Applied Principles: Awareness, comma, Situational

This is the last of the core skillsets for melee fighters within my framework. There’s plenty more to melee, of course, but as with tournament fencing, a lot of it is simply refining these basics.

This section is also on the shakiest ground, as I’ve mostly moved beyond the hard truths contained in measure, tempo, and line (simplified as Range/Readiness/Opening) and now focus on unit- and battlefield-level Awareness. But whatever flaws you may find, I believe it’s worth thinking about. Improve it if you can.

As always, this framework is for focusing Attention, and improving it by giving fencers some solid heuristics to guide their decision-making and reveal what’s most important.

Aggression and Defensiveness

The usual disposition for fencers is a defensive one. It comes naturally from 1v1 fights – make sure you’re safe, then work on killing the other guy. It applies doubly so to melee, where we must have closed out multiple opponents’ Range, Readiness, Opening, or Awareness before we can be safe. But being too defensive risks not taking opportunities when they arise. Fencers must be comfortable both with defensive play, where we mostly wait for opponents to make mistakes and look to our own safety, and aggressive play, where we capitalize on mistakes and force them to make more. The latter is more risky, but vital for effective combat.

Consider a sterile 2v1 situation. As we discussed previously, the status quo here benefits the pair, so the solo fighter has to make up for it with maneuver or better application of the basic principles (i.e. being more skilled). He cannot afford to be conservative or static; the longer the fight remains a 2v1, the worse off he is. At a minimum, he will almost certainly have to expend more energy just to stay alive, and will fatigue before the pair. The pair, on the other hand, have every reason to check their aggression. If they keep their cohesion, they will remain safe, but if one of the pair overextends, he puts himself or his partner at risk.

Now consider the same 2v1, but as a subset of a much larger battlefield. The solo fighter here is in exactly the opposite position; the longer he can draw out the fight, the greater his chances of being reinforced. Furthermore, if the teams are of even numbers, the longer he occupies two fighters by himself, the better the situation for his teammates elsewhere. The pair, meanwhile, must kill the solo fighter as quickly as possible.

This is easily observed in a split 3v2. Consider a situation where A and X split off, leaving B & C to fight Y.

A is in a 1v1 with X, but his friends are in a favorable 2v1. His friends have an advantage where he does not, so he’ll (generally) want to be defensive. B & C, of course, should aggressively finish off their target and then move to assist A.

X is in a 1v1, without advantage, but his buddy Y is at a significant disadvantage; all else equal, it is far more likely that X will be able to safely kill A than Y will be able to safely kill either B or C. Therefore, X must be aggressive and try to kill A fast so as to even the score before Y falls. Y, of course, is defensive.

A 3v3 asymmetrical split is the same: A & B are aggressive against X, who is defensive; Y & Z are aggressively hunting down C, who is trying to draw out the fight as long as possible.

Because most fencers naturally take a defensive stance, they must be taught when to be aggressive and when to be defensive. The more quickly they are able to recognize and react to these situations, the better they will be able to seize opportunities and mitigate threats, acting effectively as part of a unit without direct orders.

Using Aggression

Interaction between two units should fall into one of three categories. Without direct orders or a compelling reason to do otherwise, by default, fencers should:

Kill – In general, when we have some advantage over our opponent, it is best to crush them immediately, before they can run away or maneuver to make the fight fair.
Run – In general, when we are at a disadvantage, we should move – either maneuver, to create an advantage and even the score, or else to retreat and reorganize. Continuing to fight at a disadvantage is usually a good way to end up dead.
Stand – In general, when neither team has an advantage, a conservative light engagement is the default. Without some advantage, an aggressive attack is as likely to be detrimental as successful. We need to slowly seek the advantage and look for a good maneuver.

There is a final possibility – that one unit has one kind of advantage (say, numbers), and the other has some other kind of advantage (say, greater skill). This is a complex situation and only experience can tell you how best to deal with it.

Types of Advantage

I mentioned three already in my last post:

Numerical – the most obvious, and frequently the most telling.
Skill – less direct than simple numbers, skill is also important.
Positional – a broad category covering cohesion and maneuver – whose fighters are in the best position to be effective. Terrain is also important here.

And since we’re building back up to the battlefield level, I’d like to introduce one more:

Strategic – simply put, if one team has the flag, and nothing changes, they will win. Because the other team must take it, they are at a disadvantage.

All fighters should be able to recognize numerical advantage. Skill advantages require more nuanced evaluation of “the other guy”, but regalia (white scarves), quality of garb, and confidence of posture are good hints. Positional advantages are easily recognized too, particularly if fighters scan the battlefield ahead of time for difficult ground or know what maneuvers their opponents might attempt.

Strategic advantages are mostly the responsibility of the commander to track and react to, but intermediate fencers should try to maintain a general idea of where they stand and what the tactical implications might be. Strategic disadvantages frequently have special consequences – the default is no longer “run away”. If you need to capture the flag in the next fifteen seconds, it doesn’t matter that the opponent outnumbers you two to one – you have to charge in there aggressively and try your best, or else resign yourself to defeat.

Again, the goal is that fencers recognize these things immediately and react immediately, without being told – even though (or especially because) they change rapidly from moment to moment on the battlefield. This is not a thing for the commanders alone.


We’ve seen that cohesion is important. We’ve also seen that Awareness is limited (abstractly by Attention, but absolutely by the limits of our senses). Communication addresses both of these.

Aggression on the part of an individual line fighter will likely get him killed. Likewise, if a single line fighter steps out of line to flee a bad situation, his comrades are at great immediate risk. Fighters who recognize moments of advantage or disadvantage must also communicate these to their teammates – as efficiently and directly as possible – to leverage the opportunity while keeping cohesion.

Everyone must be comfortable with giving (and following) these commands. If only the commander talks, then the unit’s reactions depend solely on his Attention and Awareness. And even were the commander to spot an ideal opportunity, orders cannot always be communicated in due time.

A hierarchy of command is not a bad idea, of course, particularly when orders must be countermanded. But advantages appear and disappear rapidly, particularly in line combat. Everyone must be ready to alert the unit.

Especially People Not Fighting

If you’re engaged with an opponent, you can’t spare much thought for the battlefield as a whole. If you’re returning from rez, you most certainly can. Take a moment, look around, and communicate anything important to your teammates (up to and including maneuvers!). Incoming flankers, etc, are obvious candidates, but one that goes too frequently ignored is telling your friends to fall back from a losing fight. There’s rarely any point in dying to a man.

This is why, when we can afford the manpower, we have commanders stay off the line.

A Dynamic Battlefield

Lines are fragile. Much like the proverbial chain, once one link breaks (whether a fighter dies, steps back, or simply loses his main hand and takes awhile to switch), the entire line is exposed. Fighters must be ready to capitalize.

I’m in a line fight. Three people threaten me: A, off to my left; B, across from me; and C, off to my right. Next to me, on either side, are X and Y. (Of course there are other members of the alphabet down the line, but they are out of Range, and I pay them no Attention for now.)

I move my dagger forward into the space between A’s sword and my body. Now he has no Opening. At that very instant, C makes a wide parry, an overreaction to an attempted hand-pick from Y. He lacks Readiness.

I lunge, keeping B’s sword locked out as I do so, and strike him in the chest. A attacks me with a quick stab, but my dagger is already moving to parry.

I could recover from here, but there is an opportunity now – we outnumber the opposition. We have a 2v1, and it’s time to be aggressive. Before B can even call “dead!”, before his friends can react to the hole in their line, I am widening it. I step towards C, taking A out of Range as I call for my team to press. I bind C’s blade, and he dies quickly to Y, victim of a 2v1 he barely had time to recognize. We turn to A, but he, and the rest of his line, has already crumpled before the coordinated aggression of my teammates. X has died in the press, unfortunately, but the other unit has lost its cohesion and does not have the presence of mind to retreat. I run to the fight with Y; the foe will soon be dispatched.

In a singles fight, a five-minute “dance” can come down to a single decisive instant, seized and acted upon with resolution. Line fights, among skilled fencers, are no different.

This takes practice. That, we will address in the next and final installment.

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