Alternate Damage Mechanics for Technical Grappling

I was reading a post where someone was trying to introduce the concept of Technical Grappling to their group, but in a simplified and streamlined way. This is something I endorse.

One of the things that works fairly well in terms of end result but not everyone (including me, on some days) fully embraces is that in order to do damage to someone using a technique that’s resolved as a (usually Quick) Contest, you must first spend CP, then roll the Contest. Your damage is limited to the CP spent or your margin of victory, whichever is less.

The guts of the mechanic are simple. If you have grabbed someone really well, you can hurt them a whole lot – but you still have to apply your technique correctly, and your foe must fail to counter. Thus the conflict of Control Points (which are deferred injury, in theory and practice) with the margin of victory on the Contest.

However, if you lose, you lose the CP you spent, with no damage. So you don’t get something for nothing, trying to inflict damage has a risk. 


For certain grappling moves, this makes a certain amount of sense. If you’re trying to make someone submit, or break their arm, using an arm bar, if your attempt fails, perhaps your foe wriggled out a bit, or you otherwise gave an opening. You can get that control back, but you’ll have to work for it for a few seconds. 

If you want to apply injury repeatedly, you can wind up in a spend/recover/spend-recover cycle. Again, for a series of discrete injuries this need not be narratively jarring.

For other moves, the spend/recover paradigm is less satisfactory story-wise, and is harder to wrap your brain around. In a proper choke hold, for example, as shown to the right, it’s easy to wrap your mind around achieving that position and just putting the squeeze on. If your foe doesn’t do anything, he’s going lights-out. If he fights back, well, isn’t that best represented by attacks to break free? 

To a certain extent, no. Any given attempt to apply (in this case, with a blood choke) Fatigue Points of damage can be foiled by technique, position, and struggle . . . to a certain degree. Of course, that is represented by the defender winning his quick contest. OK, booyah. But you’re not really grabbing anyone less tightly if you win that Contest as the aggressor, and it’s theoretically possible to do a few choke holds in a row to apply FP damage, and as a result basically have no grapple at all. 

In short, you must spend and re-acquire in order to maintain some sort of hold, and while in the end, this works (you’ll choke someone into unconsciousness in roughly the right number of seconds), the herky-jerky nature of any given roll has drawn some criticism which is not undeserved.

The Roll Damage Option


There are a couple other ways you can look at this, of course. One is that the strength of your grip is naturally limited to your Trained ST anyway, and so how many CP you’ve achieved is a proxy for how much of your full power you can apply to your grappling moves.  So if you win your contest, you can apply some damage based on the number of CP you’ve applied.

There’s a precedent for this in the RAW method of applying damage, in a way. Wrench (Limb), on p. 82 of GURPS Martial Arts, follows the same pathway. You must grapple your target. If you’ve grappled him by the limb, you can wrench it. Win a Quick Contest of Wrench (Limb) – which is basically a ST-based technique – and you get to apply your swing crushing damage to the foe.

OK, let’s borrow that. For grappling moves that apply injury in the form of a Quick Contest and based on Margin of Victory (damaging arm locks and chokes/strangles, for example, or resolving Wrench Limb using TG – see p. 42), instead of being forced to spend CP, look up how many CP you have as if it were ST, on the Damage Table on p. B16. Roll swing damage based on that figure. 

I’m tempted to say roll thrust, but that’s a really, really small amount of damage. On the other hand, you aren’t giving up much by making the attempt. Perhaps some moves (like chokes, and bear hugs) would be thrust, while others (like locks and wrenches) could be swing. Again: how does it work in Actual Play?

Spending CP Anyway


No reason that you can’t also spend Control Points if you wish, for the usual reasons. Spend ’em to further lower your foe’s chance of winning the Contest for that moment (but apply damage based on what’s left, not the original total).

Also no reason not to allow spending CP to directly increase, one-for-one, the damage rolled. If you want to go all-out and give your foe room to maneuver to apply injury, go right ahead.

Critical Hits


One of the principles of Technical Grappling is that a lot of these contests not only have to be won, but you have to succeed your roll also. It’s not good enough to fail by less than your foe for many things (not so for others – see the book for details). 

So if you are using the Roll Damage option, and especially if you’re only rolling thrust rather than swing, if the attacker rolls a critical success on his part of the contest and wins, double the resulting damage. 

Joint Locks


Is all the Roll Damage rule option does, really, for many moves is restore the status quo. You roll a contest, and if you win, you roll damage – swing damage in the case of Wrench Limb or Neck Snap. 

So what’s the benefit of the Arm Lock? I’d give it the same as in the text: the attempts to apply damage are completely passive and count as a free action on your turn (though you still must win the Contest). Wrench (Limb) counts as an attack, consuming your turn.

That’s also going to be the difference between Choke Hold and Head Lock, even if used for the same purposes (to allow inflicting injury or FP using the Contest described in Choke or Strangle (p. B370): Choke Holds are your entire attack. Head Locks passively choke the guy out on your turn, allowing you do other things – including attack to achieve more CP to either make your foe less able to win the Contest for damage, or to spend and choke him out even faster.

Parting Shot

I like rolling dice for effects. I think the damage roll is one of the fun bits of tension in any RPG. 

I also think that grappling should always be as tightly integrated with the core mechanics of a game as possible. Technical Grappling claims to do this by replacing some of the usual grappling rules with the same attack-defend-effect trio used for striking.

While this alternate rule doesn’t replace the Quick Contest with an attack-defense pair, it does take a step back towards rules that are found all over the Basic Set and Martial Arts: win the Contest, and if you win, you get an effect roll.

Adding the concept of having to not only make your skill roll, but also win the contest (that’s Quick Contests and Technical Grappling, p. 11), there’s the opportunity to overachieve by  rolling a crit, and thus doing extra yummy damage. Since spending CP can only lower your foe’s chances of success, not raise yours, there’s no false economy of spending CP in order to help get a critical hit. You’re either good enough, or you’re not.

I think playtesting would be required to determine whether you need to roll on the thrust or swing table for damage. But there are a lot of “roll swing damage” in Basic/MA anyway, and since you have to earn enough CP to get to a high damage roll, my gut it telling me swing.

In a realistic game, if you (for example) grapple your foe’s arm for 4 CP (a slightly above average roll against a Trained ST of 14, which is 1d), you could theoretically apply Wrench Arm to apply injury. But with only 4 CP, you’re rolling vs. ST 4, which is 1d-4, and you can definitely roll 0! So 2/3 of the time, it’s worthless, which will encourage you to improve your grip or position.

The act of applying an arm lock applies CP in and of itself, so let’s say that you wind up with 7 CP (the average roll on 1d, twice). You are now rolling 1d-2, but it’s a free action on the beginning of each turn that you have your foe locked.

I’ll have to think more about this, but I kinda like it.

4 thoughts on “Alternate Damage Mechanics for Technical Grappling

  1. I hate to say it, but I'm anti-Roll Damage Option. For any hold, including, choking, I'm perfectly happy with the idea that, each second, I attack to gain more CP, and then I can spend those CP to inflict damage. I could for some reason use my free actions to inflict damage while I'm failing to get more CP (my attacks are getting parried, or I'm using my maneuvers to kick someone else, perhaps), but in that case my opponent's skill is paying off or I'm distracted, so yeah, my grip will slip if I try to push it.

    RDO, OTOH, if I'm reading it correctly, I can choke Mook A for swing-based damage and kick Mook B for thrust-based damage every turn until they've both fallen down? Or does RDO change inflicting damage with a choke from a free action to an Attack? Regardless, I don't see what this improves, unless you think grappling wasn't dealing damage quickly enough.

    If people are complaining "I must spend and re-acquire CP in order to maintain a hold," that's simply not true. We must spend and re-acquire CP in order to inflict harm with a hold, and it's easy to limit our expenditure to make sure the CP total doesn't dip below the desired level. If we're happy with how many CP we have and we don't wish to inflict harm, we can pass a limb and start tickling our opponent with our free hand, because we don't need to Attack for more CP to maintain the hold.

    1. Swing damage, but based on the CP you've accumulated. Unless you routinely get fights where you very quickly get to the CP limit, you're going to be doing damage based on the swing value for a fairly low number.

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