The other day a thread came up on the SJG forums that questioned how feints work. Naturally and inevitably for the forums, the thread derailed into the "feints are marginal, all-too-random, and useless anyway" subtopic. I totally disagree, but I realized it's worth discussing the strategy and utility of Feints. Some people that aren't using them just might not be aware of good tactics you can use to take advantage of them.
This post will work well with GURPS Basic Set, but it does assume some familiarity with the rules and options from GURPS Martial Arts, especially under Feints, p.100-101, and Feints and Multiple Attacks p. 127
Feints are a maneuver in GURPS that allow you to pit your skill vs. your opponent's skill in a Quick Contest, and if you win, your opponent's defenses are lowered by the margin of success. Pretty simple. But when to use them, and how to leverage that most effectively, isn't necessarily simple.
When to Feint
The short version: Feints are valuable and useful whenever your skill exceeds that of your opponent, and yet you aren't able to reliably penetrate his defenses just by using Deceptive Attack, and/or there are non-trivial costs to attacking repeatedly (Parry U weapon, weapons that need re-readying such as double-dagger notation weapons). Those, in a nutshell, are cases where Feinting is a potentially useful tactic.
The first part is critical - Feint is a way to leverage superior skill to lower defenses. Without that, the odds that it won't do anything at all are too large to make it a reliable tactic.
Some specific cases are especially good for using Feint:
- Where your opponent's defenses don't track directly to skill. Dodge is fully skill-independent. Opponents who rely purely on Dodge may also have low combat skills, making them especially vulnerable to feints. Additionally, opponents who have high defenses because of mudane equipment (shields add DB 1-3), room to retreat (+1 to +3, depending on the defense and the skill involved), magical or superscientific defenses (the Shield spell gives DB 1+), and so on. Direct active defenses bonuses contribute to this: Combat Reflexes (+1), the various Enhanced Defenses traits (+1 or more), or spells like Defending Shield
- Opponents who are hard to hit in the first place, reducing the opportunity to use Deceptive Attack. Small foes (if using relative SM in melee), foes with supernatural hit-reduction defenses (the Blur spell), when coupled with solid defenses, can be a problem. Feint is useful to reduce defenses without reducing your chance to hit in the first place.
- A Feint makes a great setup for a high-value target like chinks in armor, any eye attacks, skull attacks, neck, or veins or arteries. Since those targets have a high (-5 to -10) penalty to hit, they naturally reduce the amount of Deceptive Attack you can use, but since Feint is done prior and separately, you can reduce defenses without reducing your chances to hit.
- You can't attack over and over. With a weapon that needs be be re-readied (such as a double-dagger weapon) or has Parry U (and you need that Parry), a successful Feint will make it harder for your opponent to stop your attack when you make it.
- You need to ensure a hit soon and can't either wait for a bad defense roll or a critical hit. This tends to be a tactical consideration vs. a weak but well-positioned foe.
- Your allies can attack the foe multiple times, reducing his choice to defenses to less optimal ones, which your Feint can further reduce. This is good against high-Parry or high-Block foes with a mediocre Dodge, usually in a case where their high defenses are disproportionally high for their skill.
- You have multiple attacks, so the Feint applies to all of them and magnifies its effects. The rules on Feint and Multiple Attacks (Martial Arts, p. 127) allow you to trade off one part of a multiple attack as a Feint, making this extremely valuable for fighters with Extra Attack, or using Rapid Strike. If you have Extra Attack without Multistrike, you must attack with different weapons . . . but a Feint isn't an attack, exactly, so it's reasonable to assume you could Feint and then Attack with the same weapon using the rules on MA p. 127.
- Your opponent has been injured and is suffering Shock (p. B419) but is not stunned: the -1 to -4 for shock reduces DX for skill rolls, and thus can be converted into a potential defense penalty with a timely Feint.
- When your opponent is using Sacrificial defenses to Parry, Block, or Dodge for a target. Reducing the defenses of the "defense umbrella" can reduce the defenses of multiple foes at once, effectively!
In all of those cases, the basic summary applies: They are cases where your skill exceeds your foe's, and there is some reason not to just reduce skill directly to lower defenses directly.
Why not just Deceptive Attack?
Another effective way to reduce an opponent's defenses is Deceptive Attack. It always works, and doesn't pit your skill vs. your opponent's in a roll of the dice.
But while Deceptive Attack is certain, it is limited. It is always 2:1, trading 2 skill for a -1 for your opponent to defend. Feint is random and may result in no penalty, but any success is on a 1:1 basis. Also, Deceptive Attack and penalties to defend from being feinted stack. A defender who is already defending at a penalty due to Feint can have his defenses reduced to nearly-automatic failure with a high-end Deceptive Attack.
While a Deceptive Attack is useful regardless of your opponent's skill, a Feint comes into its own when your skill is better . . . or where attacking costs you something that Feint does not.
When Not To Feint
Feint is flat-out not worth doing in some cases.
- Your opponent has a higher skill than you. In this case, you're better long odds you will roll much better than your opponent.
- Your opponent's defenses are not very good. In this case, Feint is largely wasted. Don't Feint versus a Berserker, or an opponent who is routinely turning his back on you.
- You need to Telegraphic Attack to follow up. Telegraphic Attacks cannot benefit from a Feint.
- Your opponent has a reliable supernatural defense that cannot be reduced by Feint. Feint versus a wizard depending on his Blink or Phase spell isn't helpful unless you can launch multiple attacks you are certain will hit, because his magical defenses will simply ignore the Feint.
In cases like the above, a Feint just isn't going to work or matter if it does, and it is best avoided.
There are a number of Feint variations in GURPS, too.
Beat - use this when your ST exceeds your DX, your opponent is using contact-based defenses (Parry, Block and not Dodge), you've grappled, or you are using contact-based defenses. Also, note that it's limited to a single defense (Block or Parry) but anyone can take advantage. This is a good way to leverage your ST-based skill advantage vs. an opponent to allow other people to pile on! A beat by a strong fighter can open up an opponent and allow others - such as Melee-spell mages in a fantasy game, or skilled grapplers, or allies with armor-piercing weapons (or a stake when you're vampire hunting) to get in there and do their thing. This is especially useful if your opponent is using a two-handed weapon or a two-handed parry (Wrestling) and has nothing but Dodge to fall back on.
Ruse - use this when your IQ exceeds your DX. Be careful using it against high-Per defenders as they can swap in IQ, Per, or DX to resist it.
Defensive Feint - instead of lowering your opponent's defenses, you lower his chances to hit. This rarely comes up, because generally if you're skilled enough to feint someone you're generally better off using that offensively. But this is a good tactic if:
- you have limited defenses to draw on, or only penalized defenses to draw on. A high-skill knife fighter versus a heavy weapon fighter, for example, can't even attempt to parry . . . but might be able to mitigate the problem by making it less like he gets hit in the first place. A low-Dodge but high-Parry defender vs. a weapon that can't (or just shouldn't) be parried can benefit here.
- you can't hurt your opponent. Either from poor weapons at hand, high enemy defenses, or just needing to ensure the target doesn't get hurt (at all or by you), this option lets you make it unlikely you'll get hit in the process.
- you need to make sure you are missed. Sometimes, even a successful defense isn't enough (or you don't want to have to make one for some reason).
Like any other feint, this is only useful if you feel your skill can top your opponent's by enough to make it a better choice than All-Out Defend. Because of the AOD option, it has a higher bar to hurdle before it's useful - if you can't be relatively sure of a margin of 6+ you should probably AOD instead.
Perks & Techniques & Feints
The Teamwork perk (Martial Arts p. 52 or Perks p. 8) allows you to do a Feint or Ruse on behalf of a teammate. The similar Pack Tactics perk (Technical Grappling p. 30) allows the same. Note that Beat doesn't get affected, but it also doesn't need to - Beats already work for anyone, but only work for one specific defense at a time.
And in case it doesn't go without saying - if you are in a campaign that uses Techniques and you intend to use this tactic often, learn the Feint technique (Martial Arts p. 73). You can turn 5 character points into a +4 to make and resist feints with a given combat skill.