Friday, March 1, 2013

Know your options

This is less a post and more asking for help. You have been warned.

As was pointed out to me by my most knowledgeable player (who may be more knowledgeable than me about GURPS, quite frankly), one of the things that could help immensely in convincing my group to make the switch from, "I hit it with my axe," to, "I take a Rapid Strike with the Flurry of Blows option to Feint once and then aim a swing at the leg with -4 for Deceptive Attack, which puts me at 14 because I have Weapon Master and Axe-Mace at 21," is to come up with a condensed list of tactical recommendations. However, y'all collectively have played a lot more GURPS than I have. So I need some advice from the community; I'm trying to boil things down.

Preferably, I'd have a class-by-class list of recommendations for different situations, along with explanations of why and wheretofore. For example, "As a Barbarian, you'll be relying on beats,"..."As a Scout, don't forget to aim for body locations, and try to take multiple shots,"..."As a Knight, remember Weapon Master makes you badass for reasons a,b,and c,"..."As a Wizard, stay out of combat," etc.

Before I start out, I should point out that +Douglas Cole has already done the groundwork for me, as well as some of the synthesis, and +Peter V. Dell'Orto has some reflections on making that useful to the GM.

(Who am I kidding? Is there a single one of you out there who didn't find out about this blog through one of those two? Still, it's polite, and I enjoy crafting links.)

The first principle, no matter who you are or what your profession, is this: you almost always want a skill of 14 when attacking. That's not at least 14; that's 14. Though even here there's a decision; maybe you want a 16?

Decide: is it more important for you to critically hit, or for you to hit? The rubric for this decision is simple: if you're unlikely to do damage with a simple hit (either because defenses or DR are too high), then you need a crit. Aim for skill 16. Otherwise, you don't; aim for skill 14. (There are a number of exceptions to this: for example, it's okay to go for skill 13 with multiple attacks, or even dip down to skill 12 if you're desperate, but the rule is pretty firm.)

From here, setting aside the people who shouldn't see combat at all, we naturally divide into two groups: melee and ranged.

Melee consists of Barbarians, Clerics, Druids, Holy Warriors, Knights, Martial artists, Swashbucklers (I won't be covering these two), and Thieves. Ranged consists of Clerics, Druids, Scouts, Thieves, and Wizards. (I'm only considering DF 1. Sorry, Innkeeper fans!)

For this post, I'm going to try covering Barbarians and Scouts. I'll be aiming this squarely at the templates as written, despite the fact that my PCs will have lower skill levels due to having lower point totals. Also, I'm totally ignoring grappling.


As a barbarian, your asset is your strength, not so much your skill. At best you will have Combat Reflexes and Weapon Bond along with skill 17 with some weapon. More likely, you'll have skill 16 or even 15. The basic threatening monster will have skill 14, which means defense of 10, +- any special abilities, like a high dodge or a shield.

In combat, Beats are your friend. (MA100) Especially important is that you can Beat without an extra action, if your attack was blocked or parried. If an enemy blocks, this means you (or the Knight!) will be more likely to hit him next round.

As a rule, try not to go below skill 14 with your main attack. Also, remember the Extra Effort options (especially Heroic Charge, which lets you move ant attack with less of a penalty, and Flurry of Blows, which lets you Rapid Strike better); you'll need them.

In combat, decide if your foe is high-skill or not. If he is, stick with Skill 16 and shots for the torso. If not, your go-to maneuver is a Deceptive Attack (-1), for -2 to hit (giving you skill 14 or 13). If he's tough to hit, consider a Telegraphic Attack (+4 to hit in exchange for +2 to defend). Don't worry so much about aiming at particular spots; you do enough raw damage that it doesn't matter that much.

Defensively, seriously consider taking the Defensive Attack option. For -1 damage per die (and you're doing a lot of damage already), you get +1 to Parry or Block, or the ability to parry with a U weapon.

With High Pain threshold you'll never suffer shock penalties, but you still don't want to get hit. Your defense is probably somewhere in the 11-13 area, which is decent, but not as good as a Knight's. Remember to retreat while defending, which gives you +1 to parries and blocks, and +3 to dodges (bringing your 10 to a 13, possibly your best score). Also, you don't want to get hit, because while you have a lot of HP you probably don't have a lot of armor. Don't forget your Luck or Extraordinary Luck, if you have it.

For berserker barbarians, embrace the beast! Remember you get +4 on rolls vs. knockout and death, meaning you'll practically never fail. (Only on an 18.) Your combat options are limited, though. You must attack the nearest foe, and you must All-Out attack. If your foes are highly skilled, take the +4 and trade it for Deceptive Attack against their defenses (usually for a total of -3). If they're not, go with Double, possibly also trading one for a Rapid Strike (with Flurry of Blows, costing 1FP) for -3 to your skill for three attacks, split how you like.


You're a ranged character. With skill 16 or 17 in melee, that might not seem true, but don't believe it - it's a lie. You're a ranged character. Those 20 points you sank into Heroic Archer prove it. Speaking of which, remember Heroic Archer and what it means. Here's the breakdown: no penalties for footing or positioning or actions, and if you don't move you've already aimed. So unless you can't avoid it, don't move. That takes your skill 18 and drives it up to skill 20, and you'll need that extra skill to overcome range penalties.

Unlike the combat monsters, you'll want to aim at body-parts or at chinks in armor; your base damage is too low to do much otherwise. Chinks in armor is tough at -8, but against large foes might be worth it.

The base effective skill you want is 14, because if you don't hit your foe doesn't even need to defend. Memorize the Size and Speed Range table from 2 yds to 20 yds, which is your maximum effective combat range. The further along this scale your target is, the fewer options you have. At 20 yards, just shoot once a turn for the torso.

While it depends on the exact nature of your opponent (high defenses? high DR? lots of people?) With high defenses, you'll want a lot of arrows on one target, to soak up defenses, or maybe a ranged deceptive attack, which is allowed. With high DR, you want to find weak spots and drill on them. With lots of foes, you'll want to send out a lot of arrows.

Also, remember: if you aren't being attacked, there's no reason not to claim the extra +1 from All-Out Attack (Determined).

One of your hallmarks is rapid fire. For a Fast Draw and two Bow rolls at -3 (or -1 if you have Weapon Master (Bow) or use 1FP) [*Note: Use of FP for this isn't RAW, but it has a nice symmetry with Flurry of Blows, so I allow it.] you can fire every turn. Do this every turn that the range is 7 yards or less. (Skill 18, +2 because you stood still, -6 is 14. 14 is your magic number.) If you use the FP or also have Weapon Master (Bow), aim for the vitals.

Speaking of aiming for the vitals, aiming for the vitals is your go-to maneuver. Expect to pretty much always soak that -3 to skill to aim for the vitals; the x3 damage multiplier is too nice not to. Other options are either not as good for you (arms and legs take less damage from impaling and piercing) or have better modifiers but are harder to hit (like the skull and eyes). In fact, a lot of the time you will be balancing aiming for the vitals with shooting every turn. Average damage through chainmail to the vitals is 3.5 x 3 = 10.5, or enough to take an average man down to a consciousness check in one turn.

What should you aim at? There are two schools of thought. The first is to aim at whatever's attacking the melee fighters; forcing it to use a defense against your attack makes their attacks more likely to get through. Another is to focus on whatever might be able to hurt them (or, say, the wizard) but that they can't hurt, like enemy archers. Which you subscribe to should depend on the situation.

If you're ever in a situation where you need to roll melee combat skills or defenses, leave. That is not your role. All-Out defend and get away.

You can think of that as a sort of first draft.  The hope is that I'll be able to both pretty them up and add more to them, like what the Knight should do. Most will be simple, e.g. "As a Wizard, your main combat experience should be missile spells, and you want skill 14 with them if possible. Don't forget to All-Out Attack (Determined). If you're ever in combat, leave."

Is there anything I missed? Are my recommendations contrary to your experience? Do you have a better, clearer, more concise way of saying what I need to say? Please, let me know.


  1. Some commentary (from a guy who never drops below a 16):

    In combat, Beats are your friend. (MA100) Especially important is that you can Beat without an extra action, if your attack was blocked or parried. If an enemy blocks, this means you (or the Knight!) will be more likely to hit him next round.

    That's inaccurate. Beats are never a free action; they require contact. It's just that if you hit and he parries (or blocks) you can Beat against that defense, or if you parry or block you can beat with that skill. It's still an action, and requires the Feint maneuver, All-Out Attack (Feint), or splitting a Rapid Strike per the rules in Martial Arts. It only affects one defense, but it effects it for everyone - Beat is a team player kind of move!

    Also, Weapon Master and Trained By A Master are the real barriers to entry for Barbarians, Druids, Clerics, and Holy Warriors into melee. You will always be a step down offensively and defensively from those folks, since they have less penalties for cumulative defenses and lower penalties for multiple attacks. It's worth noting that a Barbarian looks like a heavy front line fighter, but won't hold a candle to a similarly designed Knight.

    And bowmen of all kinds should consider bodkin arrows (from Basic Set) or the various arrowheads from Low-Tech.

    1. I'm not saying you're wrong, Peter (after all, you wrote the rule!), but the way it reads: "If the fighter attacked his enemy this turn or on the immediately previous turn, and his opponent successfully blocked or parried, he can attempt a Beat with the attack he just used."

      makes it sound like, in that case, it can be a free action. That is, it sounds like, "I attacked and he just rolled defense...ah, well, I'll call for a Beat!"

      You're saying that's intended to mean he can use a beat with his shield if he attacked with his shield, or his mace if he used his mace, but not his shield if he used his mace, correct?

    2. Your assessment of his intentions is how I have always read it. The use of "the attack he just used" is a shorthand not for the attack *action* but the attack method, be it a shield bash, a sword blow, or an unarmed strike.

    3. The intention is that you can't use Shield to Beat when your opponent parried your mace - you'd use Axe/Mace. If he Parried you can't Beat against his Block.

      In either case, reading Beat as a free action ignores a biggie right up at the top of the Beats section - "An option for a ready melee attack, it requires a Feint maneuver." It's no more a free bonus than any other sub-option is. It's just restricted in its setup.

  2. Most of my suggestions come down to weapon choices.

    Barbarians have two or three really solid options - I'm partial to the two handed sword (very few of them have U parries, giving a second defensive option) and to either the two handed flail or the one handed flail and shield. The former gives a slightly bigger punch, but the latter makes up for the lack of parry by adding passive and active defense options in the form of a shield. If you must go with an unbalanced parry weapon, invest in a Dwarven version (DF1, p26) to make it not be unbalanced - those canny Dwarves.

    As far as bows go, pick one of the Acc 3 options (Longbows or Composite Bows) and spend the +4 CF to get it Balanced (also DF1, p26) to raise the Acc to 4. Combined with your heroic archer, all of a sudden your 18 is raised to a 22 just for not moving around.

    1. I like Shield + Axe or Shield + Sword for barbarians. The extra DB helps a lot. Shield + Dwarven axe gives solid offense and solid defense and is reasonably inexpensive.

      Scouts should also remember to buy some Fine, Balanced arrows. They're not super cheap, but they're inexpensive enough to be used in dangerous situations. The advice on bows is very good, though.

    2. The barbarian in my game went with One-Handed Flail (morningstar) and shield. That gives him some help against higher-defense opponents, since his low-ish skill (16 I think) isn't enough to let him mow down foes like the skill 24+ knights do.

      Oh, and he slams a lot - HP 20+ is critical for a Size Modifier +1 character, since healing costs double so you want healing to double, too. And HP 20+ helps a lot in slams, especially if you add in a shield for a shield rush.

    3. I'll add in slams when I polish this up. (I should be editing the post soon to include the information in these comments so far.) As for my game, the barbarian went with a Maul, because he has both Berserk and Sense of Duty (Adventuring Companions), so his defense options are rather restricted.

  3. General tactical comments

    GURPS strongly encourages the PCs staying together and supporting each other. Even a moderately skilled orc with Shield-14 and a medium shield (effective defense 12 or 13 on a retreat) can frustrate a lone knight for an extended period. But a Cleric and Thief (not primary melee classes) working together can take that orc down in a round or two, because the orc only gets 1 effective Block.

    Similarly, a berserking barbarian can do a lot of damage, but he'll also take a lot of damage. Having a Knight with Shield Wall Training adjacent can prevent a fair bit of damage, and having a cleric ready with healing spells can prevent crippling attacks to the arms or legs from crippling the berserker.

  4. If it's any consolation, I found Peter's and Douglas' blogs via yours, (oddly, before I was even reading yours past the first "don't read this if you're a player post"). You probably also edge me out in GURPS-fu tho - but it's not a large margin either way, I agree.

    Peter has to be right about beats not only because he wrote them but because if beats vs. successful defenses were free, the whole dynamic balance of strong vs. weak in GURPS melee combat shifts dramatically. Worse, it effectively mandates an extra roll vs. every successful defense, because hey, you might get lucky even if you are weaker. Happily, if you want to blow right through someone's defenses in one turn with a beat, the rapid strike version works perfectly.

    Otherwise I *like* the advice you have collated above, it's good stuff.

    That said, looking at it, it's still a page of text per class. An easy "pick list" of options would be even better for encouraging that list, especially if there was a place to put pre-calculated values...

    Something like
    :Special Attack Section:
    Deceptive Attack (use vs. high defs [pageref])
    Attack Skill Mod Your Skill Def Pen
    -DA1 ...... -2 ...... _____ ....... -1
    -DA2 ...... -4 ...... _____ ....... -2
    -DA3 ...... -6 ...... _____ ....... -3
    Never let DA take your skill below 10!


    :Berserk Section:
    AoAs [pageref]
    -Strong: ... Your Damage ________
    -Rapid: ...

    Other Berserk Bonuses:


    :Extra Effort Section:
    Mighty Blows [pageref] - ... Your Damage _______
    With AoA Strong Your Damage _______
    (Cuz there's no kill like overkill)
    Flurry of Cheese [pageref] ...

    (Extra blank table space, cuz other stuff will come up)

    (Then put your more erudite discussion above on the other side.)

    Suddenly it's much easier to take your favorite fancy-schmancy attack options. Look at the list, pick one that fists, and the numbers are already handled. I've done similar things before and they really helped.

    1. Thanks for the idea again, Martin. I hadn't gone so far as to reduce it down to a fill-in-the-blank document, but I was going to boil down the text above more.

      I like the idea of the fill-in-the-blank document, though, with a small header of advice. It seems to work for the other half of the battle, which is to get people to understand the mechanics of the options and use them easily.

      Of course, if you wanted to help, I'd not say no...

  5. Additional barbarian notes:

    Many of the large weapons that reward great strength also have extended reach. Keep your more spritely opponents at a distance and leverage this advantage. Maybe invest in the Reach Mastery perk to allow you to shift between reach levels as a free action once per turn to better adjust to the flow of the battle.

    Also, many of these weapons are HEAVY and can be dangerous to parry, not just flails. Your maul-wielder has a decent shot at breaking many common one-handed weapons including axes, picks, some maces, broadswords, short swords, spears, longswords and quarterstaves, and knives and main gauches are so light that they don't just break, they don't even get the benefit of the successful parry.

  6. Additional niggle - Straight out torso shots with an imp weapon still get x2, so the vitals shot is not, as (ahem) vital as you say, IMHO.

    The big gain for targeting the vitals is with bodkin arrows.

    1. One thing about that, though, that I was reminded of in Vaclav Tofl's Gladiatorial hangout, is that any injury, even one point, to the vitals (or head) triggers a check for Stun. It doesn't have to be a major wound. So it's not just the modifier of x2 vs. x3 - it's the HT roll you get with any vitals attack that can put your foe into Do Nothings with pretty hard penalties to defend!

    2. A follow-on to this: If your archer can Stun the foe, a melee guy can probably leverage Telegraphic Attack to rock his world. Do Nothing plus -4 to defend opens up a melee fighter's attack options a lot. Those Committed and Telegraphic attacks start to look pretty yummy for extra damage and hit chances!

  7. To the original point of how to encourage the use of combat options, I have two instances that might help, both from the same Banestorm campaign. For my "Knight" character, a hammer-wielder, I took all the hammer-related "finishing moves" I could find from the Assassin's Creed 2 game, and worked the GURPS components into mini "scripts"—easy to wrap you head around if you played the game. In another player's case, for his swashbuckler-type character, he took a list of the sword forms from the Wheel of Time literary series and did essentially the same thing.

    1. See I really like this take on things. More times than not players can identify with a visual, and being able to translate that to a mechanical tidbit helps a lot.

      Unlike to the high level of options in GURPS, most games I have played revolved around simpler rules, where the visuals were artistically woven in, focusing more on flavor than outright mechanics. Though despite this, players tend to enjoy the lack of details over simply "looking cool" in most of my games, though I am unsure if it simply my delivery or simply the style of players I run with.

      Only through reading these blogs have I been able to really get a better understanding of how it all works, so we will have to see how well I can translate (Which puts me in the same seat as the author of this post).

      Additionally, translating that to players who typically are either one-shots or even people who are very sold on their character's style (and not so much the rules) has proven very difficult at best. It is very easy for my to breeze through simpler systems than it has ever been through GURPS, simply due to the fact of having to reference most combat options.

      Having a cheat sheet would most certainly help, as I use those pretty religiously for most games I have ran in other systems (or at least system that allow combat options).

  8. Another thought on the scout section - IIUC a step doesn't cost the free acc bonus, and in the tight confines of a dungeon a step can be very tactical. "Don't move" is thus a little misleading - maybe "Don't move (except for your free step?"

    1. Yes, was re-reading this. It doesn't allow you to keep your Acc bonus if you "move and attack" but just taking the single step ought to be allowed.

    2. Not that I recommend All-Out Attack unless you're standing next to someone with Shield Wall Training who wants to protect you, but a Scout can All-Out Attack (Determined) and still move up to half his move before shooting. This can be useful for getting a better range penalty or advancing a couple of extra yards to get past an obstacle or to make a flank shot.