Four Defences, Three Parries

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Anyone can defend themselves with a shield. You literally just put it in the way of incoming attacks. You can close off lines of attack, funnelling your opponent’s attacks into the areas you want them to go. The bigger the shield, the more you can hide behind it.

But when you do not have a shield, you need to use your skill. In all cases, the priority is to remain safe from your opponent’s attack. Even if you hit and kill your opponent, if you yourself are simultaneously hit and killed, you haven’t won the fight. Both lose on a “mutual”, and it requires almost no skill to do so.

Hence, the art of fighting is often referred to as the art of defence, and not the art of attack.

There are four basic ways to defend yourself when you do not have a shield, and they are listed here in order from best to worst:

The Pre-emptive strike: If you hit your opponent before they even have a chance to attack, you may be able to end the fight before it begins. You remain safe, because your opponent hasn’t had an opportunity to throw an attack of their own. Attacking first is always the best defence.

Where your opponent has multiple hit points, which is almost always the case in our game, then this alone may not be sufficient to win the fight.

Void and counterattack: The “void” is the subtle and careful art of not being there when your opponent attacks. However, it is important to remember that simply dodging everything your opponent throws at you is insufficient. It keeps you safe, but it does not end the fight, and you cannot win just by dodging.

Hence, the counterattack. You must put yourself in a position where you can strike your opponent, and yet not be struck in return. Moving to their off-side can work, as they need to reach across their own body in order to hit you. Striking at their extended weapon arm can be better. This way you can stay out of the reach of their strike at your body, and stay in reach to strike at their arm.

Counterattack with opposition: Difficult to achieve in practice with bouncy foam swords, the counterattack with opposition consists of intercepting their attack with your own attack, simultaneously striking your target and blocking their attack. Historically, most often seen in rapier schools, where large and impactful swings are rare or discouraged.

I refer to a technique that I call the Cone of Defence. In all positions of the sword arm, you keep the point directed at your opponent’s chest. In the first position, your arm is raised and your hand pointed away from you. Rotate your arm so that it is horizontal and your palm is down to reach the second position. Continue rotating until your arm is lowered to your hip and your palm faces your off-hand for the third position. Raise your arm, palm facing up, for the fourth position which is the opposite of second. In each position, the point remains on target for your opponent’s body.

From an ordinary guard position, you can transition to one of the positions of the Cone of Defence, or somewhere in between two positions, to intercept your opponent’s attack while simultaneously striking their body with your point.

Parry and riposte: Intercepting your opponent’s weapon with your own is the most commonly depicted method of defence in Hollywood movies and video games, yet there’s a good reason for it to be the last of the preferred methods in an actual fight. The reason is that the parry and riposte is a double-time technique. You parry, then you riposte. Your parry intercepts your opponent’s attack, but in the time it takes you to launch your own attack, your opponent has time to move into a parry. Or worse, they have time to actually launch a second attack, forcing you to parry again. And a third, and a fourth, until they get tired of attacking you and decide to give you a break. Because they feel sorry for you or something.

Sometimes it is simply impossible to avoid having to parry an attack. If the attack is coming at you, sometimes you just have to stick your sword in the way in order to remain unhit. And for this reason I will outline the three different kinds of parry, which are block, deflect, and intercept.

Block: This is the simplest and least effective kind of parry, consisting of literally just sticking your sword in the way of the incoming attack. It is weak, because your opponent can often simply power through your block to strike you anyway. It does not put you in a position where you can effectively take your next move, because all of the momentum of your opponent’s attack is transferred into your sword and arm.

For this reason I suggest the Deflect: It is similar to the Block, except that your sword is angled so that the opponent’s blade slides off to one side or the other. If you do the deflect with your point down – a hanging guard – then the weapon will slide off. If you do the deflect with the point up, then your opponent’s sword will get caught on your crossguard, from where you can exert some kind of control over it. Again, with bouncy foam swords it can be difficult, as the weapons will not stay in contact for very long.

The best kind of parry is the intercept. Here, you are beating your opponent’s sword in order to knock it off course. Those who have trained with me have heard me say that you should attack your opponent’s body and not their sword, and this is still true. You should not launch an attack at your opponent’s weapon. An intercept, however, is a form of defence, not an attack. Strike your opponent’s blade with your own – with foam swords you will get a good bounce and their attack will be spoiled. However, you should be aware of what this move will do to your own sword. If you’re quick and clever, you can use the momentum of the bounce in a followup attack.

All of these defences, of course, still work when you have a shield. However, if you are using your weapon for defence, you are not using it for attack. The shield is better at defending than a weapon is – use it.

How Practice Works

We love fighting, right? We all love fighting. That’s why we do it. But are we good at fighting? Does being good at fighting even matter?

It does matter. For a start, being good at fighting – our style of mock-fighting, that is – means that we can be safer. We throw fewer bad hits.

Secondly, No-one likes being beaten all the time. Even if you, like me, put very little store in being the best, winning fights is fun.

At the Hundred Swords, we have two types of gathering – game, and training. The purpose of training is to get better at what you do, and the reasons we do it are the two reasons I mentioned at the top of this post – safety and effectiveness in games. So I encourage all of our players to use the time set aside for training, so that our games are more fun and enjoyable for everyone.

I am often saying things like “the more you do something, the better you get at it”. And this is sort of true. Repeatedly doing a thing makes you very good at doing that thing repeatedly. But for a skill such as fighting, you need to practice. And by practice, I mean a very specific kind of practice.

Deliberate Practice

You see, just doing something over and over again isn’t enough. If you really want to get good, you need to use something called deliberate practice. This stems from the work of a professor at Florida State University named Anders Ericsson. The whole idea is fairly complex, but it boils down to this:

You need to set a specific goal, you need to get immediate feedback, and you need to concentrate on technique rather than outcome. You also need to push yourself just a little bit more each time.

We all love to play within our comfort zone. It’s easy and we know how everything works and what’s what. But if we consistently stay inside our comfort zone, we never improve. The purpose of training is to make our comfort zone bigger – to extend it to cover more new situations and techniques.

When training, identify those aspects of your fighting that you are not satisfied with, and work on them. Find a training partner who is willing to work with you. Experienced fighters are generally more than happy to work with recruits – after all, the more people who can play well, the more fun the game.

Practice to address your weak spots. If you get hit in your left leg a lot, focus on that for a while. If you are consistently hitting too hard, concentrate on that. Set a goal, get immediate feedback from an experienced player, and work on the techniques. Start slow and get gradually faster. Constantly push yourself just a little bit outside your comfort zone – not too much at a time, or you will get overwhelmed.

Train for safety

Always remember that safety is our primary concern, so you should make that a focus of your training. If you find yourself doing a lot of unsafe shots, put a priority on that for a while. You should be in a position where you are good enough that your shots rarely go where you don’t intend them to, and on those occasions when they do, you instinctively mitigate the harm that they might be doing.

Train to pull your hits. Hit fast, but don’t hit hard. This can be tricky to get used to, but it is worth spending time on. No-one likes being hit hard. There’s a sweet spot where you can pull a fast shot back at the very last moment so that you hit firmly, but not solidly. Tap, don’t slap. Make sure you hit with a strong wrist – don’t “flick”. Practice this with an unresisting opponent at first, then spar slowly with them, concentrating on these firm but pulled shots. Gradually increase your speed until you can do a pulled shot at full speed.

Train for accuracy. Train to hit specific called points on your opponent’s body – say, the upper left arm. Practice several times with an unresisting opponent, making sure you hit that exact spot each time. Then spar slowly, aiming specifically for that spot. Don’t aim for anything else. Your training partner should leave that spot open occasionally so that you learn to spot when a location is vulnerable. Again, gradually increase your speed until you get to full speed. Then choose a different spot and do it all again.

Train for effectiveness

If you are new, use training to become safe and effective with a single-handed sword, or sword and shield, or two-weapon – whichever you feel most comfortable with. Do not be embarrassed about asking to train with a more experienced player. It is the experienced players who will push you out of your comfort zone and give you the skills that you need in order to be safe and effective in your play. Go slow at first – concentrate on good, safe technique and simple moves. Don’t try to use speed bursts or fancy feints. Just to the simple attacks and defences, and build up your speed gradually. Stop frequently and talk about what just happened. Think about and deconstruct the moves you have just made. Then start sparring again, using the technique you have just talked about. Above all else, remember that you are training for safety as much as you are for effectiveness.

If you are more experienced and have played a few games with just the simple weapons, pick an exotic weapon that appeals to you and start training with that. Borrow one to start with, and find a training partner who is experienced with that weapon. Again, start slow with basic attacks and defences. Push yourself just a little bit each time. If you find that you’re not enjoying that weapon, try a different one. And never forget to keep going back to the simple weapons from time to time.

Advanced players will want to keep training as much as they can to keep their skills honed. Skills will diminish over time – if you take a break or get complacent, you will suddenly find that you aren’t as quick as you once were, or that someone’s developed a technique that you haven’t worked out yet. You need to keep training in all the weapons you are qualified in.

Remember: a good fighter will practice a technique until they can do it right. A great fighter will practice a technique until they can’t do it wrong.

There is an excellent episode of the Freakonomics Podcast called How To Become Great At Just About Anything which goes into detail on Anders Ericsson’s theories and how they can be applied in other contexts. It takes only a little imagination to apply them to fighting.