I got into roleplaying games through Dungeons and Dragons. I love a wide range of roleplaying games, but I never fully get away from Dungeons and Dragons. Sometimes I need a break from it, but those breaks seem to last a shorter amount of time than I assume they will.
Other things that I love--Beowulf. I love Beowulf. The hero rips a guy's arm off. A monster's arm. I have no idea how my classmates complained about being assigned to read this in Lit class.
Why do I mention these things at the beginning of this blog post? For months I've been seeing a particular product popping up in my Google+ stream. It started when this product was Kickstarting, and it continued when the product amazingly was ready to go almost immediately after the Kickstarter finished up.
The product I'm speaking of is Dungeon Grappling, a supplement all about putting more texture into grappling in D&D. I know, a lot of people would rather ignore grappling all together than get even more rules for such a thing. That said, every post I saw from the author, Douglas Cole, indicated that it was pretty well thought out, and the extra rules might not equal clunky rules.
Anyone reading this blog or my posts on Google+ knows I'm trying, very, very hard, to work through my gaming backlog, and I've just reviewed two 5e OGL products in a row, both of which were impulse buys and not even from the backlog.
I mentioned that I was tempted to check out the product to Douglas on Google+, and he offered me a copy of the PDF to read through to determine if I wanted to purchase it. I offered to review it on my blog, and that's how we got here.
The Total Package
The PDF is about 53 pages long, including three reference pages at the end of the PDF. For being a small press OGL book, this thing is gorgeous. It has bordered parchment style pages, attractive formatting, and some amazing art from multiple artists. It really is a pretty book to look through.
The introduction is fairly short, but it lays out the case for why you would want more in-depth rules for grappling. The elevator pitch is that a lot of grappling tends to be very linear or very minimal in effect. It also points out that rather than "parallel but similar" rules, most d20 level based fantasy have a slightly un-intuitive sub-system tacked on to handle grappling. The last aspect of the pitch is the number of animals that pin and grapple their opponents in nature.
This section explains the basics of how you determine the DC of grappling attacks with this system, how to track control points in this system, addresses 5e and Pathfinder feats, and adds some new 5e feats to the mix as well.
Right off the bat, you see how ambitious this product is going to be, because it addresses 5e, Pathfinder, and OGL games, as well as addressing the differences between ascending and descending armor class in OGL games.
If there is a downside to this ambitiousness, its that the new 5e feats don't quite feel like the 5e feats we have seen before (which doesn't mean they don't work with the system presented), and despite tackling Pathfinder, the text acknowledges that Pathfinder has so many feats that some of the discussion may miss quirks of those feats, which may need to be adjudicated by the GM when they come up. Just to be clear, however, the text does address core Pathfinder pretty extensively.
The previous section introduced how to determine the DC for grappling attacks, and how much damage, in control points, grappling does. This section tells you how many control points someone can have applied to them, in general, and at what thresholds certain conditions occur. The thresholds are the same for all editions (1/5, 1/2, equal, and maximum control points), but the calculations for Pathfinder, 5e, and OGL games are different, to obtain different scores based on the quirks of those games.
Want to see even more ambitious design? This section also introduces a "tier" system that ignores control points, if you don't want to track them. Instead of spending control points for special effects (we'll get to that), you can move up and down the condition track introduced in the chapter.
The conditions in the previous section covers most of what you can usually do with grappling in the base rules, with a little more granularity. This section introduces ways that you can spend control points (or steps on the condition track) in order to do some interesting things in combat.
Some things in this section just have to do with seeing if someone "wins" a grappling contest, as well as using submission moves, that actually make these rules useful for tracking non-lethal competitive endeavors in games. Additionally, you can spend some control points to do damage, add damage to your weapon attacks, attempt to strangle someone, steal items, shove, or throw people.
Strangles and throws are specifically called out as short-cutting hit points (strangling) and encroaching on martial arts niches (throws), and how the GM may wish to restrict these options to avoid those problems.
The final section of this chapter explains how to convert magical effects like spells from direct condition inflicting spells, to things that work on the same control point economy that grappling works with.
This section goes into how grappling might work differently with monsters versus characters. There are rules for modifying control points and damaged based on size in this section, so that it's harder to deal with a Storm Giant grappler than just an impressive, but medium sized, barbarian. For OSR games that don't track monster size, there are alternative ways to track control point maximums and to determine how many control points damage a monster might inflict.
There are many examples from OSR, 5e, and Pathfinder monsters to show how grappling stats will look for that system, and how individual monsters might use grappling tactics. The examples are a good solid way of understanding how the rules are suppose to work, in case the text didn't make it clear previously, although there are so many monsters in so many games that there is still a good deal of "look at this, use your best judgement on how it should work using these as guidelines."
The next section uses a hypothetical party of adventurers and stats them out in OGL stats, Pathfinder stats, and 5e stats, and then runs that party through an example combat with bar patrons, a mob of kobolds, and a roper, so that you can see the ebb and flow of how the attacks and control points work in a combat.
The final section of the book includes an index, the OGL statement, and several reference sheets that compile the various charts that appear throughout the book.
This is a super specific topic, but the book manages to make that topic pretty interesting. The tone is conversational, and includes a lot of examples of why you would want to add these rules into the game. The examples are very clear, the and the options are fairly easily engaged in the rules. It is also pretty impressive that the system is very similar across all of the game systems addressed. Compared to Beyond Damage Dice, which introduces new rules for several weapons without addressing the wider changes that might happen in the game, the text addresses where the rules in this supplement will make the game run differently, and even point out where you might want to curtail full implementation of the rules.
Applying special rules to derive DC and control points isn't hard to do, but does add a lot of extra steps to the game, and isn't easy to "eyeball" with existing stat blocks. I wish the 5e version could just use AC, since attack rolls and skills use the same logic, and I'm not sure how the combat would run if you do this. I still feel as if you could just short circuit armor under this system, once you hit and start spending control points to do damage. There are lots of great examples across many game systems, but it still feels like there is a lot of "look at these, do what works" that isn't a hard and fast application of the rules.
Going For The Pin
I don't think these rules will be for everyone. Not everyone is going to want to take a crunchy system and make it even crunchier, even if there is a logical flow to the crunch. On the other hand, the rules definitely feel like they were well thought out. The author is right on top of many issues that might come up, and addresses those potential problems. It also makes lots of grappling options look like great story potential.
As a nod back to my star ratings, this isn't a product that will appeal to everyone, so it's not a must have for a single system. On the other hand, it's a solid, interesting product for multiple game systems, and it has value beyond literally using it at the table, just to see a well thought out breakdown of the game mechanics used in multiple similar, but different games. In other words, it's well written, well thought out, and it will be useful and interesting for a wide range of gamers from a variety of systems.
Much like the Book of the Tarrasque, this book showcases what small press publishers can do with a topic that it just doesn't make sense for major publishers to address.
**** (out of five)
I'd love to see Mighty Deeds from Dungeon Crawl Classics addressed in this system, and I'm really curious to see how Legendary Actions from various creatures would change the ebb and flow of this system.