Martial Arts: Sherlock

I’m a doctor, I know how to sprain people.

– John Watson in Sherlock #3.3 (2014)

I am a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, and the modern retelling offered by the BBC’s Sherlock (2010-) is great. I am not too keen on the actual stories, but the chemistry between the main characters, all of them great actors, is brilliant, as are many of the details. The following scene from the episode “His Last Vow” (Sherlock #3.3) shows an often underplayed side of Dr John Watson. The good doctor has always been a man of action, but he is seldom allowed to prove it in the various dramatizations. In this brief but hilariously funny scene we are reminded that Watson is a former British Army Captain with three years’ service in Afghanistan. The specifics warrant a detailed analysis in GURPS terms.

This article is part of the Melee Academy.

Stop reading if you want to avoid SPOILERS.



Prelude: Watson has entered a drug den in search for his missing neighbour, Isaac Whitney. Upon entering, he is accosted by a hooded thug who is later revealed to be Billy Wiggins, underground chemist. Watson and Wiggins are facing each other. Wiggins has produced a tactical folding knife (GURPS High-Tech, p. 198) and tells Watson to “Go … or I cut yer!” Watson is not impressed, standing 3 m (3.3 yards) away. “Oh, not from there. Let me help you.” Watson moves up to get into close combat range (p. B391). “Now, concentrate … Isaac …Whitney.” Wiggins threatens: “OK, you asked for it.”

1st Second: Watson and Wiggins have both taken Wait manoeuvres; Watson will attack if Wiggins makes a threatening move, and Wiggins will attack if Watson makes a threatening move. This is a Cascading Waits situation (GURPS Martial Arts, p. 108): In order to find out who acts first, they have to roll a Quick Contest. Watson rolls against Judo; +1 (Combat Reflexes) +Basic Speed +2 (no Move required). Wiggins rolls against Knife; +Basic Speed +2 (no Move required). Watson wins the Quick Contest and acts first. Watson takes an All-Out Attack (Double) manoeuvre (p. B365) to grapple and strike to disarm (p. B401). First he grapples Wiggins’ right hand holding the knife with his left hand; -4 (off-hand) (Martial Arts, p. 124) -2 (1/2 hand hit location) (pp. B370, 399) = -6 to Judo. Watson probably has the Off-Hand Weapon Training (Judo) perk (Martial Arts, p. 50) to pay off the -4 penalty, as most styles train both sides equally. He succeeds and Wiggins fails his Dodge roll. Almost simultaneously, Watson punches with his right fist on Wiggins’ right lower arm to knock the knife out of his hand; -2 (strike to disarm) to Brawling. He succeeds and Wiggins fails his defence; -1 (grappled arm) to Dodge. Watson and Wiggins enter a Quick Contest between DX and DX. Wiggins obviously lacks the Retain Weapon (Knife) technique (Martial Arts, p. 78). Watson wins, and the knife drops to the ground. The strike hurts but does not cripple the arm (p. B399), as we later learn. It is only a sprain, which the GM rules results in the Moderate Pain affliction (p. B428), but does not cost HP. At his turn, Wiggins is clearly surprised (p. B393, although the rule is not intended for situations like this!), which results in Mental Stun (p. B420) and forces him to take a Do Nothing manoeuvre.

2nd Second: At his turn, Watson takes an All-Out Attack (Double) manoeuvre to grapple and ram Wiggins into a wall (Martial Arts, p. 118). First he grapples Wiggins’ neck with his right arm, while still holding his left hand; -3 (1/2 neck hit location) (pp. B370, 399) +4 (Telegraphic Attack) (Martial Arts, p. 113) = +1 to Judo. He succeeds and Wiggins fails his defence; +2 (Telegraphic Attack) (Martial Arts, p. 113) -1 (grappled) -4 (mental stun) -2 (moderate pain) = -5 to Dodge. Then Watson rams Wiggins into the wall on the left; +0 to Brawling. He succeeds and Wiggins fails his defence; -1 (grappled) -4 (mental stun) -2 (moderate pain) = -7 to Dodge. Wiggins takes thr+1 cr damage. At his turn, Wiggins fails his Will roll to recover from Mental Stun and must take a Do Nothing manoeuvre.

3rd Second: Almost like an afterthought, Watson takes an Attack manoeuvre to bring Wiggins down by sweeping away his right leg with a simple Judo Throw. This is a Quick Contest of Judo vs. the highest of DX, ST, or wrestling skill (Martial Arts, p. 75); Wiggins is at -4 (mental stun) -2 (moderate pain) = -6 to that roll. Wiggins fails and falls. He has to roll against HT, which he fails; he is stunned (Martial Arts, p. 75). Wiggins is forced to take a Do Nothing manoeuvre.


The scene is dominated by the fact that Wiggins loses the initiative and remains stunned for the entire altercation. He never regains control of the situation, despite being armed. Note how Watson closes the distance. This not only takes Wiggins by surprise, it is also the only tactically-sound move. Against a knife-wielding attacker, there are only two favourable ranges: way the hell away or very close. Standing off at a short distance, ostensibly out of arm’s reach, is no use; you are still in range of a Move and Attack manoeuvre (the famous 6.4 m of the 21 Foot Tueller Drill), but cannot do anything yourself. You have to get close in order to control the attacker’s weapon arm.

Note how acting first in the Cascading Waits situation allows Watson to prevent Wiggins from acting at all (Martial Arts, p. 108).

Also note how sure of himself Watson acts throughout the scene. He twice employs an All-Out Attack (Double) manoeuvre despite the fact that this robs him of any active defence in case Wiggins actually managed to counterattack. This goes well with the idea of Watson as a thrill-seeker, which has been hinted at in the original stories and is reinforced in Sherlock.