Grappling Nightmares

Gaming 150I play in a Shadowrun game about once a month with a few local friends, and I’m enjoying it. My character’s concept — and if you know me, you know that of course this is how I roll — is that he’s a member of the Sioux nation who’s been goblinized later in life during puberty. His parents, being a fairly extreme “back to magic/nature” set, took this as a sign that he was destined to be a great shaman. He spent the next seven or eight years learning the finer points of magic, until his sister disappeared in Seattle and resurfaced in Tokyo.

Shadowrun is a pretty classic cyberpunk role-playing game, by the way. The idea is that a new age of magic has arisen somewhere in the early 21st century and the world has gone through a series of upheavals trying to incorporate it. The setting is a heady mish-mash of ultra-powerful mega-corporations, crazy cyber-technology and old-school magic mixing with near- and retro-future concepts. It’s insane, and that’s great. But one of the things I’m learning is that for a character like mine to hang, he needs to be really, REALLY good at the things within the niche he’s created for himself.

That may include things like “unarmed combat”, which turns my blood cold and makes me immediately apologetic to the friend running the game. I’ve played in any number of systems during my now two-decade (!!) tabletop gaming career — everything from D&D 2nd/3rd/4th ed to White Wolf’s Storytelling system to RIFTS/Palladium to FATE — and almost all of them share one common feature despite all of their differences. They all suck eggs when it comes to laying down rules for fist-fighting.

It’s such a simple thing to want. You take a look at a really great martial-arts movie or a gloriously ugly fist-fight in a gangster or action film, and you want to make a character who can do that. But in almost all of the settings you play in, the designers assume your standard adventurer is going to rely heavily on melee or ranged weapons. For some reason, introducing your bare fists — or Frith forbid, improvised weapons — introduces this extra layer of complication that either breaks the game or bogs the system down with so many situational rules it’s often just not worth it.

In RIFTS (which, to be fair, is a completely broken system anyway), taking martial arts beefs up your physical attributes to a potentially insane degree. In Pathfinder (an offshoot of D&D 3.5), unarmed combat is a labyrinth of rules that shifts depending on conditions. Entering into a fist-fight there is a lot of work for very little pay-off; the system is designed so that it’s way, way easier to just swing a sword and tally the damage.

The only system I’ve seen that deals with unarmed combat reasonably well is the FATE system, and that’s because it tries to be as malleable as possible. Everything you want to do has one or two effects: it either deals direct damage to your opponent, or places a condition on your opponent or the environment around you that lets you do something else a bit more easily. Done. It’s quite elegant, and works roughly the same as every other form of combat.

But that’s the exception rather than the rule, and it’s kind of amazing to me that the simplest form of fighting has the most complicated rule-set within the world of tabletop gaming. Why IS that, anyway?

So I’m throwing the question out into the ether. Why do you suppose unarmed combat is so hard to get right in tabletop games? What’s the best example of an out-of-the-box system of rules getting it right? What sort of house rules have you implemented to make unarmed combat less of a headache? I’m, um, asking for a friend.

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