Building the dungeon matador: Creatures and combat familiarity

Here’s a GURPS idea I’ve been kicking around for a while: a trait for improved fighting prowess against a specific type of creature. The concept is easy to understand, and it’s not hard to quickly whip up a game trait that, at quick glance, appears to do the job. But, in a refrain that’s as familiar to rules hackers as the clacking of a tumbling d6, scrutinizing and testing a solution turns up fiddly considerations, especially in making the creation mesh neatly with existing game traits. 

I’m not yet satisfied with what I’ve got. Below is an overview of design considerations for fellow rules hackers, followed by my half-baked suggestion for a Combat Familiarity advantage. From there, I’d love for you to take the idea and improve it!

Designing specialized prowess

Now that’s just showing off.

I’d like to allow GURPS characters an improved ability, whether learned or innate, at fighting a certain type of creature. This “combat familiarity” is real-world stuff: a matador’s expertise at reading a bull’s movements, or a game hunter’s experience in avoiding boar charges. There’s a fictional analogue, too, in fantasy genre concepts of “racial combat bonuses” against specific foe types.

“No problem,” you say, “the Animal Handling skill has us covered.” Yep, there it is on p. B175: Animal Handling-15 gives target animals a -1 on To Hit and Active Defense when fighting you, and Animal Handling-20 doubles that to -2. Hey, that was easy! Right?

Not so fast. First, I’ll pick a nit in the mechanics. The text says the creature suffers AD and TH penalties because “you can predict its behavior.” The penalty to the creature’s AD nicely games your ability to predict its defenses; there’s no problem there. But a penalty on the creature’s TH isn’t the right way to game your ability to predict its attacks. After all, if you happened to be unaware or immobile, what caused the creature to miss its attack? Your ability to predict attacks should aid you only when you’re aware, mobile, and able to do something defensive with your prediction – i.e., when you’re actively defending. In GURPS, the way to game this is with mods to Active Defense, not To Hit.

All right, then. We’ll drop the TH penalty. Instead, let combat familiarity with a target creature result in a penalty to the creature’s AD against your attacks, and a bonus to your AD against the creature’s attacks. With that simple (and more GURPS-like) change, I like the mechanics.  

Charging that pesky red cape

There’s another issue, though. How can a fighter gain just the combat familiarity, without the rest of Animal Handling? Our hunter can deftly read a boar’s charge (AD bonus for the hunter), accurately predict how the boar will try to sidestep a spear (AD penalty for the boar!), and finally neatly skewer the beast (Spear roll). But the hunter doesn’t raise, feed, and train boars! (That goes double for wyrm-dispatching knights. “It says right on the business card: Dragon slayer, not caretaker.”)

Hmm, the above suggests a need for a trait separate from Animal Handling. Like that skill, it would target specific types of creature, but with a focus on combat actions only. This could be an Animal Fighting skill (with cross defaults to Animal Handling), or an advantage (even a perk).

Before pondering solutions, though, let’s see what other design goals we want to hit with a well-placed charge.

There’s one waving red cape I always fall sucker to: the Compulsion to make rules as broadly universal as possible. I don’t want our combat familiarity trait to work for people only; animals themselves are awesome at fighting animals! Fighting dogs can be trained as expert badger harriers or bear baiters. A mongoose is a master at reading a cobra’s intent. Just about any predator animal knows (from experience, instinct, or both) the specific moves and tricks of its prey – and vice versa, in an evolutionary knowledge race.

So we’ll let animals have combat familiarity. But wait, there’s more: appropriate target types shouldn’t be just animals! I like the idea of Dwarves with peculiar expertise in battling Giants. Or any zombie-fighter’s hard-won smarts at predicting the movements and attacks of the lurching dead. And don’t forget an animal’s expertise in fighting humans! Think of a man-eating tiger familiar with the ways of people. A wolf pack leader that’s learned how to outsmart hunters. A warhorse or a dog taught to take down soldiers. A monster trained (or bred) to hunt us.

Here’s a final rules concern: What happens when a creature has combat familiarity with its own kind? Is it fair for a PC to benefit from combat familiarity with humans? It’s simple to solve this by decreeing that creatures can’t target their own kind with the trait. But that creates an oddity: it suggests that you can know more about fighting wolves than you can know about fighting your fellow humans! (Yes, you could separately buy Tactics to cover experience with fighting people, but why is it that you only gain special Active Defense benefits when wolves are involved?)

(See how complicated things can get when you think through every angle of an issue? Such is rules-hacking.)

¡Ole! The Combat Familiarity advantage

Before writing anything, I began by thinking about a Combat Familiarity perk. Along the way I switched to writing up a skill-based treatment, but ran into a number of issues while fleshing things out, especially in making a skill mesh nicely with existing skills like Tactics. I can post those skill-related notes if anyone’s interested, but for now, I’ll attempt a simple advantage-based Combat Familiarity.


There’s a related concept in the Mortal Foe advantage from GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 11: Power-Ups. It’s great for a purely fantasy meta-ability along the lines of Higher Purpose, but isn’t the sort of realistic experience-based, combat-focused prowess I’m looking for.

A more pertinent precedent is Martial Arts‘ Style Familiarity perk, which lets a character fight more effectively against users of a specific martial arts style. Its effects in combat are quite small: essentially +1 AD against the foe’s attacks, if the foe used a successful Feint or Deceptive Attack, and with the further requirements that you have the perk for all the foe’s styles, and that the foe’s attack was an orthodox part of one of those.

That’s pretty restrictive and low-power, but sounds fine as a limited, special-case form of the familiarity I’m pondering. I don’t see a need to make Style Familiarity mechanics mesh with my broader “how to fight orcs” or “how to fight dragons” concept, especially considering that these orcs or dragons (or boars or tigers or slimes or whatever) may be fighting with any number of named styles, or none at all. I think my Combat Familiarity concept stands on its own – and if the orcs and dragons happen to bring named martial styles to the battle, then Style Familiarity mechanics can play nicely alongside Combat Familiarity.

Next, the Enhanced Defense line of advantages yields similar bonuses to Active Defense, though with no consideration of foe type. As reference, they simply offer a reminder that AD bonuses need to carry a substantial cost.

The final precedent to consider is, as already noted, Animal Handling. See notes in the write-up below.

The advantage

Here’s the draft:

Combat Familiarity (Creature Type)   5, 10, or 15 points

You have training or innate ability in evaluating and predicting the combat-related moves and behavior of a type of creature. Each creature type requires a separate advantage. Types include broad categories of animals, monsters, and humanoids – including humans.

Combat-related interactions aren’t limited to killing for food, defense, or sport. They include subduing a wolf to establish dominance, placating a buffalo to avoid a charge, or gently capturing a bird for study. Combat Familiarity aids in all of these – and can be used by many animals and monsters, too!

Effects: If you lack Combat Familiarity for a creature type, you battle it with no particular bonuses or penalties. With Combat Familiarity, you gain a +1 bonus on Active Defenses against the creature’s attacks, while the creature suffers a -1 penalty on Active Defenses against your attacks.

For combat-related actions not involving Active Defenses, you gain a +1 bonus on rolls or Contests. For example, the appropriate Combat Familiarity offers a +1 bonus in a Contest of DX to grapple a ‘gator, a Contest of Tactics to out-maneuver a wolf pack, or a reaction roll to intimidate a threatening jaguar. (The bonus doesn’t apply to rolls to make or resist Feints; the Active Defense modifiers already address the effects of these. Use GURPS’ Style Familiarity perk for additional ability at reading Feints and other tricky actions.)

Note that if two creatures have Combat Familiarity for each other’s type, the bonuses and penalties cancel out. This means there is no effect when both combatants have Combat Familiarity for each other’s creature type, or when neither does. Combat Familiarity comes into play only when one side has the advantage!

Every creature has a default instinct for how its own type of creature fights, and automatically has Combat Familiarity for its own type. This means that any creature (including a human!) fights its own type using no modifiers. This ability is free, is assumed for all creatures, and does not need to be noted on character forms. 

Creature types: Creature types are set by the GM. For animals, these should be the same types used for Animal Handling skill. Humanoids are generally a single type, although the GM may rule that Giants, Gargoyles, Snakemen, Alien Greys, and other odd types act differently enough from us in combat to warrant separate types. Monsters and other unnatural creatures can be included in animal types that have similar fighting characteristics (such as dropping manticores into Big Cats), or can use their own broad categories (such as Tentacled Things), or can use narrow types (Dragons, Slimes, etc.), as the GM deems appropriate.

Examples of Combat Familiarity creature types, and combatants using the advantage, include: 

  • Bovines for matadors or bull-baiting dogs
  • Pachyderms for expert mammoth-hunting Neanderthals
  • Appropriate types for experienced venatores (animal fighters) in the gladitorial arena 
  • Crocodilians for ‘gator wrestlers
  • Snakes for snake catchers and mongooses
  • Rabbits/Rodents for hunting dogs (and Canines for the rabbits that learn to escape them)
  • Giants for Dwarves with ancient enmities
  • Insectoids for collectors and exterminators
  • Giant Insectoids for dungeoneers
  • Dragons for wyrm-slayers
  • Appropriate animal types for kung fu stylists who observe and mimic animal fighting styles
  • Humanoids for guard dogs, war horses, and village-stalking tigers (or monsters…)

Prerequisites: Purchasing the advantage for a creature type should require inborn instinct (possible for some animals or sentient races, GM willing), actual combat experience against the creature, or an appropriate skill. This would likely be the appropriate Animal Handling specialty for an animal type, or Body Language, Psychology, or Tactics for a sentient type.

Cost: Combat Familiarity costs 5 points for typical animal or monster types, 10 points for minor sentient creature types, and 15 points for PC races or other important sentient creature types. In most games, that latter type means Humanoids (however broadly or narrowly the GM defines that).

Multiple levels: The GM may allow two or more levels of Combat Familiarity, but at a sharply increased cost: double the cost per level for the second level, triple it for a third level, and so on. Thus, the first level of Combat Familiarity (Canines) costs a PC 5 points, a second level costs 10 points (total 15 points), and a third level costs 15 points (total 30 points). A human PC has Combat Familiarity (Humanoids) for free, but would pay 15 x 2 = 30 points for a second level. That gives him a serious combat advantage, thanks to an almost uncanny understanding of how people move and behave in fights. It also comes at a high cost, and a third level may be prohibitively expensive!

When using multiple levels, remember that equal levels of mutual Combat Familiarity cancel out; all that counts is the number of levels you have over the foe.

Animal Handling and Combat Familiarity: The effects of Combat Familiarity replace the written combat effects of Animal Handling. Effects are no longer part of the Animal Handling skill; Combat Familiarity must be bought separately. As compensation, however, let every level of Animal Handling above 10 reduce the cost of Combat Familiarity by 1 point (minimum 0). This makes Combat Familiarity (Canines), for example, free with Animal Handling (Canines)-15. If the GM allows multiple levels, it reduces the cost of two levels from 15 points to 5 points with Animal Handling (Canines)-20, and so on.

How’s it look?

There’s the advantage. It misses some of the niceties a skill-based approach could take, such as varied defaults among creature types (as opposed to binary in-or-out groupings). But it avoids some difficulties, too. You can see where I’ve tried to hit some key design goals:

  • Any creature type, including humans, is possible as both holder of the advantage and target of it.
  • With Combat Familiarity an advantage, low-IQ animal users of the trait aren’t penalized as they would be with an IQ-based skill.
  • Automatic Combat Familiarity for your own type means there’s no need to make any changes for existing or new characters.
  • Multiple levels are possible, though optional and expensive. GMs who prefer a simple binary switch should be happy sticking with one level.
  • Nothing comes into play unless one foe has more levels than the other foe. That means nothing happens in typical human vs animal, human vs monster, or human vs human fights! 
  • Given the tough choice between making Combat Familiarity free with Animal Handling or making it an entirely separate purchase, I managed to find a wimpy (or bold?) middle road.
  • I set the cost at what I hope is appropriate: reasonably cheap (?) for a matador, hunter, or dungeon delver, but arbitrarily high when targeting sentients. (I really wanted to use a perk, but the cost of a perk is just too low for the AD mods, especially if we want the rule to extend to any creatures and not just animals.)

Your turn!

Does this seem a workable trait for the bull vaulters, specialist hunters, trained attack dogs, and manticore-wrangling teratological toreros in your games? Do you see something broken? Is the cost way off? Can you suggest a name that’s less lame?

How would you improve Combat Familiarity?


  • Esteemed Visitor

    How would this help in making, say, a snake charmer vs snake collector vs herpetologist?

    • tbone

      I’ll see you those characters, and raise you another one or two. Animal Handling (Snakes) and Combat Familiarity are the key traits in question. There needn’t be huge differences in the purchases of these, but try this:

      Herpetologist: Raises and even breeds lots of snakes. Catches wild (or escaped) snakes, milks venom, dodges the occasional strike. Use lots of Animal Handling (Snakes). Combat Familiarity (Snakes) is appropriate (though not absolutely necessary: lab safety relies foremost on carefully controlled conditions, not quick reflexes). Add Biology with optional specialty: Zoology. (Hmm, GURPS 4e doesn’t allow a more specific Herpetology specialty?) Add snake catcher skills for field work (Observation, etc.).

      Snake catcher: Could be the above herpetologist in the field, or could just be a backwoods guy with a stick and a bag. For the latter: Low Animal Handling (Snakes) is fine. Combat Familiarity (Snakes) is appropriate, though not too necessary if the local snakes are harmless. Add general outdoor skills like Observation and Naturalist (with a specialty like Reptiles?). At the GM’s option, make “weapon” skills for capture nets, sticks, etc. Unless the guy’s an awesome catcher, though, a successful hunt is probably more about persistence and time than skills.

      Snake hunter: That’s hunter as in “kill on sight”. Use one or two levels of Combat Familiarity (Snakes) to predict the varmints’ movements. Add a serious weapon skill. Feel free to drop Animal Handling (Snakes) entirely!

      Snake charmer: Performance and minimal Animal Handling (Snakes) are all you need for a show with docile snakes. Dangerous snakes call for more Animal Handling. Then there’s the crazy stuff, like the fellow I saw in Thailand whose performance consisted of slapping cobras on the head and dodging the return strkes. That’s Combat Familiarity (Snakes) in action!

      Snake seller/breeder: Per herpetologist, but replace scientific skill with business skill. Use low Animal Handling (Snakes) for a shady dealer with unhealthy stock.

      And so on. All in all, these professions are mainly served by Animal Handling and aren’t great showcases for Combat Familiarity. But take the snake hunter above, re-imagine him as a specialist in exterminating giant fantasy snakes in arenas and dungeons, and Combat Familiarity (Snakes) is the first thing you’ll want to buy!

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