Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Melee Academy: Opening Moves

Today is an installment of Melee Academy. It's a look at the melee weapons and tactics used in RPGs, and it's aimed at being educational. What do you do, and why do it? Why is it a good move?

Today's installment is about opening moves.

Open more at:

Gaming Ballistic

Mailanka's Musings


My favorite opening move is a thrown weapon attack.

D&D and Swords & Wizardry

I probably started really thinking of throwing weapons as a fight-starter from a Dragon magazine article on tactics, although there is a weapon thrown in the example combat in the D&D Basic Set, too.

The main reason here is that combat is fairly abstract, yet closing distance still matters. With a thrown weapon, you can really reach around the battlefield. Plus, it's not as dependent on range as a missile weapon. Let's look at the benefits I find in particular:

Range - It doesn't matter where you are if your foes are within range when the fight starts. Got a clear line of fire and an enemy? Throw at him.

By the book in Basic Set D&D, ranged attacks go after you move, so they're really only useful if your foes are outside the movement range of your buddies. If you can charge in and all reach the bad guys, well, why not do that? But I've played D&D-based games which do all ranged fire first, so you've got a chance to shoot before any movement occurs.

More Targeting Options - You've got a better shot of the GM allowing you to target the orc wizard in the back ranks or the ogre chieftain that's rallying the goblin hordes with a ranged weapon. This isn't always the case, but I'd rather have the ability to reach around the battlefield on the off chance it'll help.

Dual Use - Most thrown weapons are excellent melee weapons - often with identical stats. You aren't really caught with the wrong weapon in hand, like you are with a bow or crossbow or sling. This also means you've got a shield or another weapon or an ogre's head converted to a weapon in the other hand.


I like thrown weapons in GURPS, as well. I wrote a whole Weapons & Tactics article on them a while back.

I'll refer you to that for the details. But in general, the options match the ones for D&D and S&W. It's especially nice in GURPS where the amount of movement you can execute before a melee attack is pretty small - very small if you want to retain all of your own defenses! If you can put an axe, a spear, or even a rock into a foe long before melee occurs you might swing the fight in your favor before it really begins.

They do have some downsides that aren't found in D&D-based games, though:

Defenses - It's only a -1 to parry most thrown weapons, and -2 for the small ones. No penalty to Block, either, and it's no penalty to Dodge. Ranged Feint (in GURPS Martial Arts) can reduce Dodge but a shield-armed foe is a terrible target for a ranged weapon. I have to stress this because I've seen a lot of people confidently throw an axe at some foe with no Feint, no Deceptive Attack, and no defensive penalties inflicted at all and then be really disappointed when the foe defends. Just because most people just flinch and cover their face in a snowball fight doesn't mean the orc with the shield is going to do that when you chuck a spear at his vitals.*

Readying Time - You need to have Fast-Draw or a lot of space if you're going to toss your weapon. One second isn't long in life but it's an eternity in life-or-death. You don't want to be standing around readying a weapon while your opponent is killing you and your friends.

Weight - If it's a foe-killing thrown weapon, it's not going to be light. GURPS has more finely-grained encumbrance so this can be an issue.

But the upside of a successful thrown weapon strike - when you get a critical hit or the foe fails to defend, or if you catch someone unprepared for your attack - can be spectacular. GURPS is pro-death spiral, and a foe with an axe in his leg or a knife in his face is a foe who is less able to fight you. Consider keeping a dual-use weapon like a hatchet, axe, or spear out in the hands and opening the fight with a throw.

* I do have an idea or two to address this, for GURPS Martial Arts and DF. Stay tuned tomorrow . . .


  1. You can combine rapid strike with.dual weapon attack for thrown f too. Instead of few heavy foe-killers, many light foe-maimers seems better. Put them in the face. Minimum 1 damage anyway.

    1. That's a very skill-intensive opening move, however. You stack -4 for off-hand, -4 for DWA, -6+ for Rapid Strike. Even reduced by purchasing techniques and by TBAM or WM, you're looking at highly penalized attacks. Adding Face (-5) and range (better than -0, or you're already in melee) and it's a low-percentage tactic. It's really meant for high-skill, high-power, high-action martial arts games and the skill penalties are more reasonable in such a setting.


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