Over on the SJG Forums, user Railstar replied to a thread announcing last Thursday’s topic. It’s a valuable contribution to the discussion, so I reproduce it here:

Disarms and Reach

For GURPS at least, the Reach on Disarms is one reason to use it – because you can disarm someone from the combined Reach of both your weapons. This makes it very useful when approaching polearms, or as part of teamwork against an outnumbered opponent, or with long-weapon tactics. Simply stand out of striking distance constantly disarming until you either disarm or unready their weapon, whereupon that is the opportunity for your allies to rush in.

This can work in formation combat where spearmen with long spears stand 5-6 yards away and try to rake at each other’s spears before daring advance into stabbing distance, or in a duel with longswords where you can attempt to disarm from 4 yards away. The key advantage is you can do a disarm without being close enough for your opponent to hit.

Even an unsuccessful disarm can still be tactically useful if it provokes the enemy to rush in at you – Committed Attack, All-Out Attack or Move & Attack all lower defences, creating a window of vulnerability that you and your comrades can exploit. Meanwhile, the disarm does not require you to lower your defences at all, therefore you can still use Retreat and/or Cross Parry and/or Defensive Grip to make sure your defence against their rush is still good.

The disarm penalty is prohibitive when already in striking distance of your opponent; the penalty is simply too large compared to aiming for them, and so you put yourself at a disadvantage. The more reliable tactic to disarm when close is grapple (armed grapple?) and then opposed ST checks to attempt to pry the weapon from their hands. Even that is risky, best done from surprise where you ambush someone who has a weapon while you have none, but preferable to trying to fist-fight the sword-armed guy.

Actually, attacking someone’s hand is typically easier than attempting a disarm – and that has the advantage of making sure they stay disarmed. Similarly, for an unarmed option you might find that after grabbing their arm Arm Lock will be just as effective or more so than the opposed ST checks… unless you can’t afford to get bogged down grappling them. But if you’re outnumbered while unarmed by guys with weapons, you probably should have avoided this fight.

There is another benefit to disarms in GURPS; there is no DB from shields against them, so if you’re fighting against a large shield you can use this to minimise the effect of their high defences. This can be important psychologically if your opponent likes to rely on DB 2-3, as a further encouragement to push them into a rash advance.

So disarm can be very useful before closing, with room to back off, in combination with long weapon tactics. The key thing not to do is stand within stabbing distance while you do it.

Technically, even with Reach 1 weapons you could use this tactic to an extent. If you Retreat from their attack, rather than stepping forward into range to strike back, you could disarm and take another step back.

Disarms can also be a viable counter against polearms, not just using them. If our side has Reach 2 greatswords and their opponents have Reach 5 pikes, the greatswords can still attempt a disarm from Reach 7. Defensive Attack or Defensive Grip can be used to have a good Parry while still presenting a threat that the enemy has to react to, namely the threat of losing their weapons. Once the enemy with polearms step forward to attack, then unless there are supporting ranks behind them that can give the fighter with the shorter weapon an opportunity to rush in safely and move past the reach of the polearms.

Essentially, Disarms can extend your Reach and that opens up a lot of tactical flexibility.

The Melee Academy series from Thursday got me thinking of alternate mechanics for disarms in D&D. The existing one is straightforward and usable. Roll a melee attack, opposed by your foe’s Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics).

But neither of those two really speak well to a disarm. If anything, a Saving Throw is almost more appropriate, but this seems like the sort of thing that should have its basis in combat skills.

In any case: the existing rule is not horribly broken, but I thought of another way to attack it.

To Disarm using a weapon:

Make a melee attack on your foe’s weapon. The hit number is 10 + DEX bonus (you get full DEX bonus even if wearing heavy armor here) + Weapon Proficiency. If you succeed, you have either struck your foe’s weapon sharply, or used your technique to bind and strip your opponent’s weapon from his grasp.

If you hit, you and your opponent both roll damage for your respective weapons (including STR or DEX, if appropriate – DEX requires a Finesse weapon). If the attacker’s damage exceeds the defender’s damage, a disarm occurs. Ties go to the defender.

If you have multiple attacks, you may certainly attempt multiple disarms against one or more weapons.

Special considerations

  • Treat a shortbow as 1d4, and a longbow as 1d6 for the purposes of resisting armed disarming attempts. You may not use a bow to attempt a disarm without an appropriate Feat.
  • Versatile weapons can use two hands to make or resist a disarm (so a longsword can roll 1d10) if a free hand is available.
  • Extra hands beyond two add +1 to the disarming “damage” roll to either resist or disarm if they can be placed on the weapon
Unarmed Disarms

Again, make a unarmed strike to punch or a Strength (Athletics) check to grapple the foe’s weapon or weapon arm. To-hit number is still 10 + DEX bonus + Weapon Proficiency. If you succeed, you have bypassed the weapon to strike or grapple the limb holding the weapon, rather than the weapon itself. 
If you hit, you and your opponent both roll damage using one die type lower than your usual hit dice (fighters do 1d8, clerics 1d6, magic users 1d4, etc). Unarmed strikes use 1 point plus the STR bonus for damage. Grapples do 1d4+STR bonus. Monks or other characters that have learned improved unarmed strikes may roll that damage instead whether striking or grappling, if it’s better.. 
If you have multiple attacks, you may certainly attempt multiple disarms against one or more weapons.
Special Considerations
  • If you miss on the attack roll when making an unarmed disarm against a weapon, your foe may make an Attack of Opporunity against your full AC including the effects of armor. In essence, he’s defending against your attack by striking your limb.
  • Treat a shortbow as 1d4, and a longbow as 1d6 for the purposes of resisting armed disarming attempts. You may not use a bow to attempt a disarm without an appropriate Feat.
  • Versatile weapons can use two hands to make or resist a disarm (so a longsword can roll 1d10) if a free hand is available.
  • Extra hands beyond two add +1 to the disarming “damage” roll to either resist or disarm if they can be placed on the weapon
Parting Shot
I like effect rolls, and I like how the better fighter in terms of both melee skill and ability to dish out damage will tend to win here. The damage roll means that if you try and disarm a great axe with a knife, the great axe will tend to win. 
On unarmed, the reliance on hit dice tends to mean that combative classes will disarm better than non-combative ones, which I like. I backed it down one die type because having Fighters with STR 18 do 5 points while striking but 1d10+4 for grappling seemed excessive, but 1d8 isn’t so bad.
If that bothers, then drop two die types, so if your hit dice are 1d6, you drop to 1 point, just like striking, but 1d10 will be 1d6, and Barbarian at 1d12 will do a mighty 1d8 when disarming. 
I was tempted to have the Grappler Feat be dealt with explicitly here. Options might include
  • Double damage on a successful hit
  • Expanded critical hit range (that might be weak sauce unless it’s very expanded)
  • Allows -5 to hit, but +10 damage for the purposes of a disarm if you attack with Strength Athletics)
As mentioned earlier, the existing rule isn’t obviously broken. But I like the nuance that this one provides. Swinging or grabbing the weapon is an exercise is striking a smallish object with a combat blow. DEX takes it out of the way, and proficiency with the weapon is a proxy for fighting skill. Damage is the power of the hit, and grappling and like techniques are strength multipliers. 
One can also see purpose-built trapping and disarming weapons coming into play here. As an example, just playing around
Sword-breaker: This weapon may be used in the off-hand using dual-wielding rules. If a bladed weapon attack misses by less than the defender’s proficiency, the defender may use his reaction to make a disarm attempt. If the sword-breaker’s damage is double or more that of the attacking weapon’s damage on the disarm roll, the attacker is disarmed and the weapon is also broken!

This is a guest post by Kalzazz on the GURPS Forums. He heeded my call to arms, and contributed this post on Disarming in GURPS. I have done some minor editing for formatting and flow, but that’s all.


This is one of those things. Yes, GURPS has rules for disarming, but I can’t offhand recall, in 15 years of playing (and DMing!) GURPS, ever actually seeing it happen.

I had to actually go and look said rules up. First, I notice that the technique can be increased above the skill, so that seems groovy, since it can always be fun to have a specialist (I next noticed no styles in MA actually had Technique Mastery for it though, I think it sounds like a valid one to me).

Then I noticed said disarming is mostly just to offset the penalties involved, less groovy:

  • You have a penalty based on size of the weapon (-5 for handguns and daggers to -3 for polearms and rifles), then a -2 if your not using a fencing weapon. 
  • The foe can defend as usual. 
  • Then they can match DX or ST based skill (against your DX or ST based skill) to keep the weapon even after you hit. (Guns however just flat DX or ST). 
  • If you are using a jitte/sai class weapon, you get +2 to the former roll 

So . . . . why wouldn’t I have seen this?

  • As a DM, I admit a certain dislike of ‘gimmicky’ rules and having enemies use ‘gimmicky’ techniques, so I tend to favor enemies that go right up next to the PCs and ‘swing for the HP’, so disarms are something I don’t really think about. 
  • If you disarm a foe . . . you still have a living conscious foe, who might well just draw another weapon and hit you with it instead. In order to pull off a disarm you needed a successful attack and a failed defense, so you could have done damage instead. 
  • The disarming rules are simple, but they aren’t something I have fully internalized either . . . also there are a few questions like ‘Lifting or Striking ST for the checks?’ 
  • Now that I have once again looked at the rules for disarms, I do remember being annoyed that defending against disarms with a gun involved straight up DX or ST (or the retain weapon technique, which goes up to stat + 5). 

Now, most of my “wouldn’t this be cool” daydreams involve “Evil McEvil tries to steal Heroman’s gun, but using his Weapon Retention skills, Heroman turns the tables and shoots Evil McEvil!” 

I have sat through and participated in enough weapon retention classes that ended with ‘and then you stun the aggressor and retreat to a safe distance to maintain control of the situation’, and the ideal way indicated to stun the aggressor is to shoot them with the weapon which you have put your good Weapons Retention skills to use to retain . . . 

Even if Heroman has maxed his Weapons Retention at Stat + 5, he is still in major trouble keeping his weapon against a true epic villain (and its not very heroic of Heroman if he prevails in the face of a garden variety mook).

What is the role of Disarming?

So then . . . . why would I want to disarm someone? 
(some of these are suggested by GURPS Forum user starslayer).

Murder is not acceptable. Murder is usually not acceptable, the drawback of disarming leaving a living foe is actually not so much a drawback when killing your foes is considered antisocial behavior. Or perhaps your foes are mind controlled or confused folks who are not actually foes!   If the enemies are likely to fail morale checks and want to disengage if you disarm them then this is a major plus. (this is suggested by starslayer).

Enemies have weapons that are awesome, and disarming is easier than killing. If your foe has some nifty weapon you would prefer not to be hit with, then you want your foe not to hit you with it. Usually this is done by hitting them until they die, however, it is easy to imagine scenarios where this is not the case. 

Nova from the cancelled Starcraft Ghost

Consider this excellent picture by Greg Horn. First off, we notice that hitting her in the face with a non fencing weapon has the same penalty as trying to hit the rifle to start the process with a non fencing weapon.

Even so, let us assume she has a helmet and that her armor is not power armor. In that case, trying to disarm the weapon (which is a big cool looking rifle, which we can assume falls safely under the things we would not like to be hit with category), requires an attack roll at -5 with our non-fencing weapon. She can defend against the attack – but holding a rifle her defense is likely dodge, and with a big rifle and armor, likely encumbered dodge. 

If we hit, we roll a quick contest of our skill vs her DX or ST (whichever is better, +2 if she holds her rifle with both hands which she likely would in a fight, or up to +5 if she has Retain Weapon). If we are skillful, we are highly likely to succeed!

On a normal attack, if we do not have a lot of ST, we would have a hard time cracking her armor, so she would likely still have her rifle on her next go and want to shoot us. So in this case, disarm was a good idea (if we can get in range of course . . . . Gun Fu has rules for disarms with guns, which might be even MORE useful!).

The foe is armed with a missile weapon. Due to the fact that missile weapons don’t get to use their skill in defending against disarms, they definitely are a good target for it. However, since Disarm is by default melee, this raises a bit of an issue of getting to melee. The old Western movie trick of shooting guns out of hands definitely has merit! 

Also notice in GURPS that a sidearm often has mediocre damage, especially against armor, but if you shoot the pistol out of someones hand, if they do not have a spare gun, they either need to close to melee (time consuming if at range) or go pick their gun back up (also time consuming). During which time you can shoot some more. 

Of course, many gun wielders (and archers) may often have extra Lifting ST for wielding bigger better weapons and lugging ammo and armor.

You have high skill and low (or irrelevant) damage. Pixie Swashbucklers could find this very useful! Disarming allows you to use DX based skill for both rolls! 

I admit this seems an edge case, as usually people who want to have high skill with a weapon also desire to have the ability to hit like a truck.

Or when facing foes ‘Only able to be harmed by Foozle’, and you are not the one with Foozle (hopefully one of your friends has Foozle).

Because it could be cool. Being cool is always a valid reason, and a DM could certainly grant a bonus to an intimidate check. Since disarming can often be harder than ‘hit them till they cease functioning’, I would totally go with that. And it is much easier to use social skills on people after you disarm them than after you kill them.

As a DM, it could be fun to spice things up! Believe it or not, I do not actually try to kill my players (or their characters) too much: I try to give them fun fights. 

Enemies using something off the wall like trying to disarm them could be cool. Also seeing their favorite sword being disarmed from them would in many cases be scarier than just taking the HP loss. Some players like giving their characters a veritable arsenal, so disarming them just gives them a chance to show off with a new weapon. As a DM I think I should try this out.

Settings where magic/psi is tied to objects. This one immediately calls to mind Harry Potter, where wands were extremely important, and lo and behold: Expelliarmus was a thing (the disarming spell).

Fire Emblem is another setting where mages use items to fling magic (though they usually carry backups, but in a serious fight you could do well to take out your foes favorite tome).

Winning the battle of public opinion is critical. In full 4 color supers/full gritty supers (where (suggested by starslayer), this can be a thing. I have been watching the old He-Man cartoon, and he seems kind of like a Super, and he definitely is a major disarm fan. 

My recollection of Smallville: Superman doesn’t lose his skills when affected by Kryptonite, just his Strength, so he could well try to disarm Kryptonite away from someone even when he can’t hit like a truck.

Disarming Thoughts

So there you have it, thoughts on Disarming by a moderately experienced GURPS DM / player who would never in a million years have thought about writing about Disarming (or thought about writing about GURPS period), but really does enjoy discussing blog posts with authors such as Douglas Cole in the GURPS forum. 

So when the gauntlet is thrown, I decided “why not take a shot at it?” Hopefully these will help spur some thoughts.

The Disarm mechanic is dead simple, so there is no reason there not to use it, and I think could well add some fun to the game when used . . . . but does seem to take some mental contortions to figure out when it should be used. 

 I would love to see more topics on such things in the future, especially Setup Attacks, as I really would like to see more discussion of them and when/if they should be used!

Also I think no post about disarming should be complete without mentioning it is often a cool thing for Samurai to do, and Samurai are cool, and Doug likes Samurai and GURPS, so hopefully mention will come up!

+Peter V. Dell’Orto has an interesting note today about the challenges of the Retreat defensive option when using mapless combat. It’s worth a read.

I was intrigued by the option of just always giving people the benefit of increased defenses, the +1 for retreating for a parry/block, or the +3 for Dodge (or parry when using Karate, Judo, and Boxing).

Doing this will slow the game down, because there will be fewer hits and more trading of blows. Of course, I wrote The Last Gasp explicitly to slow the game down – or at least encourage pauses between frantic bits of action.

But these blog pages have seen a great deal of dialog on the subject of Evaluate, as well. In particular, the GURPS 301: Evaluate segment of Melee Academy.

Rereading my own work, I really like the idea of boosting basic “I’m standing there” defenses so that that “whoever attacks first is likely to win” flavor is diminished. In fact, one of the concepts that has been floating around for a bit is “Fully Enabled Defense,” which has you roll against full skill (or really, Skill-4) for defenses. One potential downside about that (which as Tbone notes is also present in every other contest or test of skill in GURPS other than those rolled vs half-skill, like parries) is that above Skill-14, defenses go up fast. 

Which brings me back to Evaluate. If you have naturally high defenses just by standing there, then some sort of Evaluate mechanic will be required before you start swinging.

In my suggestion to make effect rolls for Evaluate you’d want to double them (use swing instead of thrust) if using FEND type full defenses.

In any case, I think the base concept of increasing defenses at least for the first blow in a fight makes some sense, and for mapless combat, higher defenses also make sense since the players and foes will always take care to optimize their actions, and there’s little that’s obvious to stop them. 

Leveraging Tactics to back someone into a wall or on to difficult terrain would make a good alternate play here, too.

In any case, I like effect rolls, and I like the concept that you can start with higher defenses, but also with more opportunities to lower those defenses.

Setup Attacks are a deliberate opportunity to throw a blow that causes an opening. Treating Evaluate as an attack would allow “seeing what’s open” and then throwing an immediate attack as well at -6 to each while retaining defenses (or you can just Feint and Attack, if you don’t wish to retain defenses, or Feint, and then Attack, if you don’t mind taking two turns).

Based on my work with On Target, I’d probably not make the default of the Evaluate Per-based anymore, or allow DX or Per, which ever is better, for Evaluates. Looking for an opening is such a basic part of fighting that I’m not sure Per would be the right call here. 

Parting Shot

More on this later, perhaps. Suffice to say:

Peter’s comments about higher defenses in general are intriguing

I don’t necessarily care for a reasonably skilled warrior having a 50% chance (ish) to avoid an attack. Skill-12 is Parry-10 with a retreat. AoD, however, pushes this to Parry-12, for 75% effectiveness. That suggests something to me. again more later.

Defenses are on the rapid part of the bell curve in general. They tend to range from 7 to 11 for many characters, so small swings have big results. This probably makes for good games

Evaluate and target searching, either on attack or defense, is underutilized.

I like effect rolls, and I think bringing one into the Evaluate sequence would be a good way to increase the usage of that maneuver – it works very well in play for Aim, and it should have an equal impact for melee.

So I think there’s something here, but the Skill/2 type defense exists for a reason and has survived 30 years of play and playtest. I don’t think that’s just sacred cowishness.

A while ago, I took a stab at a Grand Unified Beat theory – basically a system for resolving beats that blends well with a bunch of other work, specifically working from the notion of building on Setup Attacks from Delayed Gratification, which I was poking at pretty hard at the time.

OK, but on a re-read, this is really fiddly. Not surprising – my desire to cover obscure circumstances or to add flavor can mean I drown the GM in modifiers.

Much like the Rules for Grappling Rules post, if we’re going to try and unify this and make it nicer, I need to follow my own advice.

Use What’s There

Rule #1 is simple – use existing mechanics where possible. If I can, I need to ensure that the usual flow of attack declaration, resolution, defenses, etc. is unchanged if it can be. Just more interesting outcomes. Use as few rolls as possible, and make the results intuitive to the user.

So, on the attacker’s side there’s an attack roll, and if successful, a damage roll. I’m going to take a page from the way we play online, though, for one small deviation that will hopefully have a lot of oomph to it: always roll damage with the attack. “I roll vs. a net of Broadsword-13 to hit, doing 2d+2 for 9 points cut if successful.”

On the defender’s side, there’s skill, a defense roll, and the ST rating of the weapon itself. Continue reading “Grand Unified Beat Theory 2”

Kromm laid down the format, so I tried to do the same thing for Judo. This is bascially a find/replace of Judo for Karate, since they mostly have the same rules. Still – check my work?

Remember to use the higher of DX or skill. Going by the Basic Set alone, doing all the math to express things relative to DX (drop fractions at the very end!), and putting the benefits of Judo in boldface, the real progression is this:

  • 0 points (DX only): Grapple (including takedowns and other DX defaults) at DX; grapple with the legs at DX-2; break free at DX, armed enemies who parry your unarmed grapples attack your limb at full skill; parry unarmed attacks at DX/2 + 3, or DX/2 + 4 if retreating; you maynot use hands-free parries to parry grapples; parry weapons at DX/2, or DX/2 + 1 if retreating; cannot attempt Judo Throw, Arm Lock, Choke Hold, or Finger Lock.
  • 1 point (Judo at DX-2): Grapple (including takedowns and other DX defaults) at DX; grapple with the legs at DX-2; break free at DX, armed enemies who parry your unarmed grapples attack your limb at skill-4; parry unarmed attacks at DX/2 + 3 (DX/2 + 2 if using Judo to set up a throw), or DX/2 + 5 if retreating; you may use hands-free parries to parry grapples at DX/2 + 2; parry weapons at DX/2 + 2, or DX/2 + 5 if retreating; following a Judo parry, can attempt Judo Throw (DX-2) , Arm Lock (DX-2), Choke Hold (DX-4), or Finger Lock (DX-5).
  • 2 points (Judo at DX-1): Grapple (including takedowns and other DX defaults) at DX; grapple with the legs at DX-2; break free at DX; armed enemies who parry your unarmed grapples attack your limb at skill-4; parry unarmed attacks at DX/2 + 3 (DX/2 + 2.5 if using Judo to set up a throw), or DX/2 + 5.5 if retreating; you may use hands-free parries to parry grapples at DX/2 +2.5; parry weapons at DX/2+2.5, or DX/2 + 5.5 if retreating; following a Judo parry, can attempt Judo Throw (DX-1) , Arm Lock (DX-1), Choke Hold (DX-3), or Finger Lock (DX-4).
  • 4 points (Judo at DX): Grapple (including takedowns and other DX defaults) at DX; grapple with the legs at DX-2; break free at DX; armed enemies who parry your unarmed grapples attack your limb at skill-4; parried unarmed attacks automatically set up throws at DX/2 + 3, or DX/2 + 6 if retreating; you may use hands-free parries to parry grapples at DX/2 + 3; parry weapons at DX/2+3, or DX/2 + 6 if retreating; following a Judo parry, can attempt Judo Throw (DX) , Arm Lock (DX), Choke Hold (DX-2), or Finger Lock (DX-3).
  • 8 points (Judo at DX+1): Grapple (including takedowns and other DX defaults) at DX+1; grapple with the legs at DX-1; break free at DX+1, armed enemies who parry your unarmed grapples attack your limb at skill-4; parry unarmed attacks automatically set up throws at DX/2 + 3.5, or DX/2 + 6.5 if retreating; you may use hands-free parries to parry grapples at DX/2 + 3.5; parry weapons atDX/2+3.5, or DX/2 + 6.5 if retreating; following a Judo parry, can attempt Judo Throw (DX+1) , Arm Lock (DX+1), Choke Hold (DX-1), or Finger Lock (DX-2).

Adding in the Martial Arts rules gives you a bunch more techniques (some of which default to untrained DX). If using Technical Grappling, Judo doesn’t start to “pay off” in the form of extra Trained ST until you reach DX+4 (+0.5 extra Control Points per roll).

Parting Shot

A point in Judo goes one important thing right off the bat – it enables Judo Throw following a parry using Judo. Now, in order to make it work, you’ll need to invest. I had a character with Axe/Mace-18 and the Perk Judo Throw defaults to Axe/Mace and could not get Judo Throws to work reliably in combat, so it’s not a slam dunk. But Judo Parry sets up both throws and locks that you must invest in a grappling skill in order to take advantage of.

Once you get 4 points in, anything you can do with DX you can do with Judo instead.

That’s the key breakpoint. At 8 points, anything you do with DX you do better with Judo if there’s an option.

I don’t usually just nab content from other places, but +Sean Punch has done all aspiring GURPS martial artists a great service and codified in detail the timeless question of “what good is it if I buy a point in Karate, when I can punch at DX and Karate actually lowers my hit chances!”

As he says, the differences at low levels are “subtle but real.”

You can find the originating thread here.

Kromm Speaks

Remember to use the higher of DX or skill. Going by the Basic Set alone, doing all the math to express things relative to DX (drop fractions at the very end!), and putting the benefits of Karate in boldface, the real progression is this:

  • 0 points (DX only): Punch at DX for thrust-1; kick at DX-2 for thrust; armed enemies who parry your unarmed strikes attack your limb at full skill; parry unarmed attacks at DX/2 + 3, or DX/2 + 4 if retreating; parry weapons at DX/2, or DX/2 + 1 if retreating; cannot attempt Back Kick, Elbow Strike, Jump Kick, Knee Strike.
  • 1 point (Karate at DX-2): Punch at DX for thrust-1; kick at DX-2 for thrust; armed enemies who parry your unarmed strikes attack your limb at skill-4; parry unarmed attacks at DX/2 + 3, or DX/2 + 5 if retreating; parry weapons at DX/2 + 2, or DX/2 + 5 if retreating; Back Kick at DX-6, Elbow Strike at DX-4, Jump Kick at DX-6, Knee Strike at DX-3.
  • 2 points (Karate at DX-1): Punch at DX for thrust-1; kick at DX-2 for thrust; armed enemies who parry your unarmed strikes attack your limb at skill-4; parry unarmed attacks at DX/2 + 3, or DX/2 + 5.5 if retreating; parry weapons at DX/2 + 2.5, or DX/2 + 5.5 if retreating; Back Kick at DX-5, Elbow Strike at DX-3, Jump Kick at DX-5, Knee Strike at DX-2.
  • 4 points (Karate at DX): Punch at DX for thrust; kick at DX-2 for thrust+1; armed enemies who parry your unarmed strikes attack your limb at skill-4; parry unarmed attacks at DX/2 + 3, or DX/2 + 6 if retreating; parry weapons at DX/2 + 3, or DX/2 + 6 if retreating; Back Kick at DX-4, Elbow Strike at DX-2, Jump Kick at DX-4, Knee Strike at DX-1.
  • 8 points (Karate at DX+1): Punch at DX+1 for thrust+1; kick at DX-1 for thrust+2; armed enemies who parry your unarmed strikes attack your limb at skill-4; parry unarmed attacks at DX/2 + 3.5, or DX/2 + 6.5 if retreating; parry weapons at DX/2 + 3.5, or DX/2 + 6.5 if retreating; Back Kick at DX-3, Elbow Strike at DX-1, Jump Kick at DX-3, Knee Strike at DX.

Adding in the Martial Arts rules gives you a bunch more techniques (almost none of which default to untrained DX). You also get to parry with the legs or feet, and may parry grappling techniques with “counters” that don’t require a free hand. And you can dive, sideslip, and slip as well as or better than an untrained person can retreat.

Parting Shot

 The benefits of Karate don’t fully augment the default “go ahead and strike at DX” expected success levels until you spend 8 points in it. At that level, every single thing you can do can be done better with karate than with straight-up DEX.
At four points, you are equal or better in all the things. You attack at the same relative skill level (DX) with Karate, but do more damage. All of your parries, especially when retreating, are better.
At lower levels, the benefits are things you can’t even try without the point in the skill (Back Kick, Elbow Strike, Jump Kick, Knee Strike) and vastly improved defenses vs. weapons and when you can retreat.
So what does a point in Karate get you? It gets you options. One of those options is “not getting dead,” due to higher defenses right out of the gate.

After I posted the link to my thoughts on spending HP (and thus depleting a reserve of grit and skill) to do more damage to your foe (depleting his reserve of grit and skill) the poster Kalzazz made a comment, which had an interesting bit in it:

‘The enemy made his attack by 3, I need to make my parry by 3 to have a shot. He seems to be a normalish human looking guy swinging a broadsword, and I don’t think hes a weapon master or he would be throwing multiple shots or have a higher margin on his attack . . . . I am wearing light plate with fortify 1 . . . do I take the hit, or do I burn an HP to try and parry?’

 Hrm, I say.

The concept of trading margin of success of an attack directly for difficulty in making the damage roll isn’t how GURPS works, generally. When attacking, you make the risks ahead of time. I will attack for the face (-5) or the left leg (-2), and I’ll make my attack harder to defend against – a Deceptive Attack for -6 to hit in exchange for -3 to defend. So for the face punch at -3 to defend, I have to absorb -11 to hit. That probably means my skill is something huge, like 25, or I’m using one or more options, such as All-Out Attack, to boost my skill.

Having margin drive difficulty of defending tends to remove the incentive for targeting more-difficult areas (that same basic philosophy holds for when margin results in damage).

But what if that margin could mean something? I’m not sure I’d do this in vanilla GURPS, but if I were using Action Points, I might have post-attack margin impact defenses, but at a lower ratio than deceptive attack. 

So if -2 to hit gives -1 to defense when risked ahead of time, for every 3 or 4 full points of margin on an attack, the foe is -1 to defend. 

But . . . you can spend APto bring your defenses back up to normal. It’s not as draining (nor should it be!) as Feverish Defense, which is 1 Fatigue Point to get you +2 to a single active defense roll (and suggests 5 AP per +1 to your defense roll in general). At a 3:1 post-success tally, making an attack by 0-2 gives no extra benefit, 3-5 is -1 to defend 6-8 is -2, 9-11 is -3 (and making a roll by 10 often has other benefits). At some point you’ve probably rolled a 3-4 (at Skill-14 or lower) and have rolled a critical anyway. Perhaps it caps out, then – sort of a rule of 16 thing – so random luck can’t bless you with more than -3 to defend.

But that can be countered by spending an extra 3 AP. A few of those in a row, though, and you’re tired. Or using All-Out Defense to reap the benefit of the 2 free AP that maneuver gets you for such defensive moves. 

I’d have to play it to see if it’s more trouble than it’s worth (it might be). You’d have to really look at the AP economy as vital to fun and pacing.

I also sort of like the concept of spending as many AP as you like (but no more than 1 FP at a time, though you could get close) at a ratio of 5 AP per +1 to defend as a scaling version of Feverish Defense.

Anyway, Kalzazz took my D&D and thought about GURPS a bit, and I think there’s something there.

Grappling is probably one of the oldest forms of combat on the planet. It’s also the form of combat most often used when animals are hunting (some of them, like constrictor snakes, exclusively so). It’s also one that both children, animals, and child animals do instinctively for play.
And yet the rules are so often so poorly regarded they have their own entry in TVTropes.

Grappling with Grappling – What is it?

In the broadest sense, grappling and wrestling are about restraint. You are attempting, in a grappling-based fight, to restrict your opponent’s movements to the point where the only allowable actions your foe can take are those which you allow him.
Such restrictions can be:

  • He cannot use his hands (handcuffing, for example, is grappling with a mechanical aid)
  • He cannot run (bearing your opponent to the ground and sitting on him, or leg-cuffs, or gluing feet to the floor all qualify)
  • He is restricted to a position that you want him to be in, and cannot easily change that position (a wrestling pin, a police officer putting a suspect on the ground and kneeling on him)
  • He cannot speak (putting a hand or object over the mouth and jaw)
  • He can do what he likes, but you’re dragging him with you (alligator!)
  • He cannot breathe, or blood flow to his brain is restricted (choke and strangle holds)
The science and art of grappling is one of applied and denied leverage. You are going to use your own body weight, strength, and position, plus environmental and positional factors such as the walls and the floors, your relative positions to minimize the required effort to achieve the above restrictions, and also minimize the effectiveness of his own attempts to resist your restrictions.
Most of grappling consists of ways to achieve this sort of restraint on your foe while avoiding restraint on yourself. This is not always possible, especially with two skilled combatants. In fact, in many cases, grappling is fierce, mutual, and may have an outward appearance of near-stasis that either participant would characterize as anything but static!
In addition, the above restrictions are often applied while fully armed and armored, and not restricted or usually employed only by some specific ethnic esoteric martial art, either. It was a key part of the melee battlefield, and a short perusal of period manuals such as Talhoffer’s Fechtbuch shows a wide variety of grappling applications for any situation.
Grounding your opponent and then moving in for a killing or incapacitating blow is part and parcel of fighting.
So how is this dynamic, ancient, apparently difficult to model style of combat modeled in the five systems considered here?

“And te tide and te time þat tu iboren were, schal beon iblescet.”
                                                                                         – St. Marher (1225)

Perhaps even more than the particulars of attack and defense, there is a game design decision that influences the entire feel of the game, especially in combat. That decision is how much time passes between actions.

For some games, that decision is precise and, in a very real sense, defining. For others, it borrows a now-marketable line from Dr. Who:

“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective point of view it is more like a big ball of wibbily wobbly timey wimey…stuff.”
                                                                                          – Doctor Who (David Tennant)

Each method has its advantages and disadvantages, and each can both promote and inhibit drama and willing suspension of disbelief. This decision also dictates tactics.
But first, let’s take a look at our Fab Five. This is going to go a lot faster than usual.

Dungeons and Dragons

Ah, turn length. Turn length in D&D has moved around quite a bit, and Random Wizard has created a handy compilation of how this has changed over time. The current version adopts the same six-second convention used from D&D3 onwards.
Overall, turn length has varied from (more or less) one effective action per minute to as many as ten, thus the convenient (for easy division) into the otherwise perhaps-odd choice of six seconds per round.

Each player and each side gets to go in initiative order within that turn. The variety of methods to determine who goes first are many and varied. Fifth Edition has each player roll a die individually, and that sets the turn order. Some groups reroll initiative each round, while some will do it once per fight.

There are held actions that allow one to take their action after someone who would usually act afterwards, which enables team tactics, or simply delaying your moment in the sun until the tactical situation has resolved itself more.

Savage Worlds

Likewise to D&D, the turn length used in Savage Worlds is mentioned roughly once, stealthily inserted into the text at the beginning of the combat chapter on p. 64 of Savage Worlds Deluxe: “When a fight breaks out, game time breaks down into rounds of six seconds each. Ten rounds, then, is one minute.”

The key here, again, seems to be that there are a nice ten rounds per minute.

Who goes first is done by drawing from a deck of playing cards, and resolving actions in descending order, from Ace to Deuce. It is possible to delay an action to subsequent turns, by going “On Hold,” which allows you to attempt (there’s a die roll involved) to interrupt the action of any other character at any time. You may hold an action as long as you like . . . but you’re not doing anything else but holding your action until then. The die roll means that if you lose, your foe still gets their action in before you do. You’ll be “dealt back in” for initiative order next time.


If GURPS isn’t the finest resolution game ever, it is certainly the finest resolution in turn length presented here. Each turn for a character in GURPS is one second long. The trick here is that there is no universal turn In GURPS – each character goes in order, and each character acts once per second, but the turns of all characters are interleaved, and if there are four characters in a fight, that is not saying that character B goes 0.25 seconds after character A.

Characters act in the order of descending Basic Speed (a figured quantity), with ties broken by who has the highest Dexterity, then skill level, and then whatever the GM and players decide on to break ties.

Delaying who goes when is done by a particular choice – a “maneuver” called (unsurprisingly) Wait. A Wait allows action if a very specific trigger, player definable, occurs. “I’ll hit my foe after Bob goes” is definite and legal, as is “I wait for my foe to peek around the corner, then I shoot him in the head.” But “I wait until something interesting happens, then I’ll do something based on that” is not a well-defined trigger, nor does it invoke a specific action afterwards. The conditions may be broad but not vague, and are basically IF . . . THEN statements.

Night’s Black Agents and Fate

Normally one does not simply walk into Mordor and lump games together. And yet Fate and NBA both make the same basic choice with respect to the length of a turn, which is that a turn takes however long it needs to, no more, no less. Quite simply, both games embrace the shrug-driven philosophy of J. Michael Straczynski when asked precisely how fast certain classes of ships (my brain tells me it was the White Stars) was capable of moving through space. His reply?

“They move at the speed of plot. What of it?”

So it is with these games. A turn might be a split second, or an hour of weaving through traffic in rush hour. It might be a full round in a boxing or MMA match, or it might be a single blow.

There’s more or less no point to holding an action in Night’s Black Agents. By and large, attacks and other aggressive behavior is against a fixed target number, so going second is no help. Even if you do narratively go “second,” your action might be “I wait for the minion to make a mistake, then dart in and try and hamstring him with my razor-sharp vampiriblade!”

If the player has the initiative, she can describe the action in any suitable fashion.

Fate takes a similar abstract tack on things. Movement is separated into arbitrary zones that take an action or so to cross, assuming you can Overcome whatever obstacles (people, things, situations . . .) are in your way. Including other characters trying to do you in.

Timing is Everything

How does timing drive the feel of a game? It drives choices and complexity. It speaks to tactics – how much can a character do; how much can an adversary do before that character can react to it? It also has a surprising effect on group dynamics.

In the Blink of an Eye

Starting with the finest resolution game, GURPS, is instructive because it takes very small snapshots of what happens in a fight, encouraging/mandating very discrete actions. While there is some small amount of abstraction in a GURPS fight, mostly each move and countermove is declared – and with optional rules turned on, the specificity of the described action can be declared is quite high.

The abstraction is usually in terms of making sense of a series of die rolls from turn to turn. As an example, a fighter might be attacked by four thugs, and he might parry a blow from one, but then dodge two others, retreating against one of the attacks. The fourth missed.

This is resolved with three die rolls, but would be understood as mostly simultaneous movement. Still, this starts as many arguments as it explains at times.

The blow by blow, second by second declaration means that there’s a conflict of expectations for players used to more exposition of actions. Drawing a weapon might be a full-second action (a Ready maneuver), moving into combat range might be a few seconds more, and then blows might be exchanged one or two at a time until a victor emerges. A bout of modern longsword fighting that has a primary exchange lasting perhaps two seconds is resolvable down to nearly the millisecond.

That’s a lot of agency to hand players and GMs, and for those that like resolving fights where very little falls to the realm of abstraction, this is a great thing.

However it has its issues. I’m always shocked at how much people assume they can actually accomplish in a single second, and how long some events take. It is easy to lose track of how long (on a one-second scale) actions can take. Stooping to retrieve car keys is probably resolved with a single one-second Ready maneuver, but in reality, it might be several seconds to pick them up, depending on how much casual fumbling one does.

Consider this Pankration demonstration (at least I think it’s a demonstration – there’s not really enough resistance by the defender). I copied the video, and used an editor to add a quarter-second time clock to the demonstration, but one thing that stands out is that the actual throw – the time the recipient spends airborne – takes more than one second from initiation to completion. For a game that is resolved second by second, taking a turn to pause while the foe (and the thrower) sail through the air is highly unusual, and realistic or not, would represent a perceived loss of agency. Players will decide to forgo otherwise-excellent tactical choices because of a gap in their ability to choose a viable action each turn.

Time is what you make of it

On the other end of the scale, games like Fate and Night’s Black Agents attach no particular amount of time to any action or round. A declared action could as easily be “I drive across the city” or “I run five miles” as it might be “I shoot the vampire in the head.” The sub-second resolution required for fine resolution of dramatic moments in “bullet time” is as accessible as hour-long actions involving two agents shadowing a vampiric minion.

While this works well when every player wishes to take actions of equal length, chronological dissonance can result if one character is taking actions that can fit well within (or drastically exceed) the span of time of another’s.

While split-second increments can lead to frustration if each turn is not filled with action, vague time increments can also lead to confusion or situations that result in a breakage of suspension of disbelief, as one action might be “I shoot the bad guy” and the other might be “I reprogram the computer on the super-dreadnaught to process food instead of supralight navigation.” That can lead to the same feeling of agency loss, as those not taking long actions may be given many choices in a scene, while the person reprogramming the computer is basically off camera the entire time. That’s not unrealistic, nor does it break immersion or suspension of disbelief. It is, however, boring for the player taking the long action.

Still, there’s a lot to recommend to abstract action timing. A flexible GM can adjust timing and action order on the fly in order to both preserve immersion as well as ensuring that the passage of time is as elastic in the game as it can sometimes seem in real life.

A boxing match might be fifteen three-minute rounds. Each round is thus 180 turns in GURPS. In contrast, one might treat a boxing round as a few exchanges in Fate, representing a lot of punches and footwork, with an opportunity to inflict stress or consequences only a few times per round. We’ll return to the boxing match in a moment – it’s a very convenient example for what happens in a fight (though a circumscribed one – no takedowns, elbows, or other varieties of violence – but the rules can be acknowledged without making the example irrelevant).

Conveniently Awesome

Intermediate between GURPS and the pair of NBA and Fate are games that seem to have settled on a six second time scale.

The choice of six seconds was probably a matter of convenience, originally. A nice, even 10 turns per minute, and you can see this division in the progression of turn length through the various editions of D&D.

While the six-second time span may have been a matter of convenience, it happens to represent (in my personal experience) a near-ideal division in terms of granularity. It also makes some amount of sense when benchmarked against real-world sporting events, such as boxing. CompuBox is a website that quantifies such things, and this data talks mostly about records – but it also compares to averages. The junior middleweight average “power punches” per round (180 seconds) is 12 landed punches. That’s a solid hit every 20% of turns. In D&D terms, it’d be about 1d20+5 (say, a low-level Fighter with +2 proficiency bonus and +3 for STR 16 or STR 17) against AC 22, assuming that a “power punch” equates to a hit good enough to roll for HP. If we look at total punches landed, it’s closer to 20, which is a 33% hit rate – a saner low-level fighter striking AC 19. Still, you can see that fighters, even low-level ones, are a cut above average.

You can also see, that at least in this sporting competition, that most of the time in a three-minute round is not spent throwing blows. It’s movement, feints, footwork, and recovering breath. The frantic pace of GURPS combat (and the unlikelihood of actually gaming out a single boxing round, much less ten to fifteen of them) either begs for a lot of chances to spend time “doing nothing,” or should encourage other things to do with that time. The typical boxing match seems to average a thrown punch every three seconds (about 50-60) with only a third actually landing (in the neighborhood of 20). So in a six-second turn, fighters will be moving, evaluating, gauging distance, and throwing roughly two attacks. Given three such turns, one might expect two hits. At least for boxing.

On the flip side, most people will think of a die roll as throwing a single punch, or shooting an arrow, or firing a gun. Given that many games ask players to keep track of individual bullets or arrows (Fate and Night’s Black Agents do not do this, which shows excellent consistency in game design philosophy), there’s only so much abstraction that can be subsumed.

The six-second turn allows time to flow by at a reasonable level, while still assuming that a few attacks per round are possible. It’s been shown by trick-shooters that firing an arrow every second is possible with a low-weight bow, and for the cinematic world of RPGs, assuming it’s doable with a 100-200-lb. draw warbow isn’t going to be the most unrealistic thing going on at any moment on a battlemap. The expected rate of fire for an English Longbowman seems to have been one arrow every six to ten seconds – when bending a bow that’s 150-200 pounds draw, it pays to take time to do it so as not to exhaust the shooter. That number varies, though, depending on the source. So with trick shooting, six attacks per turn might be conceivable, but sustained fire with a high-power warbow would realistically take place at between one and two turns per attack. And crossbows? Fuggeddaboudit.

One does have to be a bit careful: in a modern game going full-auto on an M16 (with a cyclic rate of 75-90 shots fired per 6-second round) will empty a 30-round magazine in less than half of the usual time for a turn. This is offset by the fact that it’s possible to swap a magazine in a scant few seconds (though it will often take longer). This means an expert can blaze away (though, of course, an expert will not blaze away) for a half-turn, do a speed-change of a magazine, and repeat until part of the rifle fails from the heat.

My own experience GMing GURPS showed that the five-second turn was ideal for group movement. It allowed a cautious walking advance (1-2 yards per second) for a few seconds, interspersed with Perception rolls (Evaluate or Concentrate maneuvers in GURPS terms) and ending with a Wait, so that if a threat appeared you were ready. In practice, this meant a full move (which is usually 4-5 yards per second, or 8-10mph) spread over three seconds, one of Ready, Aim, or Evaluate, ending with a Wait. It made for plausible rates of advance, and breaking the pattern to run across terrain was scary, since it denied the Evaluate and Wait parts of the turn, it left one open to attack. That meant when people would give up their paced movement for all-out sprinting, they’d move from cover to cover. Hey, real-world tactics as emergent behavior? Bring it on. I would, however, break back down into single-second time frame when the bullets started flying. This might or might not be realistic, but it was necessary.

Finish Him

Any time scale can work for a game. It depends on what is happening, and how the GM wants to describe the action, and what the players are content with. The important thing is that all parties understand what can happen between (as Lorien might have said) “tick and tock.” I very much remember a D&D 2nd Edition game – my first and only such – where my archer got caught between tick and tock, with a ready bow, and a thug popped onto the battlemat, moved his allowance, and hit and killed my character with him just standing there. In retrospect, this probably means I managed to not see a guy until he was within one move. That underscores the point, however. An archer can be set upon and killed (potentially) so long as his foes are inside of 10 yards. Want to ensure you can’t get hit? Stay farther away, because you will not get a chance to react

That same situation in GURPS? Assuming that our mercenary started 10 yards away, he’s moving with a typical speed of about Move 3 or Move 4. So the archer might see him on turn 1, Aim on turn 2, and shoot once right as the fighter gets within hitting distance. Perhaps this would be an Attack of Opportunity in D&D, upon closing to within 30′ of an archer with a ready bow.

The most convenient time increment for combat seems to be something like 3-6 seconds, with 5 or 6 being a very good compromise. That it happens to make ten turns to the round?

Not a bad side effect.

Still, one of the best options would seem to have the ability to telescope time as required. Fate and Night’s Black Agents can do this, under GM control. Other games might have to look at choosing discrete scales – a geometric progression that looked at 3 seconds, 10 seconds, 30 seconds, and roughly two minutes with smooth rules for moving between scales would probably be fun to play. It would provide a good “pick from a list” set of options for each time scale, and players and GMs alike could set expectations accordingly.

Because time after time, expectations mismatch is a great way to kill a game, never mind killing characters.