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Disarm is Terrible in Melee (with math)

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  • Disarm is Terrible in Melee (with math)

    To be clear, Disarm has never been a commonly used maneuver in Savage Worlds; it's never been something that's easy to do. But, it is a trope that shows up in movies and television a lot—any time a hero comes up against an enemy with a gun, they almost always go to disarm the gun before trying to actually hurt the enemy. Even in life, anyone in any kind of combat training will tell you that if you're forced to defend yourself against a weapon of any kind (assuming you can't just get away, which is real step 1), prioritize taking the weapon out of the equation.

    In a number of discussions that have been brought up on other topics (notably Athletics), the folks at PEG outline their focus on "tropes" in stories. The shooter in any story should take Shooting, the thief in any story should take Thievery, and so forth. Therefore, the trope of the great fighter disarming his opponent in combat should be one that is not only achievable in play, but a viable choice.

    Unfortunately, disarming is not viable in Savage Worlds as written. Let's break down the math.

    Disarm in Savage Worlds is accomplished in 3 steps: 1) you attack the opponent's hand (–4), 2) you cause them pain, 3) you do nothing while the enemy attempts to hold on to their weapon. These make disarming anyone in any capacity excessively difficult to the point of uselessness.

    Let's start with a hypothetical scenario, where a successful disarm maneuver is more or less expected to succeed if you attempt it. Our hero PC d12 Fighting (d6s in anything else relevant) closes on an Extra with d4 Fighting, no armor, and a short sword (d6s in anything else relevant, so fairly common). The hero is unarmed because he was forced to give up his weapon earlier in the session, and he knows he can't reliably put down this Extra in one hit, so he opts to disarm him—what should be a wise move! First, he has make an attack at –4, which has a 50% chance to land with his d12 Fighting. Then, he has to Shake the Extra... against a Toughness of 5, his d6 Strength will be causing Shaken around 22% of the time (wounding around 11% of the time—which takes the Extra out of commission but doesn't "Disarm" him). Finally, the Extra must fail a Strength roll at –2, which is very likely at about 83%. The chances of all three of these happening in a row for a successful Disarm is... 11%. (If you count Incapacitation as a "success" in the sense that the enemy is no longer a threat, that rises to 20%.)

    As a point of comparison, the chances of simply punching the Extra and Incapacitating him is closer to 23%—strictly better, and far more likely to simply Shake him (31%). In fact, an Extra with d6 Intimidation has a higher chance of successfully Testing a Wild Card with d12+1 Spirit at 13% (if you're counting Incapacitation as successful Disarm, then it's slightly less likely than the same Extra Testing a d10 Spirit Wild Card). In fact, the same Wild Card in the above example has a higher chance of breaking that Extra's weapon with a warhammer (15%)! Finally, the chances of a d12 Shooting pistoleer in Deadlands disarming a similar Extra by shooting his hand are 17% (with a 23% to accidentally Incapacitate him on top of that), with a 29% chance of disarming an enemy Wild Card (less likely to Incapacitate), which becomes significantly easier with Marksman (19% (36% to Incapacitate) and 39% respectively).

    The odds of a melee disarm are absurdly low—remember, these aren't the chances of disarming an incredibly skilled Extra, or even a Wild Card enemy with the same stats. These are the chances of an expert hand-to-hand combatant disarming a random mook who barely knows how to use the sword he was given. Using the same math, a d12+2 Fighting Legendary character would only have a 26% chance to disarm an Unskilled Extra, with a Parry of 2 and d6 Strength (though a 23% chance to Incapacitate him outright)—even with Martial Warrior, such a character would only disarm an Unskilled Wild Card 60% of the time (25% for Extras but Incapacitating them 62% of the time so it doesn't matter as much).

    The difficulty in disarming really just goes up from there as enemy skill, Armor, Toughness, and Strength begin increasing; poor Arrogant characters will simply be left standing around like idiots after attempting to disarm their Unskilled foe and failing. (If the initial hypothetical scenario was against a Wild Card equal in skill and strength to the player character instead of an Extra, the chances of a successful disarm drop to just 5%—it would be better to spend your time attempting to beat the snot out of the enemy with your bare fists while he keeps the sword in hand.)

    As far as tropes go, you can watch almost any action movie or show to see how often Disarming happens—from Jason Bourne to John Wick (and even the Extras John fights), Black Widow (1, 2) to Bucky, and even Hulk. Furthermore, many disarms have nothing to do with hurting your opponent to get them to drop their weapon, particularly in fencing (from The Count of Monte Cristo to The Princess Bride), though the Hulk fight above is another example of that. The only trope that's really done justice is the "gunman" disarm, which is absurdly difficult in the real world and simply quite impressive in settings where it's appropriate.

    While disarm was seldom attempted in previous editions of the game due to its difficulty, it was at least viable (between the easier chance to hit and higher chances to force a disarm with higher Strength levels). Now... well, at the best of times it'll be as difficult as shown above; at worst, it's going to be easier to shoot the weapon out of the enemy's hand.

    To be clear, I think the difficulty in shooting weapons out of the hands of your enemies is perfectly reasonable—that shouldn't be simple or reliable, which is why nobody ever does it. The problem is that it's so absurdly hard to pull off in melee, which makes the shooting option a viable alternative by comparison. Making close quarters disarming significantly easier alleviates this due to contrast.

    Why is this so unreasonably difficult? All three steps contribute to this issue about equally in my mind: the difficulty in landing the hit is far too high, the requirement to Shake the opponent is disproportionately weighted against unarmed fighters, and the Strength roll is strictly bounded in difficulty regardless of the skill or strength of the disarming party—in other words, rather than players succeeding in a disarm, the opponent must fail in their Strength, which means that bennies cannot ensure a successful disarm attempt. (That final point means that some of the above examples of disarms—Bucky disarming Cap and Hulk disarming Thor—are either virtually or literally impossible, though that is a much smaller issue than the lack of function that disarm currently has.)

    I do understand the logic behind these issues: for step one, disarming a character should be more difficult than simply hitting them. With step two, you shouldn't be able to disarm your enemy if your strike doesn't even hurt him. However, this chain of logic only applies to a single method of disarm—hurting your opponent's hand and hoping that suffices in forcing them to let go. This doesn't support disarming in most of the situations shown above (and, in fact, is probably one of the worst ways to disarm an opponent). Furthermore, the difficulty penalty applied to targeting an opponent's hand assumes that the enemy is trying to keep their hands protected (similar to the penalty involved with hitting someone's head), but your attacking arm is one of the most vulnerable points in a fight—it's far easier to land a hit on an enemy's arm or weapon than bypassing their defenses and hitting the enemy's body, especially if the enemy is expecting to have to protect their body rather than their arms.

    So, this is a problem. What about solutions? First, there should be two versions of disarm—a ranged disarm and a melee disarm. The current rules work just fine for ranged disarms (though they might be worth tweaking depending on the flavor of change you choose to fix melee disarming—keep reading to see what I mean). Melee disarming, however, needs an overhaul as simply lowering the penalty to a –2 doesn't address the other two issues of damage and a Strength roll that is 100% in the enemy's control. I have a solution that addresses all of the issues of melee disarming, though (in the next post, since I've reached the character limit already!)
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  • #2
    Focus on the Weapon
    At range, use the current Disarm rules. In melee, however, rather than having characters attempt to hurt their targets for a disarm, this variation of the maneuver focuses explicitly on disarming them. You make a Fighting roll to hit as normal, but a success hits the enemy's weapon instead of the enemy himself (just like hitting an object the enemy is holding as detailed under Breaking Things). If you hit, you must make an opposed Strength roll, adding +2 if you hit with a raise. If you succeed the opposed Strength roll, the enemy drops his weapon, and is Shaken if you score a raise. The attacker may opt to take a –2 penalty to his Fighting roll—if he successfully disarms the target, he can choose to either arm himself with the weapon or fling the weapon away 1d4". The trade-off here is that this does not damage the opponent and cannot cause wounds—this means that if you're already on equal footing with an opponent (especially Wild Card opponents), it is wiser to simply attack instead.

    This is probably my favorite option, making Disarm a significantly more viable option by decreasing the difficulty of the maneuver, and allowing characters with absurd Strength (say a d12 player character vs d12 Wild Card enemy) to have a reasonable chance of disarming each other. The main drawback to this solution is that it doesn't account for an enemy having exceptional Toughness or if a character is using a weapon to help their disarm attempt—that said, my understanding is that due to the execution of disarm maneuvers in real life, how tough your opponent is rarely plays into the difficulty in forcing them to disarm (and if you're primarily targeting their weapon, whether or not you are using a weapon rarely plays into this equation either). However, tough enemies are almost always strong in a similar, if not greater, capacity, so what those factors do contribute can easily be abstracted in play.

    A character can still choose to perform their melee disarm by targeting their enemy's hand instead—while this is far more difficult to actually pull off, it does more explicitly lean on the character's damage output, emphasizing their might (or their weapon's heft) against armored opponents. Of course, there are few situations in which that's worth attempting, just as in life and in most films.

    Finally, I want to end by redoing the initial hypothetical with these new rules, along with introducing a few more hypothetical scenarios. Our d12 Fighting hero is unarmed and wants to disarm the armed Extra in front of him before he might take a hit, instead of attempting to knock his enemy out with his bare hands (around a 22% chance with raises factored in). He goes straight for his target's weapon, wrapping the Extra's arm, pulling him forward (88%, 50% raise) and knocking the Extras wrist just enough to loosen his grip before shoving the weapon away as it drops to the ground (60%, 28% to raise; 80%, 48% to raise with a raise on Fighting). The Extra is taken aback by the ferocity of the attack, the pain in his hand, and the fact that he no longer has a weapon, leaving him Shaken! The chances of this masterful fighter disarming this barely-trained Extra is now 73%, with a 41% to leave him Shaken after the fact—less likely than a Wild Card succeeding on a task with a d6, but only just... a fair chance, given their skill disparity!

    This is still quite difficult against characters of equal skill to you, however: a d8 Fighter against a d8 Fighting Extra will only succeed 32% of the time, or 25% against a Wild Card of the same stats. It's still worth trying if they're armed and you aren't, but if you're both armed, even just with knives, it's far better to simply try and attack them instead.

    One last lightning round of hypotheticals: if you're unarmed and your opponent is armed and around the same level of skill as you, it'll be better to try and disarm them than to beat them into submission. If you're vastly more skilled than such an opponent, you have a good chance of disarming them and can reasonably consider taking the –2 penalty to either arm yourself with the weapon or fling it away. If you're armed and your opponent is armed and very tough, you can try and just hit them but it's worth considering a disarm to give you a bit of an advantage for a few attacks, perhaps even ending the fight.

    That's what I've got. TL;DR, Disarm is prohibitively difficult under the best of circumstances, and I propose a replacement rule to overcome that. PEGClint I'm curious to know why you guys prefer the current disarm maneuver over something a little more simple and achievable, such as the variant presented above.
    Last edited by DoctorBoson; 01-13-2019, 08:41 PM.
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    • #3
      I agree that it would make sense for disarm to be a little easier and not deal any damage. It seems like you have the math figured out, but from a role playing perspective it would also Be better, since I often don’t want to hurt the NPC I try to disarm.


      • #4
        I disagree. Most Disarms are designed around pain to get your opponent to get to drop weapons. Other than that, I agree that the penalties are WAY too high to make it a viable tactic. In MY current 1930s Crime Fighter game, I've been trying to figure out a way to get it to work. Should it be an Edge? A Setting Rule?

        Actually, maybe certain types of hits should also get the target to drop their weapons as well, I'm watching the clips offered and a lot of the time, the person hit loses their grip on their weapons.
        Last edited by Christopher Brady; 01-14-2019, 01:20 PM.


        • ValhallaGH
          ValhallaGH commented
          Editing a comment
          A whole lot of techniques are about leverage to make your foe drop their weapon. Not sure if pain is a more common technique, I don't have exhaustive knowledge or sources, but they are at least close in frequency.

        • Christopher Brady
          Christopher Brady commented
          Editing a comment
          OK, in unarmed combat, hurting your opponent's hands is a common application to keep them from holding their weapon. So I'm OK with doing some damage with a disarm. Notice in the videos above, how they try and bend the armed limbs in ways that aren't natural?

        • DoctorBoson
          DoctorBoson commented
          Editing a comment
          That’s why I allowed a raise on the Strength roll to leave a character Shaken, as an abstraction of the pain.

          A Setting rule I’ve been thinking about for a while has been getting multiple raises on a Fighting roll (like 2+) allows you to add an additional effect, to help take away the feeling of “massive hit, no damage” rolls; option players could choose include leaving a character Prone, Disarmed, or Distracted, or pushing them 1” as part of the attack. It would be fairly uncommon (around 11% of hits even with d12 vs Parry 4) but makes melee combat far more kinetic and frantic when the to-hit dice do go wild.

      • #5
        Originally posted by DoctorBoson View Post
        Finally, the Extra must fail a Strength roll at –2, which is very likely at about 83%.
        Though I can understand and agree to most of your comments, this one I have a problem with. If that extra has only a d6 Strength then his chances of rolling a success at -2 should be about 16.5%; he needs to roll a six on that die, the explosion has no bearing. That looks like the opposite of what you have calculated. It increases the odds of success by quite a bit though still a bit lower than the tropes suggest.
        I have way too much time but do not always edit myself properly. Please do not take offense.


        • DoctorBoson
          DoctorBoson commented
          Editing a comment
          The odds of the character failing his roll are 83%, as the character has to fail in order for the disarming party to succeed. The 16% where the character succeeds on his Strength roll means the Disarm maneuver failed.

        • Erolat
          Erolat commented
          Editing a comment
          Oops, sorry. Misread that.

      • #6
        My gripe with the Disarm is that it does nothing useful. If you succeed, at best you'll have +2 to fighting if you act before the opponent in the next round due to him being unarmed.
        Which is less than -4 you get from called shot when doing Disarm.
        It makes vague sense if you're ganging up on someone, but even then it's almost always more useful to go for plain damage given the Gang up bonus.
        I can't say I have played all that much, but none of the players in my group ever really considered Disarm as a viable combat tactic. More of a "fun thing to do now and then when you remember it exists".


        • DoctorBoson
          DoctorBoson commented
          Editing a comment
          Agreed. Like I said, even in the older versions of the game Disarm [i]rarely[i/i] saw any use—it was fairly difficult even back then, while now it's prohibitively difficult... by the time you can see consistent results from the maneuver (insanely high Fighting and damage) you're more likely to kill your Wild Card target than disarm him.

          My hope is that this version of the rule might be worth actually performing in a hand-to-hand fight in game, due to its ease (harder than hitting a target but not nearly as hard as landing a head shot) and flexibility... the ability to fling the target's weapon or take it for yourself opens up some really cool possibilities. The maneuver should now reasonably and successfully disarm a target: you and anyone you're fighting with keeps him unarmed and easier to hit for a few moments (or you're slightly safer if he's armed and you're not), and he'll be at least at a –2 to hit you for a turn if he picks the weapon up as an action—or subject to a Free Attack if he withdraws from melee after you fling it away (assuming it's not flung off a cliff or something).

      • #7
        There are some whispers that a new version of Disarm is coming around in the next version; I'll keep and eye on it to crunch some numbers if that's the case, but if we do see a new version hopefully it addresses the stuff I brought up in the main post. Regardless, make sure that you try and test any of the new changes you see! Feedback like this is what helps make Savage Worlds a better game
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        • #8
          Well, I was thinking implementing a 'Setting Rule' that if a Wild Card hits an extra with a Raise for Damage, that the Extra gets disarmed. Against a Wild Card... I think I'll steal the idea postulated here.


          • #9
            The new version of Disarm is out. Here's the long and short:
            • Melee and ranged attacks are both allowed, and both work the same way.
            • You can now target the weapon (-4) to break it, the hand (-4) holding the weapon, or the limb (-2) the hand is attached to.
            • If the target is a hand or limb and they're Shaken or Wounded as a result, they make a Strength check with a penalty matching the to-hit roll.
              • Strength -4 if it's a hand hit.
              • Strength -2 if it's a limb hit.
            • There's no mention of rolling against the damage total, to presumably the TN is still 4.
              • Wound penalties, including from the resulting hit, are factored into the above roll.
              • No mention of Fatigue, but if it subtracts from Trait rolls it stands to reason.
            • Success and they hold on; failure and they drop it.


            • DoctorBoson
              DoctorBoson commented
              Editing a comment
              It does explicitly state that the defender must make a Strength roll equal to the damage or drop the item if you target the weapon.

              If attacking the target, then the Strength TN is still 4 (though at penalties as you noted).

            • Jounichi
              Jounichi commented
              Editing a comment
              Ah, missed that part. Still, that adds another level of complexity. A damage roll with higher a mean might mean it's better to attack the weapon instead of attacking the person.

          • #10
            Hmm, so I was reviewing a lot of the older pulps, an disarming is a LOT easier than the game lists, even with this rule. I wonder if there's something there, like an Edge or something.


            • #11
              Oh, for....

              Just make it an opposed Fighting roll, already. Add penalties to flavor if that ends up too easy in play-testing.


              • MichaelDawn
                MichaelDawn commented
                Editing a comment
                Right?! Just Athletics vs Strength or Agilty. Fighting if you are using a weapon.

              • Christopher Brady
                Christopher Brady commented
                Editing a comment
                Does it do damage?

              • paladin2019
                paladin2019 commented
                Editing a comment
                Just Fighting vs. Fighting. Brutes don't necessarily know the leverage tricks and how to counter them.

                No damage, that's not the point of the maneuver.

            • #12
              Originally posted by Current SWADE Page 108
              If the attacker wins the opposed roll, he
              can choose to make his foe Distracted or
              Vulnerable (see page 203). If he wins with
              a raise, the target is also Shaken or there may
              be other subjective effects as the GM allows,
              such as a tripped foe being knocked prone.
              (Emphasis mine, of course.)

              If the player wants, I'm going to let a Fighting or Athletics Test against Agility (against Strength if you're using Athletics and have Brute) Disarm with a Raise instead of Shaking them. On a success, you knocked their weapon out of alignment, either throwing off their next action (Distracted) or leaving them open to a follow-up from yourself or someone else (Vulnerable). Fast, simple, already part of the rules, and gives a pretty good cinematic portrayal of the trope, IMNSHO. (The Fighting d12 vs. Agility d6 from the OP becomes a solid assurance of a Success, and betting odds on a Raise--average 4.2 vs. 8.4, if I'm remembering the math of such things correctly.)

              The Disarm rules in the book then become what you use when you're trying to destroy your opponent's weapon, or both hurt AND disarm them at the same time.


              • #13
                With the V4 disarm rules, when you hit the weapon the target has to roll strength against the damage done. Since melee damage are usually STR+dx, it will be finally a target STR versus STR+dx . Isn't it too much ?

                I like better Freemage proposal with disarm a option with a Test. (very intuitive)


                • dfrankovic
                  dfrankovic commented
                  Editing a comment
                  Fair enough.

                • Freemage
                  Freemage commented
                  Editing a comment
                  But you're mixing up the two types of 'disarm' mentioned in Jounichi's post.

                  If you're attacking the object, it's just a 'break things' roll with no resistance at all. That would be Breaking Things rules, and thus no explosion on damage.

                  If you're attacking the hand/arm, they get to resist dropping the item, but then the damage dice against them CAN explode, because it's really just a specific-effect Called Shot.

                • JamesG
                  JamesG commented
                  Editing a comment
                  Jounichi's post missed one key part, which DoctorBoson commented on.

                  When targeting the weapon, "the attacker rolls damage normally for an item (no raise effect or Aces, see Breaking Things, page 98). The defender must make a Strength roll equal to the damage or drop the item."

                  (The quote is direct from SWADE 4.1, but SWADE 4.0 was the same).

                  PS - love your suggestion to use a Test for finesse based disarms and the SWADE Disarm rules for more brute force methods. Consider it stolen.