GURPS, 4th Edition melee engagements between evenly matched TL3 combatants seem to go on forever. Because of the game's focus on realism, even without top-quality armor (but with some luck) sword-and-shield-armed warriors can protect themselves admirably. Halberds, heavy crossbows, mounted clashes, explosives, and field artillery are rare things for the typical adventurer to encounter. The grappling rules provide options, but there are many ways to escape.

Players seem hesitant to risk using something like All-Out Attack and, instead, mostly perform a basic attacks and defenses, sometimes with extra effort. Yes, exhausting an opponent is a realistic tactic, too, but it shouldn't be the only tactic.

And armor seems to prevent way too much damage.

What can be done to make basic melee combat go faster?

Note: This question asks about GURPS, 4th Edition advanced combat; I am interested in speeding up basic combat.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Is this an actual problem? That is, have you gamed a couple of engagements and had players walk away, start fiddling with their phones, or play video games because the dice were consistently average and they were bored? Or is this how you imagine combat will go, with an endless series of average attacks versus average parries, and no one ever getting hurt? Either way is okay, but an answer that assumes this is a practical problem will be different from an answer that assumes this is a perception problem. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 27, 2016 at 14:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Hey I Can Chan I just want to calculate equal fights in TL3 better and faster. There are no real problems. This is a useful knowledge as is. It brings a better game pace without more rules, world changing or restrictions on a play style, scenario or sandbox parts. (also, I'm searching better options for a tiny 3 hour sessions without throwing out the system) \$\endgroup\$
    – Les
    Commented Aug 28, 2016 at 6:39

3 Answers 3


If combat is too slow, the Basic Set* recommends making defense rolls a Contest of Skills - so instead of just needing to beat your Dodge/Parry/Block roll, you need to beat it by as much or more than the attacker beat their attack roll. This has two results:

  1. Combat is significantly faster, since the odds of defending successfully are lower.
  2. The balance is shifted in favor of the PCs, assuming the PCs are more skilled than their enemies - high skill now matters more, relative to luck or number of opponents.

*This is from 3E, p.108. I don't see it in 4E, but there's no reason it shouldn't work just as well.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, there weren't such rules in my Basic Rules 4E book, this is why I'd overlooked this known option. \$\endgroup\$
    – Les
    Commented Aug 28, 2016 at 6:32

Roll 7 to 9 dice at once, color-coded.

I typically roll all the likely-needed dice at once for an attack, split up by color.

  • 3 green dice for the attack roll.
  • 3 yellow dice for the defense roll.
  • X red dice for the damage roll, according to the weapon damage.

That lets me quickly roll and read the result, rather than taking time for each step. If the attack misses or the defense succeeds, ignore the other dice. As a bonus, if the red dice read high, I can add some color description like "Karl takes a swing that would surely kill you, but you barely deflect it."

I roll the dice into a space on the table with barriers, so I don't have to chase after dice, etc.

Of course, some players prefer to roll their own dice, so I ask what they prefer. For NPC vs. NPC rolls, the full pool can still be rolled by the GM. If a player is involved in a roll, and they want to roll, the GM can also roll the NPC dice at nearly the same time - just the habit of thinking of combat action/defense/damage as being calculated quickly together can be useful to develop GM habits that allow quick resolution and narration even when the players are rolling, as opposed to thinking of each step as involving time to consider, choose, look up numbers, and roll.

Also, I tend to require players to be ready to declare their action when it is their turn. I tell them to think about what they will do in advance, so they have an answer ready. Too much delay and their character takes a default action appropriate to the character. After all, turns are one second long. It's entirely realistic for many/most characters to spend many/most turns not doing anything useful, let alone brilliant and well-considered. Certainly no looking up of rules.

And of course, I have all the usual needed stats for everyone pre-calculated and listed so they are very easy to read, so I almost never need to take time to look up what someone's skill is, or if I do, it's right there. See the GM Control Sheet. I make those for NPC groups too.

Also, I've been playing GURPS forever and I'm very good at math and reading die rolls, so it goes really quickly for me. It took a year or so before I got really fast at it. But once I've memorized most of the rules, combat doesn't take much longer than the rolls, and by combining 3 rolls into one, it really speeds things up.

(I'm also really interested in combat, so I actually enjoy the time I'm resolving combat.)

Don't fight to the bitter end.

Consider the situation for everyone in combat, and consider they probably really want to survive. When a fight starts to not go their way, roleplay what they do about that, including negotiating an end to the fight, running away, surrendering, playing dead, not getting up after taking a wound, calling for a retreat for their whole side, etc.

That can be good in other ways, too, as surviving opponents make for a more interesting ongoing situation, and the possibilities of surrender and negotiation, or capture and ransom, can all be quite interesting. They make the game more humane and real, and it also can be much more nice and interesting for the players if they ever lose a battle, to have not fighting to the death and being slaughtered a reasonable option.

If you and your players really don't care much about combat details, then consider optional rules to abstract things.

One such is any of various optional rules where the skill and defense levels of both sides can be reduced by skill, or the degree of success on an attack reduces the defense, or an attack is handled as a quick contest of skill.

Heavy armor has various counters.

As for armor, the values are meant to be semi-realistic, and if anything they're actually pretty low compared to the protective value of real armor.

I don't know at what level you want to address the issue of armor, but there are several ways to get more injury at TL3:

  • Set games where there aren't many people in plate armor. Only late-medieval TL3 really historically had much if any plate armor. Hot climates tend to discourage heavy armor. Sailors tend not to want to risk wearing heavy armor. Etc.

  • Use deadlier weapons. Heavier weapons, finer weapons, weapons wielded with more strength, magic weapons.

  • Use a culture where many fights are to first blood.

  • Check out the rules for aimed shots. Several target areas can take someone out of combat with not that much penetrating damage. Same for targeting weak points in armor.

  • Note the rules for knocking people down.

  • See the rules on disarming people and breaking weapons and shields.

  • Use the optional rules for standing up in armor. Not only does it discourage wearing very heavy armor, but those who do can be subdued by knocking them down and then dealing with them while they are down.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Lots of good advice here, but the beginning is unclear - are you rolling your players' attacks for them? Or assuming that each of your NPCs will attack and defend (up to) once each turn and recording the results? Or what? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 28, 2016 at 1:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ If it's a group that wants combat to go very quickly and doesn't mind, I often do roll PC attacks for them, yes, unless they enjoy doing it more than they enjoy things going quickly. If it's their turn, I ask what they do, then roll a pile of dice for that action and narrate it, and roll similar piles of dice for each NPC's action until the next player's action or defense or reaction. Otherwise you can roll when they roll, or shortly before or after, which lets them do their own roll and doesn't add that much time. In any case you can combine when NPCs attack NPCs, and for skill contests. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dronz
    Commented Aug 28, 2016 at 1:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ Huh. A big part of the fun for me is rolling my own dice, and I think that's a common enough assumption that it's worth editing your comment into your answer for clarity. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 28, 2016 at 1:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah that is a common request, and I do think it's more important to let players have that fun if they want it. (It didn't occur to me at first since this is a question about trying to make combat as fast as possible.) I added a paragraph per your suggestion. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dronz
    Commented Aug 28, 2016 at 2:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ I GMed GURPS 3E for a decade and fully support not fighting to the death. One of the reasons I stopped is that one bad roll can mean a PC dies. Any fight can yield fatalities. (Attempting to sap someone into unconsciousness means making a head shot, and that means making a head shot with a club! Afterward some folks just don't wake up.) Urging the players to have PCs behave like real people instead of action heroes can be difficult but may be step 1 in keeping fights brief. That is, like in real life, view fighting as a last resort. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 28, 2016 at 9:33

If you have people fighting one-on-one, both in heavy armour, then they are fairly resistant to each other's attacks. The ways round this that PCs usually use are based on having higher skill, or using tactics.

The Basic Set methods for using higher skill to get through an opponent's defences are Feint, from p365 of the Basic Set, and Deceptive Attack, from p369.

If you're willing to have a little more complexity, without going to hex-grid Tactical Combat, you can use Hit Locations (p389-99) which can end fights more rapidly, without the need to kill opponents. To stop them being able to fight you, target their arms, which are often less heavily armoured than the torso, and can be attacked at -2. To stop them being able to run away, target their legs, also at -2.

But the simplest way to win fights is to gang up on opponents: fighting several people at once is really hard in GURPS.

  • \$\begingroup\$ The question is specifically about basic combat, so from my perspective that pretty much rules out hit location (and including it won't necessarily have the net effect of speeding up the game, either.) If this is a frame challenge along the lines of "basic combat is always slow, you really need the advanced rules", I would be more explicit about that. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 28, 2016 at 0:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ Try this new version. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 28, 2016 at 5:44

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