Martial Arts Styles for Mages

by Peter V. Dell'Orto

GURPS Martial Arts opened up a new world to character immersed in the fighting arts -- styles, maneuvers, new cinematic skills to give access to all of those kung-fu movie stunts and legends. But why should non-mages get all of the fun? GURPS Martial Arts gives a nod towards mages using martial arts styles with Dragon Man Kung Fu, but it was based on knacks instead of spells. Mixing Psi and Chi was given a sidebar, but magic gets short shrift.

Several races in Fantasy Folk -- elves, bales, etc. -- have inherent Magery. Would they not include specific spells into their martial arts styles? Even Neal Byles's excellent article "Beyond Sylvan War Lore" did not include specific spells for the styles. GURPS Wizards included the Martial Artist as a type of mage, but those were mages with a non-magical fighting style and spells to augment it. Why not mages who learned a style that presumes magical ability in its practitioners? This article contains some worked examples of magical martial arts, and some design guidelines to help you make your own hybrid martial/magical styles. This article focused on GURPS Magic-based campaigns. Ritual Magic, Rune Magic, and other systems of magic can also have styles developed for them. This article is also fairly generic. Hopefully, this article will inspire people using those systems to develop their own high- kicking, spell-tossing wizards that fit snugly into their own campaigns.

Primary Skills, Secondary Skills, Optional Skills, etc. are as defined in Chapter 4 of GURPS Martial Arts. Three new categories have been added. These are Primary Spells, Optional Spells, and Prerequisites.

Primary Spells are spells that are considered "core" spells for the style. These spells -- like Primary Skills -- must be within 2 points of each other. They do not need to be within 2 points of Primary Skills; since mages will very often have higher spell skills it would be very restrictive if they needed to raise physical Primary Skills before they could raise a much-utilized spell! Spells also need to be at higher levels -- while Karate-21 denotes a very skilled fighter, Deathtouch-21 is required for a melee-oriented mage to cast the spell without concentration. However, a magical martial stylist must have skill 18 (not 16) in any Primary Spells before learning any Cinematic Skill or Cinematic Maneuvers.

Optional Spells are spells typically learned by students of the style but which are not core spells for the style itself. Optional spells may require additional prerequisites to learn which are not factored into the cost of the style nor into the list of prerequisites. These spells can be learned at any time; they are simply included to highlight the spells stylists may find especially helpful.

Prerequisites are mostly self-explanatory. These are advantages, stats, and especially spells that are required for the Primary spells in the style. Cost of prerequisite spells are factored into the cost of the style; prerequisite advantages and stats are not. This is because the Magery prerequisite can be met as part of a racial package, through limited Magery, etc. Stat costs can also vary thanks to racial packages.

Cinematic Magical Arts

There is no technical, game-mechanical reason why Trained By a Master and its accompanying Cinematic Skills and Cinematic Maneuvers cannot co-exist with Magery. There may be valid game world reasons why a GM wants to keep Chi powers separate. These styles assume that you are willing to mix Chi and Mana; if not, simply ignore the Cinematic Skills and Cinematic Maneuvers for the style. Some of the more fantastic elements of Wuxia films and console video games are more easily modeled by magic, in any case.

Multiple Attacks can also exist side-by-side with mage-centered martial arts; however, normal rules for spell casting apply. In other words, even if you can strike four times a turn, you can still only cast one spell per turn. One highly cinematic and potentially campaign-changing is to allow attacks to be traded for seconds to cast spells faster, identical in all other respects to the Reduced Concentration for Cinematic Skills sidebar on MA61. You can still only cast one spell (plus one Blocking spell) per turn.

For another way to mix Chi and Magic, see "Chi Based Magic." Chi-based mages would develop very different styles from those in this article. A mixed campaign with both mage-focused martial arts and Chi Mages using "standard" styles could feature the flexible Chi-style fighter-mages contrasted with the more narrowly focused but powerful Mana based fighter-mages. Characters would have to choose between enhancing their mundane skills using Chi, or adding magic to their mundane skills. Perhaps there is a secret war between the Chi Masters and the Mana Masters, each trying to prove the ultimate superiority of their magical style.

Stone Missile Fighting


13 points/15 points

This style is based on Stone Missile from the Earth College; similar styles based on missile spells from the Water (Ice Dagger, Ice Sphere), Fire (Fireball, Explosive Fireball), Air (Lightning), and Movement (Poltergeist, Winged Knife) colleges are also common. Stone Missile Fighting places great emphasis on keeping the enemy at range and dealing with missile counter fire using a shield. Because the Stone Missile wizard must keep a free hand to hurl his missiles, unarmed strikes and parries are taught to help fend off a foe.

Advanced students often learn Iron Arm to give them a surer defense with their open hand; Shield and Missile Shield provide further protection from enemy mages and archers seeking to neutralize the stylist.

Legends of the greatest Stone Throwers (as they are sometimes called) claim they can hurl their missiles through the walls of castles and that they can hit a moving target while blindfolded.

Stone Missile Fighting is an excellent style for characters with Single-College Magery.

Primary Skills: Brawling; Shield; Spell Throwing (Stone Missile) [2].
Secondary Skills: Short Staff.
Optional Skills: Broadsword, Throwing, Staff.
Maneuvers: Feint (Spell Throwing); Hit Location (Spell Throwing), Off-Hand Weapon Training (Spell Throwing).
Cinematic Skills: Blind Fighting, Breaking Blow.
Cinematic Maneuvers: None.
Primary Spells: Stone Missile [2].
Optional Spells: Iron Arm, Shield, Missile Shield.
Prerequisites: Magery plus Create Earth, Earth to Stone, Seek Earth, Shape Earth.

Death Fist


21 points/27 points

Deathtouch, especially at high skill levels, is a natural spell for a melee-focused wizard to learn. Death Fist was developed by a small sect of master Body Control wizards in their hidden mountain fortress. It has since spread, but retains a fearsome reputation for its destructive power.

Death Fist assumes the wizard will be fighting multiple opponents or fighting armed and armored opponents. Because of the danger in striking an armed opponent either from a successful parry or possible injury for striking hard armor, this style teaches grapple techniques and counterattacking techniques. Death Fist practitioners will usually take a "wait and see" posture against armed opponents, seeking to lure them into striking first and either countering with an Arm Lock and repeated Deathtouch spells or a Riposte. Death Fist fighters facing armored opponents will typically either grapple or use the Mage's Touch. A mage with this style can Riposte while pulling his blow to a mere Mage's Touch, inflicting damage or paralysis on an enemy. Stylists can also substitute Karate or Judo for DX to make a touch attack.

Hit Location is taught to enhance the body-part specific touches needed for Total Paralysis and Paralyze (or Wither) Limb. Jump Kick is used to strike foes at longer reach, and the Shuto is taught to help bypass the dangerous defenses of an armed opponent.

A very popular spell combination for Death Fist practitioners able to cast Total Paralysis or Deathtouch without concentration, is to parry with Iron Arm, and immediately Arm Lock the opponent. On the mage's turn, the attack spell is cast on the hapless opponent while inflicting a damaging arm lock. Death Fist mages facing multiple foes often use their grappled foe as a shield against any foes, or throw paralyzed foe to the ground. Against a single foe, stylists are taught to hold on and not let go.

Advanced students are taught the staff to provide another option against armored foes; jumping and acrobatic techniques are sometimes folded into this style as well. Deathtouch-21 and/or Total Paralysis-21 are very common skill levels amongst Death Fist practitioners.

Primary Skills: Karate, Judo.
Secondary Skills: Staff.
Optional Skills: Acrobatics, Jumping.
Maneuvers: Arm Lock, Hit Location (Karate), Jump Kick, Riposte (Karate), Shuto.
Cinematic Skills: Blinding Touch, Hand of Death, Pressure Points, Pressure Secrets.
Cinematic Maneuvers: Roll With Blow, Sticking.
Primary Spells: Deathtouch [2], Iron Arm, Total Paralysis.
Optional Spells: Dexterity, Great Haste, Shield, Wallwalker.
Prerequisites: DX 12+, Magery 2plus Itch, Pain, Paralyze Limb, Resist Pain, Spasm, Wither Limb, and 4 other Body Control spells (which can include the Optional Spell Dexterity).

Fire Swordsmanship


13 points/15 points

Fire Swordsmanship is practiced by mages specializing in Flame Jet. Derogatorily called "Johnny One-Spells" by more broadly skilled wizards, these stylists can be deadly foes. With a flaming, variable-length weapon (albeit a potentially tiring one, depending on the skill level of the stylist) Fire Swordsmen can be dangerous fighters. Because the flame jet is useless as a defensive weapon, shields (especially Large shields) are used extensively in this style. Some stylists eschew the shield, and use defense magic and a second Flame Jet to fight.

Full-extension lunges are taught with the Flame Jet, allowing for (counting a Step) a whopping five-yard attack range with a full-power Flame Jet. The Stop Hit maneuver is taught as well, with Fire Swordsmen sticking their Flame Jet into an opponent instead of attempting any defense with the (useless for parrying) Flame Jet. The tactic is especially effective against Pyrophobes and animals.

Fire Swordsmanship has relatively few legends about its practitioners. Those few legends fixate on the hypnotic nature of fire; Trained By A Master Fire Swordsmen can use Hypnotic Hands, but instead of intricate hand motions, complicated and rhythmic swirls and turns of their Flame Jet are used to fascinate an opponent. A Flame Jet must be maintained at all times in order to use this skill. One famous Fire Swordsman is said to have been able to strike everyone within 10 feet of him in a single second. Whirlwind Attack based on Magic Jet is also possible for a cinematic Fire Swordsman.

Primary Skills: Magic Jet [2], Shield.
Secondary Skills: Broadsword.
Optional Skills: Brawling, Hypnotism, Wrestling.
Maneuvers: Close Combat (Magic Jet), Feint (Magic Jet), Lunge (Magic Jet), Off-Hand Weapon Training (Magic Jet), Stop Hit (Magic Jet).
Cinematic Skills: Hypnotic Hands (with Flame Jet).
Cinematic Maneuvers: Whirlwind Attack.
Primary Spells: Flame Jet [2]. This spell is typically learned to skill-21+.
Optional Spells: Missile Shield.
Prerequisites: Magery plus Create Fire, Ignite Fire, Shape Fire.

Elven Archery


10 points/13 points

Elves, bows, and magic have all gone together since before the rise of man. The ageless elves seek perfection in the bow, and have woven together a style that meshes their innate skill with the bow with their innate Magery. Because elves are in no hurry, Elven Archery takes a long time to learn -- typically decades of study. Elven archers are taught that nothing should ever suffer, and to kill with one shot is the goal of training in the longbow.

Despite the elven penchant for taking things slowly, they are not fools -- advanced students learn Fast-Draw (Arrow) to help get them out of tight jams in times of warfare. To counter the crude, poisoned arrows of their orcish foes, Elven Archers favor Reverse Missiles, thus removing those orcs skilled enough to cause any real harm neatly and effectively.

Elven master archers are famous for their extremely long-distance shots, even considering spells such as Hawk Vision. Those same masters are reputed to be able to paralyze a foe without harming him in any way using a blunted arrow.

The Autotrance advantage is very appropriate to the elven practitioners of this style, if the GM permits. Non-elven stylists are extremely rare; non-mages can learn to shoot a bow from the elves, but lacking Magery they will be unable to execute many of the long-range shots elves regard as part and parcel of the style. GMs are justified in charging a very stiff Unusual Background for a non-elf learning this style.

The skills outlined below are only the basic core of Elven Archery. Because of the long lifespan of elves, masters of this style will develop a bewildering array of tactics and spells to help achieve them. Because of this, any spells can be considered Optional Spells for this style. Examples include learning Illusion & Creation magic to deceive enemies or create warriors to help rain arrows down on them, Sound and Plant spells to hide from the enemy or distract him, spells such as Flaming Missile, Icy Missile, and Electric Missile to further harm foes, etc. All elven archers learn the fundamentals, but no two masters are truly alike in their spell selection.

Primary Skills: Bow [4].
Secondary Skills: Philosophy: Elven, Meditation, Stealth.
Optional Skills: Fast-Draw (Arrow), Knife, Physiology.
Maneuvers: Hit Location (Bow) [2].
Cinematic Skills: Breaking Blow, Pressure Points (Bow), Zen Archery.
Cinematic Maneuvers: none.
Primary Spells: Keen Eyes, Hawk Vision, Night Vision, Dark Vision.
Optional Spells: Invisibility, Reverse Missiles; also see above.
Prerequisites: Magery.

Designing Your Own

Why is the Style?

The most important consideration is coming up with a rational for the style. Will it be built around a given tactic or set of tactics (such as Death Fist is), a given weapon (Elven Archery), or a given spell (Stone Missile Fighting, Flame Swordmanship)? You can also base them around an entire College (again, Death Fist) with a concentration on a few spells within that college that could potentially be the most useful.

An important consideration is cost. Sure, a style based on Blinking fighters using Disintegrate and Sleep cast instantaneously might be exceptionally effective, but would have a long chain of prerequisites, high Magery and stat requirements, and require a moderate number of skills and spells at high levels. Remember that the style should be learnable, and useful to, students of the style as well as masters.

All in all, the key to designing a magic-based style is a good theme. There are no historical examples of magic-based martial arts, which leaves a GM free reign to make up almost anything. Great fun can be had combing through GURPS Magic and GURPS Grimoire, looking for "the" spell that would form the basis of a great style.

Campaign Impact

This article assumes that the existence of fighter-mages is common knowledge and in fact that mages capable of holding their own in combat are an accepted part of the game world. If this is the case, adding style retroactively is much the same as adding GURPS Martial Arts styles retroactively. The GM must decide if this would cause too much of an impact on the game. Important considerations are the effect on pre-existing characters (perhaps a PC would have taken Hit Location for his Spell Throwing skill, but lacking a style previously he was unable to) and the effects of additional applications for maneuvers not previously allowed. Magic-inclusive styles are balanced with normal martial styles; they simply codify the types of tactics a fighting wizard would use even without the title "style" being applied.

Another way to add these retroactively is to make them a secret. This is especially effective if combat mages are somewhat uncommon and in a game world chock full of secret societies. It is also an ideal way to introduce these hybrid styles into an ongoing game featuring Cinematic martial arts. The next Secret Master the PCs meet could mix Fireballs and Deathtouches in with his Invisibility Art and Power Blows.

If martial arts styles for mages are being added to a campaign at the start, it would be a good idea for a GM to sketch out at least a few common styles. In game worlds like Yrth, where you have a military empire with strong magical leanings (Megalos), it would be likely that there is a "basic training" style that all of their combat mages are taught. By extension, you might get dueling styles used by mages in Araterre or Sahud to settle their grievances, police-mage styles used in Tredroy to safely subdue suspects, secret and bizarre styles practiced by crazed islanders on the Ring Islands waiting for foolish adventurers to practice their spells on . . .

Article publication date: June 6, 2003

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