Intermediate Melee Combat

Happy GURPS-Day to all, and welcome to another post in the “New to GURPS” series!

We’ve seen melee combat a couple of times before, but today I’d like to add a few things into the mix that really add a lot to GURPS combat:

  • Damage Type (p. 269)
  • Hit Locations (p. 399-400)
  • Deceptive Attack (p. 369)

There are a number of damage types (p. 269), each with their own wounding modifier for damage that penetrates DR (p. 379), but crushing, cutting, impaling, and piercing are the ones most likely to come up. Crushing weapons like clubs have no wounding modifier (well, it’s multiplied by 1), so the penetrating damage is unchanged; the penetrating damage from cutting weapons like swords is multiplied by 1.5; and the penetrating damage from impaling weapons like spears is multiplied by 2.

Piercing damage is almost exclusively for firearms, with varying sizes (and wounding modifiers) based on the caliber of the round: small piercing, piercing, large piercing, and huge piercing.

So, the same example attack that rolls, say, 5 points of penetrating damage on the dice to a character, after armor and DR are accounted for, will inflict varying amounts of final injury:

  • Small Piercing (x 0.5) = 5 x 0.5 = 2 points of final damage
  • Crushing, Piercing (x 1) = 5 x 1 = 5 points of final damage
  • Cutting, Large Piercing (x 1.5) = 5 x 1.5 = 7 points of final damage
  • Impaling, Huge Piercing (x 2) = 5 x 2 = 10 points of final damage

That’s a range from 2 – 10 points of damage from¬†the same roll of 5, based¬†solely on the damage type!

At first glance, impaling damage might seem the most effective in melee combat, and against unarmored opponents with no DR it may be. But keep in mind that most impaling weapons base their damage on a character’s thrust damage score, which is usually lower than their swing damage score, the value crushing and cutting are derived from.

Also remember that many weapons can inflict more than one¬†damage type — a shortsword can be swung for cutting damage or thrust for impaling damage, for example, as a broadsword can be swung for cutting damage or thrust for crushing.


As for hit locations, they offer a trade-off — in exchange for a penalty to your attack, you can target specific areas for extra damage or special effects if you do hit.

The Basic Set starts with the Torso, Vitals, Skull, Eye, Face, Neck, Groin, Arm/Leg, Hand/Foot, Weapon, and Chinks in Armor (pp. 399-400). For those who want even more detail, GURPS Martial Arts, p. 137, adds Ear, Jaw, Joints, Nose, Spine, and Veins/Arteries. A few even more specialized locations are sprinkled in other books (the Abdomen, on pp. 102-103 of Low-Tech; the Heart, on p. 30 of Horror; the Pelvis, on p. 15 of Tactical Shooting; etc.)

You may find this sheet helpful as a reminder sheet for many of these locations and their effects.

Finally,¬†deceptive attack (p. 369) is a critical, but often forgotten or missed, combat option. It allows a character to lower a foe’s active defenses against an attack by -1 for every -2 applied to the attack itself. Against a target with very high defenses, it gives a skilled character a slightly better chance of being able to hit.

With all that in mind, let’s see what kind of mischief our current example character, Kerna, can get into.

The patrol Kerna led beyond the outpost came upon a small bandit encampment, which the patrol quickly charged into and attacked — no mercy for outlaws! As she and her men were expecting trouble, or at least prepared for it, she is in full combat gear, including shield.

Having already left two bandits mortally wounded in her wake, she now faces a third, a hulking brute who has stepped into the hex directly in front of her. He is wearing a mail shirt (DR 4/2) over his torso, heavy leather sleeves and leggings (DR 2) on his arms and legs, and wields a bastard sword (at skill 16, 1d+3 imp/2d+3 cut damage) with both hands. He is strong (ST 15), but not particularly tough (HP 12).

Kerna has the higher Basic Speed, so she is able to act first.

Kerna’s first turn

Kerna, HP: 13          Bandit, HP: 12

ATTACK: Attack, Hit Location: Arm (-2)

This bandit seems a notch above his rag-tag compatriots, based on his armor and weapons, and he looks like a bruiser¬†— Kerna hopes to take him out of the fight before he can land a blow. He may have useful information, though, so she chooses to swing at his arm and try to take him alive.

Her Broadsword skill is 15, targeting the arm gives a penalty of -2, leaving her an effective skill of 13. She rolls 3d6 and gets a 12, a possible hit.

DEFEND:¬†The bandit rolls against his Parry of 11 and fails with a 13. Kerna’s attack succeeds!

DAMAGE:¬†Kerna’s broadsword swinging damage is 2d cut, and she rolls a total of 7 points. Subtracting the bandit’s heavy leather sleeve DR of 2 lowers that to 5 points of penetrating damage. However, since this is cutting damage, multiplying those 5 points by the wounding modifier of 1.5 brings it back up to 7.

7 points of damage to the arm is enough to cripple it (requires damage over HP/2). First, the bandit’s HP are lowered from 12 to 5. He has High Pain Threshold, so the shock penalty does not affect him. He does, though, have to make a DX check to avoid dropping his sword (p. 421), and succeeds with a 10. The bandit retains his sword in his left hand, but his right arm is completely crippled and cannot be used.

Because this is a crippling wound, he must also make a HT check against Knockdown and Stunning (at a +3 from High Pain Threshold; see p. 420). His HT is 12, effectively a 15 due to the +3, and he succeeds with a 14.

Player: “This bandit looks like he might know something. I slash at his arm and hope to take him out quick.”

GM: “He attempts to parry your blow but is just a hair too slow. Your sword rips through his leather armor and lays open his right arm to the bone, leaving it tattered and useless. With a scream of pain and rage, he manages to hang on to his sword with his left hand and keep his feet under him.”

Bandit’s first turn

Kerna, HP: 13          Bandit, HP: 5

ATTACK: Deceptive Attack, Hit Location: Torso (default)

Luckily for the bandit, he has the Ambidexterity advantage and can still fight left-handed. But he can see Kerna’s rugged armor and shield, and knows she’ll be a tough nut to crack. He contemplates attacking her neck, which is not protected by armor, but the Hit Location penalty (-5) would lower his skill to 11. It also wouldn’t affect her defenses at all, so even if he attacked successfully she would still likely avoid the blow.

He instead decides to use Deceptive Attack to lower his Bastard Sword skill by -4, from 16 to 12, giving Kerna a -2 penalty to her active defenses against this attack. He rolls 3d6 and gets a 9, a possible hit.

DEFEND:¬†Kerna chooses to Block this attack. Her Block score is 11, with a +2 bonus from her medium shield’s Defense Bonus (p. 287). This brings her effective Block up to 13, but applying the -2 from the bandit’s Deceptive Attack lowers it back to an 11. She rolls 3d6 and¬†barely succeeds with a 10 (see p. 484 if you want to keep track of how much damage a shield itself can take before being destroyed… that seems more of an Advanced rule than Intermediate, though).

GM: “The bandit weaves and dips his sword before swinging straight for Kerna’s chest. She barely manages to get her shield up in time — the attack is successfully blocked, but the power of the blow leaves her arm tingling and her shield rattling.”

Both fighters have completed their first turn, bringing that second of combat to an end.

Kerna’s second turn

Kerna, HP: 13          Bandit, HP: 5

ATTACK: Deceptive Attack, Hit Location: Vitals

Realizing her opponent may be more dangerous than she first thought, Kerna goes for the kill. She wants to target the bandit’s Vitals (-3 penalty), which lowers her Broadsword skill of 15 to 12, and she then lowers it again to 10 with Deceptive Attack to impose a -1 penalty on the bandit’s active defenses. Kerna rolls 3d6 and (barely) succeeds with a 10, scoring a possible hit.

DEFEND:¬†The bandit’s Parry is lowered from 11 to 10 (due to Kerna’s deceptive attack), and he fails the roll with a 12. His whole day is very likely to get ruined.

DAMAGE:¬†Kerna’s broadsword impaling¬†damage (cutting attacks cannot target the Vitals) is 1d+2 imp, and she rolls a 5, for a total of (again) 7 points. Subtracting the bandit’s mail shirt DR of 4 lowers that to 3 points of penetrating damage. However, a successful attack to the Vitals gives impaling damage a x3 wounding modifier instead of the usual x2, so multiplying those 3 points by the wounding modifier of 3 results in 9 points of injury.

The bandit’s HP are lowered from 5 to -4, triggering an immediate HT roll to avoid falling unconscious, which he succeeds at with an 11. It is also a major wound to the Vitals, requiring another HT roll, this time at -5 (p. 420), to avoid Knockdown and Stunning. He fails this roll with an 11 (his HT is 12, his High Pain Threshold gives him a +3 for an effective HT of 15, and the -5 penalty lowers it to a 10). The bandit falls prone, drops his sword, and is Stunned.

GM:¬†“Kerna, you slip your blade past the bandit’s defenses and sink it deep into his chest. He gasps, drops his weapons, and falls to the ground with a dazed look on his face.”

Player: “I stand over him, sword threatening, and bellow, ‘Surrender, dog, and our healer will try to save you in exchange for all you know. Otherwise, prepare to meet the gods!'”


The story could go a few different ways from there, but things are certainly desperate for the bandit. Things are looking good for Kerna and her men!

This exchange was nasty, brutish, and short, but it illustrated some things I think it’s important to know going forward into more and more GURPS-y goodness:

  • Damage Type can make a huge difference on the final damage inflicted
  • Hit Location can too!
  • Deceptive Attack¬†is useful against enemies with very high defenses

I hope you enjoyed this peek at Kerna in action. Next week we’ll pit her in some ranged combat, with probably a lick of magic as well.

See you then!

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  1. Does not High Pain Threshold add +3 to HT rolls to avoid Knockdown and Stunning? If that is the case, then the burly bandit should not have failed his roll to keep standing after Kerna skewered his guts with her blade (his effective HT would be 15, lowered to 10 for the purposes of resisting Knockdown/Stunning from the Vitals).

  2. That aside, your breakdown of options that more experienced GURPS players typically toss into the mix was well written. Combat examples are your bread-and-butter and it clearly shows here.

    Will you be sprinkling in any *cinematic* options in future “New to GURPS” pages, or will everything be kept “plausible yet awesome with a dash of magic”? I can understand why you’d prefer to leave them out, but…one can dream 8-^).

    • Hmm, well… since I’m posting so much more often, I’ll eventually start running out of topics that much sooner, and will need to move on to more cinematic examples?

      Hehe — I’d say I’ve tread the ‘plausible yet awesome’ pretty well. The logical next step is crazier, more cinematic stuff.

      • It seems to me that two examples at the least (one cinematic barehanded martial artist and one cinematic gunslinger) as a sort of “encore” to your main introductory series would help solidly repeal some of the still-lingering stigma that GURPS is realistic (magic aside) and too ornery to shift up to Hollywood-esque type stunts.

        You needn’t even give each of these characters (or more, if you are so gracious!) a full point-by-point breakdown as you have done with Rex and Kerna. Jumping straight to the action with a brief synopsis on how they were built with the options you chose to showcase would also be appreciated.

  3. Wouldn’t the changing of grips from two handed to left handed require a Ready Maneuver? Especially when it is caused by something like the unexpected crippling of the right arm? Ambidexterity shouldn’t make a difference here I don’t think.

    • Hiya, Norris! It certainly wouldn’t be wrong to require a Ready maneuver, but that’s not actually spelled out until the description of Grip Mastery on p. 50 of Martial Arts — I was planning to hold off on “extra” books until the Advanced examples.

      Basic Set mentions a grip change for Tonfa, specifically (p. 209), as a skill check to avoid a Ready maneuver; and for changing Reach (p. 383), which wouldn’t include a bastard sword. But p. 388 says, “The Melee Weapon Table shows which weapons require a grip change and which do not,” by way of an asterisk in the Reach column, and the bastard sword isn’t so marked.

      Certainly, I think either way is a reasonable choice. I may add at least a notation mentioning it.

      The fact that GURPS has optional rules for covering things as “fiddly” and minute as how you’re gripping your weapon is one of the things I love about it. ūüôā

  4. After the bandit’s HP drop to -4, you have him make “an immediate HT roll to avoid falling unconscious”. Shouldn’t he make the roll on his next turn instead?

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