Fun in Grappling (Fantastic Dungeon Grappling)

The control point based rules in my various grappling supplements are good. But they can be adjusted to taste in various ways to increase the fun in grappling at your table.

TG: The History

GURPS Martial Arts: Technical Grappling evolved in the writing and testing, as all books do. Originally, DX penalties and ST penalties alternated with each increment in control points. First you’d lose a point in DX, then ST, then DX, then ST, etc. That was too complicated to track; the goal was “make each CP valuable” but this wasn’t the way.

Eventually, we decided that for two ST 10 foes (because you need to normalize DX penalties based on fraction of ST, blah blah) that every 2 CP was -1 DX and -1 ST. Because the more you’re grappled, the harder it is to apply your full ST effectively. The ST reductions were really important to the progression, and normalizing it (it took 4 CP to do -1 DX to a ST 20 creature) was also an important balancing act.

However . . . re-figuring ST on a point-by-point basis was cumbersome at best.

D&D and Dungeon Grappling

Making a super-simple application of the core control points principle for application in Swords and Wizardry, Peter Dell’Orto and I came up with the idea of control thresholds, based on ST. Each threshold had some impact on hit rolls, damage rolls, etc. But the advantage here was you only had to track breakpoints. This was lower book-keeping, each CP had value in your ability to spend them, and sped up play.

Applying this to D&D5e, the Pathfinder RPG, and fleshing it out and improving it for Swords and Wizardry was the point of Dungeon Grappling. I was able to make a two page “DG Quick Start” which appeared in Lost Hall of Tyr. So it was clear that at the core, simplifying a “Technical/Dungeon” grappling system for 5e (and therefore Dragon Heresy) was fun, fast, playable, and with the right approach, simply better than the existing stuff out there.

Fantastic Dungeon Grappling

When I got the license to turn Lost Hall of Tyr into Hall of Judgment, I also got permission to put in the simplified grappling concepts as alternate rules. I’d learned a ton about speed of play since 2011/2012 when I wrote Technical Grappling, and re-applying all of those lessons in a simplified form for speed of play at the table was both gratifying and, ultimately, successful.

The playtesters tweaked out the system until in most cases it ran smoothly. As always, when normal ST folks fight other normal ST folks, things work out OK. For most characters, Wrestling and the like are backup skills, but for “fighty types,” they tend to be in the 14-16 range. Credible but not dominating. Solid skill levels, but basically you’re looking at front-line ST (14-17) and Wrestling at DX or DX+1. That”s 1d to about 1d+3 control points per successful attack. Against a non-fighter type, a successful hit will mostly be in the -2 to -4 to DX range, with excursions to -8 if you get a good roll vs a weaker character. Against an equal-ST foe, it will take two turns to get to “Greater than CM” level.

Even so, it’s not that hard to have that first successful grapple take you from Wrestling-14 or Wrestling-16 to anywhere from Wrestling-6 to Wrestling-12; the upper one isn’t bad. The lower is in “death spiral” territory, from one attack.

Part of the reason the penalties were set the way they were is that the adjustment of ST was nixed. No longer would one be recalculating ST (and thus damage, encumbrance, etc) on a turn-by-turn basis. In fact, even the concept of adjusting ST at all was dropped, so that the answer to “what’s my grappling damage” is always “whatever it says on your character sheet” and even if that doesn’t work out, you can always just say “it’s your thrust, +1 per die if you have Wrestling at DX+1.”

If you have Wrestling or Judo at DX+4 or better, well, you really care about grappling and will have looked it up and written it down in advance. That’s “primary skill” level, not “close-combat backup.”

So the basic thought was -1 DX per Control Point, or ‘against typical DX, which is often in the 12-16 range, once you pass your control maximum you’re immobilized.’ So the upper bound was set at -16, which would immobilize just about anyone, even some of the characters I’ve seen played with weapon skills well above 20. Halving the penalties at each lower increment seemed good, it had a -4 (the usual GURPSy grappling penalty) in the realm of 4-8 control points (a fairly typical successful grappling attack), and it played OK in the tests.

That you maxed out at “you can’t apply more CP than your Control Maximum” helped a bit, but it was usually possible to get up to that point in a turn or two, and, well: death spiral. The point of grappling is a bit of back-and-forth struggle. And I hate “I win!” buttons. In many of the tests, “I win!” wasn’t present. But it didn’t take much to tip that scale.

Don’t Get Grappled?

Some of the things that we got rid of, like adjusting ST penalties, were for bookkeeping reduction. One of the things we nixed, which is penalties or bonuses to control points or effects due to size modifier differences, was a direct nod to the epic nature of the source material. Human-sized, mighty-thewed heroes could wrestle and contend with ogres, cyclops (cyclopses? Cyclopes!), and other giant creatures because they were epic, mighty-thewed heroes.

Having King Kong grapple you and poof you’re helpless is realistic. It’s believable. And it’s boring. It’s especially boring if the only response to fighting moderately strong creatures (or gaggles of small ones) is “don’t get grappled.”

So while the results on the as-published table aren’t wrong, there are many cases where fun can be increased by tuning things a bit.

Suggested Tweaks

If the existing rules don’t work for you, try the following:

  • Your Control Maximum remains unchanged, and equal to Lifting ST
  • Alter the Control Point Effects table as follows
Control Points DX Penalty
up to 1/10 Lifting ST
 Up to 0.5 x Lifting ST -2
>0.5xLift ST to 1.0xLift ST -4
>1.0xLift ST to 1.5x Lift ST -6
>1.5xLift ST to 2.0xLift ST -8
Greater than 2xLifting ST -12
  • You cannot apply more CP than your Control Maximum unless you All-Out Attack, which doubles your allowed Control Maximum

If you choose to not All-Out Attack, your CM drops and your applied control instantly drops to your CM if it’s greater, much like if you release a grapple to parry your grapple is instantly lost or diminished.


  • The penalties are gentler and extend to higher applied control totals. This will allow more back-and-forth between grapplers
  • Normal folks with 1d to 1d+3 control points per hit (1-9 CP, or 4-6 CP per attack on the average) will take four to six turns, or four to six seconds, of unopposed grappling to bring someone to -12 penalty, which will take most non-experts to either “can’t roll” or “you can only succeed in an attack if you crit or AoA)
  • King Kong or a Large Dragon at ST 50 will still be hitting you with 5d+2 control damage; that’s 19-20 points, which is enough to put most folks in the -6 to -8 penalty range in one shot; that’s believable
  • Maintaining dominating control of more than your Lifting ST requires All-Out Attacking; you’re certainly not doing anything else but “controlling the other guy.” This seems a worthy trade off for totally immobilizing someone of basically equal to your ST
  • The lower penalty rates will give an opportunity to counter-grapple. That’s not always present in these contests, and it should be.

More Tweaks

  • The -6 penalty line can simply be deleted. More than your Lifting ST in applied control points, and you’re at -8 to DX. Then for each additional multiple of your Lifting ST, take an additional -4.
  • You could halve the penalties, but at the -2, -6, and -12 levels (which would be halved to -1, -3, and -6), apply a -1, -2, or -3 per die penalty to control point damage on a successful attack. That would make a lot more ebb and flow in control points, as experts will be removing some control much of the time, and truly immobilizing someone is a constant struggle. This puts fiddle back, and “no, you’re just screwed” is a legit part of some grappling holds
  • Fantastic Dungeon Grappling is designed to work without many of the more complex grappling options from GURPS Martial Arts. Instead of All-Out Attack, things like Arm Lock might be required to increase control beyond the CM, so locking a joint opens up truly large penalties.
  • Applying pain, from Martial Arts, would be another way to apply large penalties without increasing CM, so that by moving up to your Control Maximum and then applying a Pain affliction to the foe, that would compound the effects without requiring All-Out Attack. Since Arm Lock and the like default to flat grappling skills anyway, “make a successful attack to apply pain” would not even be a deviation from the rules – you just can’t buy it up with the (non-existent in the Dungeon Fantasy RPG) Technique rules.

Parting Shot

Right now, the emergent behavior from the rules as written tend to be “who grapples first grapples best,” “don’t get grappled by big, strong foes,” and “bring friends,” since you might need their help to escape from grapples. Also, grappling is as fast and decisive as getting brained by a swung sword.

You’re just as “Save or Spectate” if a ST 21 guy with a two-handed sword and weapon master hits you: Swing damage for that is 4d-1, +3 for the sword and +8 for having your primary weapon at DX+2 or more. That’s 4d+10, or 14-34 points of cutting damage. That’s a one-hit kill on a human. Strong guys with grappling or strong guys with weapons are very dangerous, period. You can’t armor yourself much vs grappling, but it’s thrust-based, not swing based. Balances out.

None of these things are wrong or bad.

However, if you want grappling to be decisive but still allow for some good back-and-forth, try some or all of the tweaks above . . . and let me know how they go.

3 thoughts on “Fun in Grappling (Fantastic Dungeon Grappling)

    1. If you say it, I believe it. Having a plural for what in mythology were singular entities is always entertaining. My now 9yo daughter got caught up in Greek mythology thanks to a combination of her schooling and Percy Jackson, and used to call me out when it was apparent that I was pluralizing Minotaur, Medusa, Pegasus, Cyclops. “But Dad . . .there’s only ONE of those!”

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