July 15, 2010

The Vivid RPG System: Goals

The Vivid RPG system I’m in the process of refining now is a distillation of what I most enjoy in RPG’s, and an exercise for me in going out of the box with regard to rules.   

Interestingly enough, the system wasn’t that hard to design save for a few details on which I went round and round for months before settling on what I really wanted.  My goals:

0) Simplicity. Above all things, the rules must be simple enough for even my wife, who’s very interested in gaming but quailed from the 3rd edition PHB.  And personally, the less rules I have to worry about the better for the quality of my adventures.

1) Descriptive Character Creation. My eyes glaze over whenever I look at a D&D 3.x or 4e character sheet, and I’ve had bad experiences with players who take forever to make their characters when using a ‘shopping list’ of skills and ads/disads as in GURPS.  I’ve also often experienced friends complaining that they couldn’t quite create their concept in a given game because of the game’s limitations.

I think this is actually one of the big barriers keeping more people from entering our hobby.  The amount of information that must be digested just to get in and play a character of your own can be enormous – and we don’t often see how big the pile is until an outsider points it out. 

So I’m going for very simple, description-based character creation.  Let’s start from the assumption that every player character must be good at something, to be able to have a role in the game.  (A totally good for nothing character may have a role in traditional forms of fiction, but not in a game, IMO). 

And to make things simple, all Traits are rated with a number of dice, from 1 to 3 or more.  Yep, it’s a simple, very granular dice pool.

To avoid players having to choose from a list of stuff, and to avoid players having to agonize over the expenditure of points, I’m making character creation a simple matter of assigning freeform Traits by tiers.  You have one Primary Trait that describes what the character is at core, some Major Traits that describe what else the character is good at, and some Minor Traits representing minor advantages, scraps of knowledge, and little-used but potentially significant skills. 

And there’s no standard list of Traits – you, the player, tell me what your character is like in your own words. In fact I encourage players to make up interesting, very specific Traits for their characters.  I admit I’m very influenced by Risus and Over the Edge here.  The philosophy is certainly the same: use your own words to create exactly the character you want.  Don’t worry about game balance. You all get the same number of dice anyway.

2) One Die Type.  I wanted to use D6’s exclusively, as I want to create a game that anyone, even someone totally new to gaming, can pick up and play.  As not everyone knows where to find exotic die types, the common cubical d6 was my ideal.

3) Extended Roll Results. There was one major problem I had to beat in deciding to stick with a D6; the darn things only roll 1 to 6!  How to extend the roll range of a six-sided die without having to resort to too much math? 

I knew also that I wanted a die pool system. First, it’s easy to think of stats in terms of increasing numbers of dice.  Second, an observation made by my friend Marc; as a player, he felt empowered when he could physically scoop up a handful of dice to roll.

I rejected the idea of summing up the die results outright.  Then I experimented with a variation of L5R’s roll and keep system, where you could roll a variable number of dice, but added up only two, for a total of 2-12.  It worked all right, but I was still not content.  For one thing, it made abilities rated at one die too poor in comparison.

Finally I found the answer: don’t treat the die result like a number, treat it like cards.  In a deck of cards, you have your spot cards, where you count the number, and the face cards, which have their own rankings.  So to extend the roll result range, I made the roll consider only the highest die in a pool, but rolls of multiple sixes trumped any rolls with less sixes or no sixes at all.  All rolls are made opposed.

The mechanic now answers the requirements I made of it – it’s easy to remember, needs no math, is very fast to process, and positively rewards the player for having more dice without guaranteeing success. 

4) Positive Feedback with Bonus Dice. In the spirit of rewarding behaviors that I want to see at the game table, I give players positive feedback by giving them bonus dice for playing Vivid, well, vividly. 

In fact I’m doing something a bit sneaky with the way I rated Traits.  Most players will find 2-3 dice too few for facing major threats and challenges to their characters, which of course will motivate them to find ways to get more dice.  Which I am too happy to provide if they play the way I like. 

I also like the idea of being able to make an extra effort at certain very important tasks, so I’m giving players the option to ‘tap’ Traits for more dice.  When you tap a Trait, you temporarily lower its die rating, but you get an extra die to roll.  Better yet, you can tap any Traits that are relevant to a task, so you can have a bunch of Traits supporting a main Trait – for example, you could tap your Street Smarts and Quick as a Rat to add to your Dirty Street Fighter trait in a brawl.

5) No Hit Points. I’ve decided to get away from the idea of Hit Points.  How to have a simple damage-tracking technique that lowers the capabilities of a character with attrition, yet doesn’t create a frustrating death spiral? And how to keep players’ minds on the story and the action, rather than on numbers and the inevitable min-maxing that comes with them?

I came up with two solutions.  First, let’s get rid of weapon damage ratings.  My new philosophy: any weapon, correctly used, is very effective at doing what it’s meant to do.  Second premise: being defeated in combat means you’re dead, disabled, or otherwise totally at the mercy of your opponent – UNLESS you have a reason not to be. 

This led to the idea of the Save.  (I could use a  better name, if I could think of one).  If you have any Trait or Resource that lets you avoid that certain doom, you can spend from it to say ‘No, I’m not finished yet!’  For example, armor can be tapped to absorb damage; agility can be tapped to say ‘I dodged at the last minute’; and so on.  Different forms of damage determine what Traits or Resources can be used to Save agaiinst it; for example, you may not be allowed an agility-based Save against area damage if the character was at ground zero for the effect.

As a side benefit, I no longer need additional rules or exceptions for Mook-type NPC’s.  Instead, everyone’s a Mook by default, unless created otherwise.

I’m really liking Vivid as it is now, far better than my earlier attempts at a generic ‘house’ system I could use for all my games.  From FLEX, which used a d20 roll-under mechanic, to Cineflex, which used a pool of d20’s, to Vivid, I think I’ve made progress in the right direction.  Light, fast, cinematic.

It won’t be to everyone’s taste, I’m sure.  I even have friends who’d run gibbering from a system of this sort. But it works for me, and I’m sure somewhere in the world there are those who think enough like me to appreciate it.

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