What does winning at Swordplay look like? How can the rules reflect that?

A few months ago, I was talking with the coach of Peterborough Fencing Club about my longsword program. He's also leading an outreach study group for longsword there. He's got a lot of coaching experience and training, and is a great sounding board.

He said to me "The first thing you need to do is decide what winning looks like with longsword."

I didn't need to think very long. "Winning is hitting your opponent without being hit."

His follow-up made me thing a lot longer "That sounds right. So now you need to make all of your training and your competition rules serve that. How do you train for that? How do your competitions show that?"

He had made a really good point. I always tried to instill this attitude in my students, but tournament rules, and even most casual freeplay rules never seem to reflect it. And the thing is, if winning competitively does not require a survival mindset, then even with the best of intentions, students can't effectively train for competition with a survival mindset.

One of the hardest things to account for is double hits. Everyone who does swordplay always says that double hits (both fighters hit nearly simultaneously) is the worst outcome of a fight. But it's really hard to make a set of rules that account for this that can't be exploited. And the truth is, no matter how good a fencer someone is, double hits still happen.

I have always preferred counting points against the person who got hit rather than points for the person who made the hit. In that case a double hit punishes both fighters. But this can be exploited pretty easily. If fighter A gets ahead, they can accept doubles with little consequence. Fighter B will run out of points sooner if they both lose points at the same rate.

There are lots of different ways that competition rules have dealt with doubles, but most of them amount to no consequence to the competitors, or an exploitable loophole.

Until we go back to fighting for our lives with sharp swords (clearly not an acceptable option) we can't really create a set of rules that aren't exploitable. So what we need is a set of rules where when you exploit the loopholes, it means you are fighting well.

At Ottawa Swordplay we've just started experimenting with a new competitive format, and so far we like it. Here's a quick run-down.

The competition is split into three phases. 1) The Initial Skirmish, 2) The Assaults, 3) Sudden Death.

In the initial skirmish, the competitors fight until there is a clean hit. Doubles, hits with in-time afterblows or contested hits are equal counted as a fault against both. If the competitors score three faults, the match is over, both competitors lose and score zero points.

If there is a clean hit, the competitor who scored the hit choses whether they will start as striker or defender for the assaults. No points are scored, and the match moves into phase 2.

There are five sets of assaults. In each set, each fighter gets a turn as striker or defender. This is analogous to being at bat or in the field in baseball, or having the serve or not in racquet sports.

The fighters engage, and the striker attempts to make clean hits on the defender. The striker gains one point for every clean hit, and the engagement does not stop until one the following: 1) the striker accumulates 5 points in the assault. The striker records their points, and striker and defender switch roles for the next assault. 2) the striker grapples disarms or otherwise conclusively defeats the defender. The striker records 5 points, and the combatants switch roles for the next assault. Note that the maximum score per assault is still 5. 3) The defender is pushed or steps out of the ring. This counts as a hit for the striker, the fighters reset and resume (unless it was the striker's fifth point). 4) The striker is hit, goes out of the ring etc. The action stops, the striker scores one point for each clean hit and the fighters change roles for the next assault. If the last hit was a double, the striker does not gain a point for it.

Of course, the referee can call a halt at any time for safety concerns or to check with any line judges if a hit happened. Assuming that the action would normally continue, the fighters reset and resume.

After five pairs of assaults, the fighter with the highest score wins. If there is a tie, and it is necessary to resolve it, the fighters move on to phase 3.

Sudden death is a tie-breaker exchange that works exactly like the initial skirmish, except that the first clean hit counts as one additional point for whoever scored it. If the fighters double out three times in sudden death, they both lose, just as in the skirmish, except that they keep their points if it affects the overall tournament scoring.

The things I like about this system so far:

  • You only get points for clean hits. Ever.
  • There is an advantage to controlling your opponent, but it's not the only way to win.
  • There is a consequence for double hits, admittedly, only for the striker.*
  • Doubles move the match forward instead of dragging it out.
  • There is a mix of stopping at hits and continuous action.
  • It's relatively easy to judge.
  • There can be variation in approaching the different phases of the fight.

*Everybody catches on to the fact that the defender can still go for doubles as a strategy. So far I am viewing this as a feature rather than a bug. It does mean that the striker has to actually be prepared for "suicidal" attacks from the defender. This creates a training requirement to really have a survival mindset while creating the opportunity to actually face that situation. I might need to write a future blog about training to fight people who are fighting with a different mindset than you.

We've only used this system for a few fights so far, but I really like the outcome, and I think my students do to. I think it is valuable to change up your rules from time to time, and plan to continue to do so, but right now I want to implement this as our core system of freeplay.

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