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Sunday, July 3, 2011

Shield Wall Errata & General Mêlée Stuff

Pictured- Me challenging Sir Maynard into Crown Tourney, an unwise move for me, but a ballsy one that won me much renown. He, of course, went on to win the tourney.

Mêlée unit tactics. Aside from the "Charge straight through the enemy line" tactic that I apparently learned through genetic memory from my Scottish Highlander ancestors, which when it works, it works like gangbusters and when it doesn't, it gets you and all of your men killed; kind of an all or nothing, bet it all on one play, kind of a tactic; aside from that one; I have learned a few other tactics from a few better tacticians and battlefield commanders in my day.

Pulse charges. That's where you take a small team of guys and try to break the enemy line, do some damage and get back into your own ranks, they seem to work pretty well if you can send your better guys out to do the damage and get back, particularly if you can coordinate several of them at the same time along the line; that can lead to a more general break in the line.

Feigned retreats seem to work pretty well too. Once I was leading a small contingent of Aethelmearc fighters in an East kingdom war event and their Northern Army kept chewing us up with their feigned retreats, pretty much just like at Cannae their center fell back until we were completely flanked and destroyed; and you'd think we'd be once bitten, twice shy right? Nope, they kept doing it to us all day long. those guys were a whole lot better drilled in small unit tactics and maneuver than we were. Their units flanked us and ran away from us it was a tiring day of chasing the enemy around the field waiting for either their archers to get you or for a sudden tsunami of Eastie troops to wash you from the field from out of nowhere, after it was all over they told us it was all about endless hours of drill practice and the mantra of "superior numbers at the point of impact". Plus, despite their heavier armor and shields those guys could run backwards faster than we could charge forwards, which just seems wrong; how do you learn to sprint so fast in reverse.

Commanders vs. knights or kings for that matter; in the SCA we tend to follow the highest ranking guy's orders on the battlefield. That makes sense, we humans are primates and primates form hierarchical societies by and large, and usually this works pretty well. The problem in the SCA is two-fold; first- the guy that's highest ranking is doubtless an awesome fighter himself, that is how we choose our leaders in the SCA (in large part), but he may well suck at leading troops on the field; second command control is hard to maintain on the field if there are more than a couple of dozen troops, particularly if they are not well trained as units and those units are not accustomed to fighting together. I won't pretend to know what makes a good commander and I don't claim to be one, but I have seen a few things that good commanders do and a few things that bad commanders do and I try to emulate the former and not the latter when I have any type of command role. The single most important lesson I learned is that SOMEONE needs to be in command, if no one else is doing it, it is time to step up to the plate and do it yourself because even a bad commander is better than no commander. I have been on a field with knights and royal peers and watched everything go to hell because the wrong guy got killed and no one else stepped up and took command, maybe it was because they didn't want to step on any toes, maybe it was because they couldn't figure out who was supposed to be next in line, maybe it was because they were crap commanders, maybe it was because they didn't realize their leader was dead; who knows? When it hits the fan hard though, someone needs to take the reins.

This leads us to how the SCA organizes itself within it's kingdoms, we have, mainly, baronies, shires, colleges, strongholds, and a couple of subgroupings of those types of groups. The type of group is determined by the nature of it's primary inhabitants and how well populated it is, baronies and shires are the main "normal" SCA groups and are usually just based around a geographical area, my own Barony of Delftwood is most of central NY state, centered on the city of Syracuse, NY. The neighboring Shire of Coppertree is to the east and centered on the Utica/Rome, NY area. To our west we have the Barony of Thescorre centered on the city of Rochester, NY. Baronies mostly have more people than shires do. Strongholds are based around military bases, we have the Stronghold of Wyntersett based around the Watertown/Fort Drum area to the north of me. Colleges are based at colleges and universities and I don't think we have any in the kingdom of Aethelmearc at all, much less near me, although we do have the Dominion of Myrkfaelinn, which is for all intents and purposes a college, based out of the Cornell campus in Ithaca to the south of me. I mention this because it's important to know for the types of forces they field.

Baronies and Shires will field irregular forces of varying quality. Most knights or other peers within a barony (or shire) will have probably either formed their own household or joined a household belonging to someone of higher rank that they have a friendship or other attachment to, which leaves mostly newer fighters, the Baron, his Champion, their friends, their households if they have them, and maybe a few other people that didn't have any other commitment for that battle in the baronial unit. Note that Baron is an elected position, he may not even take the field; if he does he may not be much of a fighter, if this is the case he will hopefully leave commanding the troops to his Champion, but this may not be much better because the Champion is good at SINGLE combat, that's how he won his title.

Strongholds are actually worse in my experience, just because the people keep coming and going. Every time they get something good the key leadership members get transferred or deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq. This was probably easier during peacetime.

If the Dominion of Myrkfaelinn is any indicator for Colleges, I'd have to say they field some pretty good Mêlée units. That may be because college students have copious amounts of time to train in their unit tactics or it may just be that Master John the Pell is THE war master; I don't know.

Which brings us to the concept of Households in the SCA. Some Households are giant sprawling multi-kingdom affairs like the Great Dark Horde and it's spin-offs. I don't really have any experience with them, so I'll skip them. Most of the households in the SCA are formed around either a knight and his squires and men-at-arms and their families and maybe a few friends too, or a group of local fighters that banded together for the purposes of actually forming a Mêlée unit that doesn't suck (with maybe a couple of other ideas stuck to it too). I have been a member of the first type of common SCA household when I became a man-at-arms to Duke Sir James Ahearn. I probably joined his household too early, everyone tells you to wait a year before joining a household, but my buddy Kevin M. (AKA Ketil in the SCA) and I were both asked and we both were flattered by the offer and we went for it. That experience didn't end well for either of us, or for Duke James; his household dissolved and he pretty much quit doing SCA stuff for a while. I stayed away from joining households after that, although I fought pretty often with a couple of them, Earl Sir Yngvar's Hus Faerhaga and Boldo's Gladique Scoporum. Members of households that train together as mêlée units are usually pretty darned good at it and they have a good idea of who's orders to follow when their chief gets ganked.

Let me backtrack a bit here and explain that, in my experience, there is among most of the better fighters a general disdain for mêlée in the kingdom of Aethelmearc. I am pretty sure it's because deep down every fighter in the SCA wants to be a knight and you don't get knighted, not in Aethelmearc anyway, for being a great mêlée fighter. Maybe if you were a truly awesome, spectacular mêlée fighter, but not for being just a good or great mêlée fighter. You get knighted for a lot of reasons, time and service and dedication are vastly important; but the biggest reason, as far as I have seen is for being a great tournament fighter. Getting out there and fighting in lots of tournaments and winning or looking good and coming close, fighting in all of the important tournaments, traveling to tournaments out of your area of the kingdom to network and get your name out there. In order to make sure you will win or at least look good you need to practice, I used to do 30 minutes of pell work every day and during the height of my fighting career I was going to 3-5 fighter practices a week and a fighting event every weekend during the fighting season. I am not a knight in the SCA. My biggest claim to fame is either quarter-finaling in two consecutive Aethelmearc Crown Tourneys or having served as Delftwood's Baronial Heavy Weapons Champion for a year, point of view thing there really.

My point is, I guess, that we have a tendency towards the training of champions rather than training units of fighters around here. So when someone at fighter practice says "Hey, we have a bunch of people here today why don't we practice mêlée?" half of the people groan and bitch because they just want to practice getting better at single combat. Maybe they wanted to learn a new form or weapon or work on their endurance or just get matched off against all these new guys that showed up this one time that they have never fought before and may never get another chance to have a go at; and the knights are just as bad, because they need to keep their skills at a peak level*. So, unless the extra guys showed up from Myrkfaelinn or dropped in en masse from another kingdom, you either will have no mêlée at all or a half-hearted BS attempt at it just to give everyone some mêlée practice; the exception to this will be in the weeks leading up to war. The war of course is Pennsic War, which is the biggest SCA event on earth, where the Midrealm fights the East Kingdom for control of the Barony Marche of the Debatable Lands, which actually belongs to the Kingdom of Aethelmearc; but the war pre-dates Aethelmearc. War fever makes everyone mêlée mad, also siege crazy, but that's another entire post; when it's near time for war our singles tourneys (kind of, mostly) end and mêlée events begin and we all practice our mad mêlée skills for maybe six weeks leading up to war, although we often cheat and have singles tournaments at our mêlée events too, shh!

Which leads to some households working together at these mêlée events, which is a good thing. I like it when I know the caliber of the unit fighting to my flank, better if I know them both. Best yet if I know them well enough that I can drop into their unit if the rest (or just most) of my unit dies and have it be pretty seamless. Or if I just show up alone at an event I can fight with their unit because we know each other and we have the trust in each other and our skills. I would much rather fight with the Hus or Gladique Scoporum than any ad hoc unit thrown together at an event, I know them and their leaders, I don't train with them regularly but I am a decent fighter and I can follow orders pretty well.

That said, those warbands pale in comparison to truly well drilled units like those I mentioned above from the East Kingdom's Northern Army; credit where credit is due, those guys spent all day spanking us. Sure, it probably wouldn't have been so bad if I hadn't been with an ad hoc unit, but I am pretty sure it still would have been pretty brutal.

Applying this to D&D? I am not really sure how to do it without getting all 3e style with movements and bonuses and maneuvers and feats of leadership. I mean, other than losing your shield bonuses for being attacked on your off side or giving flankers to hit bonuses, maybe even increasing to hit bonuses based on the number of attackers?

*Snarky people say that you only get knighted in Aethelmearc as a lifetime achievement award, when you have already peaked and your skills are starting to deteriorate. I admit I have indulged in this kind of talk in the past, but I know it's not entirely true, even if there is a grain of truth; the grain being that a certain number of dedicated SCAdians that were deserving of the recognition of being raised to a peerage were overlooked until it became obvious and then they were elevated when they were clearly past their prime. Really this is the correction of a mistake more than anything else, but it does leave one with the impression that it is nigh impossible to get knighted in this kingdom. Sadly, the statistics also back up this impression as Aethelmearc has fewer knights per capita than any other kingdom.