A Novice’s Guide to HEMA: Cat’s Nine Lives Halloween Tournament

The above image I took from HROAR’s article labeled: Hack & Slash in the Age of Reason: Italian Rapier Against Multiple Opponents by Piermarco Tierminiello. This is how it can feel once you decide to start running an event!

This blog post is born from an idea I’ve been mulling over for a while after I had a conversation with Cat Souliere who is the Sports Director of the Cornhusker State Games which is a HEMA tournament I recently had the pleasure of competing at.

I’m going to jump right into the tournament format and then after all the fun I will give advice to people who might decide to run something like what I describe and some of the logistics involved. Plus, I will go into a little bit of the reasoning for why I made various choices in designing this tournament. If you’ve run a tournament before please leave a comment to share your greater knowledge if you see something that I’ve missed.

The Cat is Alive and Dead Tournament

Every fighter starts off with nine lives for the tournament. These lives are lost by taking a headshot, getting disarmed, or having an open double during the event.

The basic structure of the tournament is to have small easily handled pools or duels. We will assume 16 fighters below. We will also want to reward more than just winning the most bouts as that is something secondary to the purposes of this type of tournament.

When running a small event or tournament with mostly new fighters you need to have a different perspective than when running an elite event for the best fighters in a region.

Each bout in this tournament is to 5 touches with each hit counting as a touch and a disarm counting as a touch with the sword taken or falling to the floor counting as a disarm. The bout lasts for 3 minutes and can have ties. If the time expires without a winner scoring five touches than both fighters lose a life and continue on to the next bout.

Depending on the venue you will have to decide how many bouts you can run at one time and if you are running more than one pool at a time you need more than one Director and Judge.

Headshots are not worth extra points during the bout but need to be tracked both for who gave the headshot and who took the headshot for later.

Light contact or an obvious showing of intent from a pommel to the mask is worth a headshot and counts as a touch.

One tempo after blows and closed doubles count towards the 5 touches and towards tallying headshots so be careful about sniping a hand and allowing a headshot.

Open doubles count towards touches and also count against your Nine Lives. Should your opponent score a headshot on an open double against you than you would lose two lives.

Depending on the weapon used there may be hand parries, sword grasping or checking, arm checking, or light grappling with the off hand or disarms. Your venue will also impact this choice.

The logistics team need to keep track of the duration of each bout.

An important way to avoid missed time is to have the logistics team declare who is next and who is on deck. I recently was at a non-HEMA tournament and they didn’t do this which slowed down the flow.

Judging and Directing a bout is meant to follow a minimalist structure given the size of the tournament and the unlikelihood that you as a Director of the event have a deep pool of quality judges. I recommend reading Martin Fabian’s article 2 is more than 4.

As a consequence and since I liked the way the Five Rings tournament worked in KC a single Director and an assistant Judge is what I’d recommend with the both needing to rove to follow the fighters. The Director has the final decision and is advised by the Judge who can see the other side of the fighters. This makes it fast and counters the tendency of distributed responsibility when there are more bystanders. You WILL get errors but as long as everyone understands reality and that we’re having fun it should go smoothly barring colossal egos as commented on by this quote by Vadi below.

“If the tongue could cut with reasons,

And strike as does the sword,

The dead would be infinite.” -Vadi

The first round is Curiosity killed the Cat with 4 fighters in each pool (assuming 16 total). This introduction pool has random seeding and is designed to filter the fighters to fighting more evenly matched opponents in the next pool.

Performance in this round is based on the number of wins with ties decided by the number of lives left and after that number of lives taken and if that isn’t enough then the difference between touches scored by and scores against.

The second round is the Tiger on the Hill. With 16 fighters each fighter will fight people who fought in a different pool prior and had the same ranking. So the winners of each pool in the first round fight against each other and the second place fighters of each pool fight against the other second place fighters and so on.

This works very well with 16 fighters and pools of 4 but can easily work with pools of 5 and 25 fighters or pools of 3 and 9 fighters for a club event. The general idea can be applied to imperfect numbers of fighters with some maneuvering. The more or fewer bouts the more the chance of losing all nine lives will change.

At this point, any fighters who have lost all Nine lives are dead…or are they? Thus, begins the …But Satisfaction brought them back as Zombies round of duels.

“Sometimes you will find yourself

Being like a spent light,

Do not doubt that you will soon return.” -Vadi

At this time the fighters who survived with at least one life left get a chance to rest and take a break while also giving the Director time to tabulate any necessary data which is a lot easier if using Sean Franklin’s Hema Scorecard.

In the zombie round, you fight until you lose a bout or someone scores a headshot on you. Fighters are paired based on when they lost their ninth life with the earliest zombies fighting each other first so if you lost your ninth life in your last bout you would have a better chance of winning this round than someone who open doubled headshots five times in their first bout in the first round.

Once the Zombies have slaughtered each other leaving one special Cat in Limbo then the Virtuous Duels begin.

Virtuous Duels

Silver’s Prudent Duel takes the two fighters with a life left who had the least amount of Open Doubles during the pool rounds and allows them to duel for the Lynx in Boots Award with a small gift card to a shoe store.
Giganti’s Audacious Duel takes the two fighters with a life left who had the most kills during the pool rounds with the winner gaining the Lion with a Heart Award.
Ironhead’s Brave Duel takes the fighter who performed third in the pools and still had a life left and the Zombie Cat in Limbo and allows the winner to achieve the Last Elephant Standing Fortitude award.
Fiore’s Celerity Duel takes the two fighters who still have lives left whose bouts took the least amount of total time and allows the winner to gain the Tiger with an Arrow Award. Technically a fighter who lost a lot of quick duels without losing lives could qualify.

The Golden Crown Duel takes the two highest performers in the pools who still have a life left (using the same parameters of the seeding round) and allows them to battle for supremacy with the winner gaining a BK Crown if you have a low budget and a sense of humor.
Vadi’s Noble Duel is between two fighters who still have a life left who didn’t compete in any of the duels who are nominated by the Director/s and/or the other competitors via a method that works for the event. These fighters exhibited the noblest character and/or helped make the event fun for everyone. The winner wins a Sir X plushie with a maille outfit (Cat Souliere makes maille plushies including the Sir Inky she made for my boy and if you continue to the end of the blog you can see their picture).
Saviolo’s Survivors is a possible pool or duel added just in case that is between any fighter who still had a life left and thus didn’t fight in the zombie round but also didn’t qualify for one of the above duels.

As the Director you can decide that a fighter can be in only one duel or can be in as many duels as they qualify for but make that decision before the event.

Keep in mind that how the Director declares Open Doubles vs Closed Doubles or After blows can really change how this tournament goes. How prevalent Open Doubles are could mean that there aren’t very many survivors or that there are few zombies and thus your ability to adapt and use the Saviolo’s Survivors option above can make a big difference.

You might have to change these duels to the highest performer’s alive or not depending on if everyone or most everyone lost all nine lives or the total number of competitors if it is different than 16. Those are things to consider as possible pitfalls. Hopefully, people would try and be very careful given the rule-set encourages that but that may or may not be the case and best to have plans set up before the unusual happens.

Conclusion

A lot of us in the HEMA community love a good excuse to travel and fence with friends in nearby cities or in larger cities against other clubs in the area. This allows us to discover new people with different styles in order to broaden your experience and understanding and also to have fun.

Keep in mind as well as a small local tournament like this can be paired really easily with a seminar or speaker to draw in people who might not be inclined to compete. One of the great benefits of this is maybe those people drawn in for a speaker could be judges or help with logistics. This can be a lifesaver.

However, for a lot of people who are new to HEMA they can feel uncomfortable in competitive environment let alone traveling a long distance with all the issues involved with that. Also, I’ve noticed that some people can be very very serious which can be off-putting to people new to the art or to people with a different point of view or wants.

If we as a community can encourage small local tournaments that draw in people in a few hour range of a tournament then we can ease newer fighters out of their clubs and into the greater community while also having a lower risk to embarrassment or fear of the new or novel. Countering insular attitudes is one of the best benefits of competition against outsiders.

Now that we’re getting close to Halloween I’ve decided to post a modified version of a tournament structure I had worked up a few months ago to be “Halloween-centric” and honor my friend Cat listed above since we are now at the start of October and the idea sounded awesome.

As part of the design I wanted to add a bit of European history and philosophy to the Historical European Martial Arts event by celebrating the virtues and ideas of Fiore de’i Liberi and Philippo di Vadi with awards influenced by my very limited readings of them.

Check out Matt Galas’s IGX Historical Rulesets in HEMA seminar for ideas to run with when making your tournament. I particularly like the idea of getting credit for two hits within a tempo as that makes the fencing more interesting to watch and more martially valid. I did a krumpow in a bout to an opponent’s forearm and a false edge flick to the mask once and there was argument about how to score…with this in play then that doesn’t matter and both touches would score.

Or even take Matt’s advice and run a replica of an old tournament. King of the Hill could be a lot of fun using the nine lives idea especially since open doubles don’t hurt the king which would encourage the challengers to be very careful!

When considering rule-sets for historical fencing it is very important to keep in mind Goodhart’s Law:

goodhart's law

How you decide to measure a fighter’s performance with a rule-set can distort what you’re actually looking to achieve during or in a tournament or competition. Is your goal to find the best competitive fencer in the area and give them extra attention? Or is the goal to have fun and meet new fencers so you can learn from them? What unintended consequences might we create by designing an event in a certain way?

I really like Goodhart’s Law because it also applies to your fencing as a sort of double entendre warning as well.

Matt Easton of Schola Gladiatora recently discussed rulesets focusing on the Afterblow in HEMA. How you decide to handle afterblows will have a big impact on the types of fencing you will see in your tournament.

As a newcomer who started with German longsword and then later Italian rapier sources, I’m just now starting to read earlier Italian and connecting that new knowledge to my older historical research on the Court of Urbino, Sir John Hawkwood, and the Norman-Sicilian-Arab culture.

The four virtues of celerity, boldness, strength, and foresight apply regardless of the art practiced and shouldn’t be forgotten in order to only celebrate winning by beating more people than someone else within the competition rule-set.

At this point, every fighter would have had at least six bouts in the pool rounds and likely at least one more bout either in the Zombie duels or in the Virtuous Duels so they should feel like they got their time and money worth.

After your event hopefully, you’ve shown how people from other clubs could run their own small event for you to come and compete at. As more people get regional practice at tournaments we will see more diversity showing up at the big events or even going international which is to the benefit of the greater HEMA community which like most communities is best served by expanding from the ground up.

This also allows local clubs to snag loners into visiting at least occasionally as a fighter might live a few hours away and not be able to meet often however they might be able to make special events and thus join the regional community. Or even a fighter who is in the SCA, Larp, or into Lightsabers who might for the first time be exposed to HEMA and get hooked with a fun event.

As I mentioned earlier I greatly recommend anyone setting up a new tournament to contact Sean Franklin at HEMA Scorecard for assistance in handling the logistics and record keeping as that tool relieves a huge burden on event organizers.

Depending on your area and how many people might come to fight you might plan on anywhere from 8 to 20 fighters using my basic structure with little difficulty. For more or less you can easily adapt it or use it just between club mates as just a local event.

When making a tournament there are a lot of things to consider such as how you decide to handle judging to what equipment is required and how the event is scored.

One of the most important is to decide what weapons are allowed. Longsword is the biggest in most communities so that is usually the obvious choice for a first-time event maker though you might get a passionate response if you pick a less popular weapon from aficionados of that weapon.

If you’re going to have an event you should plan on arranging extra weapons for people who don’t have their own steel or synthetics. This can be expensive and a big step for a new club.

An option rarely considered is to have a mixed weapon competition and if the community is small and not well developed a Director can pick up a range of synthetic trainers at inexpensive prices for people to try out at Purpleheart Armoury.

If you’re looking to buy equipment for you or your club then check out my blogs listed at the end of the article dealing with buying gear and tournaments.

You can also decide to have more than one event with different weapons. This may be the biggest decision as the more events at the tournament the more complexity in running it but the more events the more likely you will get someone who is interested to come.

Next, you have to find a good place to fight and if outside keep in mind the weather as a factor and have a backup plan for the event if the primary place fails. In October for Halloween if the weather is mild that can help with overheating while wearing gear.

Equipment requirements are pretty easy to set up because you can borrow from one of many tournament pages. I do recommend shin protection which hasn’t been a requirement for Combatcon in the past several years even for their Longsword event which just makes my shins hurt thinking about that.

(Shin and forearm protection are not essential but recommended.) – Combatcon Longsword Tournament Rules for 2018.

Forearm protection should be considered depending on the protection level of your jacket and the weapons used. Remember longsword is the biggest weapon used in HEMA today but it also has the highest requirements for safety.

I have a Gajardoni Challenge Jacket which is very protective and took a few mostly painless bruises doing longsword without my arm protection at the KC Five Rings tournament but for the Cornhusker State Games, I used my arm protection knowing that there would be fighters hitting with more force there and I believe that event required forearm protection.

Gorget requirements are another thing to consider. Some tournaments require a solid metal or plastic/Kydex part to the front of the gorget. Some do not. My jacket has a built-in gorget without rigid or solid parts which would qualify for some tournaments but not others so I have a lightweight “roughneck” gorget from Destroyer Modz to satisfy the rigid/solid requirement.

Another idea besides inexpensive synthetic trainers is to have a singlestick tournament. This has a very low barrier to entry from the weapon to the gear required. Buy a bunch of cheap fencing masks and gloves with some elbow and knee protection and you’re set. People can do singlestick with just a sweater on if you’ve got the head, throat, elbows, and knees covered.

If you look below you’ll see links for general info on how most tournaments handle equipment, where to buy your gear, and what is preferred or allowed.

You also have to decide whether you have any grappling or parrying of the blade with your hand or blade grasping. Only have takedowns if you’re fighting in a gym with padded floors and be really cautious about even that especially if your fighters are primarily people new to competing or new to HEMA.

Hope you enjoyed this post and if you would like to read more of my thoughts please check out these other posts on HEMA I’ve written below.

A Novice’s Guide to HEMA: Websites to Buy Swords and Equipment

A Novice’s Guide to HEMA: Tournaments

A Novice’s Guide to HEMA: Historical European Martial Arts

A Novice’s Guide to HEMA: One Year Anniversary Update Post on Historical European Martial Arts

A Novice’s Guide to HEMA: Novel Exercises and Solo Drills for Historical European Martial Arts

A Novice’s Guide to HEMA: My HEMA Loadout and Wishlist

A Novice’s Guide to HEMA: Cat’s Nine Lives Halloween Tournament

Here is Sir Inky (made by Cat Souliere) with my son at the Bellevue Berry Farm Renfaire.

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And this is me throwing my sword at my horde of critics and running. This plate is from the same article mentioned at the top of the article.

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