Writing the Rules

I will start this off by saying what this is not

It is not a discussion on the pros and cons of competitions, nor is it in favour of a particular rule-set. I am unbiased on that last point; I used to be very much in favour of one particular set, but then I found that the rules began to dictate a style of fencing and… dammit, I did not want to do this.

I’ll come back to this opening statement later. There is a reason. However, I want to look at rule-sets, or rather the way in which they should be written and used.

There are two main consumers for rule-sets

Judging staff and competitors (I’ll include coaches with competitors). Judges in HEMA are amateurs. Generally, they are there because they care about HEMA and want to help. Yes, there are those who are there to get a reduced entry to an event, or are pressganged by cold, tyrannical instructors, but most of the judges I’ve met have volunteered. They have probably trained in fighting more than in judging, and normally that’s where their interest will remain. Judging experience will be at scattered events and possibly the odd course and on training nights. They are not immersed in rule-sets day in, day out, reviewing videos, etc. So they need understandable rule-sets that they can review before an event and understand on the day.

Competitors are there to fight. They are also amateurs. There are a few who want to win, but most, I have found, are there for the experience, to fight in a constrained environment under pressure. They are interested in knowing what they can or cannot do in order to play the game. For example, can they grapple? Can this include a throw, or is it restricted to lifting in the air?

Of course a third consumer is the audience. HEMA wants to attract people to the scene and, of course, include friends and family. Yet, outside the occasional live-stream, there is rarely any communication about rules. If we want to engage a wider audience, we must involve them at the least by communicating the rules

Rule Fatigue

Rule Fatigue

Before I get accused of stating the obvious, let’s go back to my opening statement. It was irrelevant, and yet statements like these can be found in many rule-sets. Rule-sets often contain lengthy explanations as to the why. Vindications even. These may be of interest and can inform the reader, but in terms of implementation, they are a pain in the neck. Rules are parameters by which a completion is enacted; therefore, in order that the competition is run effectively, they need to be understood. So far, so obvious, but the point I’m trying to make here is that we are often so concerned about explaining why certain rules are used, or what a competition is supposed to represent in HEMA terms, that we cloud or jumble theory, vindication and rules into one package.

But aren’t I interested in the theory behind rules, what the philosophy is that they’re trying to enact?

Sure, but not when I’m trying to implement them. I’m interested in complexity and how well trained the judges are in their use. It may be the most important rule set in fencing, the stuff that will shape the future course of HEMA, but if the judges don’t have a clue about what you’re written or had no practice in them, you can forget it.

This is not to deny the importance of explaining the reasons why, just don’t put it in the rule-set. Rules have to be comprehended and whatever the intent, if it’s going to work it needs to be understood.

Fundamentally, the rule-set should consist of the following:

  • The type of competition: open longsword, rapier, wrestling etc.
  • The course of the competition: pools and eliminations, king of the castle, double elimination, etc.
  • Conduct of the bout
  • The rules. What is in and what is out
  • Scoring: how it’s calculated and how it is communicated
  • Safety and Penalties
  • Equipment.

How it’s written is another matter. Treat it like rules for a board game, the clearer the better; that’s not the same as being simple, make them as complex as you like, but remember that the more complicated the rules, the more training judging staff need. Write it in bullets, read it aloud to make sure it sounds right and then take them for a test run. Try out different scenarios; cover all of the rules. Then give it to some others to read. Not people who already know what you mean, but those who won’t read in assumptions. Get the rule-set edited.

Then get it out there. Oh I know that people will say the longer they’re out, they more people can try to game them, but any rule-set can be gamed. Far worse to have confused judges and referees having repeated meetings to fathom each nuance. I once read a suggestion that rule-sets should only be released on the morning of the tournament and then changed several times throughout the day. I really would have liked to see that competition, but only from a distance.

So, keep them clear, make them understood, and share them.


My thanks to Hans Jönlind and Carl Ryrberg for reviewing this.


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