Dude, where's my phalanx?
November 13, 2007 9:45 AM   Subscribe

Darkon movie and LARP-ing question: Dude, where's my phalanx? What's with the stupid battle tactics?

Saw the movie Darkon last night on cable. Interesting in a dorky way. But I have some questions. Dude, where's my phalanx? Where's my Swiss pikemen? Where's my longbowmen?

Why are the tactics used in LARP battles so shitty? It all appeared to be nothing but Braveheart-style flailing about. I was watching the movie thinking, "Give me 15 minutes of practice with some willing buddies, and I'd wipe the floor with these guys."

Clearly, these people are students of history. They should know what has been proven to work in squad-level hand-to-hand combat with medieval weapons. Are they really that stupid?

Or are there rules against formations and organized tactics?
posted by Cool Papa Bell to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
As the movie's tagline says, "everybody wants to be a hero". The folks who grew up playing D&D and reading fantasy novels and then got into LARPing or the SCA want to be heroic skirmishers, not faceless shieldbearers.

Also: it's hard to simulate longbows safely.

And I recall reading something about a maximum length on weapons in most of these kinds of 'battles', as the longer the weapon, the harder it is to control in such a way as to avoid really injuring someone. Give me a 20-foot-long stick and I'll end up accidentally breaking it and then stabbing someone through the neck with it. So pikemen are out, too.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 9:57 AM on November 13, 2007

The SCA allows for pikes under a certain length (or at least it did when I played several years ago). On the whole, they were excellent for large battles provided you could find somebody willing to stand in front of you with a shield for an entire battle and do nothing else... If the shieldman got bored and ran off or somehow got killed, you were kind of screwed. The point of these battles is to have fun, and in my experience, it was a lot more fun to run around flailing on people than to stand in a line with a shield. Whereas if I were a real soldier fighting in that type of battle with my life depending on tactical superiority, I'd happily hole up behind a shield and let the guys with long pointy things do the fighting and killing.
posted by ga$money at 10:07 AM on November 13, 2007

What works in actually trying to kill each other may not work within specific rulesets. You see much more cohesive small-unit tactics in SCA wars, but even then they don't look too much like original medieval tactics because, to name a few reasons off the top of my head: there's no hitting below the knee, the longest allowable weapons are much shorter than historical pikes, the missile weapons are weak, the shields are invulnerable, and there's no horses.
That said, even people in the SCA think larpers are silly.
posted by agentofselection at 10:10 AM on November 13, 2007

Oh, and for the record, some groups in the SCA and probably other similar groups do practice squad/troop tactics. For a brief time, I was in a group that simulated Roman tactics with scutae and pikes. The shields were heavy as hell and I did a lot of pointless marching around in formation, but it was fun to see the holy living terror bloom in our opponents eyes when our shield wall started double-stepping in their direction. In the end, though, everybody wanted to hold the pike behind the shield wall and nobody wanted to carry the shield.
posted by ga$money at 10:13 AM on November 13, 2007

I've played in one of these games before, it's actually really fun. The thing you have to remember is that the game is considered a "combat simulation", but it's well known amongst people that play it that there's absolutely nothing realistic about it. Everything from the weapons to the garb to the combat style are designed to make you feel like you're in the heat of it, but really there's nothing approaching realism involved. It is in essence just a game, and the rules of the game dictate the fighting style that people use. For example, in the game I played death was determined by a point system: arms and legs are 1 point, chest and lower waist (to the boxer line) are 2 points, head and neck don't count. The idea is that you're dead when you take 2 points of injury (you can continue fighting after losing 1 limb, but 2 limb hits is assumed to be a bleed out). One consequence of this system was that if you knew you were outmatched by someone, it would be advantageous to block a blow from their weapon with your arm so that you could hit them with a kill shot. Obviously in a real battle people wouldn't be sacrificing limbs without a second thought, and also a sword going through an arm is still likely to hit the body. Real battle medieval battle was not a game, and there were no rules, so tactics evolved along the lines that provided the most decisive victory.

Pitch battles are rarely organized in such a fashion that somebody is issuing orders, making tactical decisions, etc. It's just like ten pounds said, the focus is on individual interactions and not necessarily routing the other side. If I was engaged with somebody on the field for 2-3 minutes (a long fight) and I knew that the smart thing for my team would be for me to fall back to a better tactical position, I'd be goddamned if I was going to do that- because I just wanted to beat the guy/girl in front of me.

Sometimes you'd have groups of people engaging each other as a group, but this was tricky at best as a hit against your teammate counted as a hit. The best tactic for this kind of engagement was to try to disengage one or two of the enemies and fight them separately rather than try to do a group-on-group skirmish.

Now I've heard that if you go to the serious meet-ups, the ones where they have pitch battles with 500 people on a side, things get a lot more serious, and I imagine that group tactics are much more strongly encouraged amongst the groups that participate in them, but I never attended such an event so I can't really say. Heard a lot of stories, though.

2nding ten pounds, longbows don't work well for this kind of thing. I have been shot in the eye with a combat-simulation LARP "safe" arrow and it fucking sucked.

When I participated in Amtgard for a summer a few years ago, somebody told me a story about a group they played with that had two newbies show up who were just obsessed with the idea of being archers, so they came to their first practice with full garb, bows and arrows ready to go, full of excitement. The website had clear instructions on how to make "safe" arrows, which involved cutting the tips off and affixing a large padded end to it. Note that the arrow I got hit with was made this way and it had no lasting damage. These guys, however, made their arrows by simply wrapping the padding around the tip already in place...so when they shot the first arrow and it hit a tree, it stuck. They were asked to politely leave and never return.
posted by baphomet at 10:22 AM on November 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

LARP fights are to real medieval battles as Counter-Strike games are to real terrorist/special-forces battles.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 10:51 AM on November 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

LARP fights are to real medieval battles as Counter-Strike games are to real terrorist/special-forces battles.

Yes, but even very good Counter-Strike players can be bested by simple teamwork used effectively. And after all, the goal of the game is to win, correct? So why did the "gameplay" in Darkon appear so disorganized?

The answers above are interesting (there are indeed some specific rules, there are safety concerns, there's a lack of interest, etc). I'm interested in other reasons having to do with rules or the social aspects of the actual combat gameplay. Perhaps winning is not the point?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:26 AM on November 13, 2007

I went to the gathering once, years ago, with friends, not my sort of thing (LRPing), but it was different. the main battle they had at the end. at least 2000 people, started off looking impressive, two sides in various units squaring up across a battlefield but ended up as a big scrum of ppl hitting each other until one side seemed to get the upper hand. how they decided that I have no idea.

the trouble with kind of scenario is that most types of units that make battles more tactical dont exist, archers, cavalry, cannons, pikes etc. its really like 2 huge forces of close combat fighters who would never normally attempt to face each other over open ground.

it would be much more realistic if you shoved each side into opposite ends of a forest. people would split up more and skirmish better and there there's a better utility for mage/healers.
posted by browolf at 11:39 AM on November 13, 2007

Perhaps winning is not the point?

You got it dude. Having fun is the point.
posted by baphomet at 12:10 PM on November 13, 2007

In the LARP that I played, the answer would be very, very simple: Spells. (Represented by small thrown objects roughly the size and heft of a foam golf ball.) Forming a tight group just made you easy fodder, shields were ineffective, the best defense was dodging, circling, and so on.

Also very light weight swords make sword+sword (v. sword+shield) popular, which again limits how effective groups can be (you want lots of room to swing).

And most groups are small (<50 people, total, on any given weekend), even when people meet in a larger group, they tend to revert to what they know.
posted by anaelith at 2:20 PM on November 13, 2007

In the LARP that I played, the answer would be very, very simple: Spells.

posted by baphomet at 3:38 PM on November 13, 2007

I thought it was "Lightning Bolt! Lightning Bolt! Lightning Bolt!"

Regardless, it was a stunning example of 'epic fail'.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 3:47 PM on November 13, 2007

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