Roleplayer #30, January 1993

Building Better Battles

Five Optional Rules for Advanced Combat

by Steffan O'Sullivan

GURPS advanced combat is fairly complex. However, like any system, there are things that it doesn't cover or covers in only one way, out of several possibilities. These optional rules may or may not be just what the GM is looking for to spice up his combats. Some favor the attacker, others the defender, and each may be chosen independently of the others. The first four can be used in a realistic campaign, but the final one is for swashbuckling games, and is very cinematic.

Shield Passive Defense

By the current GURPS rules, the PD of a shield adds to a fighter's defense roll. However, high defenses create some very long battles, which isn't always desirable. While some folks enjoy spending many hours of real time in combat, others prefer to resolve fights quickly and get back to roleplaying other situations. Changing the way shield PD works can speed up medieval combat somewhat.

Instead of considering a shield as an extension of a combatant's armor (adding to his PD), a shield can be thought of as providing cover for the defender. In the Ranged Attacks rules, cover subtracts from the attacker's skill rather than adds to the defender's PD. This rule can be adapted to shields, even for melee combat, as follows:

The PD of a shield is subtracted from an attacker's to-hit roll instead of adding to the shield-user's defense roll.

Use of this rule speeds combat. As an example, Fighter Alphond and Fighter Brant have the following skills and equipment:

Fighter AlphondFighter Brant
Broadsword skill:1518
Shield skill:1414
Armor PD:22
Shield PD:33
Combat Reflexes?YesYes
Defense Roll (1):1315
Defense Roll (2):1618
Defense Roll (3):1012
Defense Roll (4):1315
(1) = using the current rules.
(2) = current rules, retreating.
(3) = Subtracting Shield PD from the attacker.
(4) = as for Defense Roll (3), retreating.

Here we have two skilled fighters, especially Fighter Beta. But each has such high defenses that the battle becomes a die-rolling contest to see who can roll a critical success or failure first. By subtracting the PD 3 from the foe's to-hit roll, however, defenses are lowered enough to allow for a quicker victory for one fighter or the other.

Dodge and Drop

When under fire, hit the dirt! This sensible maneuver is taught in Basic Training courses in armed forces the world over, but is not yet represented in GURPS.

This is easily fixed by adding the following rule: a character may drop to the ground while dodging, earning a +3 bonus to his Dodge roll.

This is similar to a Retreat – except that a Dodge and Drop may be used against a ranged attack. (You may not Retreat from a ranged attack.) It has the disadvantage of having the character end up on the ground, however – it takes him two turns to get back to his feet.

Any cover that the character drops behind does not count against the initial shot that inspired the Dodge and Drop, but is effective against any further shots at that character.

All-Out Defense

There are certain situations where the current All-Out Defense rules do not help a combatant, but should. For example, a shieldless fighter watching someone aim a spear at him from 10 yards away is not helped at all by this maneuver. Likewise, a character with no unarmed combat skills who is empty handed gains nothing by taking All-Out Defense. In each of these cases, the only possible defense is to Dodge – and you can't Dodge the same attack twice while using an All-Out Defense. Yet logically, there should be some benefit to being mentally and physically prepared to defend yourself against an attack.

There is a simple solution to this problem. The All-Out Defense maneuver can be expanded to include a second option:

A character choosing the All-Out Defense maneuver may take a single defense at +2 against each attack. (This is in keeping with the All-Out Attack modifier of +4, since most defenses are one half of an offense.) This may be done instead of taking the All-Out Defense option in the Basic Set, which is still available, of course.

Example: Hrut, who is shieldless, has broken his sword, and it is now useless. If he can just hold off his foes for a few more seconds, however, his friend Kaspar can come to his aid. So Hrut, facing two warriors, takes the All-Out Defense maneuver. He does not know any unarmed combat skills.

Foe One attacks with his sword, and rolls well enough to hit. Hrut, whose PD plus Dodge is 8, adds +2 to that for a defense of 10, which he makes. Foe Two now swings at Hrut, and again Hrut makes his Dodge roll.

On his turn, Hrut again chooses All-Out Defense. When Foe One attacks again, Hrut rolls an 11 and misses his Dodge. He does not get a second defense roll since he had chosen the All-Out Defense option of a single defense at +2. Hrut takes some damage, but he will still get a +2 to his Dodge roll against the second attack that turn.

High-Skill Feinting

Having nine years of training in fencing and a few championships in those years, I feel I know something about feinting. I am not naturally dexterous, but by my ninth year I could successfully feint every foe I met. Their feints, on the other hand, were usually obvious to me, and I was able to avoid most of them. I only enjoyed this condition in my last year of fencing, and it was simply because I'd outlasted the natural fencers. Few people stick to the sport that long.

This leads me to believe that a well-trained fighter can usually feint a lesser-trained fighter, unless there is a very gross difference in DX. Since 200 hours of training in GURPS is represented by a point in a skill, it is easy to determine which fighter is better trained. This means that a fighter with 8 points in a weapon skill should get a bonus to feint a foe who has only 1 point in the same weapon. As a concrete example, let's take a DX 13 fighter with 8 points in a Physical Average weapon (skill 15), and a DX 16 fighter with only 1 point in the same weapon (skill 15). Yet by the current rules, both are equally good at feinting and defending against feints – something that does not bear up under a reality check.

It is true that "skill 15 is skill 15" for exact placement of a weapon on a foe's body. But feinting represents more than an ability to hit the spot you want – it also represents having seen and tried many types of feints in practice and actual combat. It can be thought of as "savvy" or even picking up tricks along the way. The simple fact is, the more hours you have practiced and the more fighters you have faced, the better your chances of successfully feinting an opponent and avoiding being feinted.

It is very easy to modify the feint rules in GURPS to reflect this: If a character's weapon skill is higher than his DX, add the difference to his skill when rolling for a feint. There is no need to subtract anything if a character's skill is lower than his DX, however – there is little difference in skills at such beginning levels.

Example: here are the two fighters above, shown more clearly:

Fighter CastellFighter Domax
Points in skill:81
Weapon skill:1515

When feinting or being feinted, Fighter 1 rolls vs. a modified skill of 17, while Fighter 2 rolls against a straight skill of 15. Fighter 1 receives a +2 bonus because his skill is 2 higher than his DX. Fighter 2, however, is not penalized for having his skill lower than his DX. Please note that Fighter 1 receives the +2 only for feinting! If he simply attacks, his chances of hitting his foe are the same as Fighter 2's.

Sweeping Counter Parry

Alors! What to do when your lone swashbuckler is facing four or five flunkies on the stairs and must get away quickly to pursue the real villain? These pathetic wretches may be no equal for your brilliant swordplay, but it takes time to dispatch even such riffraff. If you simply turn around and run away, you'll be skewered, and there may be no chandelier handy to swing away on.

The sweeping counter parry is made for just such situations. It is risky, but being a swashbuckler isn't the world's safest occupation, anyway. The basic idea of the sweeping counter parry is to make multiple foes' weapons unready on their own turn. This allows you a free action, such as turning in place and moving rapidly away. They can either step and ready their weapons, or they can sprint after you with unready weapons. The former allows you a good head start. The latter allows you to swivel back towards them with sword in hand and grin on face, ready to punish your foolish, unready enemy . . .

The sweeping counter parry is a cinematic maneuver suitable for swashbuckling games. Even if the GM allows such a maneuver, it may be wise to limit it to Fencing weapons.

To perform the sweeping counter parry, the character must take the All-Out Defense maneuver on his turn. However, the usual All-Out Defense rules are not followed. Instead, the fighter announces his intention to sweep all of his foes' blades out of line (making them unready). This may be done against a single individual, of course, but is more useful when facing two or more foes.

This is handled as a number of simultaneous Quick Contests of Skill. Each foe makes a skill roll, and the All-Out Defending combatant makes a single skill roll. This roll is not against his parry, but against his full weapon skill. However, it is at -2 for each foe beyond the first. That is, if he is facing three swordsmen, he rolls at weapon skill-4.

The parrying fighter rolls only once. (He's only making one maneuver: an all-encompassing sweep of his blade that is attempting to catch all of the foes' blades and throw them severely out of line – at least 90 degrees.) His roll is compared one after the other to each of his foes' rolls. If he wins a Quick Contest, that foe's weapon is unready. If he ties, he takes no damage from his opponent's attack, but the foe's weapon is still ready. If he loses a Quick Contest he takes normal damage from that attack, and the weapon that hit him is still ready.

Any critical failure means a dropped weapon. A critical success by an attacker is handled normally. A critical success by the defender means that all of the foes' weapons are automatically unready and they are mentally stunned for one turn by the brilliance of the maneuver!


Jean-Luc is facing four gang members on the stairs, but needs to leave quickly, before the gendarmerie arrive. (They have this mistaken belief that he killed one of them . . . He really needs to clear that up soon.) He chooses All-Out Defense with intent to sweep away the rabble's blades. They each attack in their turn, and the GM rolls against their skills of 12, 13, 13, and 14. The first fighter misses his roll, while the others make theirs by 3, 1, and 6 respectively. Jean-Luc, Fencing skill 18, rolls against a modified skill of 12. (-2 each for the second, third, and fourth fighters facing him.) He rolls an 8, making his modified skill by 4. The first three fighters have their weapons flung violently out of line – they are all unready. The fourth fighter, however, made his roll by more than Jean-Luc did, so he hits Jean-Luc and his weapon is still ready. His damage is minimal, and our hero decides to chance a getaway with three foes unready. Turning in place for 2 movement points, he then moves 3 more to the rear. Each of the unready foes steps and readies his weapon, while the fourth foe moves three spaces forward and Wild Swings. He rolls an 11 and misses. At this point, Jean-Luc will get his sprint bonus, and he's off and running to leap acrobatically onto his horse. The taunts of his foes ring bitterly in his ears, as he rides away, but he vows he'll be back once he has cleared his name with the authorities . . .

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