Principles of Melee, Mk. 2   10 comments

I’m teaching a class at Sergeants & Scholars next week. Might as well lay it out here, for my benefit and yours. This will also allow me to expound on a few tangential topics and theoretical underpinnings, while I’ll have to keep things relatively short and simple at S&S.

We have a certain way of teaching melee in Atlantia. And although it’s better than everyone else’s, it’s still not very good. We start fighters in a line. We discuss unit-level phenomena like maneuvers and orders and tactics and strategy and objectives. And that’s exactly backwards, particularly for new fighters.

I’ve been slowly coming to this realization, and formulating a better approach, over the course of nearly 14 months. My first attempts were good ideas, but still couched within Atlantian SOP. Some time ago, I had the epiphany which provided the basis for my current formulation; at the time it was a bit disorganized, as new ideas tend to be, but I have since refined and expanded.

It’s far from done, but I think there is some profit in these ideas. Take from it what you will.

The Currency of Melee

And now for a lengthy theoretical preamble:

We talk a lot about objectives. And yes, they’re important. Superlatively so. But they vary from melee to melee, and they’re almost always achieved in the same way: by fighting effectively. Therefore, I’m going to ignore objectives, or at least assume that they can be separated from generalizable principles of fighting, and devote my investigations to the latter.

Warfare (real warfare) has upwards of a dozen legitimate principles, depending on which doctrine you subscribe to. Our sportified sword-games have far fewer. I ask the reader to consider that all melee has, really, three currencies:

Mass, or how tough your army is. Mass is the product of skill and numbers (and armament, but that’s rarely a factor in our games) and represents, in absolute terms, how difficult you are to attrit down (the more skilled your guys are, the harder they are to kill; the more of them there are, the harder they are to annihilate).

In rez melees (which is most of them), Mass is converted to Energy, a product of skill and cardio. With rezzes, your numbers are infinite; the limiting factor is your fighers’ fatigue. The more skilled your guys are, the less often they die; the less often they die, the less quickly they tire. (Contrary to popular belief, actual fighting does not take much energy, as the movements are relatively small; moving around a lot by going to rez and back, however, is quite tiring.) And the better their cardio, the better their ability to sustain effective fighting over time and deaths. Ultimately, cardio should be your backup plan. Plan A is “don’t die”. This is important.

The last, I will call Attention, which derives from the limitation of time. Attention is ultimately about how well (how quickly and efficiently) fighters can react to changing conditions. At the battlefield level, this is realized in the flexibility and efficacy of your command structure, the tactical aptitude of leaders, and your army’s drilling and discipline. Your C2 determines how efficiently you can deploy your Energy/Mass.

But I’m more concerned with the individual level. Forgive the awful physics puns; here, we begin.

Attention is Everything

Neurologically speaking, you can only attend to one thing at a time. People who are “good multitaskers” may be able to switch their attention rapidly between different tasks and have good working memories, but they are not truly parallel-processing, as a computer might.

Successful fencers can track and react to a dozen variables at once, but it’s not because they magically have more mental resources. By practicing (and especially by drilling), we can create automatic subroutines in our brains, and ingrain effective (or ineffective) responses to certain stimuli. With enough experience, we can “pay attention” to these things – which is to say, we can interpret and react to them – without conscious thought, freeing our brains to examine other things.

Of course, newbie fencers start at zero. They have no automatic processing. Because of this, they have difficulty enough attending to the details of a single one-on-one fight.

Why, then, do we expect them to respond to commands given in the heat of battle? Why do we expound on the tactical implications of such-and-such a game-state? Any fighter without a modicum of experience – I’d place it around the Sea Dragon level – is, in most cases and at most times, literally incapable of processing or using that information. It’s not that they’re stupid or useless. Their brains are just overwhelmed.

And their brains are especially overwhelmed after we’ve stuck them in a line fight, where they must attend to at least five other people to be successful. The line is a terrible place for the newbie.

Unfortunate Realities

Of course, we don’t necessarily have a better place for newbies. They’re not likely to be much better at skirmishing – they can’t automatically process the tactical implications of an exposed flank any more than they can process the physical implications of a closed line. I hold that this is mostly a question of training, and teaching melee tactics is a lot easier than getting them to internalize, through hours of mask time, the variables germane to the physics of swords. But I’ll come back to this point later.

No matter how we slice it, newbies will probably encounter a line fight sooner or later, and they must be prepared to deal with it. They will, necessarily, be “in over their heads” as far as their mental resources (Attention) are concerned. But we can try to direct their resources where they will be most effective. We can try to simplify melee down to something they can handle.

Rule 1: stay alive. Remember Mass? Remember Energy? If you’re dead, you’re either useless or you’re becoming useless by burning your stamina on the rez run. So don’t die.

How do we not die? For the raw newbie, I’m going to say “keep your sword up and parry.” And that’s it. No attacking (unless the opponent is begging for a face stab). Definitely no lunging. Nothing fancy. Just stay alive, even if it means running away. (Try to take your friends with you.)

Rule 2? Ignored. It’s unnecessary cognitive load. If they’re staying alive and keeping their swords up, they’re keeping their friends alive by threatening the opponent. Rule 3? We’ll just barely touch on it. Rule 4 and up? Advanced stuff. Outside their abilities. Maneuvers? Commands? Formations? No. Keep it simple, at least to start, because they can’t deal with anything else. Once you get them some experience (preferably with regular practice – but that’s a separate topic), they can move on.

Universal Principles

Thanks to some basic automation, the slightly more advanced fencer can direct his Attention more finely. Again, we start with staying alive. (Will Ruairc have to sing some Saturday Night Fever at S&S? Maybe.)

In highfalutin Italianated fencing, the state of the fight is dictated by three principles: measure, tempo, and line. Each is pretty deep. But these can be profitably simplified for the novice, especially in a melee context. We are trying not to die. Let’s say that our opponents need three things to kill us, then:

Range – they have to be close enough to hit us (we’ll define it as a lunge)
Readiness – they have to be ready and able to attack us, as opposed to, say, in the middle of a retreat or a parry or an attack directed at someone else
Opening – they have to have a space through which they can attack

For melee, I’d add Awareness, which is to say that they have to know we’re there.

(From the Italian perspective, this is a derivative of Judgement, but can also be understood as a subset of Attention. As such, this one is also more complicated than presented here: more completely, the opponent must be aware and confident that they have Range, Readiness, and Opening, and they must be aware/confident that we are not aware of, or do not have, those things. This is where intimidation and other mind games, such as Connor’s no-look shot, come in; but for now, we’re keeping it simple.)

We start at the simplest place to demonstrate: a 1v1 single-sword fight. Awareness and Range are fairly obvious concepts and will not need much explicit instruction, and they should be automatic for even very fresh fighters. We’ll need our students to focus on Readiness and Opening. These should be fairly easy to demonstrate.

Once these are understood, we move on to the tactical implications: If an opponent knows where I am, is within range, is ready to act, and has an open line of attack, then he is a threat to me, and I must be very careful. I am obligated to look to my defense; attacking is suicidal. (Even an attack which simultaneously shuts down one of these factors – say, a lunge that closes the line – can be countered – say, with a cavazione di tempo or a void.)

On the other hand, if my opponent lacks any one of these things, they are not a threat, and I’m safe. If he doesn’t know I exist, or if I’m too far away to be hit, or if he’s not ready to act, or if he has no openings, he cannot hurt me, at least for a moment.

The best situation is when I have all of these things relative to my opponent, and my opponent lacks one or several relative to me. In this case, I am a deadly threat to him while he is no threat to me. (This is, in a very rough way, the basis of Italian tactics.)

Building Up

At this point, novices will have a basic framework, which logically and demonstrably springs from singles fighting, for interpreting melee. Now, they can allocate their limited Attention where it is likely to do the most good. That in itself is an achievement and is more than half the battle. Everything else grows from these. Let’s demonstrate.

The beginner is going to have difficulty enough with 1v1. There’s no reason to jump up to 5v5 or 10v10 or even 3v3. Melee is any fight with more than two people. If you have three, hey! it’s a melee! Let’s start at 2v1.

We can immediately apply these principles to this slightly-more-complex situation. Let us consider the 1 in a 2v1.

The rules hold. If each of my opponents lack at least one of Awareness/Range/Readiness/Opening, I am safe and can, at least for a moment, act freely. If even one, however, retains all of these, I am threatened, and attacking is likely fatal.

Success, for me, is found in taking these away from every opponent, even if just for a moment. This gives me the opportunity to act freely – and if I’ve retained Awareness, Range, Readiness, and Opening, that opportunity will translate to a potential kill.

The lesson for the 1: don’t die. When you are safe, THEN you can try killing someone.

The lesson for the 2: gang up on people. 2v1 is how you can be safe and still kill someone. 2v1 is, then, the basis for all melee at the tactical level. It is the basis for all maneuver and all melee drill.

This is the sum of the first class – the first few steps of understanding. Once the basics are known and 2v1 begins to make sense, we can expand. Soon, you have fighters capable of skirmishing. Build it up to 2v2, 3v2, and 3v3. There are some additional details, but they derive from the principles above.

After that, it’s easy to integrate your new fighters into a line. From the individual perspective, a line fight is essentially a static 3v3.

This eventually builds back up to the battlefield level. Attention comes full circle, complete with commands and maneuvers and such. But that’s a discussion for another time.

Posted May 14, 2014 by Ruairc in Melee

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