Defense stats in GURPS are based on skill divided by two, an odd mechanic not used elsewhere in the game. What if defense used full skill, just like any other skill-based action?
This GURPS rules hack is a look at a simple, single, “for the heck of it” rules change, followed by the usual commentary. As always, it’s yours to use, abuse, or refuse, as you choose.
v1.0: Created 2003/04/28
v1.1 update (2009/07/27): Modified for use with 3e or 4e.
Using Full Skill for Defenses
There’s one funny bit in the GURPS skill system. Nothing that need ever actually bother anybody, just a little oddity that’s so basic to the system we never even think about it.
To test any skill, you roll against skill level, with bonuses or penalties to change the probability of success.
With one exception. Defenses are rolled against half (or sometimes in 3e, two-thirds) skill level. Harmless, true, yet it’s an oddball mechanic that’s used nowhere else in the game.
What if defenses used full skill level, like any other skill? Yes, that suggests shockingly high defense rolls, but appropriate penalties would help keep things in line. Here’s how it might work:
Active Defense rolls
Just as “to hit” is abbreviated “TH”, we’ll abbreviate “to defend” as “TD”. A TD roll is an active defense roll (Dodge, Parry, or Block).
The good news for defenders
1) Active defenses use full skill level. There’s no “skill/2” or “two-thirds skill” or so on.
2) For Dodge, use Basic Speed x 2, i.e., (DX + HT)/2. Round down.
3) Under 3e, skills with an improved Parry, like Fencing, Brawling, or Judo, should continue to benefit in some way. A bonus of +1/8 skill (round down) works acceptably.
Example: Jim has Basic Speed 5.75, Broadsword-12, Brawling-16, and Shield-14. His defense rolls (so far) are Dodge 11, Broadsword Parry 12, Brawling Parry 16 (or 18 using 3e), and Shield 14.
The bad news for defenders
Full skill doesn’t mean parrying a weapon is easy! Swinging your sword to hit a six-foot target is one thing; positioning it to deflect a little knife is another.
Just as attacking a foe’s weapon takes TH penalties for the target’s small size (BS 110), so attempting to parry or block a weapon takes TD (“to defend”) penalties. The rules:
1) Using 4e, don’t add the base +3 to active defenses. Using 3e, don’t add PD from armor; drop it from the game entirely, as discussed a bit here.
2) Take a -4 on Parry or Block vs an attack, as you’re essentially trying to “hit” a small, incoming target. It’s not easy!
3) Take a -4 on Dodge too. (That’s not a penalty for weapon size – you’re looking to avoid the weapon, not “hit” and deflect it. It’s a penalty for the inherent difficulty of dodging, moving your whole body instead of an arm.)
4) Under 4e or 3e, you can handle shields normally, letting them add a DB or PD bonus to defenses. But see rules for Shields and Cover and Shields and Size for tweaks you might want to implement. In particular, under 3e where shield PD is high, you might allow its bonus only on a Block.
Example: The above adjustments lower Jim’s TD rolls. His Dodge is 7. His Broadsword Parry is 8. His Brawling Parry is 12 (or 14 using 3e).
Remember that under 3e and FEND, none of these defenses get a PD bonus from Jim’s scale armor!
Attacks and defenses
Roll TH and TD normally.
Example: Jim needs to defend against a sword blow. He can choose from defenses including Dodge 7 or Broadsword Parry 8.
As FEND boosts defense scores, it will make sense in many cases to double TD modifiers. For example, crawling carries a -3 TD penalty; double that to -6. Double the Dodge penalties for encumbrance as well.
However, don’t double bonuses, such as that from Retreat. They’re fine as they are.
Example: If Jim needs to parry a swung sword bare-handed in an emergency, he can use his Brawling skill’s Parry 12. But there’s a -3 penalty to do so; double that to a -6. Jim is left with Parry 6, and risks arm injury if he fails.
If you find some instance in which a doubled TD penalty plays poorly, don’t double it. Use your judgment.
Feints work just as they do now, but with double the TD penalty. For every point of the feinter’s success in the Contest, reduce the defender’s next defense roll by 2.
Example: A foe Feints vs Jim’s Shield skill of 14, and wins the contest by 2. If the foe attacks again immediately, Jim will defend at -4.
The Deceptive Attack maneuver, foreshadowed here and now a part of 4e, is important under FEND as it provides a means for skilled fighters to overcome foes’ high defenses. Use it freely with double the TD penalty:
For every -1 TH taken by the attacker, the defender takes -1 TD.
Defense and size of defending weapon
It’s hard to catch an incoming blow on a small weapon. Double GURPS’ Parry penalty for using a knife or other small object to -2. (Or feel free to leave it at -1 for a large knife, or anything between a regular knife and a short sword in size.)
Conversely, it should be easier to catch a blow using a large item – and it is. That’s why shields add a DB or PD value.
There’s no reason for an attack to follow a separate set of rules when it’s a grapple. Instead of a Contest of DX, why not play a grapple as a normal attack, like this:
1) Roll vs straight DX, Judo, Wrestling, or Sumo Wrestling to hit.
2) If TH succeeds, the defender rolls a Parry, Block, or Dodge normally (based on full skill -4, as above).
Normal TH modifiers (for target size, etc.) and normal defense modifers apply as appropriate. Feints, Deceptive Attacks, and other normal combat rules may be used.
Two-handed grapple: Under 3e, the above TH roll is for a one-handed grapple. For two hands, apply the +3 TH that GURPS suggests.
Or use this alternative: Give the attacker +2 to hit, and the defender -2 to defend (as there are two “weapons” coming in simultaneously from different directions). I don’t know why, but I like this method.
(4e seems to have lost this distinction between grappling with one hand vs two. If you want to bring it back, use the above.)
Comparing things to GURPS
Why did GURPS employ the unusual “skill/2” mechanism for defenses to begin with? Presumably because defenses rolled against full skill playtested poorly. After all, even with skill halved for defenses, gamers complain of too-high “unbeatable” defenses in GURPS, especially before 4e.
And yet, FEND then goes and bases scores on full skill! Lunacy!
It’s true, FEND does raise defense rolls for most skills at a skill level over 14. At the same time, it offers means of keeping TD in check, beginning with the blanket -4 TD on defenses and no use of the flat +3 bonus, plus the doubling of penalties to defense.
The suggested 3e bonus for Fencing, Karate and similar skills with improved Parry is kept modest in FEND. Most importantly, FEND only lets armor boost defense rolls in one limited case (a shield’s PD value adds to Block); armor otherwise does not aid TD. That alone removes a big cause of “unbeatable defenses” in GURPS 3e. Don’t be surprised to see FEND result in lower defense rolls for many heavily armored characters!
See Other Notes below for further suggestions related to Retreat bonuses and encumbrance penalties that can help hold down defense rolls.
Tactics become all the more important with FEND, whose rules multiply the defense-penetrating effects of Feints and Deceptive Attacks.
Even when facing down lesser foes too unskilled to deploy those measures, a cocky Broadsword-20 fighter will find his Parry 16 made worthless by rear attacks, massed attacks, missiles, disarms, tackles, and other common-sense tactics.
Remember that any TD penalty you can inflict upon a foe is generally doubled in FEND. Put on your tactical cap and do your worst.
FEND game feel
FEND increases the defense gap between skilled and unskilled fighters; the difference in TD becomes the same as the difference in TH. That’s good for a heroic feel, in which PCs mow down mobs of scrubs while taking little or no injury. In particular, gamers who unleash feints and Deceptive Attacks on cannon fodder foes should enjoy faster, more decisive victories.
Of course, the same works in reverse. Barring GM pity and fiat, the novice swordsman PC who takes on the blademaster will go down more quickly than ever under FEND. See the notes on tactics above, and choose fights wisely.
Overall, FEND should contribute to a cinematic feel in games with cinematic skill levels. In realistic games that enforce more modest skill levels, FEND produces modest effects not much different from the current game.
Either way, FEND’s effects should be most welcome to players of GURPS 3e, under which defense scores could easily be uselessly low or “unbeatably” high. FEND may seem less necessary under 4e, which takes steps to avoid those extremes of defense scores (and also gives attackers the needed tools to defeat high defense scores). In fact, FEND will reduce defense scores for low-skilled fighters in 4e, an effect you may or may not like. Give it a try and see.
Below are suggestions for the effect of encumbrance on athletic combat skills. (“Athletic” here refers to any skill using full-body movements, whether Karate, Knife, or Polearm, but not skills like Bow or Guns.)
Dodge: Using FEND, encumbrance levels have twice their normal effect on Dodge, e.g., Light encumbrance offers -2, Medium -4, etc.
Martial arts in 3e: GURPS 3e applies a binary “Light encumbrance or better” restriction on some combat skills. GULLIVER suggests a better way, as 4e now does: Use encumbrance level as a skill penalty on these, for all purposes. You can use Karate with Heavy encumbrance, but your skill of 17 becomes a 14, for attack, defense, feinting, damage bonus, or any purpose.
Other combat skills: GURPS applies no encumbrance penalties to other combat skills. As an option, though, apply half encumbrance level as a penalty to other athletic skills (i.e., most combat skills), for all purposes. That’s a marked rules change, but it’s realistic, and provides another small aid in keeping FEND defense rolls reasonable.
Summary: Using FEND, apply twice your encumbrance level as a Dodge penalty. Apply your encumbrance level as a skill penalty to martial arts with encumbrance restrictions (this is a more flexible replacement for the GURPS 3e rule). As an option, apply half your encumbrance level as a skill penalty to all other athletic combat skills.
Options for Dodge
The Dodge calculation remains a GURPS oddity of a statistic that averages two attributes. But that should upset no one; other RPGs use this sort of figured stat all the time.
You are welcome to substitute this with some other calculation of Dodge, but beware of using straight DX – most gamers already find a problem with this one attribute offering too much power, especially in 3e.
Options for Retreat
The Retreat bonus should be left as is under FEND. But in addition, FEND for 3e suggested an optional way of further reducing the Retreat bonus to keep defenses in check (which now happens to be the official 4e method): Use the +3 bonus only for a Dodge, and allow only a +1 for a Parry or a Block.
For either 4e or 3e, there’s one more tweak you could make to limit the Retreat bonus:
To get the full +3 bonus (a Dodge in 3e or 4e, or also a Parry with some skills in 4e), your Retreat must carry you out of the weapon’s Reach; otherwise, the bonus reverts to only +1. This boosts the danger of foes with long weapons!
(A final option to put on top of that: If your Retreat doesn’t take you out of Reach but takes you to a side rear hex, instead of to the rear hex, you can get a +2 bonus instead of the full +3. If you can’t jump out of a long attack’s Reach, you can at least try to sidestep it.)
Defenses and size of the attacking weapon
The -4 penalty to Parry or Block a weapon should technically vary with weapon size, just as GURPS suggests a -3 TH vs a long (two-hex) weapon and -5 TH vs a small (Close) weapon like a knife. An unarmed attack would also be -5 to Parry or Block.
The FEND rules stick with a flat -4 TD for simplicity. Switch to varied modifiers if you want the detail.
Other ways to keep defenses in line
Do you like FEND, but still want a little more aid in taming those high defense rolls? Take a look at the shield-related articles linked to earlier for more ideas, and check out DECIDE as well.
FEND is pretty experimental, and can no doubt use more tweaks (especially for 4e). What do you think?