This is my first year as part of the Longpoint team; I was forcibly onboarded after publicly expressing my criticisms of the results of implementation of the Nordic League rules I saw at Purple Heart Open, which were similar to the problems I saw in the 2014 Longpoint tournaments and that I predicted in the more recent draft of the 2015 rules. Jake Norwood challenged me to do better, so I took a hard look at several rulesets and pieced together a document that became the core of the official 2015 Longpoint rules. I attached a version of this editorial to the initial document laying out my rationale, and I’ve updated it now that the rules are finalized to explain in part the reasoning behind some of the design. If you don’t care about my thoughts on the state of HEMA tournaments, just skip down to the targeted system-centric formats section.
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I first became involved with the wider HEMA community in 2008-2009 when a schism within ARMA resulted in my study group of many years becoming newly independent; before that, I was only vaguely aware that such a community might potentially exist. This timing roughly corresponded with the growth of tournament-based events and the rising profile of the tournament in HEMA. Despite the initial misgivings I had, as I’ve watched the tournament circuit come into its own over the past six years the results have been incredibly positive: a sharp increase in the level of skill and technical excellence demonstrated by the top echelon of historical fencers, an increased attention to and capacity to perform (under pressure) the more sophisticated techniques and tactics of the various Medieval and early Modern systems, and a general explosion in the number and quality of practitioners and organizations worldwide.
Part of the maturation of HEMA tournaments has been in creating ever more sophisticated structures and rule-sets in an effort to discover the ideal tournament format for each particular art. When it comes to early Modern fencing systems, especially Kunst des Fechtens and Armizare with their focus on cut and thrust swords, there have been three primary approaches used to reasonably good effect, which I will call the purely modern formats, the reconstructed historical formats, and the targeted system-centric formats. Each has, however, also faced significant problems.
A purely modern format was the obvious first choice when organizing a HEMA tournament. While general knowledge of and skill with Medieval and early Modern dueling weapons may have been lost over the intervening centuries, the practice of holding tournaments and sportive fencing matches with the swords of the day—as well as wrestling matches, boxing matches, etc.—has persisted to the present. While some of this knowledge is surely useful, modern sportive rules are not without many problems. For example:
- Easily-abused Rules: Unlike a boxing match or a wrestling match, which can be allowed to continue until the natural conclusion of the fight (knock-out or tap-out), the natural conclusion of a sword fight is often injury or death, neither of which can be tolerated in sport. This means rules have to be implemented to simulate these win conditions, and the rules that have evolved in modern Olympic fencing are very easily gamed in such a way that the match no longer resembles sword-fighting. (For example, rules of right-of-way allow a fencer to earn a victory on an intentional double-touch, and awarding points only to the first strike removes the need for a tactical withdrawal at the end of a bout.)
- Difficult to Judge: Classical fencing judges dedicate enormously more time to learning their trade than HEMA judges are willing or able to devote, but even then and with a much more limited set of legal techniques than in longsword, judging in an accurate and consistent manner across a whole tournament is a difficult task.
- Empty Vessel: Most modern sportive rules seek to create a container in which fighters can fight, nothing more. This means defining starting conditions, ending conditions, and usually certain banned techniques, but beyond that all tactics and techniques are treated equally. Without strong incentives offered to reward specific high-risk techniques—such as those prized by early Modern fencing masters—such techniques are rarely seen, and instead fighters rely on superior athleticism coupled with simple strikes to easy targets.
Of course, there have been many tournaments conducting using modern sport rules, and I would be very interested in assisting with a HEMA tournament designed by hybridizing rules from living traditions (e.g. classical fencing, academic fencing, and something like glima for grappling).
The historical formats that some have attempted to reconstruct include Franco-Belgian rules compiled from fragments in guild archives, German Fechtschule rules gleaned from tournament descriptions in literature, and Bolognese school-fencing rules extrapolated from comments in the treatise of Antonio Manciolino. These seem on the surface to be ideal tournament formats for an art that is equally a modern construct based on historical sources, but in practice there are a number of problems:
- Asymmetry: The historical solution to problems of gamesmanship in fencing matches and difficulty in judging was often to abandon any pretext of equality and create steeply asymmetrical encounters that eliminate any ambiguity. For example, a Franco-Belgian solution to resolving double-hits and near-double-hits was to declare one fencer the automatic winner in all such exchanges, placing the burden firmly on the other fencer to prevent them from happening.
- Technical and Target Restrictions: It was not uncommon in these contests to ban whole categories of actions, such as disarms, throws, or thrusts. This was, presumably, partly for safety and partly to isolate some specific skill-set which they wished to put on display. In a similar vein, historical formats often limited the target area, ranging from penalties for striking to the hands (a reasonable safety precaution when neither fencer was wearing gloves) to only scoring strikes to the top of the head. Both of these classes of restrictions are incompatible with the presumptive goal of a HEMA tournament, which is showcasing as much of the “complete art” as possible.
- Incomplete Data: A major drawback in historical formats is their fragmentary and largely speculative nature. There simply isn’t enough information available to establish more than the most basic concept of how these tournaments were executed. The historical rule-sets that have been proposed to date do not represent the format of any specific tournament known to have ever been held, but are rather the amalgamation of many scraps of information stapled together by considerable guesswork.
- Irrelevance: Ultimately, the connection between the known historical formats and the reconstructed martial arts from the early Modern period is tenuous at best. For example, it does little to advance the practice of historical fencing for a fencer trained in the Germanic tradition of Johannes Liechtenauer as it was recorded in the 15th century (or even the coeval Italic tradition of Fiore de’i Liberi) to then fence under the house rules of 16th century Bolognese master Antonio Manciolino (using weapons he didn’t even teach, no less), and it does even less to fence under rules used by fencing guilds in 17th century Belgium, even if either rule-set were reconstructed perfectly. It is no less anachronistic than fencing under rules designed for classical fencing in the 19th century or rules designed specifically for HEMA in the 21st.
All of which is not to say that these tournament efforts should not continue, either. Even if they are not ideal for the practice of early many Modern systems, they still provide invaluable historical context and insight into the culture of fencing (and can be quite fun, to boot).
This brings us to targeted system-centric formats, tournaments that are constructed from the ground up around the particular details and constraints of a certain fencing system (or cluster of systems). Though it is not without its own problems, this experimental category has been the most successful tournament format in North America in recent years. Longpoint is an example of this, and here is how the 2014 Longpoint Rules describe the approach:
- A Game: The rules are constructed so that using historical techniques which demonstrate all the criteria listed in the assumptions above [hitting the opponent without also being hit at the same time or shortly thereafter; movements that are measured, balanced, and stable; good technique that ultimately leads to a wound to the head or torso; skill demonstrated by techniques which actively interrupt and control the opponent’s weapon while striking] score more points than those who simply fence using the simplest approach to the easiest target. Sadly, this also brings many of the limitations inherent in all games.
- A Pressure Test for Interpretations and Skill: By rewarding specific styles of fighting without forbidding others, fencers seeking to improve or refine their training and interpretations of historical technique will be rewarded against fighters who might use a more basic, attribute-based style of fencing.
- A Feedback Tool: The judging process is more time consuming than in most HEMA competitions before 2013. Each of the four criteria is scored separately to provide fighters with more detailed feedback on their performance. As such, we expect that fighters training for the LP rules will improve as fencers over time.
- Focused on Certain Skill Sets at the Expense of Others: No rule set currently in use can safely simulate all the eventualities and possibilities of a violent encounter with swords or other historical weaponry. LP rules focus on certain aspects of historical fencing, and ultimately favor certain historical techniques over other equally legitimate historical techniques. In building these rules, we have tried to emphasize what we feel is the next step in our skill development as a HEMA community. We reward less for techniques that we see more, and reward more for techniques that we see less…sometimes arbitrarily so. We also acknowledge that—as a side effect—the rules may favor some historical sources, techniques, schools, or traditions over others.
This approach appeals to me as the best way forward, but unfortunately, I feel like the rules have strayed from this vision a bit over the past few years. In an effort to address staffing concerns and to seek more consistency in judging, some of the core components of the system have been discarded. Most notably, the idea that the sequence of strikes is one of the most important defining features of an exchange. While discarding sequence and scoring all strikes by both fighters equally (the so-called “judged after-blow”) is admittedly much easier to judge, it has caused the resulting rule-set to slide into some of the same shortcomings seen in modern-inspired formats (rules exploitation, technical shallowness, etc.) In my revisions, I’ve attempted to reintroduce the concept of sequence/priority of hits without increasing the burden on less experienced judges (though it will fall to Directors to pick up the slack).
Additionally, I think it’s necessary at this stage to revisit a concept that emerged from Matt Galas’ research into the Franco-Belgian guilds, namely the Naerslag (commonly translated “after-blow”). The Naerslag is a rule in this format whereby a fencer, once struck by his opponent, is allowed a brief moment for a “revenge strike”, representing the fact that your opponent will not always be disabled by your first hit and you must continue to defend yourself. While this device has been broadly, almost universally, incorporated into HEMA tournament formats, and has been enormously effective in promoting proper defensive behavior during fencing matches, it is ultimately alien to the fencing systems that the Longpoint rules in particular are attempting to address. It also shifts the focus at the end of an exchange from the attacker to the defender in a way that seems unconstructive and unintuitive.
Thus, in my revision below I do not speak of “after-blows”, but rather the behavior that the after-blow is intended to promote—a clean and effective Abzug (Withdrawal) vs. a messy and ineffective one. If a fencer strikes his opponent without sacrificing his defense—ideally by achieving a Control point, but alternatively with a guard or parry—then he is Withdrawing from the engagement correctly. If he strikes his opponent but leaves himself exposed—demonstrated by his opponent striking to the opening if he can—then the fencer has failed to Withdraw effectively.
The type of exchange (Clean Hit, Failed Withdrawal, Double-Hit, Grapple, or no exchange) thus becomes the key to determining how the match will be scored, replacing the old first scoring step in the Longpoint rules (Contact)—a call of Clean Hit or Grapple can reach up to six points, whereas a call of Failed Withdrawal can earn only one (and a call of Double-Hit or no exchange results in no points at all). In essence, this integrates the “after-blow” fully into the scoring pyramid: Contact alone ends the exchange but awards no points; Quality is worth one point (regardless of Abzug); Target is worth two additional points, but only with a proper Abzug; and Control combines both offense and defense into a single action and is worth a further three.
To further simplify scoring and align the rules, we took a hard look at special actions this year. Special awards for ring-outs and different grappling actions bogged down the process and were just more things for judges to keep in mind. So this year, grappling is scored in the same fashion as fencing: an intentional ring-out earns a Quality point (encouraging fencers to remain in the ring without rewarding “shoving” as a tactic too strongly, since it also endangers staff and spectators), a standard takedown or throw with dominance earns Target points, and a throw or takedown rises to the level of a Control technique if the dominant fighter retains his weapon and the ability to use it. Other special grappling actions (such as disarms) are non-scoring but will likewise award Control points if followed by a suitable strike.
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Final note: These rules, which have now been picked over by several leading fencers and successfully field-tested at Fechtschule New York last month, are not without their own flaws and we don’t pretend otherwise. There are two ways to add a revenge strike mechanic to a tournament, which I’ll call the Naerslag approach and the Abzug approach, and each has a critical flaw that we haven’t managed to solve yet.
- The Naerslag approach scores the revenge strike by the same metric as the initial strike, allowing both fighters in an exchange to score points.
- The Abzug approach instead reduces or negates the score of the initial strike if a revenge strike lands, only allowing the fencer who hits first to score points.
The key problem scenario is one where a fighter lands a shallow or otherwise low-value strike, only to receive a deep/high-value revenge strike. In this case, the Naerslag awards net positive points to the fighter who struck second, whereas the Abzug approach awards positive points to the fighter who struck first. Either fighter can “game” this situation very easily: under Naerslag, a fighter may offer a low-value target as bait to an opponent, intentionally soak up the hit, and then return a high-value strike; under Abzug, a fighter may offer a high-value target as bait, speed in a sniping strike to an arm or other low-value target, and thus negate the high-value strike that lands moments later.
There is no way out: one of those two scenarios is going to happen, and the further band-aids we explored for one or the other not only make the rules much more difficult for staff and for fighters, but also open new avenues of gaming ad infinitum. Given that, and after long debate (including hundreds and hundreds of Facebook posts), we find the latter scenario to be the lesser evil and marginally more martially-sound. If you have an idea on this front, feel free to send it to us and it might just appear in the 2016 Longpoint Rules.