Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Martial Arts as Power-Ups 2: Theory and Smasha

In my previous post, I discussed my relationship with GURPS Martial Arts and my struggles with using it to get what I wanted for a particular sort of campaign and the slow revelation as to what I could do to fix it.

Today, I'm going to go through a worked example using Smasha, which is freely available in the Martial Arts pdf preview, so you can follow along, and is a fictional style.  I personally find that real-world styles are, realistically, way too complex to perfectly capture in a more "gamist" system like what we're going to create, so inevitably some real practitioner of it will complain about how you inevitably miss some fundamental aspect of the style and turned it into a caricature of itself, because that's precisely what we'll be doing.  Fictional styles, by contrast, beg to be caricatures, because the point is to be something that a fictional hero learns, and fictional heroes need to be painted in broad, obvious strokes.

It should be noted that Smasha, like several GURPS Martial Arts styles if examined up close, has some issues.  Some of them come down to age or editorial mistakes, like traits that probably changed their rules in an edit and become obsolete for a particular style (such as the Clinch perk for Smasha), or the innovation of new rules in later works that didn't make it into Martial Arts, because Martial Arts is an older book (Dirty Fighting and Finishing Moves for Smasha).  Thus, we'll also be adjusting and updating Smasha as we go, which means the final version won't be the same as the original, and you might not agree with it, and that's okay.  The point here is not to "fix" Smasha so much as show how you can structure any martial art this way, and to give you inspiration about how you might do it yourself.

The Structures of Power(-ups)

In my experiments with this approach (untested as of yet), I've found it easiest to break up the power-ups into three components: Mastery Levels, Moves and Exercises.

Mastery Levels represent the degree to which one has mastered a martial art.  They serve primarily to bundle certain skills together, so you have predictable levels of skills and we can ensure that characters at certain levels of mastery have certain perks, rather than just sort of hoping that a player buys his skills and perks "right."  We can slice this as finely or as broadly as we like, but I find I tend to favor three sets of 20-point mini-templates: Student, Adept and Master.

Moves represent how most fighters of the style tend to fight.  They usually consist of trademark moves and some techniques purchased in support of that trademark move.  Sometimes, though, they'll be a broader concept that works well in various situations.  Styles with lots of trademark moves tend to be more "hidebound" or "traditional" than styles with few, while styles with no trademark moves will tend to feel "flexible and adaptive."  We can make these as large or as small as we want, but I tend to find that 5 points is a pretty good sweet-spot, as most players find 5 points quite affordable.

I will note that smart players will tend to shy away from "too many moves," since they tend to focus on techniques and too many techniques can poorly optimized, so you should count on players having no more than about 3 moves, unless you institute some optional rules, such as reducing the cost of techniques, or giving away free techniques (in which case, considering giving away free moves, say, one move per mastery level).

Exercises exist to acknowledge a weird middle ground between mastery and moves. Many martial arts have several suggested traits or skills that aren't really essential to the heart of the style, nor are some small, quick, one-off move that the character will use.  These represent things like a Muay Thai practitioner hardening his shins, Shaolin practitioners hardening their bodies to "iron,"or the master of some exotic style learning the secret to the Hand of Death. These tend to vary in cost, but I tend to center around 20 points, and represent the way a martial art might change more than just how you fight, but how, as a person, are changed by the style.


When creating your degrees of mastery, think about what is fundamentally necessary for the martial art style, and what the minimum of a student, adept and master might be to look like a student, adept or master of that style.  For the most part, these tend to be primary skills and the Style Familiarity perk, but might not limited to these.  They might include particularly relevant traits or optional skills, especially if its a very focused style and we want to limit how many points some is spending in his skills (for example, you might not want your players putting all 20 points into Rapier per degree of mastery, so by the time he's a master, he has Rapier at DX+15). I suggest you build these templates with a sense of how quickly their skills advance.  I find +1 to +3 per level of mastery, depending on how important the skill is to the style and how many degrees of mastery you have, to be best.

Smasha already poses a problem here, though.  It contains Boxing, Brawling and Wrestling.  It has almost no Wrestling techniques (it just has Choke Hold and Arm Lock), and while it has plenty of Boxing techniques, the idea seems to be that different orcs focus on different aspects of Smasha: some are primarily boxers, some are primarily brawlers, some are primarily wrestlers, but all have at least a basic understanding of all three.  For our, more limiting purposes, however, this is undesirable.  We want to nail down what a Smasha student looks like.  So, I want to remove Boxing and emphasize its nature as a Dirty Fighting style, and to round out to a full 20 points, let's bring the optional Acrobatics front-and-center, to make Smasha fighters a little more obviously martial artists.  It might look like this:

Smasha – Student: 20 points

Prerequisite: None
Traits: Striking ST 1 [5]
Perks: Style Familiarity (Smasha) [1]; Dirty Fighting [1]
Skills: Acrobatics (H) DX-2 [1]; Brawling (E) DX+2 [4]; Wrestling DX+2 [8];

So, anyone can learn Smasha by spending 20 points. All Smasha fighters know how to Fight Dirty, and have Brawling and Wrestling at DX+2.  I've added additional Striking ST to represent the additional damage typical of the style (and to balance out the loss of Boxing), and they have a smattering of acrobatics.

As the style progresses, I see them emphasizing Brawl over Wrestling, as most of their descriptions seem to focus on striking over grappling, and we'll continue our progression of Striking ST, taking it to super-human levels, thanks to perks, at Mastery.  Our next two levels of  mastery might look like this:

Smasha – Adept: 20 points

Prerequisite: Smasha – Student
Traits: Improve Striking ST to Striking ST 2 [10] for 5 points
Skills: Improve Acrobatics to (H) DX [3] for 3 pints DX-2 [1];Improve Brawling two levels to (E) DX+4 [12] for 8 points; Improve Wrestling one level to (A) DX+3 [12] for 4 points;

Smasha – Master: 20 points

Prerequisite: Swift Form – Adept
Traits: Improve Striking ST to Striking ST 3 [15] for 5 points
Perks: Special Exercise (Striking ST+1) [1];
Skills: Stealth (A) DX [2]; Improve Brawling two levels to (E) DX+6 [20] for 8 points; Improve Wrestling one level to (A) DX+4 [16] for 4 points;

Adept is mostly interesting for the big boost to Acrobatics, and the greater increase of Brawling.  Styles don't have to be this self-similar per degree of mastery, such as +1 striking ST per level, it's just how Smasha sort of breaks out, at least in my version.  Dirty Fighting is fundamental so all Smasha practitioners have it.  Masters have Striking ST 3, Dirty Fighting, Acrobtatics at DX, Stealth at DX (added to round out the style and to make masters more subtle than other orcs), Brawling at DX+6, and Wrestling at DX+4.

I've created some pretty simple prerequisite chains here, but we can make more complex ones.  I tend to prefer giving martial artists some flexible, so rather than saying that they must learn this move or that exercise, I think I would favor something more like one move per level (You must know one move to become an adept, and three moves to become a master) with an exercise optionally stepping in for one move.

The Mastery power-up could be better.  What you need to do with all of this is create a Mastery Level sufficiently compelling that players are willing to navigate your chosen prerequisite chains to get it.  This often means unique perks or cool powers.  Our improved Striking ST might be enough of players value striking ST and it's a limited trait.  Another option might be to make Smasha Mastery a prerequisite for Secrets of the Ripperjack, below.


Moves are actually pretty easy to create.  We only really need to look at the description of the style, and then turn them into trademark moves or suggested technique/perk sets.

For example:
"The few “defensive” moves the style does teach start with Aggressive Parry and follow up with attacks on the injured limb. "
There's a few way we can tackle this one.  Obviously, they need to learn Aggressive Parry, but that's not particularly expensive.  For the "attack on the injured limb," we could create a Targeted Attack, though there are no targeted attacks on limbs in Smasha despite its description. There is an Arm Lock technique based on Wrestling.  However, we can't do that with a Brawling parry, aggressive or otherwise, unless we have a Special Set-Up perk, which Smasha doesn't have, but nothing stops us from adding one!  So, we end up with something like this:

Bramble Guard: 5 points

Prerequisite: Style Familiarity (Smasha)
Perks: Special Set-up (Brawl Parry → Arm Lock) [1]

Techniques: Aggressive Parry (H) Brawl Parry-0 [2]; Arm Lock (A) Wrestling+2 [2]

We can add a description, or make a trademark move, but its use is pretty obvious to me, at least: this teaches you to make aggressive parries with brawling and the immediately follow them up with a Wrestling arm-lock, for double the pain.

A fallen victim invites a Stamp Kick or five – the orc using All-Out Attack (Strong) or (Determined) if his prey has no allies nearby!  
Next, we need the famous "Kick them when they're down" that's so fundamental to the character of Smasha.  For this, we want the Finishing Move perk from GURPS Action 3: Furious Fists.  This gives us bonus damage for a single move on a fallen or stunned target, which fits what this is perfectly: A finishing Stamp Kick

Crushing Defeat: 5 points

Prerequisite: Style Familiarity (Smasha)
Perks: Finishing Move (Stamp Kick) [1]
Techniques: Stamp Kick (H) Brawl+0 [4]

From there, we can look at the general description (like the fact that they seem to focus on vitals, the groin, the neck, etc) or some interesting traits we can find in the rest of the martial art.  We're picking it over, trying to understand it and picturing how it the style fights. A good practice in all of your moves, but especially those with a trademark move, to break down exactly how all the rules for that combination of techniques and perks translates into the rules, so a player doesn't have to look it all up.  An example might be:

Sucker Punch: 5 points

Prerequisite: Style Familiarity (Smasha)

The Smasha fighter makes an aggressive strike for his opponents throat.  Take a step and make a Committed Brawling Punch for the Throat.  Roll Brawl-1 to hit.  Your opponent parries normally.  If you hit, inflict Thr cr (+brawling bonuses) damage, and multiply all damage that bypasses DR by ×1.5.  You may not make a parry with your striking hand for the rest of the turn, and any other parries and your dodge is at -2 and you may not retreat.

Perks: Trademark Move (Sucker punch) [1]
Techniques: Targeted Attack (Brawling Punch/Neck) (H) Brawl-2 [4]

In this case, we've chosen for a committed attack (though this prevents our use of Bramble Guard, above).  The roll to hit the throat is normally at -5, but we've bought that up with our technique and we gain a +1 as a trademark move as long as we do everything exactly as written here.  The damage comes from the basic punch (thr -1) plus the bonus damage from the committed attack, and the extra damage from striking the neck.  The penalties for defense come from the committed attack.

One option I often add is a sliding scale of the penalty to account for levels of mastery; a student might be at -1, an Adept at -3, and a Master at -5.  This is a deceptive attack, so the target defends against the student at +0, the Adept at -1, and the Master at -2.

The nice thing about defining everything so precisely is that, first of all, the player just knows how it works.  He can look at it on a cheat sheet and follow all the rules without having to slow the game to look up how a Committed Throat Strike works.  It also says something about how the Smasha fighter tends to fight: maybe you wouldn't have thought of this before buying it.  The downside is that players might think they need these moves to perform these actions.  In this case, the TA and the Trademark move go so hand-in-hand that I don't feel it's necessary to say, but technically, you now get this bonus on any use of a brawling punch against the neck, not just in the Sucker Punch, so you could also make a Defensive attack to the Neck and only roll against -2 (rather than -1).  That might be worth mentioning in the description.

I originally considered this for an attack against the vitals, which has a lot of synergy with Pressure Secrets, something Smasha fighters can also access.  Such a move would be 4, rather than 5, points however.


An exercise reflects a larger package of tricks and traits that aren't a moment-by-moment move that you make, nor a reflection of how good your character is at the style, but a sort of "power" or broader improvement the character has access to thanks to their study of the style.  An example from Smasha might be:

The Secret of the Ripperjack: 20 points

Prerequisite: Style Familiarity (Smasha), Trained by a Master
Perks: Special Exercise (Brawling Pressure Points) [1]
Techniques: Pressure Point Strike (H) Brawling+0 [3]
Skills: Pressure Point (H) IQ+2 [12]; Pressure Secrets (VH) IQ-1 [4]

I tend to find that 20 points makes a good break-point for a combination of interesting traits, though I've seen a few 5-point exercises pop out of some of my designs, and it all depends on how pentaphilic you are.  Exercises tend to be "Miscellaneous" anyway, so I wouldn't worry about keeping them to an exact value.

The Secret of the Ripperjack is meant to cover the description of Cinematic Smasha fighters ripping at vital nerve clusters and such.  The real star here is Pressure Secrets, as it lets our Orc turn all of that Striking ST and brutal precision into impaling damage, and given the removal of the pressure point strike penalty from Brawling (as well as our new perk), we can always do this impaling damage, which means a Ripperjack is absolutely rending his opponents with basically every attack.  One tricky part is that technically Pressure Secrets requires Pressure Point at 16+.  We can either waive that penalty (12 points in Pressure Points is a lot already), or require characters to have sufficient Talent or IQ to reach Pressure Point 16 before they can buy the Secret of the Ripperjack, which means sagely Ripperjacks are only selecting the most talented or brilliant orcs to take on as pupils.

Note also that it has Trained by a Master as a prerequisite.  We can add whatever prerequisites that we feel appropriate; I think people underestimate how interesting prerequisite chains can be. In any case, the prerequisites should at least cover everything that the character needs to purchase the elements in the Move or Exercise.

(Incidentally, this another good example of a Martial Arts "Whoopsie."  Smasha teaches Pressure Points, but you need Karate or Judo or "an appropriate weapon skill" to learn pressure points, none of which Smasha has (except for some optional weapon skills, which conflicts with the fact that they have pressure secrets, which meant to be used unarmed).  Thus, I've added the Special Exercise to fix it).

Exercises can also be collections or traits, or even powers.  An example of this might be:

Black-Iron Ork: 19 points

Prerequisite: Style Familiarity (Smasha)
Traits: Blunt Claws [3]; DR (Tough Skin -40%) [3]; High Pain Threshold [10]
Perks: Iron Hands 2 [2]; Special Exercise (DR 1 with Tough Skin) [1]

Here, I've collected the perks of Iron Hands, special exercises and the various optional traits around them into a single collection of traits, giving our Smasha orcs an "Iron Body Exercise." The net effect is an orc who can shrug off pain, gets +1 damage to all of his punches, has DR 3 on his hands and DR 1 everywhere else. It feels right, and emphasizes the orc as a brutally tough killing machine.

Incidentally, while you could treat Trained by a Master as an exercise, I generally find it easier to treat it as a switch between relatively modest martial artists and cinematic martial artists.  The character is Trained by a Master, or he isn't.  It's not a function of learning Smasha (or Dragon-Man Kung Fu, or Death Fist) that makes you Trained by a Master, it's whether you've been Trained by a Master that determines whether you can unlock the deeper secrets of your styles! And no single style has a monopoly on Trained by a Master.


The astute will notice I've skipped a lot of perks, techniques and optional skills.  Some of that is because I didn't share every move I came up with, but you'll also end up picking and choosing things.  For example, Smasha discusses Stealth, Poisons and Knife, suggesting some sort of Orc ninja or Orc Commando.  Is that how we want to see Smasha? It's not how I choose to see Smasha, but it's possible.  We could create variants, say a Northern, Southern and Black Smasha, which share many moves, but might have slightly different Masteries or access to unique Exercises.  Of course, we won't hit everything, and players may want to purchase things not listed here, like extra Wrestling, Chokehold or Holdout.  It's up to you to decide, but personally, the purpose of a structured power-up set like this is to provide inspiration. Just like you can technically depart from your templates with GURPS DF if you'd like, you can absolutely depart from the rigid structure imposed on you by this.  The martial art and the rest of GURPS are the foundation on which this structure rests.

A Cohesive Martial Art Structure

A few notes.  First, you'll notice that this tends to include more than the normal amount of Perks.  GURPS suggests no more than 1 perk per X number of points, with Martial Arts suggested at 1 perk per 10 points.  It's a prescription I've never really followed, but this can definitely violate.  If you buy two moves that's usually at least 2 perks in 10 points, often more.  I would argue, however, that the point of the perk rules are to prevent proliferation of teeny tiny things on a character sheet.  You can also avoid that by following this structure: if you have two moves, you have two moves on your sheet, and it doesn't really matter how those moves are technically constructed, so they can have 5 perks each and it won't make a difference to you.  Second, you're following a structure here, which limits what perks your character ends up with.  So I would suggest waiving that rule for purchasing Masteries, Moves and Exercises.

You should treat a power-up structure like this like a martial art.  Style Famliarity lets you freely justify the purchase of any traits, skills, techniques, etc associated with your Style.  That applies to Moves, Exercises and Masteries, as long as you follow the prerequisite chain.

Finally, you might think "Gosh, this looks awfully complex."  To that, I say, well, it's optional.  This is more appropriate for games where martial arts are a deep focus, where you really want the martial art styles to feel distinct from one another, where you want players to be discussing the strategy of broad, chunky moves.  It's unwieldy for a game that isn't, at its core, about kung fu.

But I'd also like to say that the rules outlined here aren't actually new.  They're more a way of organizing the GURPS Martial Arts rules than they are of fundamentally changing them.  That means that all of this complexity is already there, it's just hidden behind the other chapters of GURPS.  Smasha might look like a small list of skills and techniques, but those techniques have at least a paragraph of rules each, those skills have lots and lots of potential uses.  This brings all that complexity into focus, and then pares it down to what you really need for your style, so you can easily reference everything your character can do.

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