Being a New Fighter

by The Mad Sentinel of Glastonbury

As many of you may have already seen, hopefully to your at least momentary dismay, we in the Lost Boys are fortunate enough to have several very well-experienced fighters in our household, at least one of whom has been deemed worthy by his peers and his King of elevation to knighthood. It has become axiomatic that fighters such as this are very often an excellent source of information regarding tactics and strategy, helpful tips on how not to hit oneself in the head with one's own sword, the proper ratio of Triple Sec to Vodka in a KamiKaze, and other knowledge essential to survival in the SCA.

What is often overlooked, at least in my own experience, is how much fun and excitement there can be in NOT knowing the varied and intricate dynamics of SCA melee (and, to some extent, tournament) combat. After all, winning is cool and everything, but in the end, if you're not having fun with all this foofoorah, then something is not right.

With that in mind, as a companion piece, here is a guide for the new fighter; one who has all the enthusiasm and all the love for sport necessary to advance in knowledge and ability, but is also as yet not perhaps at the level of those with the dazzling white belts and/or brass or tin hats.

In keeping with the time-honored tradition of mundane junior-high-school athletic coaches everywhere, I have grouped some tenets central to the inexperienced fighting technique into a ridiculous and utterly meaningless acronym:

M - Martial Ability
U - Unpredictability
N - Nobility
C - Communication
H - Health

What can I say? That's what sprang to mind. These ideas will by no means whatsoever cover everything that will happen to you on and off the battlefield, but hopefully they will give you some ideas from which you can spring forth and surprise some people. In any case, let us proceed.

Martial Ability is a catch-all for how well you fight. This means not only having gained the ability to avoid your own sword in combat, but actually being able to point it at the proper group of people as well. The most important thing I can say about this aspect of fighting is this: never forget that above all you are learning. You are going to get your clock cleaned by the big guns out there on a regular basis. This is to be expected for a time. Soon enough, however, you will learn that, with VERY rare exceptions, every single fighter in armor, be they prince or peasant, will have some general patterns to their fighting. You will very likely develop your own. The idea is to learn (there's that word again) how to spot some of these patterns, over a space of seconds as well as over a space of years, and eventually, exploit them.

In melee combat, this will lean much more heavily toward the "seconds" side of that spectrum. Say you're carrying a shield, a very likely possibility if you're inexperienced. You're in a line, protecting your buddies, and across from you is a Duke with a spear. First of all, be afraid. This is okay, as when you go up against someone of this caliber, you will most likely lose. The key here is to remember that "most likely" part. You still have a shot - never forget that. That Duke over there has got his or her notions of how the battle before them is going to take place. Even better, that Duke is probably involved on some level with the arrangement of his team's plans. Now, watch that Duke poke at your team. Count beats between thrusts, watch where he's looking for incoming threats, and study him. You may be surprised how fast you can pick out something he's doing that could be turned against him. Often, it will be something as simple as gauging how fast he recovers his weapon. Use that interval. Or even relay it to a teammate who's itching for a charge. Communicate. Try it out. He can only kill you once at a time.

See? There's that sneaky inter-relative property of these combat tenets again. Which brings me to what I personally consider to be a new fighter's greatest asset - Unpredictability. This is the fact that very few people out there know you. This also means that very few people will know just how inexperienced you may be. If there's one thing I have found during my very limited time out there, it is this - ninety-five percent of all the fighters you will face will assume on a reflexive level that you know exactly what you're doing. This means they will hesitate for a split second, hoping to react rather than act. Don't give them the chance. Remember, you're learning. Try something. Make a fast plan and stick to it, even (and sometimes especially) if it's going to get you killed. Getting killed in SCA melees is a bad thing only if your death is meaningless. If, by sacrificing yourself, you can provide a golden opportunity for your teammates, then by all means throw yourself at that enemy (caveat - make damn sure somebody on your side is ready to exploit that opportunity your life is about to buy!). Especially if your enemy will never expect you to do what you're about to do. New techniques and tactics spring from ideas exactly like this. Again, many of the more successful fighters have already found what works for them, and they're likely to stick to it. Find something new that works for you. It may be only one idea in a hundred that pans out over the long term, but there's also only one sure way to find out. Plus which, you'll have the rather interesting pleasure of seeing those same more successful fighters shaking their heads in your direction, wondering what in perdition you thought you were doing. For me, sometimes that alone is fun enough.

Illustrative anecdote - War of the Lilies 1997. No shit, there I am, in a furious melee fighting as an Under 30 against what I believe to be pound for pound the most concentrated collection of white leather and tin hats I've ever seen. I find a guy and square off, and he legs me. Darn. I drop, and my opponent does the "sensible" thing for a melee - he walks away, as does the rest of the battle, leaving me essentially alone on the wrong side of the field. Now, the prevailing wisdom in melee is to ignore legged fighters until mop-up operations have commenced. This is not only faster, it is practical. So, there I am, virtually immobile, and I can either get up and leave the field "dead" or try something. Now, when you're legged (as long as you're not "hipped"), you can waddle on your butt. So, I figured, let the waddling commence - what can they do, kill me and let me leave the field and get my blood circulation back? I waddled my plastic plated butt about fifteen meters, looking for trouble and saying so quite loudly, when a buddy of mine named Aubrey, who was still intact, sidled on up behind me and said, "Dude, do you have any idea how many people are following you?!" I turned around to look (a definite battlefield essential from time to time), and sure enough, about twenty of those same successful, experienced, knowledgeable, wise, etc. fighters had BROKEN OFF from their group and were staring, and very slowly wandering, in my direction, blowing their skills, their knowledge, and their usefulness standing there wondering what I was thinking. Their smaller numbers made it possible for my teammates to, well, pound on them.

The point here is, TRY SOMETHING. Be unpredictable. If you're a shield, get mobile instead of turtling up! If you're a polearm, from time to time, see if you can start some trouble by running into a group - or better yet, use your weapon to push spears aside so your buddies can get in and kill something. If you square off against a Duke - he will most likely sit there and wait - get in his face. You never know. You might just hit on a revolutionary battlefield tactic or stratagem.

One caveat I should interject - being unpredictable does not provide blanket butt-coverage for defying orders in combat. If you've got a hat or a belt giving you specific instructions, even if you find them overly constraining or even downright silly, you had best follow them, at the very least until you have advanced to a standing appropriate to disagreeing with a person of higher rank. Being in a household gives a new fighter something of an advantage in these cases, because it is fairly likely your de facto combat leader will be in such a position, if said leader is present. At that point, however, it's a good idea to follow said leader's subsequent orders. He or she probably has a plan, and as I will mention again under "communication" below, plans work best with help. If your leader's idea doesn't pan out, after the battle, walk right up and ask what the idea was. Once you can visualize that idea, from there you can almost always land an inspiration of some variation to try - next time. This idea of knowing what's best for one's team leads me to my next major concept.

The next tenet of combat should be an obvious one - Nobility. This all basically comes down to the Golden Rule, quite frankly. Treat your fellow combatants as you would expect to be treated in return. Take your blows - dying doesn't suck THAT badly. Don't crank up on someone just because they might have missed one - we've all probably shrugged one off because we didn't realize someone was out of our line-of-sight. Be an example of what you would like to see in others, especially on the field. Be as fierce and furious a warrior as you can muster on the field, and pour your opponents a drink afterward. The way to attract people of caliber to your own household, or to the Society as a whole, is to show what we can be to each other, not just to prospective new members. If you have a question, ask someone - most folks are quite helpful. Even if you disagree with someone (which we've all seen can get rather vociferous regarding combat sometimes), give them a chance to explain their viewpoint. You never know, maybe you missed something.

Communication - Talk to your teammates. Find out what your buddies are planning, and offer your insights. Even at an inexperienced level, you will very likely be noticing something that old hats might have missed. A small detail can change the course of a battle. "I notice there seems to be a preponderance of left-handed spearmen out there" CAN actually result in a tactical advantage. Don't be afraid to ask questions or rally your teammates around yourself. A tactical or strategic idea works best when one has help. Keep in contact with people behind you. These are just some simple ideas to help you learn for yourself how to perhaps acquire one of those hats or belts yourself.

Health - This aspect actually refers more to your mental health than your physical health. You should be able to figure out how much water you need on the field, or in your armor in general, and also the fact that bone protruding from one's limbs is regarded as an excellent indicator that perhaps the battle should be assigned a lower priority than, say, an ambulance. Mental health usually for me encompasses all of the concepts I mentioned above. If you're learning new skills, techniques, and tactics, you're most likely happy. If you've just knocked an opponent on his butt with something you pulled out of - thin air --, you're probably happy. If your battles come off without grumbling and ranting about calibrations, you're probably happy. And if you had an idea, or even relayed an idea that panned out, you're probably happy.

Seeing a trend here? It all comes back to what I wrote at the beginning, the most basic guide I've ever been given for surviving in the SCA. "If you're not having fun, something's not right."

Thanks for your time, good gentles.

Brian of Wales,
Fourth Mad Sentinel of Glastonbury Tor.

"Who gave you the nerve to get killed here?!"
-- actual Hong Kong action movie quote.
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