Sunday, March 10, 2013

Playing GURPS Gladiators

One thing that happens when you write books and GM a lot face-to-face is you don't get to play your own creations much. I've never actually run my own ninja in DF. I've never gotten to fight against my own monsters. But I can now say I got to play as a gladiator from styles I helped put into 4th edition.

You see, Saturday nights Vlaclav Tofl runs a campaign set in GURPS Fantasy's Roma Arcana, with the PCs as gladiators in a ludus.

So here is an extremely long discussion of the game.

Abstract: I had a lot of fun, it was like Man-to-Man all over again, and it's interesting to see how other GMs roll and other players fight.

How was the game?

It was interesting. I got to play using a pick-up pregen called Marcus Claudius Crassus, a Roman soldier sentenced to the arena to die, assigned the role of Hoplomachus.

I joked that this was a terrible mistake - I've been a GM since I was 9. I'm an expert at running nameless guys meant to just fight and die. ;)

I'd picked another character but someone else who could actually play regularly (and not be a drop-in) wanted him, so Vlaclav asked me to hand him over. Done, I just wanted to fight stuff on a happenstance free Saturday night.

It was nice seeing the rules for overly-flashy strikes, crowd reaction, and Performance in fights in play (all from GURPS Martial Arts: Gladiators pg. 22 especially), GMed by someone else. I wrote that section of the book, and I wasn't sure how they'd play out in the hands of others. They played out well - as long as their is an incentive to take risks to do flashy stuff, it'll happen and it did.

Ironically my character didn't use them - he lacks Combat Art, he lacks Performance, and nothing in his personality suggests he's doing much other than trying to not die. So I played him that way - efficient victory was his aim, and the rare time I tried to be flashy it didn't help (Performance-6 is a hard roll under target on 3d6). He's expected to die for people's amusement but has the Proud perk, so goal one was "don't die" and goal two will be "kill well." At least as I ran them.

We did two rounds - a one-on-one fight with blunt weapons, and then two-on-two with real weapons. No armor in either case.

Round one was my guy vs. Adawolf, a big German. He was lucky it was blunts - I rolled a 3 on a vitals stab with my stick and rolled maximum damage. He's a big beefy dude and shrugged it off. Had it been real weapons he'd have been rolling to stay conscious and badly injured. His tactic was to Evaluate, then close and feint and dual-weapon attack. My tactic was to advance and Wait. This didn't work as well as I'd hoped because of two things - Vlaclav uses Per-based weapon skill for spotting Feints (my Per sucks). The other is that he uses a Contest of Skills mechanic to see who goes first in a Wait. You did this in 3e, and you do with Stop Hits in 4e (when you actually let the guy start to attack and then try to attack into it). But the base rule is just, Waiting guy goes first. So I was expecting to just nail him and I was thrown off when I had to see if I managed to do that - my tactics would have been very different had I known. I got lucky and Crassus got to attack first (and get his critical hit). Basically whenever he attacked, I Dodged. My Parry was good, but my Dodge (while unencumbered) was better, so I Dodged and Retreated.

Eventually I just moved around, Adawolf tried to hit and failed, I hit once again, and our owner got bored and yelled at all and made us stop. Fair enough.

Round two was Crassus and a big sword-armed gladiator against Adawolf and Parmenion, a thraex. Again, no armor but sharps this time. That proved pretty helpful to Crassus - unarmored foes vs. a spear? Heh. This fight was much messier. I'd decided that Wait wouldn't help me much so I didn't bother. I used my mobility to move up and then to the side of the fray. That was an error, because the two foes moved in on my teammate and got in a good hit. It suddenly looked like I'd stranded him. So I basically ran up and All-Out Defense (Increased Dodge)'d, getting between him and one opponent and getting in the face of the other. That kept me in the fray.

Basically I got lucky in that no one got more than one hit on me, and I was able to Dodge and Retreat against everything. I'm essentially a cautious fighter. I used a mix of stabs to the vitals, stabs to the torso, and Telegraphic Rapid Strikes to the torso when people were wide open. I know I got Adawolf at least once that way (vitals stab) and perforated Parminion the Thraex that way, too. Once Adawolf was bleeding badly, and Parminion was playing "roll Death checks until you fail!" the boss called a stop. Yeah, better to preserve your valuable fighters for a real show, not just a drop-in visitor who wanted to see some blood (the ostensible reason for our fray).

Generally, though, I felt totally comfortable fighting. I'd played so many hours of Man-to-Man, and then even more of map-based Advanced Combat/Tactical Combat in GURPS 1e-4e, that this was old hat. Skill 15 guy with low damage and shitty armor and moderate stats? Bring it! You're playing in my playground now buddy. It was "The rebels have to seize the armoury before the guards can blow the horn" all over again (old MTM reference.) Flat field, low-skill guys, and death spirals = how we spent our teen years when no one had cars ready for Car Wars.

How is it being GMed in your own creations?

I generally follow a simple rule - the GM is right. If the rules say X and the GM says Y, the rule is Y.

This generally goes well, since it keeps play moving and doesn't make having the guy who helped write some of those rules a big hassle. Seriously, if I wrote Rule A and it says X, and the GM says no, in my game it's Y, then it's Y. I try to only pipe in with actual rules questions - "What's the modifier for Fit on Death checks?" or "How much does Retreat give me?" And I'm happy to explain how a rule is meant to work, if that's the question.

I did argue once, when the GM told me I couldn't move a certain way and I knew I could, but we sorted that out. It wasn't "I don't run it that way" it was "It costs X to do that" but how Roll20 shows movement made it look like I was doing something I wasn't. GURPS makes you face into a hex as you move in, using Move, but you can't simultaneously turn and move your piece, so it looked like I was either side-stepping or turning, then stepping, then turning. Just an interface oddness that lead to "you can't do that." He's right, I can't, but Roll20 wouldn't let me show what I was actually doing.

On the other hand, I did let something go by that the GM didn't intend to do. In 3e you rolled stunning and knockdown rolls separately. Now it's one roll - you get knocked down and stunned. I'd assumed it was a house rule (lots of people like the 3e version, including me), not a 3e-ism. A 3e-ism? When you remember a rule from 3e that isn't actually in 4e, like my players do with Wild Swing vs. Move-and-Attack or calling DB PD and using the wrong numbers for shields. Oh well, I'd have done even better if it was both, as I inflicted a stun on everyone I fought at least once.

Oh, and I did like that - like me! - he wants people to state their action before they execute (or roll) their actions. I know why people don't, but seriously, it makes it easier as the GM to track what should happen.

How about the rules?

Death spirals suck when it happens to you but not when you do it to someone else. Plus it's realistic, sadly - one good hit can put you into a position where all you can do is choose how you lose.

This was my first time using Evaluate. No one bothers in my games. I kind of see why - +1 isn't that helpful compared to "I'm hitting him." It's useful but I'm not convinced it's for me just yet.

I forgot to use Telegraphic Attack the first time I had someone All-Out Attack near me. I didn't forget again.

All-Out Attack is ridiculously dangerous one-on-one. It's almost silly one-on-many. I made two people who tried it near me pay for it. One had no choice (he was getting mauled, and his AOA let him deal some serious damage to my teammate before he went down) but it's really worth thinking "Can any of the other guys get to me this turn?" If the answer is yes, be wary. I deliberately moved in the 4-man brawl to ensure I could choose who to attack as often as I could do it. Keep your options open. Be aggressive but don't be aggressive until there is an opening. Forcing one gets you killed.

I feinted someone but he ran away. This was actually what I wanted to happen - I wanted him to move away so I couldn't get double-teamed and neither could my teammate. If he'd stayed I'd have taken advantage but I would have had a hard time if someone forced me to retreat in the meantime.

I liked the Per-based spotting of Feints. GURPS assumes that weapon skill stays on DX for Feints because you can react well to a feint even if you are out of position initially. Per-based feints also have the oddness that the less well you perceive things, the easier you are to trick out of position with a feint. So guys who see the best spot the feint, guys who see very poorly (or can barely see at all) fall for feints. I can already here the arguments at my table ("I look away and then look back, negating his feint!" "Guys, seriously . . . " "What, it makes sense!") Still, I like the idea that Per matters in combat, and it makes enough sense and adds enough fun to pass the "actual play" test.

It was fun actually using Extra Effort in Combat. I've offered that to my players more than once and no one has even bothered with saying no. They just don't care to use it. So I never get to actually play in fights that matter that use it. It's nice, and it was helpful, but it didn't change anything for me. It just let me get off a few extra stabs I might not have otherwise, most of which didn't tell anyway. Well, the last one did, but in a short fight with assured recovery after, it was kind of like free penalty reductions for not much change in the fight.

How is Roll20?

Every single time I use Roll20 in a Hangout I have problems. Last night I got booted, my PC locked up trying to get Firefox back up, I needed to reboot (maybe not need, but I did it), and then I needed to use Chrome. Then I couldn't get Roll20 to pop out into a separate window. Then I couldn't get it to stop displaying giant icons for everyone over the battlemap. I was on a 15.6" laptop with about 1" x 2" of vision of the actual play area. Annoying.

Overall I had fun, and while I doubt I can make it often I might try to drop in when I can, if only to watch and learn how other people fight. Vlaclav is a good ref and he's remarkably patient with crappy mics, misunderstood statements, and connection problems. Nevermind cautious "win ugly but win" gladiators run by GURPS writers.


  1. Sounds awesome! I wish I could have joined in last night!

  2. Thank you for a nice rewiev.
    There are few things I messed up a little and threre are some I didn't make my mind about before the game (stun/knockdown) and therefore it went into discussion.
    The thing with Roll20 and movement is a little problem, but the solution is to release the token with each step/facing change, so you can count out loud ...
    I have also brougt some house rules and tinkered the Martial Arts: Gladiators rules a little bit for this campaign, based on my likings and also profession (I'm stage combat performer/choreographer). Only thing I didn't expect was the co-autor of the book to join my game, but when you finaly made it to the Hangout (man 5 attempts I was loosing my patience a little), it was a pleasure to have you there a correct me time to time.

    1. Well, even the authors don't care if you change things. I was just surprised when I used my favorite tactic and it didn't work the way I expected it to. But deliberate changes are fine, I mean, it's your game.
      Just wait until you start grappling in a session that Doug is at, that's all. ;)

      As for Hangouts, thanks for your patience. It was really a big problem for me yesterday, and I was annoyed to find all my settings are game-dependent. So my plethora of macros, setting choices, screen layout changes, etc. for GURPS Midgaard weren't available in GURPS Gladiators Arena. I need to figure out how to make my own portable "Roll20 setup" package and then make sure it works in Firefox.

    2. the tactics thing ... that's something I should have told you guys before we got started: delcaring wait "I ll attack when he comes to my reach" I always run the quick contest of skills "who attacks first?" when the reach is same and the movement is more or less same; declaring wait "I wait, bracing my weapon for Stop Thrust", you go first automaticaly. I dont remember exactly what happened during the session but I think you did a step-and-wait so I didn't even think you would go for stop thrust, because of the step.
      Thats how I see it work best, otherwise you fall into a disscussion about "intentions vs. form of declaration"

    3. Stop Thrust is interesting, because it says you go first if you have a longer weapon, but that's just there to make it clear that a shorter weapon on a Stop Thrust can be overtaken by a longer weapon. But the RAW is clear that it's your interruption that goes first unless the opponent is too far to trigger it (a longer weapon can do that). I for one like that, because my high-skill PCs back in the day used to just ignore people waiting, because they knew they'd almost certainly win the contest and kill them before their action took place. Wait was a good way to throw away your turn against a higher-skill opponent.

      I'm not arguing your house rule, though. The GM is always welcome to make any rule he or she wants, regardless of what the books say. It might be that you want precisely the effect that GURPS 4e changed the rule to avoid. Just saying, it's not what I was expecting.

    4. yep .. I see what you mean and no, I don't think you are arguing, I take it as a exchange of opinions..
      Here is what we did wrong (my fault again, should have had that studied before):
      Actualy there should not be any step, when declaring the wait manuever. One should declare trigger and action that will do when his wait gets triggered. Then, when the wait is triggered, he does the move. This way he steps into a reach before the foe, so automaticaly attacks first, because interupts foes' move, by his action action, not foes' attack.

    5. I forgot about that. I long ago ruled you could take the step first, as I can't see how it unbalances anything. It does change things of course.

      So how you'd run it is that if you stand still, it's a contest, but if you Wait and then step up, it's not?

  3. Player: I look away and then look back, negating his feint!

    GM: In that case, he just thwacks you. No defense.

    Player: Dude, seriously....

    GM: What, it makes sense!

    1. Heh. Mostly I'd just expect them to wonder why their can't use their own skill and reflexes (DX-based weapon skill) to negate the feint. I know you can say, that's Parry, but it's all fairly arbitrary decisions about what is "reflexes" and what is "knowledge."


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