Thursday, July 24, 2014

Theory Thursday: City Fighting

I mentioned city fighting a little bit when I talked about choke points. I feel like it is a good time to take a closer look, especially with Okfest in the not too distant future. I'll highlight a few specific obstacles I've seen over the years.

Of course, city is a pretty loose term here. Most cities we see at events are more like a series of fences or a maze. However, these obstacles still serve to breakup the fighting field into corridors that at least give some sense of that style of combat.

While each section of the line engages in small scale fights over each choke point, the strategic plan must involve maintaining control over area. To do this, sections need enough coordination to block of access to the "safe zone" in their backfield via control of individual corridors. Even the smallest approach being left undefended could end in disaster for the team, especially if sections no longer have a view of their allies.

The maneuver phase of battle takes on a slightly different role. Rather than simply approaching the enemy and redressing the ranks, it becomes far more of a race to capture territory quickly. Even without any knowledge of the layout, having more territory gives you space to fall back on and better chances of controlling advantageous areas. With prior experience, pushing in quickly might give your team a chance to take key sections or corridors that lead directly to the enemy's backfield.

As the layout becomes more maze-like, or entrances more spaced apart, it is easier for a team to lose coherency of command and communication. This is where reserves can prove vital to success. By staying off the frontlines, they not only provide some security against enemies making it through, they also can gain a better view of the big picture. Reserves may find an area that allows them to maintain visual contact with more than one section, letting them balance out reinforcements against spikes of attrition or faltering lines.

Strong points often reside around junctions and along uneven corridors. These can often allow a team to control how many fighters can be on the front, increasing your own frontage on attack or reducing the enemy's on defense. For example, a corridor that narrows at one end forces the front to shrink in order to fight on that end. This funnel shape allows a smaller force to control the corridor.

Junctions of several corridors (T-junctions, etc) will often force one side to fight through what is essentially a kill pocket in order to get through. Even if the enemy doesn't fall into the trap, it will deter them from pushing that area. In this case, the stalemate might allow a few to sneak off to bolster other sections. However, having a large force controlling the area left in a stalemate might be a disadvantage, allowing the enemy to hold up a lot of fighters with a small force.

Hairpins offer a few unique opportunities.  The first and most obvious is to fight on the defensive, slowly falling back while trying to pick off a few enemies, keeping a large force engaged in a protracted fight.  These are often used as outer defenses for towns or castle layouts for that very purpose.  One very successful strategy is to station archers and spears just around the bend, catching the first batch of enemies off guard with the extra range and extra strong line as they round the corner.  Fair warning, those close to the inside of the bend are very likely to be within swinging distance quickly.  Even though blind swings around corners are usually forbidden for safety reasons, that won't stop a few "nearly blind" swings from peeking around the corner.

Complex junctions might even span a large portion of the town, connected by the main corridors through it.  In the case above, red team's position is pretty rough.  To engage with the full force up top, they'll have to fight on a very wide front in two directions.  Depending on the scale, vision gaps might make it very easy for blue team to take advantage.  Meanwhile, blue team just needs to fend off the small side corridor to maintain a fairly strong defensive position across the whole city section.  Even though they don't control the large area in the middle, they are preventing the red team from establishing a foothold on their side of the gap.

Double tapers aren't something seen at most events, but I like the idea.  I may just have to get one set up at Okfest this year.  Holding the middle isn't any different than a single taper, but for either side to take it and then push out is more difficult.  It ends up being easier to teams to hold ground as they move towards the middle.  This also means that it may be more difficult for them to maintain a fighting withdrawal.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Skill on a Stick

Before anyone gets upset, this isn't intended to be a rant about cheesy weapons and the people that use them.

I hear about it all the time. Whether it is a discussion about how to fight against it or how to use it, someone inevitably says "they're just skill on a stick". Heck, I'm sure I've said it a few times.

Of course, it isn't just flails we hear this sort of sentiment about. Cheesemail, low profile spears, 12 oz swords, punch towers, speed bats, and all sorts of other gear gets labeled as cheesy or overpowered. This is especially true when talking to newer fighters.

Obviously, the game can't be so imbalanced (or well balanced) that everything is overpowered. There are advantages and disadvantages to most gear. So why do we keep hearing [random gear] is overpowered? It seems a portion is due to exposure to the fighting style, which depends largely on the area one fights in. If you haven't fought against a weapon or shield design before, you have no preset method to fight against it, so you have to resort to your typical responses and attacks.

But that isn't all that makes something "cheesy", it has to have some advantage that people find difficult to overcome. Lets look at the max length (40" in Belegarth) flail as an example. The advantage it gets is the ability to go around shields and blocks thanks to the hinge. It takes practice, but those advantages aren't difficult to overcome by changing how you block and move against the flail. It succeeds when people react the same as they would against a sword.

Still seems too strong? Well, it is 40" long, your sword? Probably not that long. Even most longswords come in around 36" in length. To be honest, if you were to use a max length sword, you'd probably have an advantage over the flail. With the general trend of making lighter, faster weapons, flails begin to be stronger relative to the field.

This same sort of meta gaming lends itself to promote the other types "cheese", and whatever counters it. Cheap and easy armor to counter lots of spears, punch towers to counter flails, etc. The point here is that everything has a way to counter it, including your setup. If you find yourself constantly losing to one weapon or style, maybe look at your own strategy and style before labeling them cheesy. Maybe you've been throwing rock when you really should be throwing scissor.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Theory Thursday: Range Game and Support Weapons

I talked about range last week from the perspective of a typical sword and board fighter. This week, I thought it was appropriate to look at support weapons and how they play the range game.

Because of the extra reach, glaives, spears and most other red swords have very favorable advantages in the range game. However, most of them suffer at close range. Even skilled fighters only have a few options at close quarters, especially with longer weapons.

The extra range increments for a support weapon somewhat overlap with the breakdown from last week, with the following additional considerations:

1. One handed range. The maximum reach of a weapon is when it is held with one hand.

2. Two handed range. This varies with the distance between hands. If the hands are right next to each other, it is still shorter range than one handed range.

3. Short range. When the opponent is inside the typical range that the haft padding would be in a normal stance, requires changing angles to hit safely.

4. Close range. When you can no longer effectively use the weapon because your opponent is too close.

The ghosted image shows roughly where my glaive might end up if I were to rotate my shoulders into a one handed stab.  There is also more overlap between one handed and two handed that depends on hand position.  The overlapping zone is roughly the same size as the distance between my hands.

Original Photo by Ellie Apland

Therefore, it is the support weapon's goal to keep their opponent outside of close range, or kill them before they get there. This leads many newer users to always attack at maximum range, to try buying themselves time to get a second attack in before being inside their opponent's range. This can work, but isn't always as favorable as it seems.

Attacking at full extension also means your recovery has to start at full extension. This means more time recovering the shot, rather than attacking or blocking. Larger weapons make this even more of a hindrance. Common practice for experienced fighters is to wait at the fringes of a support weapon's range, then rush when the shot is dodged or misses. This is very visible when looking at spears and glaives doing single handed stabs at a target standing just at the very edge of maximum range.

Of course, there are a few tricks support weapons can pull off that are harder to do with a smaller weapon.  It is harder to predict the range of a longer weapon, at least the margin of error is higher. That means they can catch someone off guard who thinks they are safe. It can be extremely effective to try to deceive ones range by changing grips, stance, or shifting your weight. Use these factors to start with shorter ranged attacks, then switch to increase range when the opponent feels safe.  With a long enough weapon, one can also get away with taking a step towards the target, assuming the step doesn't have the drawback of bringing them within range of their opponent.

A note on safety is due here. Gripping a two handed with your hands close together near the pommel increases range, but drastically reduces control. There are very few times it is worth the risk for a few extra inches of reach. Also, because your hands are so close, you will lose leverage and slow the speed you can return to guard. Avoid throwing this type of shot unless it is a fairly static target with the lowest risk of hitting someone's face. Leg sweeps can work here, because it is fairly safe to the target.  Some extra control can be gained by moving the upper hand during the swing, giving you some margin to correct the final direction of the blow if the target moves.  The same words of wisdom apply to one handed strikes, using the second hand as long as possible to help keep the strike on target and removing it as that arm reaches maximum extension.

During a field battle, range control is much easier, using your own position relative to your line to dictate how close an opponent can get safely.  In one on one fighting, it requires much more work.  If you are using a longer weapon like a spear or glaive, your opponent is going to want to rush you.  You have to use footwork in order to create openings and shut down angles that they might attack from, remembering that range depends on the distance from your shoulders to the target zone.  As such, and short/close range, you have to actually get your shoulders farther from the target to hit with a large weapon, especially if only a small portion is striking surface, in the case of glaives and spears.  This also causes your upper body to be farther from your opponent's attacks.

To do this, you either have to step, lean, or change your angle of attack.  Stepping away from the opponent's sword arm greatly increases the range advantage, and can give you a better angle to counter their attacks, especially if they originally threw a wide shot or wrap.  Shifting your weight away from them moves your shoulders back, giving you around half the distance between your feet in extra range to play with.  These two combined can make for a considerable change in range and angles.

Changing the angle of attack is more about shot selection than the range game, but I'll point out a couple of things about it.  Normally, the distance from shoulder to target is the primary focus of the range game. However, at closer range, a wider shot selection opens up from wrap shots and extreme high crosses.  You are now attacking based on where your hands are, using your arms to change the angle of attack, and thereby changing the distance between your hand and target.  For example, with a minimum sized two handed sword, raising your arms above your head and throwing a cross shot to the opponents arm can be done at very close range, even more so if one leans to the side.

Another option when inside the short/close range is to choke up on the weapon, to an extreme amount in some cases.  This brings your strike zone back within range without moving yourself.  With a glaive, you can hit safely at nearly point blank by holding near the striking surface with one hand and near the middle with the other.  Spears are slightly more difficult, but you can place good stabs up close by moving your front hand closer to the tip.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Theory Thursday: Range Game Basics

I've talked a little bit about the range game here and there, but I haven't really broken it down. Sir Kenneth has a great write up, but it is buried deep in the dark abyss of the Bel boards. If I can find a link, I'll put it here.

Lets start with the basics, your range. Your own range will eventually be second nature to you, especially after using the same weapon for a long time. However, a few key points:

1. Your maximum range is when your arm is at full extension parallel to the ground

2. You can increase your range by moving your center of mass towards the target. This includes lowering it for legs shots.

3. The position of your shoulders affects range. In line with the target brings you closer. Squared up loses range.

4. Footwork is vital to controlling range. Stepping towards the target during a swing adds a substantial amount of range.

With a static target (guinea pig), from your normal stance, hold your weapon strait out towards them. Step forward until you can just barely touch. Now point your sword down towards the leg. No where close to being in range. Now bend your knees, shift your weight forward, and twist your shoulder towards the leg. Notice how much extra range you just gained, without even stepping in.

Once we know are own effective range, lets look at our opponent. Start with the target's torso just out of reach with your weapon extended. Now have them do the same. Notice
that either of you are in range of each other's arm. This should be a good reminder of how your opponent's range changes based on what targets you present.  Also illustrates the danger inherent in swinging at targets outside of your range.

Now of course, weapon choices vary greatly from person to person and place to place. You and your opponent might have a drastic difference in range. Lets look at the ranges each of you can be at:

1. Both out of range and safe by a few steps. (like the maneuver phase of a line fight)

2. Long range: neither are in range, but two steps gets you in target.

3. Mid-long range: easily within a step of being in range, both are now at risk of being rushed. (stalemate phase of a line battle)

4a. Mid Range: You have a longer reach and are the only one that can strike.

4b. Mid range: your opponent has a longer reach and is the only one that can strike.

5. Short range: Both are in range to swing freely.

6. Too close: both are so close that neither can swing effectively. (maybe wrap shots)

There are a couple more, but they are specific to polearms and other large weapons, more on that later. As we can see, 4b is a terrible place to be. Spot 5 can be pretty rough too, especially against a skilled opponent. Foot work must be used to get yourself out of bad spots and into a more favorable position. In the case of 4b, you have to move through the range to strike, or constantly move back.

I'll talk a little more about moving in and out of range in a future post, but this is largely the foundation I learned as a new guy. It is at least a good place to start if you haven't considered much about range before. If nothing else, Kenny would be happy to teach you through negative reinforcement using his longsword.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Tactics Spotlight: Shock Troop Defense

Holiday weekend + being under the weather a bit = me being slow to get posts out.  I should be back on the normal routine this week, though I seem to have forgotten to make graphics.

Previously, we looked at a few of the ways shock troops can attack the enemy line. Today I want to take a look at how to stop them. Most shock troopers are experienced fighters and usually bring a good bit of armor to the field. That's going to make it hard to prevent them from reaching their goal.

The easiest way to reduce their impact is to keep your head on a swivel. Noticing gaps and keeping you eyes on different angles of approach gives you a chance to spot the danger early and try to prevent it. By closing up gaps and calling out strafing runs, you greatly limit their access to easy targets.

Outside of not seeing a strafing run coming, most often their success seems to be because very few people swing at them.  Those that do often swing at the wrong target zones.  Throwing a high cross shot while they are on the move is usually going to end up hitting their shield, or hitting very light as they move away.  The best shot to land is a good hit to their leg, especially if you can get it in to an unarmored area.  Once they've lost mobility that close to your line, there isn't too much they can do without support.

One rare case to prevent strafing runs requires that you be a bit bigger than the person strafing, or at least be better at bashing.  Simply stepping up into their path and delivering a strong shield bash can knock them down, especially with the correct timing.  Even if they aren't knocked down, they are very likely to be slowed down enough for others to get a free swing or two.

Those on the line have a few options to stop shock troopers, but often times it comes down to reserves or other shock troopers to counter them.  Reserves should pay close attention to how the line in moving in the maneuver phase and look for gaps forming in the line.  Once noticed, moving there quickly is essential.  Quite often, the enemy has already spotted that same gap and will be moving there at the same time.  The mere presence of someone standing there to block it out is usually enough of a deterrent to send them elsewhere.

If you do find yourself holding a wide gap against a couple of shock troopers, try to keep to the middle of the gap and call for help.  As they approach, you need to try to get both of them to engage you in a fight, rather than one simply bypassing you.  This is difficult, because they will tend to split of once you have engaged one of them.  You'll have to try moving back and forth and putting swings on each of them.  If you can manage to leg one of them quickly, you might be able to turn the tide.  Even if they do get away, you have managed to slow them down a little to block and deal with you, potentially giving your team time to react.

There have been occasions where an enemy strafing run can be stopped by a friendly shock trooper chasing them through the middle of the lines.  This requires either being faster than their shock trooper or seeing their move and intercepting from in front of them a little bit.  This can prove to be exceptionally difficult, and is a fairly rare circumstance.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Theory Thursday: Defensive Footwork

This is a more detailed write up about footwork.  I am trying to build a stronger guide, using this post as a starting point.  Please comment if you think there is something missing or that needs clarification.  For now, I'm just looking at a person's center and where it moves, the feet will follow.  If someone needs more specific "put your feet like this" direction, I can eventually make some graphics for it.

Today's topic is using footwork on the defensive, when your opponent is being aggressive. We'll start using a simple duel between two right handed sword and board users as an example, with the fighter in red being the aggressor.  I'm not too worried about the specifics of where your feet are at each step, only your general stance (shield or sword foot forward).  If you move from point A to B, your feet should stay as close to one stance or the other as possible and get there in a comfortable way.  If you feel you are crossing your legs or moving awkwardly, try pushing off of the other foot or pivoting.  You need to be balanced between your feet at each step.

To start, lets look at our options if they simply advance directly at us, a very common approach.  There are four basic directions we can move, and four angles combining them.

The basic layout for our example. Actual sword and shield position, as well as the feet themselves, are beyond today's topic.  This is just enough to give you the rough idea visually.

 Basic Directions

We can choose to move forward (yes, towards the guy rushing you).  This is probably a set up for a bash and/or wrap shot.  This is the most aggressive of the defensive strategies, and the least likely to add any measure of safety from the opponent's attack.  If a bash is the intention, shifting your weight forward after sliding towards them will offer a little more power to the bash.  With luck, the bash could cause them to stop their attack or even be knocked down.  If you managed to merely come to point blank range without much success, a backblock can prevent a number of attacks, especially if they don't have a stabbing weapon.
The opposite end of the spectrum is to move backward in line with their rush.  This helps to keep the distance originally preferred, but if they are rushing, back peddling is slower than their run.  That means they can still close the gap.  This does, however, buy time and potentially cause them to be in range of someone else during a line fight, much like a staggered gap.
The remaining two basic directions are sideways.  The difference between sword side and shield side vary a good deal in their advantages and disadvantages.  Moving directly to the sword side greatly reduces the available targets your opponent has, usually leaving only the shield side leg vulnerable.  There is also an opportunity for a wrap shot to come in around the shield.  These two open targets are shared by you and your opponent.  If your stance is usually shield foot forward, this is a good time to switch stances, pushing off with your shield leg and then sliding it around behind as you move over.

Moving directly to the shield side opens up the target's sword arm and torso to attack, but also exposes you to the same attacks.  If you fight sword foot forward, this leaves you extra vulnerable.  It is perfectly reasonable to switch stances to shield foot forward, rather than rotating your torso.  This cuts off some of the angle, but keeps your torso free to rotate into strikes.

Basic Angles

The four basic directions combine to make four distinct angles.  Each one offers a unique advantage or opportunity.  More often than not, the angles offer better positions than the basic directions.

The two forward angles offer an aggressive counter to the rush, without directly running into the opponent.  In a larger fight, you might even be able to turn the tables and end up behind their line.  Moving this way towards your shield side greatly opens up both fighters.  Just like moving sideways, switching to shield foot forward is recommended during the move.  A lot of fighters are tempted to throw a high cross towards their opponent's chest when moving this way, but it exaggerates the already considerable risk to yourself.  Stick to safer shots like the short cross, or the slot shot as you move across their guard.  Target the arm or shoulder.

Moving forward to the sword side makes you and your opponent quite vulnerable to wrap shots and leg sweeps. Switching to sword foot forward does help a little, but the opportunities still exist.  Because you've cut off a large number of angles that could reach your torso, you can let your shield favor over a little towards your opponent to reduce their chance to throw wrap shots.  Throwing a wrap shot during the move will usually result in it landing on target as both of your complete your move.

The two backward angles can drastically change the fight.  Moving back and to the sword side is the most defensive move.  It takes you the furthest away from their sword. Depending on which shots they decide to throw, this move may make it easier to sneak in a slot shot or a leg sweep during the move.  On the line, it also causes them to angle their sword side towards your team, leaving them exposed to attack.

Moving back and shield side is less defensive, but gives you a better angle on their sword arm.  Switching to shield foot forward is recommended, but not as necessary as other shield side moves.  Short crosses are probably the safest shot to throw here.  Your team gains less of an advantage to the opponent's rotation here, because they will usually have to swing all the way across themselves to target them, leaving the friendly fighter exposed.

Staring position in the middle, each frame gives you a look at where you and your opponent are likely to end up after their one move towards you.


So, which move is the best one?  I generally prefer to back away towards my sword side, depending on the surroundings.  However, your opponent's nature, shot selection, and skill all come into play deciding which one to use.  Fighting against an opponent who is great at wraps, I might chose to back away to the shield side.  Against an opponent with a weaker guard or less skill, I might be aggressive and go forward to my shield side.  It is really a matter of what you need to do to accomplish your goal.  If staying on the defensive is a must, using any of the backwards moves is a good idea.  If your team needs you to make something happen, being aggressive might be necessary, forcing you to move forwards.

All of this so far assumes one move.  In the future, I'll look a little more at chaining moves together into more of an actual plan.  For now though, try practicing with a friend, taking turns playing the aggressor.  After/as they advance, try moving in one of the eight directions.  Pause and take stock of what has changed in the fight.  Where are your feet?   What is your shield blocking?  What targets can you see?  What did you gain?  These questions are what you should be asking yourself each time your practice.