April 21, 2013

The Sorcerer’s Imperatives

In a previous post, I noted that the sorcerer in the sword and sorcery genre is essentially a terrorist.  To further build up on this idea, and to guide my design of spells and sorcerer characters, I thought of a bunch of ‘imperatives’ that motivate the sorcerers in Tribes of Bronze.

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The sorcerers' imperatives are a set of desires common to nearly all sorcerers, and direct the kinds of spells which they research.  The demons summoned by the sorcerers themselves encourage these imperatives, for by the sorcerers' following of them they wreak more chaos upon the world just as the demons desire.

1) Imperative of Dominance
Every sorcerer wants to have power over the rest of mankind.  Spells of dominance compel obedience through fear or through seduction by unholy pleasures.  Such spells are usually of a subtle, secret nature so the sorcerer can wield power without being found out. Some sorcerers, however, like to make open demonstrations of their power so they can rule directly.

Ex: Black Omen
Can only be cast during a solar eclipse, and affects an area of x square miles centered on the caster.  The spell adds to the terrifying effect of the eclipse, so that armies of demons seem to ride across the clouds, hot winds smelling of ash and brimstone sweep the affected area, and all creatures - sentient and not - born in the area within the last few days sicken and die.  The spell is automatically ended when the sun reappears.  This spell is intended to be a bald demonstration of the caster's power, to cow a subject populace or to demoralize an enemy before striking.

2) Imperative of Preservation
Every sorcerer wants  to live forever.  Spells of preservation seek to keep death, age and disease at bay even at the most terrible costs.  The theme of most of these spells is that one's life can only be extended at an unholy price.

Ex: Renewal of the Scaled Ones
The caster enters a deep hibernation, during which his skin becomes scaly and begins to slough off, revealing new, young skin beneath.  During this time all effects of disease and injury are repaired, so that the caster awakens as a youth in perfect health.  Nothing however can wake the caster from this hibernation except its completion.  The spell usually takes a week or so to run its course.

3) Imperative of Cowardice
Every sorcerer values their own life higher than anyone else's; shunning combat as much as possible themselves, sorcerers develop spells to evade attack and increase their minions' chance of victory. 

Ex: Mantle of Darkness
Can only be cast in an enclosed or shadowed space, or at night.  The the caster summons demons to darken a target area, making vision by normal humans impossible.  All sources of light are dimmed to such an extent that they do not aid visibility at all, and yet in the case of flame, do not go out.

4) Imperative of Balefulness
Every sorcerer knows the rest of mankind is against him, and to discourage attack researches spells that will make him seem invincible.  Spells of balefulness are meant to wreak such terror and mayhem that a sorcerer's enemies will regret disturbing him if they ever attack him openly. Thus it’s not enough that a spell can kill, injure or disable an attacker; it must do so in a way that is so gruesome or shocking that it discourages further attack.

Ex: Touch of the Dark Crone
The caster summons a demon to infuse his hand with the power of decay.  Any living being he holds  while the spell is active takes damage as if from a horrible withering disease.

5) Imperative of Knowledge
Every sorcerer wants to know as much of what goes on in the world as possible, to always be abreast of opportunities and threats coming their way.  Spells of knowledge deliver various kinds of information to the sorcerer.

Ex: Listen to the Night Winds
Can only be cast in a place of power, such as an Elder ruin,  between sunset and sunrise.  The caster goes into a semi-conscious trance state.  While in this state, the caster becomes aware of any elements in the world that will have a strong effect on his destiny; approaching enemies, plots against him, major opportunities, and so on.

6) Imperative of Mastery
Every sorcerer believes the way to achieve power is through mastery of the arts and lore of commanding demons; therefore every sorcerer is eternally hungry for new sorcerous knowledge and sorcerous artifacts, and jealous of other sorcerers.  Spells of mastery are the foundation of the sorcerous arts, being the basic spells for dealing with demons.

Ex: Sunder Bonds
If successful, this spell destroys the bond between another sorcerer and that sorcerer's demon servants, including any that have been recently summoned.  Demons whose bonds of service have been severed in this way will no longer obey their old masters, and will likely turn against them.

April 16, 2013

Combat in Vivid: What I Want to See

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.

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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. 

Success-Based Effects
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.

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