Monday, August 12, 2019

Martial Arts as Power-Ups: Building a Narrative atop the Foundation of GURPS Martial Arts

I love martial arts in my RPGs.  I love the heroic journey of training from nothing to some kung fu hero.  I love uncovering secret styles.  I love martial arts duels with excited, anime-esque narration explaining every nuance of the fight and how their different strategies clash.  I love exploring the niches of different styles, and then mashing them together in the complex nexus of my own character.

Thus, it might come as no surprise that GURPS Martial Arts is one of my favorite GURPS books.  I've build several campaigns out of it, including Cherry Blossom Rain, in which I just straight up used the templates and styles straight from the book, at least as the basis of my game.  That said, though, I initially found the principles laid out in the book frustrating, as it was a pretty big paradigm shift from most depictions of martial arts in most RPGs I was familiar with, a sentiment I think others have had too.

In the end, I grasped what martial arts was trying to do and I've embraced its approach.  But that doesn't mean I don't miss a more "classic" take on how most RPGs handle martial arts, and my close relationship with GURPS Martial Arts has evolved over time: it's helped me see what I liked about those other books, how that sort of thing is possible with GURPS Martial Arts, and while working on the kung fu of the Psi-Wars Space Knight, I think I may have stumbled across a solution that gives me all the elements I want, while still maintaining the enlightening perspective of GURPS Martial Arts.

This will be a three-part series.  Today, I'll lay out my thoughts on most traditional RPG approaches to martial arts (at least those that I'm familiar with; there are others), how it differs from GURPS Martial Arts, and then the tools and structures we can use to adapt martial arts to a more "traditional" approach.  Tomorrow, I'll use implement this atop an existing, fictional Martial Art: Smasha.  Finally, I'll give you the "finished" version of an updated and re-organized Smasha.

The Themes of Move-Based Martial Arts

I've played a lot of Kung Fu RPGs in my day (I'm such a sucker for them that I have more than a few Kung Fu heartbreakers in my collection).  Without going over an exhaustive list, a few classic examples of the Kung Fu RPGs I'm familiar with include how most White Wolf games (especially Exalted) handled Martial Arts, how 7th Sea 1e handled dueling, and how Weapons of the Gods (and to a lesser extent, Legends of the Wulin) handled kung fu. To a more limited extent, this is also true of GURPS Martial Arts back in 3e GURPS.

All of these treat martial arts as a skill and a series of moves.  These games have a standard set of combat rules that all the normal "muggles" can use, and normal skills, like Melee or Brawl or Firearms.  Martial Arts tends to be defined as either a separate skill (Karate or Judo in GURPS, the Martial Arts skill in Exalted) or as a layer atop normal skills (Duelists in 7th Sea use the same Fencing skills that everyone else has, but also have access to their Dueling School).  This skill defines how good they are, typically how likely they are to hit and defend, and often acts as a prerequisite for the "moves."  The moves themselves vary, but generally represent some specific exceptions the martial artist gets to the normal combat rules of the game.  Perhaps most characters can move OR attack, but characters who learn the Silver Lance Strike can do both, and someone with Cherry Blossom Draw can draw and attack with their sword in one turn, and always go first in combat (or get some huge bonus to initiative), and Fire Fist Strike might allow you to apply elemental damage with your unarmed attacks, etc.  They function a lot like "Combat Spells" cast with your fist.

The rule-exception nature of the martial arts tends to lend the styles a mystique: if you want to be a really cool fighter, you need to learn kung fu, which I like because I like the mythology of kung fu.  But more importantly, the rule-exceptions when taken together tell a story.  These moves don't exist in isolation, but in organized collections of systems, their style.  These work similarly to how Magic: the Gathering mana colors work: taken together, they create a set of themes and synergistic strategies that encourage you to use the martial arts in a particular way.  Fire Fist might have a move that allows you to inflict flame damage at the cost of creating collateral damage (setting everything on fire), while it has another move that lets you mitigate fire damage, which might create a situation that encourages setting everything on fire so all your enemies are dying but you're perfectly fine.  The themes and synergies of the moves of styles become interesting when they clash: how will the super-fast, super-aggressive style fare against the patient style that flows around attacks?  How will Fire Fist fare against Drunken Monkey?  Answering those questions is half the fun, for me, of a kung fu game.

Move-based martial arts styles also "tell a story" about the character and his relationship with the martial art. They also tend to be arranged in some sort of sequence, with masters having access to more powerful moves than students, giving you a sense of progression and discovery through the style, but also telling  a story about how the style evolves, like early "student" moves that might be discard by a middling "adept" fighter might suddenly much more important to the synergies available to a master of the style, explaining why all the masters of the style really emphasize the importance of fundamentals.  Styles might also have "branches," different sets of moves available that can all work with one another, but are only available in certain "cousins" of the style, necessitating your pilgrimage to other martial arts temples to fully master your style.

The Flowing Realism of GURPS Martial Arts

If Move-based martial arts of other RPGs embrace the mythology of kung fu, GURPS martial arts seems to embrace the deconstructive influences of Mixed Martial Arts.  At its core, it rejects the notion that learning martial arts sets you apart from other "mundane" fighters.  It suggests, instead, that everyone is fighting using the same system, with no exceptions, and that martial arts just sort of codify what aspects of that overall system they want to use.  A kung fu punch, a muay thai punch, and a bar-brawlers punch all follow the same principles and work essentially the same way and can all be perfected in similar ways.  The difference is not their unique moves, but what mixture of broadly available moves and techniques they prefer to focus on, and why.

While move-based martial arts put the moves at their core, GURPS puts the actual fighting skills at their core.  Stripped of all unnecessary elements, a GURPS Martial Art is nothing but a list of necessary "Primary" skills and the Style Familiarity perk.  To be a Jujutsu fighter, you must learn Karate and Judo and then the Style Familiarity (Jujutsu) perk; to be a Jeet Kun Do fighter, you also need Karate and Judo, but you take the Style Familiarity (Jeet Kun Do) perk.  They use the same exact rules for Karate and Judo, and have access to the same techniques at default (a Jujutsu fighter can attempt a Jump Kick; a Jeet Kun Do fighter can attempt an Arm Lock.  The only difference is that the Jujutsu fighter can ignore -1 point in Deceptive Attack and Feint penalties from a fellow Jujutsu fighter and not from the Jeet Kun Do fighter; to learn one another's martial arts doesn't require starting from scratch like a move-based martial art would, but just a single, one point perk.

The other thing that sets the two apart are the rest of their styles.  Their Style Familiarity perk grants them access to optional perks, techniques, skills and traits.  The value of these are debatable: you can be a perfectly good fighter with just Judo and Karate (or Brawling and Wrestling, etc).  Techniques allow you to focus on something if you choose to make it central to your repertoire: a Jump Kick is hard, so if you want to be good at it, you can spend extra points if you practice Jeet Kun Do, but not if you practice Jujutsu, while Jujutsu fighters can make Arm Lock central to their fighting approach in a way that Jeet Kun Do fighters can't.  However, this isn't strictly necessary and most martial artists will ignore most techniques.  

Perks tend to be a little better bang-for-buck than Techniques, which have a pretty punishing relationship with their parent skills that perks don't necessarily have.  We can compare these to the Moves from the Move-based martial arts, but they're much more subtle, adding a tiny little bit of emphasis to an aspect of your fighting style that, if smart, you'll exploit.  A Jujutsu fighter can be a Power-Grappler and make greater use of his ST, which means investing in ST isn't a bad idea; Jeet Kun Do can explore and exploit the tricks of other styles, encouraging their fighters to branch out and adapt.

Put together, martial arts in GURPS aren't combat magic, but a body of ideas, strategies, biases and preferences.  A GURPS Martial Artist can pick up nuance in his technique relatively easily, and it brings to my mind athletes and hobbyists at dojos swapping tips and tricks and comparing very subtle differences in their technique, while their fights with one another look pretty much the same from an external perspective, and even if you know all the details, the two fighters don't have major fundamental differences the way they do in a move-based system, they just have different preferences and focuses.

The net effect, in my experience, is a subtle and realistic experience that tends to break down the differences between styles more than build them, and encourages you to think not about collecting moves like adding cards to your Magic deck, but in terms of how you want to fight.  Where move-based martial arts encourages you to "learn the form," GURPS Martial Arts encourages you to "forget the form; be like water."

The Best of Both Worlds: Structured Power-Ups

GURPS Martial Arts isn't a bad system by any stretch.  I use it all the time as a foundation for all my GURPS Kung Fu needs.  But I often miss that "move-based" approach for its ability to tell a story and emphasize how different styles operate differently.  Fortunately, this is GURPS, which means its constructed to provide you with the tools you need to customize it and make it your own.  The trick, though, is being able to articulate what you want well enough to execute it well in the system.

Trademark Moves from GURPS Power-Ups 2: Perks gave me my first glimmer of inspiration.  GURPS Martial Arts talks about them, suggesting that you build up a body of pre-defined moves to help speed up combat.  As a perk, it gives you a well-defined bonus for doing so, which encourages you to make these trademark moves.  

Where I find these useful is not in encouraging players to make their own, but in attaching them to Martial Arts.  For all of my Psi-Wars styles, I created a set of five or so trademark moves that help define and showcase how "most" martial artists with that style tend to function, and it shows how and why the style is constructed the way it is.  This creates an interesting synergy between martial art and trademark move that can greatly ease the creation of your own styles, incidentally, but that's a discussion for another time.  These trademark moves help "tell the story" of martial art while remaining in the paradigm of GURPS Martial Arts: what makes Fire Fist style so aggressive? Just look at the trademark moves that emphasize using, say, counter attacks to constantly remain on the attack with its "Fire Burns the Hand" trademark move, as opposed to the Patient Mountain's style use of Wait and Counter Attack in its "Glaciers Collapse" trademark move.  These go a step beyond mere techniques and perks to show how the style uses them to achieve their objectives.

We can also add straight up powers and abilities.  If you want a Hand of Death martial art move, just make a Hand of Death power, or consider the flaming breath of Dragon-Man Kung Fu. The "downside" of these is they tend to act more like powers than "martial arts moves," which means you can just kill someone by patting them on the shoulder, or light a camp fire with your Dragon Breath, as opposed to being limited to just combat, and it tells you nothing about how the martial art tends to use these moves, though again, we can fix that with trademark moves.

Power-Ups gave me my next inspiration, hence the title of this post. I first noticed that GURPS DF offered power-ups (primarily to the Swashbuckler) that consisted of pre-purchased collections of perks and techniques.  By bundling elements together in these unique power-ups, we can return to the highly specific and highly flavorful "moves" of the move based martial art.  For example, if he have  a martial art that has Iron Hands, Exotic Hand Strike, and Targeted Attack (Any/Neck), we can bundle these three things together into "Knife Hand Strike," a move that costs X points and allows you to strike at the neck for lots of extra damage and minimized penalties; the player no longer needs to think in terms of how he constructs his characters to make the most out of certain attacks, because we've done that for him, and shown him how a martial art tends to work.

The last thing we'd need is the story told by the martial art as one studies it.  We can do this with "lenses" or mini-templates that represent degrees of mastery.  To be a student of the Fire Fist, you must spend, say, 20 points, and then you automatically have the style familiarity perk, and all of the necessary skills and perhaps a few extra things as part of one coherent package.  For example, perhaps the innate attack made by setting your fist on fire is part of one of those skill packages, which means all students (or adepts or masters) can set their fist on fire in addition to their karate or judo skills.  This lets you bundle what you feel are the most fundamental aspects of the martial art together in such a way as to make the style and its themes much more obvious to the player who buys them.

The downside to this is that it limits the player more tightly, and they may not agree with your assessment.  A martial art as a structured set of power-ups is to standard GURPS martial arts, what GURPS dungeon fantasy is to GURPS Basic: a way of limiting the rules and narrowing a player's options so as to make certain themes and elements of the game more obvious to him, and encouraging him to build his character in ways that might not have occurred to him before. Naturally, some of your more creative players might demand some variety or some changes to their specific approach to their style, and at that point, you can revert back to the core martial art style in GURPS Martial arts. 

The point of all this is not to replace GURPS Martial Arts, but to build on it as a foundation, and get the best of both worlds.  This seeks to organize what GURPS Martial Arts has created into a more digestible set of power-ups ready to use for the player, and that illustrate how the style functions and what it might look like in language plainer than the mechanical language of GURPS Martial Arts.

1 comment:

  1. Good post. I need to go look at my setting martial styles and add some Trademark Moves or Power Ups.


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