Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Fundamental: How to Not Die - Active Defenses and Quick Contests

The person on the right is parrying,
just in case you don't know what
parrying means.
So previously, I started writing about this, and I found that I was going to need to write a lot more in one post than I like, so I decided to break the topic into separate posts. In the previous post, I discussed attributes that are conducive to survival and how they impact survival. Today, I'm going to speak to a mechanic that has a more direct impact on survival, that being Active Defenses. I will go over what Active Defenses are, how to improve them, and then similarly, how Will, HT, and ST also behave in a similar avenue for other situations, namely Quick Contests.

Active Defenses

Active Defense is a critical survival mechanic in GURPS, because surviving big hits isn't as viable as it is in other RPGs. A successful usage of an Active Defense entirely negates damage, so the character with 10 HP that can dodge everything can easily outlive the shambling beast with 100 HP that can't protect itself for nothing. All active defenses are explained in great detail on p.374 of the Basic Set.
An active defense is an abstraction of performing an action to not get hit, usually in the context of fighting, and usually either through one of:

  • Dodging - finding a way to keep a blow from even connecting by moving out of the way.
  • Parrying - finding a way to deflect a blow by pushing it out of the way.
  • Blocking - finding a way to interpose a sturdy object between yourself and a blow so that the energy of the attack is completely absorbed and dissipated without incurring injury.
It is an "abstraction," however, so sometimes though the GURPS mechanics might call an action a dodge, it might be flinching away from a blow reflexively, swerving out of the way, jumping over it, teleporting a projectile to the other side of your body so it doesn't pass through you, or whatever makes sense in terms of flavor and the situation at hand. Let's look at each of the three active defenses in more detail then.


This is the defense that almost everyone is entitled to at all times. You can dodge as many times as you like in one turn without penalty. It is the most difficult and expensive to raise owing to its versatility and utility. A character's dodge is calculated simply as Basic Speed (rounded down to an integer value, if necessary) and adding 3, and then subtracting encumbrance. In addition, the following situations can have an impact on dodge.

  • A character with the Acrobatics (or in other environments, Aerobatics, Aquabatics, Astrobatics, etc.) can perform an Acrobatic Dodge once per turn with a decent bonus on success but a penalty on failure.
  • A character may retreat (except in a few unusual circumstances) once per turn. This requires changing location, and is usually most effective when used with a dodge. More nuances and details can be found on p.377 of Basic Set - Campaigns.


This defense is using your fighting skills to slap an attack away from yourself, and almost any character with a weapon can parry. A few special weapons have conditions that make this more difficult, like whips, or weapons that are so heavy they are unbalanced. A parry is nominally calculated by dividing an attack skill by 2 and adding 3, so increasing an attack skill's level by 2 (through raising the skill directly, purchasing a fine balanced weapon and having a weapon bond, raising DX, etc.) can improve parrying. In addition, the advantage Enhanced Parry can improve parrying with 1 weapon type for 5 character points, (not a particularly good deal) and all weapons for just a little bit more (which might be a good deal if you use a lot of weapons).
Weapons that have a fencing parry, those with an 'f' after the parry modifier, and some advanced unarmed combat skills (see p. 377 of Basic Set - Campaigns for a full list) in their stats acquire the retreat advantage of a dodge, but also the susceptibility to encumbrance penalties as well.
Parries can be used once per turn, or optionally, at a GM's discretion, multiple times with a stiff penalty. The advantages Trained by a Master and Weapon Master always allow consecutive parries, and cut this penalty in half. Weapons that have a fencing parry also cut the penalty in half. If both conditions apply, the cumulative parrying modifier is "stacked" and the penalty is quartered, making Weapon Master an especially good compliment for a user of, for example, rapiers.


Block is kind of unusual, in that it is almost the same thing as a parry in use, but with a few tiny nuances. Blocking is performed with a shield or cloak and is executed by somehow absorbing the blow with the tool. Blocking often doesn't have a penalty for being performed by the off-hand, so a right-handed user with a shield in her left hand doesn't need to buy off-hand training to use it correctly. Like parrying, the formula for blocking level is the skill used for blocking (eg: Shield (Buckler) ) divided by 2 plus 3. Blocking is normally also only allowed once per turn, or can be allowed multiple times, at the GM's discretion, with a larger penalty than prescribed for consecutive parries. Like parrying, there is a Weapon Master variant for shields only that allows halved consecutive penalties.

Defense Bonus

Defense Bonus is an unusual property of shields that increases all active defenses, and really takes shields from a "maybe" to an "awesome" in terms of efficacy in keeping you alive. The important details of Defense Bonus are described on p.374 of Basic Set - Campaigns. In this way, even if you only fight one handed with a fencing weapon, you might benefit from having a cloak for your left hand for that sweet sweet +1 to all dodges, parries, and blocks.

Other Things That Impact All Defenses

Being attacked from the sides or behind can penalize or completely remove the opportunity to use any or all active defenses unless you have either of the advantages that extends peripheral vision, Retreats can't be used in a posture where agile movements are impossible, or in tight spaces. Combat Reflexes is a fantastic bargain, and among other helpful things, it increases all active defense rolls by 1.

Strength and Grappling

In the case of being grappled, your first opportunity to resist is an active defense. If for some reason that fails, you still have the chance to free yourself by being stronger and more skilled than your opponent.When grappled, you can break free by winning a quick-contest of ST, which can be improved with high levels of Wrestling, Sumo Wrestling, or Judo skill. More detailed rules can be found on p. 370 of Basic Set - Campaigns.

HT and Afflictions

Several afflictions are based off of HT and side step active defenses. You cannot parry a cough, or block a heart attack. Instead, Afflictions are generally handled by a Success Roll against HT, or even more commonly, as a quick contest. This is your immune system fighting off whatever toxin or infectious agent you have been exposed to. Some variations of the Resistant advantage help in terms of a bonus to rolls to resist infection, for example, Resistant (Venom) (+3 To Rolls) might help you survive a bite from a cobra, and Resistant (Disease) (+3 To Rolls) might help keep your head above water after a bite from a plague bearing rat.

Will and Malediction

This is like a mental analog to the HT and Afflictions setup before, but usually presents as a kind of mental attack, maybe through a magic ability, to, for example, force someone asleep, or control their emotions. When attacked by such a malediction you resist with a quick contest of your will versus the ability of the assailant. Often times, a particular type of resistance, (for example, Magic Resistance for, obviously, added resistance against magical abilities) can be bought separately to help, similar to the Resistant advantage described for protection against afflictions.

Other Thoughts

This has been another very long post, but I think the last (or at least the last I have planned) most interesting post will be a little bit shorter. Active Defense is extremely important in GURPS. It's better to not get hurt at all than it is to get hurt less, and such an assurance is not unaffordable either. I didn't realize until reading further into this that shock penalties didn't affect Active Defense rolls, so I learned something new. That said, I kinda liked the feeling of immediate desperation that sinks in when suddenly it's difficult to protect yourself, and likewise, the upset that is possible when the heroes finally get a brute of a fighter on the ropes. Maybe I should continue using that as a house rule?


  1. Good summary of the traits; I think articles that summarize the fundamentals like this are an important thing, especially to newcomers.

    As an aside, that ARMA article you link by John "flattamahstrong" Clements has largely been made bunk in the HEMA community. Edge parries are a thing, and they're better than ones on the flat in most instances.

    1. Interesting to know! I only linked the page because it is where I found the image, and I hope that's sufficient accreditation. I've linked a lot of stuff I don't agree with (or maybe in this case, is plain incorrect) just because it had an interesting picture.

    2. I will admit that I am pretty bad about sourcing pictures. Largely because I grab them from Google Image search and forget to notate it.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...