Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Martial Arts Analysis: Force-Swordsmanship

Force Swordsmanship

Mace Windu w Lightsaber
For many Star Wars fans, the Jedi is Star Wars (there's a subset for whom it's all spunky princesses, loveable rogues and bounty hunters, and for them, there's Firefly), and the Jedi has two arrows in his quiver: the Force, and his lightsaber. For Psi-Wars, we've used Psionic Powers and Communion to cover the Force. The force sword and Force Swordsmanship covers the lightsaber.

But what does Force Swordsmanship actually do, how does it play, and does it actually look anything like how Jedi actually fight? Let's take a look, on page 209.


Forceswordmanship has 4 skills: Acrobatics, Force Sword, Force Sword Art, and Pary Missile Weapon. It has 6 optional skills: Armoury (Force Sword), Fast-Draw (Force Sword), Jumping, Karate, Savoir-Faire (Dojo) and Wrestling. Our cinematic skills are Blind Fighting, Body Control, Flying Leap, Kiaia, Mental Strength, Power Blow and Precognitive Parry.

The Force Sword skill is obvious: It allows us to use the Force Sword to attack and parry. It is the meat and potatoes of Force Swordmanship.

Force Sword Art requires a little more attention. Introduced on page 55 of Martial Arts, Combat Art skills represent flashy flourishes and combat technique designed to look good rather than to be effective. Combat skills and Combat Art skills default to each other at -3, though it rules that we can waive that penalty in a highly cinematic game. Thus, everytime a Jedi spins lightsaber or glides through a beautiful kata, he is using Force Sword Art. GURPS Martial Arts: Gladiators suggests that Combat Art skills can be used as a complementary skill to Performance rolls. I think it's reasonable to suggest that they can be used as complementary rolls to Intimidation attempts in combat.

The real problem with Force Sword Art is how to treat its default. A character is required to take every skill in a martial art to “know” it. Thus, a character must spend at least one point in Force Sword Art. But if a character has something like Force Sword (A) DX+4[16]-16, he already has Force Sword Art at 13 for free, and he needs 4 points to raise it one level, and for those four points, he's better off raising Force Sword. Hmm. If we make the default the same (that is, we waive the penalty), then any Space Knight with a Force Sword can swing it around in a dramatic manner and scare people a little.

Acrobatics allows the character greater mobility, and a superior dodge. Martial Arts has an optional rule allowing for acrobatic parries, and Action 3 recommends we use it, so we shall. We also have the option of making an Acrobatic Attack, which means we can make an Acrobatic move, apply the bonus to our defense, and still attack. This perfectly fits the flashy nature of lightsaber combat.

Finally, we have Parry Missile Weapon. I've seen some confusion about this skill, and had it myself. On page B376, it clarifies that any skill can parry melee or thrown weapons. You don't need Parry Missile Weapon to stop a shuriken. You can parry arrows with Parry Missile Weapon, or bullets or beams at -5, if you have ETS. Precognitive parry states that you can parry bullets and beams without ETS, period. Does that mean you can parry them with just Force Sword? That's what it says, but it seems to imply that it removes the need for the Parry Missile Weapon to have ETS. It doesn't say if it still applies a -5 (I presume not). To me, it seems the intent of including this skill is to allow you to parry beams and bolts.

For optional skills, Armoury covers the Jedi's ability to make his own force sword (which is referenced in the description of Force-Swordmanship as a prerequisite for Weapon Master damage bonuses and Power Blow). Jumping probably refers to the fact that Jedi do jump around a lot. Arguably, even characters with Flying Leap or Super Jump still need to make Jumping rolls to land well. Karate shows up in the Phantom Menace, as Darth Maul loves to kick his opponents (he kicks Obi-Wan twice, and lands a blow both times). This is a fool-hardy move against characters with a force sword... unless we're using Unarmed Etiquette, and we are. In that case, it becomes an interesting tactic. Karate also covers pummeling, that is, striking your opponent with the hilt of the force sword. Wrestling shows up in the Empire Strikes Back, where Darth Vader literally grapples and shoves Luke. The description suggests that this technique is more about defending against other grapplers, as the force sword itself is usually your best offense and defense.

Most of the Cinematic Skills seem to be patches for powers (see the Kung Fu Space Knight for an example of Jedi created using nothing but Cinematic Skills). Blind Fighting represents Luke's ability to attack/defend “with the blast shield down.” Body Control is likely intended to represent Obi-Wan and Yoda's extreme meditation capabilities, but fits with Kylo Ren's attempt to keep himself going after being hit by a bowcaster. Flying Leap covers a Jedi's high-flying antics. Kiai is an odd choice... Jedi do not generally shout. Perhaps this is a holdover from Kenjutsu? Mental Strength also suits the psionic warrior, as he would want to resist any attempts to manipulate his will. Note that Mental Strength also assists you during contests of wills. Power Blow is discussed in the description of Force-Swordmanship, and while I can point to not specific example of someone obviously doing a Power Blow in Star Wars, Jedi seem to be able to focus, and then inflict a ridiculous amount of damage that most fans have taken to mean that a lightsaber is a singularly destructive weapon, when it could just be that the Jedi was doubling or tripling damage (average damage: 56(5) and 84(5)!) while ripping apart tanks or robots. Finally, we have Precognitive Parry, which is probably the single most important skill for a Jedi, but also my least favorite. A psionic space knight who wants to make an acrobatic precognitive parry may well end up rolling for Combat Sense (+level to defense), then acrobatics (+2 to defense) then Precognitive Parry (to be allowed to parry), and then Parry Missile Weapon (for the parry itself). That's 4 rolls to determine if you parried or not.


Force-Swordsmanship has Feint, and several targetted attacks (Swing at Neck, Arm or Leg) as techniques. For Cinematic techniques, we have dual-weilding techniques, dual-weapon defense, and whirlwind attack.

Feint, from the description, isn't actually feint, but a beat (see MA 100) where the force-swordsman whacks his opponent's weapon out of the way. That's a sensible tactic, as attacking your opponent's weapon with a force sword is a sure way to destroy it, and if they have a force sword, it can knock it out of line. Arguably, we see this sort of thing all the time in Star Wars, with Jedi slamming their sabers into one another and trying to push one another out of line so they can make an attack. But Martial Arts has no way to differentiate a Feint from a Beat or a Ruse, and a Beat uses ST, while most characters will have higher DX, making a Feint preferable to a Beat. This is problematic if we want to bring the Beat front and center.

Targetted attacks similarly cause an interesting problem. In principle, they make sense: given the lethal destructiveness of a force sword, why bother to go for the highly armored torso when you can just lop limbs off instead? But we have two problems. First, Force-Swordmanship defines these attacks as swings, but force swords don't swing, they just attack and inflict 8d(5) damage, period. We can picture some attacks as swings and others as thrusts, but mechanically, there is no difference. Furthermore, force swords deal tight-beam burning damage (UT 166). This inflicts normal damage against limbs (and cauterizes wounds), but it offers no bonus against the neck. Attacking the neck does nothing particularly special in GURPS except as a damage multiplier for cutting, crushing or corrosive attacks. It doesn't kill your opponent any faster than attacking the body or the skull, and the body contains vitals (against which tight-beam burning attacks are double damage!). Force-Swordsmanship seems to expect a force sword to work like a sword, when it works more like a really short-ranged laser beam, mechanically speaking.

I'm surprised by a lack of Counter Attack as most lightsaber fights I've seen have a rapid back-and-forth of attack and counter attack, in an effort to keep constant pressure up on their opponents.

The presence of Dual Weapon Attack is a surprise, as I have rarely seen dual-weapon wielders outside of the expanded universe, though Anakin uses two briefly in the Attack of the Clones. I can imagine it being an optional technique, unless we step away from Star Wars and say “what could be more dangerous than one force sword? TWO force swords!” Though given how dangerous a force sword is on a critical failure, this just feels like asking for trouble.

Whirlwind Attack is also a technique I can't remember seeing in Star Wars, but again, it's a good extension of the mechanics of a force sword. While it strips the attacker of his defenses, it forces everyone nearby to either parry and lose their weapon, or dodge and retreat, leaving the space knight room to maneuver.

What surprises me is the lack of Timed Defense as the films and expanded universe often portray a Jedi, able to detect attacks coming from behind, able to defend such an attack with ease by raising his hands over his head and lining his lightsaber with his spine. The ability of a psychic space knight to be able to defend all sides with equal ease seems part and parcel of having blind fighting.


For me, perks make the martial art. Force-Swordsmanship offers Acrobatic Feints which explains why they're always jumping around or throwing themselves on the ground when attacking (it's a feint!), though given the superiority of their Force Sword feints (beats), one wonders why they would bother. Chi Resistance isn't really that relevant for Psi-Wars, but Psi Resistance might be. Grip Mastery is mostly a reflection of the fact that so many characters use a strong defensive grip, though some characters do use a reverse grip (Such as Asoka from Clone Wars). Off-Hand Weapon Training is, again, a factor of the odd dual weapon training. Special Setup allows us to use Power-Blow even without augmenting ST. Sure-Footed seems a bit odd (I've never seen a Jedi be especially good at fighting on slippery floors), but they do seem good at fighting on stairs, and Kenjutsu, from which Force-Swordsmanship clearly draws some inspiration, has both as well. Weapon Bond, an optional perk, seems classic for the typical Star Wars fight.


Force-Swordsmanship seems, on the outset, to be a rather decent style. It focuses on going after lightly armored limbs or weapons to instantly disable them, and keeps a constant pressure on their opponent. It has a strong focus on Acrobatics, but I'm not convinced that it works out as well as the writer might thing. In particular, Acrobatic Feints are almost certainly less useful than Force Sword feints, as currently written (the intent might be that dextrous space knights use acrobatic feints, while strong space knights use beats, but as written, it wouldn't work that way). A Space Knight is going to invest more in his Force Sword skill than his Acrobatics, and can further invest points in Feint (Force Sword) to defeat his opponent's defenses.

Force Sword Art poses some potential problems.

There seem to be surprisising holes in the techniques. Targetted attacks don't seem to work the way the author thinks they would, and we lack counter attacks and timed defenses (I can live without counter defenses, but a lack of timed defense is just strange).

There's a good style in here, but the meat of it is Force Sword, Acrobatics, Parry Missile Weapon, Power Blow and Precognitive Parry, which I expect most characters would immediately take. The rest is mostly cruft that most players would wave aside... which isn't necessarily a problem. There are a few traps in there (Targetted Attack (Swing/Neck), Acrobatic Feints) that need to be addressed lest foolish players spend points where none are warranted.

A Sample Force-Swordsman

Assuming DX 14, IQ 13, Will 15 and Combat Reflexes.

Advantages: Combat Sense 1 [24], Enhanced Parry (Force Sword) 2 [10], ESP Talent +1 [5], Weapon Master (Force Sword) [20]
Perks: Style Familiarity (Force-Swordsmanship) [1], Grip Mastery [1], Special Setup (Power-Blow) [1], Weapon Bond (Force Sword) [1]
Skills: Acrobatics (H) DX-2 [1]-12, Combat Sense (H) IQ* [2]-13, Force Sword (A) DX+3 [16]-18, Force Sword Art (A) Force-Sword-2 [4]-16, Parry Missile Weapon (H) DX-1 [2]-12, Precognitive Parry (H) IQ+1* [4]-14, Power-Blow (H) Will+1 [8]-16

The above character is, in addition to his stats, 100 points. This is also the minimum necessary effectiveness for a character with precognitive parry.

Precognitive Parry requires Trained by a Master or Weapon Master, either Danger Sense or Precognition (Combat Sense includes Danger Sense), a weapon skill of 18, and gains a bonus based on your ESP talent. I added Enhanced Parry because it improves all parries with a force sword. I originally had 12 points in Parry Missile Weapon so that I could have a decent parry (12), but in retrospect, it was as expensive to have Parry Missile Weapon-12 for 2 points (giving me a parry of 10) and +2 parry from Enhanced Defense (Force Sword). This also improved my Force Sword parry!

This Space Knight has a parry of 15, +1 from a successful Combat Sense roll, +2 from a successful acrobatics roll (once per turn) and +1 from a successful precognitive parry roll, for a total of a mind-blowing 19. Against blaster fire, he has a parry of 12, with +1 from a successful Combat Sense roll and +2 from a successful acrobatics roll (once per turn), which is pretty decent (though I note that his dodge is probably around 10).

The total character above is already (assuming 50 points in disadvantages) 215 points, which is surprisingly reasonable, but makes him a one-trick pony if we try to fit him into 250 points. At 300 points, he might be fairly reasonable.

Parry Missile Weapon creates a definite problem, though, as he has two different skills to parry something with his force sword, which means raising his parry for both ranged attacks and melee attacks costs him 12 points rather than the usual 8 points. Just raising Parry Missile Weapon is 8 points per +1 parry, and Enhanced Parry (Force Sword) is 3 points less and improves his melee parry, making it always a better deal. I'm inclined to remove the need for Parry Missile Weapon if one has Precognitive Parry.

The character above is sufficiently badass, but also extra-ordinarily focused. He lacks the high mobility of Super Jump and/or Flying Leap, meaning he'll need to rely on a fairly static defense, or hoping that his opponents come to him.
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