Martial Arts Techniques – Focused Training

GURPS 4e introduced the combat technique, which in short was a way to buy off a penalty usually associated with an activity. Things like targeting a specific hit location, or buying off a penalty to strike behind you with a kick. There are also non-combat techniques. And some techniques, such as the somewhat-dreaded Arm Lock, could be purchased up from the base skill (Arm Lock defaults to Judo skill at no penalty, and you can buy up to Judo+4, or even Judo +6, for four and seven points respectively).

One thing that they ran in to quickly was pricing. At one point per point of penalty cancelled out, there was a bit of a mathematical ceiling on how many and how good you wanted to buy these up. Since you could get +1 to every thing you did with a combat skill for 4 points at the most, unless you had a very, very focused concept you really didn’t want to go there. Further, if you wanted four techniques, well, it was better to increase them through base skill.

This represents something of a reality, but it also means that two fighters can tend to be fairly similar, and folks have produced a few different alternate pricing mechanisms. Things like

  • A point in a technique gives you a +2 bonus
  • A point in a technique actually buys off the entire allowed penalty (if you can usually buy something from -4 to no penalty, a point in the technique buys it to max value).
  • Treating techniques as Perks, with a fairly involved pricing scheme.

Some of these just push the problem around a bit: the 1 point gives +2 (or potentially +1 to two things) means that instead of four techniques being unwise, it’s now eight. Of course, that’s a lot of techniques.

Still, what I was wondering about is if there’s a “thou shalt not nerf existing characters” way to approach differentiation of martial artists using the technique system.

There might be.

Focused Training

The following suggestion will probably be best with Martial Arts styles, but will probably work OK without them.

In short, you can shift penalties around within techniques of a particular type. If you want to be +1 better in something (say, roll at skill-2 instead of skill-3), that’s cool, but you have to be -1 worse in something else. The adjustments have to make sense, and can’t be applied to something the skill doesn’t cover. Use the restrictions for Targeted Attack (Martial Arts p. 68) as guidance. If a style or martial combat method usually mixes grapples and strikes, it should be possible to be better at one than the other, but this begs for munchkinism, so the principle of “A disadvantage that never comes up is worth no points” applies – if you want to be better at something that matters, you have to be worse in something that also matters.

Example: Boxing

You have Boxing at DX and have studied boxing. You specialize in punching the torso and head. The head is at -5, the torso is no penalty, and might be considered the default use of the skill, so the GM would be fine in saying that’s off limits. Still, looking at what would be Targeted Attack (Boxing/Face), you can usually go from -5 standard penalty to -2. That’s 3 points of shift.

The normal rules would say you can buy this up for 4 points – 3 point penalty shift and an extra because it’s a hard technique.

Here, you basically buy off three points of penalty to the face, but then pay for it with UnTargeted Attack (so to speak) to the legs and arms: You will attack the legs at -4 instead of -2, and the arms at -3 instead of -2.

Your “technique list” now looks like

Boxing New Old
Torso 0 0
Face -2 -5
Arms -3 -2
Legs -4 -2

Now, Hit Location/Targeted Attack mightn’t be the greatest example here, but it might serve to differentiate a sport fighter (face and body are the targets) from a street boxer or old-school “boxer” where pretty much anything goes.

Example: Swordplay

During a seminar recently, I asked the instructor about grappling while swordfighting. He said something funny, but true: He doesn’t like grappling and doesn’t think he’s very good at it. So his goal was to be such a good sword fighter that no one could survive to get within grappling distance.

Note: he could grapple and disarm just fine.

So . . . maybe he’s terrible at close combat, but fairly good at disarming. Fortunately, Martial Arts has both. Much like Targeted Attack, this should specialize by skill, so things aren’t overbroad. You also can’t go farther than the limits of either technique.

So Sir Roland and his GM look at Disarming, which helps with sword-taking, and Close-Combat, which is a penalty to use your weapon at Reach C. Disarming can vary from +0 to +5; Close Combat lets you buy the penalty per hex of reach from -4 per hex to as good as -2 per hex. So the limits are set by Close Combat in this trade-off. Ah, but we also have Armed Grappling, which can be bought up from -2 default to -0.

So Sir Roland, who likes to fight at a distance, decides that he’s going to make the following trade-offs:

Broadsword New Old Usual Max
Disarming +4 0 +5
Close Combat -6 -4 -2
Armed Grapple -4 -2 0

So if he goes to Disarm, he’s very, very good at it. But if his foe manages to get in close, he’s not just at a higher penalty to use his sword in close combat (-6 instead of the usual -4), but if he wants to use his sword to grapple, he’s also not as proficient: -4 instead of -2.

Example: Judo, Wrestling, and Arm Lock

The most potentially abusive examples are things like Arm Lock, which are quite powerful enough without the help. In this case, either the GM should disallow the trade-off entirely, or keep it focused to something very similar.

What might that be? Arm Lock defaults to the unarmed combat skill, and can go as high as Skill+4. So the only trade-offs that can be made are for things that also default to full skill and have a maximum in the +3 to +5 range. Further, to prevent easy avoidance, ALL uses of the penalized ability take the hit. So if you have Arm Lock and trade for +4 (’cause you know you will) in exchange for Breakfall at -4, it doesn’t matter if you use Acrobatics or Wrestling or Judo – you take -4. A disadvantage that doesn’t ever come up is worth no points.

With that in mind, let’s look at trading Arm Lock for Disarming. Now, they both look good from a like-and-like perspective. They default to full skill and can be bought up to the same range. And yet, you can disarm someone with an arm lock…is this a case of “getting something for nothing?”

Probably not. Disarming is a one-and-done Hit Roll and Quick Contest. Arm Lock you first have to grapple the limb and apply the lock, and only then might you disarm by causing pain or crippling the limb. So it might be considered legit: you’re forcing yourself to take extra time, or at least extra attacks, to do something that someone less inept in Disarming can do in one round. And yet, Disarming is also a Hard Technique.

Either one should disallow trade between Average and Hard, or require the usual “extra point” that must be spent in a Hard technique to be made up.

Looking, what are the possibilities for such trades?

  • Arm Lock (Judo, Wrestling) – Average Technique
  • Breakfall (Judo, Wrestling, Acrobatics) – Average Technique
  • Disarming (any unarmed or melee skill) – Hard
  • Evade (Acrobatics or Judo) – Average
  • Feint – Hard
  • Judo Throw (Judo) – Hard, can’t usually be improved except with Technique Mastery. Maybe.
  • Leg Grapple (DX, Wrestling, Judo) – Hard
  • Leg Lock (Judo, Wrestling) – Average
  • Sacrifice Throw (Judo) – Hard, can’t usually be improved

Interesting possibilities there. If you know Arm Locks but don’t usually get thrown down hard in the same way that an Aikido, Hwa Rang Do, or Hapkido practitioner would be, perhaps you could trade Arm Lock for Breakfall to a maximum of +4 in either direction.

If you don’t work the ground a lot, but are mostly dealing with locks and throws on folks with weapons (and why bother locking up their leg when you can just chop it off?), maybe you take +4 to Arm Lock but -4 to Leg Lock.


This would apply to both feinting and being Feinted, I’d rule. So if you want Arm Lock in exchange for less ability to be able to make and resist Feints . . . good luck with that. Oh, and Feint is Hard, so if you wanted to max it out, you can only get -4 to Feint in exchange for +3 to Arm Lock, because you have to account for the more-difficult Feint technique.

However, I’m not sure if I’d allow a general boost to all feints in exchange for being bad at arm lock. At best, I’d make it specific: better at Feint (Judo) in exchange for being worse at Arm Lock (Any). Otherwise, it’d be a too-cheap way to boost what is also a maneuver by itself.

Might even be simpler to just disallow it as a trade-off.

Parting Shot

This particular idea side-steps the pricing issues by basically having this sort of “martial arts graphic equalizer” be both zero-net-sum and cost no points. You’re just rearranging what you have. The only real issue is between Hard and Average techniques, as well as keeping a weather eye on making sure that the techniques being traded are of roughly equal applicability. Want to be better at Elbow Strikes but worse at Back Kicks or Back (Weapon) Strikes? That seems OK.

If this is only done for a point or two here and there, it’s a fun way of differentiating between martial artists from style-to-style, or even (or especially) within a style.

Let’s look at my old Hwa Rang Do. Technique list is Arm Lock; Back Kick; Breakfall; Counterattack (Karate); Disarming (Judo); Exotic Hand
Strike; Head Lock; Jump Kick; Kicking; Spinning Kick; Sweep (Karate).

Arm Lock, Breakfall, and maybe Disarming are of a kind. Back Kick and Jump Kick are both specialized moves, while Kicking and Spinning Kick and Sweep are all “take a penalty that can be bought off” type stuff; “I can kick at full skill (+2), but Back Kick at -6 instead of -4” might be an OK trade-off to focus on someone who either is inept or has chosen to not emphasize that move in their training.

Another way to go would be to say that you can’t trade within the recommended list. As an HRD practitioner, you will be drilled in the technique list. So you will be at least adequate at Arm Lock and Breakfall . . . but you might trade off Evade or Sacrifice Throw. You will be drilled in Exotic Hand Strikes, but you could trade off for Hammer Fist [1].

Either way, this sort of nudging around is completely optional. If you don’t do it, all the standard penalties apply, you gain or lose nothing, and you can move on, having not nerfed a character by not doing it. But if you want to specialize and move things around, so long as reasonable limits are set on how you move the knobs, it provides a nice way of providing differentiation without worrying much about how you spend extra technique points.

If you do pump in points, that’s no problem. However you wind up pricing getting bonuses to techniques – either as written, or one of the variant schemes floating about – you’ll just add that in.

[1] Hwa Rang Do trains hammer fist just fine, actually. But we had to pick and choose, so we picked Exotic Hand Strike. Point is, you would take something NOT on your list and really, aggressively not train it. It would be a “blind spot” in your school or style curriculum, either intentional or accidental.

3 thoughts on “Martial Arts Techniques – Focused Training

  1. I really like this post, and I think that this should have been the original ways styles worked. It seems to me that this can open up certain interesting opportunities; such as “style wars”, where different masters create style and counter-style. However to really realize that I think that trading defence penalties would be needed; if an aggressive stye focuses on say, striking the opponent’s legs to fell him, what if a counter-style could gain +1 to defend the legs for -1 to defend the arms?

  2. Overall, it’s a fine way to do things. It’s much like the old COSH rules I made (for GURPS 3e, though any hardy soul is welcome to update it for 4e), a system for inventing or customizing combat skills.

    Those rules focused on marquee-level Big Features of skills, not techniques per se. It’s developed into a big system, but the basics are the same simple idea introduced above: swap one feature for another to modify a skill – for example, add a damage bonus, but balance it with encumbrance penalties. (Actually, it’s not entirely separated from the topic of techniques, as I pick out certain powerful techniques – like Arm Lock, which you also note as particularly powerful – as essentially Big Features.)

    Interesting stuff, and I look forward to playing with your take on it.

    (For the curious: )

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