Expanding Acrobatics with Maneuvers
By Steffan O'Sullivan
This article appeared in Roleplayer magazine and is copyright by Steve Jackson Games, all rights reserved.
GURPS Martial Arts introduces a subset of skills known as maneuvers. These differ from the Maneuvers listed in the Basic and Advanced Combat sections in that most of them can be raised independently of raising the whole skill. Thus, you can have a Karate expert who specializes in Spin Kicks, for example.
This concept can be easily expanded to the Acrobatics skill – in fact, some of the Martial Arts maneuvers default to Acrobatics already. I have long thought that this skill was too comprehensive to be only one skill. Using Maneuvers, we can expand the skill to the dimensions it deserves without crippling the basic skill by dividing it.
My own background is in circus acrobatics. I studied this for a full school year, but was never any good at it. Nonetheless, I attended classes daily, doing my best, all the while observing my teachers and fellow students, some of whom were excellent. One of my teachers played the part of a Sasquatch (Bigfoot) in a two-hour play. He wore strap-on stilts inside a heavy fur suit, yet ran and did rolls, dives, and trapeze swings the entire play!
Next chance you get, study the acrobats at a circus. See how high they can stack and voltige, watch the trapeze artists and tightrope walkers carefully. You will probably find something useful your character can try in a game someday . . .
The Acrobatics skill includes all of the following maneuvers, at the defaults listed. No character with Acrobatics needs to raise any maneuvers to be able to try them!
In order to raise an individual maneuver, the character must have Acrobatics at skill 12 or higher.
An individual maneuver cannot have more points into it than the character has in Acrobatics itself. E.g., if a fighter wishes to put 4 points into the Tightrope Walking Maneuver, he must have at least 4 points or more in Acrobatics first.
Points in all Acrobatic maneuvers totalled cannot exceed twice the points in Acrobatics skill. Norwood, the sample character below, would have to put points into Acrobatics itself before he could put any more points into maneuvers – he has four points in Acrobatics, and eight points in Acrobatic maneuvers.
All maneuvers have a ceiling of Acrobatics+4.
The cost to raise a maneuver is the same as in GURPS Martial Arts:
Further increases cost 2 points per level.
Please note that Tumbling is of Special difficulty. It cannot be raised above the level of Acrobatics, since it is what people consider Acrobatics for most game purposes.
The Acrobatics Maneuvers
Acrobatics is divided here into six Maneuvers – individual GMs are free to expand this.
Tumbling (Special) . . . . . Defaults to Acrobatics-0; Cannot be raised above Acrobatics
Tumbling, also called Vaulting, includes such basic maneuvers as forward roll, backward roll, diving roll, and others that most people think of when they try an Acrobatics roll in a combat situation. This is the skill that an Acrobatic Dodge (p. B 108) is rolled against. Likewise, diving through a foe's legs, reducing falling damage, vaulting to the back of a horse, diving through a window, etc., are all Tumbling skills. A basic acrobatic maneuver that isn't included in the GURPS Basic Set is a Chest Roll – from knees to feet in one second, ending in one or two hexes directly in front or directly behind the acrobat. This amounts to a successful Acrobatics roll allowing the character to get from knees to feet and end in a hex other than where he started the turn. A Backward Chest Roll (toward the rear hex) is at -2.
Team Acrobatics (Hard) . . . . . Defaults to Acrobatics-0
Team Acrobatics involves more than one person. The simplest team acrobatics maneuvers, such as a human pyramid, do not even require an acrobatics roll, though they will be slow to build and clumsy without practice. A human column is called Stacking, and does require all parties involved to make a Team Acrobatics roll. This usually means one person standing on another's shoulders – the upper acrobat is called the top-mounter, and the lower the understander. Two 6-foot acrobats can be 11 feet high if one stands on the other's shoulders. (Add 2 feet for an average reach with arms outstretched – that is, the top-mounter could reach the top of a 13-foot high wall.) They can walk around at Move 1 without needing to roll again, but the top-mounter's weight must be within the understander's Extra Heavy Encumbrance limit. They can reach higher if the top-mounter stands on the understander's upstretched hands. The understander needs to make a ST-3 roll as well as Team Acrobatics-3 roll. The understander also needs to make a Team Acrobatics-3 roll for every step he wants to take. A third acrobat can help hold up the top-mounter if all three make Team Acrobatics rolls: no ST roll is needed, and Moving at Speed 1 is allowed with no further Acrobatics roll needed.
In a shoulder stack, a third person may stand atop the second's shoulders, adding even more height, but the rolls for all parties are against Team Acrobatics-5. In addition, once the third person starts to climb, the ground level acrobat needs an initial ST-3 roll, then a straight ST roll every second, and may not move at all.
It takes 4 seconds to make a 2-person shoulder stack, and 8 seconds to make a 3-person stack. Doubling these times gives a +1 to all rolls, except ST rolls.
Voltige (yes, that spelling is correct) is basically people-tossing, but not in a hostile sense. This is as much teamwork as stacking, but harder due to the precise timing involved. All voltige maneuvers are at Team Acrobatics-2. A simple voltige maneuver is where one person (called the cavalier, or tosser) stands with knees bent and hands cupped, as his partner (called the voltigeur) runs briefly forward, springing up to the cavalier's hands and jumping upward. At the exact moment of the jump, the cavalier straightens up and heaves his hands upward, imparting an increased momentum to the voltigeur. Add the two characters' ST together to determine height reached in this way – see p. B88. You cannot use the 4-yard running start mentioned in the Basic Set, but allow a one-foot bonus with a 2-yard running start.
Example: two ST 11 characters doing a voltige maneuver with a 2-yard running start could get the voltigeur's feet 64" (5' 4") off the ground! If the voltigeur were six feet tall, he could grasp the top of a 13-foot wall, since the arms stretched upward add two feet to the reach. The advantage of voltige over stacking is speed: stacking takes at least four seconds, while voltige is a single action.
There are other voltige maneuvers. Some are more complicated, even involving three persons, such as one person being swung for momentum by two people, then "tossed" upright to a stacking position atop the other acrobats' hands, which are held straight up! Each member needs to make a Team Acrobatics-2 roll, but it takes only one second to prepare (if the voltigeur is already lying down), and two seconds to swing into position.
Stilt Walking (Average) . . . . . Defaults to Acrobatics-0
An acrobat may walk on stilts with a successful Stilt-walking roll every 10 minutes. Skill dictates how high the feet may be off the ground: an acrobat's feet may be Stilt Walking-8 feet off the ground for hand-held stilts (minimum one foot), and Stilt Walking-12 feet for strapped-on stilts that do not come above the knee (allowing both hands free). Other acrobatic feats while wearing strap-on stilts are at -5; combat is at -3. Both hands are needed to operate the stilts for hand-held stilts. Ladder-walking defaults to Stilt Walking-3.
Aerial Acrobatics (Hard) . . . . . Defaults to Acrobatics-2
The Aerial Acrobatics maneuver includes swinging on ropes, chandeliers, suspended rings, trapezes, etc. It is also known in circuses as Rigging Acrobatics. Simple, straightforward swinging with the arms is rolled at Aerial Acrobatics+2 (defaults to Acrobatics), while anything involving active use of the legs or flipping or twisting is at Aerial Acrobatics – or worse, at the GM's option. Aerial Acrobatics is the skill to use for any fancy maneuvers while hanging by your arms or legs – such as swinging up to a balcony you're dangling from, for example, or imitating Tarzan.
Aerial Acrobatics effects are too complicated to give in detail here – notice that rules for simple rope and chandelier swinging take up a full page in GURPS Swashbucklers. Multiple acrobats increase the difficulty of a trick: -2 for two acrobats working together, -3 for three people, and so on. (Alternately, the GM may make the acrobats roll against two skills at no penalties: Team Acrobatics and Aerial Acrobatics.) This modifier (or additional roll) is applied to each acrobat involved in the stunt, but can dramatically increase reach. Figure that a person hanging onto a trapeze with his knees has a reach equal to his height. Each additional person can add up to eight feet in reach, and 3 yards in length for leaping purposes.
Nine out of ten aerial accidents in circuses occur because the rigging fails, not the performer. See pp. B212-213 for weight-bearing capacity of rope. Grapnel hooks and S hooks make lousy trapeze attachments – swing the tiniest bit out of rhythm, and off they come . . . and off you go . . .
Tightrope Walking (Hard) . . . . . Defaults to Acrobatics-2
Tightrope Walking can be very useful to an adventurer – if you can get a rope in the right place to begin with. Using a balancing pole adds +5 for a very long and limber pole, down to +1 for something rigid and short like a spear. Slack-Rope Walking is at Tightrope Walking-3, and may be learned as a separate maneuver if the GM is willing – Acrobatics-6!
Gymnastics (Hard) . . . . . Defaults to Acrobatics
It is very unfair to lump so many different and beautiful maneuvers under one heading. This "maneuver" includes the showy cartwheels, flip-flops, walkovers, handsprings, somersaults, tinsikas, splits, balancing positions, etc., that wouldn't be used in many game situations, but might be useful in a performance. The GM may make any one of these types of skills into its own maneuver, if desired. Certain types, such as the various somersaults, might have a penalty to the default for difficulty. The maneuver difficulty in general is listed as Hard, above, because it is assumed that for a performance, the acrobat will be using only his best tricks. The GM should usually require two skill rolls for Gymnastics: one against this maneuver for flawless execution of the skill, and one against Performance skill to rate the showmanship quality.
Going Beyond Realism . . .
Other possible expansions on Acrobatics maneuvers include Banister Sliding from GURPS Swashbucklers. This is admittedly an obscure skill, but Swashbucklers are just overgrown children, and – who knows? – perhaps they practice sliding down banisters at M. de Trevillé's hôtel? Anything's possible in a cinematic campaign . . . especially anything that makes the game more fun!
Old West heroes might make maneuvers out of all the fancy things they do on a horse, while Super Heroes might try flashy actions coming to a landing at super speeds. Cliffhangers can swing off their cliffs, and Zero-Grav Acrobatics sounds like a legitimate Maneuver to me. Your imagination is the only limit . . .
Sample TL3 Character
Norwood is a likable young mercenary who knows he wants to lead his own troops someday. Smart enough to know he needs to learn more than just how to use his sword to make it as a Mercenary Captain, he has been studying, among other things, the acrobatic arts of the barbarian cavalry he has been serving with. These nomadic people spend their leisure time vying with each other to do physical stunts, many of them involving horses. Norwood, by joining their games, has been accepted as a friend, and is learning quite a few acrobatic tricks.
"Dif" means Difficulty level in the skill column. A Dif of MA means that the skill uses the Martial Arts Maneuver progression, given above.