Wistric’s Weekly Warfare 33: How to get in to the backfield

Dusting off the old WWW title and taking it for a spin to write down some thoughts on getting in to the backfield of the enemy.

There are a few basic skills that are absolutely necessary for this to be successful.  But, like EB White, I’ll get to that thesis sentence at the end of the essay.  Instead, let’s talk about the functional tactics for accessing your opponent’s backfield.  To start with, there are two places you can use to get in your enemy’s backfield: The Flank and the Line

The Flank

The flank is, at least for me, the easier point of access.  Flanks tend to be softer, and by sheer herd mentality reinforcements of a line tend to go to the center first.  Whether the right flank or left flank is better is pretty a fairly minor consideration, as terrain and the relative strengths of the flank guard will be a far greater factor.

To access the flank there are two possible situations to encounter: a flank guard, or no flank guard.

If there is no flank guard, meaning nobody between you and the enemy backfield, then all the hard work is done and you walk in to the enemy backfield.  Caveat: if reinforcements are coming up, even if they aren’t in the line, they are a functional flank guard and must be dealt with.

If there is a flank guard, you have two options.  The first is, kill them.  This is the harder option as you end up actually having to do some work.  Far better is to have the opponent engage 100% with a teammate.

Engaging the flank guard happens a few ways: The first is that, as you come up to the line, they are already fully engaged.  This is the optimal situation, but may be one of the sticking points for most people accessing the backfield.  Unless some opponent does you the favor of shouting out “Wistric’s coming up on the flank!” you have to rely on non-verbal cues to know if you’ve been spotted.  These non-verbal cues include which way they’re facing, how actively they’re fighting with your teammates, and whether or not they glance in your direction.  The flank guard, here, though, extends beyond just the end-most fighter and includes the first two or three, as any of them may spot you, break off their engagement, and intercept you.  Then you have to kill them, and that takes work.

If they are not fully engaged, now comes the time to take some command of the situation, and order your team’s flank guard to press their flank guard, thus fully engaging them.  Once that happens, walk in to the backfield.  What happens if your flank guard dies before you get to the backfield?  You kill the enemy flank guard, back to doing work.  What happens if they die after you get in the backfield?  Really, that’s somebody else’s problem, you’re just heading for the backfield.

When walking into the backfield, though, you need to adopt a non-threatening air.  If you come too close to an engaged fighter, even if they are fully engaged, they may see you as reinforcement for their opponent and will turn their attention to you.  Then you have to kill them to get in the backfield.  So cast a wide path far from the engagement, don’t wave your swords around or otherwise draw attention to yourself.  You are on a leisurely stroll through the woods and there just happens to be some fighting a little ways off.  Your leisurely stroll can be as close to out of bounds as it needs to be (and this is why you don’t ask stupid questions during the briefing: If the marshals don’t say it’s out of bounds, it’s not out of bounds, and you can use it to get to the enemy’s backfield).  In taking this wide path, the enemy flank may see you.  That’s fine.  They will disorder themselves trying to stop you, and be exposed to your teammates’ attack.

The Line

If you are engaged in the line getting in to the backfield is harder, but not impossible.  The first thing you need is a hole.

There are two ways to get a hole.  The first, and more difficult way, is to kill the person in front of you.  Again, that requires work, which other people should do.  The second, less difficult way, is to let somebody else make the hole for you.  There are two people on the field who can make a hole for you: Your teammates, and Your enemy.  If your teammate makes a hole, you have to react quickly.  The enemy will be yelling “dead”, drawing attention to the sudden hole in the line, and the enemy will be acting to make sure it’s not exploited.  Block swords out of the way and break like hell for the backfield.  If the enemy makes the hole for you, either by clumping together or otherwise leaving a gap, they are less aware of it, and it can be exploited more easily.

At this point it becomes much like a flank.  First, make sure the fighters on either side of the gap are well engaged.  Second, walk into the backfield.  Depending on the size of the gap, this can be a leisurely stroll, or it may be a quick run blocking swords out of the way.

The Backfield

Once in the backfield,  check on the enemy reinforcements, and then you have two choices: work the part of the line you just broke through, or work a different part of the line.  If a unit is trying to press through the unit you just broke, then you want to work the immediate unit at hand.  If not, then go find the enemy commander, and anybody who’s making lots of noise and coordinating fighters, or just holding off more than one of your fighters by themselves.  Here again a more leisurely pace will draw less attention, and a path that is more like the path of reinforcements and less like the path of somebody who’s just broken into your backfield will raise fewer eyebrows (When working the entire line at Sapphire, I started the DFBs on the opposite flank from the one I broke through, just by walking from one end to the other).

While you are required to say “My lord, you are dead,” remember that you are not required to say it LOUDLY.  A mutter in your victim’s ear will not carry to the fighter next to them.

Sadly, you probably won’t survive.  You should take this opportunity to do as much damage as you can, to annihilate as many high-value targets as are available.  And that means spending lots of time in the backfield, during which some reinforcement may come up and get you.  Just make sure you trade your life dearly.

Those Fundamental Skills

The first is field awareness, always.   You have to see the soft point of a line or flank, the level of engagement of nearby enemy, the enemy reinforcements coming up to the line, the prime targets once you get in a backfield.

Next: foot speed.  While the optimal scenario involves a leisurely stroll far out around an occupied flank guard, then down the line until you’re behind the enemy commander, the reality of it is a whole lot of scurrying from target to target and moving faster than the call of “DEAD!” can register in the enemy’s ears.

Last, you must be able to kill one person directly.  Somebody will turn around as you’re about to DFB them.  You have to be able to put your point on their mask and move on.

This process can, and soon will, be turned in to a flowchart.  Flank or Line?   Guarded or not guarded?  Engaged or not engaged?

Any thoughts, before I try to teach the scholars of Atlantia how to follow the flow-chart?

12 comments to Wistric’s Weekly Warfare 33: How to get in to the backfield

  • Michael Wymarc

    Would probably be a good time to review DFB

  • Do go on.

    I actually think we’re a little too safety conscious about DFBs (see the post about running DFB). I’m not sure I want to dangle my limited sense of self-preservation out there as an instruction to the newer fencers of Atlantia (especially not if I ever want a shot at DKRM), but I wonder if the audience that would attend this would be advanced enough to safely push the envelope, or at least adopt a “suck it up” attitude.

  • Gawin

    I have to say I’ve been having some trouble with DFBs myself. It seems that if I do them quickly I get yelled at and if I do them slowly I get punched in the face. It seems to me that as long as the blow is delivered with the correct form (with the flat, point far enough past the shoulder to be visible) then the speed should be irrelevant to delivering a safe DFB with reasonable calibration.

    On the other side of things, the DFB is an understandable trade-off between realism and safety. I think fighters need to recognize that a thrust to their back would be much quicker than any DFB, and by the time they’ve seen the point passing their shoulder, or their teammate warns them of the DFB, they’d actually already have been dead. That being said, attempting to parry a DFB is both unrealistic and dangerous.

    • When it comes to getting yelled at for your DFB technique, just remember that The Law is an absolute defense. “What do the rules say” and “what did the marshal say” are law, anything else is unenforceable tradition. So DFB’ing “too fast” is not against the rules. Technically, shotgun DFB’ing (two at once) isn’t against the rules (not sure if I’ll ban it at WotW). Your opponent is dead from the moment your blade touches his shoulder, and should have the honor to admit it; otherwise they should be treated like any rhino-hiding fighter (discussed with your opponent, and if the behavior is repeated discussed with a marshal).

  • Michael Wymarc

    I’m just thinking the 3 minute shpeal on how to do it, how not to do it that it seems we get at every event. since these are theoretically the newbies who need to be taught this, the class would be a good time to cover it.

    I tend to agree with your opinions on safety and DFB’s, but unfortunately many of the marshals do not. Given how many of the marshals (read old provosts) are unwilling to take a “suck it up” attitude, I think teaching it by the book to the newer fencers would be a good thing.

    • Good point re: the 3 minute shpeal (especially given the brain spew in my response to Gawin).

      As I spend more time with Roz and Gardiner’s, I find a hilarious divide: The old provosts think the Scholars are unwilling to take a suck it up attitude, and the scholars think the old provosts are unwilling to take that attitude. Afterall, look at who some of the old provosts are: Giacomo, Alan, and Roz (though she’s less old). Gardiner’s is 1/3 to 1/2 of the top 20 provosts, and they use paintball guns instead of RBGs when they play outside of the SCA.
      I think specific provosts and specific scholars (and specific free scholars) have the “I don’t want to suck it up” attitude. Others have the “I’m willing to suck it up, but I’m worried about other fighters who might not be willing to suck it up, and won’t somebody think of the children?!”

      We don’t have any real idea as to the range of damage fighters are willing to accept as a risk in our game, just the myths, conjecture, and anecdote we have so far. “The marshallate says it’s safe” doesn’t always mean “Every fighter feels safe with it”. There was a time, oh, three years ago, when I suggested we all sit down and have the discussion necessary to actually figure this out. That did not go so well for me. But that’s a beer story.

  • Gawin

    Well, it was the marshal who said something about doing it too fast, but then again, it was at Tourney of Friends and I think the Marshals were getting a bit exacerbated. I didn’t think I was going unreasonably fast though. Perhaps we can recap this at practice, as I can’t demonstrate timing via forum post.

  • Staffan


    The doing it too fast is also an issue with playability. You have to think about the other people on the field; if they always face you and you are doing Death From Behind at a run, or even too fast, then you are making so people will not want to play with you and they’ll get “butt-hurt” (“Oh, here’s that cheater again.” ) every time the have to face you. So, if you continue doing so, people will want to play with you less.

    Also, some marshals point out the realism bit (I know, I know, but bear with me). after all, if you just stuck your sword into their back and through their lungs, then you might have a wee bit of time before your sword would be able to come out of the new corpse.

    For me, I have issues with my first point, not the second. If people spend more time thinking you are a schmuck (once again, true or not) then they will cause you problems in the social aspect of our group.

    Now, the caveat to my statement is that I live in a different kingdom than you and don’t know exactly what it is like in Atlantia. I just know how people have reacted to similar bending of the rules here.

    I do enjoy your web site, I look forward to more wonderful posts!

    In Service to the West,
    Staffan Arffuidsson

    P.S. I love my copy of Giganti! Tom Leoni did a wonderful job as usual!!!

  • Dominyk

    You seem to be focusing on just getting to the backfield so you can get some kills. I would suggest teaching something like this through the lens of the battle itself. That will help people determine actions better than a flowchart.

    You should also cover things like:
    -Using mental object permanence against your enemies
    -Move, don’t fence
    -Finding safe places in the backfield, the dangers of different areas of the backfield
    -Getting a teammate in to the backfield
    -How to get the person chasing you to stop and fence(allowing you to move away)
    -Being a threat and a disruptive force without actually killing anyone
    -How to seem like you are not a threat
    -Dangers to you and your opponents

    That’s where I would start.

  • Using mental object permanence against your enemies

    Please clarify what you mean by this.

    Starting from the above list seems a bit like starting with nuances without laying the foundations, though I agree that they’re all necessary skills/bits of information.

  • Dominyk

    Object permanence. Recognizing when your opponent has established that you are “there” and then turning their attention elsewhere. A simple example would be running somewhere, attracting attention, and then stopping. The opponents will then look for the next threat or go back to their previous objective. And when they do that is when you start running again without attracting their attention. That’s a stupid basic example, but it’s how I(and others) seem to “appear” in the backfield.

    Oh, sorry. I see from the title of this post that your focus is going to be on how to physically get into the backfield. My bad.

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