I didn’t go to Pennsic this year, and from some of the stories trickling back from the battlefield, I think that’s probably a good thing. Apparently there were quite a number of unfortunate incidents with one specific group of fighters known as the “Tuchuks”, a non-SCA “barbarian” group which attends Pennsic every year and fights on the field. Now, fair warning: I wasn’t there; I’m getting this second-hand, and aside from seeing the occasional YouTube video of the fighting I can’t say what did or did not happen (although in the video linked to above there’s some pretty egregious behaviour that I wouldn’t tolerate if I were a marshal.) In fairness, I acknowledge that there can be a lot of egregious behaviour on a busy battlefield and that’s certainly not limited to any specific group: in big melees adrenalin runs high and tempers can flare. But what I keep hearing about the Tuchuks at this Pennsic, over and over again, is some pretty disturbing stuff: rattan weapons soaked in varathane to make them stiffer (and grossly unsafe); disregarding valid blows (then disregarding excessive blows); using shields as striking weapons (which is against the rules); switching helmets to prevent the marshals from picking offenders out of the crowd, and so on.
I hope that these rumours I’m hearing are unfounded or exaggerated, I really do. I hope that it’s just frustrated fighters venting… but this isn’t the first year I’ve heard these concerns about the Tuchuks. And I do find it a concern is that there’s an entire group that seems to have a policy of breaking the rules. Rather more to the point I’m concerned that marshallate doesn’t seem to be able to do anything about it. Swapping helmets, for example, ought to get you kicked off the field: at Pennsic all weapons and armour need to be inspected to ensure safety and compliance with the rules; once that is done the marshals affix a sticker with the attendee’s ID number on it to the side of the helmet. If you swap a helmet, that sticker is no longer a valid guarantee… and I don’t want to be on the field with someone who isn’t properly inspected, for their safety and my own. As for the accusations of illegally modified weapons, well, that’s an extremely serious allegation. If you knowingly use an unsafe weapon on the field in the SCA that’s grounds for being shown the door permanently.
On top of that, what’s the point of cheating? Maybe I’m being naïve, but whenever I see someone playing a game and cheating, I genuinely don’t understand why they bother playing in the first place. Any victory obtained by cheating is by definition hollow, even if you’re the only person who knows that. And when you’re doing something like SCA fighting, where it’s in full view of everybody, then it’s doubly pointless: Sure, to the untrained eye armoured combat is just a swirl of motion and noise but an experienced fighter can look at that same scrum and tell what’s going on and pick out anything questionable. The Society is a really small subculture — there’s fewer than two hundred registered fighters in this Kingdom, for example — and problems get noticed pretty damned quick. A lot of times problems are the result of inexperience and the fighter in question will be quietly and respectfully talked to in order to correct the issue. But if that gentle correction doesn’t take, if there’s continual and ongoing issues (a.k.a. cheating) then, well, there’s always the option of public sanction, isn’t there?
The combat in the SCA is based on the honour system: The onus is on the fighter to acknowledge valid blows. If I take a hit that would have wounded or killed me if we were using real weapons, I am on my honour to enact the consequences of that blow… and by and large most people are very good about it, because the very last thing an SCA fighter wants is to get the reputation of a “rhino hide” fighter; that is, as a fighter whose skin is so thick they “can’t feel the blows.” Rhinos aren’t popular in the SCA and there are real consequences of getting that rep: At Trillium War the Earl Marshal announced that a specific fighter had his fighting authorization pulled for “repeated issues with calibration and acceptance” and reminded all fighters present that they were never obliged to fight anyone who caused them to feel unsafe on the fighting field. (That, by the way, is the first time I’d ever seen that happen after almost a decade in Society; such incidents are vanishingly rare.)
As an authorized SCA heavy fighter, I have the responsibility to make sure I’m being safe on the battlefield — and that’s not just being safe for myself. I not only have to make sure my armour protects me adequately (and my personal kit is far more comprehensive than the bare minimum armour standards laid out in the Rules of the List) but also that my weapons meet the basic safety standards. That means plain rattan of proper thickness, not modified to change it’s natural flexibility; all projections of greater than an inch in length much be at least 1¼ inches wide so they can’t slip into someone’s bar-grill faceplate by accident; all thrusting points must have a set amount of foam that compresses a certain way; my shield must be edged with a material that prevents sharp edges from forming, and so on and so on. I make sure that my gear is fully in accordance with the safety rules because I genuinely don’t want to hurt someone; I trust that every other fighter on the field is doing the same… or at least that the marshals will catch anything that doesn’t meet those standards by accident or design. And that system works: Problems almost never happen. Without hyperbole, I’d estimate that 99 times out of 100 — or better! — the SCA’s safety rules prevent any potential problems.
That’s why the rumours about the Tuchuks are bothering me so much: if they’re true, it makes me worry that there’s folks out there who are deliberately circumventing those rules for whatever reason… and that there’s a set of circumstances where system of checks and balances we’ve set up doesn’t work. I know that non-SCA groups participate at events like Pennsic and that they do things their own way for their own reasons but I need to have confidence that when I’m on the field nobody out there is deliberately trying to injure me. And right now, I don’t have that confidence about Pennsic. I would hope that the marshallate takes note of the situation and acts, definitively and publicly, to restore and protect our confidence in safety on the field… But to date, I haven’t heard of any steps being taken in that direction.
The Fiancée™ and I had a talk about this, and I don’t think we’ll be attending Pennsic next year… or possibly ever again. The battlefield safety issue is just one of several that concerns us, but collectively it adds up: We’re likely going to switch our vacation time to other, smaller, SCA-specific wars, like Lillies War or Gulf Wars. I don’t see any point in attending an event where I go on the field with the thought that I run the risk of being injured due to malice or negligence; it’s bad enough that injuries occasionally happen by accident no matter how careful we are (although the SCA’s injuries record is actually quite good.) And yeah, I could be overreacting and jumping at shadows but I really do have to wonder about how much smoke vs. fire we’re looking at here: this isn’t just wild, unfounded gossiping by strangers; this is informed commentary by people I know and trust… and it jives with my own experiences on the Pennsic battlefield.
It’s with real regret that I’m considering this step but until the battlefield safety issue gets addressed, one way or another, I can’t see myself taking the same field that the Tuchuks are fighting on. I’m no coward: in the past I’ve risked my personal safety and health — at protests, for example — when I’ve chosen to make a stand for something I believe in but at the end of the day the SCA is a game. I’m not going to compromise my safety because there are people who don’t want to play the game fairly. Sometimes the responsible choice is to take a step back and make sure that you don’t get put in a bad situation if it can possibly be avoided.