Melee Academy: Shedding Grapples as a Striker

Over on the forums, a poster was asking about single use versions of skill and asked about Break Free, as an action after a grapple. Naturally Technical Grappling came up, and aesir23 pointed out that Break Free was a technique that could be bought up with Technique Mastery.

Honestly, I’d forgotten about that.

But it’s true, and my reply engendered this thought: what is the best way to be a striker, but also shed grapples like a fiend?

The Basics

A couple things to think about here. How you fight, and what you have to be good at to get out of a grapple.

What kind of striker are you?

Obviously you have three options. Boxing, Brawling, and Karate. As +Sean Punch points out, the best way for a striker to shed a grapple is to not get grappled. This is simply a good Parry or Dodge, and includes hands-free counters to such moves, which are cool (TG, p. 22).

If you’re going to focus on getting out of grapples, though, there is Brawling, and then there’s Karate/Boxing. Brawling has a lot of grappling-oid stuff thrown in, and uses the Average progression for Trained ST; Karate and Boxing use the slow progressions. So Brawling is better for the sake of shedding grapples as a striker.

How to break a grapple?

Break Free in Technical Grappling (TG, p. 35) is no longer a contest of skill. Instead you attack the grapple itself, which requires a skill roll, penalized for being grappled, followed by an effect roll – basically a kind of roll for damage – which is also penalized for the quality of the grapple being maintained on you. 

All things being equal, though, you need to be both skilled and strong in order to break free. So as high a skill to get out as possible, and that skill is either DX or a “real” grappling skill. Then once you succeed in that skill roll, you need to have as high an effective ST as possible, to get the best possible effect roll.

The Cheat

OK, it’s not really a cheat. An Exploit, maybe. But one fully enabled by the rules – if you can convince your GM to do it.

The Combination of Awesome

The rules already endorse things like “Judo Throw defaults to Shield” or “Judo Throw defaults to Axe/Mace” as a Skill Adaptation perk, again if you can convince the GM it’s OK. The one you want here is “Break Free defaults to [My Striking Skill of Choice].”

Break Free, of course, is a kind of technique-that-isn’t, much like Judo Throw. it’s a skill that defaults to your DX or grappling skill, and can’t be increased beyond that skill . . . again, just like Judo Throw.

The trick comes in where you toss in another perk, this time Technique Mastery, which allows skills such as these to rise to up to Default+4.

The key, then, to shedding grapples with a one-skill wonder is to pay these 2 points, and then max out your Break Free technique for another 4 points. 

So now you’re at Striking Skill + 4 for the purposes of Breaking Free only. This will definitely impact your Trained ST.

Karate or Boxing

Let’s assume a reasonably competent warrior. We spend 30 points on ST 13, 40 points on DX 12, and score Karate-16 or Boxing-17 for another 20 points. Toss in 6 more for getting to skill+4 at Breaking Free and you’ve just sunk 96 points into ST, DX, and one skill. Of course, striker or grappler, you’re going to want ST even higher than that if you can afford it. But for the sake of this example, I’ve just burned nearly 100 points to create my one-skill wonder.

He’s got either

  • ST 13, DX 12, and Boxing-17 (DX+5), Break Free-21 (DX+9), or
  • ST 13, DX 12, and Karate-16 (DX+4), Break Free-20 (DX+8)


Let’s start with the more likely of the two for many games. The Karate Kid has ST 13, and well more than the Karate at DX+1 required to give him his +2 per die bonus to ST, yielding 1d+1 punching damage. Karate uses the slow progression, but his Break Free still gives +2 to Trained ST, yielding Trained ST 15 and 1d+1 CP removed on a successful Break Free. That’s not bad at all. The high base Karate skill gives Karate Parry-11, Parry-14 if you retreat, and no extra penalties vs. weapons, but you take penalties if you’re encumbered.


Honestly, not much different than Karate. The Boxing Boy has ST 13, and also earns +2 per die bonus to damage, yielding 1d+1 punching damage but only 1d kicking. Boxing uses the slow progression, but his Break Free still gives +2 to Trained ST, yielding Trained ST 15 and 1d+1 CP removed on a successful Break Free. That’s not bad at all. The high base Boxing skill gives Boxing Parry-11, Parry-14 if you retreat. No encumbrance penalties (handy if you’re fighting in armor or just heavily laden), but penalties to defend against weapons or kicks. 


Brawling is interesting because while it’s less “sophisticated” than the other striking skills, it’s an Easy skill, and also uses the Average progression. That same 20 points in Brawling gives Brawling-18 (DX+6) and Break Free-22 (DX+10). You punch and kick at +1 per die, which is a punch at 1d, but DX+10 on the Average progression is +4 to Trained ST, which is 1d+2 CP removed per successful attack.

Striking Summarized

All of these guys are one-trick grapplers, able to shed grapples with aplomb. They can absorb some pretty hefty DX penalties due to being grappled and still have a 16 net skill (handy for the 6 or less to critically hit). Even the Karate Kid can get hit with -4 to DX and do this, which is a fairly good initial grapple (the point being to shed them as soon as they’re applied). The Brawler can absorb that same -4 to DX and lay on a Deceptive Attack for -2 to hit, -1 to your foe’s defenses. Since your foe will need to do something like 8 CP to inflict this much of a penalty, which requires Trained ST of over 17 to even think about doing in one round, you will have a credible defense against that first grapple.

Limited, but very credible.

Real Grappling for Real Defense?

The other way to break out of a grapple is to actually have a grappling skill, of course. The best bets here are going to be Wrestling (good for locks and throws from locks, plus your basic grapple and takedown stuff), or the much ignored Sumo Wrestling.

The interesting thing about Sumo, of course, is that it’s primary bonuses are to slams and shoves . . . which are strikes, not grapples. That makes it an ideal pairing for a striking skill, and it also uses the fast progression for trained ST, which can add up darned quick.

Still, given “only” 26 points to spend between striking and Sumo . . . is it ever “better” to split your points?

Let’s see.

How Much Sumo?

Well, that will depend on the striking skill it’s paired with. Boxing and Karate both hit Trained ST 15 with the perks applied, and that requires DX+2 in Sumo, or Sumo-14, for 8 points. That leaves 18 for the main skill, which can only really use 16 of them. Boxing-16 or Karate 15. Toss in an extra point into the pool, and with Technique Mastery and Break Free at +2, you even get another point of Trained ST. 

So for 97 points, you can get

  • ST 13, DX 12, Sumo Wrestling-14, Break Free-16, Boxing-16. Trained ST 16, 1d+1 CP.
  • ST 13, DX 12, Sumo Wrestling-14, Break Free-16, Karate-15, Trained ST 16, 1d+1 CP.

Why would you ever do this? You’ve lost 5-6 points of the ability to break free!

I won’t argue dual-skill is better, but it certainly does give some options. For one, Sumo is a prime skill for takedowns, sweeps, shoves, and slams, all of which will be rolled considering Trained ST 16 and Sumo-14. That +2 Training Bonus adds to slam and shove damage too. It also gives an opening to grappling-based position changes, using your Trained ST to try an obtain a favorable arc within a grapple to strike (slither into your foe’s side arc, and nail him at -2 to defend etc.) – which requires a grappling skill. It also gives access to Escaping Parry at 8-, which isn’t great, but you can’t even try it with a striking skill. Likewise for Grabbing Parry, which would set up a Grab-and-Smash rather well, turning an excellent CP roll into an even higher striking damage roll. 

Finally, if you just need to grab someone, you’re not half-bad at it. Sumo Wrestling-14 and 1d+1 CP is nothing to sneeze at, and if bludgeoning someone into pudding isn’t a desired outcome (say, you’ll get arrested, or you’ve got an ally you need to subdue but not damage), your next best option after striking is . . . DX 12.

Parting Shot

If all you really care about is breaking free of a grapple, then the one-skill wonder is probably your best build. With Break Free at anywhere from 20-22, you’re very, very good at this, and if your striking parry fails, you will have a great chance of removing significant control each turn, though you can never really establish much on your own (DX 12, 1d CP instead of Sumo-14, 1d+1 CP).

The “balanced” build sacrifices a bit of striking (but not much; just a point) for a lower roll to Break Free, higher CP if you do break free, but a much more rounded set of combative options.

But Maybe Not

Skill Adaptation requires a lot of judgment, and allows taking some core moves and shifting skills with them. With Skill Adaptation (Break Free defaults to striking skill X), you’re basically saying “thanks to this perk, I have none of the usual weaknesses for being a striker.” It would be – and maybe should be – well within the GM’s perview to say “nope, nope, nuh-uh” and just declare that you can’t have this. 

Another way to go is to require this perk more than once, and limit it to specific moves, under the model of Clinch (Martial Arts, p. 51). This allows grapples, but only of the head, neck, or torso of a standing opponent. 

So it would be pretty reasonable to have strikers be good at breaking certain kinds of grapples. Say, you can only use it once on initial contact – sort of an extended version of a parry/sprawl defense. It would be reasonable to be very good at, for example, breaking free of a clinch.

That being said, it would also be kosher to say that your attempts to break free of grapples represent strikes with the elbows, knees, and head that loosen the foe’s grip. Not enough to cause damage, but not requiring a whole body of skill to do it.

Technique Mastery is a definite border case. It’s allowed right there in the rules for Judo Throw – which is so close to the forbidden “core use of the skill” that it’s questionable in its own right. +Peter V. Dell’Orto points out that unlike the Perks version of this ability, it calls out that the technique you’re mastering requires that you “specialize in a technique – commonly a kick or throw – that’s part of your style and appears in Chapter 3 (the GM may make exceptions).”

The fact that Break Free defaults to DX or skill and can’t be improved beyond skill would seem to indicate that it’s in that restricted category . . . but Judo Throw is the same way.

Ultimately, though, what this perk does if you allow it is for five points, you can ignore up to -4 to DX from grapples before you suffer ill effects for applying your ST to get out . . . but note that your ST is still affected by the control points. If you’ve got 8 CP applied to you, you’re usually -4 to ST and DX. This will leave your Break Free at full skill, but you’re still -4 to ST, which is -2 to Control Point rolls. 

That ability to apply full DX against a foe that’s grappling you is somewhat worrisome, though, and did not enter the discussion during playtest (I checked).

In retrospect, I might disallow Technique Mastery on any ability that is so core that it’s usually “defaults to skill, can’t be improved beyond skill.” That includes Judo Throw, Break Free, punching (but not kicking), and Bear Hug, 

Change Position (TG, p. 35) and Force Posture Change (p. 35) would seem to qualify, but they always take penalties due to what you’re doing, and buying off penalties (but still not exceeding base skill) would seem OK here.

The Sprawling Parry would also seem to qualify, but it also seems to me very much like something you can practice. The fact that it defaults to parry at no penalty is likely due to the fact that you’re giving up a lot with the posture change, which is a form of built-in retreat. So I’d allow this one.

Ultimately, as mentioned before, this provides a ludicrously easy way to avoid a core weakness of being a one-trick pony. All strikers would be fools not to take it, which means it’s likely a crock that shouldn’t be allowed. 

That’s not where I thought I’d wind up with this one, but chatting with Peter has convinced me of the truth of it.

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