind your back (no way to see it) is sheer madness. A prehensile tail is actually a liability; lots of nerve endings to make any injuries painful, with little use in combat, and it's a target. $\endgroup$ – Palarran Aug 24 '16 at 3:50
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    $\begingroup$ well, thats what happens to scorpions but thats for the OP to decide whether he would want his characters to use their tails to swing a knife as a surprise attack or not (who would expect that). The other way for it to work would be too have one of those dragon... I mean crocodile tail where they have scales and the muscle power to swing at targets, upgrade the scales a bit, more flexibility and muscle strength and we end up with a swiping tail that might as well have a mace on it really. $\endgroup$ – Skye Aug 25 '16 at 13:04
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Any kind of tail with any mass would operate as a counterweight; it'd make it a lot easier to keep your balance, so you'd have the freedom to commit more to your moves. You could comfortably spin faster and lean forward more.

A heavy tail - like a lizard - would be useful as a club, in the same way as an elbow. But it would be comparatively dangerous to use; to hit someone with your tail, you would have to turn your back on them. The best approach might be to spin rapidly, hitting with your tail halfway around.

A prehensile tail could function as an extra arm, if it's sufficiently dextrous. But let's suppose it isn't; I'd use it purely defensively. Put heavy armor along it, and use it to parry attacks when my arms are busy.

A tail like a peacock could be used to dodge more effectively - imagine flaring your tail behind you so that it completely obscures your body. An attacker from behind would have to make an educated guess about where your vital areas are.

Other sorts of tails would be more of a vulnerability than anything else, I think - like having long hair. You'd want to find a way to pin it to you, maybe under armor or bound to one leg.

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A fully prehensile tail, a beaver tail, or a stiff tail might be helpful. The beaver or stiff tail could be used as a weapon, particularly in a spinning kick sort of situation. Another blunt instrument attached to your body seems useful, even if it can't grab or wield things. It could be used to trip the opponent as well, assuming the tail were stiff enough to swipe out a person's legs. A prehensile tail could possibly hold a shield to protect the person's back, or maybe hold a blade to cut the opponent as you spin.

Fluffy, thin, or rattling tails would probably be neutral. There's not much you can do with that sort of tail, other than maybe whap the other person's face and hope it stuns them. In the heat of battle, I don't think a rattle would distract your opponent, nor would a flashy peacock tail. The best strategy for those with this sort of tail would probably be to tie the tail to one leg, keeping it out of the way. It wouldn't hamper them too much, and it would be unlikely to get cut off or stomped on.

A peacock tail would be bad. I don't know about a longer, bright tail, but I'm picturing a full-on peacock tail, and it isn't good. The feathers, or possibly big fur tufts, would get in the way and would not help at all. Maybe as camouflage the tail could help, but in battle it would just get in the way, and there's really no good way to tie down a big, fat peacock tail. You might be able to gather all the feathers together and band them together into a long, stiff bundle, which could maybe be used as a stiff tail, but it would probably be uncomfortable and clumsy. It would also take extensive preparation as you'd probably need someone to help you.

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