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Anakin: I try and grapple with the driver.

R2-D2: Oh no...

Padme: Oops.

Obi-Wan: Um...

Anakin: What? Aren't there rules for grappling in this game? Why are you all covering your dice?

Ah, the horror show of grappling rules in Tabletop RPGs. No matter what system you're using, the grappling rules will probably suck horribly.

Why is this? Well, mainly because grappling, unlike most other forms of combat, is complicated; here's a partial list of factors your rules will probably have to consider:

  1. One participant has the advantage, which changes their respective power levels and options.
  2. You have to have rules for attempting to break the grapple.
  3. You have to figure out how disabled the participants are, if somebody tries to attack one of them.
  4. The chance that an attacker aiming for one participant in the grapple might hit the other.
  5. What kinds of attacks are available, and/or what the results of the grapple are.
  6. (optional) As if that weren't enough, you can theoretically still engage in a limited form of standard melee combat while grappling.

And those are just the obvious things you need rules for. There are other problems that show up when you add in more detail.

Contrast to regular combat, where the only relevant things are "Did I hit?" and "How much damage did I do?"[1], and you'll begin to understand why grappling is considered such a frightening topic. While all of the factors mentioned above are relevant to standard weapons combat too, grappling systems have had a historical tendency towards greater "realism" for reasons rarely justified.

If you're wondering why so few Video Games have anything to do with grappling (besides pure Fighting Games), well, now you know.

An especially infamous instance of That One Rule. Nothing to do with Grappling Hooks.

Examples of Grappling with Grappling Rules include:


  • 1st, 2nd, and 3rd edition Dungeons and Dragons.
    • ...especially First Edition AD&D. *shudder*
    • 3rd Edition (note: 3rd edition is built off the "d20 system", that is, everything runs off a simple "Roll 1d20, add relevant modifiers vs. opponent's modifiers/required roll" for everything BUT grappling rules and damage dice) fell prey to this in an interesting way. Flowcharts are required to figure out what's going on in Pathfinder, and that's an incredibly cleaned up version of 3rd Edition's grappling rules. The original mechanics for grappling were worse.
    • Averted in 4th, but only by almost completely removing all grappling rules whatsoever. The "grab" action in 4th resembles a game of freeze tag: You only need one hand free to grab an opponent, who can't move away without escaping the grab but is free to remain standing up. You can both still make attacks and take most other actions as normal.
      • And now brought back, sorta. There's now an entire Fighter build designed around grappling the target. However, instead of grappling being a special maneuver, now most powers say either "...and the target is grabbed." Or, for more complicated ones like using a Human Shield, "Requires: A grabbed target."
    • This is even mocked by Wizards of the Coast itself in this promo video!!
  • GURPS.
    • Made worse by the incredible number of factors that GURPS has to account for.
    • Of course the other tactical combat are just as complex and anyone who can use those on the fly wouldn't be too concerned by the grappling rules.
    • Fourth Edition isn't so bad; grappling is taken as an attempt to impede your foe's movement, so it gives a penalty to his dexterity with the relevant body part, disables some of his maneuvers, and grants you options for takedowns, pinning, and dragging. Other things you can do in a grapple, like trying to disarm an opponent, are handled using the same rules as outside of a grapple. If your foe wants to counter-grapple, he'll have to break free first.
  • Both Old World of Darkness and the new
  • Exalted has relatively simple grappling rules -- they're about one paragraph and use the same rolls as everything else in combat -- but their balance is problematic, since they basically leave you defenseless and trivially vulnerable to being one-hit killed by anyone not in the grapple, functionally making even a simple grab into an instant touch of death.
    • Feng Shui has a similar problem with a few kung-fu powers that cause joint-locks.
  • Unknown Armies kinda falls prey to this trope, although not as much or in the same way as you'd think. The 'grappling rules' in the combat rules were more complicated than the rest of combat (except for maybe the suppressive fire and autofire rules). The most annoying part, however, was that they weren't given in the more 'standard' part of the rules, alongside disarming and throwing, like they should've. Instead, they were crammed into the HTH cherries examples list, thus making them look like they were completely optional and used exclusively in special cases, when they really shouldn't have.
  • Mutants and Masterminds uses a mildly tweaked version of the d20 grappling system with all of the attendant problems and difficulties. But the combination of a Point Build System and Super Strength (or Telekinesis) means that a grapple-oriented character with the right feats can easily break the system if the GM allows them to. To give you an idea of the potentials of abuse, one of the starting archetypes has a grapple check bonus of +27.
    • Third Edition has changed the grappling system to reduce the ludicrous levels of Grapple bonus and to make it easier for dexterous characters to avoid or break out of grapples albeit at the cost of making it almost too easy to escape grapples with the most effective archetype (the Powerhouse) having less than a 50% chance of maintaining a grapple chance on all but one of the remaining archetypes. The number of available actions when grappling has decreased too to reduce complexity.
  • The Street Fighter roleplaying game tried to avoid issues by taking the Fighting Game approach, which is OK in some respects (say, if you have the Bearhug manoeuvre, or the Spinning Piledriver; you get what you use), but can be seen as lacking some flexibility. What would you do if, say, you had to hold someone still, and your only Grab manoeuvre you bought was the grab-and-toss Throw?
  • Rifts has about as straightforward, non functioning grappling rules as every other game.
    • Applied to any RPG by Palladium. It's not that the rules were particularly complex or anything, but Palladium's rulebooks were so insanely organized that you would have to look in at least five places to find the rules covering anything. To crown it all, Palladium rulebooks usually didn't have indexes.
    • The key thing to remember here is that your attacks do double damage, if you have a hand on your enemy, before you attack, that's it for the most part.
  • Ninjas And Superspies. I've only seen grappling attempted once. The sad thing is you can build whole characters based off of grappling.
    • In the words of a friend who tried it: "It's the gaming equivalent of Cthulhu."
    • And the damage is horrid, 1d6+ a point every few levels, per melee...
  • Sort of averted in the Hero System, in that the grappling rules aren't significantly more complicated than the rest of the combat system. Note, however, that Hero System is notorious for its Doorstopper rulebook.
  • Professional Wrestling games try to find some way of adapting, for the obvious reason. Most settle for defining particular manoeuvres (suplex, powerbomb, et cetera) as attacks. Depending on the game, moving a wrestler to another part of the arena could be a special action, a result of prior moves, or just a special effect that can be added on.
  • At least until the third edition of The Dark Eye, grappling (save for one very specific fighting style) did only do damage to stamina and not to HP, meaning you could not kill anyone with their bare hands.
  • Burning Wheel grappling is extremely complex, though the difference between it and the rest of its combat system isn't as great as many systems due to overall complexity.
    • Burning Wheel's grappling system is really just one roll that determines how incapacitating your hold on the target is. It's not a separate system from the main combat rules. And, given the power of armor in BW, it's not an uncommon way to take out armored foes.
  • Dwarf Fortress, in this as in so many other things, is so beautifully detailed as to be nearly worthless. You can grab any visible body part of the opponent with any of your grasping limbs. Theoretically you can snap bones and break necks if you perform the proper sequence of operations, but mostly you'll end up awkwardly grasping and releasing the enemy's elbow several times. Also, the only combat advantage grabs themselves give, not matter what you grab is the enemy being unable to dodge.
    • That said, NPC wresters can wrestle anything to death.
    • And you can too, if you can find out the (admittedly insane) ways to break bones, etc. every time.
    • Note that "any of your grappling limbs" means you can technically break someone's elbow using only your Right Thigh.
      • Or have six different teeth grabbing six different body-parts.
    • In the latest edition, performing a "pinch" as a coup de grâce on an unconscious opponent causes their head to pop off and fly several meters.
    • It's gotten a huge step up in comprehensibility with version .31.17, as instead of selecting from a single list containing every move possible, wrestling and the newly implemented aimed attacks let you select a target body part and limb used on separate menus. While standing you also can't grab with anything but your arms (legs only become usable when you lay down) and mouth after a successful bite attack (as opposed to previous version where all of the six sections or your mouth could grasp different limbs).
  • The first edition of the Legend of the Five Rings RPG had a distinct lack of grappling rules, until a supplement introduced the Mizu-do unarmed combat learned by some Crane. The rules were unbalanced, especially the joint lock maneuver. A starting character who was reasonably skilled in Mizu-do had about a 50% chance of disarming and incapacitating the greatest warriors in Rokugan using this manuever, because the target's stats were completely irrelevant to whether the manuever succeeded.



 I can't train squirrel mobs to abuse the grapple rules.

    • This is primarily a reference to 3rd ed. AD&D, which allowed dozens of tiny creatures to gang up on large ones, each one gaining a significant bonus for every other combatant. Or at least, allowing sixteen grapple rolls, one of which will inevitably be a Critical Hit.
      • Granted, the latter doesn't help on a grapple check if their modifier is too low to win even then.
      • Which is why the true Munchkin trains the squirrels to use the Aid Another action. Those that make a successful attack against a flat AC of 10 (probably about three out of four squirrels) each grant a stacking +2 bonus on the character's grapple check (or attack roll or armor class, at the squirrel's option).
  • A classic Knights of the Dinner Table strip concerns the knights (well really Brian), abusing Hackmasters "overbearing" (historically the absolutely most confusing and loopholed part of AD&D's unarmed combat rules) to take the Adventure Off the Rails. Mere mention of the term "Begger Mobs" can crack fans up.
    • Overbearing an enemy in earlier editions was simply a horrifying, game-breaking rule. Players and GMs who used it made the others at the table cry or shudder in disbelief, though often only after a twenty minute review of the rules. It was perfectly possible for a 20th level fighter (read: a legendary warrior whose skills were at the peak the core rule books' range) to be pulled down and pounded into paste by a gang of basic ogres who should, by all rights, be running for their lives. In "normal" combat, the ogres were more suitable for characters for 2nd-5th level, depending on how your particular GM chose to balance his campaigns. Likewise, having a high level human fighter tackle and pin a frost giant - without any Strength boosting equipment - wasn't that hard. Munchkin's Option, er...Player's Option books made it worse in 2nd.


  1. Maybe, if you're really fancy, "Where did I hit?" or "What kind of damage did I do?"
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