A New Book of Four Things

Sir Corby, veteran of the armored field, holds that two opposed melee lines can do essentially four things to one another. In order of difficulty, they are:

1. Charge
2. Run right
3. Run left
4. Engage lightly/Die slow

So, the line can move forward, right, left, or nowhere. (I think he’s missing one direction. We’ll return to that later.)

As with many concepts originating on the armored field, these ideas, known as the Book of Four Things, have infiltrated Atlantian rapier SOP. And as Wistric has observed, fencers have a different set of priorities and training: Charge is among the most difficult for us to do (at least without getting a hold called). Running right and left are relatively easy, with a little practice. Engaging lightly is the easiest, since fencers are, by default, defensive and wary.

This isn’t a bad thing to teach – at a minimum, it drives home the idea that lines are not necessarily static and focuses a commander’s options from “what do I do?” to “which of these four things should I do?” It gives us something to drill at melee practices, and allows us to practice coordinated movement (maneuver). But if this was originally intended as a didactic tool, it has since taken on a life of its own. I won’t speak to its effectiveness for the heavies, ‘cause I don’t fight there. But if we’re going to spend time teaching fencers how to maneuver effectively, I think we have better options.

Is It Useful?

Practice time is limited, and formal instruction at events is even more limited. If we’re going to teach maneuvers, they should be the maneuvers that are most useful or most common. So: What maneuvers do we need any given melee line to know how to do – particularly at Pennsic?

Well, charge comes out on occasion. It is fairly rare, but has some niche applications and is worth drilling, especially since we have to drill charge-in-such-a-way-as-you-do-not-provoke-a-hold.

Running right, or left, is almost never done in large melee. This is at least partly because of the constraints of the maneuver. It’s a good option if:

1. You have the room to run, and your path won’t take you off the Edge of the World, into brambles, or similar.
2. Your line is coordinated enough to pull it off. This requires some drilling and usually a bit of familiarity, which you may not have in a large melee.
3. Your opponents are too ill-trained or unaware to respond with any of the half-dozen simple, effective counters.

In practice, this means that run left/right is great against gooby five-man teams at Pennsic, or ad hoc bands of untrained Scholars eager to play in small melee at some event, but has limited application in wars and large melees, either because your opponents have anchored their flanks on impassible terrain or because your teammates aren’t all well-trained enough to keep cohesion as you execute.*

Engaging lightly is just “stand there and be defensive.” We usually teach it as “stand this far apart, don’t lunge, pick at hands, and try not to retreat”, which is reasonable. But fencers are naturally defensive. If anything, we need to teach them to be more aggressive.

(Here’s a hypothesis: the most important melee skill to have is to know when, and how, to move from a defensive mindset to an aggressive one.)

Towards a New Book

So what would be better?

Well, for one, we suck at moving backwards. As I mentioned earlier, Sir Corby does not even seem to consider it. This makes sense to a degree. Generally it’s always better to be moving forward than back (it’s easier to keep cohesion, pressure an opponent, and take territory), and we have no fear of death in our game.

That said, units will sometimes be in a fight they cannot win. Actually, this seems to happen a lot. And usually, they’re not even aware of it until they’re wiped out. Sure, sometimes you want to hold the objective to the bitter end, but sometimes there’s nothing to be gained by having a unit die to a man, aside from a long rez run. We need a way to preserve our forces and communicate to them that they need to regroup. So fall back (or “fall the fuck back” in common parlance). Teaching fencers to give ground while maintaining order, on command, gives us the option of trading ground for time if needed. This saves energy and gives us the opportunity to strike again as soon as we’re reinforced or the opponent makes a mistake.

The inverse to fall back would be taking ground in good order, usually given as step. Veterans of melee will be well-acquainted with both how devastating the command can be, when all fencers in a unit bind blades and move forward in synchrony, and how rarely that actually happens.

Anything else?

The defensive engage lightly has an inverse, the aggressive stance, usually given as “press” or “crush” or “wrap”. I’d love to see every fencer know the meaning of this command: “we have an advantage, so use it!” Although it’s not a maneuver in the sense of coordinated movement, it does fit the rough definition of “a thing one line can do to another”, and it would be useful at Pennsic (or anywhere else). After all, if we have an advantage, we want to kill opposing units before they can maneuver or are reinforced.

Ruairc’s Book of Four (or Five) Things

In order of difficulty:

(0. Engage Lightly/Stand Fast)
1. Press
2. Fall Back
3. Step
4. Charge

Charge, step, and press all require aggression, something fencers are generally loath to give, ’cause we’re naturally defensive. Charge, step, and fall back require coordinated movement. Drilling these things is the only way to ensure they can be done consistently.

So, uh … Is It Useful?

Press is useful for immediately destroying a line when you have the advantage. It does not require coordinated movement – just coordinated aggression, which is easier to train (“when you hear the command, bind blades, step forward, and try to kill everyone wearing the wrong color tape”). It has wide applicability and destroys the other unit’s cohesion, though it might damage your unit’s cohesion as well.

Fall Back is the counter to the above. If you’re at a disadvantage, don’t stay in the fight and allow yourself to be picked apart; get out and reorganize. If they’re pressing, falling back allows you to maintain cohesion while theirs is disrupted, and get back to even ground.

Step is useful for gaining ground, naturally, particularly when we can trade numbers for ground (i.e. limited front engagements). It can destroy the cohesion of a static line simply because some enemy fighters in the line will naturally back away from presented weapons, while others will stand their ground. It also allows you to pursue a retreating unit without losing cohesion. It cannot be defeated by anchoring a flank, either.

And Charge, we’ve already discussed.

The focus should be on disrupting the line’s one strength: it’s cohesion. These commands offer various ways to do that where run right/left does not, and require the enemy unit to act cohesively to counter where run right/left can be countered by one or two enemy fighters on the flank who know what they’re doing.

In my view, these are the basics. Once a group of fighters has a solid handle on the fundamentals of melee, this is what they should tackle, and their commander (everyone’s a commander, remember) should practice recognizing when each is useful.

And Other Maneuvers?

As far as Pennsic goes, advance and rally are easy and important. A bit of time training double-time could also be nice.

Certainly, there are any number of extremely useful maneuvers or commands. But almost all of these will require an organized unit training and drilling regularly to perform in the heat of battle. By all means, experiment! Drill what works, and when your unit has made it smooth and automatic, pull out the surprise on the enemy. But don’t neglect the basics.

* My Shark’s Tooth was awarded for leading a 5-man melee unit of (at the time) blue scarves at Pennsic XL to the semifinals. In all but two fights (incidentally, these were fights against the winners and the runners-up in the tourney – which is to say, skilled teams), “run right” and “run left” were part of our pre-fight strategizing and were used to effect on many occasions, so I don’t have any particular rancor for the commands themselves, nor do I think them completely worthless. But I am of the opinion that our opponents were, for the most part, too overwhelmed or too poorly drilled to respond appropriately. Our victories were not due to the efficacy of any specific maneuver, but due to our unit cohesion – our ABILITY to maneuver, opposed to their INABILITY to respond. By my thinking, maneuver gains a positional advantage, creating favorable 2v1s and negating numerical or skill superiority. An adage: Maneuver counters maneuver. If you can’t maneuver, any maneuver beats you.

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