Because I’ve been designing the Vivid system for my favorite genres – sword and sorcery, and pulp adventure – combat is a major component of the adventures I have to design for. In an effort to re-start work on my RPG projects, I’m posting these thoughts on how and why I designed Vivid’s combat system to be the way it is, and what improvements I’d like to see so the game plays more like the movie I see in my head.
The Thrust of Combat
What do I want Vivid combat to be about? What do I want the player to be doing? In some games, combat is about deciding where on a grid of squares to place your piece, and which of several abilities will yield the best combination of initiative, damage or what-have-you. I don’t want to go there. Older games (and mayhap, lazy GMs) have taught some players that the only meaningful input is ‘I roll to hit.’ Don’t want that either.
Cinematic combat for me revolves around several ideas that I think players will find cool: balancing courage vs. caution; guessing enemy weaknesses and exploiting them; the interplay of complications and conflicting intents, not ‘Oops I missed;’ and most of all, drama and valuing player input. I want my players playing through a combat scene to be scared, breathless, exhilarated by their victories because they feel earned them, or know how lucky they were to scrape by.
The Guessing Game
Advantage, in the form of bonus dice, is meant to play a major role in Vivid combat. You want those Advantage Dice for yourself, and you want to keep the enemy from having them. I’ve replaced the old rated Traits/Assets mechanic with unrated Traits that allow you to claim Advantage in appropriate circumstances, provided the opponent has no Traits that can counter it, or there’s something else going on that nullifies it.
For example, your character has the Trait: Light on His Feet. You tell me you’ve got superior speed and footwork, which most of the time gives you Advantage in melee. Your nemesis the Count d’Agrivaine however has a similar Trait; no Advantage there for either of you. In another encounter, you’re fighting in a swamp, in knee-deep muck; the environment makes it impossible to employ this Trait.
So what would I like you to do? I want you to think your way out of this! Is there anything else on your character sheet that may be used to gain Advantage? What could you do to gain Advantage, given the circumstances? If it’s hard to walk in this muck, how much more difficult would it be for the sneering Count to get up from it if you knock him down? Now you’re imagining the possibilities – and you’re engaging the game that much more.
This mechanic also encourages observing your opponents, to try to guess their weakness and exploit it. The weakness may be physical, inherent in your opponent – say, he’s blind in the left eye, so he’s got a blind spot on the left; or mental – the Count d’Agrivaine is very touchy on matters regarding his troubled relationship with his wife; or a consequence of their position in the combat arena – for example, you know the edge of the ruined balcony is made of crumbly stone.
Why Use Unrated Traits
I mentioned earlier that I switched from rated Assets, which could be ‘tapped’ for bonus dice, to unrated Traits that you use to justify claims of Advantage. I did this based on observations of player behavior during play.
Having a ‘fund’ of dice to spend made players focus on how much they could spend, and when both PCs and NPCs had multiple Assets to tap extra dice from, I could have a dozen or more dice hitting the table from either side – requiring more dice, a bigger rolling tray, and longer to sort out who won the roll-off.
By leaving the Traits unrated, I’m gambling players will focus more on the qualitative aspects than the quantitative. The question in my players’ minds should now be more about ‘how do I make the most of what my character is,’ than ‘how much juice have I got.’ Extra benefits include more focused description/narration, because the players will need to justify why their Traits gave their character Advantage, and of course we can play with less dice.
The Gambling Element
Is combat a form of poker or is poker a form of combat? In an RPG I believe a lot of the fun from combat sequences is very similar to the fun one gets gambling, for many of the same reasons. Risk is fun. Risk rewarded is even more fun, and risk rewarded with high stakes is best. But poker, with its mechanics of raising and folding, adds the extra dimension of allowing you to manage your risk.
How to model this in an RPG’s mechanics? In an earlier design I tried having players bid target numbers to roll against, with increasing difficulty. Problem: it made combat too dangerous, and refusing to ‘bet higher’ tended to end in stalemates. So I got rid of that and instead turned to a resource management mechanic, with the inclusion of Guts.
Guts, in most variants of Vivid, is both your character’s ‘hit points’ and source of extra energy when you want to do heroic stunts. You spend Guts to gain extra dice when you really want to increase the odds in your favor. At the same time, you want to conserve Guts because it’s a cushion against character death or disability. Just like poker, Vivid can now reward both the conservative player and the bold player, and you can always choose to switch strategies anytime.
Why Use Opposed Rolls
I’ve never liked the rhythm combat develops when you alternate attack rolls between sides; allowing defense rolls only adds more rolls to complicate the procedure, while passive defense is boring, and limits player input. On the other hand having both sides roll simultaneously enhances the feeling of engagement and immediacy for me, and greatly streamlines the resolution procedure.
I’ve also gotten rid off weapon damage ratings, again because I don’t want players focusing on having the bigger sword/gun/etc. Instead, my philosophy is every weapon is effective when used in the right way for it. Damage is based on degree of success, and may be soaked with any of a number of Aces, of which Guts is only one.
This mechanic also gives Vivid players the freedom to design a character who can survive combat due to factors other than being made out of a ton of beef. A lucky kid who has an inexplicably charmed life? You can have it, buy Luck as an Ace. A D’Artagnan type whose dexterity lets him sidestep lethal thrusts? You bet, just buy Quickness as an Ace. If you want a Conan the Cimmerian or Hercules, though, you can just save your points to buy the max allowable Guts.
I’ve playtested and validated some of these ideas already, but the new refinements do require some face to face contact with my players. Gotta plan a session for my next visit to Manila, or get a group together here.