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Grappling with Grappling Rules

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Anakin: I try and grapple with the driver.
R2-D2: Oh no...
Padme: Oops.
Obi-Wan: Um...
Anakin: What? Aren't there rules for grappling in this game? Why are you all covering your dice?

Ah, the horror show of grappling rules in Tabletop RPGs. No matter what system you're using, the grappling rules will probably suck horribly.

Why is this? Well, mainly because grappling, unlike most other forms of combat, is complicated; here's a partial list of factors your rules will probably have to consider:

  1. One participant will often have the advantage, which changes the respective options of the grapplers.
  2. You have to have rules for attempting to escape the grapple.
  3. You have to figure out how disabled the participants are, if somebody outside the grapple tries to attack one of them.
  4. The chance that an attacker aiming for one participant in the grapple might hit the other.
  5. What kinds of attacks are available, and/or what the results of the grapple are.
  6. (optional) As if that weren't enough, you can potentially still engage in a limited form of standard combat while grappling, possibly even against people you are not grappling with.

And those are just the obvious things you need rules for. There are other problems that show up when you add in more detail.

Contrast to regular combat, where the rules can reduce the chaos of battle to the reasonably simple "Did I hit?" and "How much damage did I do?"note  and you'll begin to understand why grappling is considered such a frightening topic. While all of the factors mentioned above are relevant to standard weapons combat too, grappling systems have had a historical tendency towards greater "realism" for reasons rarely justified.

If you're wondering why so few Video Games have anything to do with grappling (besides pure Fighting Games), well, now you know.

An especially infamous instance of That One Rule. Nothing to do with Grappling Hooks.

Could be considered Truth in Television, as grappling-based martial arts tend to be harder to learn than striking-based martial arts.

Straight Examples:

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    Tabletop Games 
  • 1st, 2nd, and 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons. ...especially First Edition AD&D. *shudder*
    • 3rd Edition (note: 3rd edition is built off the "d20 system", that is, everything runs off a simple "Roll 1d20, add relevant modifiers vs. opponent's modifiers/required roll" for everything BUT grappling rules and damage dice) fell prey to this in an interesting way. Flowcharts are required to figure out what's going on in Pathfinder, and that's an incredibly cleaned up version of 3rd Edition's grappling rules. The original mechanics for grappling were worse.
    • Overbearing an enemy in 1st and 2nd edition was simply a horrifying, game-breaking rule. Players and GMs who used it made the others at the table cry or shudder in disbelief, though often only after a twenty minute review of the rules. In 1st edition AD&D, non-lethal combat was modified by ability scores (among other things) but not by character level, additionally large bonuses to grappling and overbearing were given based on relative height and relative weight: therefore it was perfectly possible for a 20th level fighter (read: a legendary warrior whose skills were at the peak the core rule books' range) to be pulled down and pounded into paste by a gang of 9-foot tall ogres who should, by all rights, be running for their lives. In "normal" melee combat, the ogres were more suitable for characters for 2nd-5th level, depending on how your particular GM chose to balance his campaigns. In 2nd edition, grappling capabilities were modified by character level just like a normal melee attack, and so having a high-level human fighter tackle and pin a frost giant — without any Strength boosting equipment — wasn't that hard. Player's Option (the late 2nd edition books) made it worse. YMMV on which problem — having character level rendered mostly irrelevant by a specific attack mode or sending the laws of mechanics off to cry in a corner — is more of an obstacle to gameplay.
    • Averted in 4th edition, but only by almost completely removing all grappling rules whatsoever. The "grab" action in 4th resembles a game of freeze tag: You only need one hand free to grab an opponent, who can't move away without escaping the grab but is free to remain standing up. You can both still make attacks and take most other actions as normal. And now brought back, sorta. There's now an entire Fighter build designed around grappling the target. However, instead of grappling being a special maneuver, now most powers say either "...and the target is grabbed." Or, for more complicated ones like using a Human Shield, "Requires: A grabbed target."
    • This is even mocked by Wizards of the Coast itself a this promo video when talking about 3rd edition!!
    • If you do understand the grappling rules, you get the grapple ball of speed (explained in detail here), where the player characters can take turns pulling each other by intentionally failing their checks.
    • Averted in 5th edition, where grappling is now just an opposed skill check of Athletics for the grappler and Acrobatics or Atheltics, their choice, for the grapplee and (usually) just stops the grapplee from moving. Even the few aversions mostly just add additional conditions that specific characters or creatures can impose while the grapplee has the "grappled" condition.
  • GURPS:
    • Made worse by the incredible number of factors that GURPS has to account for. Of course the other tactical combat are just as complex and anyone who can use those on the fly wouldn't be too concerned by the grappling rules.
    • Fourth Edition isn't so bad; grappling is taken as an attempt to impede your foe's movement, so it gives a penalty to his dexterity with the relevant body part, disables some of his maneuvers, and grants you options for takedowns, pinning, and dragging. Other things you can do in a grapple, like trying to disarm an opponent, are handled using the same rules as outside of a grapple. The foe can also counter-grapple you, since grapples are uni-directional, and so you can have states where one combatant has a grapple on the other, or both are grappling each other in the stereotypical "clinch".
    • ...Aaaand, since half of the fanbase seems to want more detail and realism, a new supplement, called Technical Grappling, was published in November 2013.
  • Both Old World of Darkness and the new. You might think a system in which vampires grapple helpless victims on a daily basis would have a simple means of determining success...
  • Exalted:
    • The game has relatively simple grappling rules — they're about one paragraph and use the same rolls as everything else in combat — but their balance is problematic, since they basically leave you defenseless and trivially vulnerable to being one-hit killed by anyone not in the grapple, functionally making even a simple grab into an instant touch of death.
    • They're a bit better executed in the "Burn Legend" Shard, which is only very loosely tied to the Exalted system. Grapples are just one class of move, which usually defeat Defensive techniques and are in turn usually defeated by Strikes and/or Rushes (depending on the move in question), and they're no more intrinsically powerful than any of the moves that counter them. Their only real advantage lies in going after people trying to use a defensive recovery move.
    • Feng Shui has a similar problem with a few kung-fu powers that cause joint-locks.
  • The first and second editions of Unknown Armies kinda fall prey to this trope, although not as much or in the same way as you'd think. The 'grappling rules' in the combat rules were more complicated than the rest of combat (except for maybe the suppressive fire and autofire rules). The most annoying part, however, was that they weren't given in the more 'standard' part of the rules, alongside disarming and throwing, like they should've. Instead, they were crammed into the HTH cherries examples list, thus making them look like they were completely optional and used exclusively in special cases, when they really shouldn't have.
  • Mutants & Masterminds:
    • It uses a mildly tweaked version of the d20 grappling system with all of the attendant problems and difficulties. But the combination of a Point Build System and Super-Strength (or Telekinesis) means that a grapple-oriented character with the right feats can easily break the system if the GM allows them to. To give you an idea of the potentials of abuse, one of the starting archetypes has a grapple check bonus of +27.
    • Third Edition has changed the grappling system to reduce the ludicrous levels of Grapple bonus and to make it easier for dexterous characters to avoid or break out of grapples albeit at the cost of making it almost too easy to escape grapples with the most effective archetype (the Powerhouse) having less than a 50% chance of maintaining a grapple chance on all but one of the remaining archetypes. The number of available actions when grappling has decreased too to reduce complexity.
  • The Street Fighter: The Storytelling Game roleplaying game tried to avoid issues by taking the Fighting Game approach, which is OK in some respects (say, if you have the Bearhug manoeuvre, or the Spinning Piledriver; you get what you use), but can be seen as lacking some flexibility. What would you do if, say, you had to hold someone still, and your only Grab manoeuvre you bought was the grab-and-toss Throw?
  • Rifts has about as straightforward, non functioning grappling rules as every other game.
    • Applied to any RPG by Palladium Books. It's not that the rules were particularly complex or anything, but Palladium's rulebooks were so insanely organized that you would have to look in at least five places to find the rules covering anything. To crown it all, Palladium rulebooks usually didn't have indexes.
    • The key thing to remember here is that your attacks do double damage, if you have a hand on your enemy, before you attack, that's it for the most part.
  • Ninjas And Superspies. In the words of someone who tried it: "It's the gaming equivalent of Cthulhu." The sad thing is you can build whole characters based off of grappling.
  • Professional Wrestling games try to find some way of adapting, for the obvious reason. Most settle for defining particular manoeuvres (suplex, powerbomb, et cetera) as attacks. Depending on the game, moving a wrestler to another part of the arena could be a special action, a result of prior moves, or just a special effect that can be added on.
  • At least until the third edition of The Dark Eye, grappling (save for one very specific fighting style) did only do damage to stamina and not to HP, meaning you could not kill anyone with your bare hands.
  • Burning Wheel grappling is extremely complex, though the difference between it and the rest of its combat system isn't as great as many systems due to overall complexity.
    • Burning Wheel's grappling system is really just one roll that determines how incapacitating your hold on the target is. It's not a separate system from the main combat rules. And, given the power of armor in BW, it's not an uncommon way to take out armored foes.
  • The first edition of the Legend of the Five Rings RPG had a distinct lack of grappling rules, until a supplement introduced the Mizu-do unarmed combat learned by some Crane. The rules were unbalanced, especially the joint lock maneuver. A starting character who was reasonably skilled in Mizu-do had about a 50% chance of disarming and incapacitating the greatest warriors in Rokugan using this manuever, because the target's stats were completely irrelevant to whether the manuever succeeded.
  • Most BattleTech players are largely unaware the game even has grapple rules. The rules themselves are actually quite simple and generally intuitive, taking up a mere half page of text, but are restricted to the advanced Tactical Operations tech level 3 rules. They are one of the few rules not to be included in ANY of its videogame adaptations.
  • Same with the Mechwarrior RPG. The rule books give about one page to trying to present grappling rules using adapted wargame mechanics, then appears to give up and point out that simply attacking someone with a weapon is much easier and more effective.

    Video Games 
  • Dwarf Fortress:
    • In this as in so many other things, it is so beautifully detailed as to be nearly worthless. You can grab any visible body part of the opponent with any of your grasping limbs. (Note that "any of your grasping limbs" means you can technically break someone's elbow using only your right thigh, or have six different teeth grabbing six different body-parts.) Theoretically you can snap bones and break necks if you perform the proper sequence of operations, but mostly you'll end up awkwardly grasping and releasing the enemy's elbow several times. Also, the only combat advantage grabs themselves give, no matter what you grab, is the enemy being unable to dodge.
    • That said, NPC wrestlers can wrestle anything to death. In the 40d Fortress mode, having skill wrestlers was terrifyingly effective... they'd wade in against squads of enemies and soon there would be limbs ripped off and bodies flying frankly improbable distances. It's been toned down a bit in the newer version of the game, mind you, and trying to wrestle a guy with an axe doesn't often end well unless it's in Adventure mode and you know what you're doing. And even then wrestlers don't do especially well against beasts.
    • And you can too, if you can find out the (admittedly insane) ways to break bones, etc. every time. Performing a "pinch" as a coup de grâce on an unconscious opponent causes their head to pop off and fly several meters.
    • It's gotten a huge step up in comprehensibility with version .31.17, as instead of selecting from a single list containing every move possible, wrestling and the newly implemented aimed attacks let you select a target body part and limb used on separate menus. While standing you also can't grab with anything but your arms (legs only become usable when you lay down) and mouth after a successful bite attack (as opposed to previous version where all of the six sections or your mouth could grasp different limbs).
    • Dwarves have been seen biting off the teeth of other creatures.
  • Monster Girl Quest has binds as a type of attack only available to enemies. When an enemy binds you, your skills are sealed and a new option, "Struggle", appears. Most binds are escaped via using Struggle... except for a few that instead require you attack. Note that if you try attacking outside of these few binds, it won't work at all. Then there's binds that you can only escape by Struggling while you have Gnome to enhance your strength. And then there's binds that can't be escaped at all, requiring you to avoid them entirely. The sequel, Monster Girl Quest: Paradox, simplifies this: female party members automatically Struggle if bound, while Luka (the only male party member who can be bound) can either attack or Struggle and the former option always does (reduced) damage. It's also now possible to bind enemies with certain skills, but for enemies this just functions as a status effect that prevents action.


    Comic Strips 
  • A classic Knights of the Dinner Table strip concerns the knights (well really Brian), abusing Hackmasters "overbearing" (historically the absolutely most confusing and loopholed part of AD&D's unarmed combat rules) to take the Adventure Off the Rails. Mere mention of the term "Beggar Mobs" can crack fans up.

    Web Comics 
  • Darths & Droids, quoted above.
    • Anakin attempts to grapple an opponent, leading to the page quote. In the next strip, we find out the grapple rules have their own supplement, which is bigger than the core rulebook. Then the GM decides to crash the flying car they're on.
    • While the regular GM would rather give up than deal with the grappling rules, when Pete later stands in as substitute GM he takes pride in using the full system. But that doesn't give the full impact of it, so this THIS is the full uncut version with the true insanity level. Worth noting is, although Pete was being a Killer Game Master for most of that session, he can only claim credit for the opponent and the surrounding hazards; the end result of that fight putting Jim in a horrible position was all this trope. Also worth noting is that Pete, having foreseen the possibility of a grapple on his watch, set up a few flowcharts and tables to streamline the process. It still takes in excess of a hundred panels. Imagine how long it would've taken for the regular GM to thumb through the rulebook.
    • Four movies and over a thousand strips later, the GM sighs when Lando has to grapple on Jabba's sailbarge.
  • DM of the Rings comes fairly close to making a joke about grappling systems, but goes for a joke about Attacks of Opportunity instead.
  • In One Piece: Grand Line 3.5, part of what makes Luffy's player Luke such a Genius Ditz is that he actually understands the grappling rules well enough to use them freely. (The GM complains several times that they're too complicated to look up, although he eventually figures them out himself.)
  • A strip of The Order of the Stick during its Dragon magazine run featured a chuul in the midst of battling the party attempt to make a grapple, before getting confused at how its Improved Grab ability (a monster-exclusive ability which streamlines grappling heavily) interacts with the usual rules. Ultimately, it decides to give up and just start attacking normally, which turns out to be quite effective.

    Web Original 
  • Things Mr. Welch Is No Longer Allowed to Do in an RPG #999 ("I can't train squirrel mobs to abuse the grapple rules."). This is primarily a reference to 3rd ed. Dungeons & Dragons, which allows dozens of tiny creatures to gang up on large ones, each one gaining a significant bonus for every other combatant. Or at least, allowing sixteen grapple rolls, one of which will inevitably be a Critical Hit. Granted, the latter doesn't help on a grapple check if their modifier is too low to win even then, which is why the true Munchkin trains the squirrels to use the Aid Another action. Those that make a successful attack against a flat AC of 10 (probably about three out of four squirrels) each grant a stacking +2 bonus on the character's grapple check (or attack roll or armor class, at the squirrel's option).

    Web Videos 

Alternative Title(s): Grappling With The Grappling Rules