Rapier Notes from Border War 2014

I helped Warder Kata (Pentamere Regional Commander) run a Dragon Army War Practice at Border War this past weekend. Here’s are my notes and thoughts from the event.

I’m going to try my best not to discuss specific Midrealm war strategies, but just what I think is open information to both sides and what are good rapier skills to have in battles.

Pennsic XLIII Rapier War Battles

  • Open Field Battle: I believe this is just the usual no rez, last-man standing battle it’s been in the past
  • Woods Battle: Also similar to past woods battles (3 flags, make sure your side’s flag is up at all 3 time checkpoints)
  • Mixed Field Battle: the field with three sections – a town section, a broken field section (hay bales scattered throughout), and open field section

Kata and I ran three different melee games at Border War in order to sharpen our skills: Fox & Hound, small units vs. big unit, and a timed kill pocket.

Fox & Hound

This is a really fun melee game that can be played with as few as three combatants, though having at least 6 is preferable.  It teaches communication and battlefield awareness, as teams are constantly changing!

There are only three combatants on the field at a time; the rest of the fencers wait in a line, similar to a bear pit.  Don’t worry – your fencers will get plenty of fighting in, as this is a really fast-paced game.  We had something like 15 fighters this weekend, and no one stayed in line for long!

On the field: 1 fox and 2 hounds.  If a fox kills a hound, a new hound comes off the line to replace the one that died.  If the fox gets killed, though, the hound that killed the fox immediately becomes the new fox.  A new hound comes in off the line.

The fox learns how to fight while outnumbered.  The main strategy is to try and make it as close to a 1 on 1 game as possible, by shifting around the two hounds so that one is out of reach as you try to kill the hound closest to you.

The hounds learn how to quickly call for reinforcements from the line when one of the hounds dies (or turns into a fox).  It’s better to run away until help arrives than try to fight on your own; it’s easier to live when your opponent is outnumbered!

This causes newly-made foxes (who just killed the last fox) to realize that it’s in their best interest to try and kill the sole hound before they have time to get reinforcements.

The constantly shifting environment really encourages the fencers to communicate openly and loudly with one another, and to pay attention to what is going on around them.  It also gives them a lot of time to practice calling “Dead!” loudly and clearly.  All of the fencers involved at Border War said they really appreciated this game.  It was also tons of fun as a commander to watch them learn as the game progressed, getting better at communication and being aware of their surroundings.

Update: Check out more Fox & Hound tips and scenarios!

Small Units vs. Big Unit

One of the most valuable drills is to practice with groups of fencers that are not matched in numbers and initial strategies.  Even if the two sides of a war start off evenly matched, the local fighting in pockets on the field will often not be matched for long.

To try and simulate a variety of different fighting scenarios at once, Kata and I designed a melee game to pit one larger force against several smaller forces (all on the same team).  As we had 9 fencers, we divided the group like this:

  • 5 person team: Told to fight as a single line unit. Other than that, they could choose how to deploy their line.  I assigned a commander for the team.
  • 4 person team: Assigned as two pairs, each pair assigned a commander.  They were not allowed to talk to the other pair before lay-on was called.  Once lay-on was called, they could communicate between the pairs – as if they were two different pairs of fighters in a big melee battle that converged on a larger group at once.

We wanted the one-unit team to be larger than the multiple-units team.  We also wanted to have at least two smaller units on the multiple-units team.  With more fencers, you can make the multiple-units team have teams of 3 (or even 4 fencers), and have more small units on that team.

This was a really great exercise.  The small pairs seemed to work better when they had some amount of communication between them, and they were able to pull apart the larger line.  The line needs more practice in how to stay as one unit and shift around to overwhelm small units before the small units can pull them apart.  Usually the smaller team died before the larger team, but not always, and there was a lot of learning on both sides.  I’m looking forward to running something like this again.  By switching sides (asking players to shift slightly to make the new teams the correct size), fencers learn a lot of different tactics with this game.

Kill Pocket Scenario

For those who aren’t familiar, a “kill pocket” is a scenario where one group of fighters is defending a narrow gap (a large doorway in a castle, for instance), while another group tries to get in.  The defenders will form a “kill pocket” right behind the doorway: a semi-circle of fencers, with swords facing in.  Fencers with large shields will typically hold the corners, just inside and behind the walls of the doorway, facing each other across the opening.  The rest of the fencers will make a semi-circle of swords all pointing in, with the back fencers facing the open doorway.  This means attackers must enter a deadly bowl of swords to try to get into the castle.

Our design desires in the kill pocket game:

  • Needs to be fast-paced and quick:  Kill pockets are best fought with a lot of quick coordination and drive, but sometimes they can stalemate out because fighters are too cautious.  We wanted to avoid having the long, drawn-out, people-are-too-cautious-to-enter-the-pocket fight.  For one thing, our fencers were getting tired by this point, and we wanted to run the scenario several times.  For another, that doesn’t actually teach you how to fight a kill pocket – being cautious is what you don’t want to do.
  • Teach fighting for an objective:  In our fencing melees, it’s an important lesson to learn that killing your opponents is NOT always the most important thing you can do!!  Fencers need to pay attention to the exact wording of the rules and objectives in each scenario to figure out what they should be trying to accomplish, and how best to do so.
  • Teach when dying matters:  There are times to be cautious with your life, and times not to be, in our melee games.  It’s an important skill to know when it matters if you die, and how that changes your fighting style.

To meet all of these requirements (which we did!), we designed this kill pocket scenario:

  • Defenders: 1 life (no rez)
  • Attackers: Unlimited resurrection
  • Time limit: 2 minutes
  • Objective: To touch an object inside the castle (we had a stuffed parrot sitting a few paces behind the kill pocket) within the time limit

Some tips on fighting in a kill pocket that came out of this drill:

  • For defenders in the kill pocket:  You need to keep the pocket stationary and further back.  Attackers should need to fully enter the pocket before being killed.  Defenders tended to creep the pocket closer and closer to the door and tighten it up a lot.  Avoid this temptation, and let the attackers come to you.
  • Defenders need to be more cautious with their lives:  You only have one life, so try and stay alive!  Don’t be a hero and jump forward to kill someone.  This is another reason you really need to keep your kill pocket in good formation.
  • Attackers need to wait for large groups:  Attacking works best when all the fighters wait to regroup before each wave of attacking.  It is actually quicker to break a kill pocket if you wait to have a large group attack all at once, instead of just rushing in as pairs or small groups.  The waiting seems counter-intuitive, but breaking a kill pocket needs many people at once.
  • Attackers should focus their goal on a particular point in corner of the pocket:  Line up right outside the kill pocket and have your commander point where you are all trying to break through right before you rush in.  The point you try to break should be near either corner of the pocket, and the fencers should be lined up and coming in at an angle.  There are several advantages to this:
    • You don’t engage all of the kill pocket, but only one corner of it.  Fewer swords that can kill you!
    • Your dead can roll to the side easily and get out of your way.  A big problem in rushing a kill pocket is when the front of your line dies, and then steps back and fouls up the rest of your line.  Attacking one corner of the kill pocket means your dead can move towards the center and come back out of the castle doorway without blocking the side you’re rushing in on.  (In fact, this often fouls up the rest of the kill pocket from being able to reach your people, as the dead are between them.  You shouldn’t twist this to your advantage – die and get out quickly – but it is an advantage  Be chivalrous about this.)
    • Concentrating your force makes the most sense, because how you break a kill pocket is to punch a hole in it.  Having all fencers focused on one point breaks a hole faster, as your fencers know in which direction to aim their momentum.
  • Remember the objective!!!  There were several occasions where fencers broke through the kill pocket and continued killing people, instead of going straight for touching the parrot.  They lost 5-10 seconds there!  It’s important to remember to meet your objective first, and then you can kill more people.  For example, if you’re in the woods battle, you better make sure that your flag color is up and you have a fighter touching the flag pole before you worry about anything else!

Other Notes

Kata and I were giving some tips throughout the melee games, but not a ton.  Concerned about our fencers getting too tired (it was the end of a long fencing day), I thought it would be good to have a large discussion point at the end of all the fighting and not drag it out by talking too much in the middle.  I now know because of feedback that it would’ve been more effective to time mini-breaks into the fighting about 3/4 of the way through each scenario.  I could’ve used this time to give quick initial feedback on what was going well and what the fencers could do better.  Then the fencers could run the scenarios once or twice more to immediately implement those suggestions, seeing how much better they fought, before moving on to the next melee scenario.  My advice would’ve been sharper, as I had just seen the fighting, and the fencers would’ve understood and integrated it into their fighting better.  I will know how to more effectively pace my war practices the next time I run one!

One concern that was raised during discussion after the fighting was about the differing speed of people in the groups, and how it is sometimes hard to keep up with faster fencers.  This is something we all need to be cognizant of and practice: be aware of where your group members are, and how fast they are moving.  It is a good idea for fencers to do a quick check-in with their teammates if they have time, asking them what their preferred fighting strengths are, how fast they move, etc.  It can help a team work together much more smoothly.

One drill that was suggested as a way to teach moving together as a group: tying fencers together.  Tie two fencers together with a thread, and run a melee scenario where fencers try to not break the thread.  Or have a bungee cord between fighters, to make them aware of the distance by feeling the tugging.  Thoughts on how to run such a drill?

I want to thank Kata for letting me run this war practice with her – I love melee fighting, and these are skills I am glad to sharpen!  Many of the day’s ideas were hers, and the practice would not have been such a success without her excellent leadership.

I want to thank all of our fencers for letting me command them, as I had a blast.  Without our troops, I couldn’t do what I do!  The Dragon Army is mighty!

I also want to thank my Warder Arnolde, my love, who is no longer with us (DeForest).  Two years ago, I was the new commander on the line while he ran this war practice at Border War.  It’s crazy to me that I competently ran the same war practice this past Saturday with Kata.  I miss him so much still, and it was hard to do it without him.  I’m really proud of how far I’ve come in all of this.  I know he is, too.  Wish I could’ve seen his proud grin as he watched me shout at people on the field and run discussion of tactics.

Looking forward to Baron Wars next weekend.  More melee practice!!!

Author: Wynter

I'm a scientist from Ann Arbor, MI! Leatherworker. Sewist. Exuberant gardener. Board game addict. SCAdian. Huge nerd. :)

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  • From Ze'ev:

    Great write-up! very well put together.

    If I may contribute one thing I observed?

    on the "Small Units vs. Big Unit" there was one instance where I wanted to suggest a tactic, but the scenario started before I had a chance to voice it, so we never got to try it out.

    When I was on the "big unit" at one point, we were five against 2×2. I felt that we had one fighter who might have been capable of holding off one of the pairs, at least keeping them from flanking easily, while the other four of us took care of the other 2.

    What ended up happening was we split our forces and eventually got beat down to a 2 on 1, where everyone died.

    I'm curious if anyone has tried shaving off one "hot-stick" to distract/dispatch a team of 2-3 while the larger force tries to crush another small group quickly.

  • Ze'ev: Absolutely! If you have someone who is reasonable likely to stay alive long enough for you to crush the other small unit, it's a very valid approach.
    Regarding Fox and Hounds, another trick to learn is a tactic we've taken to calling Creepy Killer. It works like this:
    Whichever hound makes contact first, they are now the Creep. This makes them responsible for making a hard engagement (not killing, per se, but keeping the fox too busy to desk with another threat). The other hound is the Killer. Their job is to engage the fox at a wide angle from the Creep, and kill them.
    Having the pre-determined job based on when you make contact makes it easy to know how the play will go down, and it ramps up the already sizable advantage you gain fighting a wide 2 vs 1 engagement.
    Give it a try, I think you'll find it's tasty! Once the idea makes sense in a 2 vs 1, take it up a notch and think about it in lance sized units. It keeps working. 🙂