The State of the Art

Diversifying Tournament Rule Sets

Every rule set I have observed or created incentivizes at least one suicidal behavior on the part of the attacker or the defender.  I sometimes wonder if the issue runs deeper, to the very nature of armed conflict.  A certain capacity to accept risk comes with the choice to fight, one might call it bravery.  In any case, every rule set I’ve seen proved itself inaccurate, prone to misunderstanding, and incentivized behaviors that most ancient masters warned against.

Winning and losing according to artificial standards, no matter how well conceived, won’t perfectly simulate combat.  The psychology alone, and the lack of real danger, creates an abstraction at least as big as any inaccuracy in the rule set.  Even the very concept of guaranteeing a winner presents a problem.  In a real fight there are many possible results.  One can win or lose cleanly where the loser does not harm the winner at all.  One can, win after tiring considerably, or after receiving a wound.  Both combatants might become injured enough to cease being able to fight, or they might both suffer maiming injuries.  Both might die.  Both might retreat. One might be wounded, but retain the capacity to fight on in a battlefield scenario, or at least retire from the active fighting under their own power.  Competitions fail to simulate such diverse outcomes.  Several of the possible scenarios have no ‘winner.’ 

Tournaments, however, have declaring a winner as one of their chief purposes.  It’s very difficult to use a tournament as either a test of one’s skills, or to spread the enjoyment of the art, not to mention glorifying athletic and martial achievements, without declaring a winner.  Moreover, we cannot really follow historical precedent without declaring a winner.  Tournaments benefit the community by drawing attention, generating publicity, and bringing us together in friendly competition. Naming winners forms a central part of that purpose.

I believe the problem lies in the nature of competition and standardized rules.  I have spent twenty years devising sparring rules, watching tournaments, and searching for better rule sets.  I’ve been very happy with several methods of judging sparring matches, but none of them are perfect.  In fact, I’ve come to believe that the disconnection between sparring and fighting is so great that we cannot come to a perfect rule set.  If we acknowledge this then we should change our goals in holding tournaments in a couple of very important ways.

First, if we acknowledge that all rule sets are susceptible to abuse, and even incentivize certain types of poor swordsmanship, then we need to see the tournament more as a training exercise, and less as a proving ground. If we understand the regimented sparring matches of a tournament as a means of testing and developing skill, rather than as a measure of skill, then we will approach them seeking to understand what they incentivize and disincentivize. For example, let’s say a tournament decides to emphasize grappling. Rewarding more points for clean execution of grappling techniques.

the best thing we can do is prevent a particular set of susceptibilities and incentives from dominating the tournament circuit.  To do this we should diversify our tournament rule sets.  We should explicitly acknowledge this failing in the foundation of the activity, and explore and experiment with wildly different rule sets that incentivize different actions and reward certain types of swordsmanship.  This should happen in two ways, each tournament held on a regular basis should vary their rule sets, and we should reject the idea of consistency between different rule sets among different tournaments. 

By varying a rule set in a given regular event we prevent problems from becoming ingrained.  By varying rule sets among the tournament offered within a given year as a larger whole, we prevent particular abuses from being easily trained and practiced for.  Both of these measures incentivize a strong core to every participating style of swordsmanship, and help mitigate the effects of trying to maximize one’s chances of winning a tournament by optimizing one’s practice to tournament rules. Ideally, giving tournament optimization a moving target will not only keep us conscious of the goal, to recreate and practice historical martial arts to the highest skill level we can, but also prevent over-specialization to the tournament setting.

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