Sunday, August 28, 2016

Review: Martial Arts

I always have a weird feeling when reviewing these books that are what I would almost consider pillars or foundations of the system, that I am just preaching to the choir. Martial Arts is next to fundamental if you like melee or low-tech combat in GURPS whatsoever. It almost feels like it goes without saying that 9/10 games will benefit from having it. So, with that in mind, I need to write this review for the edification of people that aren't GURPS experts and instead might not have even played GURPS at all, so that's the path I'm going to take while reviewing this very critical book.


Table of contents, page 1.
I am reviewing the PDF format of the book which has "259" pages, but starts on page 7 of the document (page 5 semantically) and ends on page 252 (page 250) before going into the index, bibliography, and glossary, giving us 246 pages of stuff. The books is split into 7 chapters. The first 21 page chapter is background information and real world History about martial arts to give one some kinda grounding before continuing. The second 34 page chapter is about designing Characters, and includes several new skills, advantages, disadvantages, and modifiers and clarifications for existing ones. The third 33 page chapter is all about Techniques, and includes a huge catalog of new ones split into realistic and cinematic, and concludes with a bit of a toolkit for creating your own novel techniques. The fourth 44 page chapter is new rules and guidance for running more interesting or detailed Combat scenarios in a GURPS game. The gigantic 71 page fifth chapter is a guide to creating styles, one of the big introduced mechanics in this book, followed by a very long catalog of mostly realistic with a few fictional martial arts styles. The 25 page chapter six is a glossary and index of important Weapons and Equipment, explaining several exotic weapons and how to use the existent generic forms with potentially a small modification to stats to correctly capture the different mechanical effects of each. The final 16 page chapter is GM guidance on running martial arts focused Campaigns giving different backdrops and themes for the types of campaigns to run.
Page 2 of the table of
Each chapter starts with an interesting anecdote involving the example characters built in chapter 2, though they are not necessarily a linear story. Art is very good, and pull quotes are equal parts inspiring and amusing. The bibliography is an interesting guide for people who want recommendations for non-fiction and fiction resources for getting in the right headspace to use the book as well. Overall, organization makes sense, but in hindsight, I think a few things could have been grouped together a little bit better, but that's 6 in one hand, a half a dozen in the other - as it is right now, the organization is better for straight reading than off-the-cuff referencing.
Overall, this book is gold, and it is useful for anyone that wants to add a bit more depth to any combat heavy campaign regardless of time period or setting. Let's go a bit deeper.


The first chapter is a summary of world history of martial arts. We start off with a bit of a two page timeline with important moments in history across the globe from about 3000 BCE to 2005 CE highlighting the assertion that no one specific culture has a monopoly on the invention and refinement of martial arts. We then go on a continent by continent (excluding Oceania?) breakdown of that history with greater detail. Asia, Europe, and the Middle East all get the most screen time, but Africa and The New World are also given some enlightening pages. I personally would have liked to see some more information on New World Indigenous styles, but I can empathize with how difficult it can be to find good resources for that kind of information.
After the continent by continent breakdown, a series of short biographies is presented to kinda give a feel for the evolution of martial arts. This leads into the conclusion: an interesting read on myths and urban legends.
The first chapter is pure "fluff," but a very interesting read. To help give some context to this review, I know next to nothing about martial arts, so in that sense, this chapter was a fun approachable primer, but at the same time, I don't think it does much in terms of setting up the rest of the book.


Switching gears to something "harder," this chapter is about all the mechanical components of putting a character together. It starts with a discussion for GMs about setting power levels and realism levels in a campaign, and what the likely big differences are between cinematic and realistic martial arts characters can be. After that, we have a handful of combat oriented templates that typically come with a mundane 100 point version and cinematic 200 point version, with an exception here or there.
After this, we have a dissection of existing and especially appropriate advantages, disadvantages, and skills, some with new specializations or modifiers. Especially useful is the catalog of new perks that starts on p.49. There are a lot of them, and several are mechanically awesome and/or really good at differentiating two otherwise very similar styles.
After the perks, we have a very detailed list of existing skills with some new advice and mechanical applications or specialties, and this ends with some neato new cinematic skills.
I have not ever used the templates in the book, but I feel like it is more because I forgot about them, rather than I don't like them. The skill and perks catalog in this chapter is very useful though.


Techniques is one of the big stars of Martial Arts, probably next to the styles, extra rules in chapter 4, and the perks in the previous chapter. Man, that's a lot of stars. This chapter starts with some mechanical guidance on using techniques and a few edge cases, like when using multiple techniques simultaneously, and then goes into a huge catalog of realistic, then cinematic techniques. The provided techniques are mechanically interesting and have a plethora of game effects that don't always amount to "trade skill for damage." The existent list alone is incredibly valuable.
But what's really interesting is that after the huge list of provided techniques, it has a detailed guide to creating unique techniques, allowing one to stat out penalties based on the benefits and drawbacks of a given technique, and a few guidelines for separating realistic from cinematic. A continuously useful chapter for detailed combat campaigns.


This chapter gives some more sophisticated or nuanced rules to go above and beyond the rules given in Basic Set - Campaigns. We start off with a clarification of some edge cases for the aim maneuver, some new options for all-out attack, and some interesting options for changing postures. We introduce some new attack maneuvers to create a wider continuum of options from All-out Defense to All-Out Attack: Defensive Attack and Committed Attack. After that, there's some detailed extra rules for Evaluate and Feint and some expansion on typical usages of ready. Then we get to some interesting rules about alternative grips that have different pros and cons depending on the situation. After that, a lot of extra rules for Fast-Draw edge cases, and a discussion on the value of changing weapon skills for weapons that support multiple approaches and applications. 
After all of that, we have some advanced movement maneuvers to support acrobatic or cinematic options, like jumping up walls or swinging from chandeliers. We then go into move and attack with some extra options that allow us to attack from even greater distances, though the penalties are still huge, making this seem like a pretty weak option to me. The section ends with some new options and expansions of the wait maneuver, especially important is the stop hit.
The next section of the chapter adds new combat options that apply to many different maneuvers, starting with a discussion of options for Combinations, a technique option offered earlier for doing several attacks in a single turn. It goes into more detail on special grips, using a sword pommel with an unarmed skill, other typical unarmed abilities used with weapons, and new tactics for dealing with shields.
After that, we go into Close-Combat Options, which offers a few pages of new maneuvers that mainly deal with grappling and being grappled, and speak to interesting implications of unusual morphology advantages.
Next we have extra Ranged Attack Options. This section includes rules for shooting muscle powered weapons quickly, and using multiple thrown weapons at once.
Then we have Active Defense Options, which includes the Cross Parry ability to use multiple weapons for a better parry, and more detailed rules about active defenses while grappling and being grappled. It includes options for multiple blocks a turn, parrying with unusual limbs, giving two handed weapons improved parrying capabilities, and sacrificing active defense skill for a chance to pull off a riposte.
The next major section of the chapter covers options especially appropriate for cinematic combat. It calls out some good rules from among those already touched on, goes into special rules for multiple attacks that help in different situations, and then has a few thoughts on Chambara Fighting. Wuxia and Chambara being especially cinematic have a bunch of extras to consider turning on that let fights go even faster than normal. It includes advice for some esoteric cinematic skills to emulate the genre more faithfully, like using Light Walk to move across improbable "surfaces." 
The next section on Extra Effort in Combat is one of my favorite sections in this chapter because it is widely applicable to most campaigns, and Heroic Charge and Feverish Defense are staples for me in combat.
After this we have a few extra Cinematic Combat Rules, options to make GURPS conform more to particular genre conventions, similar to those found in the Basic Set.
Next is a section on Tournament Combat which is about setting up tournaments. These are alternatives to the normal combat rules which allow for more narrative driven battles. Instead of doing turn 1, turn 2, turn 3, etc. until someone is defeated, there are rules for dramatic pauses for strategizing, monologuing, jeering, and otherwise.
The chapter ends with more detailed Injury and Recovery mechanics. Rules include degraded performance as wounds accumulate, especially when accrued by specific limbs, extra hit locations, more severe bleeding rules, serious permanent injuries, and ends with advice on dealing with Cinematic Injury for stories where characters are expected to deal with tons of damage.
That's a huge synopsis of a huge chapter. But this is all solid material and all of it is extremely useful and fun to look through especially if you are like me and like lots and lots of rules to pick and choose from.


Though this is the longest chapter in the book, there isn't as much to say about it as the previous chapter because it is very repetitive, as each style is mostly a variation on a theme. The chapter starts with advice on creating new styles and choosing a style when building a character, and the mechanics of spending character points for styles. An interesting note on the guidance is that depending on certain goals of application of the style or developing the character, there are some changes you can make so the style is even more appropriate. As for the styles themselves, they are *mostly* in alphabetical order, but with realistic and fantasy styles in separate sections. Sometimes the alphabetical order rule is broken if one style is a closely related derivative or if it has a big mechanical similarity but big semantic differences. I like that they all contain an interesting introduction and a bit of player's guide text speaking to important techniques and abilities that players might want to focus on either for proper representation or mechanical leverage. The huge list of styles is a pleasure to read through.

Weapons and Equipment

This chapter... is about weapons and equipment. It starts with a huge list of culturally significant weapons which gives a small description of each, and then recommends closely related generic versions and sometimes adjustments to the stats of the generic versions to allow for the real world differences when they are significant. Throughout the chapter are special rules for customizing equipment that are useful in any setting or campaign. After the weapon glossary, an expanded weapons table with about 5 pages of tl0-5 weapons is included, most are melee, and a few ranged. The chapter ends with a special section on training equipment and armor, meant for sports and practice applications of martial arts as opposed to the conventional application. Very helpful for setting and world building or if running a campaign where training is a major focus. Overall, a very useful chapter, but it feels more like a nice bonus rather than a main event, if that makes sense?


This is GM guidance on setting the stage for a campaign. It begins with a talk about what level of cinematic or realistic rules to use to set the mood for a game. Each theme discussed has a fun little at-a-glance mention of strengths and weaknesses for particular campaigns, which looks useful for choosing among them, but admittedly I haven't used them.
The next section covers several popular physical settings for martial arts heavy campaigns, inspired by the real world and romantic or cinematic fiction, spelling out typical plots and motivations for each.
The final section, Campaign Themes talks about the essence of a campaign in the abstract, separate from the setting or the rules, as themes are more fundamental and universal. It illustrates how to apply a particular theme to various settings and realism levels and can be used as inspiration if you need ideas, or to shore up some shallow bits of an idea you might already have.

Other Thoughts and Conclusion

This is a big book, so that was a big review. The Bibliography, like I mentioned earlier is a pretty fun list to pick through, the glossary seems superfluous though. RPGs are usually about adventures and adventures usually have fighting, and so there is rarely a reason (though that doesn't mean there aren't campaigns without fighting) why if you play GURPS you would not want Martial Arts. I've used it in every single campaign I've ever run, and can almost not separate it mentally from the Basic Set, it is so fundamental in my opinion.


  1. Yeah, Martial Arts is definitely on my GURPS book you should no matter what genre you run list.

  2. I've semi-jokingly referred to this as "GURPS Basic III" or "The third core book" a few times. I'd agree that it is to melee-oriented campaigns what Thaumatology is to magical ones. And, I think, if you're going to have a game with rich magical options, you surely should allow Martial Arts to enrich your melee guys.

    Interestingly, it was GURPS Martial Arts that ultimately turned me to GURPS in general. At the time I was on a hunt for things that could make melee better than D&D's "I attack" or "I full attack". It wasn't so much that Martial Arts had options, but rather that by learning it existed, it demonstrated to me that this was a community that *cared* about melee being more than "use sword on man". The actual content sealed the deal.

    For those interested, I took this supplement and used much of its methodology to add three new "styles" (up on the blog) - a Xingyi variant from WW2, and two US Military Combatives methods - LINE and the 1992 Army Combatives system. I have been meaning to add more, but it's actually a lot of research and deliberation, let alone translation, before writing and editing even begins...

    1. Oh, and there's two or three disconnected "techniques" on the blog as well; one or two of which Peter Del'Ortho actually liked!


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