Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Unarmed Combat!


Unarmed combat and grappling is a poor fit with the main combat rules as written in early editions of D&D, which are focused on armed opponents striking their weapons against armored opponents so as to wound them. They do not speak to a situation where someone unarmed tries to get past a weapon, or disarm someone, or wrestle them to the ground and immobilize them. And yet this kind of thing comes up all the time in my experience, enough that there really need to be rules for it.

Where they have been developed as add-ons to the combat system, they have tended to take absurdly complicated forms, like Gary Gygax's bizarre grappling mini-game in 1E AD&D, perhaps the most sui generis and complex of the many crunchy sub-systems introduced in the wonderfully incomprehensible 1E Dungeon Master's Guide. People who have taken the time to understand and use Gygax's grappling system tell me they love it. But I, who even use segment initiative with casting time, look at it and think: what the actual fuck Gary.

So I want to develop a simpler system for grappling that fits with the weapon rules and stat-check system for Jorune: Evolutions. As I see it, there's a tension here with trade-offs, in that one needs a few options that are more granular than melee combat options, since grappling is often about wanting to do something that breaks the trying-to-wound-an-opponent mold. So you want some complexity, but without introducing a grotesquely granular grappling mini-game. Hopefully, the system below walks that line, keeping things simple enough while allowing a little granularity in.

The system draws on my simple 2d6 stat check system, as well as my rules about weapon types (particularly "close weapons" that can be used in grappling), and some new unarmed combat proficiencies explained below. I remind you about those rules as I go so as to not lose anyone who is interested in this as a discrete topics. It presupposed non-variable weapons damage and low stat modifiers.

I'm sure that many people have created good systems for unarmed combat that are OD&D or B/X friendly. If you know of a good one, please drop it in the comments! My system is builds, like so much of what I'm doing, on that masterpiece of OD&D-inspired rule design, Gus' HMS Apollyon Player's Guide. 

Unarmed Melee Combat

Unarmed melee combat is just like armed melee combat, except that when you strike you do 1d6/3 points of damage rounded up (i.e. 1-2). Someone who is armed gets no special bonus against someone unarmed except that they will do more damage to them if they hit. 


A player can only grapple a foe that is at most two sizes larger than them. On their turn, a PC who can close with such an opponent can initiate a special grappling attack sequence. It works like this:

  1. If the opponent subject to the grapple attack is armed, they may melee attack the grappler as they close. (They may make this melee attack even if they have already attacked this round.)
  2. The grappler rolls to hit as though the opponent is unarmored--agility mods to AC still apply. 
  3. If the attack hits, the two are now grappling. Neither may act for the rest of the round except to resolve the grapple.
  4. The grapplers now must make an opposed strength check (2d6 + Str Mod). If one side is a size larger they receive advantage (+1), and if two sizes larger they receive great advantage (+2). Tied results are a stand-off. 
  5. The winner chooses 1: damage, disarm, immobilize, or break grapple. 
    • Damage is 1d6/3 points unless one has a close weapon (or some unarmed combat proficiencies see below), in which case it is 1d6 with disadvantage (2d6 discard the highest). If one chooses damage, one may draw a close weapon for these purposes, provided one drops any other weapons one was carrying. One cannot otherwise draw a weapon while grappling.
    • Disarming knocks a weapon far enough away that it can't be used by the grappled foe (1d4x5 feet away).
    • Immobilizing the foe allows others to melee attack them without danger of hitting the grappler, or to join the grapple on them without needing to make an attack roll.
    • Breaking grapple ends the grapple. 
      6. If the losing side still has a close weapon drawn and are not immobilized                they automatically deal 1d6 damage with disadvantage to the winner. 

In a round where both parties enter it already grappling, resolve the grapple after melee weapon attacks. 

Multiple Grapplers

Once someone is grappled, other people can pile on by using their attack to grapple as normal. 

  • If they are immobilized then no addition attack roll is needed.
  •  Each additional grappler adds a bonus of 1 to the grappler with the highest bonus to the grapple check (strength or largest size). 
  • When multiple people grapple a single foe, then they can tie up the foe with two immobilize results on subsequent rounds if they have a rope or other bonds handy. 
  • If a single grappler wins against multiple foes and chooses to do damage, they may select to whom to apply the damage.   

New Grappling and Unarmed Combat Weapon Proficiencies

Note that these unarmed proficiencies can be combined and stack. For example, someone might use chuko to reverse the strength bonus of an opponent, and when winning the grapple, use braz juju to inflict 1d6 damage with disadvantage on them.

Mantis Boxing

This is a catch-all standing in for many different techniques, from brutal street brawling learned in the gutters of Ardoth to disciplined martial arts like mantis boxing.

  • Those proficient in brawling do 1d6 damage with disadvantage in unarmed melee combat. 
  • This proficiency does not affect grappling. 


This elegant fighting art involves using your opponents strength against them to toss them like a rag doll. 

  • Those proficient in chuko turns the strength bonus of their opponent into a minus for the purpose of the grapple check. 
  • When winning a grapple check, they may opt to break the grapple by throwing their opponent 10' and doing 1d6 damage with disadvantage.
  • This proficiency does not affect unarmed melee combat.

Braz Juju

This ancient vicious fighting style involves coiling about your opponent like a serpent and inflicting the maximum pain. 

  • Those proficient in braz juju who win a grapple check and opt to damage their opponent do 1d6 damage with disadvantage.
  • This proficiency does not affect unarmed melee combat. 

Secret Fighting Techniques

It is rumored that there are other fighting techniques suited to the specific capabilities of different post-human species, but they are either obscure or positively proscribed in Ardoth. 

A Grapple Example

Round 1

Our party of four tauthers consists of Ling and Max (humans), Leenda (woffen), and Tomar (muadra). An unnerving parlay with a band of three ramians in chiveer, huge thin humanoid aliens undergoing a period of cruel rage, devolves into combat beneath the jungle canopy. While two of the ramians wear only leather cuirasses and wield spears, their leader wears strange metal armor and wields a giant sword of alien metal, with a knife sheathed in his belt.

The ramians win initiative and attack. The two spear wielding ramians attack Ling and Leenda respectively and the leader strikes at Tomar. Only the leader hits,  but it's a devastating blow, because the weapon has the tags "two-handed" and "sharp", and the leader has +2 to damage because of the size difference with his diminutive muadra target. He rolls 3,5 and as a result, he does 7 points of damage total! Tomar reels under the blow, almost going under with 1 hp remaining and losing the dysha he was sculpting. Now it is the player's turn.

Max's player sees a bad situation. The leader is well-armored and will be very difficult to hit, and capable of dealing great damage. He needs to be taken out of the equation if the party is to have a prayer of surviving this brutal assault. He draws his knife and he decides to charge in for a grapple, hoping his close weapon and strength modifier (+1) will give him an edge. 

The first step is that the leader gets an attack roll on Max as he charges, even though the leader has already attacked this round. Max is wearing boiled leather armor, in which he is proficient, so his AC is 13. The leader's weapon has the tag sharp and so receives +3 to hit, and he needs to roll a 10 or higher on 1d20 to hit Max. Max's player holds his breath: this is a big roll that may determine whether he lives or dies in the subsequent struggle. Max is in luck, and the leader misses on the attack with an 8! 

The second step is to see if Max hits with his grappling roll. Ignoring the leader's armor, his AC is 10. Max's strength bonus of +1 means that he hits on a 9+ on 1d20. He rolls an 11! Closing he slips past the leader's weapon and is on him. 

The third step is to make an opposed grapple check. The leader rolls 2d6 adding 1 for the advantage of his greater size, and Max's player rolls 2d6 +1 for his strength modifier. The ramian gets 5 (2d6 roll) + 1 (moderate size advantage) + 0 (strength modifier)=7 and Max gets 3+5+1=9. Max wins the grapple, overwhelming the ramian for now. 

He may now choose whether to damage, disarm, or immobilize the ramian. Max's player doesn't want to immobilize him, because  the party needs to handle the other ramians and so won't be able to take advantage of the immobilized leader. He could do damage, but he worries that if the leader breaks the grapple next round, they'll be right back where they started. So he chooses instead to disarm the ramian, batting the alien weapon from his hands and knocking it far away, so that if he breaks the grapple the leader won't be just able to attack the party with it again. 

Tomar grabs the leader's sword and ducks back behind his compatriots for cover taking it out of the combat. Ling strikes one of the two remaining ramians with a sword and takes a serious blow in return. Leenda and the other ramian unsuccessfully trade blows.

Round 2

In the next round, the two grapplers make another opposed grapple check. This time the ramian wins rolling 3+6+1+0=9 against Max's pitiful 2+1+1=4. The ramian works his knife free, hoping in his blood lust to slaughter the human. Close weapons have disadvantage and he rolls 2, 5=2 modified by his size bonus to damage (+1) for 3 points of damage total. Max has 6 hp remaining.

Since Max's has a close weapon drawn, as the loser Max now automatically does damage to the ramian as well. Rolling 2 six-sided dice he gets 3, 4=3. Max gives as good as he gets in this brutal and bloody exchange, as the two cut each other with knives. The leader now has 12 hp remaining.   

With the leader occupied, the fight is going considerably better for Max's companions, who slay one of the two ramians with a mix of swordplay and a deadly dysha from Tomar. 

Round 3

In the third round, Max and the leader face off again. This time the leader prevails with an 6+4+1=11 against the Max's 4+4+1=9. The leader has a close weapon drawn, so he does damage to Max, rolling 3,6=3+1=4. Max is now at 2 hp. 

Tomar races over joining the grapple, aided by a length of rope he has pulled from his pack. Tomar makes an attack roll to join the grapple, needing to roll 10+. He rolls a 12. Since there are now multiple people grappling the leader, Tomar does not get a separate grapple check this round. Meanwhile their companions face off against the remaining ramian, trading blows.

Round 4

In the fourth round, Max and Tomar grapple the leader. Tomar adds a +1 to Max's roll. Max's player draws a deep breath: if he loses, Max may well die at the hands of the ramian. Max rolls 3+4+1+1=9, while the ramian leader rolls 6+1+1=8. 

As their companions drive the other ramian into flight with further injuries, Max and Tomar use their success in the grapple check to immobilize the leader, struggling to bind his arms with Tomar's rope. 

Round 5

Freed of enemies, the remaining companions pile on to the leader, not needing an attack roll to do so because he is immobilized. Adding their bonuses to Max (+1 for each), he now rolls 3+2+1+3=9 and the ramian leader rolls 3+3+1=7. Max chooses to immobilize him again, trussing him up like a turkey. Combat is now over as the leader is their captive. Max's derring-do, luck, and savvy use of grappling has snatched victory from the jaws of death, and likely saved his companions!


  1. This is great. Among other things, it really underscores the importance of having that dagger in your belt!

    1. Exactly! And in the system it was written for, you also need to have a proficiency in "close" weapons to be able to use a knife in a grapple. So it definitely ups the importance of the whole "dagger in the belt" and knife fighting as a combat necessity.

  2. The only thing I want to know is if the teeth and claws of monsters count as close weapons for grappling purposes and if the do regular damage. 'Cause my test for a grappling system is "Can a person wrestle a bear and win easily?"

    Massive bear sized damage in a grapple is the way I make that work? I think a good grappling system should also make running grappling monsters easier - like a bear - it should grapple you and rip you apart if it can - and this should be terrifying.

    1. In my rules on race, I treat the bite of woffen (wolf humanoids) and bronth (bear humanoids) as close weapons for the purposes of grappling.

      I think I would go further with an actual animal and make them close weapons without disadvantage (i.e. full damage weapons 1d6). And yes, if the animal is large, the size modifier translates to a +1 to damage and a bonus to the opposed grapple check. (Some animals would have a strength bonus to the grapple as well.)

      One thing this brings out is that animals could use grapple rules to pounce on someone, in fact for many animals this would be their preferred mode of attack. That could be its whole own terrifying thing. Forget your sword and armor motherfucker, that panther is on top of you now.

      Arguably, one thing you would need to make sure that fierce animals weren't nerfed in grappling is to allow them to damage multiple grapplers if they win a grapple round. That is, I could see the swarming rules being used to "take down" big animals in a way that doesn't fictionally make sense. Will meditate on that. (Obviously needs playtesting.)

    2. Damn thanks Gus. That's a wonderful thought on how these rules can make animals terrifying. Definitely incorporating that.

  3. I never wanted to really delve into it because its a subject that I know how it operates in real life too well and will probably try to emulate realism which won’t work. I don’t think it’s possible to grapple effectively someone two size categories above you, it’s a massive difference in weight. I would have braz juju be more like bjj and let you attempt to break a limb or choke out an enemy with enough successful grapple checks in succession. But the 1d6 works for that purpose. I like the idea of fantastical fighting styles.

    1. I'm lucky in that I know NOTHING about this, so I can just make rules with a carefree heart. I agree that two sizes is unrealistic. BUT I have to have to rules for it, because that's a variation that one finds even among PCs. (Muadra are small, i.e. halfling size, and boccord are large, i.e. ogre sized.) So I simply have to have rules for it.

      However, a +2 to your opposed strength check is A LOT on 2d6. Even if there's no other difference, the smaller party will only win 1 out of 4 times. Also, that size difference translates into a +2 bonus to damage for the larger party, in a system without variable weapon damage. So perhaps not as overwhelming an advantage as it would be in real life, but still substantial.

      I might just have to accept that this is unrealistic but necessary for the game.

  4. I had the same immediate reaction as Erez, but as I read through your system and thought about the math, and looked at your excellently-chosen illustration with the little green men, I reconsidered.

    If I was really bothered by it, I might make a special rule for two-sizes difference that the smaller MUST gang up as a group to succeed, and set some number (maybe 3 or 4?) that are required to have a chance. But your system is pretty clean as it is, and I'd rather not overcomplicate it for a corner case.

  5. Someone named Al Slea on Facebook just pointed out to me that this is a lot like 3E's grappling rules (of which I was not aware). Checks out with the SRD: https://www.dandwiki.com/wiki/3e_SRD:Grapple#Damage_Your_Opponent

  6. Just wanted to say, that's a great image (the greenies wrestling the dude with a sword). Most fights between uber-fighters and goblin hordes should end like that.
    ; )

    I've been using the (1E) AD&D rules for grappling lately and find they work quite well...they're just clunky if you're not used to them (because the system's so different from normal combat). But, then, AD&D is full of weird little mechanics...

    That's not written to discourage you or say your rules are bad. And I may still reach a point in my game where they "break." But they haven't yet...only needed a little practice for successful integration.

    1. Thanks JB. I know that serious BTB AD&D players do use them, and report loving them. Having given some of the crunchier AD&D 1E bits a try myself, it doesn't surprise me that they're fun once you get your mind around them and have enough practice to just use them without fussing at the table. But right now I'm trying to keep some of the flavor of crunchy bits of AD&D in a much more rules-lite context. For better or worse.

  7. You might also take a gander at the rules in The Fantasy Trip: Melee. It's called "Hand-to-Hand" (HTH) there. It's odd but simple and it conveys a sense of risk by randomizing what happens when one attacker moves onto another, without regard for ability. 1D6 gives an outcome (1-2: both fall down in a HTH struggle, 3-4: defender is closed in on and drops weapon but may draw dagger, 5: defender holds attacker at bay, 6: defender holds attacker at bay and may get to strike the attacker, too).

    1. That's neat. I'll definitely take a look tonight. I've been wanting to look at The Fantasy Trip for a long time, and I have a copy of Melee right here!

  8. Wayne Robert on Facebook said: "Wayne Robert
    I would consider allowing Dex to replace Str, but limit the actions if wining to Break Grapple and Disarm only.
    Have you tried this same system with a d20-roll-under-Ability Score? For example, Joerath has a 13 STR and Maryexi has a 15 STR. Each tries to roll under their own stat (-1 or -2 bonus for advantage/great advantage) while simultaneously trying to roll above their opponent's roll. Perhaps Monks and Fighters get an additional -1?"

    1. I replied, "Wayne Robert I think that’s a neat mechanic that would work. I especially like the wriggling out of it dexterity option! The homebrewed system this was written for de-emphasizes stat scores since it only records the modifier and few people will start with them, but 2d6 opposed rolls are very sensitive even to +1 edge so it might not be that different from what you’re suggesting in play."

  9. On twitter, @comradepollux said, "in my game grapplers make attack rolls equal to their number of free grasping appendages, and compare the highest. the winner gets points equal to the margin of victory which they use to buy effects (nonlethal damage, shank with dagger, pin arm, WWE finishing move, etc)"

  10. I’m intrigued by your system. Unarmed combat has haunted D&D since its infancy; I still have yet to see a version that *smoothly* integrates with the combat system. Over the years I have eventually incorporated an extremely rough fly-by-the-seat of your pants approach permitting 1d2 damage + strength bonus for brawling and using a successful hit and then STR v STR rolls for grappling.

    Simply as a measure of friendly teasing: you are not the first to chide Gygac’s system to come up with one just as Byzantine! ;)

    1. Yes, I agree it's a touch complicated. I think you could cut it back to something manageable if you left out rules on multiple grapplers and knives ("close weapons") and natural weapons. Then it really would just be: roll to hit. Opposed strength check. Winner picks one. Not too complicated.

      But I'm happy to retain my crunch, even if I am displaying some of the same Gygaxian mania that led me to come up with rules in the first place.