The jaws that bite, claws that catch: grapplin’, wrasslin’, and predator rule

My brother Tom is an engineer and loves tinkering with rules.  I used to bug him about starting a blog or something to post his ideas but he has neither the time nor interest in writing.  He’ll post things on online forums once in a while but that’s it.  So now and again I steal his ideas for house rules and post them here, especially when they are so damn good they ought to be shared.

Most recently we were discussing grappling.

I told him about an idea (source now forgotten — maybe Delta’s D&D Hotspot?) where it was suggested that PCs and monsters roll their level or HD in d6s and add them up.  So if five 1HD orcs try to mob and tackle a 3rd level fighter, the orcs roll 5 dice, the PC rolls 3 dice, and high score wins (orcs get the tackle, fighter breaks free).  Easy peasy.

But what about adding STR mods — surely Hercules should have a better chance than Pee Wee, and all that.  We were ready to ignore STR mods, then hit on the idea of both sides rolling HD (d8s for most monsters, d4, d6, or d8 for PCs in B/X).  Now fighters and dwarves have a decent chance of resisting being mobbed but M-Us will be in a lotta trouble.  We thought about adding a die for each STR mod (up to 3 then) and other tweaks but then Tom suggested using the effective ‘Attack bonus’.  Like d20 and many retroclones and LotFP, I’ve been adopting an AB rather than THACO for my game.  (I base mine directly on Labyrinth Lord’s to-hit progression which is a little kinder to PCs than B/X, and I give monsters an extra +1, so up to 9 HD or so it equals HD+1.)

From an Egyptian mural, about 2000 BCE

House rule: All monsters roll their AB x d6 when grappling (monsters generally get HD+1 as AB).  PCs roll melee or ranged AB (so that STR or DEX mod adds) x d6.  High roll wins the grapple.  If multiple monsters try to grapple a PC (or vice versa) add all rolls together.  A zero level human (or anything else) with a +0 AB gets one die.

While grappled, you can’t cast spells, but you can attack (-4  with a weapon or -2 with a dagger or fist), or try to break free.

If you have grappled someone, you can hold them and go for a pin (test again next round; grappler wins = pin, grapplee wins = break free), or beat on the victim with +2 to hit.  Monsters with rending hands (zombies, etc.) attack while grappling at +4; animals & monsters with claw/claw/bite can make one attack (bite) with an automatic hit. You can also carry off your victim (if strong enough), push them 1 square (5′), deposit them in any adjacent square (5′), knock them to the ground, or switch places (= forcing your way past them).* 

Many predators will carry off a victim to eat at their leisure, but if it struggles too much they may give it a few good shakes (bite attacks) to kill it.

If you lose two such tests in a row you are pinned and helpless.  Predators tend to carry off or kill the victim rather than going for a pin.

Example: Roger the 4th level Fighter is swarmed by three 2HD zombies.  Zombies roll 3d6 each, = 9d6, to grapple him.  Roger gets his melee AB (+3 for being a 4th level Fighter, and +2 for his 16 STR, so +4) = 5d6.  If the zombies roll higher, they have grabbed him and will attack next round (rending with their hands at +4); Roger can try to break free (roll again) or fight back (rolling at -4 with any weapon larger than a dagger, or at -2 with a dagger).  Obviously a lower level PC will quickly be torn apart by zombies.

Example 2: A tiger with 6 HD pounces on Roger.  The tiger rolls 7d6 against Roger’s 5d6.  If the tiger wins, next round it will begin biting, automatically hitting each round.  I hope Roger has some back-up.

Example 3: Five morlocks (2HD) mob Roger, trying to capture him to eat later.  The five morlocks roll 15d6 vs. Roger’s 5d6.  They will almost certainly win.  If he fights back as he is carried, they may stop to pin him and tie him up, or just begin attacking to eat him there.  Poor Roger.

Example 4: Roger and his buddy Gargomel (5th level the Magic-user, 13 DEX, ranged AB=+3) are struggling with their friend Hugh Garse, the Dwarf (level 4, STR 17, AB=+6) who has gone berserk.  They want to just pin him rather than kill him.  They combine their 5 and 3 dice for 8 versus Hugh’s 6 dice.  If they win the first round they’ve grappled him, and next round they could try to pin him.

Example 5: Roger tries to force his way through a line of foes.  He rolls his 5 dice versus the soldier’s 1 die (he is a zero level human). No problem!  If the foes were in a shield wall or other wise “locked together” the DM may make Roger roll against the foe and all adjacent men in the rank, or similar.  Roger wins and switches places with the foeman.

So, I like this rule because it gives me a ‘grappling’ stat without actually adding a slot to the character sheet or a stat to the stat block; and it makes unarmed monsters and animals a lot more dangerous, and encourages players to avoid being surrounded even by minor foes.  I guess you’d want to limit how many kobolds or orcs or ogres can grapple one PC.  I guess about 9 small, six medium, or two large creatures at a time?  One less for small PCs like halflings?




*Yeah, I use minis and a battlemat, which is a constant danger to my old school cred.  If you’re too good for minis, ignore the mention of “squares” and just think “five feet” or something.

Published in: on May 31, 2011 at 6:00 am  Comments (37)  

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  1. Reading left to right, top to bottom, the black guy started it.

    • I don’t know which direction Egyptian writing went but the images do seem to go l-r and top-bottom. I wonder if that was the Egyptian version of a ‘flip-book’. Someone needs to chop up that picture and make it into an animation.

      • Egyptian hieroglyphs can be read either L to R or R to L, and horizontally or vertically. You start at the top corner and read into the faces of the hieroglyphs (they face the start of the line, L or R). It’s pretty easy to tell when they should be read vertically, and they are in blocks within the vertical lines that are read as above. In art, this was used to make messages fit the space available and look good. On papyrus, it was generally written horizontally, R to L, like arabic or hebrew. Also, sometimes symbols are transposed for aesthetic reasons, or to give emphasis to a particular symbol (like the symbol for Re, the sun god, in names).

        • OK so the hieroglyphs up top face left…I think Tom’s reading must be correct…especially since they moves seem to make sense in that order.

  2. I know its probably wrong to praise a rule I came up with but I think this would allow much more horror in the game. Very George Romero. It will certainly put the monster back in monster.

    As far as how many can grapple I would say however are in contact. I guess there would not be much difference for a halfling or a human.

  3. Yeah, that’s slick. Just glued it to my house rules doc. Thanks, man.

    • Cool!

  4. Mike–

    The only thing I’m toying with is some kind of penalty for grappling an armed defender (assuming the attacker doesn’t have natural weapons. Thinking giving the defender an extra die or two depending on whether he’s hold nothing but his, ahem, wand, or a claymore. What do you think?

  5. Make that, “a penalty for the initial grapple attempt.”

    • Yeah, that would make sense.
      say 1d for a hand weapon or shield (both or 2 hand weapons = 2d), and 2d for a two-handed weapon, and maybe 3d for a polearm — it would be pretty hard to get in on a guy with a spear! I’ll give it some tought!

  6. Looking forward to it. I give polearms a big advantage in round 1 of combat, then they’re usless unless from the second rank.

    I gave daggers and knives utility in my game by allotting them armor penetration and a +1 hit and damage bonus in a clinch or if fighting from prone. Kind of acknowledging the heroic action of a knight being knocked on his shiny metal ass, then stabbing the ogre in the foot, or a ranger being lifted by a huge opponent and sticking it into their neck. Minor, but fun.

    • unless fighting indoors I can’t think of any situation at a 6-7′ polearm wouldn’t have the advanatage over any melee weapon.

  7. I right now I would say if you were hit (natural weapon or not) you can’t grapple. It gives a big advantage to a guy with a weapon. That seem right thinking of the Roman arena. Tiger moves in to grapple guy stabs it. Tiger trys again.
    It would make one on one grappling hard too. You have to wait till the guy misses.

  8. Hi, Tom.

    In an organized military front, sure. Until the united front is broken, that is. One on one, Pole weapons lose once someone closes; that’s why everybody in ye ancient times through modern days carries a short stabby weapon for close quarters.

    I have seen this principle demonstrated at the dojo with much shorter and more deadly weapons than a giant pole. The worst thing you can do while armed with a reach weapon of any kind is lose the reach advantage.

    • Hah! Back in our crazy ‘padded weapon fighting’ days I saw Tom use a ‘dagger’ to quickly dispatch a guy with a ‘pike,’ illustrating that point.

      • We always found that all things being equal, the longer weapon is better though!

        I also held off about five or six dudes with a relatively short polearm at a LARP event, but probably they were just afraid of being the one to get hit. They coulda easily swarmed me if they had the balls. But I could see holding off ‘slow Romero zombies’ with a long stick.

        • Well, between you and Tom, now I have to pause for thought. Do you ref halberds and pikes as being useful in general combat because they are light enough to manuever against a guy with a sword? I’m wondering if that means the guy with the much shorter blade doesn’t get any licks in due to being poked and prodded every time he tries to dart inside…

          • Reason I ask is, in my sparring experience, if you either get knocked around by the guy with longer weapon or you close and take it away, disable him, prone him out, etc–not much in between. That’s guided my thinking in application to ancient weapons i haven’t actually seem in action.

  9. I disagree about being hit interrupting a grapple (although I think maybe giving that a chance is interesting). Too many real world cases of people wrestling with gunmen and knife bearing attackers–after being shot or stabbed. People get mauled by bears in my neck of the woods–never heard of anyone being dropped because they fought back. They get left alone after they stop fighting, in general. I’m sure it happens, but I think it goes both ways historically.

    • I would dare say there are many more examples of people being kept at bay by a guy with a knife or gun than there are of guys over powering them. 🙂
      But the initiative system takes care of those cases.
      Round 1 knife guy attacks and hits. Round 2 grappler wins initiative and grapples.

      • No, that’s true–adventurers have a distinct fantasy advantage over flesh and blood reality.

        Yeah, I also agree with what you say about a longer weapon and initiative v grappler below.

  10. Doesn’t that depend on what kind of bear it is? Play dead for black bears but not for grizzlies? or do I have that backwards? I better stay out of the damn woods!

  11. I’ve never had anyone try to skewer me with a polearm, so I can only go by staff fighting and baseball bat/bayonet thrust defenses I’ve practiced. 🙂

  12. “Doesn’t that depend on what kind of bear it is? Play dead for black bears but not for grizzlies? or do I have that backwards? I better stay out of the damn woods!”

    Just don’t smear yourself in jam and your odds are good.

  13. Me vs. Pike.
    I would beat that guy with any weapon combo. I was literally x2 as strong, faster, and much more aggressive. I side stepped the point and with one hand grabbed the pike behind the head. I don’t think I could have done that if you had the pike.

    I think you have to get inside when fighting a pole arms (pikes are the extreme example, I agree they have limited use). But you are far from usless with a pole arm, spear, or staff.

    Just because you get close enough to take advantage of your short length does not mean the guy with a staff weapon will let you stay there. It is easier to back off then gain ground.

    Back to sparing those guys also had rules preventing me from knocking them down with the haft of the polearm.

    • Well, that’s all true.

    • In the game context of all this I wasn’t thinking of spears or staves as being awkward in tight quarters. From what I’ve seen in training, all else being equal, an armed man beats an unarmed man every time. The mechanical advantage of a lever times reach or unyeilding striking surface makes it a case of Not even close.

  14. Everyone Carrying a short sword or knife…
    I think everyone carried a knife for its versatility (eat with it, cut food rope etc). As a weapon a knife and short sword had one advantage. You can carry them with out much bother. You can’t carry a second poleaxe on your waiste.
    Side arms are weapons of last resort.
    I think if you were using a short vs a halberd the thought process was more like this “Oh god, My halberd broke, I am screwed, at least I have a sword”
    rather than “Hmm he has a halberd now I have him!”

    Also every contemporary weapon “master” I have read says a staff beats a sword (musashi), or george silver.

    • Yep, the only fight Musashi ever lost was to a guy with a staff.

  15. Knives and guns
    On second thought these are poor weapons to keep someone at bay with. A knife gives no more reach than a punch. I think I would amend the rule to say a longer melee weapon.

  16. Bears,
    Look in bear attacks there are tons of stories of people fighting back and killing the bear or driving them off. I even read a story of a french woman who drove off a polar bear with a frying pan.

    I love reading about animals and how strong/fast they are but at the end of the day a calm man with a spear will win (if he sees them) nearly every time.

    Look at the roman arena (even the cruel Romans did not think animal vs armed man was a fair fight), the African tribesmen who have rights of passage of killing a lion, even pre-colombian Indians with stone tip spears hunted bears.

    • Your point is taken (pardon the pun) about a calm man and a spear (although I think more often it was probably more like several calm men with spears).

    • Oh, sure I’ve read those types of stories too. Tim Treadwell’s girlfriend tried to drive off a grizzly with a frying pan too. Didn’t turn out so good…

      But yeah, your comments reinforce a historical point–an armed and trained fighting man can hold his own against critters. I’m just not convinced I want to nullify a character or monster’s ability to grapple just because they take damage.

      • One thing for sure it would need play testing. We had 5 pirates try to chuck a 6th level paladin overboard. If they were orcs they would have had 10 dice vs his 8 dice as 0 level fighters they had just 5 dice thus no chance. Mike also pointed out that Fire Giants don’t have an attack bonus equal to thier hit dice. They should be good a grappling.
        I am thinking attack bonus probably is too simple. Maybe it should be HD x a size multiplier.

        • I think a size multiplier makes sense. I already have a rule that a big hit from a giant or similar foe requires a STR or DEX check to avoid getting knocked ass over teakettle. I try not to bog combat with tons of nitpicking rules, but the players have always enjoyed that one as it adds a different feel to combatting humongous foes…

      • Perhaps frying pans only are effective vs polar bears?

        • 🙂

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