Thursday, May 13, 2010

How to Encourage Unarmed Combat

Imagine if you will, a party of intrepid adventurers crowded around a tavern table. The room is crowded with mercenaries, smugglers, merchants, soldiers and a few noble gits that are slumming. Jarl, a massive man, stands by the door not to break up fights, but to make sure fights stay fair.

After a few drinks, one bump, a spilled tankard, a couple insults the brawl begins. How many times has this happened and instead of good old fist fight the players draw swords, weapons or whip out a spell or two.

So how do GMs encourage players to not kill everything? Do we bother? Do impliment some legal penalty? Do we give them bonus in experience points?


  1. It depends what you mean by "legal penalty." Even if the PCs are never hauled up before a judge, if they draw weapons first in a bar-fight and kill anybody everybody in the community ought to treat them as murdering scum. Even the other murdering scum should probably regard them as beneath contempt.

  2. I agree with Joshua. Unless some monsters bust down the door, bar fights should involve nothing more than fists, mugs, and sometimes a stool.

    Now, how to keep the PCs in line? Maybe giving them a heads up prior to the fight starting. Have everyone in the fight freeze when steel is drawn or a spell is spoken. No matter what else happens, if it escalates, everyone in the bar is either going to flee or gang up on the offender.

  3. In real life "unarmed combat" with trained combatants is just combat with less effective weapons. At least till a metal tankard or a chair is used. A chair leg is a club in D&D terms, 1d6 lethal damage

    Brawls going to knives was and is quite common and its why medieval martial arts like Kamfringen did not emphasize much ground fighting. Its a quick way to be stabbed to death.

    I've read historical accounts where all sorts of weapons even a longbow were used in tavern fights.

    Besides no one with any brains would risk injury or fight with a heavily armed possible sociopath like a PC.

    However if you do want brawls to be semi socially acceptable, let the PC's see one happen and the consequences will be mostly fines.Having the PC's see a public trial is a good way.

    Such things are not out of genre and it kind of calls to the Pulp Western (as in cowboys and all that) roots of D&D, the frontier, tavern brawls all those imports. They can be fun too.

  4. Players draw swords and spells because they want to win the fight. The last thing most players want to do is lose control of their PCs even for a moment and getting knocked out (which happens easier then getting killed in some unarmed combat rules)or arrested is a nightmare sure to be followed by wailing and gnashing of teeth.

    Players are only going to engage in non-lethal or less lethal combat if they have a good reason to care about their character's place in the campaign beyond level, hp,exp and treasure looted.

    David said...
    "Have everyone in the fight freeze when steel is drawn or a spell is spoken. "

    The folks I play with would only see that as a tactical advantage.

  5. It helps if the rules you're using make armed combat truly dangerous and/or potentially lethal, every time. Players will then always think twice before drawing steel.

  6. Or you could go the simple root and not allow weapons in a bar. Alcohol + Violence + Deadly weapons equals slaughter house and it should.

    There is a reason alot of night clubs have metal detectors. If they go into a bar that allows weapons, they should expect to only find other people who expect to draw steel in a bar fight.

  7. I'd go with a social penalty and stiff legal penalties for drawing steel (even knives) in a barfight.

    For the first, if someone draws a weapon or casts a spell in the barfight, everyone will gasp in outrage. Those with weapons will draw them and face off against the PCs, those without will grab something or flee. Suddenly the barfight turns into a real fight, and the PCs no longer have any advantage in weapons vs unarmed attackers.

    Second, the fines for striking someone were less than injuring or maiming, and certainly less than murder. It doesn't matter who started the barfight, if Clovis the Barbarian kills eight people with his battleaxe he's going to be tried in court for eight murders.

    Now for the regular barfight, the PCs and the other patrons just duke it out unarmed or with a chair or something. I'd call all of it nonlethal damage (yes, even the chair leg used as a club - it's just a chair leg, it's not a weapon). If a PC gets knocked out, he wakes up an hour later when the bartender sloshes horse trough water on him and a bunch of other losers out in front of the tavern.

    Furthermore, if the PCs win and they knock out a bunch of tavern patrons, nobody is going to stand for them looting the fallen! Punching out some guy's lights is one thing, but stealing his purse and his wedding ring is another thing entirely!

    When the town watch arrives (and they should arrive much faster if weapons have been drawn and the hue and cry arises) they will pick out any coherent groups and neutralize them first. So if the PCs get together and employ their normal dungeon-fighting tactics, they'll probably get collared. But PCs scattered around fighting alone won't be noticed as anything special.

    If the town watch sees anyone with a weapon drawn, they will draw weapons and attack immediately. The goal here is to smack the person with their maces (lethal damage) until he falls over, and they can bandage him and drag him away. They're preventing foul murder, here.

    But if the town watch sees nobody fighting armed, they'll just start dragging people out into the street one by one with a cuff to the face and their arms held down.

    Penalties for barfighting will just be paying for the damage caused to the tavern, regardless of who did it. If any theft goes on, or if someone was seriously injured and people saw the PC do it, the PC could be fined.

    But if the PCs were fighting with deadly weapons, they will be tossed in jail for a few weeks to cool their heels, and fined. If a PC actually killed someone, the court may order him fined and maimed, or else hanged.

    The main thing for PCs to remember is that this is civilization. People don't just wander around killing each other off, and that goes both ways. A mugger won't just stab you until you die, he doesn't care about you. He just wants to take your money, and if you give it to him he'll leave you unharmed. The tavern is NOT a dungeon, the barfight is NOT a desperate scamper for survival and treasure, and the town watch are not just reskinned Orcs.

  8. Further, it's easy to escalate things if the PCs decide they want to defend themselves against the town watch by bumping off the guards and fleeing.

    There is not one person in town who will be on their side or harbor them. There is no buying of equipment or selling of loot.

    No guild, not even the Thieves' Guild, will brook such a travesty. It's bad for business, at the very least.

    Those guards had families, and homes. There will be funerals the next day. Their sons and daughters will swear blood oaths to avenge them.

    The government will crack down on the PCs and brand them outlaws - that is, nothing done to them can be a crime as they are outside the law.

    Wanted posters go up. Town criers and minstrels speak of their dastardly ways. Farmers come into town to sell their wares, and spread the rumors when they leave to the villages. Merchants whisper about the PCs to each other, and hire more caravan guards.

    A bounty is put out. Bounty hunters, prepared with information gathered from spies, assault the PCs when they're alone and vulnerable. They use tactics to neutralize specific targets (brute force for spellcasters, appropriate spells for the high-AC warriors, poisoned food and drink, sabotage, ambush, etc).

    This is not the DM out to get the players. This is a natural consequence of going around killing the police. If they burn their bridges, those bridges stay burnt. It would be a bad DMing decision to let the players get away with it, with no consequences.

  9. The way I see it, there are a few ways of dealing with this problem. First of all, I believe that if the players insist on making every fight to the death then a this will affect the setting.

    Their rep wil most certainly be influenced("Those guys are dangerous, you don't want to have anything to do with them.") This should again affect any interaction with NPCs.

    If this happens a couple of times, the inn might empty when they enter...

    There is of course the local authorities who may not give a hoot about a few broken noses, but a serious injury (or death) has to be reacted upon. There is all sorts of things you might slap them with -- fines, imprisonment, weregild, blood-feuds, trials, and what have you.

    Historically though, all manner of weapons were used in fights. This is what led to the outlawing of buclers in London (the reasoning was that if you knew you would likely get mortally wounded in a brawl, you were more likely to avoid it in the first place), as well as eventually the ban on carrying weapons in most countries.

    So, if the players insist on pulling steel every time someone spills a beer, next time they enter town they might find that carrying arms has been outlawed. Or that they are banned from entering all together.

    But most of all I believe that if a GM feels that the players is acting in a way that's disruptive, it is the GM's responsibility to let them know.

  10. They way that I run a bar fight is that I make it clear that the PC's outmatch the brawlers. For example, the PC's know that they are armored, have weapons and spells at their disposal. I describe the patrons as pretty much commoners, laborers, and other kinds of 0-level losers. My players get the idea that if they get in a fight, pretty much anything heavier than a knife will be overkill.

    If PC's draw weapons against unarmored or unarmed thugs, it's the end of the fight, they surrender or flee.

    The problem is that melee combatants can pull their punches. It's the evocation spellslingers and range weapon characters who want to get in on the action too. The GM has to figure out how to involve those players who would totally suck throwing a punch because their abilities are pretty much lethal or nothing.

    I wouldn't want to impose the "death penalty" or heavy-handed NPC ruling unless I've made it clear to my PC's at the very beginning that such behavior isn't tolerated. For example, if I am planning a barfight later on, I'll have the authorities hang some adventurers in the public square because they went sociopathic on some bar patrons. Then a few days later in game time, the players get involved in a bar fight. They should know that if whip out the big guns, particularly, against some 0-levels, their fate will be the same as those NPC adventurers.

    There can be a game penalty too that isn't so painful. Say the PC's have to investigate / find something for a patron. The patron will demand discretion or else payment is forfeit. Going around killing people is not being discreet, so while the PC's can talk their way out of legal entanglements, the patron who knows the PC's committed overkill, sends a message to them and terminates their employment immediately. The PC's then lose XP and gold on the adventure.

    Another tactic is that PC's cannot carry weapons in certain sections of town. The bar patrons will be unarmed with the exception to the knife tucked in the boot (so will the PC's--that's a given) so the worse that will come a fight is spells and knife fighting.

  11. I wanted to add another point or so to this.

    Historical records have lots of examples of fights and assaults however these were usually among people who knew one another,generally did not end in death and usually ended in a fine. This w kept people working and gave the lord some extra cash and so was not as stigmatized as such conduct is today

    More common draconian punishments didn't come till later when there was a population surplus.

    As for PC wariness. Its historically accurate. It was quite common to rob and murder strangers who had no known kin to help them or avenge them.

    How the PC should act will depend on how strong the law is. If the law is strong, laws against weapons can be enforced, taxes collected and so on. Odds are though, adventurer types will avoid such locations.

    Less organized areas on the other hand, well I suspect few people would engage in a friendly fight with strangers. They would either try to rob them or if too tough looking leave them alone.

    Also system will influence conduct a lot. Assuming standard D&D, high level types are basically nobles and probably won't in visiting common inns
    Mid level types are deadly warriors and can handle most any commoner.Low level types are really the only types liable to engage in this kind of thing.

    Well at least till some one pops off a sleep spell.

  12. Just tell your players what your expectations are. You're all there to play together, after all.

  13. Its good to have the better results when your player knows that what are you expectations.
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  14. There are many forms of unarmed combat like Jujitsu, Karate, Mixed Martial Arts and all of them are useful to have a better and disciplined life.
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  15. Jujitsu is one of the famous unarmed combat all around the world.