Practicing Principles

A lot of our pre-melee discussion, in Atlantia and elsewhere, seems to center on assigning people to various roles. Where do we put the junior fighters? Where do we put the senior fighters? Who’s in command? Everyone together? Specialized units?

I think Windmasters’ Hill has it right: everyone should be capable everywhere. We shouldn’t ask ourselves “where do we put the newbies?” because we shouldn’t have newbies – at least not the kind that have never experienced melee before. If we have a rank newcomer who has never held a sword before, we don’t throw him into a tourney; we have him practice for at least a few weeks. Melee should be the same. It’s not just something for events.

General Guidelines

This whole series has been about how melee derives from the same principles that govern singles fighting, plus a few asterisks. Training is no different.

Start with single sword – it’s less complicated. Also, it forces you to be better, to learn to fully utilize a single tool.
Start slow – whether you’re practicing a free 2v1 or a new maneuver, do it slow to begin. Let people see how it works. Then gradually go up to speed.
Critique – especially outside observers. Ask questions. Get your fighters thinking in the right direction. But keep it short – you can’t improve if you’re not in mask.
Build up from smaller parts – Again, 1v1 is hard enough for junior fencers. Don’t start them at 5v5. (Besides, you may not have enough people for that.) 2v1, particularly with skilled fencers who will take things slow and let them learn, is excellent.
Schedule it – whatever your practice, if you have three regulars, put melee on the schedule. Maybe it’s thirty minutes a week. Maybe it’s two hours once a month. Whatever you decide, make sure it gets done.

2v1

Melee is all about 2v1s and 1v1s. I’m guessing that you’ll be getting plenty of practice in the latter. The former is, I feel, important enough to warrant getting half of your melee practice time, or more. A few caveats:

Limit the space in which you can run. There’s a tendency for the solo fighter to just run around or run away. That doesn’t help learning much. Block off a sizable but not excessive amount of space for the fight – 40 or 50 feet square is plenty.

Everyone should play every role – especially inexperienced fighters. It might seem cruel to set a newbie against two others, but that’s exactly what’ll happen on a line. Skilled fencers should be gentle, of course, and ensure that learning takes place, and the fight should be slowed to begin.

In larger melees, make sure that newbies get experience on a line, on a skirmish squad, and in command. Rotate fighters frequently – unless you are working something specific, teams should be consistent for only 2-3 runs. Learn to fight with everyone!

Stop the fight once it reaches 1v1 (e.g. the solo fighter kills an opponent and breaks measure). A settled 1v1 is not melee (not at least three people) and will only waste time. It may also be appropriate to halt larger melees if one team has an insurmountable advantage. Use your time effectively.

If you have the space, run multiple 2v1s simultaneously. Try to have as many people fighting as possible. But don’t forget the water breaks either.

A good goal to have is that, while armed with single sword, any two fighters at your practice can beat any other solo fighter, consistently and at speed. At that point, introducing secondaries is appropriate.

Some Variations

Static – No maneuvering allowed. Set up the fight with everyone at rough line-fight distance. Fighters may not move sideways or retreat (defined as moving the back foot behind its starting position). This is a rough simulation of a line fight and makes concepts of Readiness and Opening very clear very quickly. It’s recommended that the solo fighter be experienced and probably have a secondary.

Silent Pair – Note that this implies the pair should be talking under normal circumstances. Communication! Get them to use it, then take it away from them. A good variation on this is to have only one person allowed to talk (preferably the less experienced).

Timed Kill – The pair attempts to hunt down the solo fighter within a few seconds – if they fail, the solo fighter wins. This teaches aggression and defensiveness. Do not call hold when one of the pair dies. Start at 15 and try to reduce it under 10.

Reinforcement Drill – like Timed Kill, but the solo fighter is reinforced after the timer expires (at which point the timer resets for another reinforcement). If the solo fighter is killed, the killer steps in as the solo fighter for the next round. Once you get a good rhythm going, reduce the timer to 10 (or 7!) seconds and have people rotate through on their own initiative. This is a great drill for getting everyone fighting and everyone tired.

Small Melee

You can repeat all of the above with 2v2, 3v2, etc, if you have the people. Some other things:

Plan/No Plan/Brass Holes – a variation for any of the below. In the first parameter, teams may plan before the fight (limit it to under a minute). In the second, teams must come up with plans on the fly. In the third, teams must execute the plans secretly given by a third party (the marshal). Bonus points if those plans are stupid.

Splits – fighters start split into two equal groups (e.g. a 2v2 split is two 1v1s, a 3v3 split is a 2v2 and a 1v1, etc). Neither group may interfere with the other until their opponents are dead.

Asymmetric Splits – as above, but one or both groups has a strong advantage for one team. It could be numbers (3v3 = 2v1 + 1v2), skill, allowing one team to maneuver while the other must stick together, or even giving one team the advantage of planning. This is to teach aggression and defensiveness and situational awareness.

Line Fight – 3v3 or higher, static. Experiment with different spacing between fighters. Find what’s too wide and what’s too close.

Kill the Goobs – set up a line of experienced vs inexperienced fighters, with everyone fighting defensively. At some point (prearranged or improvised), an experienced fighter will do something dumb (say, lunge without closing out all of his opponents, or retreat, or advance, or fall out of guard, or lose cohesion while maneuvering); the green fighters must be ready to capitalize (killing him or killing his teammates). An advanced sort of 2v1 drill.

See Them Driven Before You – As “Kill the Goobs” or “Line Fight”, above, but when one of the fighters dies (or is arbitrarily called dead by a marshal), the other team has 10 seconds to leverage and propagate their 2v1 and destroy the enemy line. Get it down to 5 if you can. This drill is great for teaching the hair-trigger switch from the typical defensive line-fight mindset to coordinated-aggression-kill-them-all.

Throw Rocks At Them – Situational Awareness, Hard Mode. Have a marshal (or dead fighters) on the sidelines lob “rocks” (balls of duct tape, slitted tennis balls, etc) at fighters still alive. Rocks count as valid blows if they strike a fighter and will disable his limbs or kill him.

As you can see, these drills easily combine and recombine. Invent your own! Better yet, involve everyone. Have your regular fighters rotate through running the melee games, coming up with their own. Remember that these are for learning and fun, and act accordingly.

Wistric has a few ideas. Some look pretty good, but I’m not wild about others (particularly the ones that involve two fencers). At this point, you should know enough to figure out which will be helpful for your practice.

I’ve put nearly 8,000 words into this series now. Please chime in with thoughts!

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