Friday, February 27, 2015

Dirty Fighting (simplified combat maneuvers)

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything about my house rules, and I’ve had the chance to run a few sessions since then. I had to adjust the math regarding non-combat skills, so I'm going to update the character sheet and ref screen sometime this weekend (which, as you know if you’ve been following along, is all you really need to play). I also changed the ref screen’s monster panel to reflect my Brinewald: 1631 adventure.

I think that means I accidentally made a 5-page quickstart package. Well, minus the pregens anyway….

Anyway, an issue I didn’t quite expect came up during a solo game. Which is awesome, because learning is the best. The issue had to do with what 3.x called “combat maneuvers” and my house game calls “dirty fighting,” which is probably the most important house rule I use. This has been my most direct way of making fighters fun to play, and of making the combats themselves less abstracted and more interesting than “okay now it’s my turn to roll… shit, missed, your turn.” Basically, fighters of any level get 5e style advantage to any attack they make that changes the nature of a fight instead of doing HP damage: disarms, judo throws, grappling, anything else the PC can think of that would shift the odds in their favor.

So the issue was this: Ashley was playing as a solo fighter/thief type to help me playtest Brinewald. She ended up going after the bandit cave, which ended up with a one on one fight vs the bandit leader. According to my dirty fighting plan, this should have been awesome, but Ashley never chose to do anything but basic attack rolls. When I asked her why later, she told me that she would have been all about throwing this dude to the ground, but that a quirk of the mechanics would make this a pointless tactic.

As she saw it, the situation would be: BL attacks Ashley, rolls damage, Ashley throws BL, then it’s his turn and he stands right back up and attacks. Even if he doesn’t stand up until the next turn, that would only mean that he and she both lost a turn, rendering the dirty fighting technique completely useless. If this had been a group game, she would have gone for it, since it would have given all of her allies an advantage to their attacks, before their enemy could stand back up.

Had she decided to use a DF technique, I would have made sure that it made a legit difference in the fight (even in the solo game) with an on-the-spot ruling, but I guess that wasn’t obvious at the time. So the point of this post is to codify the mechanical effects of a few dirty fighting techniques in my game, which no one reading this is likely to be playing. Hooray!

Throw/Trip: I’ll start with this, mostly because all my players know at least a little bit of judo, which creates an expectation that I make it effective and realistic. Probably the easiest thing to do would be to simply declare that anyone who’s just been thrown also loses their next turn.

That’s sort of accurate, too, but not quite. You’d have to get pretty lucky to pull off an effective weapon attack while prone, but it’s easy to take down a standing opponent from the ground, as long as you can figure out how knees work.

This guy's a big dork but he's doing it right. See also Lesnar vs Mir (UFC 81) a.k.a the funniest fight I've ever watched. Except maybe for Quan Mi Bit from St Louis vs anyone....

So maybe prone characters still have options, but they’re limited. Mostly these will be common-sense judgement calls I make at the table, since there’s no way I’ll think of everything the players might, but some general guidelines would be helpful:

  • Crawl at 1/4 normal speed or stand up. Either of these provokes a free melee attack from anyone in range.
  • No attacks with melee weapons.
  • Unarmed attacks (almost certainly kicks rather than punches, knees, or elbows) are okay, but they give the target a free attack. See Disarm, below.
  • Missile attacks are fine. I’m pretty sure you could even use a bow if you were on your back instead of your belly, but I could be wrong on that one.
  • While we’re at it, +1 defense bonus vs. missile weapons.
  • -1 defense penalty vs. melee weapons.
  • Some dirty fighting techniques can still be attempted with no penalty. Not disarms though, they usually involve footwork.

Also if you throw a person next to a volcano or something, you get to decide where they land (within say 10’, let’s not get crazy here).

I’m never going to remember all those, but I’m pretty sure they’ll seem just as obvious to me when they come up in-game as they do now. I really should figure out how to get all of this onto my DM screen, though. I’ll probably make a third panel for it, if I can figure out what else to even put on there.

Disarm: Oddly enough, this is actually kind of tricky. In standard D&D the advantage would be obvious, since damage is determined mostly by choice of weapon, and unless you’re playing as a kung-fu monk (even then in some circumstances), fighting unarmed is a terrible idea. I use class-based damage, going with the idea that someone with combat training/experience is more dangerous with a pencil than an untrained person is with a sledgehammer. The trained warrior looks at a person and sees a collection of vital areas, any one of which could be used to take an opponent out of the fight. The nerd with the hammer is just swinging more or less blindly at a human-shaped silhouette.

This also means that fighting unarmed isn’t too different, mechanically speaking, than fighting with a weapon. You can kill a man by punching him in the throat just as surely as by stabbing him there. So how do I maintain this realism without making weapons and disarm attempts useless? By thinking about reach. When fighting unarmed against an armed opponent, not being injured becomes a much larger priority than causing injury, and their striking range is wider than yours. Unless you happen to knock out your target in a single strike (which is never a guarantee, I don’t care who you are), you’re opening yourself up to get stabbed. Unless of course you disarm your attacker first.

So mechanically speaking, unarmed attacks do just as much damage as attacks with weapons, but they also give your target a free attack (only if they're armed though).

Your opponent also gets a free attack if your weapon is on the ground and you try to retrieve it. If you're hit, you're prevented from picking up your weapon this round.

Example: Your thief is fighting a duel with Sir Asshole, who wins initiative and successfully disarms you on his first turn of combat. Now it’s your turn, and you have a couple of options. You could use your turn to scramble for your weapon, but you won’t get a chance to attack during this round, and there's a chance of failing to retrieve it. Alternatively, you could roll with it and try an unarmed attack. You hit, but you only roll a 2 for damage, and Sir Asshole gets to attack you back during your turn, hitting you for 3 damage, then gets to attack again on his own turn, possibly doing even more damage, before you get to attack again. Essentially, he gets two attacks to your one every round, until you get your weapon back.

Of course, a third option would be to disarm Sir Asshole and level the playing field.

Grapple: The only times this has been used so far in my game were attempts to tie up NPCs for torture enhanced interrogation techniques. My players are terrible people, which is probably why we get along so well.

If you successfully initiate a grapple on your turn, your opponent can’t do anything but try to escape or reverse positions on their turn, for which they need to make their own grapple check. If you’re still in the controlling position when your next turn starts, then you’ve got a few options, and all of them require another grapple check.

  • Tie up or put manacles on your opponent.
  • Cause 1d12 damage to your opponent by performing a joint-lock or chokehold. You decide whether the enemy is killed, choked unconscious, or has a limb broken.
  • Take something from them; backpack, something they’re holding, jewelry, etc.

Okay that’s all for now go read my older stuff.


  1. Interesting post (your house rules are great, by the way) and I'm aware that I'll argue now on a very abstract level that won't be part of most games, but anyway, here are my thoughts. It's been some time since my last Judo session, but I remember quite well that the instance my ass went down I always thought "Well, this is going to happen, now I'll have to fight on the floor ...". So even on my way down I would usually try and get into a better position to continue fighting on the ground (in the best cases throwing the opponent as a direct response). Only a really perfect throw will end a fight in tournaments (or on concrete floor, I might add), but those are rare and you'd always get at least a chance to change the fight after the fall ...

    What I'm trying to say is that someone trained to fall will always try to get an advantage out of it nonetheless and it's a matter of initiative, if you will, who'll have a disadvantage (an untrained fall, on the other hand, is usually quite devastating ...).

    If you realize you'll fall, you might have a chance to either take the enemy with you (if he's not already going down with you, that is) or you might use it to get some distance between yourself and the enemy (usually the fall ending in a roll backwards/away from the enemy). I'm not saying this should be part of a game, but just sharing my experiences with the sport.

    And someone who knows how to use a knife will always be dangerous, I guess. Even prone or against opponents with more reach.

    We had the same problem with disarming in our game (we also use class-based damage, for many of the same reasons you describe) and I came to the same conclusion: having to fight an armed opponent with your bare hands is a severe disadvantage, but we also differentiate the quality of the damage between blunt force, piercing and hacking (a bit like they do in Hackmaster) so there are other good reasons to disarm an opponent.

    Anyway, I like the way you handle this stuff in the game (and that players actually use it). My players are most of the time just happy to hit things with sharp and/or pointy objects ...

    1. Thanks man! Glad you're into what I've been doing. These rules started out as by-the-book S&W, believe it or not. I'm starting to think I should give them a name and make it an official heartbreaker.

      I feel like I've partially modeled what you're describing, but left out a few details for the sake of keeping the game moving. Also, if I accounted for the damage you can do to someone with a well directed throw, it would never make sense for a fighter to make a normal weapon attack at all (since they get advantage to DF attacks).

      The counter-throws and half-point throws you're talking about are kinda sorta modeled in that if you miss on a dirty fighting attempt, your opponent gets to immediately make one in return. So it becomes really dangerous to try this stuff if your opponent is trained and you aren't. I don't know if I ever wrote that down anywhere, but that's how I've been playing it.

      You're right though, I definitely left out stuff. Breakfalls, for example, would probably be best modeled by a reflex save to avoid damage, but I decided to just assume everyone can do them by the time they start adventuring. It doesn't really make sense, but in this case I think it's more important to keep the die rolls to a minimum.