Principles of Melee: The Individual   5 comments

A few months ago I ruminated on the fact that we have no ready analogue in melee for the nice, neat set of principles native to singles fighting, and that this made the didactic process a bit challenging (or nonexistent, depending …). My previous post on 2v1’s represents the first significant breakthrough I’ve had in deconstructing How Melee Works, and inertia has led to further examination. I’m excited.

What’s So Great About 2v1’s Anyway?

Trying to build up a new understanding of melee has required a reanalysis of some things we often take for granted. A lot of this will seem obvious, but that’s probably the best place to start.

In a singles fight, we can use our understanding of line, tempo, and measure to know when we’re safe and when we can strike. In a 2v1, the 1 has a much harder time of it. He has two lines to close and consider, two measures to react to, and two tempo “tracks” to watch.

The Fourth Principle

It might be called attention, or awareness. It’s a melee analog to the principle of judgement – how many details we can recognize and correctly interpret. It’s mostly about tracking the number and position of enemies (and their weapons) and objectives. Many fencers, especially beginners, will fixate on a single opponent. Some are capable of attending to two or three enemies at a fairly low resolution, picking up and parallel-processing the more obvious details. Rarely are we better. Humans suck at multitasking.

This is really why 2v1’s suck for the 1.

After all, from a pure three-principles perspective, a 2v1 is not that bad; the rules of fencing hold. Both of your enemies must have an open line, be able to take a tempo, and be within measure to strike you. To safely attack Opponent B, you just have to momentarily foil one of those elements for Opponent A (i.e. make the fight a split-second 1v1). SOP is to make A irrelevant via movement and measure, but there are other options available. In theory, it shouldn’t be that hard.

But practice is where the fourth principle comes in. Two opponents have their entire attention focused upon one, able to interpret all the subtleties of the fight to the best of their ability; meanwhile, the one is stuck with reducing these details to a manageable level, dealing in simplified forms just to be able to cognitively process it all, and therefore is much more likely to make mistakes.

But fortunately, awareness can also work for the 1 – because the 2 are also subject to awareness. They have to keep an eye on each other, interpret each others’ movements, and react accordingly to keep themselves safe – i.e. they have to maintain formation and protect each other. If the 1 has better awareness than the 2, he will be better able to manipulate and maneuver his opponents, and eventually, exploit an opening. Shut down opponent A, safely attack B.

Like all principles, our sense of awareness can be developed; maybe we should put more focus on that.


Of course, awareness/attention is bigger than that. Once we start looking at a full melee, rather than a microcosmic 2v1, this fourth principle truly comes into its own. Much of what we talk about – commands, field vision, remembering the objective, etc – is directly related to maximizing and using fighters’ attention and awareness most efficiently.

At any rate, an enemy who is not aware and attentive to us is not a threat, any more than an opponent who is out of measure; or whose line is closed; or who is busy taking a tempo doing anything other than attacking us. He becomes a threat when he is aware of us and turns his attention to us – whether or not we’re aware of him.

If we’re attentive to an opponent, and he is not aware of us, he should be dead pretty quickly – because he won’t know to stay out of measure, close the line, or use tempo to keep himself alive.

Just as we can use line to gain a tempo, or use measure to open up a line, we can use attention/awareness to gain another advantage. Because attention is a limited resource, if we can take up some of our opponent’s – get him focused on us – he’ll be less able to process other details of the fight around him. This is obvious in 2v1’s, where A’s attack might draw too many cognitive resources from the 1, and his parry-counter opens up a line and a tempo for B to strike. In melee, we have the famous tactic of occupying the Provost so the Scholar can run around and DFB him.

The Three Fights

So what does all this mean for our pedagogy? We can boil everything down based on attention and awareness.

At any point, a fencer can be in one of three fights, based on how many people are threatening him:

First, he can be completely unthreatened. Call it 0v1. Other enemies may be aware of him, but they do not have the quatrafecta of measure, line, tempo, and attention necessary to strike.

Second, he can be threatened by one other fighter. This is 1v1 and works pretty similarly to singles fighting, with the caveat of maintaining situational awareness.

Finally, he can be threatened by multiple enemies. This is 2v1. (Yeah, it could also be 3v1, or 4v1, or 5v1 … but you fight them all the same way, so they all go into the same category.)

These are where we begin. During a fight, you will always be in one of these situations. (For the newbie, we can pare down highfalutin concepts of Italian Principles + Attention to “is he in range and are his swords pointed at you?”)

What do you do?

It’s All About Rule 4

Depends on the objective, of course.

0v1 is the most desirable state; because we are unthreatened, we can focus our attention freely.

If we do not threaten anyone else, this is the time to think “what are my objectives?” Look around the field. Evaluate weak points. Is there a clear path to any flag? Will there be one soon? How can I make one happen? Are there some juicy, juicy flanks open? Any opportunities to create favorable 2v1 situations? Any budding unfavorable 2v1 situations to stymie? What about terrain?

If we are in measure of an opponent or opponents, the moment in which they do not threaten us is the time to strike. Ideally we attack the unaware (DFB being the best form of this), but we can still attack and force our opponents to take tempi to parry, retreat to expose their line, etc.

(This is why I am able to lunge in a line fight without getting killed, which seemed to impress Celric at Assessment; if no other enemies threaten me, even for a moment, I can attack safely. )

Of course, we can do things other than strike. We can grab the flag from the ground; we can blow past our opponent into their backfield and create a ruckus; we can even take a moment to turn our attention elsewhere and glance around the battlefield to make sure we aren’t being flanked.

1v1 is the next-most desirable state to be in. Make it 0v1 if you can.

Usually, this means “close the line and kill the bastard.” But here we run into occupying our opponents’ attention and whether or not this will help us secure the objective. If I, the newly-scarfed Scholar, can keep Dominyk busy for 10 seconds, just staying alive and maybe retreating away from the flags, I’m keeping his attention fixated on me. Because his attention is nowhere else, he can’t threaten anyone else. Of course, Dom would be well advised to make it a 0v1 by killing me, or simply disengaging from the fight.

2v1 is the worst state to be in. Work to make it 1v1.

Or “don’t be outnumbered.” Most people know this instinctually, but again, it’s worth spelling out for the newbie. If you’re threatened by multiple people (perhaps because your line is collapsing) you might be better off falling back to join the incoming rezzers. You’re definitely not going to gain much by a panicked lunge. Again, being in a 2v1 can be good, if you can occupy the enemy’s attention for a while; but rare is the Scholar who can do that for long.

What About Line Fighting?

Here’s the real point I’ve been working towards: line fighting is the most complex situation a fighter can be in. Attention is dispersed among several allies and enemies; there are a half-dozen tempo tracks to watch, and near twice as many lines, and measure is difficult to control, so you can’t use it to protect yourself. All players are in constant 2v1. It’s pretty difficult.

Yes, principles still apply. The rules still work. And we can make up simplified forms like “don’t lunge” to bring the messy chaotic swirl into something the average Scholar can process. But I’m left wondering why the hell we drop newbies into a line, as if that’s the most basic and easiest place to start. It’s not! It’s exactly the opposite!

Perhaps we do it not because it’s easiest for them, but because it’s easiest for us. A line has to be dealt with. It draws focus. It occupies the attention of our foes. It’s easy to teach and command. And then the better fighters can run around making trouble while our opponents are preoccupied by the line of Scholars.

In a way, this isn’t all selfish. We presume that newbies can’t survive on their own, or get kills, or even make good decisions independently, so we put them where they’ll do the most good – taking attention, because they can’t take much else.

But I am curious to see what would happen if I took a passel of new Scholars to a melee and, instead of teaching Line Fighting Basics, taught them How To Be Skirmishers – remember the objective, stay spread out, go for enemy lines from oblique angles, retreat when outnumbered, and defend as long as possible against higher Scarves.

Posted September 17, 2013 by Ruairc in Melee

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