Sunday, March 14, 2021

Reading vsD Part 3: Combat, Magic and the Flight from Weathertop!

 The next part of this review covers the major game systems vsD employs: skill rolls, resistance rolls, casting magic, combat, health and healing and rules for stuff like travelling and equipment. While the core system is true to it's MERP/RM lineage, the influence of more current game design becomes more apparent in this chapter. There's rules and guidelines for the ad-hoc creation of safe havens or healing herbs that encourage player input and also minor stuff like "choose how you fumble". Both reminds me a lot of pbtA games.

But first, let's have a look at the basic resolution system: Basically, when you're trying to do something that warrants a roll, you take your relevant skill score (called a skill bonus in vsD), subtract any difficulty modifiers and add an open D100 roll. "Open" means that the roll explodes both upwards and downwards: On a 96-100, you roll again, adding to your total, while on an initial roll of 01-05, you roll again and subtract it from your total.

In a standard skill test, you want to reach a total of at least 75, which is a partial success with a complication, or better a 100, which is a full sucess (with a superior success at 175 and a critical failure at a total below 05). Since your skill bonus in a vocational core skill will be in the 60-70 range at level 1, you can usually expect to score at least a partial success when rolling them - at least as long as there are no difficulty modifiers involved. In opposed rolls, the side with the higher total wins (but, the way I read it, you can still apply the 75/100/175 thresholds to see how well each side did). All in all, it's a pretty simple and flexible system that you can always fall back on. Having to add two- to three-digit numbers might be a stumbling block for some, however - Your Maths May Vary.



Attacks, spells and resistance rolls are also made by adding an open d100 roll to your relevant bonus, but use different resolution tables. For attacks, we get the tables that Rolemaster and its descendents like MERP, HARP and now vsD are famous (or notorious, depending on who you ask) for, where you cross-reference attack roll total with armor type and get hit points damage and possibly a level for a critical that has to be rolled separately. Crits can result in anything from minor bleedings to cumulative action penalties to instant death (however, player's can use drive points to downgrade them, making an instant death much less likely than in MERP or RM). I think the crits are not quite as graphical as they used to be in MERP or RM (along the lines of: "Punctured kidney, double over in pain, -25 to all rolls, pissing blood for two weeks."), but still ... well, they're flavourful.

I'd say that keeping track of bleeding, skill penalties and other crit results is probably the most fiddly part of the combat system, but since any relevant crit will usually finish a fight, this might not be much of a problem at the table. Apart from that, it is pretty much: Decide how offensive or defensive you want to be by assigning some of your attack skill points to parrying, roll on your weapon table and see what happens. There's options for special maneuvers like disarm or feints, but I think the most tactical aspect of the combat system is actually your choice of weapons and armour. VsD has a slightly unusual initiative, in that characters and their opponents actually don't have an initiative score. Instead, you simply have all readied missiles, thrown weapons and spells fire first, followed by melee weapons, from longest to shortest, followed by all missiles, thrown weapons and spells that had to be readied during the round. In some cases, the higher combat skill will act as a tiebreaker. This means that you can't just go round and have everyone decide on what they're doing when it's their turn - you'll need an action declaration phase first to figure out who goes when. I suspect that this sounds more complicated on paper that it is in play.

An interesting tidbit is how important the perception skill can be in combat: Some critical or fumble results may force you to make a so-called (perception-based) assessment roll at the beginning of the round to be able to do anything but parry. While you will definitely want to wear a helmet in vsD to protect you from some of the most ugly criticals, the perception penalty imposed by it can be quite painful ...

All in all, an interesting and deadly combat system that is obviously one of the crunchier parts of vsD.


Spells are skill rolls, but they fail only on a 25 or less (unless the other side has a resistance roll). Attack spells are basically treated like missile attacks with their own attack table. However even a successful spell can attract the attention of your campaign's personal Sauron. Any time you roll natural doubles on a spell roll (11,22,33 ...), you need to roll to see whether the dark powers take an interest in you, which might mean nothing more than a cold shiver down your spine, or could end with a powerful lieutenant of evil hunting you down to turn or kill you (with that latter result being reserved for the more powerful spells).

Overall, magic has a straightforward core, but gets fiddly in some places, especially when you're trying to cast a spell which would be usually beyond your abilities. However, I'd say the flexibility earned is worth the effort. The system of Spell Lores which are learned as separate skill is also a nice way to allow for specialisation without boxing magic casters in too much.

Tonally, vsD is supposed to be a low-magic system, which I would translate rather as "low-key" magic than "little magic". Theoretically, pretty much anyone can learn some magic, but the lower-level spells are relatively subtle and can easily be explained as extraordinary abilities of the caster. Casters will usually have ample magic points, so I suspect that in practice, things will be less about having enough juice to cast a spell and more about weighing the risk of attracting the Darkmaster's attention. I could imagine that, if you were to ditch that element (which is absolutely possible), you'd end up with a lot more spell-slinging (you decide whether this is a good or a bad thing).

Travelling, Safe Havens, and Healing

So, let's finally get to my favourite bits of this installment, which I'm lumping together because they introduce strong thematic elements in similar ways.

Emcumbrance, for example, seemed a little weird to me at first glance: On the one hand, there are five different levels of encumbered from non-encumbered to overloaded, but on the other hand, you're supposed to handwave them - there's nothing about what weighs what and how much Brawn carries how much weight, just some general guidelines like: If you're carrying three weapons and a sleeping roll, you're probably lightly encumbered. I'm fine with handwaving something like that, but why then the five levels of encumbrance? Then I realized that encumbrance is part of the travelling rules and that it actually mostly matters to figuring out how fast the party can move over long distances, and things started to make sense. The system asks the characters to make a general decision about how much stuff (rations, tents, weapons) they want to take along, with the effect being how long it will take them to reach their destination. I'm still not sure if you need five levels of encumbrance for that, but what it does well is to assign a certain narrative relevance to encumbrance, without bothering with this usually annoying piece of bookkeeping beyond that.

The travelling rules themselves are basically guidelines to help the GM figure out how much hazardous encounters they should pre-plan for a specific trip; however, there are optional tables for random hazards by terrain type, which usually go beyond just presenting a wandering monster. Some of these hazards imply a whole adventure (which can be a double-edged sword, though - you'll really need to be ready to improvise, and fast, if you're using them). There is a slightly more complex subsystem for setting up camp, which is not about finding a place for the night, but about finding a safe place to rest and heal for several days. It's made clear here that vsD is supposed to be a game about the characters travelling through dark and hazardous lands, beset by their enemies.

The rules for safe havens drive this notion home even more effectively: The idea is that, when in dire need, one of the heroes can roll their "Songs & Tales" skill to remember stories about a safe place somwhere in the area (with the roll being modified by how tainted by darkness the lands around them are). On a success, the GM, aided by some tables with suggestions, has to come up with a safe haven that the characters can reach within d5 days and where they can rest and heal in safety. It's a rule that I would have expected to see in some pbtA-based indie game, but it makes a lot of sense in vsD, given the source material. After all, the run for a safe haven like Rivendell is usually a truly dramatic moment in epic fantasy, and you can't always pre-plan those - so coming up with the safe haven when the developing story calls for it is exactly the right thing; and providing some rules for how to do that saves it from being nothing but GM clemency. You might be able to find a safe haven nearby, or you might not - but whatever it is, it will happen in your time of need.

Searching for healing herbs follows a similar principle - there's no fixed herbarium. Instead, it is expected that the characters search for some herb that does what they need it to do. On a success, they can name the herb and write it down, and next time they're looking for it under similar circumstances, it will be easier to find. I really like how that reduces rules clutter, while making the art of healing a thematically more interesting element of the game. That's also true of how healing works in general, but I won't go into detail about that. The rules for it are a little more involved and require some bookkeeping, but still manage to generalize all the various kinds of injuries you can suffer from a critical hit. The spirit is the same: Stick to what is thematically relevant for a game about hazardous travels.

All in all, if you're looking at the travelling/healing herbs/safe havens rules, you can really see the flight from Weathertop to Rivendell come together at the table: Damn, one of us is badly hurt and can't really travel. Well, we can slow that magical poison down with a herb that I happen to know grows around here, but in any case, we need to reach a safe place, and a true healer. However, we're just too slow, and the ring-wraiths are behind us! Hey, Glorfindel, you're mounted and only lightly encumbered, best you take him and ride like the wind!

Stuff ...

Which leaves me with the rules for wealth and buying stuff, which are a part of this chapter. Wealth doesn't usually play a role in epic fantasy, and vsD consequently strives to downplay it. Each character's wealth is simply measured as an abstract number from 0-5. If you want to buy something below your wealth level, you usually just get it (if it's available), if you want to buy something at your wealth level, your wealth level drops by one, and everything above your wealth level is out of reach. There's guidelines for improving your wealth or for what happens if you want to buy in bulk, but basically the system tells you to do what makes sense and don't sweat the details.

That was a lot of crunchy stuff, and I think I've covered most of the actual game system. Next up: Tales of Legend, which looks to be the GM chapter of vsD ...

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