By Matias Parmala
Tournament rules get a lot of attention, and for good reason. While tournament prowess is not the only goal in HEMA, successful tournament strategies do influence the way people train, and thus the direction the movement as a whole takes. In this text, I wish to present some arguments in favour of the fully scored, weighted afterblow, and applying similar rules in double hit situations.
To begin with, I should state that I do not think using a tournament as a simulation of a swordfight is realistic. We have no way of knowing the damage each strike would do in reality, and the psychological situation is likely to be wildly different. Likewise, no reasonable modern ruleset can even begin to simulate the risk-reward profile of mortal combat. Hence, my premise in this post is that tournaments should be seen as a training game, designed to hone and test the skills of the participants. It can be a very open-ended and relatively high-stakes training game, sure, but fundamentally a game.
Most people accept that not all sword strikes are made the same, and whether weighting for target, or a more complex criteria, weighting allows rule writers to influence the style of fencing seen at tournaments. Some people will also point to the medical reality of damage different strikes against various targets would cause, but I think looking at the fencing the weighting promotes is a more interesting approach . Regardless, weighted scoring itself is not very controversial.
However, giving full points for the after-blow is quite controversial, giving them for doubles even more so. However, it has the following interrelated advantages:
- It causes parrying to increase you score, but does not punish failed parries
- Creates tactical considerations beyond simply hitting first
- Solves the problem of double hits
When I speak of weighted afterblows, I refer to ruleset where the score is weighted, and afterblows are as valuable as first strikes. Weighted doubles refers to a similar system, but without differentiating doubles from afterblows. When I speak of first-strike rulesets, I refer to rulesets where the afterblow is generally allowed, but will only reduce or possibly nullify the attacker’s score while never scoring itself.
Under first-strike rulesets, you become relatively safe after you get that first shot in. You could score more by protecting against the afterblow, usually, but as long as you can keep hitting first and accepting the afterblow you will eventually chip your way to a lead. Weighted afterblow rulesets always include the risk of not only losing the score you made with the initial hit, but also of actually ending up as the losing side of the exchange. You can never allow your opponent to hit you; instead you must defend yourself at all times. Suicidal attacks only work if you can repeatedly get a high-value target in exchange for a low-value one, but this is quite difficult. Especially problematic is the situation where one fencer has the lead, and will use doubles and extremely risky first strikes as a tactic to maintain that lead. Under weighted doubles this is only possible if you go for the highest-value target, but if you predictably do that your opponent can and will use it against you.
First-strike rulesets also punish failed parries: if you try to parry and are unsuccessful, you are now on the losing side of the exchange with no chance to fully redeem yourself. Going for an attack instead of a parry would, in this case, have been a better tactic. I believe it makes a lot of sense to reward people for defending and trying to defend, and creating a situation where parrying is a larger risk than simply attacking does not do adequately do that. Under weighted afterblows, if you fail in your parry, you still get a chance to return your own strike for full points, and your opponent in turn has a very good incentive to parry that afterblow. Again: there is very rarely a reason to stop defending entirely and just go for a damn-the-consequences style first strike.
It’s true that if your opponent strikes a low-value target you can simply abstain from parrying and go for a higher value target. However, an intelligent opponent will never give you the chance to do that when fighting under weighted afterblows; he knows that you can go for the high-value target, and thus has to be more tactical about exposing it to go for a different target. At the same time, the highest value is usually given to a target which is relatively hard to hit compared to, for example, the hands and legs, so mindlessly going for that is unlikely to be a successful tactic against a more diverse fencer. Note that this problem exist just as much under favouring the first strike, since if you have the lead you can just double and accept afterblows endlessly to maintain this lead. This interplay of different risks and rewards for various targets creates a rich variety of tactical decisions, versus just going for whatever is available if you can get there first, ignoring any potential threats from the opponent.
I should add that while some early Liechtenauer sources tell you to do things like attacking the nearest target without fear, they are also presumably giving advice for fighting with sharps, where the risk-reward ratio of ignoring an attack to go for a double is fundamentally different than in a tournament.
So why score the doubles? Because trying to punish the doubles leads to numerous problems and always has potential for gaming the rules in various ways. Giving a simple no-score, on the other hand, means they become the best way to get out of exchanges you don’t like without risking losing points.
If you make both fighters lose, you are actually only punishing one fighter: the fighter who would have won. While we won’t always know who it is, this means the fighter in the lead gets punished more, as does the fighter who cares more about winning than his opponent. At worst it means that I can knock out a skilled opponent from the tournament out of spite or to give my teammates an advantage. I think this is terrible sportsmanship, but most schemes for punishing doubles encourage this kind of behaviour. Also in the eliminators you either have to stop punishing them, or get situations where a tournament can be won simply by getting lucky, all your opponents knocking each other out.
The obsession with punishing the double in tournament rulesets seems to be an entirely modern HEMA concept. In Franco-Belgian the King always wins in these cases, in the Fechtschule they didn’t care about the timing of the hits, Manciolino makes no mention of them, and classical fencers invented right-of-way to establish whose fault the double is, and gave score accordingly.
Again, if doubles are always a simple no-score, doubling to maintain your lead becomes a very attractive tactic. Right-of-way is one possible way to solve this, but I am not convinced it can be very well adapted to longsword, especially in the current judging environment. However I think it’s vital to establish who is responsible for avoiding the double in every exchange.
Weighted scoring for doubles offers a way to do that. It does not perfectly answer the question of whose fault the double was theoretically, but it gives a good enough answer to create a tournament game where doubling on purpose is a valid tactic only against particularly boneheaded opponents. If you’re hitting a 1-point target and your opponent a 3-point target, it’s fairly clear who is using better judgement in the context of the tournament.
Any ruleset can be gamed in unfortunate ways. What fully weighted scoring for doubles and afterblows offers is an environment where a fencer can predict and counter that fairly simply, thus forcing his opponent to chance strategies and limiting the amount of gaming that is possible. Under these rules, it is never a good idea to attack a skilled opponent without thinking of defense, and in almost every situation there is a very strong incentive to keep defending yourself. They are not perfect, but offer one possible solution to the issue of promoting defensive fencing in a tournament context.
Cover photo by Timo Toropainen