Dungeon Grappling – Designer’s Notes

Tuesday , 31, January 2017 1 Comment

It’s like a moth to flame with me. First there was GURPS Martial Arts: Technical Grappling. That one  was my first full-length book for anyone: 35,000 words of fairly detailed subsystem that was my first attempt at taking grappling rules and put them on the same scale and mechanical basis as striking with fists or weapons. It’s where I created and put to paper the concept that one should treat wrestling with the same level of abstraction and the same mechanics as other methods of fighting.

Then I got involved a bit in a Swords and Wizardry game. This deliberate throwback to the original Dungeons and Dragons rules took me back to the red box and AD&D days, and had the same brutal and elegant simplicity that I recalled, but also was found more rarely in later games. An entire party of folks could sit down, roll up characters, and begin play in less than an hour. Maybe less than 15 minutes. West End Games’ Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game has that same feel. Few others since have managed it (Fate Core and Accelerated do a very nice job as well. They should: Leonard Balsera quoted WEG’s Star Wars as one of his primary influences when designing the game).

So when my S&W group and I got a few games under our belts, Peter Dell’Orto encouraged me to take Technical Grappling and strip it way, way down and apply it to S&W, and by extension to all of the games based on the old-school D&D rules. We took that on together, and the results appeared in Tim Shorts’ zine, part of Manor #8. Peter and I took everything that wasn’t strictly required and threw it in the dustbin. Doubly so because the old games’ monster writeups mostly did not include much in the way of statistics. You would get Hit Dice, Armor Class, and Hit Points. That was about it. Size? Strength? Yeah. Make it up.

It was a good article, less than 10% the size of Technical Grappling, as befitting a much simpler system. And yet it still worked very well in play. It added options and just the right amount of rigor without burdening the players or the GM.

Then came Fifth Edition. Like it or hate it, by now it probably represents somewhere between 45 and 60% of the entire Tabletop RPG market by games played, and presumably by sales as well. That’s likely annual sales of $10 to $25M, most of which seem to be in $50 hardback books, gloriously illustrated and reasonably well written. It’s recognizably D&D, though there are some things that rub folks the wrong way about it. Too many hit points, and casual conversation with OSR-flavored players have resulted in no small amount of griping about short and long rests.

Regardless, between the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and Fifth Edition, you’re probably looking at 7 or 8 out of every 10 games played at the tabletop these days. D&D as a whole is likely 8 or 9 of 10 games played. It’s that ubiquitous, and for many, D&D of one flavor or another simply defines what roleplaying is.

Hey, I was a GURPS guy as a writer, in the main. If it has 5% market penetration, it’s a good day.

When the free basic rules came out from Wizards of the Coast, I looked to see what they’d done with the grappling rules. The somewhat-surprising answer was . . . not nearly as much as they could have.

WotC then, more or less unexpectedly, came up with the GM’s guild. I wasn’t wild about some of the terms and IP assignment, but I figured I’d give a short rules document a go, taking grappling as well as some thoughts I had about hit points and shields, and putting into a short supplement. Problem with that was that GMs would need to convert pretty much everything on the fly.

Then they released the entire mechanics set under the OGL, and provided a System Reference Document (v5.1) to go along with it. It’s hard to get a precise count, but there are something like 60-200,000 words in it. Unformatted and mechanics-only. . . but suddenly my rules document could be expanded, and then started to look an awful lot like a full game. It grew to a fully fleshed out stand-alone set of books, with embedded setting, cosmology, and a basic premise of “go into the wild lands and conquer them for Torengar. Oh, and keep what you kill,” to borrow a phrase. Plus reskinned Vikings, for Woden and Asgard.

I also realized (with some help) a hard truth. My giant RPG project based on that SRD (Dragon Heresy) would need a substantial amount of money to do “right.” Enough that likely not enough would back it as my very first Kickstarter. I needed a new project. A smaller one. One that would run me through the process of crowd funding, producing a professional-grade book with great art, and demonstrate my project management skills.

So I had an opportunity, and several notches in my belt where grappling was concerned. It was a natural fit.

But why grappling? I mean, it’s grappling.

Coming to Grips

Yah, grappling. It’s probably one of the oldest forms of combat on the planet, is most often used by animals when hunting, and is something that both kids and animals (and animal kids) do for play.

And yet, the rules, by and large, suck. Why is that?

The TV Tropes entry linked above gets it both right and wrong. Grappling seems complex, and is often made so. It’s different enough from “hit him with my mace” or “boot to the head” that complex systems are often thought necessary.

That’s not required, though . . .

Use What’s There

The first rule of grappling rules is to use the rules you already have. I did this in Technical Grappling when I noted that (in GURPS, which has attacks and active defenses) a striking player will need to attack, the foe defends, and then if successful an effect roll of some sort is required to see what happens. Ideally, when it’s time to grapple, you should use the exact same mechanics.

How you achieve a hit may well be a different skill than for striking, or not. In GURPS, there are three unarmed striking skills, three unarmed grappling skills, and a metric crap-ton of weapon skills. You should not have to break out a new rules set to grapple. You should do the same things you always do, mechanically speaking.

When it came to OSR grappling in Gothridge Manor #8, Peter and I applied the same theory. In D&D, if you want to hit, you roll vs. Armor Class. Why should grappling be any different? So much gets swept under the rug in rolling to hit in D&D anyway, AC makes as good a proxy as a resistance to grappling as anything.

Oh, you don’t like that? Mail or scale armor doesn’t make you any harder to hit than leather for grappling? You might be right . . . but in the OSR, monsters usually don’t have stat blocks, so unless you want to do something like “roll against 10+ half the hit dice of the monster” then AC it must be. In other editions and versions where monsters get full stats? No problem: 10+DEX bonus.

For editions of D&D from Third Edition onward, every character and monster had a complete set of information available. All the basic attributes and associated bonuses, size class, attacks, special powers or feats . . . anything you might need was provided. So not only could a quality ruleset be created, it would be symmetric for characters and foes. There were also a wider variety of native mechanics available, but in “keeping it simple,” I chose to make every grappling action an attack, using the same attack and resolution system that is used for beating the snot out of someone with fists or a sword:

Roll to hit, versus a static target number, and then . . . how to apply the effect?

Make it Dynamic

Striking damage rolls are variable. So why not make grappling have a variable effect too? That was my solution for Technical Grappling, and it makes total sense to use some dice-proxy for control as a measure of how good your grapple is. The basic solution found in Manor #8 for S&W was refined and expanded to fit with pretty much any edition, and playtested to make sure.

The thing about making it interesting is the key rule for these rules: grappling should be a useful device for combat. Grappling a relatively equal foe should neither be pointless or an “I win!” button. It should be something that when it happens is cool, and allows things that make the grapple worthwhile. It has to be as compelling in its place as bashing a guy with a sword or shooting him with an arrow in terms of fight-ending ability, without being a magical nuclear weapon (“The halfling’s got him in a tentacle lock! The demon-lord is so toast!”)

Reduce Book-keeping Where Possible

In most games, you already keep track of hit points, counting down from the max. For grappling, one nod to complexity is that  you have to keep track of the total strength of the grapple for each combatant grabbed. The GURPS system uses penalties, and the D&D-based ones don’t have to, though they can.

What else can be done? What options are there, and pros and cons?

You’re easier to hit: Your AC could go down as you get grappled more. This is part and parcel with . . .

You’re clumsier and restrained: When trying to make attacks, the more grappled you are, the higher penalty you should take when swinging weapons and fists. Because you have to get even more up close and personal than usual (probably within the same 5′ square), having penalties to attack and other bonuses decrease rapidly is probably the right way to go.

You can’t move very well: D&D5 does this with the grappled condition already, restricting movement. As you get more and more grappled, it should be harder and harder to move in a direction you wish to go.

You’re open to injury and compelled movement: Being grappled invites the inevitable arm-bar type of motion. Techniques that translate restraint into actual injury. This gets back to putting injury points and control points on either the exact same scale, or some easily transferred quantity (two control points might be one injury point, or vice versa). As your foe gets you more under his control, he can also move you around.

Fighting Back

The nice thing about using the same mechanics present in the “normal” combat rules is that nothing special needs to be done for counter-grappling. If you attack and roll to increase control, you can attack and roll to decrease it by trying to break a hold. You can also grab right back, making a useful choice with narrative power. The mechanics organically reinforce the usual narrative of a grappling match: the struggle of each fighter to bring the other combatant under his control.

Increased difficulty to get an effective grip can be modeled by two passive quantities: the target number, or the thresholds that bring with them the onset of effects. In D&D, being a great fighter gets you higher hit points, but it’s your native Dexterity and the armor you were that raises your Armor Class. Likewise with grappling: the equivalent of armor class for grappling, the Grapple DC, is edition dependent (making use of the information in each game’s stat block), but is driven mostly by attribute bonuses and feats or proficiencies. Your Control Maximum, the amount of grappling damage you can absorb before being incapacitated, goes up slightly as you gain levels as well. More combative character classes are presumably more trained in grappling as well, so they roll bigger dice when they grapple, and therefore can shed grapples more aggressively as well.

On One Condition

One thing present in versions of D&D but not quite so much in GURPS (or at least in a grappling-useful way – GURPS has Afflictions which are mechanically similar in nature) is the concept of Conditions.

These descriptive phrases have game-mechanical weight. If you’re Prone, Grappled, Restrained, or Paralyzed (in D&D5), that means something very specific. It was a trivial thing to borrow these conditions directly upon reaching certain control point thresholds. In fact, this ties in directly with reducing book-keeping, since setting thresholds for Conditions based on accumulated control means is all the GM needs to worry about is what threshold is crossed, and the foe is impacted as appropriate.

Fancy Moves

Fighting bloodies your foe. Occasionally it might knock him down (that’s easier in GURPS, where the Sweep technique is a non-grapple way of knocking someone prone). But the thing about grappling is that it probably needs to open up the target to something kinda neat.

Injury has already been discussed, but frankly you’ll injure someone more with a sword, and faster, than with a grapple. That makes intuitive sense. It also matches real-world experience.

But there are things you can do with grapples that are harder or impossible than with a strike. Disarms for one. Throws, for another. Crippling limbs is a great one where such effects are allowed in games. Applying pain that stops when the fighter decides it, rather than when the organs grow back, is a way to make some critters give up without killing them.

And the fact that in D&D, since the best, and usually the only, thing you could do is attack someone’s pool of hit points, well, when everything looks like a hammer, all your foes are nails. That means you get the spectacle of full-armed and armored parties quaffing ale and fighting lethal bar brawls in every hamlet and tavern. With a proper and useful grappling system, that doesn’t have to happen. More to the point, if it does happen, natural consequences (such as the town guard descending on the offending parties) can follow.

Grappling is for Monsters

Even more than the players, grappling needs to be seen as a useful tool for the GM to make the players’ lives a tetch more interesting than they’d generally like. Getting grabbed by a giant scorpion should make it easier to hit the grappled character. It should be scary. A well-crafted set of grappling rules will make for better stories, and will frankly make for more believable encounters. A crocodile is scary because of the bite, yeah, but it’s because they bit with three tons of force (or more) and then drag you underwater to drown. A lion bites the neck to suffocate its meal, not to make it bleed to death. Cats will strike with their claws, but they will also grapple, and then rake with the back claws. Perhaps ironically, bears don’t bear-hug, but snakes do.

Grappling is a great tool for the GM to make giant monsters fracking terrifying and something you don’t walk up to casually so you can start swatting at it with axes. When grappling is accumulative, 10 kobolds suddenly become a much nastier threat, as while individually they might not amount to much, together than can dogpile even a powerful adversary, reducing or eliminating the poor sap’s ability to fight back.

Dungeon Grappling

Grappling rules do not have to suck. The key was to take rules concepts that are usually very well developed and well understood, and not fighting that system. Use it, tweaking it only enough to reflect some of the things grappling does differently – restraint rather than injury – and then allow for some of the more interesting grappling-related nifty outcomes as naturally as possible.

The OSR Grappling in Manor #8 reinforces many of the design rules (and reiterates them) and gives a few simple options.

Dungeon Grappling was my opportunity to unify, simplify, and expand the basic concepts into, as I like to joke, “one rule to ring them all.” One set of concepts and mechanics, applied slightly differently depending on the game edition being played, which still brings the fun.

The project Kickstarted, met its funding goal and almost met all the stretch goals during the actual campaign, and did reach them all during the Backerkit survey phase. The artists delivered great work, and my layout and cover design team were top notch. It is, if I may be immodest, a beautiful book, and the print version started arriving the last few days in January, which made them three months early relative to the communicated schedule.

Project management aside, it’s a sincere, and I believe successful, attempt to make grappling compelling on the tabletop.

A Note on the Art

I’ve tried not to be too chest-thumpingly proud of the small work I’ve created here, but I wanted to call attention to one thing.

Art in games can be amazing. It lends feel, texture, and personality to a work, and as Jeffro often says, lets you know that something is happening, and something is at stake.

A lot of the art in the book is fairly small – you take art and size it to “holes” in the layout, or at least that’s what I did. But the art direction I provided was quite (overly) detailed, and there was a lot going on in each image.

So I took the art and made an “art book,” called The Art of Dungeon Grappling. Each image is paired with a bit of information on what’s going on, how it can be modeled by the rules, and some inside baseball on how the image was conceived.

But I’m not an artist, and even though (contractually) I’m not obligated to share, I wanted to. I also wanted to do some good here. So the book has four pricing levels, and of that price, 50% goes to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, 35% goes to the artists, 10% goes to sales taxes and credit card fees, and 5% for overhead for my site.

So even if you’re “meh” on grappling, but you do like outstanding fantasy-themed art, you might consider the art book – and help out St Jude’s in the process.

Douglas Cole also wrote the series Violent Resolution, which appeared on both the Castalia House blog, as well as Gaming Ballistic’s own site.

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