Grappling with Grappling, Part I: The Problem

Rolemaster has never done a particularly good job of capturing the mechanics of grappling or wrestling. With the new edition of Rolemaster around the corner, discussion of RMU’s grappling mechanics recently came up on the ICE forums (before they went down). I thought this would be a good occasion to review these rules and offer a few suggestions as to how they can be improved.

In this post, which is the first of three I will make on grappling, I will just survey the rules for wrestling in previous editions (pre-RMU) of Rolemaster. This will get us all up to speed on how Rolemaster has tried to solve the problem of wrestling, and I think it will also make several things abundantly clear: The original Rolemaster’s system of attack charts and criticals never really captured wrestling’s effects very well, and subsequent editions merely added new skills without fixing the underlying problems, which resulted in a confusing proliferation of skills, and frankly a rather hopeless mess of mechanics. I think Rolemaster can do better than that.

Full disclosure: this is a topic dear to my heart. I actually wrestled a little bit (the real kind—what Americans call ‘amateur’ or ‘olympic’ wresting, as opposed to the fake ‘professional’ wrestling) in middle and high school. I love the sport. It is the hardest one I have ever done, for it demands every ounce of your energy and attention. And the list of UFC champions will testify that it is one of the most effective martial arts in the world.

The rules for grappling in RM2 were pretty simple. There was an attack table for ‘Grapple/Grasp/Envelop/Swallow’ (the picture showed a squid and a snake), which did relatively few hit points in damage and resulted in Grapple criticals. One unique thing about this table was the note at the bottom saying that for each round that a creature obtained a critical against its target, the creature got a +10 to OB against that target. This seemed to be an attempt to show a creature sinking in a deeper hold on its target. There was also a Martial Arts: Sweeps and Throws skill, which was meant to simulate martial arts such as Judo and Wrestling. Its attack chart too did relatively few hit points and resulted in Grapple criticals. There was a note that combatants trying to subdue an enemy without doing serious damage could roll on the Grapple or the Sweeps attack table, with a maximum result of 105; this was the cutoff for ‘Small’ attacks, with a maximum critical of ‘B’ severity, which ensured that the attack would be non-lethal… but also make the attack less likely to actually grapple or immobilize its target. On more severe results, the Grapple critical chart could inflict some serious injuries, including death. 91-5 on a C for example resulted in the target being stunned and unable to parry for 44 rounds (is that a record?) and at -95 afterwards. This forced wrestlers to make a choice between the lesser of two evils: play it safe and be a bad wrestler; or be a good wrestler and risk murdering your opponent. That wasn’t ideal.

I imagine RM2’s Unbalancing chart could also be used to represent grapples, but it includes lots of broken bones and very serious injuries, including death, so it isn’t ideal either for capturing two wrestlers in a sparring match.

RM2 also had the Subdual skill, but is was far more Vulcan Nerve Pinch than Rear Naked Choke, and it required a lot more setup than wrestlers did. It was more of a fantasy skill to render unconscious a foe that you approached unawares, and who had no armor on its upper body. You also had to develop the skill separately for different types of creatures. Mechanically, you had to roll 101+ on a skill check, and your bonus was halved if your foe was in melee, so it wasn’t really something a wrestler thought of doing. Even if you succeeded, the defender still got an RR versus your skill ranks in Subduing. To this day, I’m not quite sure what stat affected this RR (I am assuming Constitution?).

The RM companions did not add much more. Companion IV lamented the lack of ability to attack to subdue, and offered some additional options for that, such as changing lethal criticals to non-lethal criticals, provided the attacker accepted a penalty (-20 or more) to the attack’s OB, and that the attack was of a type that could be used non-lethally (e.g. yes for Grapples, no for Lightning Bolts). The Arms Companion added the ‘Melee Scuffle’ skill, which was essentially a tripping skill that used 40% of your activity for the round.

RMSS/FRP tried to solve the problem by adding many more wrestling-like skills. However, these skills seemed at times to overlap with and even contradict one another, and even then, they never really offered wrestlers any other option than the traditional ones of being either a bad wrestler or a good murderer. The RMSS core rules added a Tackling skill, which fell under the Martial Arts: Strikes category. The description of Tackling said it was the skill to use for bringing someone to the ground and temporarily immobilizing them. Tackling used the Martial Arts: Strikes attack table, but with results capped at rank 1, and the criticals were Grappling rather than MA Srikes. Confusingly, RMSS then added that if the contest continued after the initial tackle, then a separate ‘Wrestling’ skill was to be used (I guess no one was thinking of Greco-Roman wrestling here). This Wrestling skill was in the MA: Sweeps category rather than Strikes, and used the Sweeps attack chart rather than the Strikes attack chart, but again with Grappling criticals and a cap of rank 1 results. One problem with this was that the skill descriptions said Tackling had more of an intent to injure whereas Wrestling was just aimed at immobilization, but mechanically, both attacks used exactly the same criticals (Grappling). And those Grappling criticals resulted in lots of broken bones and even instant death.

To add further confusion, RMSS also had yet another separate skill called ‘Athletic Games’, in an entirely separate category (Athletic Games: Brawn), whose written description specifically cited ‘Wrestling’ as one of these games. The lesson here, kids, is that adding more skills is not the solution to every problem! RM2 had had a secondary skill called ‘Athletic Games’, but the description in Rolemaster Companions I and II never mentioned Wrestling, so I am assuming RMSS just added that in here.

RMFRP also redid the Grappling critical charts, changing some of the results. For example, it changed 00 on an E critical from crushing foe’s windpipe to crushing foe’s windpipe and literally ripping his head off. So much for sparring I guess.

The RMSS Martial Arts Companion added an optional rule that adjusted the maximum damage of Wrestling according to the difference in sizes of the combatants. That was kind of neat. It also offered a ‘Locking Holds’ skill, that used the Sweeps attack chart (again limited to rank 1 results) and a new ‘Locking Holds’ critical chart. Again, that was pretty cool. Unfortunately, that chart’s results included lots and lots of broken bones, so it wasn’t very suitable for wrestling.

The RMFRP School of Hard Knocks further confused matters (to me at least) by citing ‘wrestling’ as an example of its Athletic Games: Brawn skill, but then going on to talk mostly about ball sports. To further confuse you, the School of Hard Knocks’ description of the Tackling skill was illustrated by two figures that are clearly Wrestling.

So what does this trip through memory lane prove? To me, it clearly shows that adding a plethora of new skills will not solve the problem of realistically representing grappling. RMSS’s multiplication of skills just amplified confusion over how to resolve wrestling actions. The real solution – for me at least – lies in using existing skills and mechanics instead, and simplifying them to produce a more realistic and workable system. Wrestlers should not have to choose between being bad wrestlers or good murderers.

My next post will compare how two other systems can offer help in achieving these goals. The two systems are: Dungeons and Dragons, which offers a very simple and reasonably good method for resolving grapples (especially the non-lethal kind); and RMU, which presents a new Grapple critical table, new size rules, and a simpler action economy, which enable us to simplify the rules for grappling while at the same time making them more realistic than they have ever been. In my third and final post of this trilogy on Grappling, I’ll offer my own houserules for handling grappling in RMU.

3 thoughts on “Grappling with Grappling, Part I: The Problem”

  1. In my games, grappling was never a high priority. Blackjacks, clubs, nets, and whips get pulled out sometimes to deal with foes needed alive (if heavily concussed, minus one or two kneecaps or noses), and the occasional martial artist with sweeps can take a live victim. Stunning spells are more common. Once someone’s stunned or KO, Rope Mastery solves a lot of problems. But most people don’t hire adventurers to take someone alive, and there’s various ways to interrogate the dead.

    For a *good* grappling system, see All Flesh Must Be Eaten’s “Zombie Smackdown” pro-wrestling/lucha libre sourcebook, or the general martial arts rules in “Enter the Zombie”.

  2. Love the idea for the article (former HS college/wrestler myself). Tough topic too, as the nuances between very similar ideas can be hard to discern clearly. I look forward to the next articles.

  3. I look forward to your input Hurin, because as you say unarmed combat as a whole in RM is broke. I have really gone down the MERP route of one skill for a named style (I am lucky in having several “martial arts” friends who can offer advice on the sort of “moves” each style has and the type of results). After that, it has been a matter of just applying sense to the critical rolls that we could all agree on. The shorter RMU round should make it easier to apply the decision making process for unarmed combat because instead of 10 sec of grappling for hold, it will possibly succeed and allow a lock/choke to be applied that can then disable the opponent. The mechanics of how this is handled will be interesting.

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