Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Becoming a Badass at LARP Combat: How To Fight Like Captain Sydney

A while ago, I interviewed a number of players at a LARP called Dystopia Rising. I asked them how they got so good at beating people up with foam weapons. I got some great advice, so now I've started formatting and compiling the interviews so that I can post them here and share it all.

To clarify for anyone unfamiliar: Dystopia Rising is a boffer combat game that uses a lightest-touch system. The term 'boffer combat' means we use large foam or latex weapons to hit each other. We never thrust, only hit each other with long sides of the weapons. 'Lightest-touch system' means that we hit with the intent of making the target aware that they have been struck, but not causing pain.

An example of combat. The hammer, knife and the sticks with nails in them are all made of latex and they're actually quite soft.

These differences make the skill set required to excel at boffer combat subtly different from many other forms of combat training. You have to focus both on defeating your opponent, and keeping her safe.

When trying to figure out the best way to train for boffer combat, it only makes sense to start by speaking with Laura Wallace, known in game as Captain Sydney of Delta-Orleans Company.

Captain Sydney, staring off into the distance at something she's probably about to beat up.

Laura not only fights amazingly well, but trains other people to fight in game and helps lead a very successful mercenary company. In addition to years of in-game experience, Laura also has real life credentials: she was on her school's fencing team all through college and has studied German medieval longsword, 14th century style, for about five years.

Here's her take on combat.

Abigail: In your training experience, what are the biggest mistakes novices make when learning to fight?

Laura: Only fighting at game. You can't get good at it if you only pick up a weapon once every four to six weeks. You don't need to fight all the time, but just hold it in your hand. Practice your stance by the mirror. Hit a couch. Sparring with others is even better, but any between-game activity will help you get and keep your ability.

Another problem is trying to learn at full speed. When you're first learning something new, you need to break it down SLOWLY and do it over and over, and THEN bring it up to speed. If you learn something fast and sloppy, you'll do it fast and sloppy and you'll get hit more than you should.

Ignoring footwork. Fighting in a straight line is an easy habit to get into, especially if you've fenced, done theatrical combat, or watched too many movies, but there's nothing like lateral movement to mix up a fight and make you hard to hit. But because it's not what we're used to seeing and doing, it takes more practice.

This last issue is more global than just for fighting, but not getting acclimated to the weather or doing any exercise between games is a mistake. If it's mid-summer and sweltering and you haven't been out of the AC since last game, you're going to be miserable and your fighting is going to suffer. Spend some time outside every day so you're used to what game throws at you and can fight in a variety of conditions.

Abigail: What are the biggest wastes of time?

Laura: Full speed sparring when you've never picked up a weapon before. Starting a little slow really does help. We all want to be fast. That's what we're used to seeing. But if you rush into doing things fast before you do them well, you'll tire yourself out and get hit a LOT. Ask Heather about the awful sword arm defense drill sometime.

Obsessing over how you look or what other people think of your fighting is another waste of time. I can't tell you how many people say they don't want to practice because they might do badly or look silly. We ALL do badly and look silly at some point. That's how you get better. I very intentionally fight against people who are taller, faster, stronger, better, or use a different style than mine whenever I can so that I'm forced to learn something new. I often look awful in the process. But I get better, and then I look awful less often.

Abigail: What would you say are your key principles for performing well in combat? What do you do that lets you do well?

Laura: Footwork is your friend. Getting tangled up in your own feet is a recipe for eating dirt and getting hit. Similarly, fighting in a straight line is predictable. Compass paces, moving, circling, all of these help.

Know who your allies are. Know *where* your allies are. Get to know how they fight, and learn to trust each other to group up in such a way that you can help each other defend.

Practice doing things RIGHT, and do it more than just at game. I do drills against my poor, beaten-up couch with some regularity so that I can practice footwork, targeting, and awareness of how hard I'm hitting. It's great to practice with people, but even just a little drill on your own makes a difference.

Communicate. And then communicate some more. This goes along with #2. One of the reasons DOC survives as well as it does is because we drill together, know some basic signals, and communicate in fights, so we don't end up scattered, flanked, and ganged up on quite as much as people who communicate less

Have a stance that protects you as much as possible. If you're standing facing someone directly, with no weapon or shield in the way, you will get hit. A lot.


Abigail: Can you describe the content of your couch drills? Or other drills you might recommend for home-bound zed fighters?

Laura: Here are four.

1. Stance. Stand in fighting stance near a mirror, turned-off-TV or other reflective surface. If you usually fight with two weapons, or weapon and shield, stand that way. Also stand with just one, because weapons get broken. Look at yourself. What parts of your body can you see that aren't covered by weapon or shield. Those are parts that someone can hit. Adjust your stance until you're presenting the minimum possible target. Relax. Do it again until it's natural to go into a good stance every time.

2. Footwork drills. From your stance, practice moving forward and back, keeping your feet far enough apart that you don't trip over them. Keep your knees bent. Lunge. Compass pace around so you're hitting from a different angle. Repeat.

3. Drill in 4-- There are two high strokes (from the right and from the left) and two low. Throw series of 1, 2, and 3 shots in a row, each targeting a different quadrant. Pretend the couch is your opponent. Hit it high on the right, low on the left, then high on the right again. Alternate. Toss in some footwork, moving in to strike and then back out so you don't get hit, keeping your guard up while you move. Be sure you're practicing hitting at a lightest-touch-appropriate strength level.
Show that couch who's boss.

Abigail: Can you talk a bit about how you generally fight? What weapon you use? How you hold it? Where you put your feet?

Laura: At DR I usually fight sword and shield. I use a latex standard weapon, a couple inches under max length. Max is all well and good, but only if it feels right and you have good control. I'd rather have a slightly shorter, lighter weapon I have good control over than a longer, but heavier or tip-heavy one. But that's a personal preference, driven in part by the fact that I'm shorter than a lot of fighters.

I hold my blade in my right hand, loosely (no death grip-- it makes you slow!) with my thumb against the pommel. That gives me good control over the point, which allows for a lot better targeting.

My shield is strapped to my left arm, with a hand grip that is mostly for subtlety of movement-- that thing isn't coming off unless I want it to. And that's the point.
I fight left foot (shield side) forward, toes pointed forward. Right foot is at a 45 degree angle to that, about shoulder width apart, knees bent (allows you to move quickly in a lot of directions and not get unbalanced). You give up a little reach with the blade that way, but the shield offers very nice protection so you can move in and make up for it.

If I'm fighting 1-handed, that's all pretty much reversed. Blade in right hand, right foot forward (toes forward), left at a 45 degree angle, about shoulder-width back. Knees still bent. Great reach that way, and if your stance is good, it allows good mobility but doesn't present tons of target.

My fighting style at DR (as my PC) tends to be on the defensive side because I'm a shield fighter. Rather than rushing in, I'll wait for people to come to me, and then hit whatever part of them that they're exposing while they attack, then try for a couple more for good measure before I regain a little distance. If I'm fighting single-weapon, I fight more aggressively. But I almost always play a distance game-- in, hit, get back out, repeat.

It's about giving them less to help, while keeping yourself as mobile as possible so you can hit them.

Abigail: Who are the best teachers at game?

Laura: Stew. Dross. Dross's unarmed fighting lessons are a joy to watch. Antigone. Jerome.

Abigail: If you had four weeks to train me to fight in some sort of DR gladiatorial combat tournament, and had ten thousand dollars bet on my winning, what would the training look like?
1. CARDIO. Your butt would be at the gym most days. Endurance is a huge edge at DR.
2. Acclimation. We'd go for a hike morning and night, regardless of the weather, so that you'd be ready for the fight whatever happened.
3. Structured drills for most of the training time, with sparring at the end, that we would then critique.
3a. Drills would include strikes to the 4 quadrants I mentioned earlier, called by me, strike/block/strike combinations, etc. There would also be footwork drill and distance drill. My favorite of the latter (that also requires you to practice good footwork) is where you take a rope, and each person holds an end. One person is in 'control' and moves around. The second person has to follow. The goal is to keep the rope tight, not slack, but not to let it get so tight that you lose your grip, thus maintaining appropriate distance.
4. Combat against different types of weapons and against people who are right and left handed.
5. Drills vs. shield, and all the sneaky tricks for beating a shield fighter.
6. Sparring against people of different heights, styles and skill levels so you learn to adapt.
7. Sparring against multiple opponents at once.

There are a lot of fights at DR that can be won just by outlasting your opponent(s), especially when folks are tired and the weather is crap. I'm not as fast as an 18-year-old. I don't have the energy to bounce around like they do and shrug off a night with no sleep. But I exercise and I practice so that I have an edge on at least some of them in terms of ability to target my strikes to hit, and endurance to fight a long fight without getting sloppy from exhaustion.

Abigail: Quick clarification question: in the quadrant drill, when you say strike/block/strike combinations, would the trainee be facing the couch, miming blocking, or facing you, with you calling your strikes in advance?

Laura: In an ideal training situation, it would be me vs. the other person, both armed. I would be calling strikes using numbers (1 is upper left, 2 upper right, 3 lower left, 4 lower right) and either blocking or letting them hit (so people can get used to what hitting another person feels like, which seems to take some getting used to).

An alternate is for me to call which quadrant I'm going to strike TO, so they can practice blocking.

Calling in advance lets you focus on form and doing it right, rather than trying to be clever to sneak something in (like in sparring).

Both are important, but drill helps you learn good form, so you don't get hit because you're leaving part of you wide open.

Abigail: How much does your past experience with fencing help you with the lightest touch system? Other people with formal training have expressed frustration with how little of it applied.

Laura: Footwork applies. Awareness of distance and targeting applies. Parries absolutely apply. A lot of the striking doesn't necessarily translate, but all of the stuff that supports it most definitely does. Most of combat isn't actually about hitting the other fellow. That's the end result of a long chain of other supportive things. And that's ignoring all the aspects of combat that are about not getting hit by the other fellow.

Monday, August 4, 2014


I am terribly fond of Snorkle the potbellied Nosferatu.

She has been the subject of a number of doodles.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Pot Bellied Aliens

Okay. Pick up artist training is formally on pause until after Christmas. December is just too busy.

In the interim, I made some doodles that I will post here. Here is the first: