Fixing White Wolf's Combat

As established in the previous article , the World of Darkness' combat system sucks. But the right system can make everything better.

(If you want to skip the system explanations, you can just download the revised White Wolf pdf )

No Combat Emphasis

First off, I'm not making a combat system. The World of Darkness deserves something better. But I am absolutely binning the old combat system. There it rests, in the bin, with a couple of ashtrays emptied on top, and stale beer-juice festering with it at the bottom of the bag.

Instead, this new system will deal with every Resisted, and Extended Roll. It will give a proper system for every interesting disagreement and engagement that Cainites might have.

A single system will cover all of the following situations:

The police want to know where you sleep. You don't want them to know. So every week, a new situation arises, some new cop poking his head about. And sometimes you stay inside, or stay with a friend, or just sleep in the sewers. And then eventually, you get proactive, and start fighting back. You leave red herrings, and react violently to police investigating the wrong house...which makes them think that was the right house.

Another player wants to start 'a financial war', with the Brujah Primogen. They don't know exactly what that involves, but their character would - she's the one with four dots in 'Finance'.

We got ten minutes till Sunrise, and Sonya has already passed out (that bitch has been callous of late, and it's making her sleep early). We can ram the cop-car, but it'll just draw attention. We gotta make it hard for them, stop trying to drive faster and start finding a way to make the roads difficult for them.

This punk is dead. I wanna hit him with that pipe I picked up.

That's right - this system will also cover combat. But it's not just about combat, so it's not a combat system, okay? It's a rule to cover every roll which is both Extended and Resisted. Just go with it for a few more paragraphs.

Step 1: The Arena

If you want to start shit with someone, you start by selecting an Ability. 'Brawl' for hand-to-hand combat, 'Academics' to start a nerd-war about history, or even Empathy to get the room on your side.

  • I hit him, with 'Brawl'.
  • I'm going to start picking - politely - at his theories of older Cainites, with my knowledge of history. I'll use Academics.
  • I can't fight in Elysium, but I can get sympathy. I'll use Empathy, and try to play to the crowd.

Then the defender selects an Attribute, and explains why. The explanation doesn't have to feel compelling, it just has to give enough context to explain how you're reacting.

  • I'll take the punch and start a drawn-out grapple. I'm going with Stamina.
    • Both roll Stamina + Brawl.
  • 'Wits'? I want to use my Wits. So...I guess I'll start changing the subject and bringing a load of things up at once, then loop back in weird ways, till he gets confused. I don't really have Academics.
    • Both roll Wits + Academics
  • I only have 'Appearance 2', but she's a Nosferatu. I'll just blame her face for every problem, and making a mockery of the whining little creature, begging for sympathy.
    • Both roll Appearance + Empathy

Stage 2: Bonuses

Items or Backgrounds can add to a roll.

  • He has a dagger, and it has a +1 bonus, so that's an extra die I can roll.
  • Wait, you said my sire spoke with the Prince earlier. I have 'Mentor 3', so can I add those 3 dice by looping him into the conversation?
  • *I got Status 1 from helping out around the city, so that's something, even if it doesn't make up for having literally 0 in Appearance.
    • Yea? Well I have 'Contacts 4' and they told me ...well okay maybe there's no time to call any contacts right now...

Stage 3: Spending Successes

When you score more successes than an opponent, you spend them to do something nasty. The system has no initiative. On a draw, nothing happens.

Every individual success can be spent in the following ways:

  • inflict a -1 penalty on your opponent
  • add +1 difficulty to your opponent
  • remove all of your own difficulty penalties
  • change one of the Traits in the Arena (useable only once per round)
  • use an item
  • use a Discipline

Penalties

In a fight, giving a -1 penalty means inflicting damage (it's still not a 'combat system', okay?). When two Cainites are sniping at each other in Elysium, penalties most likely represent a loss of reputation (at least in the short term). And of course, when someone wants to investigate a kindred's lair, a loss leads to clues about their location; perhaps the cops find out what kinds of equipment they're hoarding, or which street they live on.

When the Contest begins, the Storyteller should clarify the goals, to make sure that everyone knows what they want, and what might happen to them if they fail.

Increasing Difficulty

This rule tries to feed into the original World of Darkness themes. It changes everything.

It also requires some subtle interpretation. When the coterie find out something embarrassing about the Prince, they don't have to use their secrets to beat her over the head - that never ends well. But if they worked together, and gained some mechanical success (i.e. rolling more successes than the Prince) they could simply raise her difficulty. It works as a threat. It says to the opponent 'you can keep going, but your chances from here on look grim, and if you continue then things might get painful'. Raising the difficulty on a roll could put someone in a headlock, or could mean backing them into the side of a cliff.

Raising the difficulty can also become more abstract. When the coterie and the Giovanni both want to find Caine's tooth, they might begin a rumour-mill among local artefact sellers, sending the Sabbat looking in all the wrong places. Of course nothing horrible has actually happened to the Sabbat, but clearly, if the coterie can investigate where they're going, they might wind up on the wrong side of the planet chasing false records...or could end up in a trap.

Raising the difficulty on a roll means survivors, and even though this sounds like a less bloody option, it really feeds into the themes of the World of Darkness. The players can lose a battle and live to see another day, or win a battle (disgracing the Primogen in Elysium, and separating them from their fortune and allies) and hope their enemy doesn't return.

Removing All Difficulty Penalties

I KNOW I KNOW.

Everyone who looks at these rules has the same comment.

Shouldn't rolling a single success remove just one difficulty penalty?

I know it seems right from a system's point of view, so let's take that point of view. If you want to decrease someone's average successes, and you can either remove 1 die, or raise their difficulty from 6 to 7, then you should raise the difficulty every time. I've done the Maths.

This presents a problem - we have options in the system, but one option beats the others almost every time. However, we can blunt (but not evade) this optimal move by threatening to withdraw all the progress made by putting someone in a bad condition.

This works out very well from a Storytelling perspective.

The Nosferatu everyone laughed at reveals a shocking fact, and now they're not laughing. The room goes quiet, and suddenly they have to listen to her timid voice.

The child you caught in a headlock wriggles free, and darts away.

The investigators hear about someone murdered on your street, and suddenly stop chasing all of the red herrings to focus on finding you, in just the right place.

It's a dramatic twist, every time.

Changing Traits

By spending 1 success (and never more than one in a round) the Contest's winner can swap out any Trait for another which makes sense.

The Investigation went bad, and now poor Jimmy's hiding behind the door, and pushing it closed so it seems locked or barred. The police are battering the door in, but will they notice it's not being held shut by a chair or lock?

The Contest started with Intelligence + Investigation, but the cops swapped Intelligence for Strength, and now they're rolling Strength + Investigation.

Or maybe a fight went bad, and a player's character has been torn apart by Gangrel talons. But on a lucky roll, they get 2 successes while the Gangrel got 1. So they spend their only success to switch from Brawl, to Athletics, and start to flee.

The Contest once used Stamina + Brawl, but now uses Stamina + Athletics.

Or perhaps that Nosferatu, arguing in Elysium, gained 2 successes. So she uses 1 to switch from Appearance + Empathy to Charisma + Empathy while raising her opponent's difficulty by +1.

I'm not asking for fucking sympathy, I'm asking you if my info has ever been wrong before, and if she has ever helped anyone but herself when shit starts going down.

The rule encourages players to not only play to their characters' strengths, but to know their opponents' capabilities. Maybe your character is more Intelligent than Witty, but if the local sheriff seems completely Witless then your best strategy lies in making the whole situation fast-paced and confusing, so both of you have to rely on your Wits.

Using Other Stuff

That extra success can also let people use an item or Discipline. It means Dominate no longer ends combat instantly with one word - you need to get the word out first. Guns can also become lethal in combat, as someone can fire into their opponent's head at point-blank range. However, knives work better for actually winning the roll, so when it comes to up-close encounters, knives can work better than guns.

Multiple Combatants

When many people pile onto a single opponent, everyone rolls, and whoever rolls highest gets to take the lead.

A crowd of eight thugs, all with Strength 3, Brawl 2, will regularly roll 4 or 5 successes. But they will never roll more than that, so a powerful Cainite can still take on many mortals at once.

Playtesting Results

I've used this system throughout a Dark Ages: Vampire campaign, and it works well all-in-all. But nothing's perfect.

Problems

Book Keeping

Some rolls work best when drawn out. When one of the players began hiding from the local werewolves by finding werewolf contacts, and poisoning them with lies, I only allowed one roll per session. So while the game raged on, with disagreements and a perilous encounter with a witch-finder, the shadow of the wolves lingered on, session after session.

It provided some nice drama, but unfortunately required the player to record the Contest (and a few others) on their sheet (along with the Attribute + Ability + Bonuses, and any penalties).

Sheets never held more Contests than they could bear...but then again we had digital sheets at the time.

Oddities

The system also promotes some abstractions, which might feel counter-intuitive at first. If someone has a blade but the other doesn't, why are both using Mêlée? Players must just accept that weapons-training helps with defending against a sword, even when unarmed.

Some of what counts as 'appropriate use' still relies a lot on Storyteller fiat. Let's imagine Gordon wants to hide the location of his lair by using Academics, because he has lots of dots in Academics. Players might feel tempted to promote all manner of nonsense to use their highest Skills. So we have yet another burden on the Storyteller to quash nonsense.

Triumphs

It just feels better. And once the players have actual lever to begin political machinations - not just the promise of 'vampire politics', but real structures that reliably make changes in the world around them - they start to pull those levers. Your players will start churning out plots Machiavelli himself would need a Powerpoint to understand...at least once they get used to the system.

Time Saved

Of course I don't know how many minutes I saved exactly, but combat no longer feels like a chore with these rules.

Every roll which does not end in a tie means someone has come a little closer to the end. Nobody can just 'Soak' damage - the situation must change almost every turn, as it circles the entropic drain.

Some Contests end in a single roll as a conspiracy is uncovered, or a quick quip sends the Elysium into hysterics at a Cainite's ridiculous (and frankly, rude) suggestion. Others take a few rounds, building in drama as difficulties arise and fall, the Attributes change, and finally, victory.

...or perhaps the round ends in a tie, and one side admits defeat to limit the damage.

Losing Health

And of course, we can nearly remove all the health rules. Aggravated Damage still takes a long time to heal, but there's no more need for those seven boxes, with different difficulty penalties on them.

Characters receive and inflict dice-pool penalties. That's it.

A Place for Disciplines

Slotting Disciplines into the system means Lasombra can still summon shadows, and Tzimisce can meld someone's flesh mid-fight, while keeping the rhythm of the battle going.

Wait, did I say 'battle'? This isn't a combat system! This works equally well in a social battle. That Lasombra might want to use Dominate on someone, but while they're fast-talking, and throwing accusations out, the Lasombra's harsh dominate abilities just don't work.

Similarly, Auspex can work wonders during an Investigation, but you need to get ahead enough to actually get the chance to use it.

Rule Adjustments

I've tweaked a lot of rules, but these particular tweaks really helped the Contest system work better:

Disciplines

  • Celerity adds dice to rolls.
  • Potence gives an opponent penalties (but only penalties).
  • Fortitude removes Damage penalties from an opponent's roll (but only penalties).
  • Presence works like Potence, but for social things (no other abilities).
  • Dementation now interacts with the Contest system, locking people into Arenas (so they cannot change Traits), or giving them penalties whenever they have an odd-numbered dice-pool, and a few other abilities which should support the Malkavian notion of shifting the sands beneath everyone's feet.