Tournament Structure/Rulesets Conducive to HMA Study

Rory put forth the observation that the HEMA community is much troubled by what the “best” tournament format is, and long debate between entrenched positions as to what’s wrong with every current format (see: Sayre’s Law).  It starts with the assumption that there is an optimal format, or at least a universally least-bad format.  That assumption, though, requires all participants to be working towards the same goal.  Which they aren’t.

In the SCA we can’t agree that we’re actually fighting the same fight.  That’s within one organization focused on fifty years of combat style (and dominated by Americans*).  When you try to get consensus across a dozen distinct organizations, studying forms across six hundred years of documented combat, and split among distinct cultural backgrounds, consensus should not even be attempted.

As you pare away some of those cluttering factors, though, you can begin to gain consensus within homogenized groups.  For now, we’ll assume that there is no inter-organizational or international tribalism affecting our judgment.  We can dream.

The first point to reach consensus on is what we’re actually doing.

In the SCA, personal combat is generally agreed to be recreating a period duel.  Some dissension comes into play though as to whether we should be recreating first-blood duels or duels to the death, but given the ruleset it’s pretty clear we’re recreating neither (and all the debates about whether or not a particular type of wound on a particular location would have a particular effect is just mental masturbation. Or Ask the White Scarf fodder.  Which is the same thing).  Instead, we’re recreating something like a first-blood duel where tips are dull enough not to nick you and blades are serrated but only sharpened on the back edge of the teeth.  The SCA cannot sit in judgment of anybody, but it serves as a starting point with which most of you, the dear readers, are familiar.

Is the purpose recreating period combat?

If so, are they honor duels (fought in no armor, and to first blood, disinclination, or death) or are they judicial duels (fought according to… well, there are books to read on this), or are we recreating some other period form of personal combat, such as tourney combat (Pas d’Armes) or Elizabethan prize fights?

If it’s one of these the literature provides guidance on how to structure them in the most period way.  Each of the above identified types will require different weapons standards, assumed armor, judging, and point scoring systems.  Each will have its flaws.

Is the purpose MMA with swords?  In which case, I say good luck in Battle of Nations!  I will say I told you so when your ACL rips like tissue paper.

Is the purpose demonstrating mastery of the form?  I’m going to assume this is the intent.  Otherwise why do you have a Historic Martial Arts organization?

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Keith Cotter-Reilly, a local Meyer instructor, and we got to talking about the various conventions around the longsword combat of his broader organization (the Freifechters). They use a counted blow system very much like the Pas d’Armes.  Aside from the armor they wear, safety boils down to “Do anything that won’t actually hurt them”.  So you can front kick, but not round house.  Certain other strikes are legal, too, but won’t score points.  Points are scored by certain prescribed strikes with the sword, and are called by four judges.  And with those four judges, he still was able to block a strike at his head, and have it called as a blow against him.  He felt this was ludicrous because a) it was, b) the fighter he was against had less skill and simply bashed away, and c) he knew he hadn’t been struck.  It was an example of a conflict of the purpose of the fight (demonstrating mastery of form) and the format chosen, which rewards the ability to deliver blows of questionable effect as quickly as possible (see: epee).

The means of demonstrating mastery has to flow from the weapon and the teachings of the chosen master(s).  With a rapier, the masters don’t teach cuts that scratch.  They teach cuts that disable, often by immediate death.  Any blow called “good” in an HMA context should have that potential (either a cut that would disable the tendons of the hand and forearm, or a thrust to the chest. throat, or head that can be extended into a solid penetrating blow if the fighter really hates his opponent).  The light touches with no capacity to continue forward that we usually take, and encourage, in the SCA don’t fit this.  A light touch where the opponent has not fully extended his arm or shoulder, or is in position to pass through and press, does fit this.  The only people who can really tell that difference, though, are the fighters.  I’ve marshalled enough fights where I didn’t even see the winning touch, but the fighters felt it.  It’s previously been suggested on this blog that the SCA is the best HMA organization.  I’ll echo it here because the constant encouragement of honorable blow calling and top-down management of problem children (rhino hiders who usually get better or get gently nudged elsewhere) allows us to do away with judging of whether or not a blow was good (and any resentment or debate thereof) and rely on fighters’ perceptions.  

Perceptions can be wrong, though, due to adrenaline, angling, mental pre-occupation, and all those other things Gawin can jump in and tell us all about.  If it was a truly important contest (and therefore no tournament I’ve ever fought in in the SCA, and I’m willing to guess no tournament in HEMA), outside judges could provide a second check.  In the SCA we call this active marshalling and shun it, because it’s unnecessary unless somebody has fucked up big time, and Honor, and stuff.

However, the external judges do provide the capacity for judging mastery of the form.  Whether or not you strike first isn’t sufficient to demonstrate mastery (again, go fight epee if that’s your goal).  One of Rory’s big complaints these days is the amount of strip fencing-style footwork he sees in HEMA videos on Youtube.  A fighter, intent on defeating an opponent, is not likely to accurately judge their form (either they will be too harsh in judging their own performance, or they will be ignorant of their mistakes).  An impartial set of eyes could identify faults and adjust the score for them.  Which takes us to scoring.

The period masters (at least, Manciolino) provide a certain amount of guidance for scoring.  A wound to the head would be more honorable (worth more points) than a wound to the leg (Dante interprets it as Head = 3, Leg = 2, Torso = 1, and hand = 0 but you still win).  It’s an interesting system, applicable to pretty much any form that doesn’t assume some level of armor.  

The “form judges” discussed above could apply the MMA’s 10-point must system (Winner must get 10 points, loser gets anywhere from 6 to 9 points depending on their form).  Consider two fighters, Fighter A, who’s got excellent form (9), and Fighter B, who’s got absolute shit form (6).  If we have them fight three passes and B wins two of the three passes, he would still be considered the loser based on his shitty form: Fighter B would go 10, 10, and 6, for 26 points, while A went 9, 9, and 10 for 28 points.  Even if B had only slightly worse form, an 8, he’d still only tie in this situation.  Doubles score 9-9 at most, depending on form (though maybe 8-8, since if you had great form you’d be defending, and 6-8 if one of you has shit form and the other doesn’t).

Having started off saying that no system is best, I will propose a guide to finding the best system for the situation

What should be the blow calling method?  The fighters should call what lands on them, with input from outside observers.

What should be considered a good blow?  Whatever is commensurate with the weapon, the instruction, and the human body.

How should they be scored?  Rory will have to chime in on what the current scoring systems actually are in the various contests, but I’m going to go with “Anything that encourages hitting first and fastest without self-defense” is a shitty system.

Last but not least make sure everybody’s got the same purpose, or somebody won’t go home happy.

An additional footnote:

This article appeared recently on HROARR

It discusses a period master who laid out rules for bouting and encountered all the same problems ID’d above, and the period solutions developed.


*The “rugged individualism” drilled into the American psyche, especially in athletic endeavor, makes us somewhat less inclined to accept third-party judges of our deeds.  More socially-inclined cultures are more willing to accept others’ judgment.

6 comments to Tournament Structure/Rulesets Conducive to HMA Study

  • Ruairc

    HEMA tournaments are strongly leaning towards judged competitions these days. Sean Hayes gives a particularly strong example:

    Comprehensive, sure. But it ain’t parsimonious.

    I’m wary of the path trod by foil and epee. So’s Randy Packer, for what it’s worth, but he hasn’t offered any good solutions, to my knowledge.

    I’d keep the honor system with an additional check: a sportsmanship score. At the end of each bout, a fighter rates his opponent from 0 to 3 for sportsmanship – which encompasses good communication around landed blows, fighting in the spirit of the rules (with physical and mental control, not abusing necessary concessions to safety, etc), and generally making the practice of historical swordsmanship more enjoyable for those around him.

    3 is expected of any honorable opponent.
    2 is given to an opponent whom a fighter suspects of violation, but has insufficient evidence for certainty.
    1 is given to an opponent who, in the opinion of the fighter, reveals some certain and significant unsportsmanlike conduct once over the course of the bout, or several minor infractions (such as cursing, stop-thrusts to the guard to halt an attack, etc).
    0 is for multiple definite infractions.

    A fighter’s aggregate sportsmanship score is calculated both on the scores given to him and the scores he gave to others (as it is expected that most fencers will be deserving of a 3). In this way, any attempt to game the system (either by cheating or giving low scores to opponents) will become clear, and such a fighter will be punished on the scoreboard and dismissed from future competition.

    Might also have fighters judge each others’ form, with a similar check.

    • Ruairc

      It’s worth noting that such a system isn’t foolproof – it can be gamed by multiple players working in concert. But one or two assholes won’t be able to wreck everyone’s game.

  • James Wran

    I have a lot of thoughts about this:
    I dont think there is one correct / best rule rule set.
    I think that it is actually beneficial to have a range of rules as each draws out different skills and principles.
    I applaud those who compete in a range of events.

    I really like the idea of calling hits received, but it is flawed:
    when fighting at a competitive level against people who do not train to call these hits;
    when fighting those with different levels of impact acceptance / calibration
    when wearing different kinds of armour (especially when wearing too much armour for the types of weapons used);
    when fighting competitively and adrenaline affects ability to recognise when hit (some of us have trained to fight on through being hit)

    External judging is damn hard work, it will never be perfect either.

    There are many ways to score, either in a timed bout, or a bout to X blows. Many are valid.

    I like to achieve a balance and hope this year’s Swordplay will achieve it.
    (Swordplay is an Australian Competitive swordsmanship event with participants from across Australia and NZ, many different schools and styles which has grown into a HEMA community run event)

    ‘Form’ is a hard one. Most of us with any experience can tell the difference between good technique and bad (regards control, accuracy, efficiency, effectiveness) but it is a little arrogant to score form or style. I know only a few who are skilled enough to make such a call.

    I very much like and agree with the statement: “Anything that encourages hitting first and fastest without self-defense” is a shitty system.”

    I very much like the idea of a competitor scoring of opponent’s sportsmanship. I may actually trial this at Swordplay. I already have the idea of a ‘most honourable competitor’ prize in the rules.

    I believe that nobody has the right to comment about rule sets if they are;
    not willing try / consider various rule sets;
    are not competitors and judges;
    or are not willing to put their steel where their mouths are. Running events is a hard task.

    • Ruairc

      A very good response. It warms my heart to see HMA interest as far afield as Australia. I’d like to make it down there someday.

      You raise an excellent point regarding a range of rules. Since any single ruleset can be gamed, the best indicator of true mastery is success across a broad range of tournament rulesets. I suppose that we who organize these events would do well to offer a broad range.

      My inclination remains that fighters calling their own blows be a factor in determining the outcome of a bout (though perhaps not the only one; good faith collaboration between fighters and judges seems practicable). Calibration issues can be addressed. More to the point, I think it’s essential to good HMA practice that fighters have the knowledge and presence of mind to recognize when they’ve been struck and the likely effects of the hit, even in the heat of combat.

      But more than that, I think the honor system encourages mutual respect and camaraderie.

  • […] returns me to an earlier question: what set of rules might best promote some sort of period combat? Wistric’s observations remain valid, but I thought I might make an attempt at crafting something […]

  • […] me to an earlier question: what set of rules might best promote some sort of periodesque combat? Wistric’s observations remain valid, but I thought I might make an attempt at crafting something […]

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