Shane Plays Review of Dungeon Grappling – Comments

As reviews happen regarding my products, I have tried to keep up, and post links Thus far, Dungeon Grappling has been very well received critically. This might be because those that bother to review it are already part of its target audience – confirmation bias. The other side, that everyone knows grappling sucks, grappling rules suck harder, so why bother, is confirmation bias of a different sort.

I will still maintain my contention that grappling needs to be part of any game that features combat, though much like I mention in my Violent Resolution column To the Last, I Grapple with Thee, those rules need not be custom. Night’s Black Agents has its combat rules at such a level of granularity that it would be odd to treat grappling any differently than melee, and that logic is stated right in the book, explicitly. In fact, the less the grappling rules deviate from the regular combat rules, the better they are as an option that can be integrated easily with the normal flow at the table.

Shane was gracious enough to invite me on his program – my first “big” podcast on Dungeon Grappling, undertaken when the Kickstarter was still going, and when I wasn’t used to podcasts, and also before I got comfortable just getting out there with my message: grappling is awesome in real life, deserves to be awesome in games, and adopting a rules set that makes it that way will increase the potential energy of fun available for games.

In addition to having me on Shane Plays, he also independently reviewed the play of the game. And by that, I mean he actually played out some combats using the grappling rules and reported on how it worked for the game. This is great, not just because of the investment, but also because theorycraft is great, but some rules that you’d think are cumbersome by reading them just aren’t, and some that seem great on paper just suck. You can’t always tell until the dice hit the table. (Of course, sometimes you can.)

So to the end first: I think is review is both favorable and accurate. But I also think it presents a take on things that invite comment, so I’m going to indulge in a bit of quote-response.

First, head on over to Shane Plays and read the full review. I’ll wait, but I’m also going to quote selectively, so there may be missing context, and there will be definitely be missing text. His words are in quote-boxes, and mine follow.

Both as a player and a DM over the years I’ve encountered times where the wrestling or special hand-to-hand options during combat didn’t cover exactly (or cover at all!) what I or a player wanted to do.

There’s that thrill of inspiration for a cool move to try during combat, and then the crestfallen “oh” when told the rules just can’t do it. I imagine many folks reading this have experienced the same situation and are now either literally or mentally nodding their heads.

One of the reasons I wrote Dungeon Grappling was indeed to give examples of how you can improvise moves and use the attack-target number-damage mechanic more flexibly. As has been written countless times, “anything can be attempted,” and while I tried to be as comprehensive as possible in providing grappling techniques in the book, that doesn’t mean that something the player comes up with should be disallowed if it’s not on the list.

Books of worked examples are handy because they provide consistency and a framework for home-brewery and improvisation.

The game I currently play the most, D&D 5th Edition, as much as I love it (and I think it is a fantastic edition) basically has no rules for wrestling or special combat moves, just a “grappled” condition that is woefully inadequate… I have actually wondered why they even bothered to put it in in its current form. It’s one of my only gripes with 5E. I actually feel a bit embarrassed as a DM when a player new to the game asks about a grappling move and I awkwardly tell them what their, er, option is.

I was surprised myself when the Basic rules first came out, and my initial comment was that I was surprised at how limited they were, especially since the framework for making them more was right there in the game mechanics. You can see that the ‘grappled, restrained, incapacitated’ condition progression that appeared in Dungeon Grappling in December 2016 was first written down (and doubtless arrived at by countless others as well) in July 2014. So yeah, there was more one could do even then.

I’m not one for suspense in reviews, so I’ll say right off the bat that I feel this is a good product and especially so given this is the author’s first RPG effort that I am aware of outside of articles and supplements for other games.

Specifically, a dozen or so articles in Pyramid magazine, GURPS Martial Arts: Technical Grappling (huh, who’d a thunk it?), and Grappling Old School, an article in Tim Shorts’ Manor ‘zine that formed the basis of Dungeon Grappling.

This book is certainly the first product I’ve done from start to finish as writer, editor, art director, and project manager. My first Kickstarter as well.

This was all deliberate, as my first product otherwise would have been Dragon Heresy, whose manuscript currently runs 425,000 words and will likely be printed in three volumes each of roughly 250 pages.

That should not be one’s first Kickstarter experience.

It offers a rich, alternative and, for the most part, non-lethal combat system that runs in parallel with the existing combat systems in D&D, Pathfinder and Swords & Wizardry.

It doesn’t replace the existing system, nor does it add moves, abilities and feats to the existing system… it’s a parallel combat system that uses it’s own attack, defense and “hit point” system alongside the existing rules.

The one thing that I’d make sure is clear here is that I didn’t invent mechanics. How do you grapple in Dungeon Grappling? Is it a complicated subsystem? A series of events that requires (for example) a flowchart or an endless series of tables?

No. You attack using an attack roll, you “defend” by having a quantity defined similar to Armor Class (and in OSR games, you can just use Armor Class itself; for monsters you have little choice), and then you roll damage.

Both the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and Fifth Edition have damage types already. I add “control” to that type list.

So is it a parallel system?

Yes and no. I’d note that the rules are actually more unified and coherent with the existing combat resolution mechanisms using Dungeon Grappling than the core set. In many, if not most, cases, your grappling attack roll – especially for fighters, who are more likely to have the Athletics proficiency in 5e – will be exactly the same as your weapon attack roll. Again using the 5e example, when you attack you roll 1d20 + Proficiency Bonus + Attribute bonus.

So it is with grappling, and for fighters who specialize on Strength, the Athletics proficiency brings your grappling hit roll right up equal to your weapon attack. (In fairness, the contest of Athletics vs Athletics or Acrobatics that is a regular grappling attempt is also the same value.)

The parallel “hit point” system (in the vernacular of the game, Control Maximum) is a fair cop. Grappling is not striking – you can’t “undo” a bloody nose by striking back. You can undo a grapple by grappling back, and so applying the control damage type to hit points was going to end in frustration (and in fact did, in early versions of Dragon Heresy, and may still – it’s something I’ll be watching for).

So I needed something that felt right, and having a parallel success track for grappling – as Shane succinctly puts it, a parallel “hit point” system was the right call.

What it really comes down to, regardless of how good or comprehensive Dungeon Grappling may be, is whether something like the following formula gets you excited or makes you want to hide.

Take a good look:

Truly, this is the litmus test of whether Dungeon Grappling is for you and your group. There’s math and formulas. Old school, nigh-GURPS level math and formulas.

As a GURPS designer and writer, I don’t think this is strictly true. For the first part, GURPS rep for mathiness in play is exaggerated. Books like GURPS Vehicles and my own The Deadly Spring (Pyr #3/33) notwithstanding, in play you roll 3d6 vs a target number, and roll equal or under that number and you succeed. If it’s an attack, you roll damage – and that’s where any math usually happens, as the use of what 5e calls Damage Reduction and GURPS calls Damage Resistance subtracts from the raw damage roll, and that value can be modified for things like armor piercing, and then that final value can be modified for wound type and size.

Dungeon Grappling is not that.

What it does do is front-load a few quantities. You need to calculate your Control Maximum and the thresholds for grabbed, grappled, restrained, and incapacitated and write those ranges on your character sheet (in fact, an example of such a writeup for Dragon Heresy can be seen in the first Monster Monday post on the Vaettr, or Wight). You do that, by and large, once and only have to recalculate it when you raise any of the bits that go into it: proficiency, Strength, or Dexterity bonus.

The CM Modifier really should have been called the Size Modifier, but I didn’t want it to be confused with other things that go by that name, but for nearly every PC it’s equal to x1, and x3/4 for small creatures.

Your hit roll is no more or less complicated than any other such thing, and damage rolls are straight-forward, and again no more complex than “what weapon am I using?”

The Grapple DC, which is exactly ‘armor class for grappling,’ is again calculated once, and only changes if the effective DEX modifier changes. Why is it different for different games? Well, each one brings specific rules to the table, so it made sense to customize it by the particular rules set. If I ever did “Dungeon Grappling for ACKS,” or some other game, I’d have to customize it for that too.

This isn’t necessarily a good thing. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just is what it is. For the rich system Cole has brought to the table (so to speak), there’s really no way around it.

One must calculate the attack rolls, difficulty classes (the “armor class” of the grappling system) and control maximums (the “hit points” of the grappling system) for the players, monsters and NPCs. It’s possible you may need to do this in the moment if a grappling situation comes up spontaneously.

And both of these statements are entirely true. I simplified as much as possible within the confines of each system. I’d have loved to change more in some cases, as (for example) using CMD for Pathfinder isn’t really how I’d have done it from scratch . . . but one of my primary rules for each game’s “tweakage” was one of my primary “rules for rules,” which is use what’s there.

In terms of monsters, if you’re improvising, then yep, you’ll need to jot down the control ranges, Grapple DC, and grappling damage. As Shane notes: no way around it. In Dragon Heresy those things are part of the monster writeup and will have dedicated spaces on the character sheet. My demo excel sheet for characters does this automatically, using concatenation to automatically generate the threshold numbers for each grappled condition as well; it would not be that hard, I suspect, to make this form-fillable in a PDF. Well, not hard for someone else. I don’t know how to do it.

These are in addition to whatever combat stats are already calculated for the system in play. In other words, your attack roll to hit with a melee weapon might be different than your attack roll to grapple while the difficulty class to hit in grappling can be different from armor class.

Also, as mentioned above there are rules for S&W, Pathfinder & D&D… so depending on how many of those systems you might be playing there are different formulas for each.

Though of course you will not likely be playing three systems at once. Given the number of slightly different (or mostly absent rules considering the OSR Swords and Wizardry vs. both Pathfinder and 5e) rules in the games, having to tune grappling isn’t that much of a stretch.

A Rich System

Again, this is a parallel combat system that exists alongside the regular combat rules. It does not replace or enhance them. For example, you can grapple someone into total submission and overcome all of their control maximum points and never do a hit point of damage to them.

I was going to quibble with this (of course my book enhances combat), but basically yeah, mostly the grappling system doesn’t mess with striking. One minor exception is that there are several ways to cause Hit Points of damage by spending control points to cause injury. You can also enhance damage by pulling someone onto your weapon (usually your short weapon). So while control and submission don’t have to intersect with the melee weapon/hit point rules, the capability to do so is there.

The rules are grounded somewhat in reality. Dexterity is factored in, but strength has the edge. Sorry, but the most dexterous halfling isn’t taking a dragon down in one move.

We worked hard on scaling, so I’m glad this was pointed out.

The Package & Price

Lest I forget to mention, Dungeon Grappling looks great, from the cover to the interior art to the layout and design. When the Kickstarter first began it was digital only but a pledge level was added for a print version and I’m glad that was done. The paperback version feels good to hold and flip through.

Shipping terrified me. I was eventually convinced by repeated interaction with Meredith at DriveThruRPG that it would be entirely possible to keep international shipping quantified and under control. This proved to be the case and the Kickstarter covered the costs of making the book to within $6 of my actual expenses. This was mostly planning. Some luck.

Parting Shot

As I noted earlier, I think Shane gave a fair and accurate review. My desire to expand on it and amplify was born of nuance rather than disagreement. The review is fair, and both because any reviewer is entitle to their opinion as well as because his observations are what he experienced through discussion, rules reading, and actual play, represent a far more detailed investigation than one might otherwise get.

It’s good stuff, and I’m glad he took the time to do it, and I also hope we get a chance to be as thorough with Dragon Heresy, when it comes out.


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