Melee Academy: Reach basics

Welcome to the August installment of Melee Academy, which as always is a fine way to celebrate the fact that Thursday is GURPS-Day.

Today’s topic was inspired by a pretty long forum thread on using reach weapons, and the impact of the Wait maneuver providing what seemed to be a sure-fire way of closing to combat range with a Reach 1 weapon. We’ll assume for the same of simplicity that Fighter 1 has a Reach 1 weapon, a broadsword, axe, or something similar, and Fighter 2 is wielding a Reach 2 weapon, usually conceived as a spear (with a thrusting mode only for imp damage, a tip slash for a small amount of cutting damage, or using the butt to smash). However, it could just as easily be a naginata (sw cut) or dueling halberd (many effective modes) or other polearm, which could conceivably have swing or thrust modes that do impaling, cutting, or crushing damage.

Still, the principles here probably can be said to apply to any reach discrepancy, whether it be our Reach 1 vs. Reach 2 (or likely 1,2) example above, but could also apply to a punch (Reach C) vs kick (Reach C,1) fight.

But before we get into that, what are the sources of reach advantage?

Size: Larger creatures may well have larger reach, or be able to (as +Mark Langsdorf notes in his own entry on shield walls) simply negate a reach advantage by walking over it.

Weapon: The easiest way to get a longer reach is (obviously) to pick up a long weapon. Spears, polearms, some longer swords, two-handed axes and flails, and the ever popular staff all have at least Reach 2, and some are even Reach 2,3. Some pikes can be Reach 6, but those are not exactly practical adventurer-level gear.

Maneuvers: There are a few different ways of picking up an extra hex of Reach above and beyond the natural one for your weapon of choice.

All-Out Attack (Long) gives you a flat-out extra yard of reach, at the low-low cost of all ability to defend. The possibly suicidal nature of All-Out Anything has been discussed before!

Committed Attack is an interesting one, since it allows an extra step, which can explicitly be used to step into range, and then step out (called in the text ‘attack and fly out’). The trick to watch for here is that your defensive option are quite limited. To quote the text:

The attacker cannot parry with the hand(s) he used to attack, block if he attacked with his shield or cloak, or dodge if he kicked. He can use any other defense, but at -2. He cannot retreat.

So when doing this, you really need to be a bit careful, since if you declare Committed Attack and then press into someone’s Wait, you have precluded, by maneuver selection, a retreat.

This does not add extra reach, but might make it easier to leverage a reach advantage. +Peter V. Dell’Orto talks to this in his own discussion of how to keep a reach advantage.

Wait, Wait!

Many interesting but frequently futile discussions arise when conducting thought experiments that feature two fighters on an infinite featureless plain. In our case the forum thread pointed out that if Reach 2 decides to be aggressive and attacks into Reach 1’s Wait by closing to a two-yard distance (optimum striking range for his pole weapon), Reach 1 can have his Wait trigger on Reach 2’s step, which means he can step instantly to a 1-yard distance, and attack Reach 2 first, seemingly bypassing Reach 2’s spear. Just like magic.

As Peter points out, and as +Sean Punch noted in two replies, this is somewhat reflective of the spearman being aggressive. He’s not taking the right steps that can guarantee him the first shot – largely using the Wait himself.

Who’s waiting for Godot?

For the consideration of reach, there are really four situations that can be dealt with here, looking at two combatants, flat featureless terrain. So, with that:

Both Waiting


This one can be not terribly interesting, in a way. Both fighters are effectively immobile, unless one or both of the house-rule Step-and-Wait, or even Wait-and-Step are available. This can last a long time- effectively forever, unless some external factor pushes the decision. The Step-and-Wait / Wait-and-Step might trigger cascading waits (Martial Arts, p. 108).

Now, the Cascading Waits situation is interesting, because it largely means the more skilled fighter wins, with Reach breaking ties according to A Matter of Inches (Martial Arts, p. 110, in the box).

But there really isn’t – and frankly, I don’t think there should be – a way for the spearman to enter into a Wait (meaning it triggers) and automatically defeat the Waiting guy.

The Wait-and Step is an interesting option, basically invoking Cascading Waits any time the entering character wants. That’s cheesy, so perhaps you shoud treat that as sort of a Committed Wait, where you take -2 in the Contest to see whose Wait triggers first, and/or suffer some of the penalties associated with a Committed Attack.

Reach 2 is Waiting


Nightmare for Reach 1, and this is the way most people figure this should work anyway. The guy with the long weapon Waits until Reach 1 steps to three yards away, then Reach 2 steps and attacks. This is a nice place to use “attack and fly out,” since it puts you back to 3 hexes distance, and Reach 1 has already used his step – he may have even retreated back to Reach 4! He’s going to have to do something desperate to get inside of you – possibly a Move and Attack (max skill capped at 9) or if allowed, Heroic Charge, which still must deal with the spearman’s Wait, but if he lives, can close the distance perhaps to strike.

Reach 1 is Waiting


This is the case that bugs people where Reach 2 guy has a hard time stepping into attack range (2 hexes) without triggering Reach 1’s wait. Of course, Reach 2 gets to defend, so proper investment in Grip Mastery and/or Form Mastery, to allow claiming that +2 to Parry for using a spear like a staff helps a lot. You can use All-Out Attack (Long) to jab at your foe from a distance that he can’t reach, but it sets you up, if you fail, to receive a pretty ugly Heroic Charge or even just a Committed Attack with two steps, which will close from Reach 3 to Reach 1 to split your skull.

Neither is Waiting


Well, you don’t have to worry about triggering a Wait, so Reach 2 will want to use Attack and Fly Out a lot, to step to Reach 2, attack, and then back off to Reach 3. That forces Reach 1 to also use a Committed Attack (two steps) or All-Out Attack (Long) himself, if he doesn’t resort to Heroic Charge or the skill-capped Move and Attack. All-Out Attack will also close the distance up to half move, but we’ve already discussed why that’s a bad idea.

For the Reach 1 guy, if he’s not entering into a Wait, he’s still going to need a way to deal with moving through the threatened area, which really is the multiple-step options above, Committed Attack being the go-to here.

Bring Friends


The infinite featureless plain with only two combatants on it? Yeah, that doesn’t happen much. The reason why some of the Wait strategies make a lot more sense in a more real environment is that all of these individual combatants are really worried about the random arrow from the small cluster of orcs downrange, or the other skirmisher running around trying to flank them. Once that wait is triggered, for example, the guy can act . . . but what if he runs into another spearman who is also Waiting, with a longer weapon, protecting his brother? Alternating who Waits and who advances might be one way of dealing with the Reach 1 guy with the uncanny ability to bypass the spear tip.

Mark lays out all of this and more in his post, where the more friends, the merrier, and he really gets into stacking the deck to the point where the Reach 2 guys are not foolish to All-Out Whatever.

Parting Shot

Having a long weapon can be a real advantage. But it’s sort of the equivalent of a minor attack or defense bonus. It’s not the decisive fight-ending aspect, and one has to be tactically wise in how it’s used in order to keep it in the “win” column. Especially when certain weapons are awkward to use at Reach 1 (long weapons in Close Combat can get tricky, as well), some tactical effort and ideally, help from friends is a good idea. Aggressively closing the distance is not a good way for the spearman to preserve a reach advantage! Further, having a long weapon is no guarantee that a shorter-weapon guy can’t get inside your guard.

The “good” news is that Waits are obvious. So you should never be surprised when you step into range and short-weapon-guy’s Wait gets triggered. You know it’s coming, and you also know that he can close two hexes of Reach or take two steps with the right choice of maneuver. If you approach with a Reach 1,2 weapon to a Waiting foe at that distance, well, you know what you’re getting into.

Another trick here is to make that attack against you that you know he’ll get into something a bit less serious. Employ a Defensive Feint on approach (Martial Arts, p. 101), lower his attack roll, then step into range. His attack is more likely to miss, making your reduced defenses from an Attack and Fly Out less severe. Using a Setup Attack of some sort (Defensive Setup Attack?) might be an interesting option as well, but would require further house rules.

8 thoughts on “Melee Academy: Reach basics

  1. The "I Wait." "I Step and Wait, and my trigger is him trying to step towards me" "I trigger my Wait" = Cascading Wait thing . . . yeah, I think that might need some playtesting. It seems like it could "solve" the Wait problem by going back to 3e's Contest of Skills, and basically give the initiative back to the more skilled person.
    That's a real argument against Step and Wait being universally allowed.

    It might be worth trying it that way, vs. trying it with automatic victory to the person who didn't Step, just to avoid people basically playing games to force a contest. A person who stood still and waited to move would have the reaction bonus over the person who committed to a move first. Hey, it's true in hockey on a penalty shot or breakway – he who gives away his line of attack first loses.

    But both ways need some trial to avoid that problem. At least as I read what you're saying.

    1. I was toying with (but didn't list) something like "you can only Wait-and-Step if you Evaluated on the previous turn, and you may only Wait and Step with the wait triggered on the person whom you Evaluated."

      That way, this becomes a multi-second thing where you're basically anticipating his Wait-trigger (that seems legit) and trying to get your spear in his way.

    2. I was thinking specifically of "this is how you can tip the scales when attacking into the reach of someone who you know is waiting." So it would be used (for example) to preempt the Wait of someone who you know is just itching to try the "He steps, and I close from Reach 2 to Reach 1 and nail him" thing.

      Of course, as I noted, this might just be best modeled by a Defensive Feint, which mucks up Waiting Guy's attack. So you see Reach 1 Wait, so you do a Defensive Feint. That knocks down his attacking skill which makes you better able to resist his entry move. If you parry his triggered Wait, you can step back and attack. You obviously need to use Defensive Feint/Committed Attack as a pair with the two steps option. This would make a bad-ass Combination for those really concerned about people pulling this trick.

      For ranged, if you knew someone was Waiting for you, you could maybe use this trick to invoke cascading Waits to get the first shot off (I'd assess a penalty equal to Bulk or Bulk/2 or something), but by and large, I was really thinking very specifically about the "I know he's going to try and enter my range, what can I do about it." The Evaluate might do it, but the Defensive Feint probably does it better – you know he's going to do it, you prepare and penalize his attack roll, and you still get to Dodge ('cus you can't Parry using the Committed option).

  2. This has been another hugely useful round of Melee Academy! I really appreciate the effort you guys put into your posts, and just wanted to make sure to actually say that to you.

    As for Waits, I have to admit, I haven't seen them come up much yet in my games. Granted, we haven't done a ton of low tech tactical combat, but we've done enough to expect to see Waits. I think the main reason I haven't seen Waits is that, frankly, there's too many things going on to be able to afford to just sit there and possibly waste an action (i.e. if your Wait doesn't trigger, you've just given up your turn for no gain).

    I think that much of the discussion of Waits in this article focused on the hypothetical infinite featureless plain with a duel. As you point out, that really doesn't come up in game. And it could be that Waits are only abused in theory, and never in practice. I'm curious, Doug, how many Waits have you seen in the grand brawls of your Jade Regent DF game? In our games, the ONLY time I've seen Waits was when a line of spearmen was literally preparing for a charge from centaur cavalry. Then it makes sense. But in regular combat, Waiting around is just a recipe to get shot, stabbed, clubbed, or sliced by an enemy you weren't focused on…

    1. Your comment has engendered a few thoughts that I'll probably turn into a separate post on this topic, but I think you have hit on a few key points. Wait is useful when you don't have anything more urgent to do, or when that urgency can be deferred to a larger gain.

      We have seen some Waiting go on in the DF/Jade Regent game (just this last time), but that was a case where our foe dove beneath the snow and was (will!) appear suddenly from beneath us – Wait is the intelligent thing to do.

      In High-Tech games, Wait is important to provide covering fire and pop-up attacks.

      In games that use The Last Gasp, Wait is an incredibly important Action Point recovery strategy.

    2. We see a lot of Waits – every fight, practically. It's not that you use Wait when you have nothing urgent to do, but when it's urgent that your enemies commit to their course of action first. It's an extremely rare fight where no one Waits in my games.

  3. Definitely an interesting topic. I think as a GM I might adjudicate the waits in the 2 vs 1 scenario as: The spear is longer and is in range to strike first regardless of who's waiting for who. The person with reach gets to try their strike first. That idea is without any play testing or significant thought trials, but I think it has some merit, and it would make things simpler.

    I'm also thinking that the person with the spear could probably try a feint to trigger the wait event. Cause to person to lunge in without actually getting within range. Next round, the spear person is at good range and has bonuses. Of course, I'm not sure the rules allow for using feint that way, but I definitely think it's realistic if it can.

    Just some thoughts on the subject. Might go read the forum thread now too.

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