Winter War Maneuvers   12 comments

It has been a long time since we posted anything about melee, so for a change of pace, I thought I’d provide a recap of a melee training that I ran recently. I was not initially planning on attending the event (5 hour drives are the new normal for event travel, but it’s a bit much every other weekend…), but I found out at Twelfth Night that it’s 1) a major event for war prep 2) that my wife’s apprentice brother, Killian, was the C&T MiC and 3) that the KEM and KRM were ok with us doing heavy rapier melees (which are usually verboten). So, I volunteered to run some melee training.

The day started with what is, I think, the most universal aspect of the SCA; namely that we spent the first part of the morning for people to arrive, get armor on, and then were immediately called to court. I was pleasantly surprised during this period, however, as people actually started the day by fighting pick-ups. I got a few passes in with Killian where I tried to use some Bolognese technique. It went OK.

After court, we got everybody gathered together and started the melee practice. Given that Calontir is C&T default and doesn’t usually do melees, the obvious first topic of discussion was to talk about the rules. We focused on 3 main aspects:

  1. No cuts – This one’s probably my biggest worry for Gulf Wars. Most of the Calontir Steel fighters really want to deliver cuts all the time, so this is going to pose an obvious problem for heavy rapier melee. I had to scold a few fighters throughout the day about delivering cuts.
  2. Engagement/Front 180 Degrees – Mainly this involved telling them to step in front of people before hitting them. There isn’t DFB in the Gulf Wars war point melees, but we went over them anyhow (Pennsic exists too). Unfortunately the published conventions for Gulf Wars seem to be self-contradictory about whether they’re using the Society definition (engaged with everyone at lay on, only hit in front 180 degrees) or whether more complicated rules for engagement are in place (like rattan). I’m not sure why the Gulf Wars convention makes a specific note about not hitting people in the back of the head and makes references to “having engagement”, for instance, as this is *already* part of Society rules.
  3. Behavior – Most of the fighters have only done melees as part of the in-kingdom C&T melee experiment, so they really haven’t had exposure to the finer details/unwritten rules of behavior in melees at large events. This part included explaining how to indicate that you’re dead, dying defensively (the taking a knee variety, not the lay down and get trampled version), not dying to the ground (because it will cause a hold), echoing a call of “hold”, avoiding words that sound like “hold”, taking a knee when a “hold” is called, how to use holds to cool down (mask & glove removal), not touching other fencers (even pats on the back and likewise, especially when they’re on the other side), etc.

After this was done, we moved into the “meat” of the class. I prepared a handout that is available here.

Part 1: Being a Pawn

To put it bluntly, novice melee fighters are much like the pawns on a chess board. They aren’t going to rack up a massive kill count and they have limited offensive capabilities, but they’re highly useful for forming defensive lines and controlling territory, especially when you provide them with an appropriate support structure (like each other). By planning on using newer melee fighters in this way, it is possible to greatly restrict the amount of information and number of tasks that they need to consider at any given time (and keeping things simple for novices is really important). One result is that a truncated version of Wistric’s Rules of Melee that includes only rules 1-4 (Don’t die, Don’t let the guy next to you die, Kill the enemy, Remember the objective), can serve as a perfect template for prioritizing the tasks that individual novice fighters need to accomplish.

Essentially, fencers should focus on these “rules” in order such that if they can only accomplish 1 thing, then that thing should be to stay alive; if they can accomplish 2 things, then they should try to also defend their friends and so on. The advantage of this approach is that it simplifies melee into a small number of simple tasks for novices. In general, they defend themselves, support their friends,  and try to exploit chance opportunities to kill the enemy (They’re not going to be creating such opportunities yet). Ultimately it is important to be aware of the objective, however the objective is usually aligned with staying alive and killing people and novices can generally rely on their commanders to keep the objective in mind for them at larger wars. The elegance of this system is that, as fighters improve at melee, they are able to make the basic tasks more automatic and can therefore add additional more complicated tasks (including the rest of Wistric’s rules which are largely related to being in command).  Ruairc and I used a similar framework a few years ago when we were providing <5 min melee classes to new fencers at events.

Each rule was paired with a demonstration performed by having the fighters form two lines that were at light engagement. Rule 1 was illustrated by demonstrating that you can focus on parrying in order to stay alive. Rule 2 was demonstrated by showing how to parry blows coming at your neighbors and how by virtue of standing next to your teammates, you are controlling an area of space that protects them. The transition between Rule 2 and Rule 3 was demonstrated using the “zipper” drill, which was also used to illustrate how attacks are usually performed on the diagonal (like pawns in chess). Rule 3 was additionally demonstrated by pointing out that attacking is the riskiest behavior, and so novices should focus on attacks of opportunity (opponents lunge, unit turns a flank, etc). I explained rule 4 and provided an anecdote about an army that killed the other side but failed to capture the loot bags and who therefore lost. The demonstration for rule 4 occurred later in the day.

We then divided the group into two teams and ran a sequence of 4v4 (ish) fights in rapid succession. Initially the teams had a lot of trouble forming and keeping themselves in line. Some fighters would retreat, others would move forward aggressively. In order to counter-act this, I appointed a commander for each team whose job was to stand behind the line and keep them in order. After about 10 run-throughs, we discussed what worked and what didn’t and took a water break.

Part 2: Unit Commands

After the break, we moved onto the next topic of conversation. Many of the people who read this blog are familiar with the typical list of commands that are used in rapier melees (advance, press, stand fast, charge, step, fall back, rally); however I restructured these in order to simplify the list of commands that a novice fighter needs to know (as shown in the handout). Specifically, charging and skirmishing are relatively difficult skills to train a unit to perform and so I removed those from the list of “basic commands.” Similarly, advancestand fast, and press were removed from the list of basic commands. All 3 of these are relatively intuitive, however they are ultimately just reminders for things that the fighters should already be doing. The advance command isn’t typically given when a unit is engaged with the enemy and it’s fairly intuitive to just follow your unit at lay-on, so there’s no need for fighters to memorize or practice it. Likewise, both stand fast and press are commands that should be something that fighters do by default. When these are needed, there is rarely sufficient time for the commander to notice, relay the command, and have fighters respond. Instead, these commands primarily serve as reminders rather than as core commands on their own. As a result, the basic commands can be reduced to:

  1. Fall Back –  Because rules 1 and 2.
  2. Rally – Because rule 2.
  3. Step –  Because rules 3 and 4.

After explaining and demonstrating each of these commands, we went back to 4v4 melee fights. Each unit continued to have a commander who tried to use these commands. Each commander was in charge for ~3 run-throughs. Periodically we convened to discuss what was working, to correct misunderstandings about the commands (like say, using the step command at lay on to move to measure), cool off/take a short rest, etc.

At one point while we were resting, the king opened court and gave out an AoA for C&T (Stile Fyrd) to a fighter named Mikhail.

At the end of this section, I added resurrection to the 4v4 melees. We did two ~5 minute rez fights before I added an objective (other than kill people till I say to stop), which was to reach the opposing team’s rez point and touch it.

At the end of this melee, I asked them how many of them forgot the objective at least once during the fight (all of them raised their hands).

We then took a longish break for lunch. Many of the fighters were pretty tired at this point, since they’ve never really had to fight continuously for several minutes. After lunch, there were more pick-ups and the KRM ran a run-through of the C&T melee experiment. This involved 3 run-throughs each of 1) 3v3 no rez 2) grand melee and 3) 3v3 capture the mcguffin (the KRM) with rez.

After a water break and a bit of re-arming on the parts of people who weren’t allowed to take part in the C&T melee experiment, we reconvened to continue the melee training when court was called on the rattan side of the field to give out an AoA for rattan combat (Iren Fyrd).

Part 3: Basic Tactics

The third section of the melee practice was focused on how to make tactical decisions during a melee. We discussed how a unit can be at an advantage while the overall army is at a disadvantage (and vice versa) and we discussed different kinds of advantage. I pointed out how the combination of global (army-level) advantage and local (personal/unit-level) tells you what you’re supposed to be doing at any given time. I provided a table for this in the handout as shown below:


Part 4: 2v1 Drills

The discussion of advantage/disadvantage transitioned into a discussion of how melees can be broken down into a series of 1v1 and 2v1 fights (parity, advantage/disadvantage). I had them line up in a mock 3v3 fight and then I showed them different ways that the unit could be divided (3-0, 2-1, 1-2, 1-1-1 splits) and had each fighter tell me whether they were ad an advantage, disadvantage, or parity and what they should be doing in that situation.

From there, we performed a series of 2v1 exercises. We started with fencers out of armor without swords at a walk. The focus was on having the 2 move together while pursuing the 1. We rotated through this exercise for about 20 minutes and discussed what worked/what didn’t work between trials.

Then we put masks on and grabbed swords and ran the same exercise, with each fighter rotating through the different positions. After a few cycles through the line, I started counting the time that each pair took to kill the 1. Earlier in the practice, the fighters had balked at the idea that it could be done in <10 seconds, but in practice, they were killing them in 3-5 seconds.

We wrapped up the melee portion of the day with a 4v4 resurrection melee. The objective was to capture a mcguffin (my hood) and carry it across the field to the other side of the field (where their opponent’s rez point was located). Afterwards, we discussed the melee and reviewed the key points for the day. Pick-up fights resumed afterwards.


Overall, I think that the melee practice went well. It helped to highlight some major deficits in fitness/endurance, but I expected that it would. There’s a big difference between tournament fighting and fighting continuously in a melee. I tried to mitigate this as much as possible by having regular rest periods, by delivering the “talking” parts of the class during these rests, and by specifically having the fighters walk to rez and during some of the drills. On the positive side, the fighters were relatively quick to figure out how to work together in a line, follow the commands, and press when necessary. I think that performing the 2v1 drill without fencing gear first was a useful addition to the training as by making the movements slow, it was easier for the fighters to see what had happened and to focus on using their numerical advantage rather than individual skill to beat the 1. Furthermore, focusing on moving as a group is easier to do when you don’t have to worry about swords, etc. The drawback to this approach is that it trained the 1 to be initially compliant, but this was easily corrected once we repeated the drill with swords.

If I can get the same group of people for a future training, I’d like to practice the 2v1 drill some more and then use it to transition into training the fighters to perform the “skirmish” role.


Posted January 31, 2016 by Gawin in Events, Melee, Teaching and Training

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