…and RPG rules for it are typically tacked on to the main system and don’t do it justice (some hand wave it away completely–I’m looking at you 13th Age!) or SUCK.
Look at the following video from “Battle of the Nations” which features real armor and blunted weapons for combat. Granted they are not trying to kill each other (no stabbing), but I think a lot of what’s happening here is very close to what we’d see in a melee on the battlefield, or a fight between armored opponents in say D&D. Again–this is between armored opposition who use their weapons as clubs. A non armored opponent would have to be extremely good to beat someone in armor like this mano-y-mano (also because someone in medieval times would be extremely good to HAVE armor like this).
Think about the following factors:
1) It’s nearly impossible to breach the other guy’s armor with a strike from a weapon. You could knock him out or damage him (legs, arms, etc.) but you’re NOT going to land a killing blow unless you know exactly where there is a chink in the armor. Even then, the hit area would be tiny as to make it nearly impossible. Say in D&D you have hit points which do not indicate lethal damage (ever really), and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay wounds that represent your ablative-ness before you start taking critical wounds. Exalted/D10 acknowledges lethal and non lethal damage, and armor reduces both–usually lethal is HARDER for armor to reduce in these systems, but I would argue that lethal damage should be the easiest to buffer against (or soak). Essentially, armor should be far better than it is represented in these games based on the video above for stopping cutting/lethal damage.
2) Once you fall down, likely you’re dead, before you fall down, you can still fight if you’re not grappled.
3) If you’re grappled, your chances of harming your opponent is near to zero, but being in a grapple also reduces the chances of an opponent harming you, so it’s a viable defensive AND offensive tactic.
So look at how the medieval guys in the video fight. One guy gets close, exchanges blows as a DISTRACTION for the grapple, at which time a second comes along and whacks at the grappled opponent’s legs or head until he goes down. Once down the opponent is typically out of the fight and can be dealt with later if not killed outright.
How would OD&D model this? Not very well in the printed version but there is this super obscure rule that was never properly published that makes more sense. Modelling the video above, Fighter 1 would roll to hit with a D20. This represents a series of blows in D&D remember, not a single attack. If a hit happens (since it’s ‘harder’ to hit someone with armor on) then it will do some damage in terms of hit points. The opponent would attack back and then the third guy would come in with a grapple attack which starts with a successful hit (including modifiers like armor which should actually make it EASIER for someone to grapple you), then goes to an opposed roll, etc. The thing is, if you watch the movie above one notices that grapples happen EASILY all the time.
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (2nd edition) has some rules for grappling that work well for the system– both the grappled and grappler have +20% for people to hit them and cannot block or dodge. The grappler can attempt to inflict unarmed damage during his or her turns and the grappled can attempt to escape and that’s it. It models what’s going on in the video above just fine though doesn’t model people being thrown to the ground nor the grappled being able to do damage (I would mod it to just say that he could attempt to do unarmed damage to the grappler just the same). 3rd Edition WFRP has– you guessed it! A card. As much as I wanted to write this and have it thoroughly researched– I just couldn’t be bothered to dig through all my 3rd edition cards to find it.
Despite it’s issue with Lethal/Non lethal soak of armor, Exalted’s grappling I would rate as good, mostly I think because White Wolf did the Street Fighter RPG (and Aberrant) and had to deal with this then, as well as the Vampires gripping each other in their pseudo sexual way. Grappling is an attack and the attacker, if successful, can pull an action (crush, throw, maintain) but each turn that comes up the grapple is contested, with each winner of that round able to crush, throw or maintain the grapple. Exalted does not let armor help you not be grappled (like D&D) which makes sense.
Finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about Marvel Heroic Roleplaying/Cortex and FATE as they model it fairly well in both. In MHR, any grapple would be a complication die stuck to an opponent. So, if the THING is trying to grip Wolverine and got a D10 effect die, he would stick a D10 complication on Wolverine for everything he’s doing (as a negative die) and it would be a D10 that others could use to hit Wolverine when they attack. Invisible Woman could add a D10 to her (weak) punching of Wolverine and whenever Wolverine tried a non-opposed roll, he would have a D10 complication. Note that this D10 complication would be the same if the Thing punched Wolverine into a wall (and trapped him) or sat on him– the system doesn’t care what the type of complication is, except within a narrative context.
In FATE you are trying to create an advantage over your opponent by grappling using an opposed roll. You can give this advantage to another player, so it models fairly well after looking at the Battle of Nations video. However, the issue I have with both FATE and MHR is that the GRABBER should have some negative complications as well as the grabbed. Both are in a grip, and neither may be winning. If one can overpower the other he may be able to hold him in place long enough for another person to smash him over the head, but it’s possible that they may miss and hit their buddy. You can see how it’s a very complicated thing to model in any game (not just RPG’s).
I know this started out as a bit about armored combat, but it’s expanded a bit into a tirade about grappling in RPG systems. I think it’s an extremely important part of fighting, one that cannot be hand waved off and must be simulated, especially in combat with heavily armored foes who use their swords as clubs until the very end. Tactically, grappling is especially important when outnumbered– you better watch out because those Kobolds may drop like flies, but there are a lot of them and if they kobold-pile you, you may be skewered on a spit thrapple to anus before you know it.