Tagged: martial arts

Martial Truths: Two Weapon Fighting

I don’t have a lot of experience of two-weapon fighting, in fact I have just enough experience that fighting with a weapon in your off-hand is actually a distraction rather than useful.

What Silver Said

George Silver wrote in Paradoxes of Defence about a hierarchy of weapons. George Silver was also biased, and in almost every case the English Short Sword (“short” by comparison with the Long Sword, not actually that short) would be better than its continental counterpoint, the Rapier.

This is the hierarchy Silver talks about (Paradoxes, p30 of Mathey’s text):

the single sword hath the vantage against the single rapier the sword and dagger hath the vantage against the rapier and poniard the sword and target hath the vantage against the sword and dagger or rapier and poniard the sword and buckler hath the vantage against the sword and target, sword and dagger or rapier and poniard the two-hand sword hath the vantage against the sword and buckler, sword and target, sword and dagger or rapier and poniard

And so on, into polearms.

This makes a lot of assumptions — for example the assumption that the pike, short staff or similar polearm is universally better than a sword single is true in an open fight where there’s enough room to use them. The other assumption is that the rapier will always be worse than the English single handed cut-and-thrust sword for reasons of length, balance, cutting ability and so forth. I happen to think this is true (with exercises to demonstrate it) but (a) it’s arrogant and daft to think that just because the weapon is “better” the fencer is too and (b) Joseph Swetnam takes a contrary view, and while I think his technical argument can be challenged no doubt he had experience of dispatching the English sword with his rapier.

Setting aside the rapier, Silver states that the buckler is superior to target, which is superior to dagger as an off-hand weapon. Note that he does not state that a sword and dagger is superior to a sword single. Is it implied? Maybe.

What Daggers Are Good For

Daggers are foremost good for getting in close and stabbing people.

This means that if you engage in a lot of close fighting — that is transitioning from the “first distance” at sword length to something much closer — it’s probably better to have a much shorter weapon in your off-hand than not. I say probably, because if your hand’s occupied there’s some stuff you can’t do when inside the point of your opponent’s sword — you can’t grip, immobilize or throw as effectively. But if you’re that close with a dagger you can stab.

Of the dagger, Silver says it has no wards, with this argument (Paradoxes, p36):

Now is the hand in his owne course more swifter than the foot or eye, therefore within distance the eye is deceived, & judgement is lost; and that is another cause that the warder with the dagger, although he has perfect eyes, is still within distance deceived.

By “no wards” we mean that there is no way you can carry your dagger that will reliably shut down an avenue of an opponent’s attack — which is the whole point of a ward or guard. Once in very close distance, the time of the hand is the fastest of all and the dagger can strike in “many diverse places”. A dagger is also not good in the first distance, simply because it’s not big enough to be a ward in itself. In all such cases the opponent’s blow would be parried by the sword; after that, the dagger might be employed to trap or put aside the blade, but taking the full force of the blow with a dagger alone will be tough.

(this is not so the case with your rapier and main gauche against the like weapon, because the attacks are primarily thrusts and much easier put aside. This is why rapier and poniard against the like weapon works fine)

Dagger vs. Buckler

The argument above is part of a discussion on how the buckler is way better than the dagger as an off-hand weapon; and a fair proportion is against an anecdotal “bloke down the pub” who holds a contrary view to Silver. Silver reckons the buckler is better than the dagger because it’s much more effective at warding. To understand how a buckler works in some systems we can go back to I.33, the oldest known sword manual:

I.33 / 01-00033 Manuscript illustration of two men fencing  with sword and buckler. From the 'Tower Fechtbuch'. German, late 13th century Copyright: The Board of Trustees of the Armouries Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds LS10 1LT Digital Photograph Di 2005-296 Hasselblad 555ELD / Imacon digital back
I.33 / 01-00033
Manuscript illustration of two men fencing with sword and buckler. From the ‘Tower Fechtbuch’. German, late 13th century
Copyright: The Board of Trustees of the Armouries
Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds LS10 1LT
Digital Photograph Di 2005-296
Hasselblad 555ELD / Imacon digital back

(source also see Wikipedia page Royal Armouries Ms. I.33)

I.33 predates the Longsword as a common weapon; in place there is the arming sword and a buckler held very close to the hand at all times, such that the buckler is an extension of the sword that protects hand and forearm. As I understand I.33 play, one of the objectives is to force your opponent’s hands apart (by cunning binds, etc.) thus weakening their defence.

I’m not sure how close this is to Silver’s use of the buckler. Achille Marozzo’s side-sword and buckler illustrations, from the 1536 Opera Nova place the hand with buckler well apart from the sword-hand; the sword and buckler depicted in Paulus Hector Mair is much more I.33 like (see here, translated by Keith P. Myers on the Luegisland Scholars site). These are centuries after I.33 and maybe 60 years before Silver (and of course Italian and German respectively). The only other useful comment is that you can either regard Silver as a very early Renaissance martial scholar, or a very late Medieval one (and opinions tend to go to the latter).

Bucker vs. Targe

Silver’s argument of the Buckler being better than the Targe is pretty simple — the buckler lets you use the “four fights” (again see here)) but the targe, being much bigger restricts the number of positions you can hold your arm, so fighting guardant or close is difficult.

This illustrates the most important point — Silver’s context is (a) human scale fighting and (b) specifically the warfare around 1600. While Silver’s roots are medieval and the principles behind his treatise are timeless, the context of which weapon is better is at least biased by both fashion and technology of the time.

Which is the best shield?

So, for human vs. human fights a buckler is very useful, if you’re using a sword. But since human cultures have used shields of all sizes this can’t be the whole story. Intuitively the bigger the shield the better — except the bigger the shield the harder it is to strike around it, and the more it slows you down.

Big shields are really good for defending the person next to you in a formation. They still get in the way of cutting weapons by limiting how you can swing your sword, but if you’ve got a spear — or a friend with a spear — jolly good.

Once you get split up and it’s more of a skirmish, it’s touch and go as to which is the better arrangement. Say you have one person with a buckler and arming sword, and another with a scutum and a gladius (a historical mismatch, but possible if you’re playing RuneQuest, right?). My guess is all things being equal the big shield becomes an obstacle for both sides — although the person with the scutum may be slower, they only need to move a little bit to keep the shield between them and their opponent, who has to move a lot to try to get around the shield. Then it’s down to tactics and other factors (like fatigue). If I were the one with the big shield and I were strong enough I’d try to bash them with it in a charge, then sit on them and stab under the shield with my short sword. If I had the buckler I’d try to kick the shield so my opponent fell down, then cut at wrists and ankles while they were down.

I quite like this blog post for talking about a range of shields (as an alternative to full plate). I would expand by adding some conditional modifiers, e.g.

  • the bigger the shield, the more it hinders an attack
  • smaller shields are penalised less confined spaces than big shields
  • smaller shields may be better for fighting humanoid opponents; larger ones for fighting big opponents
  • when fighting in formation, someone next to you benefits slightly from your shield.

Do I get an extra attack?

The main benefit of carrying an off-hand weapon in, say, D&D is an extra attack (at penalty). This is fine with me, because there’s no real discussion of changing distance — everything is subsumed into the attack vs. AC roll.

But if you want to discuss it technically, you need to consider these things:

  1. Swordfights happen at particular distances; and the “first distance” is close enough to strike with the first 3rd of a sword blade, but anything shorter cannot be employed thus. So you don’t get an extra attack.
  2. Where a dagger is useful is in enclosing. You could, for example, adopt a Guardant ward, cross your opponent’s weapon and step within distance. At this point you can stab them with your dagger, and they are at a big disadvantage to ward against it (q.v.). But, because you’re now too close to employ your sword, you also don’t get an extra attack.
  3. If you’re using two swords of equal length against a sword single, you might think you can strike twice as often. But biomechanically speaking, when you throw your right shoulder towards your opponent to strike with your right hand, you draw your left away. So you don’t get an extra attack, because the weapon is too far away. Then, when you try to follow up with your left, it’s a motion in at least the time of the hand and body, and probably hand, body and foot (see here). So it’s not two simultaneous attacks, it’s one attack followed by a second, and the time between is enough for the opponent to respond defensively.

So in summary, you do not get an extra attack in any real-world sense. But that’s by the by. The way D&D and RuneQuest do it is just fine for a game.


If two-weapon fighting isn’t all that for steel blades, why does it work so well in LARP? A couple of reasons:

  1. In general, people stand too close. If you stand too close with your single sword, someone can easily envelop your sword with one of their swords, and hit you with the other one.
  2. People get to stand too close because they’re not afraid of being hit in certain places (like the head), so those two-weapon techniques work.
  3. LARP weapons are light, springly and the latex makes them sticky. It’s easier to envelop an opponent’s sword, it’s faster to attack with two swords, etc.

Because of this distortion of distance, latex bucklers don’t work so well, latex daggers in the off-hand are no good and the bigger your shield, the better. If I were LARPing again I would totally choose a pair of swords and get stuck in.


James Spahn moans about being respected as a GM here. It boils down to

  • People didn’t turn up on time
  • People didn’t bother to learn the rules, after I put effort into making it easier for them to do so
  • People came with their preconceived notions about the game that weren’t aligned with everyone else’s
  • People didn’t say thanks

We don’t know whether “people” is more than one person, a repeat offender, or just a generic “that bloke” indicating a type of ingrate who turns up from time to time at your table. And I think we can all sympathise with (a) how awful these people are and (b) the need to vent. The question is, what comes after the venting?

If it’s nothing, if you just want to let off steam but otherwise have no desire to effect change well, that’s your prerogative — but this shit will happen again, guaranteed. Whatever the social circumstances that led up to this point it boils down to one fact: the person you’re cross with does not value the thing you value as much as you do. Above all it’s a failure to empathise, which may be benign or malicious. It’s 100% repeatable, because most people you meet will fail to share your values in some way or another.

You may want to do something about it. What you do can be either passive or active. Passive actions might include writing a blog post and hoping your offender reads it and has enough (a) intelligence to realise you mean them and (b) enough empathy to care. Active steps are confrontational, and could be empathetic appeals (“when you do this, I feel…”) or transactional (“if you don’t stop/start your behaviour, I will…”). The active steps are an ultimatum, setting down the stakes for change vs no change. For empathetic appeals these are around bad feelings and loss of integrity of relationships (with the DM, or with the other group) and for transactional ones, it’s about loss of service (i.e. get the fuck out of my game).

All of these actions, passive or active, have a cost. And the cost of taking action vs. no action is what being a leader is all about (and I don’t know exactly what James means by “a DM worth their dice bag” but I’d say leadership comes into it).

Every hobby will have unpaid or underpaid leaders — from organising charity cake sales to book groups to RPGs to martial arts. And leaders will generally do their unpaid work for two reasons:

  1. They desperately want something to exist (an event, a game session, a project), and are prepared to pay their own time to make it happen, or
  2. They want fame or recognition for being a leader and/or expert.

These two are complementary and most folk will sit on a binary axis between two extremes. And all leaders have to decide whether some combination of 1 plus 2 are equal to the effort they put in. If it’s not, they should stop what they’re doing (bitching and moaning to sympathetic ears isn’t payment, it just offsets the cost in the short term).

Back in 2002 when I became a HEMA instructor, what did I want? If I’m honest, it was the second one. I wanted recognition from a sub-culture I was invested in. 14 years later, has that changed? Yes, sort of. I haven’t been to a gathering of groups for a few years, nor participated in online forums — and those are the places I need to go to if I want peer recognition. Instead I’m happy just to train weekly, and while recognition still strokes my ego I get more from just being part of our school — so when I’m called upon to stand in for our head instructor the benefit to me is the continuation of the school and having students walk in.

I have been thinking about respect in HEMA, though. We have our share of problem students. There are some who just turn up to a few classes and then leave for whatever reason — and while some masters will complain, the fact is these students have done a cost-benefit analysis of their continued attendance vs. whatever personal development they get out of it. And just as leaders should be honest about whether or not they want recognition, students should be honest about whether learning is worth their time and money.

An honest decision to stay or leave is respectful. The real problem students are the ones who come with their own pre-conceived notions about what the school does or behaviours it tolerates, and proceed to amuse themselves at the expense of others. Talented students who deviate from the lesson plan because they want to “win” all the time are the biggest problem — they tend to be self-serving and not interested in training cooperatively with their partner, only defeating them. There’s a lot you can train out of someone but being an arsehole is one of the hardest things to correct. Usually these students will respect the master as authoritarian, but not their peers, and honestly I’d prefer it the other way around — not least because not respecting your training partner by deviating from the lesson plan is a recipe for accidents. As the leader in that situation I’m not invested in winning that individual’s respect, I’m far more concerned with the damage (physical or emotional) they may cause to the rest of the student body. But at least it’s fairly clear when they’ve crossed a line and I can just dump them outside on their arse.

No, YOU get off MY lawn

This post is so familiar and alien at the same time. Familiar because it describes the make-do of roleplaying in the 80s, but not the scene I remember since as a Brit I hardly played D&D. And thanks to that I can wax lyrical about old-school Stormbringer or WFRP or Fighting Fantasy and there’s just not enough interest to create any kind of argument. No-one’s invested in being right about that particular “Old School”.

It’s the comments to Rick Stump’s rant that are illuminating. “This kid who wasn’t even born in the 80s had the temerity to tell me about the Old School”. Etc. Which is fair enough, but let’s unpack that a bit.

First, this veneration of the Old School… it’s not cool. The Old School is frequently reactionary, outdated, and harmful — how about “old school” industrial health and safety? Or gender roles or family units? Or methods of disciplining children? Or attitudes to women in engineering roles? Or punitive teaching by rote? There are a lot of instances of Old School that can just piss off, as far as I’m concerned.

Second, since roleplaying was so localised and cobbled-together, there really never was any “school” or single coherent body of thought and practice back in the 80s.

Third, it’s ironic that the normally reactionary older generation is admonishing millennials for being so prescriptive and inflexible in defining “the Old School”.

But fourth, it’s not really Old School, it’s the OSR. And all the OSR really is, is an evolving collective of modern ideas which uses the one component of “the original roleplaying game”, the system, as a basis — because that’s the one part of the Old School that actually doesn’t need updating, because it’s still functional 40 years on.

What the OSR is doing is more like what we do in HEMA — we take historical treatises, some of which are incomplete, and turn them into functional modern systems that can be taught and used. As such, the age and experience of people in the OSR is irrelevant, it’s their output and participation that matters; but just like the MA world, there’s an expectation that the most senior members will be able to wear their 20, 30 or 40 years long-service badge and hold court over their juniors forever.

Of course I’m lucky because no-one is going to come back from the 18th century and tell me I’m doing it wrong. But then if they did I could just stab them because they’d be undead.

Martial Truths: It’s Not A Sport

Yesterday I was talking about the HEMA scene to a layperson and they referred to what we did as “your sport”. This is wrong for these reasons:

  1. There’s no sport. Yes, there are competitions when groups meet up, and certainly some people view these as competitive events where the goal is dominance; but most gatherings are foremost about a technical exchange, so the competition places that technique in practice.
  2. More importantly, there’s no you. Unlike the vairous governing bodies like the Kung Fu council and FIE there isn’t a single governing body for HEMA. That hasn’t stopped some people from trying to impose one, but in the end groups like HEMAC and BFHS are groups of affiliated but diverse interest groups.

To explain the problem with calling it “sport” I need to reference J. Christoph Amberger’s Secret History of the Sword, where the author talks about two kinds of conflict. Of those two Antagonistic conflict is further divided between:

  • Combat for Dominion or Survival (“war”)
  • Comment combat (“duel”)

Amberger breaks these down by scenario (battlefield, affairs of honour, etc.), Motivation, and crucially by

  • Projected Intent (i.e. what threat does the opposition appear to present)
  • Awareness of risk (high for both cases)
  • Fear level, and Stress level.

Similarly agonistic combat is sub-divided between

  • Competitive combat (“sport”)
  • Theatrical combat (“stage”)

Unsurprisingly the perception of risk, stress and fear levels are lower in agonistic conflict, where the intent is not to cause lasting harm because you want everyone to come back to the next class. And it would seem that our end-of-class sparring or assaulting fits the model of competitive combat. So, why not call that “sport”?

The problem with that term is it fixates on the wrong goal. Modern three-weapon fencing, whilst being great for fitness and form is a country mile away from defensive arts practiced in the long 18th century. It is a sport because it’s goal oriented; and the fact is, two fencers may contre-temps with one another and exchange what would be fatal thrusts, and one side will still be awarded a point on quite arbitrary grounds (because they straightened their arm first and had priority).

Fixation on winning points leads to thuggery, especially in the inexperienced. And artless thuggery benefits greatly from physical advantage (through brawling, intimidating behaviour, etc.). And while you can train someone in art well enough to overcome the thugs, a new student with promise may well be put off and quit long before they achieve those lessons, because all they see are artless thugs intent on dominating and winning, with no intent on improving their actual skill.

It should be clear why this problem can exist in the first place: there is no threat, no perception of risk, and this modifies behaviour. Hope was well aware of the difference between salle-play (agonistic) and a lethal attack at sharps (antagonistic) and how it modified behaviour, and he prepared his students thus — fancy tricks for the salle, but keep it simple and stick to what you know in a fight for your life, and think to your own defence first.

The modern fencing salle should be a safe place to train in, so factors of fear (and to an extent, stress) are massively diminished. Instead we have other ways to modify behaviour in combat. Free-play is collaborative rather than competitive, so more like Theatrical exchange; and for assaulting, changing the conditions of victory massively changes behaviour away from thuggery towards art (for example, only allowing scoring off the riposte).

I despise the word sport in conjunction with martial arts, because it legitimises winning as a be-all and end-all; and this leads to a callous, sink-or-swim culture, normalised in a particular demographic. Ours isn’t a sport, it’s a science.

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.

Blowing Up The Movies: Punch. That. Shit!


Thanks to the phenomenal success of Atlas Games Feng Shui 2 Kickstarter the companion ebook Blowing Up The Movies achieved all of its stretch goals, covering a wide range of action movie genres from both East and West (including at least one film that the author didn’t want to cover).

I’m a big fan of Robin D. Laws’ conversational style both in speech (the excellent Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff podcast) and in print. I got on particularly well with his style in Hamlet’s Hit-Points, so if you do too, you can expect more of the same from Blowing Up The Movies.

As such it’s possible to read the book as a critical analysis only (and enjoy it!), but since this is a companion to Feng Shui 2 Laws is already preaching to the choir. Some of the titles were selected by backers and the rest will make up the core of the typical action cinema fan’s DVD collection, making BUtM one big gratification beat where the reader can smile to herself and nod in agreement with the author.

The essays typically home in on the selected movie’s defining points, narrative structure, symbolism and political/historical context &c. Laws then drops in hints for FS2 GMs on how to take those moving parts, motifs and themes and make them work mechanically with that game. This part I could take or leave — most of the time if I’m invested enough in a genre to run it, I’ve selected/hacked a system to represent it. More interesting were the suggestions for melding the action with two of Laws’ other games: Hillfolk (for a drama focused game) or GUMSHOE (for a detective game). The mechanical mis-matches were kind of glossed over, but the principle is good, and the section on melding detective work with action (Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame) is one of my favourites. And naturally Laws is going to pimp, I mean turn to his other titles when considering system.

The essays are short, incisive and mostly positive (one exception being Equilibrium, the film Laws didn’t want to write about, but it’s a good essay on what not to do when pacing your plot). The staples of Eastern MA cinema are there (Hard Boiled, Once Upon A Time In China), the modern cinematic nods to the Wuxia genres (Crouching Tiger and the slew of films in it’s wake) and a mixture of obvious and less obvious SF (The Matrix, Equilibrium, Star Wars). There’s also Die Hard which Laws declares “the quintessential 80’s movie” which would make a certain friend of mine happy. Me, I was over the moon to see Hot Fuzz in the list.

In summary, if you like Feng Shui it’s a must-read, if you like action cinema it’s great fun even without the game, and if you like Robin D. Laws it’s more of the same.

And it’s in a device-friendly format (epub/mobi) too, so it gets bonus points from me. If only the Feng Shui 2 pdf were in a tablet-friendly or even a print-friendly format… one of those would be nice.

On Violence

Guy Windsor has been thinking about violence lately.

I’ve also been thinking about violence. I started when Jeremy Clarkson punched Oisin Tymon; before Ken MacQuarrie’s findings on the incident around the 25th of March, even before the change.org petition to reinstate Clarkson passed the million mark on the 20th.

I have no opinion on the BBC’s handling of the case. I don’t care if the BBC used this altercation as an excuse to rid themselves of Clarkson; it’s far more likely that they tried everything they could to avoid sacking him, given his export value.

These are the interesting facts:

  • 1,000,000 people demanded Clarkson be reinstated before they knew the facts
  • Clarkson showed almost immediate remorse, took responsibility for his actions and took steps to make amends
  • Oisin Tymon offered no resistance, and afterwards wanted to put the whole thing behind him
  • Before the full facts were known The Times ran a lifestyle article on celebrity meltdowns and how Tymon’s case wasn’t unique… and how any producer worth their salary would have a contingency plan — by bribing a chef to stay late, etc. (unfortunately I expect the link is behind a paywall. But here’s Katie Hopkins blaming Tymon and telling him to “man up”)

What was in the minds of Clarkson, Tymon, the Times editors, and the 1000000 people asking for Clarkson to be reinstated?

(I won’t ask what goes through Hopkins’ mind)

Windsor’s thought experiment considers three different instances of a broken leg, where the emotional response can be neutral, negative or positive; he then applies this logic to Buzz Aldrin’s punching of a certain conspiracy theorist:

I suggest that your emotional response to the injury is at least as important as the injury itself. Deciding whether Buzz Aldrin’s punch was right or wrong requires that you take the context of it into account (I was careful to link to the version of the video that shows the build-up); and determining the damage done necessarily entails finding out how the prick (I will not call him a victim, because he was the victimiser, neither will I mention his name) responded emotionally to the violence. Did it give him nightmares? Probably not. He probably went back to his posse wearing his aching jaw as a badge of pride.

Those involved in the Clarkson case will also have gone through this process of wondering whether the violence against Tymon was justified. In that process some people downplayed the severity of the attack — James May called it a “dust-up” and “not that serious” but that was probably because he’d been doorstepped and sensibly avoided saying something inflammatory. But what about the 1000000 who petitioned for Clarkson, or The Times, or Katie Hopkins? Do they really view physical and verbal assault as the cost of doing business?

And of course we don’t have Tymon’s view on it. He just wants to put it behind him; no doubt it’s been remarkably stressful on him and his family, no doubt it was a horrible incident both physically and psychologically, no doubt he’s wondered if the violence he suffered was somehow justified because of a personal failing. Of course we don’t think about these questions — because he’s a man and men should “take it”, because it’s “not that serious”, because he’s in the realm of Celebrity and Celebs… just do that kind of thing.

And that’s also the Clarkson Effect. People justified on his behalf, even without the full facts, because of his following, and they blamed Tymon and the liberal BBC, not him.

Back to Col. Aldrin, I don’t like to think about whether the punch was justified. That’s a matter for the law. But as Windsor puts it “the person who got punched was using our culture’s restrictions on violence to get away with a different kind of violence”, and I’d probably want to punch him too. Nevertheless I’m glad Col. Aldrin did and not me.


Recently Ione Wells spoke out about her sexual assault in an open letter that made national news.

Ms Wells’ letter talks about the way violence is an attack not only on persons but their communities.

I don’t know who the people in your life are. I don’t know anything about you. But I do know this: you did not just attack me that night. I am a daughter, I am a friend, I am a girlfriend, I am a pupil, I am a cousin, I am a niece, I am a neighbour, I am the employee who served everyone down the road coffee in the café under the railway. All the people who form those relations to me make up my community, and you assaulted every single one of them. You violated the truth that I will never cease to fight for, and which all of those people represent – that there are infinitely more good people in the world than bad.
This letter is not really for you at all, but for all the victims of attempted or perpetrated serious sexual assault and every member of their communities. I’m sure you remember the 7/7 bombings. I’m also sure you’ll remember how the terrorists did not win, because the whole community of London got back on the Tube the next day. You’ve carried out your attack, but now I’m getting back on my tube.

I wouldn’t dare compare her ordeal with a celebrity punch-up. But the responses to #NotGuilty say a lot about the culture of entitlement and tolerance for psychological violence towards — which is I think exactly the same root as dismissing the violence towards Tymon and telling him to “man up”, because 1000000 people feel entitled to Top Gear.


I was going to say something about martial training — which is necessarily violent, but the intent is not to terrorise or cause injury. At least, not in any decent school. But this post is already a bit long so I’ll save that for another day.

Martial Truths: Back To School (part 1)

Let’s talk about martial arts schools.

This Is Your Brain On Martial Arts

Remember this?


(from this post)

This is the modern combatives “tactical pyramid”. It shows the priority of attributes in a martial artist needed to win fights. Natural advantage aside, all of these aspects may be trained (or in the case of Kit, purchased with gold pieces).

Let’s break it down:

  • Mindset is readiness to pay the cost of winning (harming others, coming to harm, etc.)
  • Tactics are your
    • holistic view of the fight
    • ability to see changes in your opponent’s behaviour and adapt
    • ability to plan the engagement to retain advantage (proactive)
  • Techniques are
    • executing moves with maximum efficiency (speed, power, safety, etc.)
    • a component toolkit for constructing tactical moves
    • establish the autonomic behaviours of the artist when placed in a stress situation (reactive)
  • Kit
    • Weapons, armour, that kind of thing

Understand that this triangle comes from a modern combatives source, where “kit” includes concealed guns and knives. Clearly if the weapons on one side were disproportionately better — say you were openly carrying a big gun and the other side wasn’t — you’d have a kit advantage that might trump technique. You’d still need the mindset to do harm, though.

Another comment about modern combatives: the tactics for street defence involve never being in a risky situation in the first place. A lot of the focus in combatives I’ve attended is on hazard spotting or avoiding being surprised, knowing when to flee, etc.

That context aside — I really like the triangle. It’s a good illustration of the priorities the instructor should have when training students.

Over-Focus On Technique

If tactics and mindset are so important, then why are we obsessed with teaching techniques in MA classes? Here are a few reasons:

  • It’s gratifying. For the student who knows very little, being able to learn techniques piecemeal and execute them will give them positive feedback about the learning process.
  • It’s easier for the instructor. Ideas like tactics and mindset are high-level, “soft” concepts. Techniques are well defined, “hard” procedures — as in if you do X correctly, the result will be Y.
  • They are effective for base conditioning. Being able to execute basic moves shifts the student from a state of conscious to unconscious competence; in other words they have less cognitive load associated with executing moves, and so can develop higher level tactics. More about that in a minute.

Those are all positives. There is one negative, which is cool technique is what Hollywood has taught us to expect. When we visualise ourselves fighting — either as martial artists or in RPG combat — we think about looking good. A lot of MA mastery is about getting over one’s own narcissism.

Learning Curve

You’ve probably seen this diagram before, too:

4 stages linear

Learning to drive is the example often used, although I’ve also seen it in corporate seminars — usually while trying to make the audience feel good about culture change or something similarly nebulous.

But actually the curve is more like this:

4 stages curved

If someone told you you’re going to actually get worse at the activity before you get better, would you even start?

It should come as no surprise that the point at which the student becomes consciously incompetent is when they’re most likely to quit.

Let’s say the student has attended classes for a few months. They’ve won a few fights, mainly on natural talent (agression, vigor, speed) rather than finesse. This is because while they’re great at doing the techniques in a controlled environment, it all goes out the window when their blood is up.

Now say they’re a conscientious student — they want to believe in their new hobby and for them, winning doesn’t count without good form. Unfortunately putting the techniques into place is a cognitive load. While they’re thinking about doing the technique right they have less space for tactical reasoning, and… they start losing fights to less experienced students.

This is the point where they start to have doubts — doubts about their own ability, and doubts about how well they fit into the school. Obviously this is where a coach comes in, to hold a mirror up and help the student realise that they are improving.

Ultimately whether the student remains in or leaves the school will come down to the school culture, of which the Instructor is a major element.

School Culture

When a new student comes to a school, they may well think they’re getting the same experience as they would in the school down the road. And for a lot of students who only ever study at one school they’ll probably never know the difference.

However, martial arts schools don’t come from a mold — not even the ones that ascribe to an identifiable sub-form (say, Wado Ryu). The form has to be interpreted by the instructor and then passed on to her students.

This is all part of the school culture — something that will influence whether a student joins, stays with or leaves the school. I’ve considered a four-fold diagram:

School Culture

  • The History and Philosophy of the art will probably be the first thing that the student sees and what attracts her to the art. It will set an expectation in her mind for behaviours, her development, and the rules of engagement.
  • Instructor Ethos and Competence should reflect the philosophy of the art, but does it? This is all about the group leader — do they care about their students? Do they push and if so, how hard? Do they get results? How do their personal beliefs filter down to the school?
  • Rules of Engagement are all about how students behave in the competitive environment, typified by how hard students will hit one another and still consider it “part of the game”. This will be directly influenced by the Instructor’s Ethos, and obviously affects how welcoming the school is to outsiders.
  • The behaviour of Other Students will be influenced by the Rules of Engagement which will be set according to the Instructor’s Ethos. However knowing other students is sometimes a reason for a student to stay, even if she doesn’t like the rest of the school culture. Additionally the other students will be who the student is tested against — so it matters how the other students interpret the Rules of Engagement, how rough they are, and how sporting.

While the school culture may be rooted in tradition, it’s really the Instructor who personifies that tradition and is the real source of the school’s identity.

Instructors can have both a one-to-many relationship with the student body, and many one-to-one relationships with individual students. It’s the latter that the Instructor uses to coach and mentor individuals to reach their potential. At the same time the Instructor may convey expectations on the students through this relationship — including demands for loyalty.

It’s a Tribe Thing

Martial Arts schools are tribal. That’s not intended to be pejorative, just a statement of fact. The fact that schools can have their own culture is an indicator of this.

This means that when two schools come together they with interact positively or negatively based on the same cultural markers above. Furthermore the similarity of some aspects is no guarantee that the two tribes will get along, and differences don’t automatically mean disharmony either.

Disagreements and common ground can be found in both the Philosophy of the school, and the People who practice it; and they can happen at both high and low levels. Let’s consider the four markers in a slightly different way:


At the high level the master will influence the form taught, and the form will influence the master. At the low level, the character of the student body will affect their conduct toward one another, and their conduct will affect character. Influence between high and low levels will be generally one-way, however.

Now consider how another school might view this tribe. If the masters tend to agree then it may be because their views on form align. If they continue to agree with one another, they may end up influencing one another’s thoughts on form, training and technical art. On the contrary if they disagree, these are the areas where they will find fault with one another.

At the student level the interactions will be predicated on training and competing with one another. If the students like each other they may be prepared to change the Rules of Engagement, even if this isn’t what they would normally do in the gym at home. If they dislike one another then the Rules of Engagement become contentious, with potential appeals to authority to tighten or relax those rules. This escalates tension from the student body into the domain of the masters.

Remarks on MA in RPGs

One of the aims of this series is to talk about Martial Arts in a RPG (and fiction) context. How does knowledge of school cultures help us?

First, remember that a martial art isn’t just a skill, it involves practice and experience. While this is the case for all skills, practicing MA is unique in that gaining experience involves deliberate competition with others where the stakes are high: there’s the potential for injury in training, or even death.

This coupled with the tribal nature of martial schools means a great potential for forming positive and negative relationships. The fact that those martial artists fight is possibly the least interesting thing about them. If you want to simulate martial arts in a game, forget the Fu powers of Feng Shui or the charms in Exalted, what about Strings from Monsterhearts or Hx from Apocalypse World?

Now that you know that, consider the effect of emotion on the competitive arena. Judgement, Vigor and Calmness are the three pillars of Hope’s teachings, but Calmness is easily upset if there are bad feelings — I know firsthand the feeling of adrenaline that comes when facing down an opponent who you have a beef with outside the ring, and it’s not an advantage. What would happen in a fight if one combatant used a String on another?

In summary, martial arts are cool, but the coolest thing about martial arts isn’t martial arts — it’s the dynamic relationship between master and student, between student and student, and between schools.

Afterword: Living Tradition

Living tradition in martial arts has always been important, and the Western MA movement is often criticised for its lack of direct master-to-student lineage. Instead most WMA are based on masters from Eastern traditions picking up the manuals and interpreting the contents according to the ethos of their favoured school. This is why some WMA will look decidely like kenjutsu or modern sport sabre or theatrical stage fighting. But it’s not as much of a mess as it sounds; WMA is also practiced competitively and studied academically, and those conflicts will tease out inconsistencies and weak behaviours.

The WMA instructor’s biggest problem is developing her own ethos in the absence of a mentor. Beyond that they are no different from their counterparts practicing popular eastern MA — and both need enough self belief and introspection to judge when the source they have learned from is not 100% correct.

What do we say to the God of Death?

Last weekend I went to the 9 Worlds convention. It was awesome, and I totally recommend it. The combination of many different cultural tracks and a really strong focus on being inclusive made for a great atmosphere.

This is what I saw:

  • Dr Who Fanvids
  • Archaeology of Fantasy Worlds
  • Urban Fantasy Worlds (All the Books)
  • Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth (Retro Fandom)
  • Identity and Sex Work in ASOIAF
  • Whedon vs Tropes in Cabin in the Woods
  • Fight Choreography for Writers
  • Storygasm, including River’s Absolution
  • Bechdel Film Test
  • Gin Appreciation
  • Queer Cabaret, and Steampunk Cabaret
  • “Chains of Transformation” for Fanfic Remixes
  • Assaulting the Narrative
  • Water Dancing with Syrio Forel
  • Marketing Monsterclass
  • Environmental Narratives in Video Games

Needless to say there was also a lot I didn’t go to but would have liked to, owing to clashes. Here are some of the real highlights:

Archaeology of Fantasy Worlds

This was an early start on Friday on the Academic track, and proved to be one of the best talks in the whole Con. The premise was how one would go about archaeology of Middle Earth and other worlds, and what you might find — how one might gather evidence of how dwarven and orcish societies may have interacted over centuries, for example.

Sex Work and Identity in A Song Of Ice And Fire

This one was in a small room in the post-lunch slot. Mostly it covered the dehumanising and othering of sex workers by the various characters in the series. Both panel and audience generally took GoT’s misogyny and sensationalising of the subject as a given, but what made the talk was the attention to detail (detail which I’m not really inclined to dig for myself) such as the way certain characters personify attitudes to be the hate figure when those attitudes are shared by supposedly “good” protagonists as well, or the way most sex workers have not been given real names in the text.

Gin Appreciation

This was on the Steampunk track. For a 10 quid ticket, we got to drink a lot of gin.

The talk began with a history of gin, including a dissection of Hogarth’s Gin Lane and the Gin Reform Act and its effect on bathtub gin-making. Then we went on to distillation methods, which was where I got my chemistry geek on.

The five main ones on offer were:

  • Aldi’s Oliver Cromwell (not bad for a tenner, I can see how this would make a great martini)
  • Adnam’s Copper House Gin (really fantastic herby gin with a lot of character, apparently contains hibiscus botanicals)
  • Plymouth Gin (a very well balanced gin, not as dry as a London Dry gin)
  • Hendricks (needs no introduction, it’s a firm favourite — though we did learn some cool things about its multi-stage distillation)
  • Burleigh’s Gin, a new gin from Jamie Baxter launched that very evening somewhere else in London. Possibly we got to taste it before the official launch, but we were all a bit sloshed by then and having trouble with time. Very interesting one with silver birch and iris flowers.

Of those five, I still love the Hendricks but they were all very fine — even the cheap one from Aldi. The newcomer is apparently rare as hen’s teeth, being a small batch production. Ah, well.

We also learned about enjoying gin with water instead of tonic. I still prefer a decent tonic, but water really brings out the interesting notes in exotic gins like Gin Mare.

Other gins on offer included Hoxton’s with grapefruit and coconut (didn’t like it) and a brussel sprout gin which tasted like a watered-down absinthe.


This was the gaming track. I spent a lot of Saturday gaming, running a Beyond the Wall scenario in about 75 minutes (testament to its pick-up friendliness) and then playing River’s Absolution, a Firefly hack of Witch: The Road to Lindisfarne in the afternoon.

I’ve only played a few GMless games, but the session crystallised some thoughts on the nature of storygames and how they differ from trad RPGs. Some of the players in RA were at ease with the whole shared ownership of the story and scene; others occasionally looked to the facilitator for both descriptions of the scene, and to arbitrate over the scene’s events. Much of this comes down to leadership and decision-making norms in our hobby. Generally the GM provides the leadership when framing a scene, and leaves the decision making to the players. But in GMless games there is no real decision-making: often events are assumed to come to pass, and the game is about exploring why those decisions are made.

That’s all fine when all the players buy in, but it falls apart when you take expectations from trad gaming. In some examples I might make a suggestion that is reasonable in-character, but highly disruptive — such as declaring that I am putting the witch to the sword right now, never mind our journey. Here I’m relying on my fellow players to block me in this action, and they are relying on me to acquiesce no matter what. Such was the case when I jokingly suggested to float River out of the cargo hold and save us an inconvenient journey in the first scene.

I think it boils down to this: it’s counter-intuitive to frame a scene where there is an apparent decision to be made, and then assume that the decision has been made and instead explore only the motivations. I get the feeling that this will always be a hurdle with this type of game.

Water Dancing with Syrio Forel

Finally, I got a lesson from Syrio Forel, First Sword of Braavos! Well, technically the lesson came from Miltos Yerolemou who plays Syrio in GoT.

(No, I haven’t suddenly turned into a GoT fan. I just like sword choreography)

Serious Business
Serious Business

This was one of those things I had to attend just to say I’d done it, but it ended up being one of the best parts of the convention. The lesson was strongly tipped towards choreography as opposed to martial, but was great fun. My only regret was doing it in boots and jeans, which proved to be a bit uncomfortable to train in.

I even got a souvenir:

What do we say?
What do we say?
Not today!
Not today!

With this blade I will be inwincible.