Touché!: Getting Through High Defenses in GURPS

by John Dallman

Art by Donna Bar and Colorized by Alex Fernandez

. . .
"Hit. . ."
"Parried. . ."

Playing out swashbuckling combat under GURPS can be rather slow: high active defenses, provided by Fencing or martial arts, mean that most attacks get stopped. A small extension to the Feint maneuver helps with this.

Touché!: Getting Through High Defenses in GURPS

Alphonse and Bertram both have, say, Fencing-18, Combat Reflexes (+1 defense), basket hilts on their weapons (+1 defense) and PD3. This gives them parries of 17. They're skillful, but not inhuman; their combat will be extremely boring to play through.

Simply feinting doesn't do too much good: the defender is most unlikely to blow his fencing roll, and the 3D6 bell-curve means that the attacker is unlikely to make his roll more than about three points better than the defender. If, say, Alphonse rolls 10 and Bertram rolls 13, then Bertram's parry is down to 14 against the next attack. This makes very little difference to his actual chance of making the roll; the combat will still take ages.

A good way to deal with this is to extend the Feint maneuver, and feint again: we called this "stacked feint" when it was developed for an abortive GURPS 9 Princes in Amber campaign.

Take the case above, where Alphonse has three points of advantage on Bertram. He could make a real attack and subtract those three points from Bertram's active defense -- but that option doesn't work well.

To make a stacked feint, Alphonse feints again. Those three points of advantage get subtracted from Bertram's skill: Alphonse rolls against his Fencing- 18, while Bertram rolls against 15 (Fencing-18 minus the three-point disadvantage).

Say Alphonse rolls another 10, and Bertram rolls an 11. The attacker has made his roll by 8; the defender has made his roll by 4. Alphonse now has four points of advantage on Bertram.

Of course, if Alphonse had rolled a 16, making his effective skill roll by 2, and Bertram had got slightly luckier, and made his skill roll by more than that (say, rolled an 12 against his effective 15, making it by three), then Alphonse has lost the advantage he got from the first feint. But, most of the time, his advantage will improve.

An attacker is allowed to keep on building up a feint for as long as he likes. Some playtesting -- which became a game in its own right for a few evenings -- demonstrated that it was a good idea to get a skilled opponent's defense down to 7 or so before going for the kill. At this point, using Hit Location and going for a serious wound was a sound tactic. If your opponent survives a real attempt at a hit, you need to start building up that bonus again.

Bertram doesn't go to his doom in ignorance. He gets a chance (roll vs. best of IQ, Body Language, or the combat skill his opponent is using for the Feints) to realize that a stacked feint penalty is building up on him.

To get out of the stacked feint, Bertram needs to break off combat: the classical method is to use a Retreat option on your defense, preferably with a graceful step or jump backwards. Getting into close combat also works, as does scoring damage on Alphonse or anything else that interrupts his concentration.

Interestingly, RPG combat systems don't tend to encourage characters to move about nearly as much as real people fighting with swords do; giving characters a reason to move about makes things look better, and lets you herd an opponent about.

Of course, both participants in a combat can use this rule at the same time. For playability, ignore any interactions between the two accumulating feint bonuses. Leaving it to the characters to decide if they want to Retreat from the advantage their opponent had -- blowing their own advantage -- works well. This can be a tricky decision when you have a fair advantage built up: higher Speed is a huge advantage when both defenses are getting low.

If you use this system, respect more skilful fighters. Using stacked feint in quite a few trial combats, we found that one level of skill more than your opponent gave victory about two-thirds of the time, two more skill levels made it about 80%, and three levels was as sure as a combat system with criticals and fumbles lets it be.

En garde!

Article publication date: March 24, 2000

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