Roleplayer #27, February 1992

Concentrated Defense

Protecting Your Vital Interests

by Charles Wheatley

One of the best features of GURPS is its realism, including the deadly combat. However, in settings such as the swashbuckling era, which have minimal armor and no magic or psionic healing, it is hard for the GM to present the PCs with challenging combat that doesn't leave them injured so badly that they miss the adventure.

A solution appears in old swashbuckling movies, like the 1974 version of The Three Musketeers. Major characters in this film never suffered worse than an injured arm or shoulder . . . removing them from the current fight, only to reappear at some other inopportune time. These injuries also aided character development by setting up rivalries and feuds ("Next time I'll kill that one-eyed man").

In a real combat, a fighter can protect one part of his body at the expense of other parts. For example, when fencing with the foil, a leg and arm are forward to protect the torso, which is the only valid target. When the whole body is fair game, as with the epee, the fencer must move the leg back to prevent it from being hit, making the torso an easier target. A shield can also be used to guard one particular body part while exposing the others. The following optional rule simulates this capability.

Optional Rule: Concentrated Defense

Before an attack is initiated, you may decide to more heavily defend a certain portion of your body. Unknown to your attacker, write down or communicate to the GM where you are concentrating your defense. You gain a +1 bonus to the defense of this one area for every -1 penalty which you accept to all others, up to a maximum of +5 bonus or a minimum effective defense of 4 after the penalty. For simplicity, the 11 body parts are divided into four areas:

1) Head (Brain, head, eyes)
2) Torso (including the vitals)
3) Arms (both hands and arms)
4) Legs (both feet and legs)

A defense of the vitals only may be made for a +2 bonus for each -1 penalty to all other body parts, up to a maximum +6 – e.g., if you take a full +6 bonus to guard your vitals, your defense of the rest of your body will be at -3.

After a concentrated defense is chosen, the attack proceeds as usual. If the attack hits and the location is the one chosen for concentrated defense, then you may add your bonus to your defense; otherwise you subtract your penalty.

A skilled opponent will notice a concentrated defense. For an attacker to realize his opponent is favoring a certain body location, the GM rolls versus his highest weapon skill plus the concentrated defense bonus his opponent is taking. Roll once before each attack, with a successful roll noting the concentrated defense and a critical failure misinterpreting it. (An observer not in the combat would have the same chance of noticing a concentrated defense, as long as he's close enough to see both fighters' moves.)

Example: A parry of 8 could be increased by 4 to a 12 for attacks to one body part . . . in exchange for a parry reduced to 4 elsewhere. A +5 bonus is not possible in this example since the -5 penalty would reduce the parry for the neglected body parts below 4. However, a parry bonus of +6 for the vitals in exchange for a -3 elsewhere is valid. An attacker with a weapon skill of 11 would need to roll a 15 or less to realize that his foe is taking a +4 bonus.

Effects on Play

Letting fighters decide where they are willing to get hit will have several effects on play. GMs should be aware of these before allowing this optional rule to be used.

Combat is more complex. Modifications to the defense by location must be tracked and an additional roll must be made to notice the use of concentrated defense.

Combat is less deadly. Highly skilled fighters who can hit the vitals often have only two types of opponents: the unhurt and the dead. When combatants can protect their torso with concentrated defense, the quickest way to remove a foe from the battle is to cripple an arm or leg rather than deliver a mortal blow to the body. The wounded can then choose to flee rather than be killed. Can't-Kill Pacifists will especially appreciate fights which result in less wholesale slaughter.

High fighting skill becomes more important. A high fighting skill allows a fighter to almost immediately recognize an opponent's concentrated defense and hit his exposed body locations. A low-skill fighter is less likely to recognize a concentrated defense and much less able to hit an exposed body location.

Knowing your opponent is an advantage. Smart fighters can investigate their opponent's fighting style in order to anticipate and defend against it ("Remember lad, he'll go straight for your heart").

Unarmored fighters can compensate. Fighters without sufficient armor due to lack of money or technology can favor the unarmored or vital portions of their anatomy ("One day I'll be able to afford a helmet").

Fighters have more depth. Players can customize their fighters' style by choosing to always use a certain amount of concentrated defense on one body location. The reason behind this behavior can be a major part of a character's story, and can even count as a Quirk for someone who is in combat a great deal ("He's protected his head ever since an axe took off his ear").

PCs don't miss the adventure. Few things frustrate a player more than having his character on the sidelines due to a serious wound. If the PCs take mainly arm and leg wounds, the HT/2 damage limit per limb reduces the chance of them dying while still humbling and removing them from the fight. If the optional healing rules in Roleplayer #16 are used, separate wounds to the limbs can heal simultaneously, speeding recovery.

With Concentrated Defense, PCs have more variety in combat and spend less time recovering on the sidelines.

(Back to Roleplayer #27 Table of Contents)

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