Melee Academy: Disarms in four systems

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Melee Academy: Disarms in Four Systems

Taking your foe’s weapons away is taught in many real-world martial arts styles. It’s presumed – correctly – that a disarmed foe is simply much less dangerous than an armed one.

In my experience, though, disarms are rarely used in RPGs. Sure, there may be mechanics for them, but for whatever reason, they’re just not done.

Why Disarm?

The first question, regardless of the game, is why disarm a foe?

  • Reduce their threat to you. This may seem obvious, but it also might not be that way, depending on the game system. If the majority of a foe’s threat comes from weapons, taking those weapons away can make a big difference in the outcome. Examples where this is probably true include D&D, where the base unarmed damage is only 1 point (plus STR bonuses). A game where it may or may not be true is Fate, where the “disarmed” temporary Aspect may or may not really impact the outcome (Thor is going to be impressive with or without Mjolnir). 
  • Reduce their defenses against your attacks. Obviously, this only matters in games where weapons play a role in defense. If taking their weapons away means that their limbs are no longer effective for defending against your attacks, this can also be decisive.
  • Impress them/Intimidate them. Sometimes you can disarm someone just to rub their nose in the fact that you can. If the goal is not to kill or injure them, but to influence someone else’s behavior, or if you need them alive, casually taking weapons away is a good way to force a gut check.
  • Killing is bad: In the classic murder-hobo mode, foes are largely for killin’. So are innkeepers, animals, the town guard, orcs, half-orcs, someone in a fair fight, or was going to start a fair fight, or if there was a woman involved. (Thanks, Jayne). But in many less constructed environments, or where the town guard are all Level 15 Champion Fighters, random death and destruction might not be the best plan. Taking lethal instruments away from all parties can keep repercussions to a minimum.
  • Change the terms of the fight. This wraps up many aspects of the above, but if a foe is a weapon fighter that hasn’t invested in other skills, taking their weapon away – if you can – will change the fight, perhaps dramatically. A gunslinger that forgot or chose not to invest in fisticuffs will be a very different threat (or none at all) once that pistol or rifle is safely on the ground or in the chandelier. A weapon fighter who suddenly finds themselves weaponless, grappled, and on the ground might just give up. You might rather fight with Weapon B than Weapon A (due to your skills) but can’t (due to his weapons) – you like the knife but he has a morning star and dagger. 

So there are lots of reasons why you might notionally like to take a weapon away from a foe. But does the game enable it? It is too difficult, too time consuming? A bad idea all around? Or a instant “I win” button?

Let’s take a gander at a few games and see.


Dungeons and Dragons, Fifth Edition

In DnD5, disarming is an optional rule consigned to one paragraph in the DMG. The short-short version is you make a melee attack, and your foe rolls a contest of Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics). If you win, you disarm them. You can gain disadvantage on your roll if your foe’s got a two-handed weapon on the defense, and size matters – the target has advantage if larger, disadvantage if smaller.

For humans, then, you’ll be rolling 1d20 + STR bonus (or DEX with a Finesse weapon) + Proficiency bonus against the best of 1d20 + STR or DEX bonus + Proficiency if you have such with Athletics or Acrobatics. Plus Proficiency again if you have Expertise in one or both of those skills.

So pretty much even-up in terms of allowable bonuses. Two fighters of equal level and stats (or if pitting STR vs DEX, but with similar bonuses) will likely claim the same primary attribute bonus and get to add proficiency. Watch out for Bards and Rogues (double proficiency) with expertise in Acrobatics or Athletics. But if you can find a foe without the ability to add proficiency to his defense, you will probably pick up a 10-30% advantage in a disarm attempt.

Is it worth it? In D&D5, probably, if your foe relies on weapons. It eats up one attack, carries no inherent downside. Unarmed damage (assuming you’ve removed their only weapon) is 1 point plus the STR bonus, so if your STR 16 Orc with a battleaxe did 1d8+3 (4-11, average 7.5) on a hit, he now does 4. Given that fighting in D&D is often a mutually ablative war of attrition, this very much throws the odds in your favor. Throw them prone, and they’ll hit you less, too.

Impressing them depends on the feel of the game, but might give advantage on an Intimidation attempt with GM agreement. No real ability to alter defenses (because it’s all about your Armor Class). So really, disarming in D&D gives you more chances to hit him and reduce his HP than you’d have otherwise. It won’t work vs. creatures that can’t be disarmed, of course – that’s not system dependent, it’s just obvious.

GURPS

Taking a foe’s weapon away in GURPS can potentially be a big deal. It can be a “swingy” game, where one hit can alter the tone and outcome of a fight. I wrote about it in more detail in a prior Academy: Unarmed vs. Knife – Technical Disarms

Removing the foe’s weapon matters most when your foe is really counting on the bonuses it gives. A long stick allows swing damage, where unarmed tends to be thrust. Swords and knives can give the cutting and impaling injury modifiers to wounds. Firearms can be particularly dangerous, because nearly all of them in modern games can threaten to hit you three times or more, with injury per shot in excess of 2d, sometimes a lot more (a modern battle rifle may well be 7d for three shots, and it only takes one to kill you). On the other hand, if your ST 30 ogre punches for 3d-1 and kicks for 3d, having a stick in his hand for 3d or 3d+1 doesn’t matter much . . . though 5d+3 cut for a swung broadsword (if not more) is certainly scarier than 3d cr, both can take Joe Average out of the fight in one blow. The second is more likely to kill him outright, of course.

On the defense, this is mostly an issue with melee weapons. But it’s a real issue, because if the fighter is depending on a weapon parry afforded by high skill, removing the weapon usually forces the contest to a secondary choice . . . or Dodge, which you never run out of in most games.

Modern GURPS games are more likely to feature the “killing is bad” outlook, and taking a lethal weapon from the foe and then subduing them (both probably best accomplished with Judo or Wrestling) is a good way to keep the law looking the other way.

Mechanically, there are a few ways to go using the Basic Set.

  • You can grab the arm or hand and force them to drop it by winning a regular contest of Strength
  • You can grab the weapon itself, and take it from your foe by winning a regular contest of Strength
  • You can strike at a weapon to knock it away by first striking his weapon, and then winning a Quick Contest of ST or DX-based weapon skills.
  • You can put him in an arm lock, and do enough damage to cripple the arm or hand; at that point, he’ll drop anything in it.

Regular Contests tend to be time consuming. You have to succeed in your ST roll, while your foe must fail his. This will only be practical if you vastly outclass your foe in ST. You also need to be skilled enough to seize your foe, which given penalties for such of -2 to -4, typically, may be rate limiting.

Knocking a Weapon Away (the third option) favors high skill again, but the foe gets their best of ST or DX and weapon skill. The Disarming technique can help an attacker; Retain Weapon helps the defender.

Arm Lock is one of the better bets here, as you can raise Arm Lock to Wrestling or Judo +4, and the defense is a parry (often low). From there, you are again contesting Arm Lock or ST vs your foe’s ST or HT in order to do damage equal to margin of victory.

All of these, of course, might take multiple seconds (Knocking a Weapon Away does not), and the foe tends to be a threat to you during all of them. Many players just opt to smash the opponent hard in the face instead.

Technical Grappling


My book, GURPS Martial Arts: Technical Grappling adds the option to disarm a foe by causing pain instead of crippling damage. The arm lock requirements are still there, but it’s a bit easier to force the HT roll that makes them drop stuff. You must be willing to deal with Control Points, of course.

David Pulver Weighs In
An important issue in any “disarm” attack rule is not just the ease of making the disarm but the ease of _recovering_ from it. 

Example: if the game mechanics give two equal fighters a 50% chance of succeeding with a disarm to knock a weapon away, but allow a disarmed fighter to pick up their dropped weapon 100% of the time with a single action (or worse, a free or move action), then disarming is a bad tactic. 

If the disarm rules, however, cause a weapon to fly some distance away, or the rules for retrieving a dropped weapon mean (for instance) that a fighter must take multiple actions, or put himself at risk (kneel, lose his defense, whatever) to recover that dropped weapon, a disarm is viable. 

Likewise, a disarm may be viable parrying with a weapon is important in the rules (as it is in GURPS) and by disarming a foe you reduce his defense and can either follow up while it is reduced, or an ally can. 

GURPS generally makes disarming viable because its second-by-second time scale, separate active defenses, and posture rules all mean  fighter is at risk if he takes time to recover a dropped weapon. 

Some other game systems, like D&D, may not have this same vulnerability, relegating disarms to special cases (“I disarm the foe’s magic sword, and my friend, next in combat sequencing, picks up that sword for himself!”) 

Night’s Black Agents


As always, Night’s Black Agents is about on-screen awesome, rather than pure skill levels. To disarm a foe, you make an attack against their weapon, which is at an additional difficulty, usually +3, which makes the required difficulty 7 on a 1d6.

That target means that in order to succeed, the player will have to spend from their general point pool. This can be by Shooting a weapon out of their hand, using Weapons to make a disarm, or with Hand-to-Hand to twist it out. 

You’ll need to spend enough points to buy the success you want, though if you roll a natural 6 on 1d6 you will often succeed regardless of opposition. Conditionally, if you shoot it, you disarm them but the weapon is damaged. If you use weapons, you automatically disarm them if your weapon is heavier (and it still works if you roll a 6 with a lighter weapon). With Hand-to-Hand, again you take it with no fuss and no muss if you roll a 6, otherwise, you have to win a contest – basically, the Hand-to-Hand contest allows a grapple, but you still have to win another contest to take possession of the weapon.

The requirement to spend so many points means that a disarm is a moment of high drama and spotlight time, since the typical points in an important combat skill for a fightin’-focused agent is likely at least 8, possibly higher, such as 12. But that means that a certain disarm might well run you your entire pool at one go. You’ve used up your camera time, bub.

Fate Core


As one would imagine, disarming in Fate Core will be Creating an Advantage. If you succeed, you get to create an Aspect to invoke, while if you Succeed with Style, you get to invoke it twice.

For this one, however, as a stunt, I would probably create a removable aspect that denied the weapon to the other party, or negated his own weapon if that was an aspect.

As an example, if you Disarm Inigo Montoya, who has the Aspect “Sword of the Six-Fingered Man,” then until Inigo succeeds on an Overcome, with active opposition from his foes, he cannot reclaim, and thus invoke, that Aspect.

For a more mundane effect, or as an add-on, if you are using Weapon Ratings, then the extra +3 you get for the effect for a sword (as an example) is no longer available. 

Parting Shot

If someone’s shooting at you, GURPS generally has you shoot them back. Likewise with weapon vs. weapon – it’s usually fairly high percentage to just attack them directly.

Now, if you have mad unarmed combat skills, no weapon, and your foe’s armed . . . well, you can either disarm them or (more intelligently) run the hell away. Or you can, again, punch them in the face, or perhaps do a Sweep, which will put them on the ground for -4 to hit and -3 to defend.

Disarming is thus reserved for very strong creatures with natural weapons (teeth and horns) that also mostly bite to grapple rather than strike.

For PCs, you need to also be willing to spend  few turns on the disarm, in many cases. Players in my experience generally make the calculation that it’s better to incapacitate by striking than muck about with grappling and disarms.

D&D is a bit better. It only burns one turn, and while it still favors the skilled (that’s a feature, not a bug), it’s a good way to pivot the fight to ones favor.

Night’s Black Agents is neither easy nor hard; it is expensive in terms of spotlight time, which is the game’s true currency. This makes a Disarm something you do when you’re feeling like being awesome and the results are worth the high resource use.

Fate Core? It’s one possible interpretation of the Create an Advantage task, just like doing a Judo Throw might be a possible interpretation. Success on a throw might be that the foe gets the Aspect “Flat on your Back!” while succeeding with style might either give two invocations of that same aspect, or perhaps two different ones: Flat on your Back! and Oof! Where’d my Lungs go? The defender might have to Overcome both in order to be back on his feet. With the Disarm, I’d probably tag the foe with the problematic “disarmed!” aspect until he can get the weapon back – if he can at all. 

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