So It’s Your First Melee….

So, you’re about to head to your first melee event. Or third, or tenth, or whatever. Chances are that if you’re reading about how to be better at melee, then you’re probably not someone who would be considered a veteran of many wars. That’s fine: we all start there. You can’t have 20 years of experience without having 1 year of experience first.

Since you’re new, the best thing you can do is be useful. You’re probably not going to carry your team across the finish line to victory, but you can certainly help out those who can. Let’s get started.

First and foremost, melees are fights, so the best thing you can do is to get better at fighting. That’s your number one priority, so get to practice and make good use of the time and resources available to you. Your second priority needs to be your endurance, because you won’t be very helpful if you’re taking a “water” break after 10 minutes of an hour long battle. You can also practice maneuverability with 2 v. 1 fights at practice, and 2 v. 2 are all you need to practice a static line engagement or a limited front. Do those things enough, and pay attention to what works and what doesn’t, and why. Stop doing what doesn’t work, and do what does as much as possible (this sounds obvious, but apparently it escapes many!).

But those things take time to develop, and if you’ve got a battle coming up this weekend, we’ve got only a short amount of time to make anything useful happen. In that case, you have limited options for what you can do at any given moment in a battle: you can be an obstacle or a distraction. In essence, your physical presence is the single best thing that you can bring to the table. To use your presence best, find out the scenarios and think about what your team needs to do, and what the opponents need to do.

In the case of a limited front, a charge, a line fight, or anything else where movement is limited, your best course of action is to create as much of a nuisance for the other team as possible. Smack their blades around, stand in the way of their progress, and simply work to impede whatever it is they want to do. This might involve being hit a lot, but that’s fine: often, all it takes is a second or two to stall out an enemy action. You’re going to get hit plenty and you can’t stop that from happening while still being useful, so be in the battle and be as frustrating a speed bump as possible. The best person on your side is going to die plenty, too, because that’s the cost of making things happen. Controlling the victory conditions matters most, always, so be prepared to take some hits to accomplish that.

If you have an open field or some other area where you can move around and attack from angles, if you’re one of the people who aren’t in the line that will inevitably form, then the best thing you can do is be distraction. This is the core of what even the best melee fighters do who are roaming freely: stand somewhere that the enemy team has to deal with you or be punished for ignoring you. Good positioning comes down to making your opponents take their concentration off whatever they are currently dealing with to deal with you instead. The big difference here is that it’s harder to deal with better people, but even if you can only manage to pull one person, that’s just as good as a kill on the line. If they come after you, go for the double-kill: you already weren’t on the line, so your team loses no resources, but the enemy team does if they had to send someone after you.

Should you find yourself ignored, DFB everyone you can or threaten it. Your mere presence in their backfield will sow enough chaos to create a huge opening for your team, and if you can DFB even 1 or 2 people the resulting panic is invaluable. No matter what your skill level, a good sense of positioning can make you utterly lethal: I can think of dozens of cases where modestly skilled fencers with excellent positioning have made a massive impact on a battle by DFBing 4, 5, 6, or more opponents per resurrection. Those ratios are huge, and as good as what the best fighters hope for. Positioning is the great equalizer..

In all instances, if you can kill a more experienced opponent, do it unless it means giving up an objective. If you are new, and can send someone like me away from the fight from a double-kill, that is a hugely advantageous trade for your team. The reality of things is that if we fight, I will likely win. If you have a mind to defend yourself, I will likely emerge unscathed. You may delay me, which is good, but I am delayed tenfold if you sacrifice yourself to hit me. When to do this is a matter of judgment, but the newer you are, the better the bet becomes to take out the White Scarf *whenever possible* regardless of other considerations.

Fighting is complicated. Melee is simple. There aren’t many, if any, really good fighters who are not useful in a melee, but there are plenty of people who are only fair fighters who are wonderful meleeists because they know what they can and can’t do, and they only do what makes them useful.
Prevent the enemy team from doing what they want to do. Force the enemy team to split their resources. Kill more than you die, or kill better than you. Win the objectives.

11 comments to So It’s Your First Melee….

  • Ruairc

    Did Dominyk ghostwrite this? The core points make sense, but I disagree strongly with a lot of the conclusions or underlying rationales.

    Also, typos.

  • No, but Dominyk is someone with an exceptionally successful Pennsic under his belt and has shared in 3 5-man wins with me, so it stands to reason we’d be approaching things the same way: effectively. 🙂

    So what do you disagree with?

    • Ruairc

      I started writing. Now I have an almost entirely unrelated thesis. Blech.

      To summarize: we have this idea that melee has some inherent differences vis-a-vis singles fighting – i.e. the melee battlefield is not just so many singles fights.

      However, the results of most melees can be very accurately predicted by a seasoned fighter simply by knowing which big-name fighters are on which sides, much like so-many-singles-fights. Furthermore, we observe that a good singles fighter is good in melee, but we never see a good melee fighter who underperforms in singles.

      This suggests to me that the synergies we talk about – leadership, C2, strategy, unit cohesion – are either largely irrelevant or are not being utilized effectively. Given the vast array of military instruction manuals on aforementioned synergies, I’m disinclined to believe it is the former; but I’m also known for overcomplicating things.

      The success of WMH’s five-man team at Pennsic XL (whence my Shark’s Tooth; all blue scarves, though seasoned) and Hawkwood’s unit at Gulf Wars and Pennsic XLI suggests that these synergies do play a role, when practiced and learned.

      Since these seem to be effective force-multipliers for otherwise middling fighters, when learned, why is there so little focus on them? Why do we toss new fighters into a melee situation with no hands-on practice or preparation when we’d never dream of doing the same for tournaments? Why start them with advice like “try to double-kill” rather than “stick with your unit”?

      In short, why do we nurture and develop strong melee units from already-strong fighters, who least need the advantage, rather than teaching the least-skilled fighters how to effectively combine their powers? Is unit cohesion and coordinated movement really too complicated for them to grasp after a couple hours of drilling?

      Or is it simply not considered worthwhile because most fencers do not practice melee (even though we’d never toss a new fencer into a tournament bout without a week or two of practice, we do it for melee, for some reason), and our usual methods of team selection split local units?

      At Ruby Joust, the Roxbury Mill team was a line of scholars led by Ilaria. They faced myself, Gawin, Letia, and two others. They moved together across the field. None of them tried to be a hero or double-kill with the FS (any of us, in our open-order skirmish line, could have easily exploited such aggression, and we were hoping for it); none of them ran out after a flank (same thing – one-on-one fights would have ended poorly for them); they simply crushed us with superior point density, good cohesion, and measured aggression.

      This, to me, looks like solid fundamentals. “Try to double-kill with the provost” or “smack their blades around” seems more like a trick, since it’s not given with instruction on when or why these things might be appropriate courses of action (again, any new fencer trying those tactics on an experienced fighter, sans some other advantage, is going to eat sword). Instead of saying “try these things, you’ll probably die a lot but maybe you’ll be kinda effective sometimes”, why not teach and train the fundamentals?

      Certainly, futile attacks are better than futile defenses; but really, why must they be futile? Doing something active might feel better than simply standing in a line trying to parry, but moderately good cohesion and maneuvering will always be more effective.

      • Wistric

        Do we train melee for success in 5-man tourneys, or on the war-point battle field?

      • Wow, those are a lot of rhetorical questions. It actually makes it difficult to address them all because there’s not really a thesis here to look at. I also think that you accidentally reversed the meaning of a few of them (“but we never see a good melee fighter who underperforms in singles”??), so it’s even tougher to reply.

        I think you are frequently guilty of projecting your assumptions onto the words of others and read what you want to argue against, not what is actually there. In this case, you are ignoring qualifying statements about when various actions are appropriate and when they are not, as well as the core context of the piece, which was “so you’ve never done melee before and you have no time to practice before you’re in one, so please be useful.” If anything, I think the argument to be had here is what constitutes “useful.” I’ve said what I want a newbie to do if they are on my side for me to be happy to have them along. If they also follow orders I give during the battle, I’m satisfied.

        On a side note: Why meet a line that apparently outnumbered you and had no flankers with a line of your own? If you had better positioning (1) and worked to prevent their strategy (2) by refusing a line fight, you could have drawn them out into situations that were more advantageous for you. At best, it was a 5 v 8 overall, which can be completely winnable for the 5. Did I read that wrong?

        • Ruairc

          Made sense in my head. It’s kind of an outline. Might have to write it up as a full post.

          Part of the argument is about what constitutes “useful”. Part of the argument is “why do we even maintain a culture where an article like this (i.e. ‘you’ve never done melee before and you have no time to practice before you’re in one’) is necessary?”

          Refusing a line fight was not really an option. We’re not dumb. We tried. But field space was limited enough, and they were spread enough, that attacking the flanks was impossible. We tried to draw individuals out or get a short 1v1, but they supported each other well and maintained order. That was kind of the point. A charge might have been more successful, but we were hoping they’d disrupt their own cohesion for us. They did, but only at the very end; as they moved to crush our left flank I slipped in and killed three of them, but died in the process, and by then we’d lost too many. Gawin was cornered by four of them.

          • Part one is “useful” to me means “helpful at accomplishing the fight I want to have so we win.” Part two probably has more to do with really different practice environments, numbers, etc.. All football teams have the same field and the same positions to work with, and a coach in charge of things. We don’t have that. If you make your practice into what you want it to be and then your guys tear everyone apart, you’ll be the beacon that everyone follows. Go for it! Win everything in dominant fashion and everyone will mimic your methods.

  • Tibbie Croser

    About Ruby Joust: So, Ilaria, an experienced Free Scholar, led a team of scholars to victory over another team that included at least three Free Scholars. Sounds like good leadership and command played a role.

    • Dante di Pietro

      I have a hypothesis that the only thing that really matters in melee is the number of people on a side, and if that is imbalanced past a threshold even skill can become irrelevant. In the case Ruairc described, with more space (so they could have run around) they would have been better off, or if there had been less space (so they could make a 5 v. 5 or smaller bridge fight) they would have been much better off. With a field small enough to prevent maneuver and big enough for the larger team to fully use its resources, barring a massive skill discrepancy the larger team should win almost regardless of what they do. It becomes theirs to lose through incompetence.

      Go to Pennsic enough, and see what happens when the battles are 100 v. 200, 150 v. 200, 150 v. 150, and so on. Numbers matter so much that the best melee skill we can really train is “attendance”. After that, everyone needs to have the endurance to not quit partway through. After that, skill matters.

      If you look at my team division questions, they remove numerical advantages and then account for skill and athleticism. The end result is that DtG scenarios, even after an hour of fighting, often end in a draw or a near draw, which basically never happens at Pennsic because numbers matter so much.

      • Ruairc

        Tibbie: Leadership is a tricky thing to quantify. A band of well-drilled fighters who have trained to respond to a variety of common situations can do so effectively without leadership. A good commander who anticipates exactly what his opponents will do, and instructs and maneuvers his squad of just-authorized fighters to counter it, gets the same result. To the outside observer, the difference is difficult to discern.

        Dante: it’s hard to argue that numbers are the most important thing. Our fights resemble sporting contests more than war (as we have almost no control over the parameters of our fight and no ability to resort to many popular force-multipliers) except that there’s no guarantee of equal sides. I imagine the very worst NFL or NBA team would have an enormous advantage over the best if allowed even a single additional player.

        But we also have few, if any, units who rigorously practice and drill regularly, and I have to wonder how much that might help. Perhaps the Seahawks would struggle against a 12-man Texans squad, but they’d steamroll any given high school team with the same advantage; a big enough skill advantage matters. Is this unfeasible in the SCA? Maybe, this is a hobby played by busy working adults and all, but one wonders all the same.

        Looking to ancient warfare, I note that battles are usually won before they’re begun. This has to do with manpower, training, and logistics, of course, but also with strategic decisions. Cannae wasn’t something that just happened – Hannibal trained his troops for six months to perform as needed. Could we not do something similar for e.g. Pennsic? (This seems to be the general idea behind Assessment and similar, but rarely do specific strategies materialize and get drilling time.)

        • Dante di Pietro

          I’d bet that a high school football team would trounce a pro team if they had 4 times as many people on the field at any given moment. Skill matters a LOT, but only to a point. We usually don’t see one side having a 10% advantage (which in any sport is already insane) as much as a 50-100% advantage. Your 8 v. 5 is a SIXTY PERCENT troop advantage. That’s incredibly difficult to overcome unless the skill difference is massive. I could hand pick a team of 5 against 15 random scholars, and if the field was big enough to run, we could win. If the field was narrow enough to make it a 5 v. 5, we’d probably win. If it’s just wide enough to make a 15 v. 5 happen, we’re only winning on a fluke. I’d even go so far as to say that it could be the first melee of 14 of them as long as one of them can say “Hey guys, stay in a line and advance together, then collapse on them.”

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