Building Better Battlegames

While usually my posts focus on individual combat, I want to address something a little different this time; running fun and interesting multi-player combat, also known as “battle games.” I originally wrote some of this on request for the Interview with a Dragon facebook page, but I wanted to expand on a few points.

Game Design Examples

There are many ways to talk about good and bad game design. I have chosen to use two battlegames as examples of good and bad game design and focus on how each solves some of the basic issues of battle game design.

The example of poor battle game design I will use is Mutual Annihilation (henceforth MA) with a set number of lives per individual. This game is ghastly. For those never subjected to this game, here is a quick recap: Players are divided into two equally-sized teams of equal skill. Each player is assigned five lives, or the game can be played with a pool of lives equal to five times the number of players. The objective is to kill all the other team’s players off so they run out of lives. Respawn is 60 seconds, with each team having a dedicated spawn point.

The example of good battle game design I will use is The Domination of the Enlightened Soul (henceforth DES). This is a well-designed battle game, created by a brilliant, handsome, and unusually talented Amtgarder. For those who have never enjoyed this game, here is a quick recap: Players are divided into two teams of roughly equal skill. Players have unlimited lives and an instant respawn. Each team has a respawn, on opposite ends of the field. In between these two respawns are some manner of grid (arrangement can vary as desired) of 6 pairs of cones. The goal is to capture each of the six points. Capturing is accomplished by one player (and only one) physically touching a cone and counting aloud to 15. A player gains Enlightened Soul temporarily while counting at a cone. When a cone is captured the player puts his team’s color cone on top. Cones may be recaptured. Play ends after 30 minutes or when all cones are captured by one team.

Now that game descriptions are out of the way, let’s look at what makes these games good or bad. There are a lot of ways game design can fail.

Design Goal: Equality of Player Class

The first requirement of a good game is that every class has the potential to contribute equally to victory. Those of you playing Dagorhir or Belegarth should still this one, since it is possible to design a game so badly that player equipment matters enough to unbalance teams. Everyone is the hero of their own story, so no one wants to be a speed-bump or supporting character in someone else’s epic. In MA, resurrection is a critical spell. Any team without access to resurrection is almost certainly doomed to defeat. Players who can cast resurrection are more useful resurrecting players than doing anything else, and are more important to victory than any other player. Conversely, in DES, there are no essential spells. Resurrection is still useful for popping players back up at critical junctures (especially defending or taking the cones closest to the enemy spawn point), but the game does not require every player to be resurrected constantly to avoid certain defeat. A common “special boost” for one group that I see in battle games, that also applies in Dagorhir and Belegarth, is giving archers special locations where they can shoot at people but may not be struck by melee weapons. Avoid these.

Design Goal: Equality of Player Defeat

The second requirement is that all players have equal value as targets. No one type of player should become a priority target or main victim. Mutual annihilation games make less-skilled players targets, because they are easy kills and can be quickly removed from play so that a team can enjoy numerical superiority. If the Mutual Annihilation game has a life pool, slaughtering less-skilled players as quickly as possible is the key to running down the life pool count. DES, on the other hand, offers no particular reward for killing one player over another. It is what the player is doing (capturing a cone) that makes them worth killing, not their skill or lack thereof. Anyone can capture a cone, so all players are equally viable as targets.

Design Goal: Minimize the Impact of Skill Imbalance

The third requirement of a good game is that a small number of players should not completely dictate the course of the game. This is often a problem for game designers; if you have one warlord who is also amazing at his class and a bunch of newbies, how do you make a balanced game? In a game like MA, the problem rapidly manifests as the warlord single-handedly wipes out the other team over and over until the game is over. The problem is solved by the laws of physics in a game like DES. No matter how skilled the warlord, he can only be in one place at a time. While he is taking one cone and slaughtering all comers, the other five are open for the other team to take. If the warlord decides to player defensive, he still won’t be able to sprint between all six cones and kill everyone in the fifteen seconds it takes to capture all the cones. Even if he could, with an instant respawn everyone can just immediately go back to cone capturing. No warlords are up for extended wind-sprints.

Design Goal: Opportunity for Player Contributions

The fourth requirement is that everyone can contribute to victory. In a game like MA, if you’re not good at killing over players, you’re not doing anything to contribute to victory. In fact, there is a good chance that your team would be better off without you if there is a life pool; you’re costing the team more lives by participating than you are contributing by killing other players. That’s a terrible position to put a player in. In DES, every player is valuable. If your only skill is standing still, you can be capturing a control point while others defend you. If you’re good at battlefield awareness, you can pick out undefended cones when the focus of battle shifts, bringing your team a surprise victory or staving off a sudden defeat. If you’re good at the confrontational part of your class skills, you can slaughter/crowd control people defending or taking a point. A support player can heal the injured and res slain fighters in an intense battle on top of a control point.

Design Goal: Maximize Play Time

The fifth requirement is that everyone should get to play as much as possible. With the drawbacks we’ve seen so far to life pools, some people try to run MA games with individual life counts. However, that means that those who are easier to kill end up dying faster, and end up watching the better players play Amtgard. Everyone should be playing Amtgard together, not watching some elite subset play. DES, with unlimited lives, means that every player gets to play the entire game. Dying still matters; killing an opponent usually gives enough time to finish capturing a point, but the slain opponent is quickly back in the game.

Design Goal: Minimize the Impact of Defeat

The sixth requirement of a good game is that the impact of defeat should be minimized. This is not losing the game, but the temporary defeats that come from losing any particular fight. Usually this means taking a death, but it could also be a crowd-control spell or other type of defeat. The newer or less-skilled players are going to be subjected to these defeats more often. The more skilled players should win more; that’s the point of a skill-based game. However, the impact of that defeat should be momentary and transitory.

In MA, a less-skilled player is going to die more often to a more skilled fighter, possibly a lot more. Each death means a minute hanging around waiting to respawn. MA then doubles-down on this penalty, by also costing the player a life, reducing the amount of time they’re going to get to play if they have individual lives, or penalizing their team if they have a life pool. Death is a double whammy of hurting your team and not playing, as well as the other penalties like losing your enchantments and leaving your team outnumbered or disadvantaged on the battlefield.

In DES, death has a single penalty; you are no longer able to capture or stop the capture of a single point. It is over as quickly as a player can get back to the spawn point (something the player can control). Repeated deaths by a more-skilled player do not come with an ever-increasing cost, which diminishes the impact of losing to someone else over and over.

Note that there is still a penalty to death in all good games. However, the penalty in a better game is a loss of the ability to accomplish or thwart a goal, and being a less-skilled player does not compound the penalty for death.

Design Goal: Durable Game Balance

The seventh requirement of a good game is that it should remain balanced. Too many games are designed such that, as one team gains an edge, this advantage compounds until defeat becomes inevitable for one side. This snowball effect makes the game fun for only part of the game, then just a beat down for the remainder.

MA is not the worst offender in this regard, but it still exhibits this behavior. As a team has players start running out of lives, the team starts to become more and more outnumbered. In a life-pool game, this only happens near the end of the game, but in a per-life game this happens fairly early on. In both cases is makes the final result more and more inevitable and eliminates the chance for any sort of heroic last stand or brilliant save.

DES, on the other hand, not only has durable team balance, it also self-balances as one team starts to dominate. Typically a team captures and holds the cones closest to its own spawn point most easily, meaning that the cones closest to the enemy spawn point are the last captured. This means that the winning team has a longer trip back to respawn, which effectively gives them a slower respawn rate. This means they will have fewer fighters able to battle for the last point than the losing team, who will have a short trip to respawn. This gives the losing team time to rally and capture other, uncontested, points and turn the tide of battle. (Which often does, in fact, happen.)

Bonus Goals

Those are the some of the main goals that a good game should fulfill. There are some additional, bonus, goals that mainly apply to larger games, company battles, or multi-team games.

Bonus Goal: Force Conflict

A game must force conflict. Most two-team games do this, which is why I made this a bonus goal. However, if you have a three-team MA you have created a scenario where “not fighting” is how you win. You let the other two teams slaughter each other and you conserve your precious lives. Any time you have more than two teams, you need to ensure you have game objectives that reward the team that fights the most, not the team that stands around watching other people play Amtgard. This is a common failing in large battle games at events, especially company battles. A common variant of this is the battle game that only rewards teams for fighting at the end of the game. A game should reward continuous engagement and play at Amtgard. A three+ team DES variant that does this is to have the reeve award a point to each team for every cone they hold at one-minute intervals, with the team with the highest point total winning.

Bonus Goal: Balancing Multiple Teams

A game with three-plus teams should not encourage ganging up. A common game design mistake is to make a game where teams benefit from ganging up and beating up another team. This simply reduces the game to a two-team game with wildly unbalanced teams. If you want to have a hideously unfair game, just warn people in advance so they can do something else. A common form of this problem is to have objectives, and whichever team does not have an objective is eliminated. Teams can gang up on one team, eliminate them, and then play an even battle game between the final two remaining teams.

Bonus Goal: Balance Unequal Teams

It should be possible to balance teams by some mechanism other than having teams with equals numbers of equally skilled players. DES, for example, can be played with a fairly high skill imbalance, as long as the less-skilled team has more players and the total number of players is small. This works great for smaller parks with only a dozen or so players. If one team has more players than the other, they have more people who can be capturing control points. Numbers are critically important, and the further teams get away from equal numbers the greater the imbalance. Since there are multiple points to control, a team that is too small simply can’t compete at dominating all the points no matter how much more skilled their players are. Having two “dials” to adjust for team balance that both have a strong impact (team size and average player skill) makes it easier to balance teams.

Teams can also be balanced by making small tweaks in how the rules apply to each team. One team can be given an additional spawn point, allowing them to be closer to the action when they respawn, while the more capable team has a longer trek back to respawn. One team can be given a slightly high respawn count. You could, for example, give the weaker team an instant respawn, and give the other team a respawn time equal to the difference in total orders of the warrior between the two teams. One team can also be given shorter objective counts to capture points, destroy walls, or whatever the game objectives are. The weaker team can be given a monster, or special “captain” abilities, depending on the scenario. There are a number of tweaks to the game that can be made to balance uneven teams beyond simply trying to make the teams identical in skill level, or making one team much larger.

It should be noted that there are limits to how effective this sort of adjustment can be. It is possible to create a balanced game where one side has all the warlords and the other side has all the newer players, but that doesn’t mean the game will be equally fun for both sides. As a one-off, this might be fun. As a regular thing, people will eventually tire of dying in endless waves just to drag down one titan.

Bonus Goal: Backstory

A good game has a fun back story. “Mutual Annihilation” doesn’t sound like any sort of cool backstory, and people rarely come up with an sort of justification. DES, on the other hand, just from the title, sounds like it has some sort of interesting back story. Moreover, the game design makes it easy to come up with one. Six kegs of dwarven ale are waiting to be tapped, and your warband wants to tap them with your mystic spigots so only your warband gets booze at this evening’s feast. Six wellsprings of eldritch power have appeared in the forest. You must set up binding stones on them so your monarch’s grand wizard can tap them for the good of the kingdom, or you must unbind them so the wild forest magic can run free. 

The Bad Ideas

There are some things that have proven to be bad ideas over and over again. They make games less fun and result in unhappy players and terrible battle games. While an extremely lucky and talented game writer can make these ideas work, almost everyone screws them up, badly. Avoid them. To provide some contexts, I will provide an example of each of the bad ideas I have encountered.

Bad Idea: Nerf the Strong Player

One mistake game designers make it deliberately trying to nerf the strongest players by forcing them to fight with a specific weapon style, forcing them to die on limb shots, or some other form of weakening.

There are several problems with this approach. First of all, it is unfair to the player to force them to play at a handicap. Everyone’s fun is equal and it is unfair to single out a player for nerfing, especially in a game that is intended to reward skill at the game. Second, it often will not work. Players who feel they have been unfairly nerfed will often work even harder to win and overcome the nerf.

Sometimes players will voluntarily play at less than full effectiveness, but the key here is that the player is doing it voluntarily, and can stop doing so if it stops being fun. They’re defining their own fun, not having it circumscribed by someone else.

Terrible Example: This is actually the one bad idea that I hear all the time but have never encountered. I’ve been told a few times that, because I am a skilled fighter, I have to accept some handicap no one else is held to, but I’ve always just told the person “no” and worked with them to provide proper balance in a better manner.

Bad Idea: Unkillable Monster

All too often, someone comes up with the idea of the super-powered monster, either that is entirely unkillable or so overpowered that they’re mostly unkillable. This is a great power-trip for the person playing the monster (often the monster was also their idea), but it’s not a lot of fun the other people who have to play supporting roles in someone else’s power fantasy. A game designer should always ask themselves, “Will this be fun to play against?” If your answer is, “Yes. People will have tons of fun because they’ll get slaughtered over and over again,” then you are wrong. And a moron.

Terrible Example: I once played in a quest at an event where the monsters had “Death” as one of the monsters. To describe it in v8 terms, he had six points of magic, ancestral armor, wounds-kill, shield destroying, armor-destroying weapons, and he was immune to magic. If you killed him with anything except a Sphere of Annihilation, he respawned in 30 seconds. The questers didn’t have that spell, so he was essentially unkillable. Of course, the guy playing the monster is also the guy who wrote up that monster. The quest slowly lost questers as more and more people got frustrated and quit.

Bad Idea: PvP is On

PvP is not always bad. If the teams are correctly balanced, then PvP is not going to cause many problems. Where PvP becomes  problem is in quests, where quest groups vary in power. In those scenarios, the stronger teams often quickly realize that plundering other players is as profitable as plundering monsters.

Terrible Example: I once fought in a quest where each party was self-chosen, and parties were trying to complete quests to amass gold coins to buy artifacts. PvP was on, and players could loot coins from other players. Unfortunately, the quest was not well designed and several teams got bored. PvP broke out, and soon the strongest team was squatting on the main road between the questers and the bank, ready to way-lay any party that had money.

Bad Idea: Magic Will Balance the Teams

Often the belief is expressed that magic will balance out fighting skill. Magic can, indeed, mitigate a disparity in fighting skill, assuming the mitigating person is skilled in their casting class. However, game-designers need to keep in mind some caveats. Skilled fighters can also benefit from class abilities, either by using them for themselves, or by receiving enchantments from others. Class abilities can strengthen less skilled fighters by providing non-melee skills to achieve game objectives, but they’re not, on their own, going to always balance teams.

Terrible Example: I fought in a battle-game recently where one team got most of the casters, including all the level 6 druids, and the other team got both warlords. This resulted in a team where everyone had two points of magical armor, and two of those players, as Golems, had it every life. The warlord team still slaughtered the other team, completing objective after objective.

Terrible Example: As a bonus, there is another way this can go wrong. In a recent game I was fighting single sword, as a way of challenging myself at a lower-skill park. However, casters kept using the Heat Weapon spell against me, which was largely keeping me from playing. Since I come out to Amtgard to play, I solved this problem by picking up a second sword. Rather than countering me, magic encouraged me to become more powerful so I could have fun.

Bad Idea: Fixing Failure

One common mistake game-runners make is trying to fix a failed game. If a game is horribly unbalanced and one team is dominating to an extreme degree, it is better to simply call the game, declare that team the winner, and then rebalance teams or change rules. Or simply run an entirely new game and go back to the drawing board with the broken game. The problem with trying to fix a game is that you are taking a victory one team is earning, and arbitrarily taking it away. You can also cause confusion as people switch teams or rules change. Worse, sometimes the fixes don’t improve the game, and the game-runner double-down on failure and keeps trying to patch the broken game.

Terrible Example: I once played in a game where my team accomplished five of the six objectives in the first few minutes of the game and was effectively spawn-camping the other team. A hold was called, and another player and I were moved over to the other team. Then that team crushed the other team, which made them mad because they’d lost their first picks and because they’re been about to win before the reeve interfered. Then the reeve called a hold and change the objective criteria, which resulted in some people using the old method and some people using the new method. This also didn’t fix the game. I ended up convincing the reeve to just call the game, but not before all the players, who had originally been in a good mood, were irritated and grumpy.

Bad Idea: The Neutral Whatsit

All too often, game-runners try to solve the problem of one overwhelming player by making that player “neutral.” This results in one of two equally awful scenarios. In one case, the neutral player dominates the game, and both teams end up trying to appease and cajole the “neutral” player so they can win. Eventually the “neutral” player decides which team gets to win by helping that team until the game is over. Other times, the “neutral” player acts as a force of chaos, continually thwarting the winning team. This is great for the ego of the “neutral” player, but not so much fun for the team that keeps getting victory snatched away by the sudden allegiance shift of a supposedly neutral party.

Terrible Example: I have played several games with a “neutral” healer. This player, even in the best cases, was constantly undoing the efforts of the other players. They would finally kill a high-value player, and then the neutral healer would resurrect that person, undoing the work they had died to accomplish. Worse, when they wanted to attack the neutral healer to prevent the resurrection, the healer would tell them that if they attacked him he would stop helping their team. The healer was able to browbeat players into letting him do whatever he wanted.

Bonus Bad Idea: Segregating “Flurbs” and “Stickjocks”

The idea that people who love to fight and excel at it can’t also love roleplay, or those who love roleplay can’t be good fighters is a long-standing stereotype in Amtgard.

This stereotype is very divisive. It typically paints one group as ‘bad’, because they are not interested in what the other group is most enjoys. It demeans the interests of the other group. It also divides people into one group; you’re either one or the other.

This stereotype is also wrong. Most Amtgarders are interested in anything fun, whether it is role-play or fighting. It is only when it stops being fun that people check out. In the Wetlands, all the warlords enjoy roleplay, and some of the most die-hard role-players can be found on the ditch line before or after battle games, and are seeking out warlords to learn more about fighting.

Finally, both terms are somewhat insulting, though people have tried to embrace and convert both terms with varying success. Insulting your fellow players is not a good way to make a good game.

SKBC 2017 Review

SKBC 2017 has come and gone. I had a great experience and got in a ton of fighting and teaching time. The FWACK committee should get bonus points for securing us a gym to fight in on Friday when it rained all day. That’s a level of dedication you won’t find anywhere else.

I taught Women’s Combat in the first time slot. The class was significantly revamped from last year. I truncated some of the information dump and tried to just hit highlights, critical misconceptions, and essential information. I added a number of drills as well. The class continues to evolve, and I think next year’s class will be another major evolution. One persistent problem is that many people still think women need to be taught *female* body mechanics, rather than just body mechanics, and other similar myths. I’ve toyed with trying to make two classes, one that is more social/psychological differences, and one that is the abbreviated footwork/body-mechanics/closing/shots class that some women seem to be looking for. I think there is still room for improvement in how I teach this class. Anna was my ever-tolerant co-instructor for this class. Poor Anna.

My second slot was free, so I sat in on Raven’s body mechanics and made his life harder. Poor Adam.

My third slot was Body Mechanics. It is different from what Clalibus used to teach, since we’ve got different backgrounds and viewpoints. We looked at stance and grip, then moved on to looking at the correct mechanics of blocking (I’m amazed how many people do it wrong). Then we looked at power generation and shot mechanics. We ended with proper footwork and movement. Anatole was a great co-instructor. He had some great insights and alternate ways of explaining things, and he’s roguishly handsome.

Saturday I led off with Lefty Combat Theory. I had a few right-handed folks in it, which was really handy. I hope they learned how to kill tons of lefties. That class seemed to go pretty well, and we were able to hit not just practical things like specific shots, but delve into some of the theory about why we do them and how they differ for a lefty vs. a righty. Drakknar, as a lefty-turned-righty, was a great assistant. He was also amazingly imperturbable about being hit over and over and over and over.

My last class was the theory of footwork and movement class. Thor was my co-instructor, which was awesome, since he used to be the lead instructor for the class. He had a ton of great information to add to the course. My class got to do a lot of drills and cardio, and hopefully learned some things to improve their range control.

I also really enjoyed the one-on-one time Saturday. I had six people with cards, and we worked on a wide variety of things; from dark-sides to switching stances in florentine to two-handed greatsword work.

One of the biggest things I always struggle with is how to maximize people’s takeaways from SKBC. It’s two long and intense days, but it is also only two long and intense days. People needs weeks and months to internalize a lot of those lessons. I’ve found three things that help maximize those takeaways.

  • Communicate Theory. That gives the student the tools to decide what they should be doing, and a concept is often easier to remember or write down. This also gives the student the tools to take the next step on their own and to advance the state of the art in fighting.
  • Teach Drills. Ideally, every concept should come with a corresponding drill. This drill should both practice the concept taught, but it should come with some “self-check” markers to indicate whether it is being done correctly. For example, if you’re doing a non-cross step footwork drill and your feet touch or your head is moving up and down instead of moving on a flat plane, you made a mistake.
  • Provide Documentation. People aren’t going to remember everything you tell them. Writeups of drills help people remember drills. Write Ups, with proper citations, of any facts you promulgate, gives people a reference to check their information with, or just to read later as a general refresher. If you’re lucky, you can just cite a specific work, such as Tony Dicicco and Colleen Hacker’s “Catch Them Being Good.”

I didn’t manage a perfect sweep for my classes in those areas. I’ve written up most of the drills I mention on, and I’ve documented and cited my facts for the Women’s Combat class, but there’s still more I can do for next year.

Control, Not Aggression

I can’t count the number of times I have heard someone told; “You need to be more aggressive.” The result of this advice is that the fighter starts to close distance with other fighters and swing more.

On the surface, that doesn’t seem too bad; the fighter is getting into range and throwing shots. Those seem like much better options than not being in range and not throwing shots. The problem is that “be more aggressive” does not fully define the problems that need to be addressed, what is causing that problem, nor does it offer the optimal solution to those problems.

There are two specific problems that tend to be defined as “not being aggressive enough.” The first problem is range control. The subject fighter is not controlling range and is ending up at the worst possible range. The second is fight control. The subject fighter is ceding control of the fight to the opposing fighter and allowing that person to set the timing and pace of the fight.

Range Control

When the subject fighter fails at range control, he or she is getting trapped at a non-optimal range, usually within the reach of the opposing fighter and outside his or her own reach. This can be due either to the superior range control abilities of the opposing fighter, or, more commonly, due to both of them being bad at range control and the subject fighter not making any effort to alter the default range the encounter happens at. In the second case, this can be due to ignorance of the correct range, or a disinclination to get any closer to the person swinging sticks at them.

Telling the subject fighter to be more aggressive results, at best, in him or her charging closer, where “closer” is a nebulous undefined thing that is simply “nearer than he or she was fighting at.” Identifying the actual problem and the cause allows the fighter to be educated and understand what they need to do to improve. Failure to do so results in a fighter who charges recklessly forward to “be more aggressive.”

The correct answer in this case is to discuss ranges and range control. Explain the concepts of “out of range”, “in range of one fighter but not the other”, and “in range.” The second choice is usually the one the subject fighter is making; they need to be taught that this is the range you never want to be hanging around at*. This discussion usually brings to light why the subject fighter is unwilling to close to “in range.” This reason could be fear of getting hit, fear of running into the other person, simple ignorance that they should be closing that far, or some other reason. This reason can then be discussed and resolved.

For example, a fighter I worked with recently was hanging out in my ideal range and allowing me to hit him at will. This happened even when we started out of range and I allowed him to close and set the range. I stopped our sparring, demonstrated that he was unable to hit me even if I stood completely still, and that I could still hit him. I then stepped back to where I could not hit him, and indicated that this was his “out of reach” range. Then I stepped forward until I was just in range of him. Comparing these three ranges allowed him to see where he should and should not be fighting. He had been unwilling to get closer because he was concerned he would get hit. Illustrating that he was already close enough to get hit from where he had been stopping, and that stopping there just meant he couldn’t hit me back, encouraged him to choose his ranges more carefully.

Fight Control

The second problem that gets hidden under the bushel basket of “be more aggressive” is ceding control of the fight to the opposing fighter. The subject fighter allows the opponent to choose when to attack or throw shots. The subject fighter is then told “be more aggressive”, which is translated as “throw more shots.”

The issue with this solution is that “throw more shots” is not the same thing as “control the fight.” Throwing shots, simply for the sake of being “more aggressive”, does not mean the fighter is taking control of the fight. It means the fighter is acting, but does not specify the reasons for the action, different choices for taking action, or how to choose specific actions. In the very worst case, the now “aggressive” fighter falls for the baits of the opposing fighter and is “aggressively” ceding control of the fight by doing exactly as his or her opponent wishes.

This highlights the difference between “fight control” and “aggression.” Controlling a fight means that the fighter determines not only his or her own action, but also provides the stimulus that the opposing fighter reacts to. Ideally, this gives the subject fighter control not only of how he or she acts, but also how the opposing fighter acts. This control is not as simple as “throw a shot”, nor does it often take the form of throwing a shot; a fighter could bait a shot from the opposing fighter, controlling the fight by controlling the shot the opponent throws. This would then be used as a setup for a block and a specific riposte that the opposing fighter’s attack opened up. Given that it is all too often fighters with less range who are being told to be more aggressive, and that drawing a specific shot is an excellent way to close range safely, telling these fighters to “be aggressive” can actively hurt their success rate.

The correct course of action is to tell the subject fighter to take control of the fight. If the opposing fighter acts in a way he or she is not ready for and has not chosen to invite, the subject fighter should disengage so the fight can proceed on his or her own terms. When the subject fighter is ready to engage, he or she should engage with purpose and with a specific intent. That plan may not work out; no one wins every fight. Taking control of the fight is what is important and what will lead to long-term success.

Failure to differentiate between “be aggressive” and “control the fight” will also often mask the underlying reason that the fighter is not taking control of the fight. Often the reason is either an ignorance of how to proceed, specifically not having any idea of what shot to throw, or an unwillingness to proceed. “Nothing is open” is the most common phrase I hear when discussing why a fighter is not taking control of the fight. This opens the door for teaching the fighter something they can do, which will often begin to resolve the lack of fight control.

An unwillingness to proceed is often accompanied with the explanation, “If I do X, I will get killed by Y” , and expands into an endless loop of option and how that option could fail. This indicates that the fighter has begun to think about fighting in greater depth, but has gotten locked in an endless cycle of move and countermove. This provides an opportunity to teach the fighter more about controlling the fight. “If X will get you Y, then why not fake X to draw Y, block Y, and do Z? Controlling the fight is not about hitting the other fighter first, it is about making the other fighter play along with your plan.” It may also be a chance to remind the fighter that every move has a counter, and that getting stuck in the endless cycle is a good way to do nothing and cede control of the fight. I’ve sometimes had to tell fighters, “If you get locked in the cycle, force yourself to execute your third plan, even if it seems likely to get you killed. Sometimes breaking your mental lock is more important than finding the perfect plan, especially since there is no perfect plan.”

Be in Control

Fighting well does not require aggression. Fighting well requires control. A fighter who charges in instead of controlling range, or who just throws whatever shot looks inviting, will definitely find some success if previously all he or she was doing was just standing at the worst possible range or soaking shots without ever throwing any of his or her own. However, this is a limited success that will ultimately stunt his or her growth as a fighter. Control, choosing to always be at the best range and choosing to control the fight rather than react to it, is the ultimate path to success as a fighter.

*I make the assumption that the person being told to “be more aggressive” in the range-control scenario has less reach than his or her opponent. Since that is what always happens, I find this to be a reasonable assumption. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to deduce how to teach range control to the fighter with greater reach.

The High Cross

High crossing isn’t inherently bad, it is just a terrible opener. The idea that high crossing causes you to leave lanes open is accurate, but it is incomplete. If you open with a high cross, you are definitely leaving a lane open; you’ve done nothing to close that lane and will probably get killed if your opponent is competent. You could double cross and bring your opposite side gear over to block the lanes your first cross left open, but that is usually just ugly. There are certain circumstances where this works, especially if you’re using a punch instead of a strap shield, but as a general concept it is a terrible idea.

However, physically blocking a lane with your equipment is not the only way to protect a lane. You can also protect a lane by causing your opponent to choose not to exploit it. The most common example of this is feinting an attack to cause your opponent to form a block. Since your opponent is blocking, your “open” lane is now as well protected as it would be if you left your sword in position to block.

You can also protect a lane by physically rendering your opponent unable to attack the lane. This typically means that your opponent is off-footed or otherwise unable to physically perform the appropriate strike. One way you can cause this condition to come about is by body fakes, but it also often happens organically as part of the evolution of an engagement. Spotting when your opponent has entered this state gives you the opportunity to throw otherwise risky shots like the high cross safely. Put another way, you can opportunistically throw the high cross when your opponent screws up in a way that makes them unable to retaliate to your open lane.

Alternately, you can block a lane with your opponent’s equipment. The most common form of this is to get them to block their weapon motion by getting them to use their shield to block their sword side by feinting a sword-side attack.

You can defend a lane by physically blocking it with your equipment, causing your opponent to be unwilling to throw into the lane either by feinting or by making them think it is an uninviting bait, causing your opponent to be physically unable to attack the lane, or by clogging the lane with your opponent’s gear. All of these conditions can be achieved during the course of an engagement, but none of them are present at the beginning of an engagement. Thus, the high cross, which inherently leaves a lane open, is not suited for use as an opener at the beginning of combat, but can be used successfully as combat evolves.

Should You Be A Warlord?

Whether or not someone is qualified to be a warlord is something I’ve given a lot of thought. When I was coming up, I was constantly assessing myself and trying to answer that question. Both before and after I became a warlord, I’ve had up-and-comers who felt they were close to that achievement ask me if I though they were ready and deserving.

I’ve developed a list of eleven criteria I use to answer that question. I am not a believer in “bare minimum” approaches, and my standards are higher than the minimums listed in the rulebook. I want new warlords to be figures of respect and fear on the battlefield, not min-maxers who found a way to number-crunch a marginal minimum benchmark. I’ve held myself to this same standard; I streaked past 21 several times but judged the opposition insufficient to merit a strong warlord argument, and I had more than twice the required number of wins when I finally became a warlord. I don’t expect everyone to do as much to become a warlord, but I’m not going to hold others to a standard I myself have not exceeded.

I use Sword Knight and Warlord synonymously in my criteria, even though there are some Sword Knights who are not actually warlords.

1) Have you earned at least four decent kingdom wins in the last couple of years?

Earning warlord is about being good now, relative to fighters now. It is your job to raise the bar; if you got some of your wins ten years ago, that doesn’t mean diddly as to whether you are any good now. I also won’t accept people who squeeze in a win by coming in second and third a lot while the better fighters keep knocking each other out of the brackets. You better have some first places in that tournament to show you won it by yourself, not with the blessings of the Bracket Gods.

Ideally, I want you to exceed the bare minimum of four wins. I’m happier with six or eight, but I will count lesser wins towards that number if you have four really solid wins to go with them.

There is no number of extremely weak wins that counts as a solid win. If you won seventeen kingdom tourneys where the best fighter was my grandmother, your qual is weak as her aged arms. You can definitely count those for bragging rights after you accumulate four solid wins and tell people you warlorded on tournament wins before you got your warlord, but you can’t convince me you deserve to be a warlord on the strength of those seventeen weak wins.

2) Where did you get your wins? A warlord is not just “the best guy at his park.”

A warlord is one of the best fighters in the game. If you got all your wins in the same kingdom, there is a chance your are just a big fish in a small pond. This is especially problematic if you’re in a kingdom that doesn’t get a lot of visiting warlords. The last Wetlands tournament had five warlords from three different kingdoms, all of whom have won tournaments recently; that’s a pretty deep pool. Other tournaments I’ve seen are all locals, with one local warlord; those wins are less impressive when you start repeating them. I expect new warlords to not just win in their kingdom, but to be competitive across Amtgard. You should have won something in at least one other kingdom. The more kingdoms, the better.

3) Did you win in your home kingdom?

This is the “Glen Rule.” At one point I had five or six wins in four or five different kingdoms, but I had moved to a new kingdom and hadn’t won there yet. If you can’t win at home, you don’t deserve to be their warlord.

4) Have you won tournaments over a variety of warlords?

I don’t want a warlord who is just specialized in beating one guy. If you’ve gotten all your wins beating the same warlord, you need to get out more. A warlord should have defeated a variety of warlords who use a variety of fighting styles. I think the minimum number is four. Five is gravy. Ten is showing off. There should also be at least one “A-List” warlord on your list of defeated candidates. Defeated warlords only count if you won the tournament; just placing higher than a warlord means nothing if you didn’t win.

5) Have you won multiple categories?

This seems like a gimme, but I don’t want a warlord who wins S&B and Open (using S&B), sucks at everything else, and wins because there are only four categories in the tournaments he fights in. A warlord should be better than non-warlords with any weapon he picks up; I once streaked to 21 with a foam guitar. Everything should be a deadly weapon to non-warlords in your hands.

6) Are you better than some of the active warlords?

You don’t have to be the best fighter in Amtgard, or even in the top ten, but a new warlord should at least start out in the middle of the pack when it comes to active warlords. The new guy is training hard and working to improve; some of the still active warlords, while still good, are no longer training hard and fighting 4-5 times a week like they did when they were coming up. If you’re going to be the worst warlord, or even in the bottom 10%, you don’t deserve to be a warlord. Warlords should only get to the bottom 10% by starting out in the middle, and then the next generation improving past them.

7) Do you flank the meat counter?

“You don’t understand what it is like with warlords: when Brennon goes grocery shopping he is figuring out how to flank the meat counter.” (Dame Squeak!)

Part of being a warlord is excelling at the mental game of Amtgard fighting. You must think intelligently and analytically about fighting on a regular basis. You must possess, and constantly utilize, the ability to adapt to strange and unusual circumstances and fighting styles quickly and easily. A warlord can encounter something new, analyze the strengths and weaknesses of it, devise a counter, and execute the new maneuver successfully, all in the space of a couple rounds of sparring. Afterwards, the warlord should be able to explain to his opponent what he did, why, and how his opponent could counter the warlord’s new move. This requires a complete understanding of the fighting space. Part of this comes from fighting being a constant preoccupation for the impending warlord.

This is one of the most critical aspects of being a warlord, and anyone who doesn’t do it shouldn’t be a warlord. In a very real sense, gaining this ability is what makes people into warlords.

8) How do you do on an off day?

On a good day, a warlord can beat almost anyone else in the game. On a bad day, a warlord can beat any non-warlord in the game. Your “off-day” skill level is a key differentiator between people who should be warlords and people who are not yet ready to be warlords.

The not-yet-ready up-and-comers often start thinking they’re warlord material because, on their best days, they can beat a warlord, maybe even win a tournament. They manage to get up to seven, maybe even eight orders of the warrior, and feel like they’re really ready to be warlords. However, on their off days, they lose to other up-and-comers as well as the warlords, place behind non-warlords, and may even fail to place at all.

Conversely, a warlord beats all the up-and-comers even on his off days. When I was coming up, I won some tournaments and took an amazing number of second places. On my “off days”, I just wasn’t able to deliver that win against the other up-and-comers. My last tournament before I received my warlord, out of four limbs only my off-hand had a non-debilitating injury I was rehabbing; I won anyway. Brennon once won a tournament with a fever, and having to take a break to vomit after every round.

To a large degree, it doesn’t matter how well you do on your best days; it matters how well you do on your worst.

9) Would I be embarrassed to be grouped with you?

Is it going to be embarrassing or bothersome if people look at your fighting, note you’re a warlord, and use that to set an expectation of my fighting or credibility? Being a warlord is being part of an elite club, and we’re jealous of our membership. We don’t want people in it who we don’t feel are worthy. You can show us really easily if you’re worthy or not, just by fighting us and demonstrating your skills. As a side note, please don’t blow off shots to try to make yourself look like a better fighter than you are. We’re warlords: we can tell when you’re cheating and we really hate cheaters.

10) Are you a dominant fighter?

A warlord should be a dominant fighter, both in tournaments and on the battlefield. You should be able to mow down opponents and dominate any space you stand in. Some good fighters get sloppy when they’re not doing one-on-one fighting, and they fail to have a dominating presence on the field because they continually die to lesser fighters because their technique is sloppy.

11) Do you have doubts?

This last criteria is not about “should you be a warlord?”, but rather “should you accept a warlord title?” Being the newest warlord puts a big target on you. Everyone is judging you and second guessing your shiny new title. Worse, if you’re really dedicated to excellence, you’re also judging and second-guessing yourself.

This means every time you lose to a lesser fighter, and everyone does at some point, the question will occur to you or them, “Should this guy be a warlord?” If you go less than 60-40 with another warlord, you will start to doubt your worthiness. (Sparring with JLee right after getting my warlord was hard on my ego.)

When you “level up” to warlord, you will put a lot more pressure on yourself to win and demonstrate that you deserve to be a warlord. If you had doubts about getting the title in the first place, this stress will be increased tenfold. All this pressure makes fighting a lot less fun.

The best way to alleviate this problem is to have no doubts (or at least very few) about your worthiness *before* you accept a Warlord title. There are three ways to accomplish this. First, you could be a narcissist who is completely out of touch with reality. I don’t recommend this approach at all, but I have seen a few up-and-comers who are clearly taking this approach. Second, you can get the approval of someone who is notoriously honest and hard to please. This provides you with quality control, so you know you’re not being blinded by your own desire to be a warlord. I recommend Brennon. If Brennon tells you that you deserve to be a warlord, you are definitely worthy. Third, smother your doubts with victories. It is a lot easier to smother your doubts if you have a dozen kingdom wins to bury them under.

The Role of Speed in Combat, Part 1: Perception

“So Fast.”

This is one of the most common compliments I hear about top fighters, but it is also one of the most inaccurate. Most top fighters do not have reaction speed any greater than that of the average player. Some are even slower than average. Yet the perception of “so fast” persists. There are a number of reasons for this. Today we’ll look at the first one.

What may be the largest factor in this perception of speed, ironically, has to do with speed of perception. As a fighter becomes more skilled, they are able to perceive more information about their opponent more quickly. As a fighter grows more practiced, he builds up a “language” of body movements. By “chunking” the individual information components of opponent position, muscle movement, and balance into the “words” of this language, the fighter is able to rapidly process and understand a large body of information. Whereas a novice unschooled in this language might have to read the individual letters of “elbow lift”, “slight torso rotation”, “sword shoulder pulled to the inside”, “hand back”, “weight shift”, and a host of other letters, the experience fighter reads “beginning to high cross.”

This is something well documented in all areas of expertise. Chess players learn to read boards so that they can instantly recognize a pattern of play. (1) Tennis players learn to read opponent position to predict where a return will land. (2) Mostly, this is a subconscious learning process that the expert cannot easy verbally express to those who do not have the language. To demonstrate the utility of this type of language building, there is a classic example from natural language. Consider the letters “oeos ni mts tmhh eaglndse“. Without looking back, how many do you remember, in order? You don’t have a “language” for that. Now consider the letters “glen is the most handsome“. Now how many letters can you list off, in order? All of them. Because you have a “language” for that that let you chunk the data into manageable chunks. Same letters. Fighters have, over much time, built up a language of movement that they’re reading when they face an opponent.

There are a number of important implications of this language. The first one is that, the better someone knows the language, the less information to have to provide to convey a message. This is due to the anticipatory nature of expert perception. (3) Because the expert has tools for chunking their perceptions into manageable numbers of data elements and they have an ability to predict what the message will be. As a side effect of this, they will focus on the area where they expect new activity or information to occur. In fighting, better fighters understand the language of fighting better, so they can predict what the message will be with less information. Which letters are missing from this: “sf_e l_ _j as_i” How about now: “jle_ i_ s_ fas_“? Having the language makes it easier to get meaning before all the information is in.

A second implication is that the anticipatory nature of expert perception makes is susceptible to being misled. When you are trying to sell a feint to another fighter, the better the fighter the more minimal the feint has to be. It also can make it easier to sell fakes in some cases. If you’ve heard “jlee is so fast!” enough times, you’re going to jump to that conclusion when you see “____ i_ so ____!“, when this time I was tricking you and the message is “tato is so huge!“.

The logical question from those seeking to join the ranks of top fighters is, “how do I learn this language?” The answer is simple: effort and immersion. First, the student of this language must make an active effort to learn it if they want to accelerate their learning. Focus on why your opponent is doing as well as what they are doing. Make an effort to predict your opponent. Fight in a manner that requires you to predict your opponent’s actions, as opposed to the manner that just lets you “win.” Talk to your opponent about what happened and what they did and what you noticed them doing. Expert instruction that highlights key aspects of reading an action can also be extremely beneficial.

Second, do a great deal of fighting. Developing proficiency in reading this language will take thousands of hours of practice. Just being told about it is not sufficient (4), and too much explicit instruction can impose a cognitive load that can actually decrease performance. (5) In simpler terms, if you give people too much to think about they’ll botch it because they spent too much time thinking instead of doing. Guided practice is the best approach. Lots and lots of guided practice. However, it is still important to ensure that you have the fundamentals of fighting down before you start trying to work on your perceptual skills. (6)

Top fighters are not particularly faster in reaction time or movement speed than other players. They are benefitting from superior skill. Foremost among those skills is an ability to rapidly perceive and anticipate what their opponent is doing. This is due to the expert having built up a “language” that allows them to process information about the opponent’s movements in a smaller number of easy-to-process “chunks” of information, rather than having to process every element of the opponent’s action separately, which would impose an impossible cognitive load. Developing this language is the result of long hours of exposure and effort at reading an opponent. This development can be accelerated through the use of guided learning with an expert who can highlight key cues as the student practices perception and action.

(1) Chase, William G., and Herbert A. Simon. “Perception in chess.” Cognitive psychology 4.1 (1973): 55-81.

(2) Shim, Jaeho, et al. “The use of anticipatory visual cues by highly skilled tennis players.” Journal of motor behavior 37.2 (2005): 164-175.

(3) Ferrari, Vincent, André Didierjean, and Evelyne Marmeche. “Dynamic perception in chess.” The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 59.2 (2006): 397-410.

(4) Williams, A. Mark, et al. “Developing anticipation skills in tennis using on-court instruction: Perception versus perception and action.” Journal of Applied Sport Psychology 16.4 (2004): 350-360.

(5) Smeeton, Nicholas J., et al. “The relative effectiveness of various instructional approaches in developing anticipation skill.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 11.2 (2005): 98.

(6) Ward, Paul, and A. Mark Williams. “Perceptual and cognitive skill development in soccer: The multidimensional nature of expert performance.” Journal of sport and exercise psychology 25.1 (2003): 93-111.