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Scouting 101

By Judith Owens, with contributions from many.

People keep asking me to teach them how to ninj – I presume the reason is that I’ve survived over a year of playing a scout now despite going on every scouting mission thrown out to me – however, there’s a distinct lack of time and opportunity to do so in person.

So, for those interested in such things, whether you’re a larper or not, here are my thoughts on scouting and suggested ways to teach yourself the tricks. I expect and hope the other good scouts of my acquaintance will weigh in with their ideas as well…

Awareness, Memory and Justifiable Paranoia

One of the primary attributes of a successful scout is being able to tell where things are regardless of the conditions relative to oneself. It’s not a question of ‘seeing things coming’ – if all you’re using is your sight, you’re neglecting so many hints and clues to what’s around you. You have to use your ears, your nose (yes, really) and your mind as well as your eyes, and you have to be able to keep that level of awareness up continually.

This is where justifiable paranoia comes into play. Sometimes you’ll come across something or someone that’s smart enough to take cover and leap out on you once you’ve walked past. So, as well as paying attention to all the obvious details and looking for your objective, part of your mind needs to be constantly looking out for hiding places and concentrating on picking up any hint that someone else might have already had that thought, and keeping tabs on them after you’ve walked past in case you missed those hints.

The easiest way to learn these skills, or at least the way I learnt them, is to go for a long walk – nature walks suit me better, but it should be possible to do this anywhere you are. As you walk, practice spotting places that danger can leap out from, and practice taking note of everything around you – birds in bushes, types of tree, colours of cars, people with white trainers. After a while it will become second nature to you, with any luck, because until it does there will always be too much of a gap between the noting and the running.

Lastly, a scout that can’t memorise routes, objectives and other information is a scout that’s asking for trouble. Use whatever senses and ‘tags’ are appropriate (this oddly-shaped tree, that patch of fox scent, the sound of running water) to make a mental map of where you are at any time you’re out and about – it doesn’t matter that you can’t necessarily find your way about perfectly the first time you go somewhere, just that no matter what you can always find your way ‘home’ if asked. If you know roughly what time of day or night it is and can see the sun or the stars, use them.

Walk Like a Ninja, Project Like a Ninja

Walking quietly is actually pretty straightforward. The trick is to use something called coyote walking – keep your weight on your back foot, put your toes on your front foot down first, and don’t shift your balance until you’re sure that there’s nothing noisy under your foot. Variations on this can be made to encompass personal walking styles. Where possible, picking routes that don’t go through drifts of leaves is big and clever, ditto for brambles or twiggy scrubland.

Part of not being seen is not being where people expect to see you. Vary your height by dropping low to the ground or getting up above eyeline on rocks where possible, and use the cover if it’s not going to make you noisy – in the dark especially, you’re better trading quiet for visibility.

The other key point, and one that so many people forget, is if you’re just walking along pick your feet up properly. Yes, the bigger movement is possibly more visible, but you’re a lot less likely to scuff your feet, get caught on the undergrowth and make all the little telltale noises that practically shout “I’m here!”

Sudden movements are also, sometimes quite literally, a killer. They’ll draw the eye far more easily than slow movements, so if you do think you’ve been spotted and need to peg it try to withdraw quietly first unless you have confirmation they’ve seen you. When in doubt, freeze and count to five before moving again. If you can make yourself do it, walking in an irregular fashion will also help make you less noticeable.

When looking for cover, remember that part earlier about justifiable paranoia? Don’t forget that any scouts on the other side will be applying exactly the same rules, so hiding behind the only bush in the field or in the obvious gully is probably a bad plan unless they’ve been demonstrably oblivious, and sometimes you’re better off being silent and still in plain sight. This goes doubly for anyone intending to use IC skills such as Invisibility or Chameleon, because if they’ve just watched you disappear behind that lone tree and suddenly you’re not there, they have every right to suspect something and start sweeping the area with pointy objects.

Adapt how you move to the terrain you’re in. Sand dunes and long grass? Get on the floor and crawl. Creaky noisy forests? Move when the wind blows and use the natural sounds to cover yours. Thick ground cover? People will expect you to use paths, so where you can avoid them. Wet terrain and dry terrain have different colours, patterns and noises; beech woods require different tricks to birch scrub.

Don’t forget that occasionally stealth isn’t going to work, at which point speed (either towards or away from) is your best hope. Learning to run arrhythmically and quietly is hard work, but it’s worth it when you show up somewhere unexpectedly.

Speaking of shouting “I’m here!”, part of not being seen is about body language and mental projection. It’s possible to be shouting “I’m here!” without saying a word, and learning how to whisper “I’m not here,” instead is quite hard work. A starting point is to get into the habit of thinking “I’m not here” when out and about in a calm, confident way – panic is ‘audible’ to anyone with an open mind. Relax, be confident, and let yourself learn to walk with the crowd or through the woods without intruding on anyone’s thought bubbles. Trying too hard is just as visible as ‘shouting’, and beware over-reliance on this trick – watch me and Warren when we’re scouting on opposing sides some time to see why…

What to Wear

’You’re on lookout. You should see the dreadful enemy before they see you. What’re the four Ss?’

‘Shape, shadow, silhouette and shine, sarge!’ said Polly, snapping to attention. She’d been expecting this.

‘But I see you’re not standing in a bleedin’ shadow, Perks, nor have you done anything to change your bleedin’ shape, you’re silhouetted against the bleedin’ light and your sabre’s shining like a diamond in a chimney-sweep’s bleedin’ ear’ole! Explain!’

‘It’s because of the one C, sarge!’ said Polly, still staring straight ahead.

‘And that is?’

‘Colour, sarge! I’m wearing bleedin’ red and white in a bleedin’ grey forest, sarge!’

- Terry Pratchett, “Monstrous Regiment”

Contrary to popular belief, black is a horrible colour to scout in even at night (it’s not as bad as white, but it’s still pretty awful). The best colours are the colours of the scenery; muted browns, soft greys, mossy greens, tawny beiges. This holds just as true at night because the grey tones will match – of course, there are always exceptions, as Anders proves on a regular basis. This goes for skin as well, if you have some pots of facepaint and ten minutes.
Always a tricky one to find the balance for. Ghillie suits in their various forms do work quite well, but the downside is that you will almost certainly get caught on the scenery – and, if you’re really unlucky, the other players will attempt to slot you if they don’t recognise you or assume you’re dressed as a monster. As a starting point using a patchwork of colours will work quite well at hiding the geometry of your shape to casual observers.
Along with Squeak and Jingle, something to avoid like the plague. Where necessary pad out scabbards and armour with felt, fur or army blanket, and paint over any shiny metal fittings with matt black enamel if you can’t replace them.
Good kit will encompass Shape, Shine and Colour, and will allow you free movement without getting caught on everything. They will also, in the rare cases that you need it, allow you to sit in a bush for an hour in the cold and rain without dying of hypothermia. For this reason coats are preferable to cloaks, especially if they’re close-fitting and hooded, trousers are infinitely preferable to skirts, and layers are your friend. If you intend to be a fighty scout a combination cloak-coat might be the way forward – effectively a long, loose, sleeveless vest with a second capelet over the top that covers your arms – as this gives the best of both worlds and leaves your arms free. Good footwear is a necessity. Weaponry and bags either need to be easily carried without getting tangled up in the undergrowth or need to be sheathed/stowed in a way that won’t impede your movements – back scabbards for swords or maces, thigh and arm sheaths for daggers, sheer hope for bows or staves. Practising moving with your equipment through suitable terrain before the big day is highly recommended. And never forget your gloves – I recommend padded leather cycling gloves – because it makes crawling about and using trees for turning/braking points all that easier and less painful.

Scout Heroism, or When to Fight and When to Peg It.

The rules on this are very simple: if they haven’t seen you, and they’re not going to see you, and they’re not so gribbly that attacking is pointless, feel free to remove their kidneys. Otherwise, creep or run away as appropriate.

Because, let’s face it, if you’re playing a scout then chances are you’re going to be lightly armoured and probably using short weapons.

There will be times when this rule can be bent or broken; if there’s four of you, one of them, and you have a healer with you, bravery is appropriate. There are times when it will be ignored, but that’s usually when your character stops caring about surviving for whatever reason. There are times when you really can’t peg it, at which point you better hope your diplomacy or fighting abilities are better than the enemy’s. And, of course, there’s the jammy bastards who’ll win the fight regardless (I’m looking at you, Wiggins and Warren).

The heroism of a scout is having the guts to go out into the darkness on your own in the first place, and the honour of a scout comes from getting the information you need back to base without dying horribly in the process. Daring scout rescues generally require a lot of you and good planning.

So Where Does the Roleplay Come In?

The roleplay aspect of being a scout largely comes in with regards to the signature version of the generic scouting kit (Hobo Coat or the Autarii bushes or Agmar’s Ghillie Suit come to mind), how scouting missions are treated and with regards to the moments of suicidal bravery. I can honestly say that once I’m out on a stalk a lot of the time I drop the roleplay and concentrate on being a scout until a situation comes up; again, I keep a few signature aspects (Rosalind has always had a tendency to growl and get overly-focussed once on a trail, Kadija refuses to lose the headscarf even though it makes her stand out etc.) but unless contact is made with the enemy I have too much else on my mind.

This may or may not work for you, and is very much your call.

Once contact with the enemy is made, however, the rules change. The roleplay really is just how much your scout will do to save their neck vs. saving their friends’ necks vs. going for the enemy. To paraphrase, however – there’s old scouts, and there’s bold scouts, but there’s rarely old, bold scouts…

Playing Nicely With Others

Depending on where your scouting is taking place, it’s rare to be stealth-scouting completely solo without a certain degree of intent. On one hand, this means you’ve probably got someone watching your back. On the other, this means there’s more of you to get caught, and there’s always that tricky problem of communication. Working out silent distance communication before you go off on a foray is a definite advantage, as is knowing what everyone else is capable of so you know who to go to first in an emergency, as is the official extraction plan in case it all goes horribly wrong.

When out in a group, the same rules on irregular shaping apply – don’t set exact distances between you, give yourselves an approximation and then individually follow the shape of the landscape while keeping the line roughly spaced out, because repeat patterns draw the eye.

If the unthinkable happens and you are caught while scouting as part of a group, the polite thing to do is to make enough noise to alert the rest of the group that something has gone wrong without letting the enemy know that you’re not alone. At this point, it’s up to the rest of the group to decide whether to rescue you or not, so you better hope they like you…

In a similar vein, if you feel the uncontrollable urge to sneeze, cough or otherwise give away your position through loud bodily noises, the polite thing to do is to get as far away from your group as you can before it happens, muffle it as much as feasible then return to the group by a circuitous route that takes you away from both the enemy and your group to start with, just in case something has still heard you despite your best efforts.

Occasionally, when stealth just isn’t going to work, you’re better off rushing the bastards as a group before they have a chance to react. Surprise is one of the best weapons in the scout arsenal.

So, any questions?