Welcome to the second installment of Melee Academy!

Grappling seems pretty cool. The benefits for throwing someone to the ground are pretty impressive in GURPS. They have to spend a few turns getting up (unless then can Acrobatic Stand), while prone they’re at -4 on their hit rolls and -3 while defending. While kneeling, which the probably have to do to stand up, they’re at -2 to both. If you can throw them hard enough via Judo Throw, you may either stun or damage them.

But grappling in combat is harder then it would seem. For one thing, on the scale of GURPS combat, it can take a while. While a strike that successfully lands gets its damage (and attendant shock penalties) a grapple in a lethal combat “only” imparts -4 to DX, with the attendant -2 to Parry/Block and -1 to Dodge that comes from that reduction.

Part of the trick is that you have to get close – enter your foe’s hex – and stay there. Grappling is, mostly, done at Reach C, in Close Combat. That can be a very dangerous place to be for both foes.

Getting to that range can be tricky. Getting to that range without avoiding getting murderized can be very tricky.

Consider: approaching a guy with a sword, or worse yet, a sword and a knife. If he sees you coming, he can Wait, and attack you as you step to Reach 1. If you’re unarmed, or unarmored, you’ll face the dreaded “unarmed parry vs. weapons” thing, where all of his parries are automatically aggressive. He can possibly poke at you a few times if he has a long sword with Reach 1,2.

Closing the Distance

 A – Attacker Steps     B – Wait trigger      C  – Close Combat      D – Foe retreats

So, what to do? Well, you can try and Wait. The condition of your Wait is that you will Step and Attack to grapple. Technically, this is your attack on your own turn, and your foe does get to defend. This runs into the “unarmed parry” rule. But it does allow you to get into close combat.

However, your foe may retreat, and if your grapple fails, he’s still in perfect smackdown range. So you’ll do an obvious Wait, as shown by figure A. When your foe steps into range, triggering your Wait, you can step into Close Combat if you haven’t moved at all yet (p. B385 makes this explicit). Notionally, this box disallows the “Step and Wait” strategy, but that’s not what you’re going for here, so it doesn’t matter.

So, you can proceed from A to C by triggering your Wait – but it’s your turn, not your foe’s, so he can defend, including by Retreating (D). If he does this and your grapple has failed, he’s in perfect beat-down position with a Reach 1 weapon.

Committed Attack

You’re stepping into close combat with an angry orc with a sword. You’re already committed, and maybe fit to be committed too, so you might as well choose the Committed Attack option (Martial Arts, p. 99-100) and pick the two steps option. This allows you to follow your foe as he retreats and step back into his hex, if you absorb the -2 to hit stacked on to whatever Committed Option you’ll be using.

Make no mistake, though, this is dangerous, since while he is in Reach C for you (and thus maybe his weapons are either ineffective of less effective), he isn’t grappled yet if you’ve missed.

The Committed Attack option also allows the Wait strategy to be employed against a weapon with Reach 1,2 – but of course you will end at C instead of D, having burned your movement getting to C the first time.

Be Offensive

Another version of Wait uses Committed Attack to shoot in and grapple your foe as soon as he steps up to A. He can still defend, and he retains his step, so I’d judge this slightly less desirable, since he can step back and still have reserved his retreat.

Grappled, Now What

We’re assuming a swirling many-party melee here, not a ritualized fight in the octagon, or a 1-1 duel. So now that you’ve got him, you have more work to do.

The usual options are Takedowns and Locks. Both can usually be treated as (or actually are) attacks, so if you’re awesome you can probably Rapid Strike with them. The issue here is that it’s another skill roll, a Contest for Takedown, and an attack roll (which can be defended against) for Locks.

You can see the problem, though. You’re looking at three separate actions to get any sort of impact.

The lock options are particularly attractive using Throws from Locks, though. They inflict swing damage. If you do it right, and use Head Lock, you do swing damage to the neck. That’s pretty good, but again, takes time.

Instant Gratification

There are a couple options that seem like pretty good plays that don’t require multiple turns, but they do require a bunch of things to go right.

Judo Throw

The notional 900-lb gorilla of the grappling world in GURPS is the Judo Throw. The benefits cannot be denied. You parry weapons at no penalty. You get +3 when doing a Judo parry on a retreat, and unlike many other grappling moves, you may Judo Throw if your foe is within one yard, that is, it’s basically a Reach 1 grappling attack. Notionally, then, you parry an attack that you probably needed to parry anyway, and then make an attack roll. If successful, your foe is on the ground, and on a failed HT roll, he’s stunned. This probably ignores many types of armor, and if you’re good, you can throw for damage by targeting a location, and the head is always popular here.

Swept Away

This one is interesting, in that in one turn (but still the same number of rolls) you get the benefit of a grapple and takedown without actually having to grapple the guy. Also, if you’re strong and have Power Grappling, you can make a ST-based Sweep roll instead. This will knock someone down, but never stun or injure them, so it’s a benefit, but a limited one.

“Never Tell Me the Odds”

The struggle here is that many of these moves require several linked rolls, all of which must work in order for these moves to be effective. You must first Parry, and then make a successful attack isn’t really a departure from striking. But toss in the HT roll for stunning and your foe can weasel out of one of the big reasons to do this sort of move.

Even with proper perk selection (Judo Throw defaults to Axe/Mace, for example) and Axe-20, my Warrior Saint in +Nathan Joy‘s Dungeon Fantasy game has never really pulled off one of the cool moves. Too many things seem to have to go right.

The mix of attack/defense and Quick Contest is also interesting, since the odds aren’t exactly always intuitive. Also, sometimes you can choose between them: Judo Throw can be done after a Judo Parry by making an attack roll, but after a grapple (you attack and they fail their defense roll) you can toss someone by winning a Quick Contest.

Which do you prefer? Which should you prefer?


A contest is pretty straight-foward, and is “who wins by more.” The odds of winning a contest where both combatants are of equal skill and no modifiers (so effective skill 14 is rolling vs. effective skill 14) is basically 50%. Where margin of success matters (and it will matter a lot once Technical Grappling comes out), the odds of you winning a disparate contest (Skill-16 vs Skill-14) by the difference in skills (that is, win the above contest by 2) is also 50%. So I’ll use that 50% benchmark to give a feel for things. But basically, you’re going to be looking at the balance of skills, and the higher yours is over your foe’s (and that might be skill vs. ST or HT or best grappling skill, or something that gives each the best opportunity). Contests, then, work best when you have the advantage.

Attack-Defense Roll

It might not be strictly comparable, but what are the probabilities of an attack actually landing, taking account lowering the probability of success on the attack itself to 90% via Deceptive Attack? Well, you can see that the region of the curve that is green, giving more than 50% chance of a successful attack, seems more limited. You have to be careful though, since Active Defense scores are figured as 3+Skill/2. That is listed in the “Raw Skill” section, and you can see that at Attack Skill-20 (and a -6 Deceptive Attack), you’ll cross over the 50% probability mark at roughly Skill-19. On the flip side, you will never get where you want to be unless you start with more than 50% chance to hit.

Finally, you can see that if the foe can retreat (+1), has Combat Reflexes or Enhanced Defenses (+1), and perhaps takes All-Out Defense or has a medium shield (each with +2), that all of a sudden, scoring that hit drops below 50% at a defender’s skill of only 10 . . . because 3+10/2 + 1 + 1 + 2 = 12, the same way that a raw skill of 18 gives a defense roll of 12.

All of this is obviated if your foe has just All-Out Attacked. Then, it’s all about your skill, since your foe has no defenses. In this case, Attack-Defense rolls are where it’s at (many Contests either explicitly or implicitly will allow a roll vs ST-4 or HT even if you’ve All-Out Attacked).

What it means: Learn Hand Catch if you can!

If your foe has the space to retreat, has enhanced defenses, is carrying a shield, or all-out defending (or a combination of all of those), you’re going to want to seek opportunities to engage in contests rather than attack-defense pairs. That means you’ll want to start the turn having already grappled your foe. But to grapple, you have to contend with your foe’s sky-high defenses, right?

Not with Hand Catch (Martial Arts, p. 84). If you can get it, and if you can make the roll (Judo Parry – 7 to intercept a sword!) you can then make another roll at full skill to grab the foe. That means your foe has attacked you, you’ve parried and grappled him, and on your next turn you can Judo Throw from Reach 1, step in and do a Takedown, both leveraging the Quick Contest, which neturalizes the benefit of a lot of those defense bonuses.

The enweaponed equivalent of this is probably Bind Weapon. If you can trap the weapon (and it’s “only” at Parry-1.5 (Parry = 3 + Bind Weapon/2, or 3+(Skill-3)/2) as a GM I’d say that is a grapple. It becomes win/win. Either your foe relinquishes his weapon at any time as a free action, or he keeps it and you can proceed to resolution by Contest. The key on this one is a jitte, jutte, or sai. Check out Martial Arts pp. 67-68 for more details.

Parting Shot

It may just be that my dice have not been friendly. But even with high skill, I’ve found that some of the cool features of grappling don’t work out well in practice over the ever-popular bashing someone in the face with an axe.

The key is to try and find situations where you can leverage your foe’s actions, arm yourself with the right stuff, and partner with the right people. Throw your foe down, and have a second-ranker impale him or chop him with a Telegraphic All-Out Attack for damage. He’s at -3 to defend and maybe stunned, and that’s a great way for a second-line fighter to contribute – as a finisher.

More Melee Academy Links

Other contributions can be found:

Dungeon Fantastic – +Peter V. Dell’Orto writes about Stop Hit
Orbs and Balrogs – +Christian Blouin writes about creating and holding combat initiative
RPG Snob – +Jason Packer throws down about combat pacing
No School Grognard – +Mark Langsdorf  provides a two-turn option that gets you into close combat with a higher success rate than the one-turn option I provide in this article.

This post was spawned in the same discussion +Peter V. Dell’Orto references in his recent entry on the Shield Wall question. This isn’t more about Shield Wall, but more shields in general.

After I started on this, I figured some of my fellow bloggers would like to try, so I contacted Peter, Mark, Jason, and the GM of my DF game and invited them to share GURPS-day by writing on shields, or on a Melee Academy in general.

+Peter V. Dell’Orto also wrote about shields over at Dungeon Fantastic.
+Mark Langsdorf contemplated DF Knights over at No School Grognard
Jason +Jason Packer hefts two-handed weapons at RPG Snob.

Maybe if the Melee Academy becomes popular, we’ll see more.

I’ve personally found that the +2 or +3 DB provided by a shield is pretty valuable, but then, Cadmus is also decked on in DR 8 on my torso, DR 8 or 9 on my head, and enchanted mail on my arms and legs. He needs better gauntlets and sollerets instead of boots, though.

A lot of this discussion and my thoughts on shields depends on the point values for the campaign. Chinks in Armor is a -8 penalty to hit for the torso, -10 elsewhere, and a foe attacking them doesn’t negate the bonuses from your own Active Defenses at all. In order to cancel the +2 or +3 DB of your shield, you need another 4-6 points of skill. So to halve (not eliminate unless you’re using the optional, non-DF rules from Low-Tech about missing bits of armor IF they exist) DR and make it as if you were not wearing a shield, our notional Swashbuckler has to be able to net a 12-16 skill while eating 12-14 points of penalties. That’s Skill-24 to Skill-30, or DX 14 to DX 18 and DX+8 to DX+16 relative skill. If we split it down the middle, and say DX 16 (120 points) and DX+10 relative skill (40 points) you’re talking about someone who’s dropped 160 points into the ability to do what he’s trying to do. If you’re talking about the conventional chinks rules and plate, you’re still facing DR 3. If you’re NOT, you’re probably facing DR 4, since no one but an idjit will fail to have mail in his gaps! So our hero will want enough ST to get by that, so he’ll want to be reasonably strong – say ST 13 and 2 pts of striking ST. A fine rapier is doing 1d+3 imp there. Not bad . . . but another 40 points that you don’t have to spend on being anything other than a Rapier artist. Of course, Inigo Montoya (and Zorro!) might suggest that if the answer isn’t “the pointy end goes into the other man” then you’re asking the wrong question.

Armor/Shield guy, if he’s built on an equal point drop (200) will want to be just as strong if not more so. Let’s pick ST 15 and Striking ST+2. That leaves 140 points, with which we buy DX 13 (60 points) and DX+10 in both Shield and Axe (’cause it’s cheap to buy), for Axe-24 and Shield-24. That’s Parry-17 and Block-17 with the DB +2 shield and $1900 worth of armor (the money left over after subtracting, more or less, an axe and shield from the cost of a good rapier). Absorbing the deceptive attack still leaves him with a 95% chance to block or parry.

Hell, is all this proves is that aiming for chinks in armor is great if you outclass your foe by quite a bit, or you can arrange something where you’ve burned lots of parry and block. Runaround attacks are never going to be better than -2 (or if you can move to the unshielded side, effectivley -4) which still puts the guy above at Parry-15 or Block-13, which is still five successes in six. Shields provide a buffer against your foe’s notionally higher skill, and allow you to take maneuvers that sacrifice a Parry defense either completely (if you don’t, for example, have a Dwarven Axe, but rather just a regular-old axe), or help eat the penalties you get to your defenses when absorbing a Committed Attack.

Farther down at the 100-150-point end of things (the kind of point drops above are usually suitable for 250-point DF type . . . or more) one might be hard-pressed to use skill to ignore armor. At this “middle henchman” point level (say 125 points) your ability to play the games above might be pretty limited. You can throw down DX+2 and DX 16 (and nothing else) for Skill-18. You could also do DX 12 (40 points) and drop 40 points into Rapier (DX+10) and still wind up with Rapier-22 and have another 40 points to spend, whether it be ST 13 and maybe Shield at DX+3 (for a buckler) or a left-hand dagger skill for two-weapon fighting (Skill-15). Or a few other skills or advantages that don’t make you a one-dimensional combat monster. If you are all-combat, all the time, ST 13, DX 12, IQ 10, HT 10 (that’s one that would be well worth 20 points for HT 12), Rapier-22 and Main-Gauche-15 is no slouch. 

And don’t neglect other ways, though more expensive, to boost defenses. The +1 to all defenses you get from Combat Reflexes is nice, as are the various Enhanced Defenses advantages. But it’s just darn hard to beat tossing in that +1 to +3 bonus for just picking up the damn shield (presumably assuming you’ve spend a point in Shield skill, but I don’t know if that’s just common sense, or an actual rule).

But the chinks penalties are fixed, and Deceptive Attacking enough to negate the shield bonus is as expensive as ever. You are basically looking at 50% chance to hit if absorbing -8 for torso chinks and -4 for a -2 Deceptive Attack from Skill-22, and only a -2 to the defenses of the other guy: straight Block, Parry, or Dodge accounting for the impact of a DB+2 shield.

I don’t think it’s an uber-strategy, and would revert back to “everything has a counter.” It would be interesting to see, from in-play experience, where the kind of “I can negate your shield and armor based on my own awesome finesse!” is actually true. My gut tells me that this strategy depends upon outclassing your foe (being either higher point value, or simply far higher points in combat skills) rather than skill-uber-alles in many, most, or all situations. For example, if social conventions rob you of both shield and armor, well, that DB+2 doesn’t do you much good. That’s not exactly “rapier beats shield and armor,” though. It’s “your point expenditures are now as useless as Magery 8 in a No Mana Dammit Zone.

Then there’s the fact that a shield, DB or no, can do things that parrying cannot, like effectively block flails and (in some cases) missile weapons. All things considered, I like the shield game-mechanically; it’s a great addition to your defensive repertoire, and does things that simply pushing weapon skill can’t do well – or at all.