Monday, April 28, 2014

The Dreaded Plateau

Fighters are almost always advancing their skill level. The more they fight and train, the better they get. At least, that's what we all want to have happen. At some point, most fighters experience the feeling they've reached a plateau, where their abilities aren't growing. I see it happen a lot with first and second year fighters and a good bit with some long time veterans. Realms with less high end, experienced fighters will see it happen more often as well.

For newer fighters, there are a few possible reasons they'll feel like they've reached a plateau. My friend covers one cause of stagnation on her blog. Another big possibility is that it is all in your head. As fighters advance in skill, so do the opponents that they will fight. Transitioning between fighting people new to the sport and facing people with a couple of years under there belt is a big jump. While you get better, the fights get harder, and that can lead to feeling like you haven't improved at all. You may have also advanced in skill enough that veterans are seeing you as a bigger threat, meaning they will fight harder against you.

To overcome that sort of mentality, try shuffling your place in the line every few fights. Sometimes finding different opponents helps give you a better sense of how you are doing. Off the field, try sparring the best fighters you can find. Their skills won't change as much, so improvements in your own fighting will be more obvious.

Actual stagnation in growth is harder to overcome. Once your primary style has reached a certain point, learning more takes concentrated effort to pick up new skills. This is when several fighters get discouraged, as it takes more and more effort to improve. That gratification of learning something new disappears, and it takes a bit is of fun out of the sport.

My first suggestion for people that feel stuck is to try a different fighting style. Picking up a support weapon or switching to florentine will build different skills than sword/board. You'll be less effective overall at first, as you need to learn new things, but that sense of improving and growing is refreshed. Not to mention, several skills translate from style to style, so it is a good practice to switch between them anyway.

One other suggestion is to have a goofy day. Yep, goofy day, you read that correctly. Plateaus make people have less fun at practice. Pick up silly equipment combinations, or start with no gear, have fun with it. Having a fun day of fighting will restore the drive to fight, and your drive to improve with it. Heck, you might even learn a thing or two.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Weapons Check

This is by no means a comprehensive guide to weapons check. It is a huge topic that is better left to for completeness.

Mist lingers on the ground as the chill of early morning claws its way through your garb. You've been roused from your tent by urgent voices shouting through the camp. Gear gathered, you make your way to weapons check, carefully placing each of your finely crafted weapons into their respective piles.

"Fail, core. Fail, pommel. Fail, twist. Fail, for...well...everything", shouts a surly weapons check marshal as he tosses each weapon over to be failed. You head to the field with your shield and the one sword that made it successfully through weapons check, your least favorite one to boot.

This is a typical template used to check weapons
Sound fun? Probably not. You can avoid much of this hassle by checking your own gear ahead of time. Some weapons will fail during the course of an event, but some will be close to failing before ever getting to there. Check your gear far enough ahead of the event to give you enough time to make repairs.

Not sure what to look for?

Here is a list of common signs a weapon fails:
-gentle pressure against the palm of the hand on the tip of the blade allows you to feel core

-light twist of the tip causes it to stay twisted, meaning the core likely isn't attached there

-pommel is falling off/poorly secured

-dropping sword pommel first, on hard surface, results in "clank"

-gentle pressure with thumb on stabbing tip allows you to feel core

-"squishy" blade, probably will fail a hit test

-dead spot or divot on striking surface, might fail hit test

-easy to cause blade to flex 90 degrees

-pommel or blade look narrow, probably fails weapon template test

-excessive weight, probably fails hit test

-no cover (yes, it has happened)

-wrapped in duct tape (yes, it has happened)

-your weapon has a fail sticker on it (yes, it has happened)

Odds are, if you think your weapon might fail in one or more of those ways, it probably does. Always be extra strict in testing your own gear, and leave anything questionable at home/camp. The less questionable weapons that make it to check, the sooner everyone can be fighting.

Monday, April 21, 2014

That guy is totally cheating!

I don't know how many times I've seen it. Two people duke it out on the line, and one wins. The loser walks over to me and says: "man, that guy just won't take a hit". Now, granted, in my years of fighting I have seen people who just cheat and disregard hits in an honor based game. However, I hear this sentence far more often than I see someone intentionally cheat. Sometimes, I even hear it from both of the fighters.

So what's actually going on here? Well, there are a number of possibilities. The most common is a simple matter of miscommunication. A shot was light or grazed off, so wasn't taken, but the person being hit didn't communicate why they weren't taking the hit. Armor, in particular, can make the situation worse because there is not a visual indication of them taking the first hit. It can be vital to communicate hit taking during a fight, or even after the fight was over, to prevent unnecessary interpersonal conflict.

Another possibility is that the shot didn't hit in the first place. Yes, you saw that shoulder wide open and delivered a good, solid hit and felt like it made contact. He doesn't say a word and keeps fighting. Cheating? Maybe not. It is possible you only made shield contact, even though it looked like shoulder. Since you didn't actually hit him, he didn't call anything.

So why did you think it hit him? The fact is, people don't see in 3-D, our brains estimate distance by triangulating where our eyes are looking. That combined with the fact that the angle between our line of sight and the sword's position can be drastic, causes us to misjudge where we actually hit. Remember, this is an honor based sport, so it is up to them to decide if they were hit. Don't assume your shots hit exactly where and how you think they did.

There is always a chance they were cheating.  There may not be a reason to be upset with them about it though.  A lot of cheating, especially from newer fighters, is unintentional.  I fought for several years with a flawed understanding of where certain hit zones ended/started.  Some new people just don't get trained on all the minor details like what the wrist bone counts as (arm, for those unsure) or exactly where on the shoulder counts as body (think sleeveless t-shirt).  Other times, we see a newer fighter overwhelmed by a veteran to such a degree they either get confused or miss a subsequent hit while they were processing the first.  Rapid processing of hits and displaying damage accordingly takes time to learn and train, don't expect everyone to be perfect at it. This, again, comes down to communication.  Ask the person if your hit didn't land or what happened, you might have an opportunity to teach them a rule they didn't know.

I have seen, luckily on rare occasion, people who just don't play by the rules.  If you have done your due diligence and given them the benefit of the doubt and talked to them, and they still won't take a hit, talk to a herald.  Many people will tell you "just hit them harder" or some other advice, but this generally isn't going to work.  If someone values their honor so little as to just not take blatant, forceful hits, hitting them harder is just asking for someone to get hurt.  Sometimes just a herald being close by will solve the problem.  If not, the herald will be able to take it up with the event coordinator or realm leader.

The takeaway I'd like everyone to get here, is that communication and trust goes a long way towards improving the quality of hit taking and fighting.  Give your opponent the benefit of the doubt and talk to them if you aren't sure.  Never be afraid to ask about how your shot landed or to explain odd situations after the fight.

Anatomy of a Line: core, wings, and anchors

Discussion of line tactics often gets broken down into two distinct sections: linefighters and flankers. While this method of study can yield one a great deal, there is far more actually going on in a large line battle. Looking at the interaction of flankers and the line on a small, realm scale doesn't take into account the diverse nature of the lineup seen at major events. Today, I'll be focusing on three main components of the main line: core, wings, and anchors.

As we begin to scale up from the typical, midsized practice, we start to see that those on the line begin working differently. At the core of the line, we start to see more armor and tighter grouping, forming a strong center. Moving along the line, between the core and flankers, spacing increases in a section I refer to as the wings. Wings cover large areas, adjusting the space between them in response to the enemy's position.

Note the two anchors. Their job is to keep the line between them and the core in touch.  The furthest out anchor has the responsibility of extending the line to counter flankers.

I generally compare the spacing between wingmen to be like they are all bound to the person next to them with bungie cords. Should the end of the line need to extend, each wingman gets pulled somewhat farther from the center. This change in spacing, however, is not uniform. Spacing increases more as you look farther away from the core of the line.

Spacing between fighters sometimes becomes a danger to the line, creating an easy gap for enemy troops to move through. Spacing between two fighters shouldn't generally be more than twice the distance between lines. The idea here being that it will take an enemy about the same amount of time to reach the gap as either fighter would to close off the approach. Of course, relative speed of fighters will come into play to adjust this distance. Once this spacing is reached, the next fighter will have to start spacing out as well.

Once fighting reaches a certain scale, multiple cores might form, connected by wings. This usually happens when a few units are on the same team and have unaffiliated fighters filling the ranks between them. You may also see lines without wings, such as bridge battles or at Wolfpack Opener. Smaller practices will often only be a one wing skirmish line without a core.

Of course, in an ideal setting, each fighter has awareness of the entire line and reacts according. That never happens. Each section has a good idea of their own status, but can't devote ample time to checking on other sections. This job then becomes the responsibility of people I call anchors. At the end of each section, there is at least one anchor or group of anchors. They maintain spacing between sections and are responsible for monitoring the situation next to their section.

Anchors can be from either section, they work to maintain coherency for both. The reason they are specifically called out here, is that many gaps form near them. Often times, the gap forms because someone doesn't realize they need to be an anchor. All too often, a person or two has got overly involved in what their group/unit/section is doing, they lose track of the person next to them.

Take stock of your position once in a while. If you are on the edge of a unit, try to keep an eye out on their flank. If you and the edge of the adjacent section lose track of each other, you may be leaving a gap large enough for a few fighters to push through. One fighter finding their way behind your line can kill most of a section with relative ease.

On the flipside, you can spot likely gaps by observing how people in the anchor position look around. More seasoned fighters have their head on a swivel, looking for threats and gaps. Less experienced fighters tend to look at the direction they plan to go, following their section in. Next to these inexperienced anchors, a gap will often form next to him during the early part of the battle.

I'll talk more about gaps later, but for now, remember to keep your eyes open and your head on a swivel. If you don't know if you are the anchor, you probably should check your sides. I might just be charging past you.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Following Orders

As I sat down to outline topics I wanted to talk about, I somehow missed one of the most critical: orders. Different realms and units have their own structure of leadership, while others differ to experience. Yet, more often than not, leadership comes in the form of "he who yells the loudest must be in charge".

At large events, regardless of what type of leadership is present, or absent, not everyone follows orders. Small groups of friends may disregard outside influence to do what they wish, or units may have their own orders separate from the rest of the line. Others may just be hesitant to listen to someone they don't know. Following their own path may yield them local success, but at the cost of other sections of the line.

During my time as a squire, I had plenty of opportunities to witness how leadership played out at various events. My first year as a squire, I wasn't exactly taking charge and leading. I'd relay orders, but still looked to others to lead. After a while, and several events, I began to feel more at ease directing people.

One event, in particular, still stands out to me as an example of how powerful leadership and following orders can be. I had been invited to a day event just a couple of hours away. Myself and small group of local fighters all made the trip over. It was a day long objective battle with respawns.

The heralds had divided teams, with my group and a couple of other groups I was unfamiliar with on one team. Numbers were nearly even, though they may have outnumbered us a little bit.

The woodland terrain made it difficult to keep track of fighters from my realm between respawns. At one point, I found my knight and 2-3 others from my group guarding an objective with a large group of people I didn't know. We came under attack a few times. I had worn myself out throughout the day, the glaive I carried was getting too slow to keep up with the line. After helping repel the first attack, I backed off of the line to catch a break.

The enemy attacked in force, bringing along a Valkyrie, a mobile respawn point with a limited supply of extra lives. I went to work, barking out orders and calling out threats; I was too tired to do much else. Much to my surprise, my orders echoed through the line. People I didn't know were repeating my commands and, more importantly, they were following them well. I had expected maybe a few people would listen to me, or at least a handful of more seasoned fighters would notice threats I pointed out. It was quite refreshing to have the majority of the group respond to orders.

Calling for the line to reform caused fighters to fall back and redress the ranks into a solid, strait line. Ordering a flank to push resulted in us crushing that side quickly. We fought on for quite a while. Our casualties had to travel a good ways to respawn, but the enemy was back alive nearly as quickly as we killed them.

Their side, however, lacked any sort of leadership. Their fighters respawned and returned to the fight, without regrouping or reforming their line. Their disordered line was facing a solid line, making it easy for our fighters to pick off individuals and break sections.

With solid teamwork and a mix of attacking and regrouping, we actually managed to run them out of respawns and crush through the remaining fighters. All the while, our casualties were light. We had survived with enough numbers to pressure their base. Victory for the day was won through many fights like this, small groups working together to hold ground.

I suppose the moral of the story is the importance of communication and teamwork. Even in the midst of people you have no experience working with, passing along orders and doing your best to follow them makes your team much stronger. If your team seems lost and leaderless, take charge and try your hand at it. Sometimes all it takes is one person keeping an eye on the bigger picture to keep your line from wandering out of formation. Who knows, you might even find there are plenty of people willing to follow you.

tl;dr: At the end of the day, working together wins more fights than individual heroics.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Where to Start

At first, the heavy combat at the heart of line is daunting, for any one. It seems like little more than chaos. Confusion and fast flowing battles muddle who is on your team and where you need to be. It takes time and experience to learn who is who and where death can find you.

To truly become a skilled line fighter, there are a number of thing you need to learn and work on. I'll break down each in more detail as I get the urge to write about them.

Individual Skill

Many people are going to assume you have to be a great one-on-one fighter to survive on the line. It isn't wrong that good fighters will do well, but single combat skill doesn't directly translate to battlefield prowess. The greatest fighter will still die to backstabbing, outnumbering, and bad luck. Skill alone won't make you a great line fighter, but it can't hurt.  Just remember, there is always someone better than you at one thing or another.  Don't be intimidated by that fact, it just means you have people to learn from and people to teach.  The best sword and board fighter may be just terrible with a two hander.  Seek out the people that are better than you in one style or another, and fight them until you pick up a few tricks.

Battlefield Awareness

Keep that head on a swivel. New fighters tend to concentrate too much on the one target directly across from them, ignoring the person that's about to kill them. Look around, know where your friends and enemies are, know what support weapons are nearby. The more you know about your surroundings, the easier it will be to not only survive, but to bring down the enemy. Spot the gaps, in both lines, and use them to your advantage.  Communicate what you see and help those around you with their awareness, all while listening for them to return the favor.

The Range Game

Can that spear stab you? Are you sure? What about that guy diagonal from you with the long sword? The better you can judge the range of different weapons, the easier it is to avoid them. Once you've learned them well enough, you can start playing the range game. Lure opponents into a false sense of security, kill them, and avoid retaliation; all thanks to knowing how far someone can reach.  Always know your own range, and only engage targets inside of it.  If you can't reach someone, why waste the energy on swinging at them?

Know Your Role

Your role can change from fight to fight, moment to moment, but always have some purpose to your actions and placement. Looking like you have a plan and know what you are doing can be just as effective as actually having one. Learn the basic positions, from the center to the flank and frontline to reserves. The center forms the core of the line, heavy armor and big shields, the wings are more mobile and form the bulk of fighters, flankers work to get around the enemy line, anchors hold each group together to form a cohesive line. All the while, leaders, shock troops, and reserves wait behind the line.  Leaders keep an eye out for problems and redirect troops to fill in where needed, trying to keep their mind on the battle as a whole.  Shock troops and reserves are somewhat interchangeable, both being held back until they are needed.  The difference is largely in what their goal is.  Shock troopers are often deployed to either heavy fighting or gaps in the enemy defenses, their individual skill seeing them through the fight.  They are often deployed in an offensive role.  Reserves are often a mix of experience and skill, used more often to fill in weak spots in the line or bring up support weapons where they are needed most, and are more defensive in nature. 

Decisive Action

This what wins or loses line fights. The heart of studying line battles is learning what causes and prevents decisive action.  Smaller fights are often determined through attrition, but larger fights may be won through rolling a flank or punching a hole through the enemy line.  Decisive action is often created by the some combination of effect from support weapons, flankers, and shock troops.  Their combined efforts open gaps, weaken sections of the line, and put skilled fighters behind enemy lines.  Gaps, kill pockets, and poor formations are all key topics to understand and look for.  Often, the moments following some sort of decisive action, one side will suffer extreme casualties and likely be out of the fight.  This is the climax of any line battle, everything afterwards is largely cleaning up stragglers.

Teamwork and Support

You won't get very far without teammates.  Make sure you are working with other fighters.  Swing at the same people they are fighting, block missile weapons heading their way, step between them and that spear that's trying to kill them.  Communicate what's going on, where you are going, and when you need help.  Got a spearman behind you? Call out targets while protecting him.  Got a spear and have a shieldman in front of you? Tell him where you need him to be to help you.  A small group working together can beat a much larger force that isn't.


I'm sure there are far more topics, but those should give me enough to elaborate on in the future.

In the beginning...

I had heard of it before, long before arriving on campus. People doing some kind of sword fighting with foam weapons. I ventured onto the quad that first week of class to the annual club recruiting day, cleverly named Quad Day. Sure enough, there they were, a whole group of people swinging foam covered sticks.

It was right up my alley, the kind of thing that came naturally to someone who had spent most of his childhood injuring themselves with impromptu weapons in less-than-safe sparring sessions. Looking back, I was fairly typical of a newbie, making all the wrong assumptions about what is good to use, learned a few rules incorrectly, but had a great time running around pretending I had any clue what I was doing. And that is where I got my start in Belegarth,like so many others.

Many years, and many fights, later, I was knighted by that same group of fighters, tasked with helping run the realm and passing on what I have learned. This blog is my first attempt to put many of the lessons I've learned about fighting over the years into a more readable form. I have done a guide here or there, links to follow when I'm not posting from my phone, but I wanted something more accessible out there.

If there is a topic you want me to cover, post it in the comments and I'll see what I can do.