The GURPS combat system can be really painful, especially if you use some optional rules. Two-players-vs.-two-NPC combat can easily take more than half an hour. Are there some tips, rules to players, etc., to make it go quick without forbidding all optional rules?

I am talking mostly about TL3.


I been playing GURPS since 1987 and the basic combat of attack, defend, damage can indeed bog down for even moderately skilled players. In reality people have options to get around the defenses of a skilled opponent and for some added complexity GURPS can emulates these options.

First off the players should not pair off with their opponents but should at least double team opponents. In the two-on-two fight this means that one player can force a step back by an enemy then the second player can strike, forcing their opponent to use their base defense.

They could position themselves so one can limit the target's defense (page 390). A side attack get -2 to defense and a rear attack permits no defense roll.

The player can choose to beat down their opponents' shields by striking at their weapons and especially the shield (pages 484, 485).

A skilled player can chose to Feint, basically a contest of weapon skill, and if the player wins the contest the difference is applied as a negative to the opponent's defenses (page 365).

A limb strike to the arm or leg can be effective as there is often little armor in those locations (page 398).

A step and evaluate can be used to gain up to +3 to hit (page 364). While it extends combat in-game time, it takes little time to resolve in table time: the player just declares he is evaluating.

Finally, historical melee combat is as much a physical contest as it is about weapon play. Slams can be used to knock the opponent down to a prone position with all his weapons unready (page 371) and at a -3 to defense. Grappling can be used to immobilize an opponent for a friend.

Look at Knockback on page 278. Basically, for every multiple of ST-2 on damage before armor is subtracted, the opponent is knocked back a hex. More critically it forces them to make a DX, Acrobatics, or Judo roll or fall down.

Don't forget to apply the shock roll once anybody takes damage. For example 4 damage means the person is -4 to all rolls until the next round (page 419). Any damage over HP/2 will force the target to roll vs Health for stunning and knockdown (page 420).

The biggest issue the player will find when using these options isn't their complexity, but figuring out when they can be effectively used. For example, trying to slam a target with a lot more HP than you wouldn't be a good tactic.

Finally, remember the NPCs' morale. Rarely will an intelligent person fight to the death. Some will run away with a just a broken sword arm – and in a two person fight, that will likely cause the other person to run away as well.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This is good set of informations that makes combat fast in view of turns but will it make it quick in view of minutes? With many possibilities comes many minutes to think about them. \$\endgroup\$ – boucekv Dec 12 '12 at 7:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ In a typical melee where the goal is to down your opponent the only possibilities the players needs to consider is whether a) he has more dexterity, b) has more strength, or c) has more skill, or d) none of the above. Each of the four possibilities has a straight forward set of tactics that you can use to quickly gain the advantage over the options and lessen both the out of game time and in-game time of melee. \$\endgroup\$ – RS Conley Dec 12 '12 at 13:33

TL3 combat usually takes time because attacks are relatively easy to defend against, and attacks are often not particularly deadly. Also, there is a lot of options, as usual. I would advise against making attacks more deadly, so let's take a look at other options. At TL3, both active and passive defenses are attainable and effective, but this might be tuned in several ways, for example:

  1. Play in a hot setting, with low wealth, stealth-related missions etc. This will rule out most potent source of DR – heavy armor.
  2. Use this optional rule: "For every 2 points of margin of success a character has in her attack, the target's defense is lowered by 1". This will make skill more valuable (which is ok, and might shift balance of power towards the PCs, which is also ok) and will cause targets to be hit more often, even those with high active defenses.
  3. Disallow "Retreat" maneuver. This will also cause more hits and make one step towards simplifying decisions.
  4. Play without hit locations, damage multipliers, shock, knockback and knockdown. This will simplify the math, reduce bookkeeping and simplify decisions.
  5. If all of the above is not enough, check what takes most time and proceed from there.

If you want your NPCs to get busy dying, make liberal use of All-Out Attacks (both to make them more immediately threatening to the players and to avoid those pesky defense rolls) and fiat that unimportant NPCs will automatically fail rolls to stay conscious so they should drop once their turn comes up and they're at 0 hp or fewer.

I'd also recommend just sticking with the system for a while. It's not really that slow once you stop needing to look up what happens all the time. If your players are Mr. Slowypants, I'd also recommend a rule that 'If you don't have your dice in hand to roll your active defense when you darn well knew you were being attacked, you fail it.'


Have each combatant have a favored active defense noted, and then roll the attack roll, damage roll and active defense roll all together (using three separate styles (color/size) of six-side dice). You can have the players make all the rolls for combats with them, or you can have the attackers make all rolls.


As a GM, the thing I prefer to do is limit the time a player can eat up deciding upon his course of action. Each round is supposed to be one second, which means a lot of rounds should theoretically go by quickly, as each combatant sizes up the situation whilst in a defensive posture. In reality, this can drag on.

This means I have one warm-up combat with no consequences, to let players try out my style, with me pressuring them to make their decisions, quickquickquick! Too late, you're defending, next guy, what are you doing? The other guy strikes at you, how do you defend? Roll! You blocked with your shield! Your turn, what do you do? And so on.

This is a hit or miss strategy, I know. But when it works, it makes for a more cinematic feel, gets the adrenaline pumping. It also works better if you think less in terms of rules, but when players announce their actions in plain language. "I draw another arrow from my quiver and aim!" "I strike back with my sword!" "I let out a cry and attack with my axe!" "I keep my guard up, waiting for an opening!"


It's awkward to apply to two-vs-two combats, but using mass combat (or modified mass combat) rules even in quite small skirmishes did worth it in our campaign. As we use it:

  • time and importance for the story are the key. We gradually changed our combat-playing style from regular combat rules only to simplification of most combat except for boss fights (including duels of peers) and situations when we have enough time to spare (mostly while playing 1-to-1 with my brother and his fighter PC). Uninterresting fights are simplified to contests of skill (skill with weapon, +2 for Combat Refelexes, +1 for each enhanced parry/block, +1 for each maxed technique) or mass combat.

  • we use simplified (especially in army strengh counting) 4th edition mass combat for battle resolution and modified 3rd edition for PC survival/ glory. Along with +/- 6 for risk taken, we add a modifier for how dangerous the situation is. Ordinary battles mean rules as written, but fights where the warrior characters must disperse several tens of enemies can mean total as much as -12 on battle survival roll. The PCs are around 500 points now, so such situations occur.

  • in bigger battles, we combine mass combat PC impact (survival/glory) rolls with short combats in standard system - if the PC don't challenge and important NPC champion, we don't play the full combat, just few rounds. After them, it's usually clear how will the combat go on.

  • when we use standard combat rules, feints and deceptive attacks are a routine. The second biggest quickening of combat after introduction of mass combat rules happened when the players learnt to feint. Now they feel weird if their attack has only -2 penalty for deceptive attack (-1 to enemy's defence), -4 is most common - unless they use a rapid strike/ dual weapon attack, which quickens combat even more

We have an advantage of a campaign more than six years long, so even players who never met GURPS before are quite experienced now. But it's no problem to learn fast for most players if someone (usually GM) helps them.


One of the commonest reasons for long fights is high defence rolls (also known as 'Who can roll a critical first?'). I recall a tip in Roleplayer magazine; allow (or mandate) a subtraction from the attack giving an equal subtraction from the defence. So the long slog of 16 to hit, 14 to defend becomes 12 to attack, 10 to defend; much quicker to get a result. Call it 'bright sunlight penalty' if you need to.

Another good effect of this is that skill over 16 actually becomes valuable without agonizing over which Hit Location to go for.


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