+Jason Packer posted a worthy GURPS 301 post about one of our favorite topics, the Evaluate maneuver.

Obviously, in The Last Gasp I tried to give it some legs by making it a recovery option. But Jason threw down an idea that occurred to me as well in passing when I was reading a thread on the Forums, though I don’t remember which one.
Evaluate using Feint Mechanics

I’ll give Jason the credit here, since he fleshed it out, but using the normal Quick Contest mechanics in place of the fixed-bonus Evaluate maneuver makes a ton of sense. 
The attacker might roll Per-based weapon skill; the defender uses their DX-based roll. I’d add double the DB of any cloaks or shields to this, since it should obscure and deny angles of attack. If the defender took All-Out Defense, I’d probably go ahead and give double bonus to the QC as well (+4 in this case).
I see no reason why the Evaluator can’t use Committed and All-Out Evaluate, as well. I’m going to stare at you so hard I won’t defend myself makes little sense in a one-on-one combat in many situations, but it certainly does make sense for the assassin hiding in the shadows and waiting for the foe to expose something important.
As usual, you get the margin of victory on the Quick Contest as a penalty to the foe’s defenses, just like a Feint.
I’d give a +2 to each consecutive attempt to a normal maximum of +6. 
Parting Shot

Why do I like it? It explains a lot of the oddities about Feints that occasionally bug people – how a Feint with a two-handed weapon does not unready the weapon, but somehow makes the foe open themselves up enough to suffer a huge penalty to defend, potentially.
It also makes Evaluate skill-dependent in a useful way. A novice can look and look and he just won’t see the openings in his foe’s defenses. An expert can take a quick glance (Defensive Evaluate!) and see five openings in a novice.
It will, of course suffer the same “issues” as Feint has currently, though being Per-based, it gives a good way for stalking monsters with high Per to leverage their cunning. Combined with the purely physical Setup Attack, it makes a good IQ-based counter.
This actually gives me yet another idea, but I have to talk to +Peter V. Dell’Orto about it first. 
It’s generally found, I’ve noticed, that not too many people take the Evaluate maneuver in GURPS combat. At “only” +1 per turn, by and large it’s a less desirable option than whacking away at your foe with your weapon of choice. 

Since many fights seem to involve a lot of circling – which could be cascading Waits, could be Evaluates, likely a bit of both – but GURPS fights largely don’t, Evaluate gets left by the wayside.

I tried to rectify that somewhat in The Last Gasp, since taking Evaluate was tagged as a “Recovery Action,” something that gave you a bonus but also let you recover Action Points. 

Still, a recent discussion started by +Jason Packer made this assertion:

Assertion: The Evaluate maneuver is utterly useless if your skill exceeds that of your opponent, and is dubious at best if your skill exceeds 10. 

It spawned a healthy number of posts, and so today’s Melee Academy open panel was born. Many posted either on G+ or in the comments section of the announcement post, but I’ll summarize them here, plus throw down my own ideas.

In addition, dedicated posts were made by some of my fellow travelers:

Comments and G+ Posts.

So, here we go:

Entirely different way of going about it: allow combatants to take Enhanced Defenses, Extra Attack, Peripheral Vision, increased weapon skill or other appropriate Advantages with the modifier Requires Evaluate, which states that the advantage in question is only available if you’ve Evaluated as your most recent maneuver. To encourage Evaluating, make the modifier generous: Takes Extra Time is only worth -10%, but in these cases it’s probably worth -20% to -50%. How useful is Peripheral Vision if you can neither attack while using it nor gain the benefit out of combat (unless you’re wary enough to proceed down the hall at a stepping rate, which is… actually fairly realistic)? Not nearly as useful. The ability to effectively defend your own sides, or just defend better overall, while you accumulate an Evaluate bonus will make it appealing in situations where you’re against a better/many opponents.


I like the idea of having certain abilities with Requires Evaluate (maybe even allow abilities that are more effective the longer you Evaluate). Some additional options:

  • When using The Last Gasp, ape a bit from All Out Defense and give Evaluate 1 free AP for making defenses.
  • When using Setup Attacks, on any successful defense against a Setup you get a bonus to your MoS equal to your current Evaluate bonus. This is really just an extension of the rules from MA100.
  • Allow combining Evaluate and Wait into a single maneuver – if your Wait can only be triggered by a specific target, and a full round passes without your Wait being triggered, the Wait is retroactively an Evaluate instead.
  • Allow Evaluate to accumulate up to a +5 bonus.
  • Allow Evaluate to negate at least some of the penalties of a Runaround Attack or similar.

+Dustin Tranberg

  • +1 on all attacks vs that foe until your next turn
  • +1 on defenses vs that foe until your next turn
  • Perception/Observation roll to notice something interesting about his/her style/gear/behavior 

My expectation is this would make Evaluate very popular for one-on-one duels, and not so much for melee free-for-alls.

+Joseph Mason

First, what is someone doing when they evaluate a target? Watching them closely, effectively “aiming” there weapon? If that were all, I almost feel that it would be easier to defend against… and we already have this effect with telegraphic attack.

If they are watching a foe, looking for an opening, what does that mean? Is an “opening” something that is easier to hit, or harder to defend against (or both)? And isn’t the latter is already handled better by deceptive attack or a feint?

I kinda feel like evaluate is a special form of “Wait”. Just the trigger is an “opening” which GURPS doesn’t currently have (to my knowledge) any mechanical definition of. One way to do this would be just get rid of Evaluate all together and give a +1 to hit per turn of Wait (max +3), till the wait is triggered. (Ranged 1-hex waits, already work this way IIRC).

Another option is to make Evaluate the inverse of a Feint. Have a (per-based?) melee combat skill vs enemy combat skill (to not be obvious?) and give the MoS as a bonus to hit on the following turn. My fear is that this would not help the low skill attacker that RAW Evaluate might currently be working for.

 +Cole Jenkins

  1. Combine Evaluate with Wait. Your triggered maneuver must be an Attack or All Out Attack on the evaluated foe but it gets the bonus from turns spent Evaluating.
  2. Instead of +1, the first turn gives you a training bonus based on your best melee or unarmed skill. This is analogous to the Acc. from an Aim. 
  3. The bonus also applies to your next active defense against that foe as well as your next attack. Or maybe half the bonus. 
  4. You may use the rules for contests of wills while also evaluating.

+Justin Aquino

my bit of  heresy – build it into Feint. Evaluate is an option instead of taking advantage of a successful feint. The idea is that evaluations happen while performing various routines to probe the opponent’s capabilities.  

When the players makes a Feint, his comparative margin of “success” is an unknown value (he could have even failed, GM may hint it went well or poorly – no exact values). Maybe the GM uses a face down playing card. The player has the option to take advantage of it as a feint or as an evaluate. He only knows when he decides on using it up as a penalty to defenses but not when he uses it as a bonus to the evaluate.  

The Information Asymmetry removes the Certainty the game has that is not found in most realistic combat. 

Ballistic’s Loaded Chamber

With all that input under the hood, I’m going to riff off of the work I did for Technical Grappling, plus a bit of a general rule that I think contains wisdom, but you be the judge:

  • Gamers like to roll dice.
  • GURPS has a perfectly good mechanism for resolving conflict already
  • Effect rolls are cool.

What should Evaluate be?

Pretty clearly, weapon skill should matter in spotting openings. And it’s a pretty good bet that spotting an opening involves Perception in some way.

I’m going to eschew the obvious and see where it takes us: I’m going to make it not a quick contest, but an an attack-style action.

Declare an Evaluate. Roll Per-based weapon skill as an attack. If your attack roll succeeds, you are, at the very least, at +1 to defend against your foe’s next attack (if he throws several blows, you only benefit on the first one). If you fail, you get no bonus. If you critically fail, your foe may defend as normal, but if he succeeds, he gets his margin of success as a bonus to his next attack. If you critically succeed, your foe gets no defense against your effect roll (below).

Your foe makes an active defense using his best weapon skill (much like a feint), or shield if it’s better. You may also roll 3+DX/2 if it’s better. Anything that adds to active defenses, such as Combat Reflexes (you’re an experienced fighter and good at hiding your motions) or even the DB of a cloak or shield (it hides your actions) also provides a bonus. This can include billowing robes or a hakama, if you believe the stories that it hides your footwork. Further, the GM may give a bonus equal to half the usual penalty given by Physiology Modifiers, p. B181 . . . but treat machines based on how similar they are to humans. A humanoid robot might be at +1 because it doesn’t have the usual tells, but still employs familiar guard stances. Something that looks like an Imperial Torture Droid or Lightsaber Drone would be “utterly alien” and get +3 to this roll.

If the defense works, then the attacker has managed to disguise his motions or otherwise hide what his intentions are.

I see no reason not to allow the usual “deceptive attack” type -2 to skill for every -1 to the foe’s defense.

If the Evaluate succeeds and your foe fails to disguise his intentions, you may make an effect roll. I’m going to say base it on Per-based Tactics (!), which in many cases will be Per-6 unless you’ve spent points. However, we’re going to used “Trained Tactics,” which gives a progression like that found in Technical Grappling as a bonus, and in kind to the ST bonuses you get for Wrestling. +1 at DX+1, +2 at DX+2, +3 at DX+4, +4 at DX+7, and an additional +1 for every 3 points of skill thereafter. Look up this number on the thrust column of the Damage Table (p. B16).

So warrior might be:

  • DX 12
  • Broadsword-14 (DX+2; +2 Training Bonus)
  • Per 12
  • Shield-12 (DX+0; no bonus; DB2 shield)
  • Per-based Tactics-10 (for one point)
  • Combat Reflexes for +1
  • Evaluate skill: Per-based weapon skill: Evaluate-14
  • Evaluate Defense: DX-based would be 12; Parry-based would be 13; Block-based is 12.
  • Effect roll: based on Tactics-10 plus the training bonus for his sword: Tactics(Per)-10+2, for 1d-1

Make your roll, and you get to roll and keep that as bonus points to spend against your foe. These points may be spent!

  • Spend 2 points for an extra +1 to defend against a foe’s attack (this adds to the basic +1 you get for making your Evaluate roll)
  • Spend 1 point for a +1 to strike your foe
  • Spend 1 point to cancel out accumulated points your foe may have on you

Repeated Evaluates may accumulate, but never more than the maximum possible roll. In the case of our example warrior above, he may never “bank” more than 5 bonus points.

Parting Shot

  • This visual probe and bonus might replace, to some extent, Feints – especially if the game also uses my Setup Attack option from Pyramid #3/52 (Delayed Gratification). 
  • Evaluate might make an interesting alternative to All-Out Defense in some cases. You can trade those points for bonuses to defense that can exceed those of AoD.
  • It’s easy to see how two evenly matched opponents might spend a few turns Evaluating and counter-Evaluating in order to avoid getting lopsided bonuses stacked against them.
  • There ought to be a way to combine this with a Wait; maybe treat it as a Telegraphic Rapid Evaluate (WTF?) and treat it as a -2 penalty to Evaluate roll, and your foe defends at +2, but you also enter a Wait state while you’re evaluating, and so can pre-empt your opponent’s move if your Wait is triggered. So it’s harder to pull off (because you’re telegraphic your evaluate, and Wait is always obvious), but if it works, you not only may preempt your foe’s move, you get bonus points to spend on your own attack before you spend them on his defense.
  • There’s a naked return to the “Tactics can be used in Personal Combat” flavor of the skill description, by using it as the basis for an effect roll. Joe Average has Per-based Tactics-4, which means that most often, you’ll have to wait six seconds for a measly +1. Assuming you can do it at all. But you do get that +1 to defenses, which might be worth it if you’re punching at DX, or using a weapon at default.

Bah! Bah! Too complicated!

Sure, it’s different. But I like attack and defense rolls, and I like effect rolls. Giving skill points to spend is novel, true, but I like how you can use it to help outguess your foe’s next move, either by allowing deceptive attacks or better defenses.

Characters who are serious about fighting might be Per-based Tactics of 14-16 and have training bonuses of +3 to +5 pretty easily. Such a beast, with an effect roll of 1d+2 to 2d, will do terrible things to foes if given a chance to stare them down. Pure weapon fighters, with high relative skill but not-great Tactics will be more usual, with +3 for Training Bonus (DX+4 skill) not uncommon, and Per-based tactics ranging from 4-6, making the effect roll based on about 1d-3 or 1d-2. Not huge, but not bad either (up to 3-4 points).

The other options that have been listed are good stuff. Christian’s Serendipity Engine is particularly cool, and the specificity of the opening, and the speed with which it’s generated, make for great flavor. It might even be possible to combine the two methods: roll randomly for what’s open and denied, but provide several options from which the player can choose to spend his bonus points.

I picked Tactics because of the phrasing about Personal Combat, and to prevent a typical warrior from being a death god just by being Johnny One-skill. Studying fight Tactics is worthwhile, and it might even be interesting to model “he fights by Tournament rules” as a big bonus to defend against Evaluates.

Anyway, I like the attack/defense roll as part of GURPS. And I like effect rolls. This is an attempt to force Evaluate into that mold as an alternative to the interesting options provided above.

Over on the SJG Forums, a poster going by Varyon dropped in and threw down some concepts for how to do an actual Feint out of a setup.

One of the conceits of the setup attack is that, well, it’s the same as a Deceptive Attack, but defers the bonus to a later time. There are some details that make this not suck, but it basically is a real attack, that requires a real defense, or you get stabbed or slash. It also has the benefit that it does eat up a parry, it enables retreats by the defender for positioning (allowing one of the natural consequences of being Feinted – backing the heck up) and a bunch of other stuff.

Honestly, Setup Attacks (Pyramid #3/52) might be my most instantly usable work.

Still, the Setup is pretty cool. Take two Sword-16 fighters (quite good for low fantasy, borderline not-so-good for Dungeon Fantasy). Our aggressor can strike with a -2 setup, and achieve a possible hit 75% of the time on his Setup Attack. This turn, assuming no DB or Combat Reflexes, but yes on a retreat, the defender is looking at Parry of 3 + 16/2 + 1 or 12.

On the average, then, the defender will make his roll by 2, enough to both parry (you get that by simply rolling under), and negate the setup. So pretty even. If the attacker manages to score – he does full damage, and his setup attack will still have the desired effect next turn (including shock penalties, which don’t impact defenses, and stun, which does).

Against an inferior foe, say Sword-12, our Skill-16 aggressor will be facing Parry-10, which will block the setup attack but leave him at -2 the next turn. Cool – working as advertised. Our Hero is driving him back with his setups (defender retreats) and eking out a -2 on his next attacks, which he can leverage however he likes (Telegraphic for +4 to hit, to a good target, while at a net -0 to defend has got to look tempting.)

Regular Feint

Looking at a pure Feint, the even-skill match is still a net of no bonus (so no change), but the attacker has no chance to strike his foe, and he can’t use a Feint to reposition his opponent, as the Feint doesn’t provoke a defense. The Feint against the lower skill guy is a bit stronger – attacker will, on the average, win by 4, a bigger deal.

On the low-skill side, Feinting a superior opponent is a waste of time. He’ll have to outroll his foe by 4, and the odds of his margin being larger than his foe’s is about one chance in seven. Not great.

The setup attack, he’s attacking at 10 (the best he can do) vs a Parry of 12 if his foe chooses to retreat. Well, still not great. 50% chance to make the attack at all, and his foe will negate it completely 83% of the time. Net of about 1 in 12 – so it’s actually worse in this case to try the setup without any bonuses to skill.

Setups as Feints

The Setup Mechanic takes advantage that everyone that knows how to play GURPS already knows the rules to attack and defend, more or less. Feints have odd edge cases in people’s minds, as you can (say) Feint with a weapon that usually becomes unready without unreadying it (pump-fake?).

The question Varyon asked was “how can you throw a setup that has no other purpose but to draw off your foe’s guard?”

He had an answer in the thread; I came up with a variation where you could accept bonuses to hit for reducing damage: up to +6 for throwing an attack that even if it hits, will do nothing; you’re pulling the blow.

Parting Shot

One thing I’ll notice having had more sleep and some thought about it is that the way I give the numbers, you can get a +6 to hit. I’m trying to think of a melee option that allows this – All-Out Telegraphic Attack springs to mind, or Committed Telegraphic Attack for +8 and +6, respectively.

But they come with rather spectacular downsides in terms of your ability to defend, and your opponent’s ability to defend against you. A setup with +6 to hit gives no downsides you don’t want (your foe doesn’t know you don’t care about damage) and has a significant potential upside.

So I’m revising my thought on this. Instead of +2 per -1 per die damage, scale it up so that the maximum bonus is +4.

  • -1 per die damage gives +1 to skill
  • -2 per die damage gives +2 to skill
  • No damage on a success gives +4 to skill.

That’s a bit more symmetric with All-Out and Committed attacks, and since Setup Attacks stack with other maneuvers and options, won’t allow you to do a Committed Telegraphic Zero-Damage Setup for +12 to hit (it’s “only” +10). Telegraphic Attacks, though, really just increase the chances of putting your blade where you want (rolling a potentially successful attack), because the +4 bonus is offset completely by the +2 to defend.

That’s a nice bit of happenstance there, but it works for me. “I’m obviously stabbing you in the face!” puts the blade where you want it, and doesn’t really impact the outcome in your favor – other than making them burn a defense, which might be very desirable if you have multiple attacks per turn, or are setting up a friend’s attack!

All considered, allowing bonuses to skill for pulling your blow is a nice thought; we’ll have to playtest it and see if it breaks anything.

One of the fun things that happened in yesterday’s romp through the Castle of the Mad Archmage+Joseph Bloch ) is that we were able to clear out quite a few rooms. Each combat was short, sweet, to the point. The enemies (and if we screwed up, the players or friendly NPCs) fell like mown wheat, more or less.

This allowed us to probably do 6-10 short, lowish-risk combats in the three hours we played.

In contrast, in the GURPS Banestorm game I played with +Brian Ronnle and his crowd, we roleplayed for a while – a long while – but when we got to the final combat, it took a long time to resolve.

What’s going on?

I still mean to do a post on not fighting the rules, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help them along.

The S&W truth is that at the levels we’re at, and maybe even in general, you don’t have too many choices as to what you’re doing, especially as a fighter. Rul Scararm is a 2nd level fighter. His options are basically:

  • Roll 1d20+3 to hit with a magical bow; 1d6+2 damage if successful
  • Roll 1d20+3 (or 1d20+5) to hit with a magical sword (extra good against undead), and 1d8+3/1d8+5 vs undead if I hit
  • Roll 1d20+2 to poke with a mundane spear or bastard sword (which I probably should get rid of). 1d6+2 for the spear, 1d8+2 for the sword.

The spell users get to pick from a list of spells, but unless things have changed, they pick some spells each game day, use ’em up, and until the day passes, that’s it. Then they’re back to trying to hit with a crappy dagger, club, or mace. The foe’s ability to defend is all rolled into AC. Rul has +1 banded mail and a shield for AC 18. Mirado ( +Peter V. Dell’Orto ) has plate armor for AC 17. So their chances of getting hit by someone with similar ability is about 1 time in 3. If the foe can last longer than three turns, it can be assumed that the bad guys are going to start digging into Team Ogre HEDS hit point pool.

GURPS isn’t better or worse, but it is different. GURPS Martial Arts is so awesome I have yet to play with a game that doesn’t use it, but even in the Basic Set, there are a lot of tactical choices you can make/must make in a fight. If nothing else, you may, as a fighter, at the very least:

  • All-Out Attack
  • Attack
  • Move and Attack
  • All-Out Defend

But that’s not all. If you strike your foe, he must choose what options to use.

  • Block with a shield, if he has one
  • Dodge more or less nimbly
  • Parry with a weapon or unarmed body part

So you can throw a notional hit with a blow, and then find it parried. Each turn, you choose what maneuvers you use, and you can add Combat Options, like Telegraphic or Defensive Attack on top of those, or the popular Deceptive Attack if you’re skilled. There’s also goodness like Feints (or Setup Attacks, if you like Delayed Gratification), as well as a Riposte, a defensive version of the Deceptive Attack. Most of those (but not all) are found in Martial Arts. In many, but not all, cases, the defender may Retreat, gaining a bonus to defend that varies slightly depending on what skill you’re using it with.

So after all those choices, you may or may not have hit. If you hit, you roll damage, but if the guy has armor, it might bounce off.

The “good” news is that once you do reach the chewy center, it’s a big deal. It can set off a “death spiral,” where the bad guy’s skills go down, and you might get a turn or so where he’s less effective.

After all that, one second has elapsed.

That’s Bad, Right?

As I said, it’s not bad – it’s different. But what I’ve found it does – and I tried to write The Last Gasp to help address this – is a sort of view of the world where you feel like “I take a turn to catch my breath” is a big deal. Your turn might not come again, or it might be a while.

It’s a bit of self-reinforcing pseudo-complexity, because if each turn is that valuable, you might as well do as much as you can. Whether that’s to be effective, awesome, awesomely effective, or effectively awesome, in any case you try and get a lot done.

Heck, in the Banestorm game I just played, the only thing that made Radskyrta effective was he had a horse in an open field, with Move 8/Move 16 in a straight line. Even so, there was a time near the end where he had to take a few seconds to chase down a bad guy, and my instincts were telling me “find another way!”

Old habits die hard.

Whittle Down the Choices

Most usual fighters do not reach deeply into a big bag of varied options. They have things that they like ( Chuck Norris’ roundhouse kick) that become staples of what they do. For a rapier fighter, it might be a thrust to the vitals, or to (because the vitals might be well armored) a leg or something. An axeman may have a penchant for trying to chop off legs.

Each fighter should have a couple of if-then moves they like, and they should write them down. In many cases, GCA can help you.

Note that this doesn’t imply that you have to buy Targeted Attacks or Techniques, though you can, and probably will. But in a front-loaded game, why not front load a bit more so that you can do the things fast in play that you’ll probably wind up doing anyway?

Once things can happen faster, they will naturally happen faster for everyone, as the group (and the GM) get used to having more “Do Nothing” time in the game. Pausing for a single second to take stock, or get your breath, or whatever isn’t a big deal if you’re going to be asked for your next action in a brief moment.

Roll 1d6 for how to use your Cuisinart

GMs can play too, with a similar trick. Make a quickie d6 table, and roll against that each turn. Maybe even scale it with more aggressive numbers being higher, so you can penalize it if you get hit.

Something like this for an experienced fighter

  1. All-Out Defend, taking +2 to Best Defense
  2. No matter what, Step backwards, disengaging. Use  Defensive Attack if in range*. Wait otherwise.
  3. Defensive Attack, step forward if necessary to close distance
  4. Attack to the torso, step forward if necessary to close distance
  5. Attack to a lesser armored or higher value target like the legs, arms, vitals, or head
  6. Committed Attack to the head

What’s not on this chart? Lots of things. No All-Out Attacks (those are not the refuge of trained fighters). No deceptive attacks (only bring those out if net skill is 16 or higher), and no telegraphic attacks. Actually, there’s so much that could be on there that while one would be tempted to expand it to 2d6 or something, I wouldn’t. Keep it simple. Is the chart above a good one? Probably not. It’s the concept that matters here, not the details.

Animals are even easier, and so are unintelligent monsters. They will do one of several types of behaviors: hunting/eating behavior, killing for fun or territory, or dominance display or challenge.

Parting Shot

What I’m trying to say here is that one need not invoke all of the available tactical choices and options in GURPS every single turn. You will probably get more satisfaction, and certainly the game will move faster, if you don’t.

Or if you must do this, have the courtesy to your GM and fellow players to have it worked out ahead of time. People will thank you. In VTTs, this can even be automated in a macro. MapTools and Roll20 both have built-in macro capability, and Fantasy Grounds can have skill listings with everything pre-figured. Just drag it into the dice window. Again, that’s having a list of favorite options or stratagems.

That can also make your character pretty unique. A warrior who is always trying to stab or chop his foes in the legs, to reduce their mobility and make it hurt to even think about moving (plus, legs are crippled at a lower threshold) will play very differently than one that always goes for head shots, or just attacks the body the entire time.

It also isn’t a prescription for stupidity in the face of tactical situations. If a foe clearly has an inch of steel on their chest, don’t have a pro warrior hacking away with a sword at the heaviest part of the armor. That means, also, for GMs to give out visual and visceral clues about the foes being faced. Reward a player taking a turn to Evaluate, by telling them that they notice that the armor is particularly thick on the torso and left shoulder. Or something like that.

+Peter V. Dell’Orto points out in a comment that he’s covered this before. One on how he runs combat fast, the other on limiting your own choices. This advice was not new to me (they were both spawned, it looks like, from comments I’ve made before), and I kept thinking “I’ve read/said this before.” Still, it always strikes me as an interesting point when it comes up.

We’ll see if I can pull this off in my upcoming Alien Menace Game. The first one will be interesting. And holy crap . . . only three weeks away.

I hope that Melee Academy attracted lots of posts today, and so I’ll list them first.

Melee Academy: Dealing With Superior Foes (Dungeon Fantastic)

Melee Academy: Outgunned, Outmanned, and Outmaneuvered – Now What? (Ravens ‘N Pennies)

Next Academy: PCs against really bad odds. (Virtual Table Topping)

Melee Academy: Hero System Style (RPG Snob)


Today’s Melee Academy is about fighting superior forces, and how to pull it off.

It’s possible to sum this up quickly, I suppose. With truisms (no less true for being simple) like “run away!” or “Don’t fight them at all” or “gank ’em from behind” or “engage in asymmetric warfare, pitting your strengths against their weaknesses.”

All true.

Never engage in a “fair” fight if you can help it. Hit ’em all at once, and from behind if your game of choice has facing. Make sure they can’t hit you if you can.

Surprise! You suck!

Still, it bears breaking down a bit more than that, and taking a bit of a tour. One thing to consider is whether you knew you were outclassed from the get-go, or stumbled into it with a painful “snickt.”

If you knew ahead of time, then you’d best have planned ahead, studied your foe, and cataloged known and probably weaknesses, as well as strengths to avoid facing directly.

If you find yourself outclassed by surprise (“Who knew this foppish innkeeper was a Level 20 Warrior/Bard? He hit Gromlik really really hard. Did you see his head bounce off that stone wall?”), then you may be set up for some painful (and potentially fatal) object lessons. Learn quickly, and react even faster.

Consider your Inferiority in Detail

There are lots of ways to be inferior. Stepping back to my imperfectly remembered D&D days, or even better, yanking off the Pathfinder book from my shelf, what might happen if Pelagiyel, my old 6th Level Rogue, happened to really irk, say, 15th level fighter?

Well, Ms Fighter (let’s call her Nonac, in honor of +Kenneth Hite‘s nairabrab warrior) might be sporting STR 18, DEX 16, CON 14 even without magic. That puts her in full plate with AC 22 and a two-handed weapon. Those with more experience than I have tell me that she can do three attacks at 1d12+24 each, plus more with cleave feats, or one big one at 3d12+27, and that with a +1 Greataxe. That’s 46 for the single hit, to about 90 damage for the triple. And with a Basic Attack Bonus of +15 for level, +4 for STR, +4 more for specializing in Greataxe, +1 for magic, that’s a minimum of +24 on the first shot, and +14 on the last. Minimum. I know I’m missing ancillary +1s, too, so I’m guessing that Pel has a 90-100% chance of taking enough damage in one attack by this guy to kill him deader than hell.

Pel might get one shot, at about a 25% hit probability, and if he’s lucky will do 7 HP of damage, or 21 if he crits. Even on a surprise attack to the back from point-blank range using Deadly Aim and Point Blank Shot with Rapid Shot, he probably can’t eke out more than 50% of his foe’s HP in one turn. Assuming he hits and crits twice.

Meanwhile, Nonac can Cuisinart poor Pel into the next dimension probably without resorting to using any feats, which of course he would do, if nothing else than to put this upstart wannabe Rogue in his proper place (which would be in hell, a point we covered nicely already). I’m reliably told that Feats are the real damage source for high level fighters.

This is a situation where your foes are, well and truly, just better than you. While there might be a way for Pel to score a victory, I strongly suspect it will be a moral one. Say, taunting the fighter from high atop a castle wall. Even so,

I’m sure if I get that wrong, helpful advice will follow shortly!

(And in fact, check out Valeros, the 12th level iconic fighter from the game. He’s even more impressive than I show above.) For a more experienced victim, look at Merisiel, the 7th level iconic Rogue.

What if you aren’t totally outclassed

Perhaps there can be more nuance to it. While I’m sure Pathfinder can have plenty of nuance, I’m not expert with it. I’ll stick to something I know better for this: GURPS.

There are many ways that you can be outclassed, so let’s cover some of them.

He has more skill than you (on the attack)

In GURPS, skill comes with a lot of benefits. Obviously, it means he can hit you easily. It also means that he can beat your defenses by virtue of deceptive attacks if he’s pretty good and you are adequate, or if you’re awesome and he’s godlike. As an example, my old Warrior Saint Cadmus had something like Axe/Mace-20. Not too shabby, and it gives him a base Parry-13. (Plus bonuses from Combat Reflexes and defensive bonuses from shields put him at Parry-17).

So he’s good. But what if his foe is better? Two-Handed Sword-30, for example, with a native Parry-18 as well. He can swing for the neck (-5) and do a deceptive attack at -10 (-5 to Cadmus’ defenses) and still net Sword-15 against Parry-12. Against someone with lower skill and worse armor (maybe Sword-16 and a +2 DB shield, plus CR to be nice) the native Parry-14 is all of a sudden Parry-9, which is going to hurt.

The way to beat this one is to try and see to it that either he can’t hit you (get him from range with a spear or bow), or it doesn’t matter if he does hit you, such as with enough DR to simply sit there and take it. Beware this strategy against real foes in high-end games like Dungeon Fantasy, though – Camus has DR 12 and has been tagged through it before!

He can splatter you like a water balloon

A foe swinging a big weapon, or one that if he hits you can kill you dead, needs to be dealt with from range, or non-physically. A parry might break your weapon. A failed Dodge is the end of you. Keep your distance, and bring friends to attack from behind.

You can’t punch through his armor

Victory isn’t always death. Can you grapple him or entangle him so that he can’t use his weapons or attacks? Are there chinks in his armor that you can punch through (there may not be). Are there attacks you can throw that take away this advantage, like Corrosive attacks?

What about that ‘take his advantages’ thing?

Absolutely. Disarming a foe is often rather useful; some are one-trick ponies. +Peter V. Dell’Orto and I have been rediscovering the folly of weapon fighters who don’t know how to grapple, and a weapon fighter, taken down and put in a joint lock, usually will break as fast as the next guy.

Bring friends. Lots of friends.

Even superior defenses can be swamped (in GURPS). Many attacks that can’t be ignored will eventually bring things down to the point where Dodge is your only option. With enough room to maneuver, getting behind your foe makes it impossible for a foe to defend, or even know an attack is coming.

Using Feints, Beats, or (even better) Setup Attacks (from Delayed Gratification, Pyramid #3/52) to open up your foe for a neighbor’s attack. A perk or power-up that transfers the full benefits of a Setup Attack to both you and your friend (say, Teamwork (Setup Attack)) would be a big help here.

Exhaustion is your Friend

If you’re using Action Points (The Last Gasp, Pyramid #3/44) you can follow a strategy of wearing your foe out (if you have higher HT and Action Points than he does) by swamping him with blows that he might be able to defend against, but has to expend resources to do so.

If you have Fatigue Point based attacks, so much the better! Many critters that can’t be hurt directly can still be laid low, or even killed, through making them so tired that they either pass out (at which point their ability to attack and defend is rather moot), or they actually take HP of damage and you exhaust them to death.

Deny them Perception

One way to equalize the odds, to an extent, is to remove their ability to see, hear, smell, or otherwise sense you. Darkness, fog, blinding lights, shrieking noise or explosions can disorient and stun.

Stunning Victory

Speaking of stun, a stunned foe is -4 to defend, and also can’t attack you. Canonically, I think they drop a grapple too.

Parting Shot

Clearly, all of this comes back to the TL;DR part above. Hit them where they can’t defend. Don’t get hit yourself. Drop mountains on their head and don’t engage at all. Run away. Shoot ’em in the back if you can from range, or stab ’em there from surprise while distracting them from the front.

The key is to figure out what their weaknesses are, and attack them. Avoid their strengths. If you want real-world examples, well, we have a couple raging insurgencies right now. Look at any guerrilla war for examples, and look at how a team of six heroes, like Navy SEALS or SFOD-D soldiers, can wreak bloody havoc on a foe much larger (though of course, individually, far less skilled).

And finally, don’t fight a physical foe if you can challenge them mentally. Put ’em to sleep, mesmerize them, mind control them, distract them with the illusion and pheremones of a Monster of the Chosen Gender.

You can’t always run away. But you can try and not be an idiot and bring a knife to a gunfight.

Welcome to the August installment of Melee Academy, which as always is a fine way to celebrate the fact that Thursday is GURPS-Day.

Today’s topic was inspired by a pretty long forum thread on using reach weapons, and the impact of the Wait maneuver providing what seemed to be a sure-fire way of closing to combat range with a Reach 1 weapon. We’ll assume for the same of simplicity that Fighter 1 has a Reach 1 weapon, a broadsword, axe, or something similar, and Fighter 2 is wielding a Reach 2 weapon, usually conceived as a spear (with a thrusting mode only for imp damage, a tip slash for a small amount of cutting damage, or using the butt to smash). However, it could just as easily be a naginata (sw cut) or dueling halberd (many effective modes) or other polearm, which could conceivably have swing or thrust modes that do impaling, cutting, or crushing damage.

Still, the principles here probably can be said to apply to any reach discrepancy, whether it be our Reach 1 vs. Reach 2 (or likely 1,2) example above, but could also apply to a punch (Reach C) vs kick (Reach C,1) fight.

But before we get into that, what are the sources of reach advantage?

Size: Larger creatures may well have larger reach, or be able to (as +Mark Langsdorf notes in his own entry on shield walls) simply negate a reach advantage by walking over it.

Weapon: The easiest way to get a longer reach is (obviously) to pick up a long weapon. Spears, polearms, some longer swords, two-handed axes and flails, and the ever popular staff all have at least Reach 2, and some are even Reach 2,3. Some pikes can be Reach 6, but those are not exactly practical adventurer-level gear.

Maneuvers: There are a few different ways of picking up an extra hex of Reach above and beyond the natural one for your weapon of choice.

All-Out Attack (Long) gives you a flat-out extra yard of reach, at the low-low cost of all ability to defend. The possibly suicidal nature of All-Out Anything has been discussed before!

Committed Attack is an interesting one, since it allows an extra step, which can explicitly be used to step into range, and then step out (called in the text ‘attack and fly out’). The trick to watch for here is that your defensive option are quite limited. To quote the text:

The attacker cannot parry with the hand(s) he used to attack, block if he attacked with his shield or cloak, or dodge if he kicked. He can use any other defense, but at -2. He cannot retreat.

So when doing this, you really need to be a bit careful, since if you declare Committed Attack and then press into someone’s Wait, you have precluded, by maneuver selection, a retreat.

This does not add extra reach, but might make it easier to leverage a reach advantage. +Peter V. Dell’Orto talks to this in his own discussion of how to keep a reach advantage.

Wait, Wait!

Many interesting but frequently futile discussions arise when conducting thought experiments that feature two fighters on an infinite featureless plain. In our case the forum thread pointed out that if Reach 2 decides to be aggressive and attacks into Reach 1’s Wait by closing to a two-yard distance (optimum striking range for his pole weapon), Reach 1 can have his Wait trigger on Reach 2’s step, which means he can step instantly to a 1-yard distance, and attack Reach 2 first, seemingly bypassing Reach 2’s spear. Just like magic.

As Peter points out, and as +Sean Punch noted in two replies, this is somewhat reflective of the spearman being aggressive. He’s not taking the right steps that can guarantee him the first shot – largely using the Wait himself.

Who’s waiting for Godot?

For the consideration of reach, there are really four situations that can be dealt with here, looking at two combatants, flat featureless terrain. So, with that:

Both Waiting

This one can be not terribly interesting, in a way. Both fighters are effectively immobile, unless one or both of the house-rule Step-and-Wait, or even Wait-and-Step are available. This can last a long time- effectively forever, unless some external factor pushes the decision. The Step-and-Wait / Wait-and-Step might trigger cascading waits (Martial Arts, p. 108).

Now, the Cascading Waits situation is interesting, because it largely means the more skilled fighter wins, with Reach breaking ties according to A Matter of Inches (Martial Arts, p. 110, in the box).

But there really isn’t – and frankly, I don’t think there should be – a way for the spearman to enter into a Wait (meaning it triggers) and automatically defeat the Waiting guy.

The Wait-and Step is an interesting option, basically invoking Cascading Waits any time the entering character wants. That’s cheesy, so perhaps you shoud treat that as sort of a Committed Wait, where you take -2 in the Contest to see whose Wait triggers first, and/or suffer some of the penalties associated with a Committed Attack.

Reach 2 is Waiting

Nightmare for Reach 1, and this is the way most people figure this should work anyway. The guy with the long weapon Waits until Reach 1 steps to three yards away, then Reach 2 steps and attacks. This is a nice place to use “attack and fly out,” since it puts you back to 3 hexes distance, and Reach 1 has already used his step – he may have even retreated back to Reach 4! He’s going to have to do something desperate to get inside of you – possibly a Move and Attack (max skill capped at 9) or if allowed, Heroic Charge, which still must deal with the spearman’s Wait, but if he lives, can close the distance perhaps to strike.

Reach 1 is Waiting

This is the case that bugs people where Reach 2 guy has a hard time stepping into attack range (2 hexes) without triggering Reach 1’s wait. Of course, Reach 2 gets to defend, so proper investment in Grip Mastery and/or Form Mastery, to allow claiming that +2 to Parry for using a spear like a staff helps a lot. You can use All-Out Attack (Long) to jab at your foe from a distance that he can’t reach, but it sets you up, if you fail, to receive a pretty ugly Heroic Charge or even just a Committed Attack with two steps, which will close from Reach 3 to Reach 1 to split your skull.

Neither is Waiting

Well, you don’t have to worry about triggering a Wait, so Reach 2 will want to use Attack and Fly Out a lot, to step to Reach 2, attack, and then back off to Reach 3. That forces Reach 1 to also use a Committed Attack (two steps) or All-Out Attack (Long) himself, if he doesn’t resort to Heroic Charge or the skill-capped Move and Attack. All-Out Attack will also close the distance up to half move, but we’ve already discussed why that’s a bad idea.

For the Reach 1 guy, if he’s not entering into a Wait, he’s still going to need a way to deal with moving through the threatened area, which really is the multiple-step options above, Committed Attack being the go-to here.

Bring Friends

The infinite featureless plain with only two combatants on it? Yeah, that doesn’t happen much. The reason why some of the Wait strategies make a lot more sense in a more real environment is that all of these individual combatants are really worried about the random arrow from the small cluster of orcs downrange, or the other skirmisher running around trying to flank them. Once that wait is triggered, for example, the guy can act . . . but what if he runs into another spearman who is also Waiting, with a longer weapon, protecting his brother? Alternating who Waits and who advances might be one way of dealing with the Reach 1 guy with the uncanny ability to bypass the spear tip.

Mark lays out all of this and more in his post, where the more friends, the merrier, and he really gets into stacking the deck to the point where the Reach 2 guys are not foolish to All-Out Whatever.

Parting Shot

Having a long weapon can be a real advantage. But it’s sort of the equivalent of a minor attack or defense bonus. It’s not the decisive fight-ending aspect, and one has to be tactically wise in how it’s used in order to keep it in the “win” column. Especially when certain weapons are awkward to use at Reach 1 (long weapons in Close Combat can get tricky, as well), some tactical effort and ideally, help from friends is a good idea. Aggressively closing the distance is not a good way for the spearman to preserve a reach advantage! Further, having a long weapon is no guarantee that a shorter-weapon guy can’t get inside your guard.

The “good” news is that Waits are obvious. So you should never be surprised when you step into range and short-weapon-guy’s Wait gets triggered. You know it’s coming, and you also know that he can close two hexes of Reach or take two steps with the right choice of maneuver. If you approach with a Reach 1,2 weapon to a Waiting foe at that distance, well, you know what you’re getting into.

Another trick here is to make that attack against you that you know he’ll get into something a bit less serious. Employ a Defensive Feint on approach (Martial Arts, p. 101), lower his attack roll, then step into range. His attack is more likely to miss, making your reduced defenses from an Attack and Fly Out less severe. Using a Setup Attack of some sort (Defensive Setup Attack?) might be an interesting option as well, but would require further house rules.

GURPS Martial Arts has a neat little (highly optional) box on minute differences between melee weapons when it comes to various combat activities, such as Stop Hits, Feints, and Fast-Draw contests.

There was a question that showed up from Landwalker over on the SJG Forums about combining ‘A Matter of Inches’ (Martial Arts, p. 110) with my article on Setup Attacks from Pyramid #3/52 called Delayed Gratification.

The Setup Attack replaces the Feint mechanism with a variant on an actual attack, that requires an actual defense.

Let’s see what reviewing the box shows us, then.

Swing vs. Thrust

Swung weapons are slower and thus harder to successfully alter or recover from. This could be expressed as one or more of the following.

  1. The setup is harder to launch effectively. Take a larger penalty (perhaps an extra -1) to your hit roll
  2. The setup is easier to defend against. Your foe gets a bonus to defend against it (again, +1, but that makes it equivalent to -2 on the attack, which might be too much).
  3. The follow-on attack is harder. When you follow a Setup with a swing, you get -1 to hit.
  4. The follow-on defense is easier. +1 to defend vs. the follow-up attack, but this has the same issues as #2.
I think, overall, I like #3. The setup is whatever it is, but it’s harder to reposition quickly to get the next blow in. So if you choose to follow up a Setup with a swung attack, you are at -1 to hit.

Weapon Weight (relative to your ST)

Perfect illustration from Rimfrost

This applies to pretty much everything that would use a Quick Contest, but with Setup Attacks, the QCs become real attacks. So:

  1. Either on Setups (and defending from them; they’re not secret) you apply this same penalty or bonus directly to both user’s skill (and in this case, I’d round in favor of the defender), or
  2. Apply half the difference in penalties to the Setup Attack penalty if it’s successful. Round as you choose – if you want weapon weight to matter less, round down. If you want these differences to have more impact, round up
This one makes me more nervous, since especially with #1, this is getting perilously close to having a penalty to skill based on weapon weight for all attacks and defenses. Now, I’m not averse to that! It makes sense in a lot of ways. But you better be prepared for the consequences, as it plays directly with character conception. If “I want to use a big sword” is suddenly nerfed because you only bought enough to barely get over the MinST and now you effectively don’t have the skill to wield it like you want, that’s going to piss people off.

Weapon Weight (absolute)

This speaks to Beats and parries vs. heavy weapons. The second part can apply as-is to Setups, since a Setup is an attack. For Beats . . . let me get back to that one.

Weapon Length

I don’t think this should matter in Setups. Having a longer weapon does not allow you to draw a foe out of position better, though it might be harder to reposition after said setup due to lever arm. So maybe ignore differences within weapon reach categories, but perhaps the longer weapon takes a -1 to skill on the attack or defense for each extra yard of length or something. This might only apply to swung attacks as well; spears are notoriously fast, despite being long.

Beat It

The question of Beats on Setups is natural and interesting. It should fall out fairly easily in the execution of the attack. Instead of launching a Setup as-is, perhaps you throw a (Deceptive) Attack at the weapon itself.

So, you attack the weapon, targeting it at the usual penalties (tiny weapons are harder, longer ones easier). If you do this as a Deceptive Attack, and the penalty lowers the foe’s Parry as usual.

The defender has three choices:


He may attempt to pull himself completely out of reach. This is a straight-up dodge roll, including DB from shields, etc. as normal. If he succeeds, the attack misses completely. If he fails, the attack hits the weapon squarely. Treat this as a failed parry (below).


He may also flick his weapon out of the way. This is resolved as a “Dodge-based parry.”

  • Take the relative skill level of your weapon, plus any bonuses that might apply from “A matter of inches” above. Divide this by two, rounding away from zero.
  • Retreat only provides +1 instead of +3, like a Parry
  • DB from shields, armor, or anything but the weapon does not apply (a sword enchanted somehow to provide +1 DB or +1 to Parry would still count).
  • Since Dodge already includes Combat Reflexes, there’s no need to count it twice!
  • Take any adds to damage based on the weapon

Example: A ST 14 duellist with Rapier at DX+5 and Dodge-10 and a +1 due to relative ST with his weapon is being attacked by a foe trying to Beat his weapon aside. He elects to try and flick his weapon out of the way. His Relative Skill Level is adjusted up to DX+6 based on the adjustment from “A Matter of Inches,” and that is halved to +3. This boosts his “Dodge-based Parry” that is the Disengage from 10 to 13. However, his Rapier does thr+1 damage, which gives a -1 penalty, for a net of Disengage 12. If he retreats, he gains +1, giving Disengage-13.

If the disengage fails, your foe strikes the weapon squarely, as with a failed true parry. If it succeeds, the Beat is avoided.

Force on Force: True Parries

Finally, he may meet force with force by utilizing his true Parry (again, DB from shields does not count).

Successful Attacks

If the hit roll is successful, roll damage for the attack as usual. This damage will be applied to the weapon regardless of whether the defender’s parry is successful or not! That’s the risk the defender takes meeting the blow force-on-force (but see Sliding the Blow, below).

Successful Parries

If the parry is successful, the defender rolls swing-based damage, adding the largest bonus the weapon can have in any attack mode (a Halberd, p. B272, has three modes, and thus rolls sw+5, the highest mode). Bonuses from Weapon Master or other adds definitely count! A rapier, which usually only has a thr+1 mode, would roll sw+1 for absorbing damage in this case.

Subtract this roll from the attacker’s roll. Any remaining damage applies a penalty to the foe’s Parry until the end of his next turn.

Example: Our ST 14 duelist attempts to meet a naginata swing from a ST 17 foe force-on-force. The incoming blow hits the weapon, and rolls 3d+1 for 13 points of damage. The duelist succeeds in his parry, and lowers the penalty by rolling swing-based damage himself: 2d+1, and lowers it by 9! Still, the remaining damage imparts -4 to the duelist’s Parry until the end of his next turn. Additionally, the blow hits the sword, whose DR 6 lowers the incoming damage to “only” 7 points. A rapier only has 11 HP, so the sword is reduced to 4 HP, which is not lower than 1/3 it’s HP . . . but it’s getting close. One more such “success” and the rapier will be useless.

Failed Parries

If the foe fails his parry, the attacker strikes his weapon squarely. Roll damage and apply it to the weapon normally.

Also, the blow knocks the weapon out of alignment. The defender takes a -1 to Parry for every point of damage delivered until the end of his next turn. This penalty is lowered by 1 for every 2 points of ST by which the defender’s ST exceeds the MinST of his weapon (the ST Margin). If the penalty to Parry exceeds the user’s Skill/2, it is Unready. If the defender critically failed his Parry, he is disarmed.

Example: Our ST 14 duelist tries again to meet another swing from the naginata. The incoming blow hits the weapon, and rolls 3d+1 for 12 points of damage. This time, the duelist fails his parry roll, and is thus at -12 to Parry. Unless our duelist has Rapier-24 or higher, his weapon is rendered Unready. Once again, the blow hits the sword, suffering 6 points of damage, lowering the HP of his poor blade from 4 HP down to -2 HP. The sword is now disabled, and a quick check on p. B485 shows that a 1d roll is called for: a roll of 2 shows that the blade breaks at the halfway mark and is now Reach 1, instead of 1,2 . . . and now only does crushing damage. Rapiers do not parry polearms well.

Sliding the Blow

Very skilled wielders can partially mitigate the damage done by accepting a penalty to their Parry. For each -1 to Parry, reduce the damage inflicted by a successful blow by 1 point.

This will only get you so far.

Parting Shot

This suggested tweak to the rules takes Delayed Gratification, A Matter of Inches, and the various rules for Beat, Knocking a Weapon Away, and weapon breakage and slams them all together until fusion occurs.

Guess we’ll see if we have produced more energy than we used! Evaluating my own work, I think the weakest link is the disengage rule, where I wanted to have skill matter on a Dodge-type roll. That one could use some testing, and maybe tweaking.