Monday, January 9, 2017

Review: Dungeon Grappling

Periodically I review gaming materials, generally ones I liked. This is one of them. I'm not an unbiased reviewer - I'm a contributor, playtester, and I backed this on the Kickstarter. I was in on the original idea (something like, "we need GURPS Martial Arts: Technical Grappling for S&W using just the existing stats" which lead to the original article that Doug took, expanded, rewrote, revised, and otherwise re-did into this expanded book. It's spun off, partly, from the author's Dragon Heresy project, and it's a good sign of things to come.

If you like reviews, please see my reviews page.

by Douglas Cole
Released in 2017 by Gaming Ballistic
48 pages
$15 in POD Softcover, $7.25 in PDF

Grappling is pretty awesome.

"Bonegnasher had the monster in a deadly hug, right arm crushing its windpipe, left its ribs. It was supposed to have the strength of a dozen natural leopards. In Bonegnasher's arms it was helpless. The Taken laughed, took a bite from its left shoulder."
- Glen Cook, The Black Company, p. 269

Grappling in D&D-based games, though, generally has not been awesome. From the odd mini-game like subsystems of AD&D to the "use at your PCs own risk" system of Swords & Wizardry, grappling hasn't really been that great.

Enter Dungeon Grappling. This is a supplement for retro-clone sets (centered on Swords & Wizardry), Pathfinder, and D&D5.

Pretty much what this book does is change grappling from either a yes/no option (you're grappled, you're not) or a complex subsystem (roll on the grappling table!) and integrate it the basic attack/effect rolls of the underlying systems. It works like so:

- Roll to hit, if you do:
- Roll effect.
- Compare the total amount of grappling effect you inflicted (much as you'd roll damage for a strike) to the target's Control Maximum,
- Determine the effect on the target.

For example, Swords & Wizardry's system uses the HP of the target to determine how much control you need. 10 HP? 10 Control Maximum (although there is another system that is based on size and HD, if you prefer - both work seamlessly with the system). Inflicted, say, between 1/4 HP and 1/2 HP on the target? The table says you have "Grappled" the target. This causes certain penalties on the target, all logical ones (movement and agility is limited, for example) and all appropriate to the system.

If even that seems too complex for you, there is a way to bypass the math of comparing your effect roll to the target's CM and just inflict conditions directly. This, too, works smoothly and easily.

There are also a series of rules you can use to turn that grapple into something more than just a hold for penalties - the Grappling Techniques chapter. These include throws, locks, chokes, using the grapple to get extra damage (pull the guy onto your sword!), wrench something out of your foe's grasp, etc. It covers dragging someone around and getting dragged around. Spells that inflict grapple-like conditions are also integrated into the system.

Using this will take some work. While there are examples and tables to speed it along, any monster that grapples and any PC that does that same (or is grappled) need to have their grappling effect (damage roll, basically) determined, a CM generated (if not just using HP), and tactics thought out. It is more complex than the systems in place for most games. However, it also makes those grappling situations more interesting, in my play experience, and doesn't cause a slowdown of play out of proportion to the extra interest it brings along. It's 52 pages, but it covers multiple systems so it's not adding as much weight of rules as you might think given the length.

Visually, the book is very attractive. The art is full-color and plentiful. It just looks nice. Not only that, but it's layered in the PDF - you can turn off the art and text to make an easily readable and ink/toner-saving printout.

Overall, this is a great product and it is very attractively done. Highly recommended.


  1. As you say, you're not biased, but thanks for the excellent review. One nitpick: you're Grappled if you go from 1/5 to 1/2 of Control Maximum (though your statement that you're grappled if you're at 1/4 to 1/2 is accurate).

    In play and playtest, I noted that the Control Maxima were a bit higher than the original Dragon Heresy version, and that it could take a bit too long to get out of "Grabbed." So I tweaked that threshold downwards a tetch.

    1. (It's hyperlinked too, by the way. You can double-click most page entries in the ToC and Index and jump right to the page in question. Finding broken and "why don't we have . . . ?" hyperlinks is what's part of the pre-print and pre-final timing over the next two weeks as I get a print proof done)

  2. I dont get all the complex grappling rules - why not just opposed str checks?

    1. I don't get them either, which is why I like this book.

      The thing about opposed STR rolls is:
      - S&W doesn't do that.
      - You still need to determine what happens as a result of that STR roll.
      - You'll need a STR stat for everything and know it offhand.
      - You'll have potential trap for the attacker if bad things happen to the loser of the opposed roll, while attack rolls don't do that.

      The thing about using the "to hit" rules like for strikes, and effect roll that mimics damage, and condition effects that mimic conditions and results of failed saving throws for grappling is that all of that exists in the system. The complexity, in a way, is being removed and replaced with something that matches how these systems do damage-causing strikes and do spells and conditions on characters.

    2. Peter catches a lot of the important points here. I also think that the basic question covers more ground than it seems:

      * Why employ two mechanics when you can use one, and which one to use? (Mechanical)
      * Why should grappling be treated as a red-headed stepchild and dismissed in terms of interest, and potential cool story possibilities? (Narrative)

      Leaving out that I wanted to make a cross-edition ruleset that was also internally consistent with how attacks are handled from the first edition of the rules to the fifth, here are 3 mechanical reasons for doing it the way I did it:

      1) Everyone learns 1d20+bonus vs AC as the basic hit mechanic. Deviating from this is where the additional complexity starts
      2) 1d20 - 1d20 (opposed rolls) is about half-again (square root of two) more variable than 1d20-10 (the basis of an attack roll). I already find 1d20 almost unbearably swingy as-is, so adding more variability on hitting does not add more fun.
      3) Opposed STR checks still beg the question of how you resolve effects, and on what basis.

      I could probably expand all of the design decisions I made into a blog post, but then, I already talked about a lot of the design stuff in Round Table #146:

      So "opposed STR rolls" has strikes against it even beyond what Peter pointed out is a basic premise in Dungeon Grappling: one mechanic that's common to striking, that can be used across nearly any edition, and is fully supported *in the systems I included in the book*, which has to be in there.


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