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Design Diary: Grappling Rules

Over the past couple of weeks, I've put 15k words into a playtest document for Quintessence, and today I got to a span of rules I've seriously dreaded writing. The 4e brawler build of the fighter class is about the only version of grappling rules I think I've ever seen in a game that I liked. The grappling rules of 3e and Pathfinder are notoriously complicated. D&D Next's grappling rules are simple, but why bother with them? They're really only useful if you're stopping the last guy from running away - otherwise, they impose the same conditions on the attacking grappler as the defending grappler, with no way to improve that situation.

It's a shame that it would be so hard to adapt 4e's rules, but the part that I liked was baked into specific powers. It does point to a useful form of contained options, though, and I recall a lot of cases of needing to combine effects in just the right way to get the greatest possible effect. By far my favorite moment was the time I grabbed a young blue dragon by the tail, dragged it across a room, and slammed it into a wall - this is great for feeling like this guy.

I think one of the major recurring problems with grappling rules is that in 3.x and presumably Pathfinder, a specialist can readily gain a 20-point edge over a non-specialist. The non-specialist has no reason to even roll the die for Grapple checks, because even the best roll won't win. The non-specialist also can't do anything else, because action denial is a central aspect of the 3.x implementation. I don't want to completely eliminate the "bloody constraint" aspect of grappling, because holds and locks are such a key part of grappling; instead I'd like to put some bounds on the best and the worst that a character can be.

In part because I was reading the Wikipedia article on grappling, I started thinking about something akin to 4e's disease track. The two sides of a grapple (I politely decline to design grappling rules that support 3+ separate sides) start at Neutral, and as one side improves in position, the other loses position. The positions govern your options and influence your dice rolls.

To explain a bit of the lexicon before I get to the grappling rules currently in my document:


A character may spend an action to initiate full-contact – that is, to grapple with another character. By imposing the Grappled condition on both (or all) characters involved, the characters enter into an alternate form of combat.

The attacking character initiates a grapple by making a Combat (Grapple) roll against the higher of the target’s Avoidance or Maneuver Defense. The target may allow this to succeed automatically, if desired. If successful, both characters gain the Grappled condition, and begin at the Neutral position described below. One character gaining Strong Position puts the other character in Weak Position, and one character gaining Full Control puts the other character in the Subjugated position.

Full Control: A character in full control may impose one of the following conditions or take one of the following actions against a character as a greater action. Doing so does not require a check unless specifically noted.

Strong Position: A character in strong position may impose one of the following conditions on a successful Combat (Grapple) check against the better of your opponent’s Avoidance or Maneuver Defenses, as a greater action:

Neutral: The grapplers are in roughly even condition. As a greater action, they may impose one of the following with a successful Combat (Grapple) check against the better of the target’s Avoidance or Maneuver Defense. The target adds his Grapple task bonus to his Defense for this roll.

Weak Position: A character in weak position is vulnerable to a variety of conditions (as laid out in Strong Position), and has a curtailed list of options:

Subjugated: A subjugated character’s options are tightly constrained. However, maintaining full control is not easy, and the subjugated character may reroll any one die of these checks.

Note: Penalties from the Dazed or Prone conditions can negate this benefit, but it's here to keep things changing in the fight and give the Subjugated character a slightly better chance to fight his way back up to Weak Position.

Characters not engaged in the grapple may:

That's it for now. My hope is that these rules are clear and approachable, and present a visual, free-flowing fight. I'm not completely sold on the Full Control/Subjugated terminology, but it definitely beat the snicker factor of some of my other options. Feedback requested.

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