Combat Roleplay: Layers of Defense.
A guide elaborating upon the characteristics of defense, and how they manifest.
Hello, and welcome to another of my guides touching upon the subject of combat, and combat roleplay!
If you want to leave a comment on any of my posts, you can do so... Here!
This guide follows up my massive, four part guide discussing the various participation of different forms of combatants. While I'd be happy to advertise it for all my readers, I'm only mentioning it to specify that this guide will be much different. In fact, this guide will likely reference another guide I've written earlier, in no small attribution. In my guide "Combat Roleplay: Actions, Interaction, Time-Scaling with a Focus on Realism" we talk about different actions that go on during combat.
To recap, I discuss the differences between attacks and defenses. An attack can be complicated, but an attack in and of itself is but one action, and is limited to that in and of itself. Attacks usually become complicated based off of their rapidity, flexibility, and their elaboration off of previous attacks or actions. Whether attacking in one direction to provoke a defense you plan to exploit, or grappling an opponent to put them in a detrimental or submissive place, or attacking at a certain time to take advantage of a gap in someone's defense. Individual attacks are usually single actions, which occur at a single point in time.
Defense, I postulated previously, is not the same. That it's not a single time action, but a complicated, continuous activity that has many factors, and is acted against continuously over various points in time. We'll be exploring this idea throughout the guide, and I will outline what I believe are the different components of defense. These different components behave in certain ways, and can be treated individually, though usually they are all applying simultaneously.
Without further ado, I will list what I believe to be the prominent sections of this guide.
These sections are as follows.
Recapping Defense and Time: "What is the air speed velocity of an unladen fist?"
Component of Defense, Distance: "Like tag, but with a lot more blood."
Component of Defense, Guard: "I'm exposed everywhere except this spot here!"
Component of Defense, Target Area: "I have a single inch-by-inch square of bullet-proof armor hidden somewhere on my body."
A Unified Defense, Greater Than the Sum of its Parts: "What could be worse than a giant paint bubble?"
So, without any continued traffic incidents, we should continue!
Recapping Defense and Time.
"What manner of folly is this 'block button' rubbish?"
A fossil cruelly sustained by the modern gaming industry if you ask me.
As we had begun to point out in our introduction, I identified defense as a complex activity that takes place over time, manifesting as it is acted upon at individual points in time. It is not so much a single action, as a continuum of actions that are strung together in somewhat complicated fashion. It is worth acknowledging this much, and having this as a point for moving forward. We don't just suddenly start 'blocking', at different points in time, we are defending or 'blocking' to certain degrees.
If you get into a fistfight with someone, or a sword-fight, you will attempt to be in the least amount of danger. When you aren't expecting a fight however, and are accosted suddenly with violence, you will attempt to cover your most vital places in an attempt to reduce the damage done. When you're sitting in your arm chair and assassin comes up from behind and stabs you, you may reflexively react, but even if you do you are probably going to be distracted or otherwise out of focus; perhaps the best you can do is have him stab or cut at less lethal areas of your body while you seek help, if that. Let's say you are completely paralyzed, laying on your back in a standing posture, and some jerk decides to hit you with a stick across your stomach. These are all different presentations of defense in different situations; even the lattermost.
Why the lattermost? Well, I put it to you like this. There is no 'instant death switch' on human beings, as even attempts to destroy the brain will meet a certain amount of resistance. The skull, the face, they are all obstructions to the damage that might prove to be instantly fatal if it reaches your brain; that being said, a sword will override those obstructions if properly swung very easily. So, in itself, there is an innate defense upon being struck; it might be minimal, negligible, or all-together not worth noting in some situations, but it is there. This is the same as when considering a sword-blow to the arm, or to the chest, or to the abdomen. How much resistance will your body provide, and how likely is that region to support a life-threatening wound? They all can, but perhaps to different levels of severity, depending on the wound. Your chest has your heart, which is really important, but it also has a boney cage around it. Abdominal wounds were horrific before modern medicine, though the rate of death might've varied. Your limbs can potentially be survived even if fully amputated, but that's a sucky thing to happen, and you would die if not properly treated; so yeah.
The point we're attempting to make is that there's a certain amount of defense being presented, an amount that theoretically goes from nothing up to completely suffering no damage. This range and all the factors that play into it play the complicated role of defense.
Though in addition to defense, we may want to remind ourselves what time is briefly, as the title of this post suggests. Why do we want to? Well, that'll come in a bit later.
The time in which something happens is a point of particular concern. Actions that you take can all be performed at certain speeds, but some actions may rely on other actions, and so the time it takes to perform one action may be compounded. Doing these efficiently will a matter we will focus on in the future.
Suffice to say, if someone isn't close enough for you to hit them, and so you have to take a step closer, the time it takes to hit them can be any amount you like, but it will inevitably be limited by the time it takes to step closer to them. This is something we'll cover in the next section, but it’s worth being aware of.
To summarize this point, time restrictions play a point on everything. And that multiple things can happen at the same time, timed for the utmost efficiency or not, you have the recipe for true combat. In its complicated, fast-paced, desperate, and sometimes ugly glory.
And these two points, those of defense and time, will be necessary building blocks for moving on.
Component of Defense: Distance.
"What is the air-speed velocity of an air-laden fist?"
Or, you know, a swallow. That works too.
Our first, and one of the most preferred components of defense, comes out rather simply, and may be immediately identifiable with how I've titled the entry. Though, in the event that it's not, I've come up with a deceptive little anecdote as an introduction to this subject.
We put two boxers in the ring as to establish a heavy-weight champion. Immediately they both begin swinging at each other as fast and as hard as they can, with equivalent brutality. In the end, which of them as sustained the most damage? Well, if that basic unsolvable sentence didn't give it away, let me vex you more by saying that neither of them did any damage to each other, as they hadn't moved out of their corners or anywhere near close enough to hit each other.
Apologies for the first-grade humor, but this does illustrate a point. If you are out of distance from an attack, you are effectively invulnerable to it. This is a form of defense loved in videogames, and commonly referred to as 'kiting.' Well, regardless of its typical similarities, the principle is the same. If you're outside of attack range, you are pretty much safe. That fact is one of the leading speculations as to why modern warfare results in so much mental trauma to soldiers, because bullets can kill from very far very fast. As can bombs. And gas.
And, as described, this is also invariably present in fights with hand weapons, or just limbs themselves. We can describe this form of defense as Protection by Distance, as if you are out of range, you cannot be hit.
Boxing matches usually involve this management of distance intensely. High title HEMA tournaments involve this explicitly as well. Some of those HEMA fighters state that this is the only truly consequential form of defense, though this might be an over simplification coming from someone whose reached a masterful level in the art.
But Dom, this one is just simple, move into distance and stay there until you kill them! Right?
Well, not always. Being constantly in range of attack is actually rather dangerous for both parties. As it increases the rate at which attacks may come at them. Sometimes this is fine, and intentional. Other times, it can put others in unintended danger that they weren't prepared for. Many systems of fighting encourage only entering attack range to deliver an attack before pacing back out. At least as a norm. There are plenty of times to do other things, and other systems that may encourage differently. This is typically referred to as 'lunge-and-recover.' Though it doesn't have to be with lunges, or in a straight line.
Additionally, remaining mobile in a fight can be a substantial advantage, or put some pressure on the opponent's focus. A moving target is harder to read, or gauge, so long as they don't put themselves in a compromising spot. The fastest direction a person can move is forward, true, but people can move pretty fast when pressured. In the short term, a person may be able to back step away as fast as you can move forward, perhaps even sometimes fast enough to get out of distance if you're not too decisive in your pursuit. Though, if this were to be an elongated action, eventually you would outpace them. Some say the next fastest direction is backwards, but I'm not sure if I agree with this, as it may just be more geometrically efficient for the typical lunge-and-recover system. Suffice it to say moving in other directions can be useful too.
This is where the next point of contention comes in. The 'dodge' or the 'evade' mechanic of most RPGs. This is where it would indeed take place, as you're moving out of the range of a weapon.
Now, this can happen, but it isn't quite as common or nearly as easy as some people think. Particularly when standing staying in the same place. Most of the time, these actions involve moving out of range. But, they can happen while in range, at times. Usually, when they do, and in my experience it usually seems easier to do with a thrust, these occur when an enemy thrusts into an area that you expect them to, and have planned for. Thusly, you can prepare a small motion, in place, or perhaps only moving away slightly, that makes the attack fall out of range. It's much less an occurrence on its own, and much more the confluence of numerous other factors. The placement of your guard, your distance, and what target area they're trying to hit you in.
So, that being the case, dodging or evading in this way usually specifies that you have parried, or planned a defense against the oncoming attack that was effectively perfect. Which, in an active fight against two opponents of any closeness in skill, is a bit rare when standing completely still. Having it happen once is pretty reasonable. Having it happen twice in a row is pretty unlikely. Three or more is really pushing it, and is usually not fun for the opponent of your roleplay. Even moving in and out of distance, and completely avoiding your opponents strikes at this point begins to become a bit frustrating, though it is a bit more realistic.
And, in my opinion, there are points where it becomes a bit tricky to escape back out of range. If your opponent closes in closer to you, if you need a moment to gather your footing, if you need to suddenly move in an unplanned direction, or just perform a particularly distinctive maneuver (such as a lunge or double-lunge.) These give your opponent more time in range, and while they may elect to back off, they may attempt to move or counteract in ways that still provide offense to you, or they may choose to play risky, and close in with as much violence as they can bring.
Which brings me to my one big point, and the point that the ace boxers and HEMA fighters who say this is the most important form of defense might not consider when talking to less masterful people: you aren't always able to choose when you're in or out of range. Your opponent has some say in it too, as does the environment, and the context of the situation.
And when those moments happen, the next form of defense which we'll begin discussing, which some masters may consider trivial, really come out to shine.
Component of Defense, Guard.
"I'm exposed everywhere except this spot over here! Fear me!"
Many guards typically advertise the one place in which you are actually immune to incoming damage. So... why use them?
Great question, Timmy! Another great question would be, is that if that one guard was so great, why not just use it constantly? Well, we'll look at that subject, and provide some helpful anecdotes. One such that we can begin with:
"Furthermore, please note that every motion of the sword is a guard to the knowledgeable fencer, and all guards are useful to the experienced man; conversely, no motion is a guard to the ignorant, and no guard is effective for someone who does not know how to use it." -Nicoletto Giganti
I think this is a good quote from one of our very approachable rapier masters. It expresses some ideas that come about quite quickly, and expand upon some of our earlier mechanism of defense.
When you're holding a sword, whether you know a system of historical system with different guards or not, or have your own system in your head, you present the least attractive target to your opponent as possible. Or at least, make some targets less attractive than others. To answer our earlier question of why does this matter when you leave other areas exposed, this limits in at least some fashion your vulnerability to attack. Being exposed somewhere is better than being exposed everywhere, as perhaps displayed in the difference between puffing out your chest or face versus putting up your arms in a fistfight.
This becomes even more pronounced when you have some experience, and know the areas in which you'll be vulnerable to attack. You'll be able to prepare in advance a response. Much more than that, this compounds when you're protected by a certain amount of distance. Requiring your opponent to make their attack after getting close enough to you to pose a threat. Some weapons as well may perhaps offer certain benefits to your defense, but having a better mass for parrying, having a more protective surface area, acting over a longer distance, and such of the like!
So, this is where I feel the most interactivity with combat takes place. Addressing your guard, and the guard of your opponent. As, remember the pitfall of the Protagonist Fight Fallacy that we've discussed in guides prior. You're not acting in a vacuum, and your opponent isn't going to be so stunned or sluggish (usually) as to not respond to you. As you address your guard, and make the best attack you can against them, they're going to do the same to you. And so, the anecdote for fencing being 'physical chess' gets its name; you're weighing your best moves as fast as you can, and those you can make in advance, as to have the best possible chance at surviving.
In my opinion, the most 'fun' of a fight is this match up, and the daring game of utilizing distance to make the fight interactive. Whether you're trying to do ace point-work with a rapier, close in to grappling with a shorter weapon, or matching strikes with longsword. Guards may be inherently 'flawed', but we don't skip them. We don't puff out our chests and make the best possible target of ourselves, we choose guards and mix them up against those that our opponent feels is best.
And all this said, we may have different intents. If we just want to survive, and not get killed, we might be happy disarming or wounding them such as to make them not a threat to us. And while this can usually apply, the context of a fight can change things. Need to get past someone to save someone? You may not even completely neutralize them, but just make them unable to pursue or follow you if you get past them. Need to get past someone and can't afford too much sound or struggle, it may just be that you have to make it a mortal affair. And there's a lot more.
But, see, all of that revolves around actually hitting our opponent. And we discussed in the first part of this guide that sometimes being hit in some places is less damage - or in some cases an outright defense - as opposed to others. That much leads us to our last part.
Component of Defense, Target Area
"I have a single inch-by-inch square of bullet-proof armor hidden somewhere on my body."
Never underestimate the power of Adam West.
Even more with this particular idea. In previous guides, we've talked about armor in various applications. Who wears it, why one might wear it, why one might not wear it all the time, and to what degree it works. Suffice to summarize yet again; armor worked really well, that's why people used it, that's why people who fought professionally tended to wear it, and why armor continued to evolve to continually offer protection against modern arms. Sure, not everyone wore heavy armor, not everyone wore expensive armor. But even people who could only afford economic, easily replaced, and otherwise simple armor components... usually did.
Whether it was simply a helmet, a thick winter jacket, or sturdy padded gloves. These things are better than perhaps being struck while completely naked. Even fist-wraps made from bandages are used as a basic form of armor when fist-fighting. And all of this plays in to our components of defense. Perhaps even more than you might think!
As discussed in the first section, even as much as dictating where you get hit can be considered an act of defense; even if miniscule. But armor amplifies this significantly. Say two men are fighting with swords. Unarmored or only lightly armored in relatively plain clothes, you find that pretty much any spot on their bodies will result in some serious damage if you land either a cut or a thrust. In fact, the most grievous wound you could probably inflict would be through the face or side of the head, getting to the brain-stem, and stopping them instantaneously. You want to avoid that big sturdy upper skull, but even that can be bypassed to almost even degree with a sharp sword.
Now, let's throw them in only helmets. Let's say, for the point of example, they're entirely closed faced.
That most grievous wound, over the entirety of the head, is now effectively gone. That helmet protects the entirety of the head from what your sword can effectively do. This perfectly closed helmet now makes the head a much less appealing target, forcing you to engage other targets. Not only this, but if your opponent exposes his head, he's now in much less danger than if he exposes his hand.
And now, while that's more fantastical, we can express this in something that is less than complete fantasy. Let's say you have an arming coat, a simple padded jacket. Not too puffed out, but durable enough to give you some protection. Now, you're still vulnerable to the previously used swords, but you're less vulnerable. Good, sturdy cuts and stiff thrusts from swords will make you regret your life decisions. But, you're less vulnerable still than before. Let's say that you understand this, and you see your opponent make a quick strike at your arm. This quick strike is a cut, not particularly forceful, and aimed to smack you obliquely and pass away. Now, if you had less armor, this might still be a dangerous blow that you'd want to ward away. But in this instance, your jacket protects you well enough; it might still hurt, it might still even hurt you to some degree, but you will survive it without much worry (save maybe infection and other things if you aren't treated afterwards.) So, you could (and probably should still) parry that blow, but let's say that if you don't, you know for certain you can place a thrust square against the chest of the man in front of you - if not his face.
Note, this isn't a failure of the armor. The armor is only giving each of you added benefit. But, in this specific instance, you have presented a better 'defense' perhaps than your opponent, or perhaps you have seen a more efficient way of responding to it.
The fact that your arm isn't injured by the attack frees you up from responding to it, or only responding to it as much as requires ensuring that it won't lead to further mischief from your opponent. Just like the fantasized helmet example, at least a little.
And, if you are still with us, you may have already considered a serious question. Can you put these different components together? The short answer is yes. Not only can you use them together, but you should use them together. And that is the subject of this next portion of the guide.
A Unified Defense, Greater Than the Sum of its Parts.
"What could be worse than a giant paint bubble?"
Three giant paint bubbles, which then merge together, and burst to completely paint an anchor-shaped duplex.
Perhaps a poor quality analogy, but worth it for the meme potential. Maybe.
But! The point remains. We've covered three forms of defense thus far: protection by distance, protection by guard, and protection by target region. To summarize these, we can think like this.
Protection by distance dictates that you can't be harmed by something that can't reach you, or come into contact with you; this also includes your dodging or invading skills, as well as how weapon speed or attack speed can be limited for better or worse.
Protection by guard dictates that you can present your physical form in certain positions, motions, or with certain objects that change what parts of your body are exposed to attack. If you raise your sword or your shield to block over your head, at one point in time, you can defend certain approaches at that one point in time. But, you will expose others, and your opponent will be aware of this, but so should you. You and your opponent will react to what areas you expose at different points in time, and this becomes the most reactive or perhaps cognitive part of combat. Attacking in ways that exploit your opponent's guard, while you both lay plans to lure, distance, or otherwise entrap your foe.
Protection by surface area works off of the idea that by being struck in an area, being struck in certain places is innately more defensively than others. If you're hit in the arm, that's probably better than having been hit in the head. But this becomes compounded by the use of armor, where your body becomes less and less a viable target for your opponent, you become less and less exposed to danger. This allows you to dedicate your defensive efforts to a smaller number of targets, allow inefficient targets to become exposed as to take advantage of a specific action, or otherwise come out favorably when you and your opponent trade damage.
And, if you're still with us, we have probably already laid the ground work for displaying how these different components play together.
If you're out of distance, and continually manage distance from your opponent in a fight, you limit the time in which your opponent can strike you. If your foe has to move into distance to strike you, their attack speed is limited by how slow it is to move into distance to strike you; at least that first time. And in that time, they have to take your guard into account while you perform your own actions. Even if they are successful thus far, they have to land their attack in an area that will allow you to be effectively harmed. If your guard exposes your hands, but not your head, and your hands are armored sufficiently, this limits what targets they can choose.
Just from this one wordy example, you can see how all these forms of defense show how fast-paced, and intense real fights are. This model gives us the ability to look at realistic actions, being taken in real time, with an opponent who will perform their own actions instead of just reacting to what you do. It can also highlight some of the bonuses for wearing armor, versus fighting unarmored. As well as some of the different opinions about different defensive actions, and how people judge their importance.
In theory, if you can judge your guard well enough, and you're unarmored, maybe the most important part of defense is simply staying out of distance. Perhaps for those of the heavy armor wearing bruisers out there, wearing armor disqualifies the need for a range advantage, and lets you get close, work on your guard, and pummel people down.
Either way, it is worth it to say, that these components of defense can come together to create a holistic, impressive, and otherwise intense system of validating defensive actions.
I think that pretty much beats this topic to death. I'd make a defense pun, but I think I've done all that I can.
This goes a long way to clarifying combat, when taken alongside all the other things we've talked about. Actions, attacking, now defense, the characteristics that fighter characters often have, as well as a broad smattering of examples of different types that come up in different contexts. I think there's still a bunch more to talk about though. Next time I believe we'll be discussing a modern method of organizing a fight into (what I recall to be) five different parts. Of these five, you can start anywhere, skip to any of the others, and go forwards or back. Though the typical imagination of a fight, start to finish, goes from the first to the last.
So, this guide comes with a lot of love. I hope it expands some horizons, and I really hope that you all enjoy your time out there roleplaying, world-building, writing, or otherwise.
For those brave souls who fought before us.
Farewell, Peers and Masters!