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Ouch, My Hand: Newbie Combat from a Veteran's Perspective
[02/21/2007] [Glen]

I've recently completed a three and a half month convalescence that gave me a new perspective on newbie combat. I tore a muscle in my primary hand, which left me incapable of gripping anything strongly or of dealing any sort of percussive blow without disabling pain (and, worse, risk of further damage). In short, I could not use my primary hand to swing a weapon or hold a shield. This didn't keep me out of combat because there was no danger to my hand if it was struck, but it did keep me from using it.

This started me out again as a newbie to a large degree. My off-hand was, at best, retarded. I generally avoid Florentine, as the way I use that style puts undue stress on my back, which has it's own past injury to contend with. Armed with my single sword and my retarded hand, I bravely stepped onto the ditch field.

I got owned. Most people apparently didn't realize I was joking when I said, "Brennon told me that your free hand is for punching people in the kidneys in single sword", so no one just rushed me and killed me like a total newbie, but even with a more cautious ranged game I lost far more often than I won. This is not a situation I'm used to, and I found it quite frustrating. Losing sucks.

I lacked the coordination and hand-speed to throw feints that weren't as obvious as an offer to buy the Brooklyn Bridge. If I faked high, I could pretty much count on being hit before I could follow-up on the fake and no one was falling for the fakes anyway: too obvious. I'd lost a lot of the ability to make my opponent do what I wanted. Too often, I wasn't in control: they were.

Shields were also a nightmare. I did not have to skill with my off-hand to throw a wrap shot. Without wrap shots and fakes, shields became my nemesis. Shields ARE much harder to fight if you have little to middling skill. It is only at the middle to high end of the game that it ceases to matter whether the opponent has a shield or two weapons. With my retarded hand, I found I'd much rather face a florentiner, whereas in the past I really didn't care, or, if pressed, I'd have said I had a slight feeling that shield men were easier to kill. A shield just provides way too much defense until you learn to wrap shots around it, feint it out of the way, and use footwork to move yourself around it. I now understand why newbies have always groaned when people pick up shields but just shrug when people get a second sword.

Probably the most newbie-esque experience was at New Year's. My hand still hadn't recovered, so here I was, visiting friends in Texas, fighting off-hand single-sword with a loaned weapon. Who was ditching? Brennon, Lief, Arthon, Clalibus, Dalos, Sponge, Drakknar, Blaise, Lily, and the one local who had the stamina to ditch with the visiting horde all day. As the only person fighting single sword, let us say I was not the winner of the ditch.

It is not fair to say I got a complete refresher in the newbie experience. I still understood the mechanics of how combat works and I still had basic footwork and range skills. I knew what shots I wanted to throw; I just lacked the motor skill to throw them. However, I still shared many common newbie traits: ineffectiveness in combat, a fairly broad lack of martial skill, the inability to react proactively to being wounded (losing an arm meant taking a death), an unreasonable subconscious expectation of victory, and the difficulties of facing people both better equipped and better able to exploit that equipment.

Having experienced all of that, I am no longer surprised newbies leave: I'm surprised they stay at any park with established, competent fighters. Sure, there will always be a minority of born competitors who are driven to succeed and thrive on adversity, but for most of them? Losing sucks. Everyone wants their shot at being the Big Fish, the Hero, the Main Character. Yet with the skill-based nature of Amtgard combat, that is unlikely for most. Most never rise further than "middling", which means there will be a whole other level of "good" fighters who slaughter them endlessly. Even if they kill one or two people, around the corner comes a "good" fighter to roll over them. They didn't just win, they just lost less. God help them if they also have "great" fighters at their park. Becoming "great" takes practice and dedication, and most players don't want to put that much into a hobby.

Succinctly put: newbies don't get to win at combat. They very rarely get to make a difference in a battle game as a fighter. They have distinct problems fighting against weapon styles, as well as against player skills. They don't even get to die gloriously or heroically, but instead get to die quickly and frequently. If they have an ounce of common sense, they don't even get to put on airs or issue bravely spoken statements. It's just embarrassing to say, "You may not pass while I live" if you know the other guy will just shrug and stab you as he runs past, without even slowing down.

This is a problem for Amtgard. Newbies need a way to feel as if they are having an effect. They need a chance to feel heroic, a chance to be the one who turns the course of the battle game, a chance to win. The solution is not to have the better fighters sit out a game or to rail against those who have made an effort to excel in the hobby they enjoy. The solution is to play games that even the playing field.

Play a game where there are paths to victory that do not require killing all who oppose you. Ring the Bell is just one example of such a game. Anyone, regardless of skill, can "ring the bell". Moreover, usually the top fighters are preoccupied with slaying everyone in reach, which enables those on their team who aren't as combat effective to race in and score the point.

Play a game that gives weaker fighters a bonus that better fighters do not get. "Work off the Warriors" from the Iron Mountains is an example of this type of game. The more orders of the warrior you have, the more killing you have to do to "win."

Play a game where the better fighters voluntarily accept a handicap that other players don't take. We have played battle games in our park where the best fighters all went out single short-sword, while everyone else went out with their normal gear. The dynamic of who controlled the course of the battle game was different, and people who normally don't make a great impact on a game were suddenly important.

Play a game where everyone fights single short sword. It is much easier for a newbie to get lucky against a decent fighter with a single short sword than against the same guy with a long sword and shield, especially with shot-in-motion rules.

Amtgard combat is very difficult for newbies: shots are blindingly fast, newbies have a small shot selection, they have trouble with basic equipment combinations, and they lose a great deal. Despite this, they rarely aspire to be supporting characters but rightfully think of themselves as heroes in their own right. In order to keep these heroes around, we need to provide an atmosphere where they can be heroic and important instead of faceless chaff. This does not require that the better fighters throw fights or stop striving to win. Newbies can be made important and given a sense of usefulness by choosing to play some battle games where martial prowess is not the key arbiter of victory and battle games where the prestige of being a top fighter is highlighted by an extra hurdle to overcome or by giving a benefit to those who are not so elite. The fighting may be difficult for the newbies, but that does not mean they can not win the battle games.

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