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Counter-Disengage 4: On Boring Finals

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.

I had meant to take up this topic in December, but I realized I had to discuss my perspective on the audience first, and that proved a fair effort.  So if you haven’t read the previous blog, I would invite you to peruse it first….

The knight in the corner at your long, dull fight was not an allegory.  I met him, and another knight of his acquaintance outside the privies, after a dreadful three-way rapier final in Lyondemere, which had featured at least four fights, three of them slow, and two of them with extensive blow-call lawyering.  The crowd had groaned when the third fight did not produce a victor for the day.  It was the sort of fight where the fencers stopped watching and found something else to do, but the royalty and baronage weren’t afforded that choice.

The two knights were (unsurprisingly) bitching about rapier, and had come to the point where they agreed that rapier finals needed to be held in the main body of the list, when nobody had to pay attention, and not fought at the end of the day in front of the populace.  They changed the subject when I approached in a doublet and slops, but I freely agreed that the final was awful, someone needed to fix it, and I would try my best.  That day, my best amounted to short conversations with two of the finalists, both of whom were sympathetic but felt they couldn’t accelerate the fight without giving up the advantage.   This column amounts to a further effort to “fix it.”

Boring finals are among my SCA anathemas* because not only are they unpleasant to watch, I can feel the disappointment of the people around me as they unfold.  Here is the final, the climax of the tournament, and neither fighter has the courage to really attack.  Instead, they stand at the hairy edge of measure, hoping the other will give a tempo or lunge into a counterattack.  If we’re fortunate, they will change guards occasionally, beat swords carefully, make a witty comment, or circle purposefully.  That’s fine for a minute or two, but (for comparison) Iñigo and Westley’s duel atop the cliffs clocks in at three minutes.  After that, get on with it.

It’s my theory that fighters (me often included) go into a final determined, principally, to not screw up.  To our nervous minds, screwing up would mean getting one-shotted after approaching incautiously, or launching an attack that is too easily countered.  It means dying without getting to “show your stuff,” except I’ll assert that a boring final fails exactly that test.  It’s well enough to fight conservatively in the churchyard at dawn, but here you have a grand stage to display your virtues, and parry 9 (or worse, standing out of range) shows neither courage nor prowess.  So let’s use that as a basic test…

If, at long measure, you circle, take counterguards, compete for constraint, creep in under guard, wait a few tempos to see if the opponent will attack or give a tempo, you clearly display prowess, and no lack of courage to those who care to look; you need not launch a full-intent lunge when the 2-minute timer goes DING.  If your skills are limited and you make basic attacks, you display ample courage, and few will notice the lack of prowess.  But if you back away from such probing, simply batting their sword aside, you display neither courage nor prowess, regardless of how skillfully you managed the measure.  If it continues, even if you win, your opponent will have outshone you in the ways that inspire people both in period and now.

If a fight drags, both fencers ought to recognize it (you’ve made the finals after all, don’t tell me you don’t know a slow fight).  After some minutes, the gallery is waiting for one of you to show the courage to bring the action, and while their ire will fall on the favorite if neither does, more glory belongs to the underdog who takes initiative.  For the favorite, why are you so cautious?  You have earned a final with a favorable draw, and you squander a chance to display valor to instead improve your odds of winning a fruit basket.  If you should fall to a well-placed counter, let him enjoy the glory of a skilled victory; you will likely have another final soon.  If you are the underdog and face an intimidating white scarf who refuses to drive the action, know this: Most scarves dominate their fights, and are very good when the fight is on their terms.  If you can bring the fight to us, either by pushing us around the eric under guard, making us fall back, or dominating the sword, you put us in a position we don’t practice, outside our skill center.  You might not realize that Don Alexander, Duke Edric, and myself (if I may include myself in such skilled company!) all become far easier to kill as we retreat more than two steps.

To sum up and quote from Mark Twain**, “there are people in the world who will take a great deal of trouble to point out faults… and then go blandly about their business without suggesting any remedy. I am not that kind of person.”  It’s well enough to observe that boring finals suck, but why do they happen, and how can we fix it?

First, let each fighter in the final remember that the goal is to display their prowess and courage as well as their chivalry, and that dull fights squander that opportunity.  Fighting fearfully is not worth the fruit basket.

Second, let the better fighter feel an obligation to keep a slow fight moving.  Even if it is not to your apparent advantage, man (or lady) up and attack.  At the right time, and cleverly, yes, but as the fight drags on, with greater and greater frequency until the bout is decided.  Waiting at measure to throw a counter-attack fails this test, and the fault is yours if both fighters do so for too long.

Third, let the lesser fighter remember that not only do brave assaults display their courage, they may also expose the opponent’s weakness.  I sympathize with the desire to wait out the opponent and throw your best shot, but wouldn’t your prowess be better displayed if you had more than one tactic?  If not, I say it is your duty to keep yourself in range, that you may take that shot sooner.  Also, if there is no clear favorite, perhaps it’s you; see rule #2.

Fourth, if you leg your opponent in a final, you now control the measure, and bear with it responsibility for the pace of the fight.  Don’t walk into his sword, but neither spend the next five minutes stabbing at hands.

Fifth, all of the above count double if the final has multiple bouts, whether it’s best of three, or a three-way final.  One long bout is bearable; three are not.  If the first bout began with five minutes of probing, use what you’ve already learned to accelerate the other two.

Finally, apply these rules to any bout closely watched, and especially to those before a noble audience.  It’s telling that most long bouts are those with a large gallery; we feel the pressure to perform well, but transmute that pressure to caution, rather than revel in the opportunity to be part of a match that’s memorable for the right reasons.


*My other least-favorite things are courts you can’t hear beyond a 20-foot radius, single- doorway battles that give neither incentive nor advantage to the attacking side, and 20+ minute breaks between scenarios at war.  Also, detailed armor inspections of the interdigital spaces on gloves.

** Thus Twain introduces his conclusion to “The Awful German Language”  appendix in A Tramp Abroad



Counter-Disengage 3: On What We’re Doing, and What Follows

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.

The SCA doesn’t officially give us a context for rapier tournaments.  Are we supposed to consider each fight a duel, which mortal results?  This rapidly leads to paradoxes, but it’s the context assumed by Crown Tourney fighter poems (in which the loser is often eulogized), and the custom of falling over dead.  It also means winning (or yielding alive) is pretty darn close to everything, the word-fame of dying at in the third round of Tawanyour Anniversary being somewhat limited.  Given how many of us accept Don Laertes’ offer to yield and seek the aid of a surgeon, or arrange for seconds to carry their body off the field, I doubt many of us approach fights with that mindset, but if you do, I’d love to read your perspective in the comments.


At the other extreme, we’re just here to have fun (and/or competition), fence with our friends, see who wins, then go get dinner.  The tourney context (and by extension, SCA feudal society) is pasted-on chrome.  I do see some newbies and sport fencers who start with this mindset, but many of them either develop an interest in the society culture, or lose interest in the SCA and wander off, leaving few SCA veterans with this philosophy.  Or so I think… again, tell me about it below!


For me, and for most of the people I’ve conversed with, tourneys are a public demonstration of prowess (and other virtues), with bated blades, for the entertainment of the assembled nobles and populace, and a formality that exceeds a practice mentality.  My goal is to show myself skilled, courageous, and gracious in victory or defeat; the audience are the observers of that effort, and in many ways, the reason for the tourney.


I imagine our motivation would have been a similar thing in period, when the crowd was more likely to be armed with rotten fruit, or seeded with nobles whose patronage you hoped to attract.  In both those cases, it matters that you please the crowd one way or another…by winning often if you are able, but also by charming them with wit, impressing them with courage, exciting them with action, or granting the opponent a triumph by collapsing or bowing low in defeat.  One need not win the bout to gain admiration, but you must do something appealing.


So, gentle reader, assuming you hold this last philosophy, or are persuaded that it might be worth trying, I ask a three favors on behalf of the gallery:


First, keep your fights lively.  In a renaissance tournament, it would have been nearly inexcusable for two fighters to stand back and wait for the other to do something for more than a couple minutes (fewer if the tomatoes were ripe).  Even if no one seems to be watching, the marshals are standing in the sun, the next fighters are wandering off, the listmistress is waiting for you to finish, and the knight in the corner is reminiscing about that hourlong rapier final at Starkhafn Anniversary.

Second, die obviously. As a blunt rule of thumb, a deaf newbie 40 feet away should be able to tell that you lost.  Fall over, bow deeply, collapse on the eric post, or drop your sword and mime blood bursting from your chest. Saying “good” to your opponent and shaking his hand doesn’t cut it.  Even if he’s not deaf, the newbie can’t hear your call of “good”, and if she can, probably can’t tell who said what.  Likely, neither can the baroness trying to watch her semifinals.  Cut them some slack and bow deeply.

Finally, remember the audience, and see what happens. Take note of them when you salute.  Imagine their interest as you try an assault.  Amuse them if the fight is dragging.  Maybe you’ll discover a bit more panache or courage in yourself trying to get out.  Maybe someone in the audience will notice your efforts, and something will come of it.  It’s worth a try.


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


Counter-Disengage: An Introduction

By Don Todde MacDonnell

It won’t come as much surprise to many of our readers that I’ve volunteered to write an “alternate viewpoints” column for the caid-rapier website.   But *I* certainly had to stop and think about why I wanted to blog about delicate & contentious topics.   I’m not writing here to start arguments (though that will probably happen).  It’s not because I want a soapbox to be better heard.  It’s not even because I like to argue (though see below).  And only rarely will I be determined to convince you to agree with me.

I think (and I may be wrong) that my goal here is to start conversations on issues that people feel discouraged from discussing.  Some topics have been shot down by an influential scarf in the past, and ought to be revisited.  Some are “minority opinions”, but just maybe the majority agrees, and doesn’t realize it yet.  Some are awkward to talk about without offending someone.  Some are just not the Caidan way of doing things (and I aim to get some guest columnists).   I may not always agree with what I’m proposing, but it may be the best way I can think of to float the idea.

So, with that in mind, some ground rules for this forum:

  • I am fishing for discussion on each and every post I make (if that’s not so, it wouldn’t be posted in Counter-Disengage)
  • In Counter-Disengage comment threads, you, the readers, are explicitly allowed to argue forcefully with me. Naturally, I’d appreciate it if you can back up the rotten fruit with a good counter-argument.
  • However, please don’t be nasty to each other, or take hard feelings outside of the comment threads.  Even hard feelings at me.
  • If you want to send me a private email agreeing or disagreeing or swearing, go right ahead.  I’d prefer to have discussion publicly, where it benefits everyone, but do what you need to do.
  • Some topics have rough edges, and are hard to discuss without generalizing a group of fencers (it could be Westies, short newbies, or older & slower scarves).  When I do that (and I will), I apologize for any offense; try to look at the bigger picture in your reply.  Or don’t, but remember to aim the fruit at me, and not bystanders.
  • I am open to posting guest content in this forum, anonymously or not.  I will probably try to find a Black Tiger to tell us how they train, or an Atenveldter to tell us how they see Caidans, or folks from other organizations to tell us what we’re doing wrong.  Please email me if you have something to say.