Melee Skill Levels: A surplus of Awesome

Inspired by a post from +Patrick Halter.

OK, so you’ve got a highly competent character. Maybe it’s DF. Maybe it’s Monster Hunters. But with 250-400 points and a smackdown focus, you can bring the hurt with the best of them.

Problem is, you’re new to GURPS. Your GM is sitting there looking at you with that “there are six other people at the table, and my pizza’s getting cold at the same time as my beer is getting warm” look on his face.

Sure, he’s been playing GURPS for twenty years, and shows up with ten pounds of hardcover books plus every e23 supplement on a flash drive. That’s when he doesn’t just spout page references from memory.

But while you love the feel of your character, one-second-long tactical combat turns are not something you’re used to.

What to do?

Let’s start with some relatively simple stuff:

  • Ensure you can protect yourself. This means finding a space on the battlemat, if you use one, that prevents you from getting drilled from behind (where you get no defenses) in general, but with a ranged weapon especially.
  • Ensure you can protect yourself 2: Don’t ever get in a position to get ganked (gang killed, so says Urban Dictionary), because GURPS is not D&D. Hell, D&D may not be is not D&D in this respect, since being flanked is a terrible, terrible thing. But if you get surrounded, you are probably a step away from getting grappled, taken down, and murderized. Avoid it.
  • Ensure you can protect yourself 3: Critical hits aren’t just something that happens to other people. Ensure you have enough armor or Luck that you don’t get taken out of the fight by surprise on round 1. That sucks. Ask +Kevin Smyth.

Those are a few defensive basics that will keep you rolling dice and having fun with the rest of the group.

But now you want to dish out some hurt. Remember, you’re super-competent, so what can go wrong?

You need to realize that there’s such a thing as too much effective skill. Once your net skill is higher than 16, you’re not playing it right.

What you say?

Here’s the thing: your odds of rolling 14 or less on 3d6 are just about 90%. Sure, you may fail here and there, but not often. This is the point where diminishing returns start.

However, 15 and 16 have real value – they increase the odds of rolling a crit from 2% (at 14) to 5% to 10%.

So you pretty much want to try to always wind up at that skill level die roll, at the end of the day.. Got more? Good!

  • Aim for important stuff. The legs are a great target, since they are easy to cripple (more than HP/2 injury) and can be attacked at only -2. The vitals are awesome for stabs, since at -3 they provide a x3 behind-armor injury modifier. The neck is a perennial favorite. It’s -5 to hit, but doubles damage from cutting weapons. Plus: yay, decapitation. The face is also -5, and any blow to the head can cause knockdown or knockout. The skull houses the brain in humanoids, can be attacked at -7, and if you punch through the DR of the helmet and DR 2 skull (on a human) boosts all damage by x4. Big stuff there.
  • Aim for where they’re not protected. Some critters and men are well protected with armor, scales, etc. Some of these guys, however, have “chinks in their armor” which have half the DR of other areas, and are targeted at -8. If you find even your successful blows bouncing off of a frustrating amount of metal, scales, tough hide, or magically-tough cloth, eating this penalty might be key. If not, bludgeoning your foe to death mightn’t be in the cards at all. That can happen. +Peter V. Dell’Orto  and +Sean Punch are both well known for advocating encounters that are not “one scythe fits all.”
  • Depending on the other guy’s defenses, you may need to choose hitting at all over hitting something important. What does this mean? Any time you have a net skill of more than 14-16 you should consider Deceptive Attack. This is the remedy to the “U Can’t Touch This” syndrome that plagued highly competent characters in Third Edition. Deceptive Attack allows you to take -2 to your own roll in order to inflict -1 to all of your foes defenses that blow. Cadmus, my DF Warrior Saint, can occasionally wind up with Axe-24 or Axe-26 depending on how well he gets his Righteous Fury on. He can accept -10 to his attack roll and penalize his foe’s defense by -5. Defenses that are in the 10-18 range are annoying, but they’re in the steep part of the bell curve. Deceptive Attacks are great bang for the buck here.
  • Finally, hit a bunch of times. You can always Rapid Strike, for -6 to each blow, and attack twice while giving up nothing defensively. This can be important if your foe has lots of HP, or if his defenses are so high that you’re fishing for a critical hit (which denies your foe a defense roll).

These three offensive tips are a great place to start. Once you find combinations you like, write them down. It’s not even unrealistic – many fighters have moves they favor (Chuck Norris’ roundhouse kick ring a bell? No? I bet you’ve never heard of the Evil Overlord list either, then).

When you start to get used to how you like to spend your skill, things will go faster. It’ll be different depending on what you do. If you’re ST 23 and using a giant axe for a zillion points of damage, where you hit might not matter – torso is just fine, ’cause you can deliver so much damage to bisect nearly any target, while if you have lots of skill but a low-ST bow, you’re going to want to do a lot of aiming for chinks and eyes.

“It’s not the size of the nose, it’s what’s IN it that counts.”

Pretty much. Once you have enough skill, you need to spend it wisely.

If you are low-skill, you have to be more cautious, but the above advice probably still applies. You will just need to give up something (like your defenses, or parts of them, or a Fatigue Point or two) to leverage some of these, and you may not have enough skill to leverage several at once.

10 thoughts on “Melee Skill Levels: A surplus of Awesome

  1. This and your previous posts on skill level have been very helpful. Thanks. This one is especially good because you eschew options in Martial Arts, which, while important and good, are perhaps beyond the grasp of your intended audience. At least for now.

    I myself still don't use or see Ripostes, for example.

    1. I like to use Ripostes in the DF game I play in the same circumstances I use some of the techniques I list above. If my defenses are higher than 14, I'll often Riposte to lower the other guy's defenses 1:1. I often forget to take that option, though! There's a lot to keep in mind.

    2. To the extent I see Counterattack, I only see it as a purchased technique. Taking a -5 to hit for -2 to the target's defenses isn't as good as a Deceptive Attack.

      However, if you have a character that can reliably Parry or Block and who has spent 6 points on the Counterattack Technique, then there's no downsides to using it and you can stack it with Deceptive Attack. I've seen a couple of PCs do this in my DF game.

      As for Ripostes: a high skill defender (skill 18, Combat Reflexes, magic shield or a fencing sidestep) can push their effective defence above 16, so trade off some of that skill so the enemy has a penalty to defend. On the next turn, use that skill that isn't being spent on a Deceptive Attack for a Rapid Strike or to hit a high value target like the head or vitals.

    3. I wonder how well (or not) Counterattack now stacks with Setup Attack. That's not something I gave too much thought to, even though I offered a Technique option for Setup Attack in the article. Hmm.

    4. Counterattack only makes sense if you put points into it. That's not by mistake, it's just how it works out cost-balanced against everything else. It's one that if you intend to use it, max it out and do it a lot. If not, there are better ways to fight.

  2. I'd love to see an "advanced" version of this post that uses Martial Arts too. This is the kind of stuff that actually helps to make GURPS FAR more accessible. A new edition of GURPS for Dummies would necessarily include all of this stuff compiled into one book.

    1. Jake B. I agree, having an additional "advanced" version of this article would be great, although I'm afraid we can't ask so much to Douglas 😉

      A completely "new GURPS for Dummies" is a good point as well.

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