Designers’ Notes: GURPS Martial Arts

by Peter Dell’Orto, with Sean Punch

Appropriately enough, GURPS Martial Arts was written by a tag team: Peter was the lead author, while Sean was the designer and editor. Peter did the hard work of researching print resources, interviewing martial artists, and actually fighting. He wrote up all the styles and historical material — which is to say, the larger part of the book. Sean’s main job was to trim this work to length and structure rules around it all. Of course, Peter did his share of the rules brainstorming, and Sean spent many weeks of his own digging through books on martial-arts history . . . we did say “team.”

Peter Takes a Trip . . .

I came home late one night in 2003 to find an email from Sean titled, “Wanna write a book?” My first thought was, “No! Writing a book is a lot of work!” But this wasn’t just an offer to write any book; it was a chance to work with Sean on GURPS Martial Arts for GURPS Fourth Edition. I’d be the subject-matter expert and he’d provide the rules expertise. I couldn’t say no. I’d been playing combat-heavy GURPS games since Man to Man and practicing martial arts since junior high school. I couldn’t imagine letting anyone else write it!

I was living in New Jersey at the time, so I drove up to Montréal to visit Sean and draft the outline in person. It took a couple of days of systematic work, with breaks for local food and to watch an imported copy of Zhang Yimou’s wuxia epic, Hero. The trip was dimmed by someone breaking into my car the night before I’d have left for home, forcing me to stay another day to get window repairs. (No, we didn’t track the guy down and do a little reality checking on him . . .) But the important work was done: We’d outlined a major revision to a critical Fourth Edition book. It was the first step on a long journey. By the time we’d finished, I had moved to Japan and become an amateur fighter.

The Mission Statement

A crucial preliminary to writing the book was articulating our mission. Sean and I tossed around phrases like “GURPS Magic, but for fighters,” “combat book,” and “expanding the GURPS Basic Set” until we settled on a South Park-derived phrase: “Fightin’ Round the World.” It was funny enough and it did summarize exactly what we wanted: to ensure that the book covered fighting from all over the world . . . from antiquity to modern day and beyond . . . armed and unarmed . . . from the hyper-realistic to comic-book ninjas and wuxia movies. We wanted to expand coverage of martial arts that were sadly overlooked in earlier editions of Martial Arts — or that had expanded like wildfire since those were written. We also wanted to correct the perceived bias of previous editions toward barehanded martial arts from Asia, as well as the European armed-combat bias of GURPS Swashbucklers.

Early on, Sean decreed that martial artists wouldn’t be required to spend character points on every last technique of their style, which freed us to interpret each style’s techniques list as “recommended purchases” and “moves that gamers playing stylists should try to favor in play.” I suggested we include a paragraph of common tactics for each style in game terms, to make roleplaying a Goju Ryu karateka different from playing a Wushu practitioner or a Pankration stylist — even if they all had the same skills. Sean thought this was a great idea, so in it went! This was central to our goal of making the book a (hopefully!) complete roleplaying sourcebook for martial artists, not just a rulebook.

Reality Checking and Reliable Sources

The first two editions of Martial Arts were great books. Two of my favorite books, and ones that heavily influenced GURPS. But they were relatively old.

The explosion of the Internet in the 1990s blew the doors off a vault holding a wealth of information about the martial arts. A trend emerged toward academically rigorous works and away from books based on hearsay and odd speculation. Lots of primary source material became available. Obscure fencing manuals once published solely in their original languages and accessible only to historians were translated by enthusiastic recreationists and published. Martial-arts styles virtually unknown 20 years ago became widespread. As the subject-matter expert of our tag-team pair, researching and reality checking this material fell to me. Reality checking was the easy part . . .

Our biggest problem was finding reliable, academically rigorous sources. Ad copy was commonly passed off as truth, while far too many books reported second-hand information as fact. Often, an assertion would be repeated across many works . . . all of which could be traced to a single source that provided no evidence to support its claim. “Common knowledge” was rampant, much of which was rumor cloaked in the guise of fact.

These obstacles to research afflicted the martial arts of every culture. Statements like, “Boxers don’t close their fists,” and, “Knights were honorable warriors but unsophisticated hackers,” were as common as, “Black belts must register their hands as lethal weapons,” and, “Ninjas hated samurai.” Then there were the claims that Western martial arts are “pragmatic” while Eastern ones are “showy.” Such myths are persistent and highly resistant to being debunked. We needed to separate fact from fiction, to back our facts with reliable sources. GURPS books are held to high standards, and this one was to be no exception!

This meant lots of research. I read or reread every book on the martial arts I could get my hands on, and then read the books in their bibliographies. I borrowed DVDs and tapes from friends, and rented movies. I even bought a few important books for Sean so I could have a second pair of eyes looking at critical sources.

I also grilled every knowledgeable person I could find. I talked to USMC recruits and former hand-to-hand instructors, high-ranking karateka, competitive judo practitioners, BJJ stylists, professional fighters, and more. I contacted local and not-so-local schools and asked for permission to visit. With Sean’s encouragement, I posted a message on the SJ Games forums looking for style experts to question. Then I researched again to confirm or refute what I’d seen and heard.

The same went for equipment. I had weapon owners weigh their weapons, and I weighed mine as well. We checked training gear costs by comparison shopping on the net and picking representative prices.

Interestingly, the schools tended to be dry wells. Some gave me a hard sell or flat-out ignored my requests to visit. Only two invited me in and freely answered my questions. One particular instructor in NJ, Phil Dunlap, opened his doors to me, inviting me to train at his school and ask any questions I had. He encouraged me to continue training mixed martial arts (MMA) in Japan, and found me a school in my new town. This in turn led me to compete in amateur Shooto, a form of full-contact MMA. Try saying “No, thank you” to a group of enthusiastic Japanese gym buddies and you’ll end up gloved-up as well! I’d like to think I’m the first GURPS author to score a knockout with a knee strike and call it “reality checking.”

Reality checking was crucial. For both personal interest and reality-checking needs, I trained karate, two forms of MMA, muay thai, escrima, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, kendo, and more. Our pool of research experts added even more styles, providing vital feedback on styles I couldn’t try personally. We included experts and non-martial artists alike in the playtest to ensure accuracy, clarity, and ease of use. We needed to make sure everything was accurate — and more important, fun and playable!

In short, before we included a style, weapon, or technique, we insisted on checking the facts and the sources — and if possible, reality checking it in person!

Combat Skills vs. Combat Art vs. Combat Sport

A GM who’s designing a style needs to decide if it uses the basic combat skill, a Combat Art or Combat Sport variation, or some combination of the three. Sean and I had to decide this for every single style in the book. Martial skills, for game purposes, consist of three competing elements: form, distancing/timing, and power. Form is the elegance and attractiveness of the moves — techniques with good form look good. Distancing is gauging where you and your weapons (hands, swords, whatever) are relative to the opponent, while timing is your ability to spot an opportunity and take advantage of it. Power is simply that — strong techniques, delivered forcefully and efficiently to the target. Each of the three skill types emphasizes one or two of these at the cost of the rest:

Combat skills emphasize power and distancing/timing at the expense of form. Any move that allows powerful strikes against a mobile, resisting foe gets used, regardless of attractiveness. Such things might not be pretty, or effective in a sporting situation, but they work.

Art skills emphasize form at the cost of power and distancing/timing. They sacrifice a lot, but form is outstanding. The moves might not work in a combat situation, but they look good — and sometimes, especially on film or in certain competitions, that’s all that matters.

Sport skills emphasize distancing/timing — and to a lesser extent, form — over power. Because sport events generally reward proper form over injury-causing attacks, power isn’t a priority. But distancing is critical if one wants to score on a resisting opponent. Some sports forms do include powerful strikes, but these generally have an extremely restricted target set (perhaps just one area of the body) or limit scoring to only one class of strikes. How pretty it looks is secondary, although it isn’t ignored; many scoring systems reward only correct technique, but you still need to hit the target!

Thus, full-contact, limited-rules bouts where knockout is a real possibility use combat skills. At the resolution level of GURPS, if you can strike, grapple, or throw a resisting opponent with limited regard for his safety, that’s indistinguishable from combat! Safety gear, immediate medical support, matched opponents, and referee stoppages — not the underlying skill — are what changes the contest from combat to sport.

“Why is <style> so <good/bad> in GURPS?”

Martial artists often have very strong opinions about specific styles — usually their own, but also others. These range from, “This is the ultimate style!”, to, “That style sucks!” We tried to present a fair and reasonable description and rules treatment of each martial art. But GURPS is a game, so we deliberately erred on the side of combat utility and function. Even the most questionable styles might have emerged from combat arts, may purport to teach combat-effective techniques, and are likely to be depicted as extremely deadly in the martial-arts fiction people want to emulate in an RPG!

“Why did you call it that?”

We tried to use accurate names for all styles, but we favored the names most commonly found in widely available sources to make it easy to use Martial Arts to adapt real and fictional material. This led to a mishmash of two different transliteration methods for Chinese, complicated by styles having different names in Cantonese and Mandarin (with different transliterations for each one . . .). Other languages presented their own unique difficulties. For this reason, we often listed alternate names as well. Our main goal was to make it easy to find more information — to give GMs and players the names they’d find on school signboards, in book titles, and on the Internet.

“Why did you cut <style>?”

Because we added so much to our edition of Martial Arts, a few styles presented in earlier versions didn’t make it back into print. First, we cut many of the fictional martial arts, keeping only a small selection that covered a broad range of genres and play styles. It’s easier for the GM to make up such styles than to research real ones, after all! Second, we cut a few historical styles. Generally, this was because we needed the space for another style that covered the same ground, geographically or otherwise — but some were cut for being less-than-historical. The rundown:

An Ch’i: This art was supposedly used by legendary Chinese gypsies, assassins, and proto-ninjas. It’s an unverifiable style for unverifiable people. Amusingly, I own a book on the Chinese gypsies who supposedly used it . . . but even that book doesn’t contain these techniques, nor does it provide any evidence beyond the author’s assertions.

Kuk Sool Won: Korean styles were possibly overrepresented in earlier editions. More important, I had little access to solid information on this art. I was able to question a dedicated, willing practitioner of the widely available style of Hwa Rang Do, though, and I had numerous sources against which I could double-check his information. Thus, we chose to replace KSW with HRD.

Military Hand-to-Hand: This became a greatly expanded section covering specific styles: the USMC’s MCMAP, Israel’s Krav Maga, and the combative version of Russia’s Sambo. We also added a lens for converting any style to a military one.

Ninjutsu: The biggest cut, but a necessary one. Ninjutsu isn’t a martial-arts style; it’s an occupational skill set that has a component fighting style, taijutsu, that we did include. The same goes for “Hashishin style” — it’s not a style, but a job for suicidal assassins who need Fanaticism and the willingness to take a few All-Out Attack maneuvers. There’s no evidence that the Hashishin even trained in a dedicated system.

Police Hand-to-Hand: This became a lens for just about any style.

Streetfighting: This isn’t a style. We replaced it with a lens for other styles and a discussion of “untrained” brawlers. This is both more accurate and easier on potential street-fightin’ PCs.

Uechi Ryu: A popular style, but . . . We needed to add Shotokan, founded by the man who brought karate to Japan. We wanted to add Kyokushin, because of its wide availability and colorful founder. We insisted on having Te, as it represented the root from which all karate sprung. Karate was overrepresented, so something had to go.

Wudong: Wudong is a region, not a specific style. The Wudong family of martial arts consists of the Taoist styles, also known as the “internal” styles: T’ai Chi Chuan, Pa Kua Chuan, and Hsing I Chuan. We couldn’t find verifiable sources on any style called “Wudong.”

None of these styles made it past the initial discussions, so they weren’t converted to Fourth Edition.

. . . and Sean Snips

A consequence of all this research and double-checking was that we had to snip some first-draft text that was merely “nice to have” in order to accommodate playtester recommendations for material that was necessary. Even with cuts, we were running long . . . until SJ Games decided that Martial Arts would have 256 pages instead of 240. This greatly reduced the number of necessary outtakes. There were still a few, however, as well as many rough write-ups proposed during the playtest that we lacked the time to properly test, or that overlapped existing material. As a result, Martial Arts ended up being more than a book — it became the starting place for a series of future works! Since its initial release, several items have appeared to support it. Check out GURPS Martial Arts: Fairbairn Close Combat Systems, GURPS Martial Arts: Gladiators, GURPS Martial Arts: Technical Grappling, GURPS Martial Arts: Yrth Fighting Styles, and Transhuman Space: Martial Arts 2100.

But looking back at its genesis and ultimate release, GURPS Martial Arts is still an indispensable resource for all your muscle-powered combat needs. If it’s on your gaming shelf, you know how useful it has been to your games. If it isn’t, what are you waiting for . . . ninjas to burst in and convince you with fists of fury? Because that can totally happen with this supplement!