Over on the SJG Forums, a thread emerged that has started to wind down with an interesting question. GURPS (and other systems) author Bill Stoddard asked a basic question. Acknowledging that his real-world experience with grappling was basically zero, and his familiarity with the goals and methods and lingo was limited enough that, well, let’s use his own words:

My immediate sense of bafflement comes from having read the Basic Set rules for grappling two or three times, and not being able to say, “Okay, I see why you do this, and then you have this option and this option.” I don’t have a Gestalt for what’s going on that would match my Gestalt for striking blows.

I’m interested in the actuality of grappling primarily as an aid to understanding the game mechanics

OK. So with that in mind, what is grappling? That should lead to a productive discussion of game mechanics allowing for an entire range of complexity in both mechanics and effects.

Where I would like to start is “what is the tactical logic of grappling combat?”—that is, what are the objectives and what are the means by which it’s attained? [ . . . ] I think I need to have a focus on the very basic issues before delving into the technicalities.

A fine place to start.

Restrain yourself. Actually, no. Restrain someone else

OK, at the broadest sense, grappling and wrestling are about restraint. You are attempting, in a grappling-based fight, to restrict your opponents movements to the point where the only allowable actions your foe can take are those which you allow him.

Such restrictions can be:

  • He cannot use his hands (handcuffing, for example, is grappling with a mechanical aid)
  • He cannot run (bearing your opponent to the ground and sitting on him, or leg-cuffs, or gluing feet to the floor all qualify)
  • He is restricted to a position that you want him to be in, and cannot easily change that position (a wrestling pin, a police officer putting a suspect on the ground and kneeling on him)
  • He cannot speak (putting a hand or object over the mouth and jaw)
  • He can do what he likes, but you’re dragging him with you (alligator!)
  • He cannot breathe, or have blood flow to his brain (choke and strangle holds)

The science and art of grappling is one of applied and denied leverage. You are going to use your own body weight, strength, and position, plus environmental and positional factors such as the walls and the floors, your relative positions to minimize the required effort to achieve the above restrictions, and also minimize the effectiveness of his own attempts to resist your restrictions.

Take the oft-mentioned example of an “arm lock.” Now, there are a zillion types, but most of them pit either major body parts or muscle groups of the controlling grappler against a foe who is really out of position to fight back.

The classic grounded arm bar position, for example, puts both arms, legs, and the core of the controlling grappler all against his foe’s arm and elbow. The “victim” cannot usually bring any of his major muscle groups to bear; his arm is hyperextended and unable to apply leverage. His motions are restricted by the attacker’s legs.

A more weapon-oriented example would be that of defense by grappling the arm of someone trying to stab you with a knife. Immobilizing the arm with the knife in it – or even better taking that weapon away – would seem an obvious goal. As such, you want to put as much restriction on that movement as possible, while denying your foe opportunity to regain control of his weapon and the initiative with which to attack you again. Which is why idealized knife defense ends up in positions like the aikido image to the right.

This is why – to segue into game mechanics for a moment – I chose to apply not just penalties to DX (as with RAW) but to ST as well.

Most of grappling consists of ways to achieve this sort of restraint on your foe while avoiding restraint on yourself. This is not always possible, especially with two skilled combatants. In fact, in many cases, grappling is fierce, mutual, and may have an outward appearance of near-stasis that either participant would characterize as anything but static!

But tell me: who’s winning or advantaged in the picture to the right?

They’re both going for chokes and restraint applied through the cloth of their uniform jackets on the neck.

They both have restricted the motion of their opponents. The standing one by using his weight and standing position to keep the other in place. The person on his back . . . may not be that disadvantaged. In fact, he may well be winning, as he may have both sides of the collar, and is restricting his foe’s ability to escape with both legs (the technical term is “he has the standing foe in his guard.”

So again . . . what is grappling?

Grappling is basically a process. And in broad strokes, I look at it like this (and as a by-the-way, I’d love to hear other ways of explaining this process from other grapplers and teachers). Note that I wrote about the basics of grappling as discussed in GURPS Technical Grappling from a game-mechanics point of view a while ago. There’s a whole section on this blog devoted to grappling combat (though I haven’t updated it in a while. Bad Doug!)

First: grab the guy. Or vice versa.

It might be obvious, but it’s worth repeating – grappling involves some level of sustained contact. It can be quite brief, such as this example with Rickson Gracie and Ed Norton from Incredible Hulk.

But the first thing you need to do is get a hold of your opponent – and that can include his grabbing you. Many self-defense moves are initiated by using your foe’s grip as the starting point.

Second: Get a better grip

While some grapples might start out awesome, many more start from so-so to pretty good but then have to be developed. This can be fast or slow, grounded or standing up.

But basically, at this part of grappling, you are working your foe to try and have him offer you the opportunity to improve your position more and more. Where you stop “improving” and move on to something else depends on what your goal is. If you’re trying to do something like not get killed then your goal might simply be to get your foe into a good enough grip that you can throw him down and then run away. If your goal is to win a sporting contest according to a specified set of rules (say, College Wrestling or Submission Fighting or Sumo Wrestling) then you’re probably trying to get him into a position where you can apply one of the allowed “fighting-winning” techniques.
If you are engaging in a lethal fight to the death against an armored opponent, your goal might be to get him off his feet onto his back or face so that you can apply a finishing move through a gap in the armor.

But that brings us to the third phase.

Third: Get the right position

Some contests, such as collegiate wrestling, can be won simply (not easily!) by developing your grip to the point that your foe is more or less immobile, but only if he’s in the right position. This “pin” pr “fall” is accomplished by one fighter holding both of his foe’s shoulders or shoulder blades to the mat for one or two seconds (two in high school, one in college).

So . . . if you start standing, you’re going to have to get your foe down on the ground, flip him on to his back, and get his shoulders on the ground.

If you’re in a lethal fight, or a self-defense situation, your goal might be to get on top of, or behind, your opponent so that you can prevent him from attacking you, perhaps while attacking him back (or to simply escape).

Still – you’re looking for an advantaged position, where you are grappling things you care about, in a way where your foe’s options are limited to those you chose for him.

Sometimes, you may need to bear your foe to the ground to do this. Sweeps, takedowns, throws – these can be the beginning or (in, say, sport Judo or Sumo) the end.

Fourth: win

After you get a grip on the guy, after you improve that grip to the point where you’ve got sufficient control over your foe, after you wrestle or throw or trip or roll or shuffle yourself into a superior position, then you need to end the fight.

This again depends on the goals.

  • Win a bunch of “points.” This might be through many position changes to demonstrate superior skill. Common in junior sports grappling or some types of wrestling. Get enough points, you win.
  • Get a fight-ending position. The pin or fall discussed earlier. These positions may or not be practical – in college wrestling, being face-down is not a losing position (though you may be getting your face ground into the mat in unpleasant ways), but being on your back is.
  • Change your foe’s position suddenly. Judo throws and Sumo matches end this way.
  • Inflict pain. Submission wrestling and many contests of machismo or dominance end when you bend the person into a pretzel and he says “Ow! You win!” Choke holds, arm bars, shoulder and knee bars and locks, finger locks, pressure points. They’re all good.
  • Render him unconscious. Some versions of submissions can be by restricting blood flow to the brain. If you black out (this can happen in only a few seconds with the right technique), you’re done.
  • Injure him. Most moves that will submit can also be used to cause permanent injury. You can also, if fighting for life rather than grappling for fun, engage in a bit of judicious beating the bejeeezus out of your foe. The classic “ground and pound” from MMA, where you leverage a position on top of your foe to repeatedly beat him in the face is an example here.
  • Kill him. Choke him until brain death. Break his neck. Strike until he dies, with or without a weapon.
These goals can change as the fight changes, of course.

Parting Shot

The basic moves here, get a grip, make it better, achieve a sufficiently dominant position, end the fight, are reasonably descriptive and yet overly simplistic. Rarely will a grappling contest go quite like that. A super-skilled combatant – a real life or cinematic Jason Bourne or Natasha Romanov – may well do multiple steps at once. The initial grab is powerful enough that it doesn’t need to be developed. The “achieve superior position” and “incapacitate your foe” moves might be all in one.
On the other side of the spectrum, the initial grab can be broken, so that you have to start over again. You can grab your foe, start to improve it, but make a mistake and find yourself on the receiving end of having a grapple or position change put on you.
Most often, the combatants are both striving for a good grapple and position, and both are succeeding and failing at different things at the same time. One grappler is going for a choke hold, while at the same time trying to fend off his foe’s attempts to put him in a wrist lock or achieve a takedown. Or both grapplers are standing, pushing and pulling in a mutual grip to find a moment of weakness or imbalance to exploit.
But for a basics – to answer the original question of a heuristic that allows one to consider a branching if-then-else (or more likely, a CASE statement for grappling!) decision tree of what to do, the presented version is probably a good start:
  1. Grab him
  2. Grab him better
  3. Achieve a dominant position
  4. End the fight

3 thoughts on “What is Grappling anyway?

  1. Doug, as always, is spot on with his analysis. I'd like to add some bits from the tactical side. In Modern Arnis, we primarily use grappling for the following:

    1.) To Aid/Improve striking. Getting control of one or both of your opponents arms tends to make parrying difficult/impossible. Plus gaining the right angles and leverage make limb destruction a lot easier.

    2.) To ground our opponents while we remain standing. A prone opponent is GENERALLY less capable of defending himself from your strikes, and is GENERALLY less of a threat.

    Because of the two reasons above, most of our grapples are short-term affairs, and aren't generally maintained. There isn't a whole lot of grip improvement. If we grab and the grip sucks, we usually just release, strike a few times, and then try again, or move on to something else.

    Arnisidors also carry the assumption that every fight is going to contain multiple armed opponents, so we tend to be very mobile and try to avoid getting tangled up in a wrestling match.


  2. Very interesting. In Burning Wheel, grappling (which it calls 'Locks') is basically handled by earning a penalty for your opponent. Translating into d20 terms, you might initiate a grappling attack and get your opponent in a '-2' or '-4' lock. If you keep it up, your efforts just make that penalty bigger – eventually the enemy has such a huge penalty that they can't do anything other than surrender (or squirm ineffectively).

    There's no modelling of specific holds, it's all rendered as the penalty.

    The grappler is free to do other things while maintaining the lock (e.g. stabbing their target), subject to sensible restrictions and ad hoc penalties. Using your sword, for example, would be heavily penalized. Choking someone out is either doing unarmed strikes, or just increasing the lock. If you move away from your target, of course, the lock goes away.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *