Skill Levels for Melee Combat in GURPS: Gladiatorial Smackdown

So, I wrote this Big Long Post on melee skill levels in GURPS. It got a lot of favorable attention.

Then, on Saturday night, March 2, I joined +Vaclav Tofl and +Michael Keenan in a Gladiatorial smackdown.

We each played 75 point characters, and since there were two PCs and five pre-gens, Michael and I were on the same team. I joined late, at 8:30, and we started almost immediately. My usual GURPS guy is Cadmus, a 313-point Warrior Saint. So I’m used to rather high-point combat.

Michael played a sword-and-shield guy, and so did I. I had a large shield, Shortsword-14, but not Shield Wall training. I also had Shield-14, for Block-13, Parry-13, Dodge-10. All characters were pre-gen’ed by Vaclav.

We faced a javelin-tosser, a strong berserker with a great axe and Reach-2, and a canny two-sword fighter with Sword-16 or so. So it was 2-on-3, starting at the opposite ends of maybe a 30-40 yard wide circular arena.

We scored a narrow victory. Michael’s character and mine were both down to lower than HP/3 by the end of the fight, with me at 4/13 and Michael hanging on to consciousness at 0 HP. The berserker went berserk, and his All-Out Attacking rapidly and inevitably led to his demise. He was the first casualty. The second foe to fall was the two-sworder, whose skill-16 was nearly the death of both Michael and I. I plodded on to the javeliner at Move 2 (halved for being chopped up a lot) and managed to force some sort of cowardice roll where he dropped his spear, and after that, he yielded. Technically, one might call Michael’s character the second casualty, as he got cut up quite a bit and wound up going all defensive, using the axe-wielder’s fallen body as cover for a while.

What were my take-aways?

  • I don’t know the 4e rules back-to-front, and you really need to run the game to master the game.
  • I stand by my post! Skill-14 to Skill-16 is the beginning of dangerous. My character, with an effective Shortsword-12 due to his large shield, really didn’t have a lot of fun attack options that didn’t leave him totally exposed
  • Reach 2 is a great thing to have; Reach 2 and Grip Mastery (Form Mastery?) that lets you change Reach on a weapon instantly is even cooler (the Axe guy had the Reach, but not the mastery).
  • Committed Attacks are still your friend, much more so than All-Out Attacks. They still have major drawbacks, but they’re a nice little boost. The Long option is really nice in some cases.
  • I brought down – but did not kill or incapacitate – the berserker with a crippling strike to the leg. At only -2, this is really your go-to target at lower skill levels – a cutting attack to the leg. Once it’s crippled (and while Knut the Berserker had DR1 tough skin, that was all the armor anyone had) your foe is basically immobile, and if you can back off a yard or three, he’s out of the fight. A prone foe is still hazardous for a yard or two, though – you can’t just ignore them.
  • The vitals are even nastier than I thought, and at only -3, this is Big News. Any injury to the vitals triggers a check for stunning, just like the head. That’s a monster fight-ender, since it invokes Death Spiral mechanics. I’d missed that when I read the rules, and figured that the x3 injury multiplier was enough. But no, even a 1-point injury to the vitals or head (eyes, face, skull) is enough to trigger a stun check
  • Don’t bother with a Large Shield at this point value if you don’t have Shield Wall training. That -2 hurt a lot at Skill-10-14. 
  • Partner tactics can work, but require a bit of pre-discussion. 
  • We had an interesting rules question (to me): If you start in someone’s side hex, and step to the rear, is that a runaround attack that gives -2, or (the way we played it) do you need to start in the front hex for it to qualify as runaround, and therefore you do get the “can’t defend” hit for stepping from side to rear. I think the text supports that you have to start in a front hex to qualify for runaround, which means letting someone in your side hexes is a bad, bad idea
  • Turns out that lower than 1/3 HP does, in fact, lower your Basic Speed. I thought it was just Move and Dodge.
  • The javeliner spent a lot of time aiming and throwing javelins at about a -3 or -4 penalty to no good effect, really, at the skill level he was tossing at (I’d guess 14). I think this suggests that better tactics for someone with a missile weapon is probably to run in, throw a hatchet (swing damage!) at short range, then Fast-Draw a weapon and mix it up. I think this squares with my comments on ranged weapon skill levels.
  • I’d mis-remembered the rules on Stun. You always take a Do Nothing after you’ve been stunned, and you make your HT roll to recover at the end of your turn. That’s an important bit of trivia, since it guarantees a stun result gives at least one round of Do Nothing to the victim.
  • Fallen foes and friends are a pain in the ass when you’re doing tactical combat, and the rules for movement points and facing changes really add up when it comes to tactical mobility.
I think such combat-heavy games might make good use of The Last Gasp and Delayed Gratification. I’m biased, though.

Vaclav had all this stuff down cold. I don’t think he mis-remembered any rule (maybe once? GURPS has a lot of rules), and he was perfectly willing to make judgement calls when it made sense. He was talking about a campaign that mixed Roma Arcana, Gladiators, and brought in Martial Arts. If I weren’t playing in two games  already, I’d sign up instantly. If you get a chance to play in his campaign, you should take it.

10 thoughts on “Skill Levels for Melee Combat in GURPS: Gladiatorial Smackdown

  1. Thanks a lot again for joining and for such a nice review. I m glad you liked this little event.
    Javeliner hit twice, actualy, Marcus the Thaex (Michael's Gladiator) managed to dodge both (once his shield got hit). Titus the One-Eyed had skill 18 (deceptive attacks made at 16).
    Taking down Knut the Germanicus by cripling his leg (luckily you rolled full damage) was actualy quite fortunate and good call on your side, when I did some alpha-testing before the session, he was quite hard nut to crack.

    1. When I say "hit" I mean "inflict injury." I don't usually consider getting thwacked and having it not penetrate DR (as an example) getting "hit," even though technically of course you DID in fact, get hit. Back to Cadmus, my Warrior Saint in a DF game: He has DR 9 on his torso and head; he can take some serious shots and ignore them. His companion, a Knight, has DR 13 or so. Nothing less than 2d+1 can even touch him (unless it ignores armor, had an armor divisor, etc).

      With the shield DR and HP in the Basic Set, you're pretty safe from losing your shield (as you pointed out during the game).

      Titus, attacking at -1 to defend with Skill-16 was probably the most dangerous guy out there. Some creative use of Cross Parry, Committed Attack, and perhaps even Dual-Weapon Attack (no one really had the chops for Rapid Strike, though Committed(+2 to hit) Rapid Strike for two shots at 14 for Titus came close) might have made him really lucky.

      Effectively, this fight played out as 2-2, with some harassment from the javeliner. We managed to foil javeliner more easily than I'd have thought in a big open arena like that by keeping his parters between him and us.

      The leg shot is almost the only really valid tactic at that point level. Given the -2 to skill from the shield, the points spent on Agrippa's Targeted Attack are pretty well moot; 10 is just not a number I really want to roll against if I can help it!

      I think the careful selection of maneuvers you forced with weapon and ability selection really taught me something, and I recommend it for beginner players to. Once you're in the big point values (high attacks AND high defenses), you can do more fancy, fun things, but you don't have to give up that much.

      As far as Knut the axe-man, that shot to the leg is my go-to for guys like that. The penalty is offset by Committed Attacking, cut damage applies fully, and "more than HP/2 injury" is pretty darn accessible. Guys like that should invest in some leg armor if it's allowed!

  2. Some quick comments:

    Reach 2 and Grip Mastery is great. Reach 1,2 without a * is better – two-handed swords are extremely effective in this regard. Plus, they are better for multiple parries.

    I play runaround attacks the same way. My players vociferously disagree, but they're wrong. Leaving someone only in your peripheral vision and hoping they don't move for a backshot is extremely foolish. Runaround rules are to prevent Move 6 guy from doing a full run around you and then hitting you in the back with no defenses, not to give you 300 degrees of protected coverage.

    Throwing weapons are overrated. Useful, but sometimes people put a lot of stock in them but it's hard to hit, and they are extremely easy to defend against. They are most useful, in my experience, for back and flank shots across or into a confused melee. Orc turns to face your friend, you pitch an axe into his back.

    I'm sorry I couldn't attend. I had plans with my wife. Maybe another time.

  3. I treat movement from flank to rear as a known attack from behind – basically an attack by an invisible attacker. So -4 to defend, and for most people, no parries or blocks. I think it's a fair reading of the rules and a gameable position.

    I agree with Peter that thrown weapons are best used from flank or behind. What I've normally seen is a Move and Attack, running to the off-shield flank of a guy who is already engaged in melee with an ally and throwing from 3 yards away. Thrown weapons are easy to parry, but giving up a parry in melee is dangerous, so even if the thrown weapon is parried, it has some effect. Archers can stay behind their allies, but the thrown weapon guys need to maneuver.

    1. I agree with this assessment – the "no defense" is really there for sneak attacks. If the opponent is aware of your presence, he should at least get a severely penalized dodge attempt against an attack from the rear.

    1. Originally Posted by Kromm
      For HP: Move and Dodge.

      For FP: ST, Move, and Dodge.

      … On p. B380, under "Effects of Injury," first bullet point, "1/3 or less" should be "less than 1/3" (to agree with p. B419). It should also be clearer that the effects are on Move and Dodge, not Basic Speed. This is a consequence of the summary on p. B380 not being updated with the rest of the book during our edit. I sent in the erratum some time ago, but it seems to have missed the queue.

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