Distance and defense: Tiny tweak for GURPS combat

Here’s a minor melee idea that came up during chatter over GURPS combat scenarios. (I do plan to post an actual battlemap report after clearing some other items off of my to-post queue.)

When you close a distance gap to attack, you give the defender more time to react than you do by starting out close enough to strike. Game that consideration with this rule:

  • If the attacker begins his turn with a Step or Move to get within striking Reach, the defender gains +2 on Active Defense vs the attack that turn.
  • If the attacker begins his turn within striking Reach (even if he chooses to Step or Move anyway), the defender takes no mod to Active Defense vs the attack that turn.
  • If the attacker begins his turn in close combat and strikes in close combat (even if he then moves away), the defender takes -2 on Active Defense vs the attack that turn.

The first case represents the attacker having to first move to get within striking distance, which hands the defender a wee bit more time to prepare (as well as an extra, clearly visible indicator that the attack is coming).

The second case is the default combat norm: You’re already within range to strike, and you do so. Nothing special going on.

The third case helps model the “roaring and punching” aspect of close-combat free-for-all. Attacks come from so close, and thus come so fast, that it’s hard to defend against them (or even see them coming in the first place).

It’s all simple to play out when using a hex map. (There’s no bookkeeping; these mods appear and do their thing immediately at the moment of attack.) How does this change combat? Some ways:

  • There’ll be more circling and probing before the clash. When two fighters face each other just outside of reach, the first to close the gap and attack is at a disadvantage: The target of the attack gets a +2 on defense, while (unless the target retreated out of range again) the initial attacker gets no such bonus when the initial target returns the attack.
  • The fighter with the gumption to move in and attack first has more need than ever to Evaluate and Feint before attacking, to overcome the target’s defense bonus. The fighter willing to receive the first blow (to get that +2 AD), on the other hand, can really boost defenses by choosing All Out Defense (even without Retreat). More difficulty in making that first attack + more benefit to picking AOD and receiving the first attack = more “You go first!” circling.
  • Fighters in close combat, no longer able to parry and dodge as nimbly as they can at arm’s length, gain new incentive to throw away defense completely and go nuts with All Out Attack. Which, I’ve always said, is how close combat should play!
  • Similarly, a fighter stymied by his foe’s expert parrying or dodging gains new incentive to forget the swordplay and just jump the guy, dagger in hand. (Simply by entering close combat, he sets the stage for lowering the foe’s defenses.)
  • The disadvantage of a short weapon trying to close the gap with a long one becomes more clear. (That’s a good thing; modern-day students of weapon fighting are very adamant about the many advantages of longer reach!)
  • Retreating remains tactically desirable in many, many cases – yet it now comes with a minor drawback as well. If your Retreat takes you outside your strike Reach, you’ll have to Step to return the attack, handing your foe a defense bonus. Whether to give ground or stand fast becomes a more difficult decision.

All in all, it sounds like a nice package of fresh tactical considerations, with no GM burden beyond the usual totting of really simple bonuses and penalties.

(Oh, one simple option: If you like the idea but find the mods too steep, just halve them to +/-1.) 

Any thoughts or similar play experiences on your side, dear Reader?


  • Claran

    Love this on first reading: fits my experience of sparring and fighting. Going to try it out.

    • tbone

      I’d like to hear what you find on the game table. I think it’s a nice incentive for more careful footwork in combat, beyond the simple back-and-forth shifting that the Retreat action promotes.

  • Miles Webster

    Awesome work and well presented! As Claran said above, these tweaks are much more like my experiences as well. Thank you for sharing your ideas. I know this is 12 years old or so but it is new to me!

    I have been thinking about how to represent the flow of a fight for awhile but haven’t had time. Many games have a fight where two fighters stay toe to toe, one attack while the other defends, then switch roles. Depending on your opponents skill, it can be difficult to retake the initiative while under assault from the attacker. It may be 2 to 4 attempted strikes before someone can effectively counter and gain/regain initiative so they are the attacker with multiple combinations. If you find you cannot gain the initiative due to their skill or because you are rocked back on your heels, then maybe it is time to disengage for the moment and begin again with a new exchange and a new and hopefully better chance to gain the offensive initiative.

    Perhaps you have already worked on something similar already or know someone who has? I really need to think this through but seeing what others have done would be very beneficial.

    • tbone

      Thanks for the interesting question! “Flow of a fight” is a topic of interest – partly because I think GURPS does a pretty good job already of shaking up predictable back-and-forth combat changes through a lot of options and effects, and partly because I think there’s still room for some fun tinkering here.

      I started writing a reply, but after touching on several thoughts and pointing to relevant reading material, it’s growing beyond comment territory and into short-article length. So I’ll try to finish it up and post it soon. (Yeah, I’ve posted very little lately, but this one’s largely written now.)

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