Saturday, 29 July 2017

Hope’s Vindication, Annotated

I’ve finished transcribing and annotating Sir William Hope’s final book, the Vindication of the True Art of Defence. The original plates are available online, but the pdf below is fully searchable (though I’ve stuck to Hope’s inconsistent spelling). The annotations include 12 lessons that should reflect the content. The file also includes plates from The Scheme presented in Hope’s New, Short and Easy Method of Fencing which are referenced in the Vindication.

The lessons are a first pass interpretation and may be changed later as further lesson plans develop.

The Annotated Vindication

Sunday, 9 October 2016

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.

LARP

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.

Monday, 5 September 2016

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

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.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

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.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

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.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Valmont and Danceny

Watch this bout between Valmont and Danceny from 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons:

“Dangerous Liaisons” (1988): Duel Scene and de Tourvel’s Death from August Martin on Vimeo.

(fun fact, Malkovich’s baseball slide at 1:40 was apparently his suggestion to fight coordinator William Hobbs)

The Vicomte at least turns up to the fight sober, unlike this scene from 1989’s Valmont.

In both versions Valmont and Danceny are probably evenly matched, Valmont having more experience but the Chevalier having youth, vigor and a lot of technical skill (as shown in Danceny’s bout with Gercourt in Valmont at about 1h00).

What’s interesting is how the positions are reversed between the films. Reeves’ Danceny attacks with uncontrolled and dogmatic fury while Malkovich’s Valmont has a calm and irritable aloofness. But in Valmont, Colin Firth’s character is the one to initiate the exchange, forward and angry while Henry Thomas’ Chevalier remains calm throughout, always giving ground until Valmont’s fury is spent before delivering a single, fatal thrust (we assume, as this happens off-camera).

The encounter in Valmont is more credible, both for length and position of the protagonists. Dangerous Liaisons’ duel looks dramatic with Reeves and Malkovich running all over the place, panting with exhaustion, etc. Note that the affair is not settled at first blood, which is probably period correct, as Amberger notes in The Secret History of the Sword:

in Central Europe the First Blood principle was held in low esteem — which meant a debilitating injury was required to terminate the duel.

What’s going through these characters’ minds?

Malkovich’s Valmont

malkovich valmont

Valmont does not want to kill Danceny. He has control of the fight throughout — he chooses when to retreat and when to advance, displaying great calmness, vigor and judgement, sparing Danceny when he could kill or wound him, non-verbally halting the duel to change swords, ignoring his opponent even when on his knees, and ultimately choosing to die.

To him the whole affair is a tragic waste of time. But, did he intend to die from the outset? It would seem so given that he is carrying around Merteuil’s letters, and he is psychologically hamstrung by the fallout from his affair with Tourvel; but it’s uncertain whether he decides to die out of despair, or because he must be punished, or just as an alternative to inevitably killing Danceny.

Reeves’ Danceny

reeves danceny

Danceny doesn’t know what he wants. All he knows is that he is unable to concede, and he lets this drive him throughout the exchange to one end or another.

After his temper has cooled Capaldi’s Azolan tells him “it’s all very well for you to feel sorry now”. While this seems a bit harsh given all we know of Valmont’s mind, still Danceny is an immature character who didn’t realise the stakes until too late.

Firth’s Valmont

firth valmont

Steinmetz notes in The Romance of Duelling “he who makes free with the bottle seldom rises with a steady hand”. Valmont’s judgement is fatally clouded by drink.

This Valmont is every bit as aggrieved as Danceny; while we can put his drinking the previous night down to fatalism, at the point of the duel he is practically enraged. Was there time enough for Valmont to think? Consciously or not, in the end he forces the same decision onto the Chevalier that Malkovich makes for Reeves.

Thomas’ Danceny

thomas danceny

Danceny would have been satisfied by an apology, and probably first blood if the opportunity had arisen. The earlier bout with Gercourt shows exactly how much control the Chevalier has with the sword; but the fury of Valmont’s advance probably left him with little option.

Probably. After all, the Chevalier doesn’t seem too cut up at Cecile’s wedding to Gercourt. Perhaps he’s a sociopath after all.

Plus, we know he could probably have Gercourt on a good day. Watch Dangerous Liaisons II: Doubly Dangerous and see Cecile and Danceny conspire to arrange a duel, dispense with Gercourt and live happily ever after.

DL duel

Afterword

Bonus! Spot the high octave:

octave 2

octave 1

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

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.

MatPD45

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.

Principles

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.

“Shame”

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.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Remembered with Honour: Lace and Steel

This post is part 2 of my contribution to the Dyvers Favourite Game Project

For part 2 in my series of games that time forgot, here’s Paul Kidd’s magnificent Lace and Steel.

LS1e

We’re not short of swashbuckling/Early Modern RPGs — off the top of my head I can think of Flashing Blades, En Garde!, Swashbuckler!, GURPS Swashbucklers and All For One for Savage Worlds, and 7th Sea — and by stretching the definition we can cram the likes of Castle Falkenstein, Duty and Honour and Renaissance in as well.

So, if you want to get your swash on there are plenty of titles to choose from — why then would you choose an obscure Australian game from 1989?

Genre emulation

The swashbuckler is the most rigidly conventionalized of all the subgenres of the Adventure genre, and one with close affinities to the Historical Fiction and Romance genres as well

(TV Tropes)

Whether or not you agree with that quote, the swashbuckling genre has some key elements that most players will expect: historical elements, class division, codes of honour, and a certain blend of adventure, comedy and romance. The party will be good and daring and probably outside the law, though still bound by some class conventions; and the villains are dastardly and deserve their comeuppance.

A lot of the time genre emulation is primarily via setting fluff and what the GM and players bring to the table — so roleplaying to the tropes of the genre is part of the social contract. Games that are designed with swashbuckling in mind may pay lip-service to fencing mechanics and social climbing but in the end GURPS Swashbucklers will still smell of GURPS.

What I like about Lace and Steel is its mechanical support for the genre. It does duelling very nicely — swordplay, magic and verbal sparring all use a card sub-system. But the interpersonal mechanics (Ties and Antipathies, and Self Image) are also very good, and include some pretty tight design. Outside the sub-systems I can take-or-leave the general mechanics, which are actually a bit cumbersome (subtract a stat from a difficulty, roll dice and subtract skill, cross-reference the result is all a bit unnecessary).

The setting material does what I like best — it keeps things brief and to the point. No doubt there would have been a lot more had the line taken off, but I am OK with the terse descriptions of the various nations, and the brief passages on daily life, religion and ecology. But most of the setting is implied in the mechanical sections on magic and warfare — suggesting that the typical campaign will always feature conflict as a backdrop, if not a direct game feature. There are rules for mass combats, naval combat, and so forth. This is ripe territory for intrigue, spy games and other staples.

Art

Let’s just briefly mention Donna Barr, who is credited with the interior B&W art as well as the cover of the first edition, and the art for Castle Keitel (note that the reprint cover was by David Cherry, though the interior art is unchanged).

This is possibly my favourite interior piece:

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You can see some examples here and read a blog piece on her here.

message

I think Barr did Stinz around the same time. The centaurs in that comic identify as “Half Horse” and that term also crops up in L&S (as well as the slang “two leggers” and “four leggers”). Since the original novel for Stinz dates from 1981 I guess the term originated with Barr and was appropriated by Kidd. I’d like to know if any of the other geographic features in the world of L&S originated in Barr’s comics, too. Either way I love the implied continuity between the two works.

Half a Horse, Half a Horse, Half a Horse Onward

A fantasy 1640s could have ended up with a sub-Tolkien melange of elves and dwarves, but instead it ended up with Greco-Roman influenced Satyrs, Harpys and the Half-Horse. Humans and Half-Horse are the “civilised races” with “wild races” living on the fringes of civilisation in their own communities. Then there are the Fair Folk and “halflings” (again not a Tolkien reference but a term for pixies, trolls, goblins and such, similar to its use in Jack Vance’s Lyonesse).

So, superficially Kidd has just exchanced poiny ears for cloven hooves and horns. But the interesting thing is not the choice of races but the way they’re grouped. The “civilised world” is explicitly mixed-race (human and half-horse) and it’s clear that the “wild races” are welcome in the cities and trade freely, they just prefer their own communities. With the implication that the world is expanding and becoming more civilised, these tribal wild communities are in the minority. The national boundaries described later are for the civilised world.

This gives me all kinds of ideas of how the wild races coexist and are influenced by the various conflicts in the civilised world. A lot of Tolkien-formula fantasy settings segregate by race in what feels like an arbitrary fashion; somehow this arrangement feels more credible.

The only bit that’s slightly peculiar is the half-horse habit of wearing human clothes on their torsos but going unclothed on their hind-quarters, and being embarassed about it:

Half-Horses wear clothing on their upper bodies, and four legger women wear apron-like skirts. The equine hind-body is never clothed or armored, and this lack of covering can be a cause of embarrassment. Many a love-sick young male has had to hide his nether regions upon contemplating the charms of his sweetheart….

A sly reference to Errol Flynn perhaps?

The rest of the setting is pretty much as expected: a fantasy post-medieval Europe with the serial numbers filed off and various national grievances to ensure someone somewhere is starting a fight. There are sections on war technology, social life, language, ecology. Magic is treated like a group of skills, organised into schools like Alchemy, Necromancy, and so forth (but only Sorcerers able to cast missiles and engage in magical combat).

Interestingly the religion is explicitly Christianity, but with a certain amount of tolerance:

The end result is a church which contains some elements of earthly Catholic ritual, but with a level of toleration, debate and variety which is closer to that of the early Christian church. There is no belief in “saints”, no inquisition and no blots on the clerical conscience such as the Albigensian crusade. The wars which are being fought all across the continent are the result of dynastic ambition, rather than a clash of religious dogma.

Duelling

A duel is not warfare, it’s not a brawl, it’s not a back-alley assassination. Duelling implies feelings of propriety and fairness, codes of honour, and above all a way to settle a dispute between two persons without interference from organisations or government.

But the principals are not the only ones involved in the fight — the audience is part of it as well, rooting for one side or the other, biting nails and clutching lace hankies to their mouths (both in-fiction, and outside). Formal duels set the stage for conflict — the insult, the challenge, the stakes and the outcome — and thanks to this transparency the audience is aware of what success or failure might mean.

The card system does the mechanical fighting part very nicely. It’s easy to learn but with surprising depth — attacks and defences run on the upper, middle and lower lines, with a few special attacks, a gradual attrition of hand size due to fatigue, etc. It’s also very transparent to other players who aren’t directly involved in the combat.

cards

As a fencer I can say this game feels like fencing. “Initiative” means one side attacks and the other defends (as opposed to both sides attacking), until they can take back the initiative from their opponent with a decent parry. The matching or mismatching of suits (rapiers and roses) adds an element of luck for who gets to draw new cards, and the desperate defence, disengaging and stop-hits all feel genre-appropriate and representative. Additionally, player skill and the luck of the draw come into the game in a way that dice rolling does not. It’s possible to be out-fought if you have a bad day on the cards, even if your PC is better at fighting. Fights are not and should not be taken lightly even if the stakes are to first blood.

Repartee is the social equivalent of swordplay, and uses the same deck with damage done to Self Image rather than physical wounds. It’s not covered so well in depth, however, and I wonder if it was only included as an afterthought.

Magical duelling gets its own deck. The conceit here is that sorcerers are walking magical artillery; engaging armies need sorcerers to protect themselves from the opponents, as only the sorcerer can build up the magical protection to ward themselves in a duel. Much of the sorcery duelling is about building a defensive wall and knocking your opponent’s down. Other differences involve playing more than one card in attack and defence with an initial play face up, and additional cards face down to make bluffing possible.

magic

Whichever kind of conflict, using cards in a sub-game flags three things to the players:

  • Conflict is between these two characters, and should not be interfered with;
  • There are real stakes in the conflict if you lose, and the GM is in an adversarial position;
  • Once you’re in the conflict, you’re there until you either win, lose, or get to play a Disengage card.

Interpersonal Relationships

The other very nice mechanic in this game is around relationships between characters. Ties are positive and Antipathies are negative relationships:

A tie is a feeling of friendship, loyalty, respect or duty towards a person, a nation, a group or an idea. An antipathy is a feeling of distaste, disgust or aversion to a thing. Ties/antipathies are treated very much like skills, being given a rating of zero or more. This rating is termed the tie or antipathy’s strength.

Additionally we have Self-Image as a kind of social hit-points (applied as a modifier to all Charisma and Drive rolls), and the Disposition of a character is derived from a draw of a Tarot deck to establish the character’s Significator. The overall section on Interpersonal Relationships is brief but absolutely killer, including

  • what happens if a character acts contrary to their Ties or Antipathies
  • friendships conflicting with Dispositions
  • staking Self-Image on actions
  • how Self-Image can go up or down, depending on success or failure relating to a Tie or Antipathy

In broad terms, how a character acts on their ties towards a person, ideal or nation will drive their sense of self-worth. Hmmm, that sounds familiar. It’s not expressed in such depth as the Burning Wheel BIT system, although it also doesn’t involve the whole “Artha” economy and the post-session popularity contest, and it’s way simpler. I count that as a plus.

Final Remarks

Lace and Steel presents a sort of fantasy Age of Reason with both setting details and genre-appropriate mechanics — but although the setting is explicitly fantasy 1640s, it could cover an era anywhere between 1600 and 1800. Some things stay the same: attitudes to duelling would not change much, though the technology will be different (the rapier transitioning to the small-sword, etc.), and there will still be a backdrop of political and military conflict. But where would the Wild Races be a hundred years later? Would attitudes to magic and religion change?

It’s a sad thing that Everway will (probably) never see a new edition, but I can at least understand why: that game will never be cheap or simple to make, and a small fanbase makes sales uncertain.

Lace and Steel has no such excuse. The electronic rulebook and cards were available from OneBookShelf until the mid noughties when they were mysteriously withdrawn from sale. Golden Elm Media (formerly Electric Mulch) has a Lace and Steel page but no way to buy the product. Paul Kidd refers to his game on his Squeee!!! site (although that looks like an old site — he’s currently at PaulKidd.net where he mentions RPGs, but no L&S). Right now the only place you can find the rulebook is on Scribd, which I have mixed feelings about. But the electronic copy is there, with “Copyright 1998-2003 Pharos Press” (publishers of the late 90s reprint) and the old Electric Mulch URL. If any reader knows why the digital version isn’t on sale, I’d love to know.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Martial Truths: Sword vs Staff (The Full Length, part II)

Last post I discussed the relative lengths of Elizabethan rapiers and swords, and the tactics one would use to defeat another.

To follow up, I’d like to discuss a greater mismatch: single sword against a quarterstaff. Mostly it’s in response to Matt Easton’s video:

Matt’s video is partly challenging the idea that the quarterstaff is superior to the sword — a point he makes very well in the follow up video where he notes that we romanticise the “simple staffman” and actually the martial context of the two is very different.

So here are the assumptions:

  • Staves don’t do much damage compared to swords
  • Polearms are better than staves because they have a metal bit on the end
  • Once you’re past the end of a staff the sword fencer has freedom to dispatch the staff-weilder.

Staves Don’t Do Much Damage

Oz replies to Matt’s video here, regarding how much hurt staves can do:

This debate goes down a predictable path, comparing the effectiveness of cutting and bludgeoning weapons against clothing, etc.

My main issue with the whole debate, and something Oz mentions in the end of his video, is that we can’t train with a quarterstaff or a sword at full power and lethality. Anecdotally we do have Terry Brown’s account of battering a fully-armoured reenactor (referenced in this post) and accounts of real and serious training injuries — I am in no doubt that a gambeson would be little use against a staff-thrust.

Polearms Are Better

Oz also refutes this one on account of the greater mass of the Bill’s head causing it to lie spent for a longer time. Silver notes (Paradox 29) that

whereby as the Bill has advantage in his wards in the head, so therefor has the staff the like defence, or rather more, to play upon the head of the bill, not only to make a perfect good ward, but thereby, the rather to cast the Bill out of the right line, whereby the staff man may thrust safe, and endanger the Bill-man

To paraphrase: the Bill and similar polearms have a nice big head to ward against attacks, but at the same time the staff can move that head aside at offend the Bill-man in time.

It’s not clear-cut. The advantages of the different pole weapons in terms of wards and offence (in the context of one-on-one and many-on-many in the wars) and discussed in some depth in Paradoxes.

Length

As Oz says, Silver tells us explicitly how long a quarterstaff is — and it’s much longer than the 6 foot staff Matt holds in his own video.

The most contentious thing Matt says is around 7min 30s, where he describes a technique of blocking a staff blow with one’s forearm and enclosing thereafter. I want to pick this one because it makes the same tactical assumptions as Silver in his play against the long rapier, in that if you can cross your opponent’s weapon and get inside its compass, you may seize this opportunity to win the place. This is the “I’d just get inside his staff” notion that’s a sort of urban legend amongst armchair martial artists.

The problem is this: the difference in length between staff and sword is so great that for the sword-man to enclose involves a time of the hand, body and feet, whereas the staff-man may reposition their weapon in the time of the hand only. Thus the staff may be repositioned to strike at head, hands, knees etc. all in the time of the hand, with little offence offered from the sword. This likely how one Richard Peeke was able to offend three Spaniards armed with rapiers (assuming it’s a true story; accounts can be read here and in Terry Brown’s English Martial Arts).

So back to Matt’s technique: assuming he were prepared to take a broken arm in order to enclose, his main problem is that as he advances forward in the time of his feet, so may the staff-man retreat with his feet. And should the staff-man be caught unawares and allow his adversary too close, he may even shorten his staff in the time of his hand, and play at the half-staff to cause offence.

This advantage does not apply for a shorter staff, where the sword-man may play such that he attacks the hands of the staff bearer in a more equal time, and thus a staff below 6 feet is an entirely different case — and a cause for a much more cautious attitude.

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