A tested, working solution for the NeverEnding Problem of Afterblows and Doubles
Updated: Jul 25
"Never give up, and good luck will find you" -Falkor, NeverEnding Story
It's been a fairly long time since I first started dealing with competition rulesets and how they can be improved. In my club, we've been organizing tournaments for around ten years now, starting with fun competitions between clubmates and always growing, going through five years of organizing the AICS National Tournament (the head HEMA event of our sports insurance body) and constantly experimenting, until last year I felt the rules (in the iprovement of which I had become ever more personally involved during the years) were mature enough to have their core concepts set in stone, and innovative enough to be worth creating a whole circuit wherein to test them with other judges and a wider array of fencers, in order to verify how the ruleset would behave outside of my direct control.
This involved the necessity of transforming the ruleset into a "barebone" set of rules instead (which can be partly or entirely borrowed by other events), where it's mostly the borrowed rule that adapts to the rest of the ruleset and not vice versa.
This is the first instance of a series of rules I will be releasing for anyone interested in trying them out and adding them to their events, in order to improve specific situations or counter specific problems.
The origins of "the problem".
It's likely that the most serious problem in modern competitive HEMA is that the intention to not be hit is very difficult to reward, compared to the intention of hitting, in a sport that is fundammentally based on fencers hitting each other. Double hits universally represent both fencers failing at doing the most important thing (i.e. saving their own lives), while afterblows of any sort were originally designed to reduce the tendency of sucidally striking first, itself generated by the "stop at first touch" rulesets which are the most common in HEMA.
The true origin of this all though lies in the problem of "ruleset artifacts", so when the outcomes of a rule directly generate an unwanted result (an artifact) that then has to be dealt with, usually with another rule. But what if that second rule generates onother artifact? The cycle can potentially never end, so that the original problem ends up requiring a potentially infinite series of rules to correct both itself and the artifacts generated by the corrective rules.
The original problem in this case is the lack of sharp edges and our need to decide when to stop the fight in absence of physical damage forcing the interruption.
Regardless of the specific ruleset, the universal solution we apply in HEMA, or actually in any form of fencing, is that the Judging staff stops the fight when a relevant hit is landed (may it be the first one or a decisive one depending or the ruleset itself, but this is irrelevant).
This produces the first and most important artifact: the goal of the fight becomes that of hitting the opponent in a decisive manner to stop the fight (most times it being "hit first").
To take care of this artifact, a lot of subsequent rules have been designed over time, such as full afterblows, deductive afterblows, etc. What all stop-and-afterblow systems have in common though is that they produce another artifact: suicidal fencing. Since it is possible to "even the situation up" by striking back at the opponent, these rulesets make it far less important to not be hit, as much as it is important (again) to hit your opponents during the exchange. So, while this actaully removes the problem of being the first to make a decisive hit (or any hit most times) as an absolute goal, it creates the problem of hitting at all costs.
Then other rules have been designed, such as a maximum number of doubles or afterblows allowed per fight or per tournament, but all these measeures end up producing further artifacts such as fencers "keeping track" of how many double deaths they have left compared to their opponent, or how convenient it is for them to risk an afterblow compared to trying for a clean hit, or even to suffer a strike in order to afterblow and seize a vicotry by an artifact!
But how then are we to solve the issue of making people value not being hit more than hitting, especially without completely rewriting the maority of the rulesets in the world, without just relying on "club culture" and "correctness"? Those are all beautuful things, but they are prone to anyone just abusing of the rules and not caring for their fellow fencers. As the co-organizer of multiple events a year, I needed a solution.
Preventing suicidal fencing, "seeking doubles", etc.? Yes we can!
I have deisgned a rule, quite easy to apply, that completely eliminates this specific problem. We have already tested it in national and international events, and it worked a breeze, sensibly reducing the amount of double deaths. By "sensibly", I mean the total number of double deaths (either afterblows or doubles), in over five hundred bouts during two days and four competitions at HEMAICS Bononia in October 2018, was under a dozen.
If your ruleset is not already like this, you will need to make a couple of minor adjustments:
Bouts must be limited by points, not by time, as the main limiting factor. This means the standard end of a bout must be "X points are reached" as opposed to "X time is reached". This is not a major shift in any way for your ruleset, but it's a necessary step to remove the discrepancy in scored points between super-aggressive fencers and more cautious ones, which presently advantages repeatedly scoring at the risk of being hit back since "more is better than less" as long as the fencer manages to lead by at least one point over the opponent, making "seeking a double" a sensible strategy once in advantage. I know there are some "X doubles and you are out" rules, but generally these end up punishing as many innocents "suffering" someone just trying to double them as they punish serial doublers. I have personally seen people trying to double someone to kick them out of the competition because they had one more double hit "left" than them. It just doesn't work, and it creates artifacts. So, you will absolutely need to make bouts limited by a maximum score, in order to make the rest of this system work.
It is recommended to choose a low "points goal", such as 3, and eventually make a fight of multiple bouts, rather than a single 10-points bout, but this is not "necessary"; it will just improve the fencing quility by reducing the ability of a fencer to "make up" for mistakes and risks taken, or for having been struck on high-value targets, and multiple bounts per fight (we do 3) will also allow the use of some other rules of mine to be published in the future. But again, not mandatory. Each fight can be even just one large 10-points bout or whatever.
A time limit must exist, so that if neither of the fencers has reached the points goal by then, they BOTH lose by maximum points. This will have to be a large time limit, with the only goal of not letting fencers just "not fight", since the way this system works will dissuade them both from risking being hit to the point that the best way to win would be staying at their corners. Consequantly, you have to force them to fight by making a non-fighting result into a blood bath for both oh them. Remember, fencers are not expected to reach the time limit, it's just a tool to punish those who try to game the rules by not fighting.
At least the first round of the tournament must be arranged in pools of more than three fencers. The more fencers per pool, the more efficient the system. I personally use 5/6 fencers pools, which is ideal for the statistical effects of the system. Depending on the event's scale, smaller or larger pools may be better in terms of time efficiency, as larger pools mean more fights. So, as a general rule, this system does not work for events that do not have an initial pools phase (which is a rare thing).
The Rule itself
Pool winners are not decided by direct confrontation (such as: "X" won this fight and lost that other one) but based on their overall performance in SUFFERED POINTS across their pool. This is the total amount of points scored against them during their whole pool's fights.
NOTE: This is NOT mathematically the same of inverting the chart result of "points scored". The big differnece is in fact that every single bout will have at least one of the two fencers score maximum points (since fights end at X points), but what really counts is what the opponent has done: if they "double" or score an afterblow, they will both go UP in a traditional chart that counts most points scored, but DOWN in a chart that counts the fewest points suffered. Consequently with this system, which is technically (and not mathematically) opposed to that of calculating total points scored, you have double hits punishing the fencers a lot, with each double counting as a full loss instead of a full victory for both. Yet the pool-total calculation will punish serial double-hitters very hard, while their collateral effects on fencers not trying to double will be spread more evenly.
Fencers moving on to the next phase (either another pools round or elims) will then be those who have had the fewest points scored against them overall in their pool (this can be the first X of a pool of Y fencers, not necessarily only the first one of each pool), and the fencers more likely to do double hits will likely have been filtered out of the competition!
Extra BONUS nr1: Simplification of afterblows and doubles. Deductive afterblows are useless in this system, as well as any other special afterblow type. Valid afterblows will just score fully. You hit me in the head, I hit you in the head? That's 3-3 (as an example), no matter who hit first. This score calculation system will already punish us both instread of rewarding us, since we will both go 3 points down compared to the other members of the pool. You hit my head, I hit your arm? 3-1 end of bout. The final calculation will have me lose three points and you only lose one: you win from this exchange, I lose compared to tyou and to evey other member of the pool. Moreover, Doubles and valid Afterblows will score exactly the same way, making it far easier for judges to assign points in case of very close-timed afterblows: in the end, afterblow and double will score the same, so it's not really important if it was simultaneous or not!
Extra BONUS nr2: Afterblow negation still works, if you were using it. You hit my head, I hit your arm. The Judge says the arm hit is negated by the preceding head strike. I lose 3 points, you lose zero. So I go down the pool's chart three points, while you stay unmoved. There's not many people actually using the afterblow negation rule, but it is compatible with this system (and we use it).
All in all, what you need is just an event that runs an initial pools phase, where matches are "up to X points", with a time limit that easily allows to reach that amount of points unless the fencers are constantly actively avoiding the fight. With these prerequisites, which are very easy to obtain even for events that usued to have matches based on reaching maximum time, you just have to make pool winners be the fencers who have been scored the fewest points against OVERALL IN THEIR OWN POOL with fully scoring afterblows, instead of looking at "matches won/lost" or any other system. In case of any draw, then move to the difference in points landed between the ones at a draw, or to matches won/lost, or to the direct confrontation result, or have them do a match to decide... it's absolutley irrelevan, because the fencers at a draw will in any case be the ones who suffered the fewest points. You cna still decide how many points any location is worth, how many total points per fight, how many minutes of fighting, grappling rules, pushing, takedowns, round robin, double round robin, pool seeding... fundamentally everything apart form the fact the fight must end at the reaching of X points, there msut be a (long) time limit that triggers double defeat, and the pool winner is calculated as above with fully scoring afterblows.
For the phases after the first pools round, you can have more pools like these (as I do), traditional direct eliminations where the "serial doublers" have already been filtered out, or any other system you prefer.
Special thanks to Jonathan Burke for the quick round of proofreading and editing.