European Martial Arts in Role-Playing: Where are they?

Recent years have seen an explosion of interest in historic European martial arts. Although the active traditions of European hand-to-hand masters largely broke down during the age of gunpowder, centuries of trainers, tacticians, duelists, and other “Masters of Defence” left behind over 100 written works detailing techniques of fighting with sword, dagger, hand, foot, and other weapons. Modern-day enthusiasts studying these tomes and actual period weapons, aided by an Internet that brings together practitioners, translators, historians, and other experts, are re-discovering facts that should have been obvious all along, yet are directly contradicted by mistaken popular notions that are filtered by Hollywood (while reaching back to Victorian times). They’re re-discovering facts like these:

Medieval European weapons were light and deadly-fast, not heavy and slow. Armor, too, balanced both protection and mobility (no winches needed to seat knights on horses, thank you!). Skilled combatants were anything but brawling oafs; they mastered precise techniques of footwork, guards, and attacks. European warriors taught, learned, and used unarmed kicks, strikes, locks, and throws of the sort best known today in Asian martial arts. The fighters also included exotic weapons and “secret” techniques among their tactical arsenals. In short, a trained European knight, duelist, or professional soldier was a true martial artist, in every sense of the word.

This new realization is gradually making itself known in popular culture, including games. An RPG supplement dealing with martial arts is, more than ever, likely to feature Italian rapier fencing, Viking-style axe throwing, Ringen grappling, and knightly half-swording in the same light as karate styles and kung-fu variants. Yet it’s a change that’s still in progress; there are still many misconceptions floating about in gaming, including the too-common assumption that the term “martial arts” itself somehow refers to advanced Asian fighting styles alone, and not to whatever crude hacking must have taken its place in Europe.

The article below by von Loringen expands greatly on this topic, providing a closer look at how the fighting techniques of medieval and Renaissance Europe were true martial arts (and indeed, could not have been otherwise). It focuses on GURPS and offers a few system-specific suggestions, but the bulk of its content applies to any RPG with hand-to-hand combat. Give it a read, and open up a whole new continent of options for the blade-flashing, high-kicking martial artists in your game!

To learn more from modern-day researchers and practitioners, start with these resources:


European Martial Arts in Role-Playing: Where are they?

Article by von Loringen

GURPS Japan has them. GURPS Swashbucklers has them. GURPS Rome has them. Why doesn’t GURPS Middle Ages? In was the golden era of close-quarters combat in Europe. Kings fought. Some Queens fought. Warriors were the ruling class of society. Legal disputes could be settled by skill at arms. A large portion of the customs of later Europe arose from this eras and its emphasis on personal combat. Duels, concepts about honour, what it meant to be a gentleman, and how that shaped western ideas of government and citizenship. And it revolved around warriors.

Unfortunately, two factors have contributed to a degree of mis-education not found with, say Japanese medieval martial arts, although there are misconceptions there too.

First, in Europe the greater pace of technological development meant that close-quarters combat assumed less and less importance on the battlefield. This tendency became so extreme that in 1745, during the Jacobite Rebellion, the British Army began teaching bayonet fighting for the first time. Prior to this, it was assumed that in the unlikely event soldiers actually had to fight at close quarters, they could get by with improvised skills. This change only occurred because the Highland clansmen armed with broadswords and pole-axes charged in to close combat as their standard battle tactic. Although the Highlanders themselves had long since forgotten the real combat arts of their ancestors, as several clan chiefs lamented, what skill they had, based on contemporary fencing, was more than enough to overawe two government armies as Prestonpans and Falkirk. It was only after British regiments received close combat training that they had the confidence to stand up to a Highland charge. So trained, they were able to smash the highland army at Culloden.

Many European armies took much longer, and the British army long enjoyed a fearsome reputation for its close quarter skills from this date

A related issue was the change in melee weapons themselves. In Asian countries, the traditional weapons remained, whether used with the old battlefield styles, or the new artistic/sport styles. In Europe, a whole new series of civilian weapons were developed, like the rapier and smallsword. Whole new styles came about to supposedly take advantage of these new weapons’ characteristics, an example of this being the excessive emphasis on thrusting attacks which George Silver correctly denounces.

Thus, while someone studying kendo could learn something about how Warring States samurai fought (even if there were large gaps), someone learning modern western sports fencing learns nothing about how a knight would have fought.

This lack of familiarity with medieval European combat leads people to believe that Asian combat styles are just inherently different and special. But this is more or less impossible. The human body only moves and bends in certain ways. Despite some minor height and body type variation amongst different Asian and European nations, the basic design of their bone and muscle structures remain identical. Furthermore, the fashion that they developed these fighting techniques is also identical: trial and error. Fighting their neighbours for centuries taught people what worked and what didn’t. At the same time, professional warriors would sometimes sit down and attempt to codify these lessons in some form, occasionally trading notes with fellow warriors, in order to pass these lessons down to future generations.

The result of all this is that there are far more similarities than differences. Just about every waza in Jujutsu also appears in the European Renaissance fighting manuals. The footwork and basic principles of George Silver’s True Fight, like the “True Times,” are uncannily like those of, for example, Ninjutsu.

So, what can your medieval knight learn? Well, just about the same things a samurai could learn. In fact the emphasises were nearly identical. Old-school Jujutsu, just like European “Ringen” as their unarmed techniques were sometimes called, had strikes, punches and kicks, as well as locks, grapples and throws. But the Judo manoeuvres (Arm and Finger Lock!) were more heavily emphasized, having wider application, especially against armoured foes. In both cases, exotic high kicks were generally eschewed. Being pragmatic battlefield arts, they were designed for conditions of muddy, bloody, icy and uneven ground. Keeping one’s balance was crucial, and such flamboyant and unbalanced moves were not seen as practical.

For similar reasons, Lunges were not used in either land. This is a correction of Martial Arts and Japan. What passes for a “lunge” in this era is nothing more than a GURPS “Step and Attack.” Passes were also used. (Swashbucklers 3e) Esquive, also from Swashbucklers, is the most important and heavily used manoeuvre. Getting off line from the opponent’s attack, even just by a few inches, is the paramount lesson of defence. This was often combined with a Slip to get inside the reach of a longer weapon. Hit Location and Sweep are important. While sports fencing and kendo emphasize legal and illegal body targets, the goal of these combat arts was to win. The secret technique of at least one kenjutsu school is a leg attack. Knocking the opponent down to finish him off while helpless is a standard medieval tactic. The notion of “fighting fair” belongs to the 18th Century, not the Age of Chivalry!

“The Old School” from SB 3e is appropriate for any European medieval warrior. Actually, it is appropriate for a samurai too.

For close combat, Pancratium but using Judo, with Finger Lock and Head Lock added, would be a good basis. Or even Jujustu as is. Or some cross between the two. Any GM with martial arts experience or common sense should allow your sword-based Esquive (a matter of foot and hip movement) to apply to any defence, regardless of what you are wielding.

Contrary to the notions of eternal progress that 18th Century and Victorian historians have foisted upon us, martial arts were at their peak of deadliness in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, when people lived or died by the efficiency of their skills. The vast majority of the manoeuvres in MA and Sb will have originated in these eras, and are therefore available.

And don’t forget Pressure Points and Pressure Secrets! The Europeans also knew that certain areas of the body, when struck, could cause temporary paralysis, unconsciousness and nerve damage.

Martial Arts and damage bonuses: Unarmed combat skills are given damage bonuses because the skilled fighter learns to strike in a different manner than the unskilled. Unskilled fighters tend to rely purely upon strength for the force of blows. They will tense themselves up from the very beginning, and throw a punch using their arm and shoulder. Or perhaps they will throw a roundhouse type punch to take advantage of their hips turning into the blow. A trained fighter realizes that there is more force to be found in body motion than in muscles. He will learn to turn his hips for every blow, not just when making wide outside blows. That is the principle technique behind Bruce Lee’s Three Inch Punch, for example. The trained fighter will also know that ideally, the blow should land before the advancing foot is planted, so that the weight of the body adds to the force of the blow. He will make a fist, or whatever striking form is used, at the last instant, so that even the motion of the hand is added to force of impact. While the unskilled fighter will often strike with the whole of the fist, possibly injuring his hand, the skilled fighter will pick a hand form suited to the area being struck, and will usually strike with the smallest part possible, using a part of the hand (or other body part) that is best supported by the bone structure, and least likely to be damaged.

However, most of these lessons apply to a weapon, too. Taking advantage of body motion, rather than relying on brute force is just as important when fighting with hand and foot. The fighter may not be able to alter his weapon “form” the way he can his hand, but he can tailor the angle, motion and type of attack to the target area. And cutting weapons have a whole set of techniques of their own. Cutting with a sword is an art. Making a clean, steady blow that is part chop and part slice takes practice and skill. A suggestion: ALL weapons should have damage bonuses applied for skill. At a minimum, apply skill/10 (or for COSH/Gulliver people, +5% per level over 10) bonuses to all trained crushing and impaling attacks, and the full skill/5 (or +10% per level above 10) bonuses to cutting attacks.

Weapons and weight: Although GURPS is better than many games in this respect, there is still some error in weight of weapons. A two handed sword made for fighting (not the decorative pieces usually weighed) is going to weigh from 3-8 lbs, not 12. A so-called bastard sword is probably more in the 2.5 to 4 range than 5. Same for a katana. And of course, reduce Min ST accordingly. (Automatically, for GLAIVE users.)

A final note: Women warriors in the Middle Ages. It has become increasingly well known that women took part in fighting throughout human history, not just in crisis, but as a choice of lifestyle and profession. However, some have questioned this on the grounds of things like women’s lesser upper body strength, in regard to melee-oriented eras like the Middle Ages. Ideas like this are founded on a series of misconceptions about how much armour and weapons weighed, and how such equipment was used. As noted, weapons were lighter than normally thought; many games have based weapon weights off of reproductions, made by people who have no idea about how the weapons were used, and therefore, no idea how to make them. Another source is museums. Unfortunately, many of the surviving museum pieces were decorative presentation pieces, not made for actual battle, and therefore not made to the exacting demands of battle.

Armour (or Harness in contemporary usage; the term “Armour” dates from the 17th Century) is in the same boat. A normal medieval warrior wore armour of 60lbs or less. Armour was usually of half thickness on the back to save weight. Suits of armour weighing 100-120 lbs. were tournament suits, designed to offer maximum protection in a sporting environment where mobility and fatigue were not crucial factors. This was not war gear.

Finally, using such weapons is not a function of arm and upper body strength. As mentioned when discussing damage bonuses, a properly executed blow relies on the hips, on footwork, on using physics and leverage, much more than muscle. Sure, having a strong upper body doesn’t hurt, and it can be handy when combined with skilled execution. But it isn’t a decisive advantage, and it certainly isn’t necessary to fight effectively. Other areas which favour women, like having a low centre of gravity, are also advantageous. And then again, through most of history, women did as much as, or more, heavy labour than men, especially in agriculture. They often were just as strong anyway.

I hope I have shed some light on the nature of European combat arts and shown that medieval European warriors, rather being practitioners of a crude and vulgar butchery, were scientifically trained martial artists in every sense, on par with their Asian counterparts, and that if anything, far superior in fighting arts to their own descendants, as the pathetic, indecisive duels of the 17th and 18th centuries bore painful witness to. I also hope to have added some much needed colour to the drab and brutish depiction usually made of the Medieval period, and opened up a whole new realm of exciting possibilities and options for customization and character development.

Perhaps it will even spur ambitious GMs and players to do further research into the period and its fighting arts, which couldn’t come at a better time, as such arts are again being actively practised and researched, and many original manuscripts being made available in electronic format for free in the Internet, thanks to generous scholars who wish to see traditional European combat arts revived.

von Loringen


  • bignose

    Perhaps it will even spur ambitious GMs and players to do further research into the period and its fighting arts, which couldn’t come at a better time, as such arts are again being actively practised and researched, and many original manuscripts being made available in electronic format for free in the Internet, thanks to generous scholars who wish to see traditional European combat arts revived.

    Can we have a bibliography of starting points to research this ill-understood field? This is a nice thought-provoking article; thank you!

    • tbone

      bignose wrote:
      Can we have a bibliography of starting points to research this ill-understood field? This is a nice thought-provoking article; thank you!

      bignose: I, too, would like to see more on the topic from von Loringen or any other capable authors.

      Incidentally, I apologize for the formatting difficulties in your comment. I’ve added a new “quote” function to the website; see the “quote” link. I am, in this comment, simultaneously announcing and testing it…

      von Loringen: Here’s a side note you should find amusing: I have a book called The Writer’s Complete Fantasy Reference, which I bought as an aid for both writing and gaming. Sounds like it’d be a complete reference to the genre; turns out it’s a lame mish-mash of random bits of info, often devoid of any real context.

      On the topic of two-handed swords, this book states – with a straight face –: “[they] tended to be five or six feet in length, twenty-five or more pounds in weight…”

      That’s in the chapter on “Arms, Armor and Armies”, where you would think the writers would have undertaken a modicum of research. Seems the “clumsy, encumbered knight” meme is truly entrenched…

    • Toadkiller_Dog

      I’m not the author of the article, but here are some good resources for European martial arts.

      The best one-stop-shop on the web is

      If you want books, well, there has been an explosion of publishing of European fechtbuch recently. My theory is that the disparate groups of re-enactors and historians found each other on the internet and got to work. I’d recommend:


      The Codex Wallerstein – lots of good armored and unarmored fighting

      Capo Ferro was a fencing master of great influence on the Italian style

      You can also get books by authors like John Clements, but personally I think you’re better off going right for the books themselves. Be especially wary of late 19th/early 20th century fencing historians, who often took the view that fencing is the evolutionary endpoint of swordfighting, and that knights et al were mere bashers oin metal suits.

      One great secondary source is the excellent Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe by Sydney Anglo. You owe it to yourself to check it out. It’s not cheap, but it’s a fantastic primer, well-organized, and full of detail and academic rigour.

      I hope that is a good start – start with the Anglo book and the free materials on the ARMA site. From there, any of those links will take you into a mass of “books similar to this” that’ll be useful to you. Look for stuff by George Silver, Agrippa, Thibault, Ringeck, and Vadi. Sadly many of these books and the images in them have gone from “free and available ont he net” to “members only” on websites like the ARMA. How one goes about locking down the images and text of a 600-700 year old book as copyrighted material is beyond me. But when I went looking for art specs I found lots of the image sites I had bookmarked had pulled them down.

      And if you subscribe to Pyramid magazine, Volker Bach wrote a nice pair of articles on European martial arts, both ancient and medieval/renaissance era. We got his permission to use these in Martial Arts 4e, and got his help to update them to 4e rules and to reflect recent scholarship.


      Actually, I have a few nitpicks with the article – GURPS doesn’t peg a Two-Handed Sword at 12#, it’s 7# in BASIC SET and has been since Man-to-Man. Making Bastard Swords 5# – and especially making them 2-hex reach weapons – probably makes them a better example a lighter two-handed sword than the more typical hand-and-half swords you might find.

      Also, I didn’t see any examples of Finger Locks being applied against armored folks when I did my research for GURPS Martial Arts. Arm Locks, sure, plenty of those – and some sweeps, reaps, and throws that fit Takedown and Judo Throw pretty well. All great against armor. But fingers? Finger locks are hard against people wearing gloves, and not terribly easy even if you have bare hands. Against any form of armored glove, well, I’d have to see an image in a perod fechtbuch depicting it against an armored foe (and not just grabbing all of the fingers either – that’s borderline at best for Finger Lock) before I believe it qualifies.

      Hope this helps. It was nice to read the article.

      • tbone

        A pleasure to see one of the new GURPS Martial Arts masterminds here, T-Dog! Thanks for the great suggestions. My own research into European martial arts is much less extensive than yours or von Loringen’s, but I’ve been interested for some time (partly due to coverage of the topic in the current MA), and I’ve spent plenty of time at But while I have a few books on weapons as well, I haven’t yet cracked open books on the medieval/Renaissance martial arts themselves. I’ll start with your reading list, and will shortly add those to my links page too.

        Thanks for the article corrections and suggestions. I’ll invite the author to OK changes (esp. the two-hnd sword weight). Oh, a tangent on that topic: One of my first impressions upon meeting GURPS and its weapon list, all those long, long years ago, was: “These stats can’t be right; only 3 lbs. for a sword? 7 lbs. for a two-hander? Those must be toys!” Like many folks, I had always received the Hollywood, RPG, and “common knowledge” silliness about medieval swords of log-like heft. I think GURPS may have been my first exposure to accurate weapon stats!

        • Toadkiller_Dog

          I was pleased with the GURPS weapon weights too. One of my friends from High School was both a gamer and a sword collector. At the time, he mostly had a few cheap replicas…but he had a couple of real ones, and lots of basic knowledge about blade making. He’s still one of my gamers and still a sword and knife collector. He always said GURPS was a little on the high end, but not badly so like so many other systems we’d played with.

          I’m glad my reading list helped. Some of these made the Bibliography in the new GURPS Martial Arts book. Hopefully it’ll address the Asian/Unarmed bias of MA 1e-2e and the Armed/Western bias of Swashbucklers 3e adequately. And I know it addresses the problem both books had with taking something everyone should have been assumed to be doing already as part of basic combat rules and making them Techniques (then Maneuvers) and charging for them. For example, Esquive being part of defenses, slips and retreats, or passes and glides and shutos being just different Attacks with options to reduce defenses, etc. instead of making them some special technique inherently superior to just having a good skill level.

          I’m not trying to tease the book here. I’m just saying we’ve really approached the rules systematically and not as a much-later rules add-on like MA 1e inevitably was…and not treating martial arts from *anywhere* as an afterthought.

          • tbone

            Thanks for the additional info. I’ve mentioned this somewhere else recently, but I was actually somewhat pleased with the degree of non-Asian martial arts coverage in the existing MA book. I know some gamers feel it’s far too Asia-centric, and I myself will be glad to see wider coverage in MA4e, but I’ve always felt that the existing MA could have been full-out “100% kewl Asian martial arts” in the hands of less-talented writers. I thought it gave the rest of the world a nice nod, and I’m very glad to hear that MA4e will do so even more.

            It really is sounding like a great book. I’m looking forward to the release, and will be sure to write about my impressions.

  • Dave

    I’m generally not a fan of Palladium games (ok I’ve played my share of tmnt), but I have older printings of some of these books and they seem closer to the realities mentioned here. Any opinions on them?

    • tbone

      Dave, I know the name Palladium, but that’s it; I’ve never cracked a Palladium book. Wikipedia doesn’t give much info on its mechanics either – well, other than that the game uses the character classes and mish-mash of dice mechanics that I dearly like avoiding. : ) But if the game does capture melee combat in some unique or interesting ways, any details you, von Loringen, or any reader can provide would be interesting.

      • Dave

        I don’t think these particular books are specific to the palladium rules. In fact I think they tried to be as general as possible. I typically don’t own nor use the palladium system itself. These particular books were useful to me because they pretty much didn’t include any palladium system rules (except maybe damage?). (I must point out I DO own tmnt… but that was an impulse buy if ever there was one). Does it seem that I’m desperately trying to distance myself from the Palladium system? Really, I’m not.

        Note however I’m talking about the 1st and 2nd editions… I’m not sure about the current editions.

        So, I’ve got my answer, you havn’t seen them, which may be too bad. The pall of palladium may be over these references for good or ill.


        • tbone

          No disrespect to Palladium . . . I haven’t played it, and I have no doubt that if I played it with fun players, I’d have lots of fun, whatever warts the game system may have.

          BUT, poking around Wikipedia, I couldn’t help but notice “occupational character classes”, “psionic character classes”, and this about dice: “[the game system] involves roll-under percentile skill checks, roll-high d20 combat skill checks and roll-low d20 saving throws, and uses differing amounts of d4s, d6s, d8s, and d10s for damage”.

          Putting aside the business of character classes, why in the world would a game use three different dice mechanics for skill checks, combat checks, and saving throws, where one would do?

          If I ever cough up my own RPG system, it’ll have ONE dice mechanic for any all checks. Including damage, by gum.

          Anyway, that’s all a complete tangent with no bearing to the original topic. Back to that: Those combat books you mention sound interesting. I’m playing with some homemade (non-GURPS) combat rules, and so am on the lookout for some inspirations. I’ll keep an eye out for the references; if you can recall the titles, that’ll help a lot!

            • tbone

              The books do look interesting, though I wish the web site gave some peeks into the content. Price isn’t bad, though. Will consider buying.

              My interest here is real weapon data: weights, lengths, and if possible, esoteric stuff like point of balance. This will be useful for a GLAIVE update, and will be very useful for my still-secretive Project T.

              If any readers see good resources for real weapon data, including that oh-so-elusive point of balance data, please let me know!

              And on the topic of fighting styles, the original topic of this page: I’m also interested in more thoughts or info on what distinguishes a unique style, and how to put that into game terms. The old MA styles in GURPS were always unsatisfying to me, in that one style’s collection of Skills A, B, and C is really no different from another style’s collection of the same – or even different from a random collection of A, B, and C, with no “style” indicated. I wonder whether the new MA will have anything to account for the form, footwork etc. that make the style different from the random collection of skills, and better differentiate one style from another.

              That’s a big topic, on which I’ll likely ramble later.

  • tbone

    Old notes on Katana skill

    von Loringen: I re-visited some very old notes of mine on 3e’s Katana skill (and with 4e in town, I think it’s finally safe to utter that name online without raising debate : ). The notes are from a musty house rules article. 4e pretty much grants every wish I had for removing the “unfair” advantages given to the skill in 3e, and in fact even goes me one better, dropping the skill entirely!

    (There’s one suggestion in my text that I now disagree with, that it’d be okay to leave Two-handed Katana skill with the “free” Parry bonus that 3e awarded two-handed use of Katana. I would now say no; any such bonus should have a cost, or a balancing drawback. But that’s moot anyway, as 4e removes both the skill and the bonus. Good!)

    Anyway, given the theme of your article, you may find the text amusing, if you haven’t seen it already. (Note that my ending comment doesn’t suggest we should build Eastern fighters as superior; it’s only saying that if a player wants to do so, basic skill level, weapon quality, etc. are the way to do it, not skills defined as magically better.) Pasting the old article’s text here:

    Katana: Has any topic raised as much ruckus as this in online debates? In short, the weapon stats and skill description are way out of line for many gamers. Katana skill in GURPS includes not only an improved Parry but also both one-handed and two-handed use, which would cost broadsword users twice as many points to learn! And the weapon itself seems to have been imbued with mystical speed qualities…

    Give amazing samurai swordsmen some respect, and assume that their abilities come from training and discipline (i.e., lots of points in skills), not from a skill that happens to be twice as cheap as one would expect. Split Katana into One-Handed Katana and Two-Handed Katana, defaulting to each other at -3. The primary skill for Kendo becomes Two-Handed Katana, with One-Handed Katana as a secondary or optional skill. (There’s no reason why regular Broadsword and Two-Handed Sword shouldn’t also default to each other at -3.)

    This is all realistic. Kendo does not teach one-handed katana use! Yet GURPS assumes that a Kendo master, who has battled for years using nothing but two hands, can at any time switch to one hand and fight as if he’d been using nothing but one hand all those years. His Western counterpart, meanwhile, a master of the two-handed sword, switches to one hand and finds himself clumsily flailing away at default skill… Not very sensible. It’s true that one- and two-handed use were both learned by the stereotypical samurai, but that doesn’t make them one skill, any more than broadsword and shield use should be one skill for a European knight.

    As for the weapons themselves, the weapons that people generally think of as katana do not seem to be 2-hex weapons, though such longer versions no doubt exist. Give katana the same stats, basic damage, readying time, etc. as equivalent broadswords and bastard swords; the only difference is that they are almost always of Fine or better quality (for less cost than in Europe; advanced metallurgy in Japan was a fact), and even the one-hex model can be used with two hands for additional damage.

    The improved Parry for two-handed use remains reasonable; there’s no harm in assuming that even sword skills can have higher “tech levels” with improved capabilities.

    That leaves Katana skill and the weapon on par with their Western counterparts, at the base level — yet it’s still perfectly possible to build superior Eastern fighting arts. Just put points into maneuvers (or that couldn’t-be-simpler standby: a high skill level!) and good stats to reflect a steely samurai’s dedicated training, give him a Fine or Very-Fine sword, and possibly add “mystical” abilities from Martial Arts: Power Blow, Weapon Master, etc. No inflated skills or funny physics necessary.

  • Patrick McCurry

    I think that it might be a good idea to change the suggested damage bonus for high weapon skill.
    That just allows a crock for high DX characters, which just means that they hit what they aim at and not necessarily know that much about weapon exotica.
    Base it on the number of points spent on the skill, eh?

    Sorry if my post is a little mangled. I had a very bad night’s sleep.

    • tbone

      Two thoughts on that:

      1) Yes, damage bonuses for skill, like many things, might best be based on relative skill level (B171), not final level. That’s how Karate damage bonuses etc. work now in 4e.

      2 ) The official Kromm take is that weapons do not need damage bonuses for skill. See this thread:

      His take: the bonuses for unarmed skills essentially represent overcoming the less-than-optimal features of fists and feet as weapons. Bonuses on weapon damage can be handled with Striking ST.

      Sensible enough, especially if high weapon skill levels were made a prerequisite for Striking ST purchases. But the result won’t be entirely satisfying to all. Few would deny that real experience with weapons does enable harder, more optimized blows – better follow-through, wrist snap, what-have-you. It seems reasonable to me that if you have Broadsword-18 without any other noteworthy combat skill levels, you should be able to deliver mighty chops with a sword, and not necessarily with all other attacks (as Striking ST would allow).

      My suggestion: If a GM does want to introduce weapon damage bonuses for skill, make the bonuses a) dependent on relative skill level (per 4e practice), and b) more modest than the respective bonuses for unarmed skills.

      Then again, the new Martial Arts may have something up its gi sleeve to confer higher weapon damage through a technique or some such. Am waiting to find out –

  • Kuroshima

    Excellent read, and I think that you’ll like the approach taken in GURPS Martial Arts. While some of the issues remain (Notably weapon and armour weights), most of the issues presented have should be solved, including removing the easter focus of the old MA.

    • tbone

      I myself was pleased that the current (i.e., old) MA isn’t all “Eastern”; it gives some good detail to other arts, from Boxing to Fencing to modern military styles. Fair enough! But I know that its focus is on the East, and like many others, I’d be happy to see a little more variety. I think it’d be great to see more techniques or styles from the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, Africa, and more… to the extent that info exists, of course. (For example, I’m sure Native American warriors had a variety of techniques, styles, tactics, disciplines, etc. in their fighting, but detailed knowledge of that is unfortunately lost.)

      I would have enjoyed being a playtester for the new MA; as it is, I’ll be a happy buyer and reader as soon as it’s out.

      • Rev. Pee Kitty

        For the record, I just went through my playtest copy of MA and made a note of how many realistic styles of each kind there were:

        Asian (China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, etc.): 57

        Western (Europe, Middle East, North American, etc.): 46

        Other (African, Indian, South American, etc.): 9

        So while there’s definitely a shortage of Indian, African, etc., arts, I can’t agree that there’s a significant Asian bias in this book. They get a LITTLE more space, but not much, really.


        • tbone

          Thanks for doing the count! That inspires me to pick up my MA for 3e and do the same:

          Asian: 33
          Western: 11
          Other: 3
          ?: 1 (Jeet Kune Do – who knows where that goes)

          I placed all the modern military/enforcement styles under Western, despite global usage and origins for some. Yet there’s still a 3:1 weight of Asian to Western.

          So as I mentioned before, the old MA is heavy on Asia, yet I’ve always been pleased that it gave the attention it did to martial arts outside of Asia. I’m happy that MA for 4e is even more global in outlook; your count shows almost a 50/50 ratio of Asian to non-Asian. Sounds like it’ll be a great smorgasbord of styles worldwide, and I really look forward to it. (110+ styles total? Wow! Choosing one will be the hardest part.)

          • Rev. Pee Kitty

            Bear in mind that a few styles had to get cut for space (yes, the book went to 256 pages /after/ such cuts!), so the numbers may be a tiny bit off in the printed copy . . . but IIRC, they were going to mainly cut one or two of the Karate and Judo variants, so it should be even more well-balanced! Sean and Peter went out of their way to keep a fair East:West ratio. For every Judo variant, there’s a Stickfighting variant. For every Kusarijutsu, there’s a Dagger Fighting. And so on.

            And for the record, I put JKD under Western. Any modern style is going to be so heavily influenced by so many preexisting styles that the only way to be fair is to go by country of origin. It does make a difference — the tactics and techniques of a Japanese Judoka are going to be completely dissimilar to those of a Brazilian Jiu-Jutsu practitioner, both in real life and (fortunately) in GURPS Martial Arts. Even when we’re just stealing blatantly from the asians, there is just as distinct a feel to an American martial art as there is to a Japanese one, IMO.


            • tbone

              Every MS 4e tidbit I hear makes me say “Wow, sounds great!” And here, I say it again.

              For the record, I’m not concerned about any East vs West “fairness” or “evenness” in coverage. I want to see good, global coverage of martial arts simply for accuracy: humans everywhere fight, in all times and places. (What a sad thought.) The common idea that non-Asian combat isn’t “martial arts” is a misunderstanding of human culture and the meaning of “martial arts” itself. I’m glad the MA authors have a better understanding.

              In short: I want it all. : )

              A couple other side thoughts: I’d probably disagree with labeling Japanese and Brazilian fighters’ tactics and techniques as “completely dissimilar” – but that’s because I almost always argue with polarizing descriptions like “completely dissimilar”, not because I disagree with the sensible point you’re making about there being clear differences.

              Also, I myself wouldn’t think in terms of anyone “stealing from the Asians”, or as knowledge (like a martial art) “belonging” to some arbitrary group in the first place. My worldview: if some ancient sage named Chow Ling develops Chow Ling Kung Fu, then every individual thereafter – Chinese, American, Tasmanian, Parisian – is equally “stealing” it from him. (Or equally accepting it from him, in the case of arts openly shared.)

              So in that sense, I don’t really even care about “Eastern”, “Western”, etc. – as you say, a modern style is likely to be quite a mutt anyway. I’m happy about MA’s global outlook simply because it’ll provide a more complete (and thus more accurate) look at how people pound on each other, all over the world.

              Thanks for the additional peek ahead at MA! I’m lined up to buy.

  • JD

    Nice essay.

    I take issue only with the notion that medieval women were “as strong as or stronger than(!!!)” medieval men. Where is your evidence to support this claim? If that had been the case, then it would have been the woman in the hole in Talhoffer as a handicap, not the man.

    • tbone

      I’ll let the author speak for himself on the topic, but I myself don’t see the wording you mention. I see “…through most of history, women did as much as, or more, heavy labour than men, especially in agriculture. They often were just as strong anyway.” So: sometimes more labor, and sometimes just as strong – but I don’t see mention of stronger than.

      Anyway, thanks for visiting. I hope there were several items of interest on the site.

  • Jeffro

    Excellent article! I had no idea that my Eurpean ancestors were as just as cool as the Samaurai. Amazing.

    I’m all for giving the damage bonus for skill. I never did like the character design trick of buying huge DX and lots of low skill levels. Talent is a neat idea to cut this back, but that still doesn’t encourage investment into actual skill levels.

    Anything to encourage people to invest in real training is a Good Thing.

    • Esteemed Visitor

      “ALL weapons should have damage bonuses applied for skill. At a minimum, apply skill/10 (or for COSH/Gulliver people, +5% per level over 10) bonuses to all trained crushing and impaling attacks, and the full skill/5 (or +10% per level above 10) bonuses to cutting attacks.”

      Wait a sec… your “skill/10” and “skill/5” are referring to skill level as being the value you get after skill bonus and attributes are added together.

      I think you should ignore attributes for this. Maybe something like skill level/4 and skill level/2 instead.

      • tbone

        I don’t know what the author’s thoughts are on the matter, but I agree. The COSH/GULLIVER references are explicitly to 3e-centered rules. Now that GURPS more explicitly distinguishes between the attribute and the added skill levels (relative skill levels), I agree: I would go for relative skill level/x as the damage bonus.

    • tbone

      A damage bonus for relative skill level would be best, I think. As you and Esteemed Visitor suggest, it’s a nice benefit for those who buy actual skill levels, not just DX.

      Re another comment, though: I’ve always been a little stumped as to where the modern meme of cool/awesome/superior/invincible samurai comes from. There’s this “ultimate warrior” label attached to them, and I wonder what’s the origin of, and support for, that tag. Just idle musing.

      • Jeffro

        (Jeffro and Esteemed Visitor are one and the same in this case! I was too fast clicking that button!)

        Lotsa reasons for the samauri ultimate warrior thing:

        1) Samuri have a better marketing campaign.

        2) Movies show Samurai as being really cool– and knights shown as are clumsy ‘tanks.’

        3) Eastern versions of Western tools/techniques are inherently more exotic and mystical to westerners. If Asians play their cards right, we’ll believe all kinds of stuff….

        4) Westerners are pretty embarrassed about the Middle Ages– it’s politically incorrect to characterize Crusaders as anything but bloodthirsty louts.

        5) “Enlightened” Westerners view other cultures as inherently superiour– this dates back at least to Rousseau’s “Noble Savage.”

        • tbone

          ‘Ello, Jeffro/Esteemed Visitor. (I’ll have proper user logins soon, for those who want it…)

          Yes, those samurai seem to have posthumously gained a fine marketing campaign indeed, at least in Hollywood movies, and other media in what’s called “the West”.

          I think over here in Japan, the typical depiction of samurai is more varied and human, which to me is a lot more interesting than the almost-comedic “honor” fetish and “invincible warrior” meme that have entered pop culture.

          But I’m no close watcher of either the real historical guys nor the modern pop depiction, so I’ll head off to other things before I embarrass myself.

  • Hal

    As a suggestion? Might it not be better, rather than permit the damage bonus to be added to the die roll, that the damage bonus be the minimum damage possible? For example, suppose you have a neophyte whose skill is at 1 level. His strength being what it is, and his skill being what it is – will permit him to do 1d6+1 damage. But a warrior who has better training, and gains a +1 damage bonus, would instead, do 1d6+1. Minimum damage will always be 3 points rather than the random die roll of a 1 plus the +1 damage bonus equal to a roll of 2 points. The better trained warrior will consistently avoid making the mistake that makes for a weak blow, but his training never permits him to do MORE damage than what his best blow could or should have been.

    • tbone

      I think I get the idea, though not the example: if the neophyte is delivering 1d6+1 dam (min 2 dam), you’re suggesting that the trained warrior (with +1 min dam) also rolls 1d6+1, but with minimum 3 dam, correct?

      Sounds good to me. A similar, more generous approach, would be to give him the full +1 dam, but maximum 7 (same max as if there were no bonus) – the difference being, he benefits on any roll except max, as opposed to benefiting only on a poor dam roll. Or this variant: instead of a bonus, roll the dice again, and keep the higher damage; again, better average dam, without a boost in max. (I like that one, and have played it somewhere in my gaming, but not for long – extra rolling is the big obvious drawback.)

      So there are several ways to raise average dam without raising max. I don’t know what the article author would say to the idea, but I like your suggestion (or its variants) as another tool in the GM arsenal.

  • Exegeek

    Is this necromancy?

    I’m taking your idea to use as 4 points in skill grants +1 damage, 8 pts grant +2 (for Karate that’s DX and DX+1).
    I’m also using Margin of Success instead of random damage rolls (MoS 0 is 1/2; MoS > 6 is 6; and Rule of 16ish). Kinda double dipping as Success is Damage but I like the Skill Adds Damage concept.

    What I’m wondering is, could that [skill adds dam] apply to ranged… Perhaps 8 pts grants +1? Knowing where to place the shot:/

    • tbone

      Hullo! With this long-quiet topic raised from its slumber:

      The points-based dam bonuses you mention do indeed mirror Karate, though it has to be noted that doing this for all weapons devalues the unique damage add of Karate/Boxing/Brawling. (For good or for bad.) While I haven’t made any big damage-add decision of my own, I wonder whether it’d be a good compromise to leave bonuses for Karate and Boxing as they are, and give other skills, say, +1/die dam at 8 points, and +2/die dam at 16 points. That gives *all* skills a dam-based bonus, but Karate and Boxing can still boast of superior bonuses.

      Another method, as you point out, is margin of success. I recently had been thinking along those lines, but instead of MoS, I was considering an up-front TH penalty instead – i.e., the same mechanism used in GURPS for Rapid Strike, Deceptive Attack, etc. That is, allow some damage bonus (say, like AoA (Strong)), for a -4 or -6 or so TH. Anyone could choose this, at any time, though of course only skilled fighters would excel at it.

      Those two methods are alternative ways to game the extra damage from *technique* (i.e., generally “hitting harder”). The other way to boost damage is, as you suggest, knowing how to “place the shot”. For a missile weapon of fixed ST (bow, gun, etc.), that’d be the only realistic way to boost damage. A thrown weapon or melee weapon, on the other hand, could combine damage bonuses from both “hit harder” and from “place the shot”, I would think (with “hit harder” also meaning extra range for the thrown weapon).

      “Place the shot” is well-defined and much-used in GURPS: TH penalties for high-damage locations like vitals, skull, neck, etc. Rather than the automatic damage add you suggest (which I’d save for the generic “hit harder” effect of skillful thrown and melee weapon use), I’d stick with the existing rules for “place the shot”.

      (It’s always possible to think up ever-smaller, ever-deadlier “place the shot” hit locations, of course, but if you have the Martial Arts book, that already covers pretty much every possible special high-damage hit location. Though I wouldn’t blame a GM who decided to scrap all that for a more abstract generic rule: say, an extra damage multiplier X for every -Y TH.)

      Wrapping this up: I really like that GURPS covers the “place the shot” factor in such great detail, but have always thought it an oversight that the game ignores the effect of technique on base damage (the skill-based “hit harder” effect) for melee and thrown weapons. I’ve played with lots of ideas to address this; it’s about time I finally chose one for good. : )

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