At this point in my longsword career, right-of-way is one of my favorite rulesets to fence under. Before you get disgusted and click away, hear me out – I wasn’t always like this, I used to be a right-of-way hater just like most of the HEMA community. It was a slow transition over the course of several years. In this article I will talk about that transition, where it started, and how it’s going today.
Before we start, let’s define a few terms:
Priority – A method for deciding which fencer’s valid hit will be awarded, usually in the case of a double hit. In the Modern Olympic fencing disciplines of sabre and foil, as well as all longsword conventions that I have seen, priority is only used to resolve doubles, and someone who would not have had priority may still score if they land a clean hit. In some sports, namely la canne and French Fencing Federation lightsaber, you can only score if you have priority, and your hit doesn’t count if you don’t, even if it was clean.
Priority can be based on anything. In modern fencing it’s based on tactics, but it could also be based on hit location, what guard you start in, who’s taller, eye color, a coin flip, or whatever you want.
Right-of-way – This is a way of thinking about which fencer’s action will have priority in a fencing exchange. In modern sabre for example, if one fencer is advancing down the strip and the other is retreating, the advancing fencer is said to have “right-of-way,” and therefore their action will most likely have priority. This is however not a given, “right-of-way” is not explicitly stated in the rules, and each action must be taken and judged within its own context. For simplicity, we can say that a fencer has right-of-way, but an action has priority. Although these are two different things, I will consider “right-of-way” to essentially mean tactical priority (IE attack beats counterattack, etc), and I will use them mostly interchangeably.
My first introduction to right-of-way (hereafter referred to as “RoW”) was in college when I started modern fencing. At the time it was a weird esoteric thing that foil and sabre did that I didn’t want to try to understand, so I stuck with epee, which was easy to understand. I also did kendo at the time, which on the surface does not have any form of priority, but I now think has some kind of implicit priority in the way that it’s judged. Basically if both hit at the same time, the judges are supposed to pick who they thought hit first, and because that’s often impossible due to the action being too fast, they often need to rely on other context clues to decide who they think started their attack first. But I didn’t see it that way at the time, and most people don’t see it that way. So I spent a lot of my sword-related sport time not thinking or caring about priority or RoW.
When I started longsword, the topic of RoW still didn’t really come up that often. None of the US tournaments used it, and afterblow was the accepted standard, as it still is. The first time I really remember paying attention to it was when the Paris HEMA Open 2017 tournament happened, and videos of it appeared on Youtube. I watched them, and like many others in HEMA, I did not like what I saw. Fencers moved in weird unfamiliar ways, and did things that I would have considered “not martial,” such as feinting high and diving for the legs (which I still think is non-ideal and probably a safety issue). That was my introduction to RoW in HEMA, and my reaction was like an “I’m glad we don’t do that” kind of thing.
I think it was around 2019 when I started to give second thoughts to the idea. I was very interested in getting team tournaments into longsword, because they were always the best part of kendo tournaments, and I thought they could be a great addition to HEMA events. They did exist to some extent, but they were always goofball multi-weapon tournaments that no one took seriously and were usually relegated to the end of events when most people had left. I wanted all-longsword team tournaments that everyone took seriously and rooted for their school’s team, and may even be the main event of the tournament. But there was an issue I thought, which is that with doubles and afterblows canceling points, it would be too easy for a team to get ahead on points and stall, which would make the match lame. The theoretical solution that I started thinking about was a form of priority. Here is the first priority convention that I came up with, in October 2019:
Hit priority: There are 3 ways for a hit to gain priority. The priority hit must hit first or simultaneously in order for a point to be awarded. If the priority hit comes after the non-priority hit, no points shall be awarded.
- All attacks from non-low guards shall have priority over attacks from low guards.
- All attacks above the waist shall have priority over attacks below the waist.
- All hews to the head and stabs to the face or chest shall have priority over hews to the body and limbs.
Essentially it’s a form of target priority. I never ended up testing this to see if it works, but it was the first time I really started thinking about priority conventions as a serious option.
When I really started thinking about RoW was leading up to and during the pandemic. I made a lot of changes in the way I think about fencing during that time, including a transition away from thinking about it as a simulation of a fight with sharp swords and towards a game in which the rules afford certain actions. This was in large part historically inspired; it started to become apparent to me from talking to smart historical people and looking at sources that there were not very many sharp unarmored longsword fights going on during the time that the glosses would have been written, and there was a lot of recreational fencing going on. The recreational fencing that we know about was also highly abstracted from a fight with sharps, and even included a form of priority, IE highest head hit wins.
I started looking at RoW again, and decided that I think I like the idea in principle, but not how it is carried out in modern sport. The basic principle of right-of-way is that if attacked, you should defend yourself, and if you choose instead to hit the other person and you both get hit, then that was your fault and they should get the point. I don’t think there is a HEMA fencer out there who would disagree that you should defend yourself if attacked. But still, I wasn’t really into those Paris HEMA Open 2017 videos, and modern sabre still looked like two people repeatedly crashing into each other, so I wasn’t there yet, but the seed was planted.
At some point I think I started watching some cool sabre highlights, so I decided that I would ignore the sword fighting aspect and try to learn about the game of sabre. I started watching tournaments and reading about the rules, and I even took a modern fencing ref seminar, which I could have used to become a modern fencing ref but I never took the required test within a year of taking the seminar. By doing this, I started to appreciate the decisions, actions, and athleticism in the sport of sabre, and also started to appreciate things like the Paris HEMA Open videos as well. It also helped me understand why the game looks like it does, and what to avoid in order to make a RoW game that does not look like that but instead affords actions that I want to see in longsword.
There’s also a historical aspect to the idea of tactical priority. In the RDL glosses, there is a distinct preference for the attack. There is a convention of vor (before) and nach (after) in which the fencer who attacks vor attacks in a way that the opponent must parry nach. It’s definitely not explicit, but to me it shows a preference for the attack, and an obligation of the defender to address the attack.
We re-started classes at Bucks Historical Longsword in May 2021, and that came with a complete overhaul of the club structure, as we switched from a direct instruction and rote drilling kendo-inspired model to a games based constraints led model, of which I talk about in most articles on this website. Some of the games that we played included RoW elements, and we sometimes did practice judged matches with vague right-of-way.
In July of that year, we ran the first of our intramural tournaments, which at that time we called in-house tournaments even though people from other clubs were invited. This was the first time we ran a RoW ruleset in a tournament setting. We also used a weighted system in which clean hits to any part of the body was worth 2, while a double with priority would only be worth 1. The idea was to have priority in the case of doubles but still keep an incentive to land clean hits. I called this ruleset “Weighted Right-of-Way”.
The conventions that we used at the time were purposefully vague, the idea was that we would see how people played it and what kind of edge cases arose, and iterate and evolve the convention from there. Part of the idea was also to try to go more with the feel of the exchange rather than any specific footwork or bladework. It turns out this doesn’t work very well, because every ref has different feelings about who was attacking and why. Here is what we had for the convention in the first tournament:
1) Any attack to the leg, and strikes to the body, always lose priority
2) Attack has priority over Counterattack
3) Parry riposte has priority over renewal
See this video for a guide to identifying attack, parry riposte, renewal, and counterattack: https://youtu.be/58tz6t8wx2U
So clearly they were quite bare-bones, and came with a lot of issues. Specifically, the definition of attack needed to be refined. Basically it was too easy to run straight in and hit with no consequence. What we did to fix this was introduce the idea of “chambering,” or pulling back the blade after you’ve started your attack, which re-set your attack and turned it into a renewal, therefore losing priority. We also started fencers closer together so they couldn’t both run in and build momentum and hit each other.
If you start the fencers from across the ring every time, they can get into cycles where they walk to the center of the ring and both attack as soon as they get into distance, and it’ll always be simultaneous because both were moving forward and never stopped. In modern sabre this is called “the grind,” and it’s something that I want to avoid in longsword. At the same time, I want to avoid splitting exchanges (IE deciding who has priority) based on tiny minute details, because once you start doing that you start creating situations that are overly subjective, and it will be difficult for fencers and spectators to know why calls are going the way they are.
As time went on and we did more tournaments, the conventions became more refined, until they got to a point where I stopped feeling the need to tweak them. In the September 2022 edition, I made the choice to drop the weighted aspect of the scoring and instead score all hits 1 point, clean or double. The reason for this was the theory that I had that the higher you weight an action, the less you see of it, which seemed to be supported by all of the evidence that I observed. The change in scoring did not cause the quality of fencing to go down, so we’ve kept it like that ever since. An added bonus is that it makes match times more consistent, if you have 2 point and 1 point exchanges and the match goes to 8 points, you will have a minimum of 4 and a maximum of 15 scoring exchanges in a match; if everything is worth 1 and the match goes to 5 points, you have a minimum of 5 and a maximum of 9 exchanges. This, in addition to the fact that the vast majority of exchanges result in a score of some kind, greatly reduces the volatility of match timings.
There are other considerations regarding the convention based on what we want to see in longsword as well. In modern fencing, you see what’s called a long attack or march, in which one person is moving forward and the other is moving backwards, and especially in sabre, the person moving forward will pretty much have the attack no matter what. The issue with this that I wanted to avoid is that the attacker is essentially barred from using a guard with the point in presence, the reason being if the defender beats the blade, their attack gains priority, which means the attacker will almost always have a refused guard. In longsword, I want action between two fencers in a point forward guard to be a viable strategy, so we eliminate the march idea by saying priority goes to the first action that represents the final decision to commit forward. In this way, even if one person is advancing slowly and the other is retreating, the retreating fencer can still step forward with an attack that has priority.
At this point in time, we have a ruleset that is not perfect, but most people who play it think it’s fun to fence under (though of course not everyone likes it), and produces fencing that I like to see. As the organizer of the IM tournaments I usually abstain from entering and therefore barely get to play, (though I have played in 2 and enjoyed it a lot), but I always enjoy judging and seeing good fencing. At the time of this writing, we have done 9 tournaments with this ruleset, and we are preparing to run a full size public tournament with it, Revolution Rumble. While I don’t know how we could possibly be more prepared, it will be interesting to see how well this scales up, and I’m sure I’ll write a follow up to this after the event is over.
So there you have it, I started as a regular HEMA RoW hater, and became someone who likes it a lot. I guess I’ll conclude with an idea that I have not been touched upon but I hear a lot when the idea of RoW comes up in HEMA, which is that RoW is an attempt to turn HEMA into modern Olympic sport fencing. Personally I do not think HEMA should be turned into any sport or activity that already exists. I spent some time in my early HEMA days trying to make HEMA more like kendo, and I realized later that this was a misguided idea. Why should I want to turn HEMA into something that already exists when I can just go do that thing? One of the cool things about HEMA is that we run different rulesets for every tournament, it allows tournament organizers to experiment and try to produce the fencing that they want to see, it allows us to see how different rule tweaks affect the behavior of fencers, and it makes it so fencers need to be adaptable instead of optimizing their game around one specific ruleset. Right-of-way is just one of many rulesets that I think should have some representation. I don’t want every tournament to adopt this ruleset, and I don’t think it makes the game more of a sport than any other tournament ruleset.