Idea pot: Kickin’ it with GURPS

(In which I inaugurate the diner-themed term “idea pot”, inviting your cogitative degustation of little semi-tested morsels long bubbling on the back burner. Or still just leaking juices behind the vegetable crisper. Or brushed free of floor lint and returned to the stew. Shhh, you didn’t see that.)

A GURPS character can kick another guy in the leg on a Brawling -2, Karate -2, or DX -2 roll (plus the modifier for hit location). I, too, can kick another guy in the leg without much trouble (well, until he kicks back, that is).

A GURPS character can also kick another guy in the head on that same Brawling -2, Karate -2, or DX -2 roll (plus the modifier for hit location). I, too, can also kick another guy in the… wait, head? No way. Not even with All-Out Attack and all that. The problem isn’t TH numbers; it’s that the head is way up there, and my foot doesn’t want to go much past here. If I’m to have any chance of head-booting my nemesis, I’ll need to trick him into bending over low to pick up his bifocals or something…

With my own challenged flexibility in mind, here’s a simple high-kickin’ idea that falls under the heading of easy-to-game realism, and at first touch seems to play well too:

Kick height and TH

In addition to any existing TH mods for kicks (including target location), apply a penalty for kick height, with three heights defined as follows: 

  • Low kick: No mod. (Locations: The kicker’s knee height or lower.)
  • Center kick: -2. (Locations: The height of the kicker’s upper leg, groin, and abdomen.) 
  • High kick: -4. (Locations: The kicker’s chest or higher.)

Example: Roll the usual Brawling -2, Karate -2, or DX -2 to hit with a low kick -2. Apply an additional -2 to hit with a center kick, and an additional -4 to hit with a high kick. (Apply appropriate penalties for target location too.)

Relative position

A standing foe of your same general size will offer target heights that match your kick heights. You’ll use a low kick to bruise his shins, a center kick to footprint his midriff, and a high kick to give him a taste of shoe leather. If the foe is kneeling, you can attack his center locations with a low kick, and his high locations with a center kick. The reverse will hold if he’s standing on a table: you’ll need a center kick to attack his shins and a high kick to attack his midriff, while his head will be out of reach. If he falls down, you can attack any location with easy low kicks. And so on.

Similar considerations can be worked out for foes of a different SM.

A jump can raise your effective position. Quickie idea: You can raise your position by 1 height level (low to center, or center to high) with a leap. Make a DX or Jumping roll to gain the extra height, but take an added -2 to the DX roll to avoid falling if you miss the attack…

Kicking butt (and higher)

This is not normal.

Leaps aside, how can you get your dogs up higher? With a technique to buy off the kick height penalty, of course. Here’s what’ll let you deliver that goodnight kiss from Doc Martens:

High Kicking (Average technique)

This technique buys off the penalty for center and high kicks. 2 points in High Kicking buys off the -2 penalty for center kicks, and reduces the penalty for high kicks to -2 TH. 4 points in High Kicking reduces the penalty to 0, letting you kick at any height with equal ease. 

Other techniques

Pondering the specific workings of various kicking techniques and height, some suggestions:

  • Kicking: This technique buys off the -2 TH that represents humans’ inherent clumsiness with kicks, and is separate from High Kicking. A fighter will usually want to buy up Kicking first. 
  • Back Kick: Per generic kicks (i.e., apply the penalty for height kick, reduced for High Kicking).
  • Push Kick: Per generic kicks – or perhaps the ability to target center locations should be a Push Kick freebie? 
  • Knee Strike: This is a natural center kick, unusable with high or low kicks. Apply no penalty for height; High Kicking is irrelevant.
  • Stamp Kick: Per Knee Strike, but for low kicks only.
  • Jump Kick: Automatically raise position by 1 height level (i.e., reduce kick height penalty by 2). Optionally, you can further augment height with a leap (see above) to raise position by 2 height levels, reducing kick height penalty by 4 (“low” kick to the forehead, boom!). The penalties for missing will be harsh, though…
  • Flying Jump Kick: Per Jump Kick. 
  • Drop Kick: Per Jump Kick?
  • Pole-Vault Kick: Hmm; let this freely raise position by 1 or 2 height levels, as the kicker likes?
  • Axe Kick: I don’t know; ignore height considerations?

Also, from the target’s perspective:

  • Leg Grapple: As written – but take a -2 penalty to grapple the leg if it’s sneakily kicking at your low location. (Perhaps this would also apply to grappling a leg in a Sweep, not just a kick.) 

Falling down

Per RAW, missing with a kick calls for a DX or Kicking roll to avoid falling down.

For detail, add the kick height penalties: -2 for a center kick and -4 for a high kick, reduced for High Kicking. (This is a realistic penalty, though harsh. Perhaps the base roll should be DX +2 or Kicking +2 to compensate?)

For even more detail, tack on another -2 if the kick was an All-Out Attack, -1 if a Committed Attack, and +1 if a Defensive Attack.

(Even hitting with a kick should arguably require a roll to avoid falling, though possibly with an additional bonus. Let’s leave that extra complexity aside for now.)

All that jazz

A leg up on learning Hapkido?

Any Rockette will tell you that sky-high kicks aren’t for Shaolin monks alone. If you’ve got a taste for more detail in the arts, apply the kick height penalty to Dancing skill during certain performances: no penalty for a waltz, -2 for a high-stepping Cossack dance, and -4 for a chorus line. The High Kicking technique reduces these penalties, of course.

Yes, this means a Hapkido practitioner and a ballerina each have a small advantage when attempting the other’s art. The fighter will mangle ballet at a clumsy DX -5 default, while the ballerina will attempt to bludgeon foes with pointe shoes at the default DX -2. But with 4 points in High Kicking, neither will suffer additional penalties for high kicks!

In play

I like the sound of this little complication, at least in a game that enjoys technical combat details. The simple business of a kick height penalty makes head-punting appropriately difficult. The High Kicking technique, meanwhile, creates a real distinction between dedicated high-kicking styles and more down-to-earth ones. Almost any martial art with kicks will have practitioners put points into the Kicking technique, but not all styles will emphasize High Kicking. Some may focus on practical low kicks only, prescribing fists for higher targets. (That could include street styles: spend your points on ways to toss the other guy down, and then commence kicking.) True high-kicking styles, meanwhile, will encourage the full 4 points in High Kicking, making every target location fair game for the feet. Yet other martial arts may limit training in High Kicking, and instead teach Jumping and Jump Kick, per the suggestion above, as the One True Way to put your foot in someone else’s mouth. 

It’ll cost you 4 points in High Kicking to make all your kicks comfortable at any height, but that’s a small price for a serious martial artist (or prima donna).

Miscellaneous notes

Kicking vs High Kicking

I started out by trying to make Kicking itself the technique to buy off the kick height penalty, but things got a bit futzy when trying to redefine Kicking. I think Kicking and High Kicking are most comfortable as wholly separate techniques, with Kicking left in its RAW state.

Low blow

Very much off the top of the head, but: Would High Kicking have a corresponding version for punches? It seems clear that you can punch center and high locations with no problem, but should there be a -2 penalty to quickly dip down and punch a low location? If so, then a Low Punching technique could buy that off.

All very hypothetical, of course; really, what fighter wants to punch his foes in the feet? Then again, perhaps the suggested penalty, and the technique to buy it off, should apply to any low-location use of hands by a standing fighter: punching or grabbing a foot, grappling or parrying a low kick, and so on. What do you think?

Too harsh?

Are my suggested -2 and -4 TH kick height penalties too harsh? Don’t say “yes” just yet. I think it’s questionable whether the average schmo, with no athletic training and middling flexibility, could reasonably head-kick a standing foe at all. For simplicity and in GURPS-like fashion, this rule doesn’t try to rules-lawyer what characters are allowed to attempt; it only applies a penalty for the hard stuff. And -4 is a big penalty, true, but think: even at a base DX-2, an additional -4 for height, and -5 for target location, the benefit of +4 from All-Out Attack, +4 for Telegraphic Attack, and up to +3 for preparation (Evaluation) leaves our non-fighter a fair chance of putting his best foot forward into a thug’s mug. If the target weren’t so small, he’d even have a good chance. (Edit 2014.02.08: Oops, MA makes clear that the Evaluate and Telegraphic Attack bonuses don’t stack. It’s one or the other.)

But you may still think the penalties are too severe (and in fact, much of the feedback on this idea would agree with you). No worry, there’s a simple fix: Reduce the -2 TH and -4 TH kick height penalties to -1 and -2, respectively. Those are light penalties and easily bought off (just two points!) – too inconsequential to make the whole concept worth playing, in my mind, but some readers prefer those numbers. I may change my mind in that direction as well! 

Final word

Well. What do you think? Is this rule idea a shoe-in? Or should we give it the boot?


  • PeterD

    ” I think it’s questionable whether the average schmo, with no athletic training and middling flexibility, could reasonably head-kick a standing foe at all.”

    Sure, but by the RAW, can he?

    An average schmo, let’s say DX 10 and kicking off DX, has a net 3 to hit the face or neck, and can’t kick the skull at all. He critically fails on a 13 or higher. He’s got a 1 in 216 chance of connecting, with one of those “no shit there I was” stories. 215 times in 216 he misses at best, likely falls down, and has a solid chance of critically failing. If he does a Telegraphic Attack or All-Out Attack, he’s got a 7 skill for the face, 5 for the skull. If he does both, he’s got an 11 and a 9, but his opponent defends at +2 and he’s defenseless.

    Give him DX+1 in Karate and Kicking bought off, he kicks at a base 11. That brings him up to a 6 for the face, 4 for the skull, and critical failures on 16+ or 14+ respectively. The TA/AOA options give him 10/14 and 8/12 respectively, which isn’t bad for someone with enough skill to get the full Karate damage bonus and as much expertise in Kicking as he can get. Without kicking all of those are -2, giving him 8/12 and 6/10 for the face/skull with TA+AOA.

    Make him DX 12 and Karate at DX+3 and give him kicking, and he’s got a base 15. Baseline face is 10, skull is 8, going to 14/18 or 12/16 with AOA/TA.

    Make him a master – skill 20, and he’s got a 15 for the face, 13 for the skull. But he’s skill 20, which is either an amazing specimen like DX 16 and Karate @ DX+4 and Kicking @ prereq-0, or maybe DX 13 and Karate @ DX+9 and no kicking, or something like that. At that point, he should kick the skull pretty reliably, but even so he fails about 1 in 4 times in combat.

    If you give a -4, you’re saying that the untrained guy can almost never do it, even with AOA and TA, the trained guy can try it but he better TA or AOA, and the experts have a hard time pulling it off. And so on – you’re shifting it down.

    That’s just the head. The midline kick thing is even too severe for me – basically you’re saying without special training, you can’t kick the torso very easily. I think this is not true, especially with any sort of actual martial arts training – kicking a torso-sized target at your waist height or higher is pretty much standard training.

    Besides, the whole “practical martial arts kick the legs” thing ignores the very, very large body of full-contact fighting sports which routinely include body and head kicks. I used to have that “real fighters never kick above the waist” thing but I think it’s a set of blinders. It’s not actually true; plenty of real fighters deal head kicks and body kicks in matches, and while people may not deal a lot of them in combat, I bet there isn’t a real realiable sample size of “real fights” where people are kicking anywhere except on a downed foe, to avoid the whole “might fall down” thing that comes with it.

    So yeah, I think the penalties are too harsh. Even in a Harsh Realism scenario, I’d make it -0 for the midline and an extra -1 or -2 for the head-level locations, and let people buy that off with a perk or an Average Technique. It’s not terribly hard to learn to kick the head, really, it’s pulling it off in combat without falling or exposing yourself to a counter that’s hard. I think the rules cover that.

    • tbone

      Hello! As for whether that schmo can make a nice head kick:

      Sure, but by the RAW, can he?

      Yes, absolutely! As you correctly show, it’s extremely difficult for him to do it well, as a real fighter would – but doing it as a newbie would, he certainly has a chance. He’d have to completely focus on the kick (AoA), probably ready himself first (Evaluate), and his kick would be easy to see coming (Telegraphic), but string those qualifiers together and it’s an even bet.

      The remaining numbers you present for other cases will be much appreciated by readers wanting to look closely at the probabilities; thanks!

      Besides, the whole “practical martial arts kick the legs” thing ignores the very, very large body of full-contact fighting sports which routinely include body and head kicks.

      Oh, no question, fighters want to kick high; those are actually the practical locations in terms of hurting the other guy. I only suggest that higher kicks call for extra training to perform well.

      How much extra training? In game terms, who knows – but I’ll take your comment as a clear vote for lesser penalties than I suggested. Thanks for weighing in!

      • PeterD

        Right, if he sacrifices all his defenses and is willing to give a bonus to parry, he’s got almost a 50/50 shot of throwing one good enough to hit an undefending target. If he misses, he might fall. If he hits, his opponent has a good shot at defending.

        I really see no problem with this at all. It’s incredibly unlikely to happen in actual play (DX 10, default use, successful kick to the head). It’s even unlikely under the RAW for people to attempt it with a trained guy because the odds of success, barring giving up your defenses and/or telegraphing (and risking a nasty Leg Grapple or Aggressive Parry), are low.

        And just for perspective, a Kick (-2) to the Face (-5) with an extra -4 is easier than an eye poke (-9, per “Go for the eyes!” in Martial Arts). Even an extra -2 is steep, because it makes a skull kick as hard as an eye poke in combat.

        So this is a situation where I don’t really see the problem as being as big as suggested, and the fix being overly harsh.

        • tbone

          Right, if he sacrifices all his defenses and is willing to give a bonus to parry, he’s got almost a 50/50 shot of throwing one good enough to hit an undefending target. If he misses, he might fall. If he hits, his opponent has a good shot at defending.

          Right, that’s how I see it. It’s something a non-fighter really shouldn’t be attempting…

          So this is a situation where I don’t really see the problem as being as big as suggested

          Well, I’m not suggesting that there’s any problem. I’m noting that aiming a kick head-high is difficult in real life, and that GMs who like unarmed combat detail can game that difficulty with a simple TH penalty. A penalty that can be freely set, too: say, -4 for a strict take, -2 for a more lenient one – or even -0 to just say “meh, not worth worrying about.”

  • Exegete

    I’d accept -2 to hit and +1 for your target’s defence. Even accept reduced damage for high kicks but may be that’d be down to training.

    Plus I’m basing that off Different Levels, B402.

    Personal flexibility: can touch my toes and kick chin high but I’d rate it weaker than my punch and I have the upper body musculature of the so-called “average woman”.

    • tbone

      I’m not sure what to make of the “different levels” aspect; I get the idea, but unless there are other examples of this rule being applied to parts at differing levels as opposed to fighters at differing levels, I’d ignore it for simplicity.

      Similary, the damage aspect: Interesting observation, and one I hadn’t thought about. I’ll hold off on using the idea, though, until some more fighters report that high kicks are weaker. (Could be one of those things that’s generally true, though not significantly so in game terms.)

      But those interesting items aside, I’ll take your comment as another vote for lesser TH penalties than what I suggested. Thanks!

  • Douglas Cole

    This post reminded me I did something similar in a cut bit from Technical Grappling. I wrote up a reply and will post (and cross-link) to my blog in a few days. 🙂

    • tbone

      Looking forward to it! (Also, I hope Technical Grappling gets a good Designer’s Notes article so all those cut bits don’t go to waste.)

        • tbone

          DC, I saw your related Gaming Ballistic article. Anyone reading this kicking article should check out yours too: it offers more thought on relative height positions (what you term “regions”), and suggests SM-related considerations too.

          Regarding penalties for high kicking, I appreciate the comments suggesting modest penalties. The arguments are reasonable. For myself, I’ll stop short of concluding “not needed”, though. (That is, it’s definitely “not needed” in that any such detail can be ignored if desired, but I happily stand by a penalty as a fine bit of optional simulation.) Per your overview:

          The “how flexibile are you?” question for people who don’t train to fight is “not very, mostly,” but if you DO train, you stretch, I presume.

          That’s really where I’m coming from: People who don’t train to fight won’t be very flexible. They won’t be too great at low kicks, but have probably never attempted a head-high kick. I can’t at all imagine the untrained person considering a kick to knee level and a kick to head level as equally difficult tasks!

          Whereas a fighter does train and indeed might consider both heights equally difficult (or equally easy, I should say), by virtue of having stretched and worked at those high kicks. To me, this is the perfect situation to apply a penalty, bought off by the fighter as a Technique.

          That said, I may go back and revise the article to use -2 and -1 penalties instead of -4 and -2, thanks to the helpful feedback.

          • Douglas Cole

            Thanks for the link! Reading some of the comments has inspired one more comment, this time related to something Peter tossed off fairly casually. Note that in many cases, missed kicks are “roll DX-2 or fall down.” For Joe Average, that’s 8-, or a 25% chance of falling down.

            Peter notes that Joe Average also has about a 3 or less chance to hit the head, which means he critically fails on 13-.

            And . . . that is about a 17% chance of occuring. Not that different. And there is that handy Unarmed Critical Miss table on p. B557, which offeres a great deal more potential pain than “you fall down.”

            • tbone

              A fair chance of crit miss, and a significant chance of falling even if the miss is a regular one… Yep, that untrained guy really shouldn’t be attempting head kicks.

              Although… I wouldn’t go with those TH and crit numbers at all. This case screams for AoA + Telegraphic Attack – not because those choices bring the numbers up to some place where I happen to like them, but because they’re the signature actions of the untrained guy, as I see it. They were made for low-skill fighters!

              But… That’s neither here nor there. I think the gist of your comment is, “The untrained guy has trouble enough even without an extra penalty.” Possibly quite right, but the point of my article isn’t at all “the low-skill guy needs more penalties to make untrained kicks realistic”; apologies if I gave that impression through my repeated invoking of “untrained guy” examples.

              To clarify, my point is simply, “our untrained fellow should find kicking head-high harder than kicking knee-high.” That is, whether kicking targets overall should be super easy or super difficult for him, and whether or not the rules appropriately model that level of difficulty, is a separate matter that I’m not addressing here. My only topic is that, regardless of how easy or difficult kicks overall are, a head-high kick should be harder than a knee-high kick.

              Now, that may not hold at all for the trained fighter, who might find either kick equally easy. Sounds good to me! That’s what leads to the article’s suggestion of a penalty and a Technique to buy it off. That little rules bit models both the “high kicks are hard!” character and the “nah, they’re all the same” character.

              All of which falls under the heading of non-essential extra detail, of course. But I myself really like this one!

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