As part of a discussion the other day some asked what would I remove from SCA combat to make it ‘better’.
Better is a very subjective idea. A lot of it depends on what it is you are trying to do. Some people will describe SCA combat as an attempt to recreate knightly tournament combat, others will say that it is live action roleplaying with a lot more bruises.
So here is an attempt to have a think about how SCA combat rules effect what it is and how it works and what may not work.
SCA combat has evolved over 50 years mostly by trial and error. It started as an attempt to stage armoured combat of the middle ages. When they started they did not have access to armour, equipment or any understanding of what historical European martial arts looked like. Indeed I suspect that no one had herd of Fiore or Talhoffer at this point.
What then evolved was a rule system that allowed people to put on various levels of armour and go out and have competitions, massed combat and other things. It is a rule set that allows a reasonably simple level of entry. The equipment requirements are also very accessible. The SCA has certainly grown but is not the only game in town. It now exists along with HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts), HMB (aka Battle of Nations), Metal Weapons, LARP, Jugger and probably stuff I have not yet heard of.
So to create a system in order to replicate combat we introduce rules to make sure people do not get badly injured. This is where we start to get compromises in EVERY system. Even MMA has rules of what you can and cannot do, there is a list of attacks that are not allowed. HMB does not allow thrusts and side strikes to the knees etc.
The more rules to put in place to minimise the risks the further you move from anything approximating a real duel or contest.
An extreme example of this would be some LARP games. No protective gear is needed (apart from eyes) and the weapons are very light and padded and you cannot strike the head. Having some armour gives you extra ‘hits’, all you need to do to score is touch your opponent with a weapon. LARP combat is a matter of just tapping your opponent multiple times, there is no need to take weapon type into account. This all leads to fights that have people leaping about, flailing madly in all sorts of weird ways. Yes this is a lot of crazy fun, a even passable facsimile of historical combat, no. (To be fair, LARP players are under no belief what they are doing is in anyway realistic.)
So what about SCA combat? Let’s look at some of the compromises.
No hand to hand. SCA rules do not allow the very wide range of kicks, punches, elbows, take downs, leg sweeps etc that are an intrinsic part of fighting. Looking at many of the fechtbooks I would argue that many armoured fights would end up with some level of take down or ground fighting.
Taking out hand to hand stuff means we lose a very important component of any martial system. It also means that combatants can stand toe to toe and slug it out with no fear of a kick or disarm. Watch any great weapon duel where the two combatants get in close and you can see how odd this can be. It also means that being able to step and move are not as important as they would be historically.
Effects of weapons. SCA combat has an ‘assumed armour’ standard. It is basically mail body armour and nasal helm. Sort of 10-12th century. It also assumes that a single strike from handed sword can put someone in this armour down. I am not totally convinced this is the case. There are plenty of literary examples of knights trading blows to little or no effect. Yes there are also some examples of people being cut in two from a single blow, but I would argue this is grand story telling. I would also refer to a lot of test cutting people have done with weapons trying to cause damage to something (poor pig carcasses) covered in padding and mail. Armour works. Watching the HMB people is also interesting. Ok their gear is mostly 14th century (a lot more plate) and the weapons are blunted. But you can see that repeated strikes with even two handed axes does little to slow down an armoured man. So the SCA rules makes single handed weapons way more effective than they probably are.
Armour. The SCA has a minimum set of armour standards. It is for protection against rattan sticks. It is in no way encouraging historical armour. You are able to get away with a helm, some basic covering of the joints and that is about it. This means that SCA combatants (and yes I am one of these) can largely compete in what is effectively no armour. No weight of gear restricting your movement or slowing you down. The SCA likes to think of itself as a game of armoured combat, yet many of it’s top competitors can go onto the field with little armour at all.
Target areas. In the SCA you cannot strike below the knee and the hands are basically invulnerable. The no below the knee thing means that graves are not a requirement (see note above) and also means that low leg sweeps with pole weapons are not going to happen. The invulnerable hand thing, alongside the almost universal use of protective basket hilts (not at all a medieval item) means that weapon blocking is common place. The targeting of the hands was a common technique in many of the historical texts. Indeed in many manuals the main purpose of the buckler was to prevent the hands from being struck. Again these things mean that staying in measure and trying to block attacks with your weapon is a viable tactic, after all, your hand will not get ‘hit’.
Limb hits. Ok getting hit in the leg and then being able to fight on while kneeling and being able to change arms if your arm is hit. I am sure we do not have to talk about this one.
Indestructible super light shields. SCA shields are basically Indestructible. That two handed axe, well you can keep statically blocking that all day long…Historically shields broke. Weapons could get stuck in them. Shields were made to be reasonably light and manoeuvrable but this also meant that they could be smashed. The commonality of the big aluminium SCA means you can wave around a big blocking thing that weighs little and is never going to break. Again this feeds into the primacy of SCA combatants standing toe to toe trying to score a hit around a big ultra light shield.
Judging of hits. The SCA rules stipulate that the person getting hit calls the effect of the strike. The obvious problem here is that it is very easy to cheat the system. This system also leads to very inconsistent levels of what can be judged a scoring hit. One persons kill may be someone else’s ‘not good’. What looks good from the sidelines may have been a very glancing strike. I could also mention edges here but I have ranted about that previously. Also the level of ‘power’ that is needed to score is totally arbitrary; it varies from group to group and changes over time. So it is no wonder that this is the main area were disagreements and conflict arise.
So going through this list it is obvious that the SCA does a poor job of recreating medieval armoured combat. I think it can be a fun game and lots of people enjoy running around trying to hit other people. However I think it is important to understand what it is and what it is not. A fun game that can be played with a minimal of gear and training? Yes. A reasonable facsimile of historical combat? Absolutely not.