Making grapples suck less in armed combat

Last post of Melee Academy was on getting into CC range with a grapple in one turn. +Mark Langsdorf picked up on this and showed a higher-percentage option to get into CC that takes two turns, and by his own notes, is really good at negating the hated Defense Bonus of a shield.

Martin Leuschen made a good comment in my post, pointing out (in summary) three issues:

  1. First, low armor DR vs. weapon damage: If full armor was actually proof against most attacks, the historical grapple-takedown-misericorde combo is much more plausible. 
  2. Second, high unarmed lethality: Striking unarmed is better than you might expect, so why grapple?
  3. Third is pacing: Grappling is indeed more likely to be drawn out, so it suffers in comparison to the stuff GURPS allows to be done every round, even if in RL it usually happens in brief flurries.

These observations are well-made, and honestly Technical Grappling probably won’t help here. First, none of these correct observations really have to do with grappling, so much as grappling compared to striking, where striking is found superior in actual play relative to grappling options.

But surely there are effective ways to actually use grappling in fights?

Hard to say. +Peter V. Dell’Orto and I exchanged emails about this topic, and his comments were on-point as usual:

Grappling when you need something to die now, and you have good means of making it die now, is a bad idea.

The problem I have is it’s pretty weak overall, thanks to the number of defenses the attacker gets against throws and grabs, and ability to break out of it. Judo Throw is a good example – if the attacker can’t stop you, it’s too powerful, but if he gets a defense, it generally fails. Realistically they take some setup, though, which is part of the issue. Maybe if they took a setup but where easier once you got the setup, it would be more useful.

Yeah. That starts to hit at some of the things I was realizing as I’ve been playing, even at Dungeon Fantasy point levels. But between Mark’s comments and Peter’s, there might even be some answers in there.

Stop Whining: How can it actually be done?

I think that grappling in the middle of armed combat can be effective, but you’re going to have to work it a bit. It may require a few house rules, though, as well as, perhaps, some legal but a bit munchkiny use of perks. It also might still wind up being less “efficient” or “optimal” than repeatedly striking with a maxed-out weapon skill.

Skills, multiple skills, and perks


I think one of the issues that might be at play here is that it is likely almost always a better option to have one skill that is really good than to have two that are decent but balanced. 

For grappling, I think what it boils down to is that defenses against grappling attacks are no different than any other defense. If you can do a Broadsword or Karate parry vs. a grappling attack at no defensive penalty, or more appropriately, at full defensive ability, then being relatively unfamiliar with grapples and defending against them is not a problem.

Part of this is quite simple: All armed skills are also grappling skills. You don’t need special training to grapple with a weapon, you can do so (make the grapple, that is) by rolling vs. Armed Grapple, at Skill-2. Boom. In an early draft of TG, I’d interpreted that as “treat Broadsword as a grappling skill, but at -2.”

That’s not correct; “Armed Grapple” is the ability to perform the usual GURPS grapple with a weapon. If you hit, your foe as at the usual -4 DX, and you can use any technique that you have the ability to do so using that grapple.

But perhaps a modification here would be to actually do that. Treat uses of (say) Broadsword in a grappling context as an Average technique defaulting to Skill-4 or Skill-6. That would mean using Broadsword to parry a grapple would be at -2 or -3 relative to a real grappling skill, but that a 4- or 6-point investment could make up for it.

Meh. That still wouldn’t drive wanting to branch out into more than one type of skill. Why do I care? Well, some of the earlier MMA matches were pretty one-sided, since lots of people trained in striking only, and got their butts handed to them by grapplers. The strikers didn’t know how to deal with them.

Of course, “I deal with a grappler by smashing him to the ground with my axe” is pretty effective.

One way to get around this is to do what I did for Cadmus: take your best weapon skill, or maybe both your weapon and shield skill, and default favored moves from it by buying a perk. “Judo Throw defaults to Axe” is perfectly legal (confirmed by RPK and it shows up in TG as well). The oft-seen “he slams into me and I flip him over myself with my shield” trick – I believe I’ve seen this in Gladiator, Braveheart, and in 300 – would be the perfect application of this.

Negating defenses


Of course, it still hasn’t worked out well for me in play. Peter’s point about multiple chances to defend, break free, and otherwise negate the grappler’s attack bears some consideration too.

So, what to do?

Well, if defenses are the issue, we have a few possibilities, and only one of them involves a rules tweak.

The tweak: Let Riposte stack with Deceptive Attack. It never occurred to me that this wasn’t allowed, and frankly shouldn’t break anything anyway.

OK, so clearly if the problem is that it’s just too darn easy to foil the grapple, then it’s time to start stacking up penalties. The goal here will be to follow up a weapon attack with a grapple and throw. Remember that Judo Throw can occur if you’re within a yard of your foe, that is, Reach 1. I don’t see the rules stating you must step into CC either.

Feint version

Let’s assume two fighters, both Skill-18, no Combat Reflexes, with DB +2 shields; Parry-14, or 15 with a retreat. I’m going to steal a page from Mark’s playbook – we’ll include something sneaky:

Turn 1, Step 1: Bash your foe

Your first offensive option is to hit them hard with something. This imposes a shock penalty. This is up to -4.

Turn 2, Step 2: Fake ‘im out

You’ll need to parry a blow, presumably, between your first successful attack and your Feint.

Shock canonically does not impact Active Defenses, but does lower DX and skill use. So your second step, while your foe is suffering from shock, is to Feint. This does impact defenses on the following turn, effectively translating the -4 Shock to -4 to defenses. All of them.

Step 1 and 2: Bash and Feint: If you can afford the penalties, consider doing both of these in one turn with Rapid Strike. 

Turn 2, Step 3: Riposte on your foe’s blow

OK, so your foe’s next defense suffers from your Feint. Now, on your next defense, you’ll want to parry the incoming blow, and Riposte to impart a further penalty. This won’t be much, probably only -1 or if you’re feeling lucky, -2. Still, if that stacks with Feint, that’s up to -6.

Turn 3, Step 4: Deceptive Attack on Judo Throw

Hey, look – you’ve just parried a blow, so you can employ Judo Throw using an Attack/Defense roll. Go ahead and throw in with a Committed Attack (Determined) for +2, and then lay down a -3 Deceptive Attack penalty. Your foe is now looking at -9 to defend, so his Parry is reduced from about a 15 (good luck with that) down to a 6. Even if he’s a Dodge Monkey with Dodge-15, he’s still only defending one time in 10.

So you throw him, and he has to make his HT roll to resist stun. If you want, throw him for damage, but mainly you’re hoping for the stun.

Turn 3, Step 5: Defend if he’s not stunned

He’s prone now, attacking at -4 and defending at -3. If you can Riposte on this one, you should. He might choose to Change Posture to kneeling, but if that’s the case you’re not worrying about getting hit.

Turn 4, Step 6: Nail him (this is Step 5 if he’s stunned)

You’re dealing with at least -2 (kneeling) and possibly as much as -5 (prone and suffering from a -2 riposte). Here, you will perhaps be looking at Telegraphic Committed (’cause I dont’ like to give up all my defenses) attacks to sensitive bits – choice locations like neck or skull, or chinks in armor. You can do AoA or Committed for extra damage, but personally, I think that the x3 or x4 multiplier you’ll get from locations (or the DR/2 you get from chinks) is the better bet here

Setup Attack version


For those who like Setup Attacks, from Delayed Gratification, this provides another pathway.

Turn 1, Step 1: Setup Attack


Launch a setup attack with your primary weapon. Your attack must succeed in order for the penalties to transfer, and you’re not necessarily worrying about damage . . .but you will want to leverage Riposte. Let’s say you throw that Setup as a Defensive Attack, assigning the +1 to Parry. At Skill-18, you can throw down with a -2 setup. Let’s assume your attack succeeds, but your foe thwarts the attack (though YOU might be looking at a -1 or -2 to your own next defense, since he can Riposte as well).

If you hit, then he’s suffering from shock, which doesn’t hurt his defenses, but will make him either back off or  at least succeed by less. Cap of -4 on shock means he’s still Skill-14 and Parry-14, so pretty capable.

Turn 1, Step 2: Riposte

If he attacks, parry him. You’ll be looking at, again, up to about a -3 (rolling vs 12 or 13) penalty you’re trying to stack via the Riposte, on top of the -2 from your previous setup. How does that work? With defensive attack and a Retreating parry, you can roll vs. a 13 with a -3 Riposte penalty.

Turn 2, Step 3: Judo Throw

Again, you’ve just parried a blow, so you can proceed to a Throw. Your foe is up to -2 from the setup, -3 from the Riposte, and then you can pile on another -2 from a Deceptive Attack this turn. Total of up to -7, but it takes one less turn to accomplish. Also, you’ll see that the Step 2 Riposte can be pretty even up, and you might not gain much. I’d say on the average, you’re looking at -4 or -5 here, but still.

Your foe will thus be resisting the Judo Throw at an upper end of about Parry-11 (still you only land it one time in three), but if things go well, could be looking at as low as Parry-7 (one time in six).

Parting Shot


These tactics I’m sure aren’t perfect, and other options are available. But it’s pretty clear that unless you’re facing mooks, you’re going to need to work it in order to leverage a dynamic grapple in a lethal combat situation. It’s also not clear to me that, in the end, the best strategy isn’t just to repeatedly use that optimum swing to the neck over and over and over. It’s boring as hell, but it’s efficient.

The key seems to be tweaking the rules a bit, and finding a series of moves that allow you to pile on enough penalties to make that throw irresistible. Of course, if your throw is irresistible, so is a coup de grace with a sword. The purpose of the throw, then, is likely to allow a second-line fighter to act as the finisher while he’s stunned or incapable of defending. A handy spear or poleaxe on a prone and stunned foe seems like a good way for your front-line guy to move on to the next victim.

8 thoughts on “Making grapples suck less in armed combat

    1. Or maybe the real strength or grapples is that they are effective when they are not expected. Still they'll make sense only when striking isn't effective. This has become a new direction for a PC in my palantir campaign because he doesn't have the strength to do real HP damage.

  1. I'd like to see some posts on grappling when you are unarmed and your opponent is either also unarmed or armed only with a small melee weapon, like a knife (Reach C). I think that will come up far more often in modern games than fantasy games, AND you don't confront the problem that hitting for lethal damage is often just plain better.

    1. Amusingly, this can run into the opposite problem as above at times, at least with particular maneuvers. Arm Lock, I'm lookin' at you.

      I'm sure that as Technical Grappling comes closer to publication, the number of grappling-related posts I make will increase.

      The fact that I have made two in two days is not pertinent to the above statement, though. FYI. Promise.

  2. From someone who has trained in grappling against armed opponents, GURPS is pretty realistic. Only a skilled grappler or a really unskilled opponent will it realistically happen. The exception is what Doug is referring to as a Set Up attack. You have to figure out a way to deal with the weapon at hand to give you an opening. My learned methods were either to hit the weapon arm or kicking the groin or poking/slapping the eyes. So I like Doug's work around in GURPS for making grappling against an armed opponent work with the fairly realistic rules of GURPS.

    Now on to my other point. Even though it's realistic doesn't means it's always fun. Higher skill points of DF help, but also loosing up the realism a bit, if you have a character who really wants to grapple so that you can make opportunities for his character to shine. Of course, you don't always want to make it easy, but you know what I mean.

    1. One of the things that interferes with this a bit is the bit where the shock penalty from blows doesn't impact active defenses. Thus the shock then feint thing – that's a game-mechanical dodge to avoid the fact that thumping someone doesn't actually impact their ability to fend off the next blow!

  3. Doug, if you need an idea for a grappling related post, how about something as simple as "Grappling 101: The Basics" for people who have usually been too scared to try using the grappling rules as they exist. I don't mean that you should write a post full of GURPS rules, just that it would be nice to see what kinds of "basic" series of moves makes the most sense (with page references if you are feeling ridiculously nice).

    This, of course, makes a GREAT lead-in to TG… 🙂

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