Dungeon Grappling – Part 1

Thursday , 26, January 2017 10 Comments

Dungeons and Dragons has always suffered under the lack of a simple system for subduing an opponent as opposed to killing them. Many other role playing games as well if it comes to that. Many times in the course of my 36 years of playing D&D a party exacerbates a physical conflict because the mechanics drive things to fatality when, where a mechanic available, a more prudent course of action would be to capture, immobilize, or otherwise conquer an opponent without bloodshed. This effect is one of the prime drivers of the concept of murder-hoboing. If all you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail.

Which is why I have greeted with enthusiasm Douglas Coles supplement Dungeon Grappling which introduces an excellent approach to adding wrestling and other unarmed combat to role playing games by adapting systems most players are familiar with. Dungeon Grappling has already been reviewed (see below) in several places so I won’t repeat what has already been said elsewhere other than to give a hearty recommendation for its use. Rather than a review, I thought I’d give a couple examples of how it might work in play. Disclaimer: I did back the Kickstarter for this product, and I have had Mr. Cole’s input in the review of the example below in order to ensure I represented his approach fairly. I have received no money to endorse the product, nor do I receive any payment for these columns in general. I write these in the hope that some people might find them interesting or useful. Any mistakes or misrepresentations are my own.

Before I ever was exposed to role playing games I was a fan of Robert E. Howard’s Conan character. I, like many I suppose, was particularly struck by the Lancer paperbacks with the covers by Frank Frazetta. In particular, I liked the first book in the series, simply titled Conan with the striking painting of a young Conan engaged with a monstrous humanoid. Frazetta’s painting was of the pivotal scene in the story “Rogues in the House”. So, for my first example, I am using the painting and Howard’s text as inspiration. The conflict is the fight between Conan and the neanderthal-esque Thak.

But, first a little bit of how Dungeon Grappling works.  Essentially, the mechanics mirror the traditional method: roll to hit (taking into account various modifiers), roll damage, and assess effect. Grapple DC (difficulty class) is analogous to armor class; grapple damage inflicted is control points; and control maximum is analogous to maximum hit points. The level of control established on an entity results in different conditions, each with their own threshold and effect. The rules also allow for a variety of special maneuvers (throws, takedowns, strangling, etc.) based on achieving control points on an opponent. For example, achieving CP of at least 1/5 of an opponent’s Max CP allows a takedown maneuver to make an opponent prone.

Below are various statistics for Conan and his opponent Thak the ape-man. “Rogues in the House” being early in Conan’s career, the Conan presented here is a lowly second level. The book presents three versions of the approach implemented in different rule sets. This presentation uses the rules for early editions: B/X or AD&D, Swords and Wizardry, and other OSR-based games.

  Thak Conan
Grapple DC: 18 16
Attacks: 1 (plus bite if opponent restrained). 1
Damage: 1d10 (bite at d4) 1d4+3 (poniard + strength)
Grapple Attack Roll: 1d20+9 to Grapple 1d20+6 to Grapple
Grappling Damage: 1d8+6 1d8+3
Control Maximum: 30 20
Condition Thresholds: Grabbed (1-6); Grappled (7-15); Restrained (16-30); Incapacitated (31+) Grabbed (1-4); Grappled (5-10); Restrained (11-20); Incapacitated (21+)
HP: 30 20
AC: 6 (Dex and fur) 7 (from Dex)
HD: 4+1 2


REH’s text of the fight is in red.

Murilo felt his blood congeal in his veins, but he steeled himself and stepped outside the doorway. Instantly Thak, on the other side of the chamber, wheeled, glared, and charged with a thunderous roar. His scarlet hood had fallen back, revealing his black misshapen head; his black hands and red robe were splashed with a brighter red. He was like a crimson and black nightmare as he rushed across the chamber, fangs barred, his bowed legs hurtling his enormous body along at a terrifying gait.

Murilo turned and ran back into the corridor and, quick as he was, the shaggy horror was almost at his heels. Then as the monster rushed past the curtains, from among them catapulted a great form that struck full on the ape-man’s shoulders, at the same instant driving the poniard into the brutish back. Thak screamed horribly as the impact knocked him off his feet, and the combatants hit the floor together. Instantly there began a whirl and thrash of limbs, the tearing and rending of a fiendish battle.

Round 1: Conan has attacked with surprise (barbarian stealth), gets a free attack with his poniard (a dagger), rolls a 12, with +3 due to strength he hits and does d4 damage. Rolls a 3 for damage which with +3 strength totals 6 points. Thak now has 24 HP.

Round 2: Conan wins initiative, and knowing he doesn’t want Thak to turn around and attack, attempts to grapple. He rolls against Thak’s Grapple DC of 18. Conan rolls a 13+6 for 19 and makes the grapple. He rolls a d8 poorly and gets 4, adding 3 for strength results in 7 control points. Thak is grappled (and at -2 Grapple DC and attacks). Note: because Thak is grappled he can not use the Brute Defense option which would allow him to try to shake Conan off if he were merely grabbed. Thak in response also attempts to grapple Conan. Thak rolls a 9+9-2 for 16 which hits Conan’s grapple DC. Thak then rolls a d8 and gets a 3, adding 6 makes a total of 9 control points. At 9 control Conan is now considered to be in the grappled state during which he suffers -2 to attack and Grapple DC/AC.

Round 3: Conan wins initiative and because he has 7 CP on Thak he chooses to spend the 6 CP (1/5 of Thak’s max CP)  to take Thak down. But, because Thak still has CP on Conan, Conan goes down with him. Thak now has 1 CP and Conan still has 9 CP. Thak, as prone now, is at -2 AC and -2 melee attack. Conan, as prone and grappled, is -4 AC, -4 Grapple DC and -4 melee attack (including grappling).

Murilo saw that the barbarian had locked his legs about the ape-man’s torso and was striving to maintain his position on the monster’s back while he butchered it with his poniard. Thak, on the other hand, was striving to dislodge his clinging foe, to drag him around within reach of the giant fangs that gaped for his flesh. In a whirlwind of blows and scarlet tatters they rolled along the corridor, revolving so swiftly that Murilo dared not use the chair he had caught up, lest he strike the Cimmerian. And he saw that in spite of the handicap of Conan’s first hold, and the voluminous robe that lashed and wrapped about the ape-man’s limbs and body, Thak’s giant strength was swiftly prevailing. Inexorably he was dragging the Cimmerian around in front of him.

Round 4: Conan wins initiative again and grapples with his legs (he’s at -4 melee so why not and he needs to get Thaks CP off him). He rolls a natural 20. A critical (for double damage)! Despite his -4, a natural 20 always hits.   He rolls a d8 and get 5, doubles it and adds 3 for strength for a total of 13 control points. He uses 4 to reduce Thaks control on him to 5 (still grabbed) and uses the remaining 9 control points on Thak putting him at 10 CP in the grappled state. The DM rules that since Conan has grappled with his legs, that he can attack with his poniard but, Thak will get the +5 “one hand” modifier to attack Conan. Note: this is a case-by-case DM determination as a stricter interpretation would be that should he choose to attach with the dagger, Conan does not get a chance to earn CP (i.e. no grapple attack). Thak is now considered grappled which puts him at -2 to attack rolls and Grapple DC/AC (total of +1 melee/grappling [-2 prone -2 grappled +5 one handed], -4 AC/Grapple DC). Conan rolls his poniard attack and gets a 13 modified by -2 prone +3 strength for 14, a hit! Conan rolls a 1 plus 3 for strength for 4 total points of damage. Thak is now at 20 HP. Thak attempts to escape and rolls a 14 +9 +1 for a total of 24 which hits. Thak rolls a d8 for 3 then adds 6 for 9 total control points. He allocates 5 to Conan and 4 to reduce Conan’s hold on him. Conan is now grappled (with 10 CP) and Thak is also grappled (with 6 CP). Both are at -4 on melee/grapple attacks and Grapple DC/AC.

Round 5: Thak wins initiative and attempts to increase his control. He rolls a 7+9-2 for 14 and hits (Conan’s Grapple DC being lowered to 14 as a result of having the grappled condition). For control he rolls a 1 + 6 for 7 points and he puts 4 to reduce Conan’s hold on him to 2 CP. Thak is now only grabbed, Conan is losing his hold. The remaining 3 points Thak uses to control Conan. Conan now has 13 control which puts him in the restrained category. Since restrained would make Conan-4 to attacks and Grapple DC/AC things are getting desperate. Conan is a total -6 to Grapple DC/AC and -6 for grappling/melee (prone plus restrained).

The ape-man had taken punishment enough to have killed a dozen men. Conan’s poniard had sunk again and again into his torso, shoulders, and bull-like neck; he was streaming blood from a score of wounds; but, unless the blade quickly reached some absolutely vital spot, Thak’s inhuman vitality would survive to finish the Cimmerian and, after him, Conan’s companions.

Round 5 (continued): Things are getting desperate for Conan. He grapples again with his legs but, rolls a 10 (modified to 4) and misses.  Conan attempts to finish Thak off with his poniard. He rolls a 19+3-6 (restrained + prone) for 16 which barely hits. For damage he rolls well, a 4+3 for seven more points. Thak is now at 13 HP.

Conan was fighting like a wild beast himself, in silence except for his gasps of effort. The black talons of the monster and the awful grasp of those misshapen hands ripped and tore at him, the grinning jaws gaped for his throat. Then Murilo, seeing an opening, sprang and swung the chair with all his power, and with force enough to have brained a human being. The chair glanced from Thak’s slanted black skull; but the stunned monster momentarily relaxed his rending grasp, and in that instant Conan, gasping and streaming blood, plunged forward and sank his poniard to the hilt in the ape-man’s heart.

Round 6: Thak wins initiative again. Resenting the dagger stabs, Thak is satisfied with his grapple on Conan and attacks, one handed (which gives Conan a +5 to hit him), for damage. Thak needs to roll a 7 (13-6=7) to hit and gets a 19 (modified to 20). Thak hits and rolls d10 and gets 10 (maximum damage)! Since Conan is restrained, Thak also tries to bite but, rolls a 6 and misses. Conan now has only 10 HP left. Conan attempts to reduce Thak’s chance to hit and attempts to further his grapple. He rolls a 12+3-6+5 for 14 total and misses the grapple (he needs a 16, as the only modifier to Thak’s Grapple DC is Thak is prone).  Conan also attempts another Poniard stab. He rolls a 15 (+3 strength -4 restrained, -2 prone +5 Thak has him one handed) for a total of 17 and hits. He rolls a 2 for damage modified by strength to 5. Thak now has 8 HP. Will Thak finish him off? Now, Murilo steps in and hits with his chair for 4 points damage (it’s a heavy chair and Murilo while no Conan is pretty strong). Thak now has 4 HP.

Round 7: Conan wins initiative and stabs again with his poniard. He rolls a 17 (+3 strength -4 restrained, -2 prone, +5 Thak has him one handed) for 19 which hits. Rolling a 3 on a d4 Conan adds 3 for strength for 6 points of damage. Thak is now at 0 HP. Thak is dead.

With a convulsive shudder, the beast-man started from the floor, then sank limply back. His fierce eyes set and glazed, his thick limbs quivered and became rigid.

Conan staggered dizzily up, shaking the sweat and blood out of his eyes. Blood dripped from his poniard and fingers, and trickled in rivulets down his thighs, arms, and breast. Murilo caught at him to support him, but the barbarian shook him off impatiently.

“When I cannot stand alone, it will be time to die,” he mumbled, through mashed lips. “But I’d like a flagon of wine.”

A wiser Thak might have continued to grapple rather than attack for damage in round 6 as he had a good chance of getting Conan into an incapacitated condition. Conan was at 13 CP and restrained and prone making his Grapple DC to be 10. Since Thak gets +9 he only needed to roll a 1 to further his grapple. Any roll of 2 or greater on the damage dice would put Conan into an incapacitated state (13+6+2 = 21) and then Thak could have finished him off in the following rounds. With Conan incapacitated and Thak munching away, Murilo might well have failed morale and run off.

Dungeon Grappling has variant rules for several systems including Swords and Wizardry, Pathfinder, and Fifth Edition but (including adaptions for various feats), is also easily used with most OSR systems. While I hope this example is illustrative of what is in the book, the book contains quite a bit more in terms of special maneuvers, and how to adapt various monsters to the system for both size and special abilities. It should be a welcome addition to any DMs bookshelf. Check it out!

Look forward to next column: an adaption of the Dungeon Grappling rules to a situation of my own devising.

Other Reviews




Summary of Dungeon Grappling Reviews

  • deuce says:

    As a DM, I always allowed for grappling/subdual. Much more realistic and it furthers storytelling.

    Looking forward to Part 2!

    • Brian T Renninger says:

      Thanks for the comment. Standby, the next one is in two weeks 2/9.

    • Thanks for writing and publishing this, Brian. I’m glad you were able to get the spirit of the thing, as Conan mixed daggers and grappling in an attempt to limit the options of a stronger and more skilled foe.

      I had a blast writing it, and I’ve used it in my games to great effect. I hope others discover the joy of the bending of limbs again!

      • Brian Renninger says:

        You are welcome. I really do think it adds a greater dynamic to the game. Having multiple dangers (HP damage & restraint) to deal with at once really ups the tension of a combat. Come to think of it makes pole-arms more an advantage as well. A pole-arm equipped character who can keep an opponent at bay removes grappling from the equation and adds to their safety in an organic fashion. Of course an opponent could grapple a pole-arm as well. Then things flow form there. The approach intuitively works for a whole lot of situations without having to have tons of case-by-case rules and DM rulings seem play out in terms of common sense rather than debating minutia. Like, in the example, the takedown of character who has another grappled takes down the other character too. Fine work here.

  • deuce says:

    You would think the popularity of Royce Gracie and MMA would’ve brought this more to the forefront long before now.

    BTW, Conan does an awesome job of messing up/pummeling some cops in “The God in the Bowl” even before he gets a sword.

    • One would think. I did a Korean martial art for over a decade and the intersection of gamers and martial artists there was strong. Not sure if the BJJ and MMA crowd would overlap as strongly with gamers, but in both cases we are, realisitcally, niche.

      But grappling has so long either been a table-flipping mess from a rules perspective, risky to even try (you can more than just ‘miss’ doing a Swords and Wizardry grappling attack, you can have your action turned against you, which doesn’t happen in striking), or something that’s so powerful that GMs forbid it because it’s an “I Win!” button, or produces results that are nutso (“Oh, the halfling just grappled the five-headed gargantuan dragon, and apparently has him in a solid wing-lock.”).

      I tried to level the playing field, mechanically (use the same sequence as the usual attack rules), as well as provide the same feel for effects (grappling “damage” is on the same scale as weapon damage). It’s also possible, as shown in Brian’s article, to smoothly transition between grappling and weapon fighting without a tension-breaking discontinuity in mechanics.

      Anyway, I appreciate the comments, and the acknowledgement that this might be scratching an itch long left so un-scratched that folks forgot it could be ridiculously awesome when critters grapple.

    • Brian Renninger says:

      Yes, the popularity of MMA does make it a logical extension. “The God in the Bowl” is one of my favorite Conan stories.

      I think I may be the first (or, if not first, one of few) people to depict Conan at low level. I gave him great stats but, he could have lost which is what makes the story tense.

      Heck even Gygax had Conan at 52 HP at age 15. The point of Conan isn’t that he can’t fail but, that he doesn’t.


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