Beyond the Waves: Home Island

note: I forgot to post this earlier. It should come between the Introduction and the Playbooks essays when it’s compiled into one document

So, the “village” in Beyond the Waves could be located on a single island or it could be a cluster of islands nearby (maybe connected by rope ferries, bridges, or close enough to row across). If it’s a single island it could be large or small — note that the central island in Earthsea is still the size of Great Britain, so it could plausibly have all of the farming and even industry that the village in Beyond the Wall contains. However I prefer to keep the island small — perhaps unrealistically small (say, the scale of islands in Zelda: Windwaker) — and use the beaches and safe coastal waters as the “wall” in this version.

Recommend that the home island is about 3 hexes (medium).

So, let’s assume that the village is a single island — this will affect the “colour” of various moving parts:

  • The Boundary of the village will be the beach or nearby safe waters, perhaps bounded by a reef or spit, cliffs or a beach
  • Village industry will probably be pre-industrial (q.v. Earthsea) and include crafts, making use of natural resources and probably recycling, and getting a lot of food from the sea.
  • If there’s exotic materials like metals, these will have to have come from somewhere. Maybe there’s a mainland, or maybe there are caches of weapons and metallic goods somewhere. Or perhaps there’s a Dwarven volcanic island where metals are smelted, if you want to play to that stereotype.
  • Skills like Riding should be replaced with Sailing, and Farming with Fishing. Navigating and Swimming becomes important.

Fairly obvious, really. But none of this should affect the core activity of the game, which is the young protagonists striking out on their own and exploring the places beyond the village.

During character roll-up, make a map as you would normally do and insert the features that come from the playbooks into that map, bearing in mind it’s an island. If it’s an island cluster stick some features on islets (good place for hermits and witches). Etcetera.

The Smart Party Does OSR

This week the Smart Party tackled the OSR with Daniel Sell, creator of The Undercroft.

I’m with Dan on two points: the Renaissance portion of the monicker (it’s a cultural movement), and coming to the OSR late. D&D was available when I was a kid but it was also displaced by Fighting Fantasy and WFRP (which are my old-school games) so didn’t get a look-in. I also don’t have a beard to stroke or the nostalgic feelings towards BECMI D&D (and I reject the general assumption that the OSR is looking backwards).

So, positive things about Teh OSR:

  • “Rosetta Stone” — yes. By keeping things “looking like D&D” you keep the cognitive load and comprehension barriers low.
  • From that basis, you can manipulate the various moving parts to tighten or refocus the system to do whatever you want. This is not reinventing or re-hashing, it’s optimisation for performance.
  • Or to put it another way, OSR is Linux, and individual systems are like distributions — for interoperability, customisation potential, and freedom to roll your own.
  • ACKS is a modern successor to BECMI’s zero-to-hero concept.
  • Lethality incentivises players to negotiate for advantage rather than take the raw deal that the rules give you in a straight fight.
  • But them I reject the notion that OSR is about lethality and I changed the rules to suit.
  • OSR games excel at providing GM resources for managing a campaign as a project, e.g. Sine Nomine games such as Silent Legions provide a way to generate your own sandbox, and crucially manage antagonist factions dynamically. This is such an obvious problem and yet a massive blind spot for many commercial RPGs.
  • Sine Nomine games are all good examples of deconstructing genre. Comparison with GURPS supplements is probably apt
  • Much as I like theory, OSR gives good practical examples like this one from Chris McDowall.
  • OSR games are probably a better model for learning how to GM and design adventures. They’re pictorially based and clearly itemised, and not predicated on “plot” with GM-as-entertainer role (the CoC and WoD models).

OSR games are no more reliant on GM/facilitator skill than any other traditional format game. The idea that more complex games can excuse lack of skill through rules is dodgy — really you’re playing a different kind of game if you’re just pushing counters and dice around the table for an hour. My experience is that GMs do the opposite, if the rules are too complex to fit seamlessly into the game, it’s the rules that get ditched in favour of common sense.

OK, while we’re talking about OSR and assumptions, I just dissected an old LotFP game I ran with Josh (Black Armada). During that game, Josh’s character lost both feet to standing in a field of slime (which had been eating the farmstead’s cattle from the hooves up). I set that up because I wanted characters to lose limbs and have other horrible things happen, and see if the players continued to treat their characters as disposable pawns and roll a new one, or persist with their PCs. There was actually little in-game debit to losing a limb, and it hasn’t stopped the Flame Princess adventuring.


Josh’s assumption was the PC was no longer playable; but there was nothing to prevent him continuing to play that character. Those assumptions are maybe fair given we have a legacy of dismemberment tables in WFRP, etc. But those assumptions like many assumptions about the OSR need to be challenged; there’s a weight of gaming propaganda that continues to say this style of game is all about disposable characters and casual murder for treasure, and that’s just bollocks.

Then we talked about the effect of disfigurement in other games that suddenly make players no longer want to play. This is not a functionality issue, it’s an issue of player self-image projected onto the character, (as well as the perceived value of a 1st level character in D&D). It’s not an issue of fairness or functionality.

I don’t see this enforced change on the character in D&D as any different from, say, a forced change to Darkest Self in Monsterhearts. That’s the game world and other player’s fiction intruding on your own character, and it’s a good thing. It forces you to change and adapt.

P.S. back Lovecraftesque, it’s good.

Beyond the Waves: Island Generator

The Further Afield sandbox (or in this case, saltbox) is collaboratively (and if you like randomly) developed between all players at the table. One really important factor is the way the Village is at the centre of the map, and the location of other features is relative to the Village (distance and direction). Even when far away, home should always be present on the map.

Of course you don’t need to make the village (or island) central to the map; it could be at one end. This works if there is one big destination in mind (e.g. travelling from the Shire to Mount Doom, or Analand to Mampang). That makes your campaign a bit more of an epic journey than a free-roaming sandbox, but the principle is the same — the characters should always be thinking of home.

If you stick your archipelago next to a land mass it becomes bounded between the land and the ocean, so your archipelago could be long and thin as it follows the coastline of the mainland. At the same time archipelagos can contain thousands of islands and be located away from a land mass. In the early stages of the campaign you could only be looking at one small portion of the island chain, and concepts like Land and Ocean will be so distant that they may as well be myth.

Practical considerations:

  1. Because the islands can vary in size you may want to use smaller hexes or a bigger range between the “near” to “far” bands given in the Further Afield map sheet, or you’ll run out of space when packing islands in or you’ll only have a few islands on the map. Part of the feel of the saltbox should be that there are a lot of islands to explore, something that could take a lifetime. And there should be sea in between to cross.
  2. If the party plan to sail long distances, they should uncover new islands as they progress. This means your map needs breathing room, but also you won’t know what direction the map is going to expand in. The paper answer to this is to get another hex sheet and tape it to the original one, when you know what direction it’s going to expand in. There may be electronic tools that let you do the same thing (but I like paper)

OK, here’s how to grow the archipelago:

  1. Use the Further Afield rules for creating a location in turn, including direction, distance, and type. Do as many rounds as you have enthusiasm (or space on the hex map) for.
  2. Islands are small, medium or large.
  3. Stretches of sea between the islands can be any size; the distance between islands may determine what size of boat can sail those different channels.
  4. Each island has a Safety Slider. This affects the overall danger of the island itself, and extends to the surrounding waters. The Home Island (Village) is always +3 on this scale, i.e. safe.
  5. Each island is usually considered a “dungeon”, i.e. a single area to be explored. If there’s danger, the party should be in danger as long as they’re on the island. Safety rating applies to the whole area.

1. Where is your island?

Use the Further Afield rules for direction on the map, and distance (close/far). Also use the rules as you see fit for what kind of Major Location exists and whether the island is Heard, Seen or Learned and how accurate that information is (FA p.8).

2. How big is your island?

Choose a scale for your hexes. FA p.12 gives us a default distance of 1 hex = 10 miles; this means that small islands will be a 1-5 miles across (the size of Oxford), and big ones will be maybe 30 miles across (the size of London). That sounds OK to me. If there’s a settlement on the island it could be a mile across, and if there’s a major city it may be 5 miles.

Roll a d8:

1: 1 hex small island (entirely contained within 1 hex)
2: 2 hex small island
3-4: 3 hex medium island (usually one vertex of each hex entirely on land)
5-6: 4 hex medium island
7: Medium-large island, 5 or 6 hexes but all hexes contain beach/sea
8: Large island (at least 1 hex does not touch the sea on any side)

Each player draws their island within the above guidelines.

I’d suggest modifying the roll by +3 if the location is a Major City, and +1 if the place is a Settlement (see Further Afield).

3. Set the Safety Slider

Each island has a safety rating, set from +3 (very safe and welcoming) to -6 (really dangerous). This rating should apply to reaction rolls, rolls on random tables where there’s a mix of good and bad outcomes (with the bad outcomes low), etc.

This rating applies at sea, too. For every hex away from the island, move the safety slider 1 towards neutral (0). Use this rating to apply to chances of wandering monsters/pirates, dangerous weather events, etc.

Sometimes the danger is known, sometimes it’s secret. Sometimes the party have the wrong information (use the Further Afield rules for whether the information is accurate).

Big islands that are commercial hubs (where a lot of people of different cultures pass through) probably won’t range more than +/- 1. There’s a limit on how safe and friendly they can be due to size (they just become impersonal) and there’s a limit on how bad they can be, because if they’re dangerous to a lot of people then no-one will go near them to trade.

For islands (usually big islands) with a controlling the Safety should determine (or be determined by) how hostile that faction is to the PCs. (note: Faction rules to come later)

4. What’s on the Island?

Here are a few tables to start off.


Roll 1d20 for each hex of island with seashore. Alternatively roll once for a small island, twice for medium and three times for large.

1: Rocks and cliffs, calm
2: Rocks and cliffs, dangerous currents or whirlpools
3: A cove with a rocky beach that floods at high tide; rip currents
4: A wide sandy beach with dunes
5: A lagoon separated by a barrier island or reef
6: A natural harbour, big enough for a boat
7: Rocky headland with a cove
8: A steep shingle beach with rough waters and seaweed
9: A spit, with or without a structure at its end
10: Small caves in a cliff-face (covered at high tide?)
11: Vanishing island (headland with vegetation — possibly seaweed — vanishes at high tide)
12: Beach with mud flats/quicksands
13: Shallows with rocks
14: Rocky beach with rock pools
15: Sandy beach with many small or large shells
16: Rocky headland with many narrow and tall rocks, rising like fingers from the sea
17: Cliffs with many ledges
18: A series of terraces
19: Headland and causeway, submerged with tide
20: Natural piers or sandbanks

Where to land your boat

Roll 1d8 and modify by +3 if it’s a City and +1 if it’s a Settlement. If it’s Ruins you have two options: either don’t modify the roll (so if there should be a pier and there isn’t, it’s in disrepair and can’t be used) or adjust is as you see fit but make every structure unreliable.

1-2: Nothing; you need to use natural features to moor your boat, drag it onto the beach, or anchor the boat and go ashore on a skiff
3-4: A small jetty for mooring fishing boats etc. Possibly with boat-building nearby. Could be owned by one family if there’s no settlement.
5-6: A natural or artificial pier
7-8: A harbour with a small quay, suitable for small-medium merchant vessels
9-10: A harbour with a large wharf, multiple piers, etc.

The Weather

Roll 1d6:

1: Changeable (sunny, windy, stormy)
2: Always warm and clement
3: Windy with rough seas
4: Stormy with lighting and rough seas
5: Frequently raining and cloudy
6: Meteorological enclave (makes its own weather, separate from surroundings)



1: Hills
2: Forest
3: Mountains
4: Caldera
5: Lagoon (or Atoll)
6: Freshwater brook or lake
7: Plains, fertile
8: Plains, infertile/desert
9: Salt marsh
10: Mesa/tableland
11: Rocky spires
12: Glacier

5. Interesting Things

Here are some interesting things about the island (may be a bit of colour, may be adventure)

  1. The island is surrounded by things that colour the water (seaweed, algae, jellyfish). What is the consequence of sailing or swimming in these waters?
  2. The island has many tall thin rocks on its coast, which sing when the wind blows. What does the song do?
  3. The coast includes geometric (e.g. hexagonal) rock formations.
  4. The water is unusually clear, and there’s something on the bottom of the bay. What is it?
  5. The Veil is thin here (see Beyond the Veil).
  6. A network of caves penetrates the entire island. What made them? What uses them?
  7. Several lava tubes can be found on the island. What lives in them?
  8. Many tall trees connected by rope bridges.
  9. A plain with a thin, brittle crust. What’s underneath?
  10. A ship, about a mile inland. How did it get there? Is there anyone on board?

6. Interacting With Minor Locations

When the Major Locations have been fleshed out, the GM writes the Minor Locations. The party then interacts with these on the way to Major Locations. For a Saltbox there are a few good reasons why they would need to interact with the islands on the way:

  1. They have limited water or food to stay on the water.
  2. They’re forced to land in bad weather.
  3. Winds or currents send them off-course.

OK, that’s it for this one. Now we have to fill it with people or nonhumans or monsters… TTFN.

Beyond the Waves: Playbook Tweaks

So, the first rule of the Beyond the Waves campaign is to maximise the use of the existing materials in BtW/FA. This is a list of minor tweaks for the playbooks for re-interpreting in an Island adventures game.

Notes on Skills, etc.:

  • Suggest that most instances of Riding should be replaced with Sailing
  • Swimming may default to Athletics.

Notes on Woods:

  • There are a few references to “the woods” in the playbooks. The role of the woods is to be a mysterious place just outside civilisation where characters can explore and find interesting things. In general substitute “woods” for “another island” or “the shore” or somewhere else that fits the maritime theme better.

Notes on the Core Playbooks

  • Self-Taught Mage: this character meets “a real sorcerer” from the South. What island do they come from, and what faction do they belong to?
  • Untested Thief: the character’s mentor may be a traveller from another island who was passing through. The farm they may have cheated someone out of could be an uninhabited island.
  • Witch’s Prentice: Stick the Witch’s Hut on a separate islet, maybe connected by a rope bridge
  • Would be Knight: The class skill of Riding may be less useful. Could substitute Sailing; alternatively keep Riding skill as an archaic skill from mainland culture.
  • Young Woodsman: Less woods, more sea. Replace instances of “wilderness” with “sea”, and skills like “tanning” and “hunting” with something more appropriate to marine life. If the character patrols the roads away from the settlement, make them a sailor, or maybe even a lighthouse keeper. Rather than them finding something in the woods, stick their cache on a nearby islet that’s difficult to land on and generally unexplored (maybe the rope bridge has rotted away).

Notes on The Villagers

  • Assistant Beast-Keeper: See the Witch’s Prentice above for the location of her cottage. Also, if they witnessed something relocate that scene from the Woods to the Shore and change accordingly (e.g. change the “horned rider” to someone mysterious sailing by on a small boat)
  • Devout Acolyte: References to burial mounds, abandoned sanctuaries, etc. could take place on nearby islands. Brigands could be pirates.
  • Fae Foundling: Rather than being found near the woods under a standing stone, perhaps this character was found in a cave near the shore at low tide.
  • Local Performer: The source of the Local Performer’s stories may well be travellers from other islands.

Notes on Dwarves, Elves and Halflings:

  • These demi-humans may come from more distant island nations, or even from the Land or from the other side of the Ocean (with no way to return to their homeland).
  • Dwarves are stereotypically miners, mechanically inclined, etc. There are probably remote islands that can be mined for minerals. Their boats will probably be uncommonly strong and functional, maybe inscribed with runes.
  • Elves are stereotypically tree-dwellers. Their homelands are probably forested. Their vessels could be slender longboats, maybe woven rather than constructed.
  • Dwarven Adventurer and Rune-Caster should probably remove references to fear of water
  • Halfling Outrider’s pony will probably be limited. Consider a dingy (perhaps it’s a magical, semi-aware boat) or maybe a porpoise (no good as a mount, but it always shows up when the character is on the water).
  • Halfling Vagabond passes through a lot of places — substitute “island” for “town”

Notes on The Nobility:

  • Perhaps the court is located on a larger, central island that is a hub for island commerce.
  • If the characters are a mix of nobles and villagers they still need to start off in close proximity to one another — consider the more rural outlying areas to be either coastal (for a large island) or separate islets, linked by bridges, rope ferries, etc.
  • Future Warlord: The barbarian horde should be seafaring, obviously.
  • Gifted Dilletante: This character tends to go out hunting on their estate. Consider making them more of a sailing type. For the various things they’ve collected over the years, consider their connection to travellers passing through.

Beyond the Waves: An Introduction

This is a brief series of posts on how you might re-imagine a Beyond the Wall game in an archipelago, with the characters’ starting village on one fairly central island (or small island cluster).

I’m considering both Beyond the Wall and Further Afield for constructing this “saltbox”. Changes should be minimal — I only want to add the extra rules that I feel are needed for this kind of game. No change to the core activity. Minimal changes to playbooks (I don’t really have time to redesign a set of playbooks anyway). I have some ideas for maritime combat but rules already exist for such in LotFP and (I believe) Labyrinth Lord, so maybe just use those. Also I will import some rules from my Death Comes To Wyverley hack.

At the end I’ll probably tidy this into a pdf or something. For now, hope you like it and please comment, if you like.


The aim is to re-skin the playbooks with minimal fuss. A few basic (and obvious) things:

  • Riding skills will be devalued in favour of Sailing; that will change the Would-Be Knight among others
  • Navigation, Sailing, Swimming all become important
  • Where NPCs are mentioned in playbooks, consider sticking them on their own little island (or sandbank, spit, etc.). The Witch’s Hut lies on the Witch’s Island, right? Or maybe it crosses shallow waters on stilts.


There will be a random island tool that accounts for island features including

  • Size (how long it takes to cross)
  • Natural Features
  • Weather
  • Signs of habitation
  • Safety slider (this affects encounters both on the island and in the waters around)
  • Also consider “virtual islands” i.e. floating communities of travellers, pirates, etc. plus areas of sea that are significant.

If the whole “saltbox” is the “wilderness”, individual islands will be the “dungeon” or “adventure” (in the manner of Zelda: Windwaker).

Crossing Water

Crossing water can be done by bridge, rope ferry, small boats, large boats, by sailing or rowing, etc. Some rules for size of boats, how they can respond to storms, navigate (and go off course), and deal with damage (bail out!).

Water itself may be safe or dangerous, depending on the proximity to different islands.

Ocean, Land and Big Fish

The Ocean is the open water that no-one has been able to cross and return. It represents either a greater boundary to the whole sandbox (it’s too big for the island craft to cross; it’s full of dangerous storms and giant creatures; possibly there were once Ships of Legend that took settlers here from across the Ocean) or something at the very edge of the Archipelago, like the edge of the world itself. There could even be a world beneath the Ocean (the Hyrule of Zelda:WW, or Rebma in the Chronicles of Amber).

The Land can be a vast unbroken land mass near the Archipelago. Unlike the other features this one should be optional (no such Land appears in Earthsea). There must be a reason that the folk of the Archipelago are not part of the Land. Wild and dangerous, weird and spooky, home to a decaying Empire from whom the denizens of the Archipelago have fled generations ago, etc.

The Ocean and the Land should represent Big Ideas in the world; the Ocean could symbolise an otherworld (whose “far shores” are the Elven homeland — or so the Elven PC says) and the Land a decadent, even hellish place.

Oh, and Big Fish: what does the Leviathan symbolise? Is it a threat or symbol of hope? What myths surround it?


These are some fiction things I like that inspired this re-skin:

Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea is already an influence on Beyond the Wall. It’s a “vast archipelago of hundreds of islands surrounded by mostly uncharted ocean” (wikipedia).

Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago and The Islanders are collections of short stories set in the titular Dream Archipelago (also featured in his novel The Affirmation). Although it’s not fantasy, it does give a strong sense of the variety of different cultures that run through the islands, and at the same time the common threads that bind the islanders together.

The Legend of Zelda: The Windwaker on the Nintendo Gamecube (and later remastered in HD for the Wii U). Probably my favourite in the series, and for a 10 year old game it manages to not look dated thanks to the cel-shaded style. It involves travelling to different islands and doing the usual Zelda quests for the Triforce. Also Zelda is generally a nice example of how to re-skin the established tropes (dungeons, creatures, antagonists, format) to fit the premise.

Sinbad was a TV series on Sky in the UK; it lasted one season. Pretty rubbish acting and plotting but I quite liked the atmosphere, and the idea that Sinbad could only set foot on each island for one day and then had to return to sea was a nice premise. Filmed in Malta.

Worlds Apart is a reimagining of classic Traveller for islands instead of stellar maps.

Martial Truths: Can Art Overcome Strength?

This is sort of an addendum to the female-only tournament discussion — however I didn’t want it to overshadow the main point in that post which is if you want more diversity in WMA, safe spaces for minorities can help because they address feelings of inclusivity, self-esteem, etc. That goes double for instructors who are female, persons of colour, trans, etc.

Anyway… in the female-only tournament debate the “Art vs. Strength” discussion has been used a few times. The WMA canon is in love with the idea that Art will always overcome Strength. Strength certainly much less important than Art — as this recent article by Claire Ryan argues.

The physiological differences between men and women have been used as a talking point in the female-only tournament debate. Here two slightly different points are being conflated:

  1. Whether being bigger and stronger is an advantage (i.e. the sword is “an equaliser”)
  2. Whether people of widely different size, strength etc. should train and bout together.

In the second point, I would say of course they should train together. To do otherwise isn’t “martial”, as Guy Windsor puts it:

our tournaments are not segregated in any way. If you are smaller or weaker, or taller, or stronger, you are expected to deal with it as best you can and learn from the experience. That’s it. Weapons do not discriminate and neither should we.

But what is strength, and is it an advantage? Part of the problem is what we mean by “strength” and the way it’s conflated with other attributes like being physically big. Strength is context dependent: a dancer is strong, a rock-climber is strong, a long-jumper is strong.

Fewtrell writes about the constituents of a complete boxer in his 1790 treatise Boxing Reviewed:

I have given first place in the list to Strength, not because it is superior to Art, but because it is impossible to display Art in a proper manner without Strength.

Of course the context of boxing is not the same as for fencing. Still, developing the correct strength matters, and more strength never hurts — as long as it isn’t a crutch for poor practice.

This quote from Liechtenauer was used by Herbert to refute the idea that strength matters at all:

Because when it is strong against strong, the stronger one will always win. That is why Liechtenauer’s swordsmanship is a true art that the weaker wins more easily by use of his art than the stronger by using his strength. Otherwise what use would the art be?

However I don’t think this is what Liechtenauer means. This is not an absolute, art-trumps-strength argument — it’s just a vindication of the science of defence that it can be used to succeed where there’s a deficit of strength.

Silver talks at length about how the “tall man hath the vantage against men of mean stature” in cap. 45 of his Paradoxes of Defence.


At first glance it seems the master is saying no matter what, someone who is taller than you will have the advantage. But there are caveats:

  1. The advantage of the taller man is only preserved if their fight is perfect. If the man of mean stature has a perfect fight and the taller man is imperfect, all bets are off.
  2. The defender (“patient agent”) may still preserve their life by virtue of their true actions in defence being faster to execute than the motions needed for the Tall Man to come to the Place. Or as an instructor once told us, “your first step back will be faster than their first step forward”.
  3. When the “man of mean stature” wishes to offend their taller adversary they are always obliged to “come guarded under his wards” in offence.

The sub-text of the last point is this: while coming in may present a risk for a smaller agent against taller one, there are strategies and techniques which may be developed to mitigate those risks. Again, art may be devised to overcome strength (just as tactics may be employed to overcome a disadvantage, &c).

This is what a decent coach does. They recognise the strengths and weaknesses of their students, train out the weaknesses that can be trained out and offer alternative ways to overcome those that cannot. If, for example, the student cannot resist the furious battery of their huge opponent on their weapon, the instructor can offer alternatives involving slipping, traversing, or even stop-hits (in the case of egregious false times from large opponents).

Final Remarks

I’m not keen on examples such as Inigo Montoya vs The Mountain that proclaim victory for Inigo every time (q.v. Claire Ryan’s article). Not because I don’t want Inigo to win (as is right), and not because they’re implausible, but because they require very specific circumstances to be true. The Mountain is almost certainly as accomplished an artist as Inigo, and Inigo will lose if he plays the game according to The Mountain’s rules. But then part of Inigo’s expertise comes from knowing how not to play the opponent’s game.

What a student needs to learn is how to create those circumstances where they have advantage and minimise disadvantage, and that’s what a true art does. But the “art” isn’t just blade action, swiftness of feet or accuracy; it’s tactical reasoning and judgement. These things may be trained, regardless of size and strength. And to be honest this is where a diversity of instructors benefits everyone, because we’re not reliant on a particular body type or mindset to accomplish the art as written by our forebears.

Swords and Diversity

So, I attended the Diversity in LARP panel at Nine Worlds, and it was great.

After the panel I started thinking about diversity and inclusiveness in Western Martial Arts (cross-fertilisation of geek streams is one of many great things about Nine Worlds). How are we really doing in being inclusive, respectful and sensitive to students in WMA?

Maybe not so well. By coincidence, a discussion on the value of women-only tournaments in WMA (aka HEMA) has been doing the rounds recently. Guy Windsor’s post Swords do not discriminate. Neither should swordsmen. (sic) was written after one of his own students was denied entry to a women’s tournament in the USA. That incident was also covered by Devon Boorman of Academie Duello. Devon’s article runs through the arguments for and against women-only tournaments, but at the same time he’s also fully aware he’s a white dude with all the bias and blind spots that come along with that.

I should say at this point that my examples are about gender diversity. I am sure the same comments apply re: safe spaces for persons of colour, and particularly diversity of instructors as visible champions of HEMA.

The comments on Guy’s post from several women are essential reading here. Maura Hausfrau mentions physiological realities of being trans, Khalila Redbird talks about the effect of introducing women sabreurs into a male-only competition environment, and Kristen Argyle talks generally about the benefits of mixed vs female-only tournaments:

I don’t see it as a physiological needs kind of separation, which is why any sort of trans discrimination is ridiculous. It’s primarily cultural and psychological, and ultimately comes down to a quasi-marketing scheme to get more women invested and involved in these events.

There are opponents — like “Herbert” in this Schola Forum thread that responds to Devon’s article. Herbert’s position is that weapons are a great equaliser, women and men are treated with equal respect in training, and there is no imbalance between men and women in our community or in the west in general (because he hasn’t seen any evidence of it…).

I’m absolutely certain Herbert means well. But Herbert, like Devon, like Guy and like myself, is a white bloke. And it’s counter-intuitive to say that a segregated space can lead to better inclusion, because we don’t value those spaces in the same way.

There’s also the concern that segregation for one minority group would lead to a need to segregate others. I’m with Devon Boorman here:

“How about small men? Or gay men? Or any other group that feels they are affected by a social power imbalance? We can’t give everyone a special event!” Why not? If our goal is to be inclusive and expand the practice of our arts in the world (certainly my goal) any group that can support a tournament in numbers should certainly be welcome to have one if they feel it will better include that group. More groups and more people would only benefit all of us.


Being a cis-het-white-bloke I can’t claim much more than my good intentions — but I’ll state those anyway:

  1. The school is open to anyone who is serious about wanting to train.
  2. All students get the full support of the instructors and fellow students, with as much encouragement and time as they need to develop their skills.
  3. Students should feel safe and welcome in the training environment.

What is it to feel “safe and welcome”? I’m not sure, because I don’t think I know what it’s like to feel unwelcome. I fit the image of a martial artist pretty well (tall, strong, male — I even have a shaved head). I’ve never really been other in that environment.

I always hope that this is a non-issue for our schools — like Herbert, I imagine an ideal world where every student is treated equally, there is no gender imbalance, everyone is accepting of how a person identifies themselves, etc.

But I’m sad to say I have personally witnessed bias and even transphobia (and I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t call it out as vocally as I should have). And for me it’s only been a couple of times — so it’s highly likely that most of the cases of e.g. sexism are invisible to me, being in the majority.


This article by the Black Boar Swordsmanship School tackles “shame” in the fencing salle. Really it’s talking about feelings of self-worth, and how people react when their self-esteem is challenged by failure.

Of course this is a general case for all students; but building self-esteem and confidence is a big part of training. The low point of a student’s self-esteem will probably happen at the “conscious incompetence” phase of their training (discussed here). If they can’t get over that “difficult minimum” they may well quit.

Managing these negative feelings (I hesitate to call it “shame” in this context) requires the instructor to have a dialogue with the student — recognising the source of the issue, helping them accept it, and supporting their moments of self-doubt.

More Female Instructors

So, if there’s value in a female-only training space, it’s this: managing the early periods where a student is pushing through that early stage of learning where their self-esteem is so important. This is the main reason for a female-only “safe space”.

It goes without saying that to develop these spaces, the best way is to have more female instructors. We don’t have enough of those; but I’m sure we can do better by raising the profile of women by asking them to present classes and seminars, etc.

And I guess one reason we don’t have more female instructors is because training environments don’t support their development. If you’re a big strong bloke in a “sink or swim” type martial arts environment that doesn’t manage these crises of self-worth, you can build your self-esteem by winning fights because you’re strong. As a result you need less support when you hit that minimum, you can push through and maybe even become an instructor yourself (and you can visualise yourself as an instructor — because a lot of instructors look like you).

It’s possible this article will provoke a negative response from some male instructors. All I can say is… dude, it’s not about you. It doesn’t mean you’re not doing the best you can to be sensitive to your students’ needs. But sometimes, doing the best thing means stepping aside and letting someone else lead.