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Counter-Disengage 2: On Unbalanced Tournaments


By Don Todde MacDonnell

If this is your first encounter to the Counter-Disengage Forum, please read the Introductory post kindly provided for your convenience.

At a tournament some years ago, as we gathered to hear quarterfinal
pairings, I heard a voice over my shoulder. “What I surprise… Todde
and a bunch of scarves…”

Standard double elim tournies do an excellent job of of consistently
putting the best fighters in the final, and if there was less
variation in prowess across the kingdom, that might work out fine.
But it’s not, and so quarterfinals feature the same six scarves, plus
one or two mid-level fighters having a great day.  Occasionally, one
of the latter makes the finals; but usually, it’s the same final we
saw last month.  Is that boring for you?  Is that boring for the
populace and the crown?  Probably.  It’s awfully boring for me.

So I ask: Who should be in the semis and finals?  The best fighters
present (you know, the same six scarves), or the fighters having the
best day?  If the purpose of our tournaments is to test ourselves and
entertain the populace, then a final of two scarves having an average
day doesn’t cut it.  We need to handicap tournaments so that more
fighters have a shot at the finals, and a scarf having an average day
is out in four (or places third in their pool, or whatever).  From the
scarf end, this is far more satisfying: I have to bring my best fight
each round, not just hide behind a buckler, fight conservatively, and
wait for a safe kill.  But how does the mid-level fencer feel about
being granted an advantage because they’re less of a hot stick?  The
answer I’ve heard is that some of the time, it’s fun, and some of the
time, they want a fair fight.  (And I’m hoping to hear some comments
on what you really think)

Conveniently, some of our tournaments seek to reward the very best
fighters, and will always be fought with even odds.  But more of them,
even baronial championships, should be weighted against the scarves.
Might that result in a third-year fighter being the champion of
Angels?  Absolutely.  Instead of the hot scarf stuffing another cloak and
buckler in his golf case, we give a newer fighter (who only has to
represent one barony, instead of four) the chance to learn to be a
champion.  I submit that at least half our tournaments should be
unbalanced, and preferably not all in silly ways.

Now I come to the nuts and bolts of how to run a handicapped
tournament, and there are a lot possibilities here.  My ground rules
for tourney design:
– Most of the time, both fighters should have a chance (try not to
give too little or too much advantage)
– Try to help the lesser fighters win a fight or two (or at least not
be knocked out in two)
– Some randomness is good, where it varies the advantage given; but
take care that the cards or dice don’t pick the winner
– The fights, and especially the final, should be fun to watch (e.g.
people fighting offhand single aren’t much fun to watch)

One other point worth mentioning, and this is important if you want to give the underdogs a chance: The more “fair” fights a fighter has
to lose to be knocked out, the more this favors the scarf.  Running a
triple elim, or best 2-of-3 matches, makes upsets less likely.  Single
elims have the highest variance, but their own downsides.  A round
robin, however, is more like single or double elim, since the
difference between first and second place in a group is often one win.

And now, some tournament formats, focusing on a few that “smell like” fair tournaments:
Progressive Weapons Triple Elim: Anyone with zero losses must fight
single sword.  Anyone with one loss may use a defensive secondary.
Anyone with two losses may use their choice of weapons.  Scarves are
always required to use single sword against a nonscarf.  Note that
this is more about helping the lower-ranked fighters stay in the
tourney longer.  If you drop the “scarves use single sword” rule, it
strongly favor the scarves, because it’s a triple-elim.

Noble’s Challenge: Enlist your friendly local noble or three, and have
them wander around an otherwise normal tourney, issuing challenges to
fighters who outmatch their opponent. “Say, Don Diego, I wonder if you
can win this next fight with this handpuppet here as an offhand,
instead of your dagger.”  To up the ante, let that noble choose the
winner of the day.

Bonus Round: Not a balancing format, but lets the out-in-two crowd to
fight more.  Take the fighters eliminated in the first 2-3 rounds, and
shuffle them up at lists.  Pair them up with each other so they have
fights in rounds 3 and 4.  You don’t have to record the results, but
it gives them tourney experience with fighters at their level.

As food for thought, here are a few unconventional unbalanced tourneys I’ve run:

Ransom tourney: Killing a scarf is worth $5, a mid-level fighter $2,
and an unscarf $1.  Fight open challenges for a period of time, but
once you lose fights equal to $10, you are out of money and out of the
tourney.  Money is recorded by lists so that you can’t use won money
to finance more lives.

Unbalanced dice tourney: Make up a table of results for 2d6 or a d20.
Include most of the weapons combos, plus “opponent must fight
offhand”, “arms invulnerable”, “ally arrives after 30 seconds”, and so
forth.  The default weapon form is single sword, but you only use it
if you don’t roll specific other weapons.  The fighters roll twice
before fighting.  The less experienced fighter gets first pick of the
results, the most experienced fighter gets the other.  If they
honestly can’t agree who is senior, they just keep their own roll.
You can run this elim, round robin, bearpit, however.  Just please, make dagger-only a very rare outcome.

Called Shot Tourney:
Make up cards for head, upper torso, lower torso,
right torso, left torso, sword arm, sword hand, offhand arm or hand,
either leg, either foot.  For each fight, the marshal draws 3 or 4
cards.  The less experienced fighter looks at all of them and draws
one of them.  The more experienced fighter looks at the other cards
and picks one.  You win by either hitting the target you selected.
Picking first is a strong advantage (especially if only 3 cards are
drawn), so if the two fighters are close to even, just hand out random

Author: Lot

Don Lot Ramirez is the Captain of the White Star and a Companion of the White Scarf of Caid among other awards, including the Vanguard of Honor and Legion of Courtesy. Mundanely, Jeff is an Online Colorist at Sonicpool in Hollywood, and he teaches classes in Historical Western Martial Arts at the Tattershall School of Defense, in Long Beach, CA.

5 thoughts on “Counter-Disengage 2: On Unbalanced Tournaments

  1. I come from a weird place, not particularly being of a competitive personality type in tourneys and as such don’t care how far I get into a tourney or not. I fight for the fun and comradely. That said, I see a lot of people who would love the chance to do better but most of them would rather not be given an advantage in a champion tournament format feeling it would cheapen the win if they got it and fill them with self doubt for worthiness because of it. (Be mindful this is not based on a scientific survey or anything but on my casual un-targeted conversations with a variety of folks over the past few years as well as [mostly] my own feelings.)
    I think a championship tourney should remain with the best fighters and the fighters having their best day in the finals of that event.
    Now, for non champion type tournaments (eg: Gyldenholt Calafia Friendship and the like) then I’d love to see them weighted in favor of the less experienced fighters as you suggested above. I think these, non championship tournaments should be the bread and butter for gaining experience and let the big dogs represent where it is more needed. These more experienced fighters also tend to have a better idea of the cost of winning such a prize as that.

  2. Personally, I think more sovereigns should choose their champions – either through requirements; their subject who progresses furthest in the list, or the fighter voted most chivalrous by the marshals or current champion – or outright selecting the finalists, or fighter from the list they they want to be their representative to the community and vice-versa.
    I also love non-elimination lists (usually into a single-elim for championships, where you need a winner) like Swiss Five, Round-robin/pools, timed challenges, (One point for the fight, one point for the victory, both fighters leave after each round.) etc. I also like fighting counted blows, where every valid (read undefended) blow received counts against you.
    Both of those – non-elimination and counted blows – may not level the skill across the board, but it does level the outliers. Those who are consistently good will progress because lucky shots (good or bad) are negated by the volume of fighting. Yes, this will still favor the scraves, but it does allow for more fighting for everyone.

    Wow, let’s try to bring the back on-topic about handicapped lists – in short, I like many different flavors of tournaments – so long as there is still fencing – with swords – at the heart of them. A variant on the Ransom Tourney listed is one where the eliminations are the balancing force – it can be done by experience or award like Scarves, single elimination, Duelists, double Elim, and un-awarded triple elim. Or, Current or previous Kingdom Champion – single, Baronial – double, Shire or other small list – triple, never won a list, triple with one re-fight, etc. They are difficult for the list officer, but if a marshal works with the list to make sure they have what they need, it can be done.
    So yes, I like fighting in non-standard lists, but I will admit as an very experienced, mid-level fighter, they benefit me greatly. I also am a very competitive person. i enter a list because I want to display my skill and have an opportunity to win. that said, I don’t think either party is happy when a lucky shot results in an elimination.

    • This got me thinking on how to structure a tournament that allows a noble to choose their champion, but doesn’t demand more than 30-60 minutes of their attention, and lets everyone fight a bunch. I think if there were a well-known tourney format like that, you might get nobles to sign on. Here’s a strawman idea that gives the noble a manageable amount of choice:
      – Divide the list into pools and give everyone 4-5 fights
      – Take the top 8ish fencers into the next round.
      – Get the noble’s attention for the next 30 minutes. Make it clear to the fighters that the noble will be choosing their champion, and have the fighters introduce themselves.
      – Have the 8 fighters compete in front of the noble (could be a bearpit, 3-4 fast rounds, noble’s choice of matchups, etc) for 20-30 minutes. Win-loss record is irrelevant in this phase, but boring fighting will likely be penalized.
      – The noble picks either a winner, or 2-3 finalists as they see fit. If finalists (and this relieves them of having to choose a final winner), fight it out normally.


      • “This got me thinking on how to structure a tournament that allows a noble to choose their champion, but doesn’t demand more than 30-60 minutes of their attention, and lets everyone fight a bunch.”

        You mean like a Swiss Five? If you have two or three fields, and the cards/list done in advance, you can run five rounds of combat pretty darn quickly – or make it just three rounds; each fighter using single, defensive and offensive secondaries as they see fit. Then you can hold a double-elim after to determine a prize winner and give those who want it a more traditional list to fight in with no strings attached.

    • The problem I was trying to solve is how to give the noble a manageable amount of fighting to watch so they could make a meaningful choice of champion. I figure a baron/ess at their anniversary tourney could set aside 30 minutes to watch rapier (this might be optimistic), and form useful impressions of about seven fighters (that rule of seven from memory games). A Swiss Five would give everyone enough fighting and could trim the list to those 6-8 fighters for a showcase round in front of the nobles.

      For any past barons reading, is it realistic to ask for the baronage to watch 6-8 top fighters for 20-30 minutes of showcase fighting and pick finalists or a champion?

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