Movies, books, and even real life are full of tales of people, people who shouldn't be able to win the fights that they're in, getting a major advantage through fighting dirty. Sometimes it isn't even trumped as fighting dirty but just ingenuity. The clever rogue uses a handful of dirt to buy time to scamper t safety, or the battlefield fighter kicks mud in order to break the stalemate with his solely dojo trained rival. Yet, the RPGs we have to simulate these stories has no real rules for dirty fighting. In most cases the kind of advantages dirty fighting gives are far less worthy than the damage you pass up for it. Today, I want to talk about that.
The Fundamental Problem
The fundamental problem here is how many actions RPGs allow per round. Now, this problem isn't with how many actions you have, but the fact that it is heavily codified. The standard is you get one move action and one standard action. The move action can only be used to move, but the standard action can be used to interact. In theory, this is the action that you could use in order to fight dirty. You could use your standard action to throw mud, kick sand, strike to the groin or whatever else you need. However, therein lies the problem.
For one thing, in order for your dirty trick to work you have to be able to hit the opponent, and if you could do that why would you be fighting dirty in the first place? Secondly, if you hit, most often the damage your attack could/would inflict would be better than the brief status defect that you get in return. After all, would you rather the person have a -5 to attack rolls because he is blinded for a round or two with sand, or be 12-15 damage closer to being dead? Most groups are going to go for dead. Why? Because most systems are geared towards favoring that outcome. Even systems with wound penalties favor this, after all the wounds will give you some of the defect while bringing them closer to defeated.
This Affects Tactical Fighting Too
This is a problem for more than just fighting dirty. How often do you see a Knock Down attempt or a Disarm in your games? Sure, sometimes you do. Particularly with characters built specifically towards those maneuvers, but not very often. The reason is the same. A knock down maybe buys you a round and then the bad guy is back on their feet and killing everyone. Twelve damage has him killed a round earlier. So, when do you want your round? In the middle of an ongoing fight or at the end? Most groups will go for the end, unless they are using that round to set something special up. Even that is rare, considering the groups actions are often better spent on damage.
Solutions are hard to come by unless there is some way in place to have the player pay something for the benefit. Giving greater affect to the fighting dirty actions is one way, true. As is making them less of an action so they can be used. Even then though it is hard to see a benefit that out ways the simple act of defeating the enemy faster.
In L5R - which is of particular interest to me since I run a game - I could see allowing a character to trade points of honor for the benefit of the act, but that could penalize characters with already low honor who shouldn't lose honor for their actions.
One way I am considering doing it is with reputation. this requires more work on the GM's part, yes, but it can also work well too - especially in a system like L5R with an honor and a fame mechanic. If a character chooses to fight dirty, they can make it part of an action and get the benefit from it seamlessly. However, if their honor is above a certain point - depending on circumstances of where they are - they will be docked honor. More to the point though, they will - potentially - gain a reputation as someone who fights dirty. That, in effect, could have consequences for them as they move through life. Their word will not be as trusted. People will be less likely to put them in honorable/fair conditions for fights, and basically the world will react to the reputation that they build for themselves.
Maybe it'll work, maybe it won't. Do you have any thoughts on it?