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Alright, I know that most who read the title will go: "PVP (Player vs Player) games? In RPGs?! NO WAY!!!"

Yes, yes, I know. Many advise against doing PVP in RPGs, arguing that clubbing GM-controlled Goblins is better for team cohesion than bashing each others' skulls in. I used to belong to that crowd, but recently, on Roll20, I have seen a couple of attempts to run a game based on the holy grail war from Fate / Stay Night.

I immediately fell in love with the idea. For those who are not familiar, the holy grail war is the main plot device in a visual novel called Fate / Stay Night. The main idea is that 7 magicians (called masters, who live in our time) each summon a servant, which are heroes (both real and legendary) from ages past. These 14 people then fight each other to the death, until only one team remains (one magician and one servant), which are then awarded the holy grail, an omnipotent vessel which can grant any wish.

I would like to run a campaign like that myself and have been trying to come up with a good way to do it. My initial instinct is to have 14 players, a map of the traditional city where the holy grail war takes place, and a random starting location for each of them.

Communication within a team is, of course, hidden from opposing teams (unless they are standing right in front of each other). My main gripe now is: How do I deal with combat? The existing rule sets I looked at (I am kind of a newbie, so correct me if I am wrong) were all lacking for that. I personally love the Cypher System from the Monte Cook games, but they are absolutely useless for engaging and interesting combat between players.

Thus, my question: Is there a good combat / RPG system out there, focused on round-based and engaging player vs player combat?

Narrowing: As some have mentioned in the comments, my description thus far does not really narrow things down. So here, in approximately increasing order of importance, is my list of things I think a "perfect" story-driven PVP system should have and do. The most important item is the last:

  • Encourage interactions between PCs
  • Allow NPC interactions
  • Leave enough room to tell a story and to drive a plot
  • Allow combat with NPCs, when necessary and appropriate
  • Allow and encourage combat between PCs in a way that doesn't make the outcome of the battle trivial or deterministic
  • Gives a level system that establishes clear divisions of power (because: Servants outpower any normal human being by a huge margin. A regular human can never beat a servant - Character level or some other attribute should reflect that)
  • Allow and encourage round-based actions, both in combat and in-between (the only sensible way to pull this off, in my opinion)
  • Have a points / stat system that reflects a character's strengths and weaknesses. Such as: Some servants have strong sword fighting skills, but cannot cast spells or know nothing about magic. Other servants would be pure wizards (glass cannons, if you will). The same goes for the masters that summon the servants. Some kind of stat system should reflect that, and have an influence on the outcome of battles (i.e.: If two otherwise equally-matched servants fight each other, but one servant has a higher sword skill than the other, the stronger servant should have an advantage (but NOT a guaranteed win!)
  • Have a spending system. In particular, in the original visual novel, a lot of time is dedicated to explaining that mages have a source of power (mana), which they can draw from their surroundings and use to cast spells. When mana is expended, it takes time to replenish, meaning that spells cannot be cast ad infinitum. Players should have a limited resource to cast their spells.
  • Allow pre-defined spells. Although I am trying to avoid typical things like: "Player A casts magic missile", certain masters / servants have special spells which they can use. The system should allow this.
  • The system should support classes (the original holy grail war distinguishes seven servant classes, and of each class, only one servant is summoned in one grail war. Each class has special attributes and skills, which always ensure an unpredictable battle and that each servant can win the war, even if they are weaker in some aspects than their enemies)
  • The combat system should be die-based (otherwise, the outcomes become deterministic)
  • The combat system should allow flexibility. This is, for me, the most important point. What I absolutely want to avoid is a D&D-style spamfest with fixed skills and spells which have pre-determined damage, hit rate, etc. Ideally, I would like to make the battle itself a story. In other words, I need a system that allows me (the GM) to use the player's choices and die rolls to weave a story such as the following: Player A is a lance user and decides to attack player B with a direct thrust. He throws his die to determine the outcome and the damage. Let's imagine the die roll goes very bad. Player A therefore not only misses, but loses his balance, leaving an opening for his opponent (making the opponent's strike easier, for example).

    To be specific, my problem with D&D is due to three major issues: First, how each round is supposed to represent exactly 6 seconds. Second, the strictness of rules, such as Initiative rolling (a hindrance at best in my use case). Third, the duration of certain effects. It's a lot of rolling and strict tracking of details that are the wrong kind of detail for my needs. I need more flexibility. I need the ability to tell a story in combat, not to be bogged down by an infinity of dice rolls. That's why I rejected the D&D system. But if you think I'm wrong and that it works, I'll welcome such an answer.

I hope that this narrows things down enough. If my shopping list of desirable system traits is too much to ask, would you know of any system that approximates this enough that I could twink and modify it to fill my needs?

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closed as off-topic by doppelgreener, LegendaryDude, Oblivious Sage, Thomas Jacobs, Thyzer Apr 25 '17 at 16:42

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Do not answer in comments. This is now open, feel free and answer in an answer, keeping in mind our game-rec requirements. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jul 27 '15 at 5:16
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I would recommend White Wolf's (New) World of Darkness1 with Mage: the Awakening for a system to use for the game you are proposing.

Short Summary

Pros

  • Clear divisions of power can be achieved by applying a supernatural template and/or XP to a base mortal character and by adjusting stats to differentiate between average humans ,'Peak Humans', your Servants and your Masters, etc.2
  • Core social skills to encourage interaction with NPCs
  • Flexible combat system
  • Chance for Dramatic Failure in unfavourable conditions
  • Encourages creative spellcasting and thinking outside the fixed spell list

Cons

  • The Mage templates probably will not match up to your Magicians perfectly, so a degree of tinkering with the theme and stats is probably necessary. Depending on your desires/requirements, you may need to give the Mage template a significant overhaul or even develop your own homebrew template(s) for Magicians and Servants.

Longer Form

Addressing your bullet points in order:

Encourage interactions between PCs

In my experience, very yes. Sometimes my PCs have embraced their backgrounds and prejudices enough that the PCs interacted with each other to the exclusion of engaging with whatever I'd foolishly prepared that week.

Allow NPC interactions

Again, very yes. The core settings assume that the PCs will be operating within mundane and supernatural societies populated by their superiors, peers and lessers, and social stats for navigating such interactions are built-in to the mechanics.

Leave enough room to tell a story and to drive a plot

In my experience, the WoD systems have been very good for this.

Allow combat with NPCs, when necessary and appropriate

Absolutely. Full, unique stat blocks for NPCs can be time-consuming to create. I only give full stat blocks to core NPCs and prepare a few 'Defaults' (or snag them from the book examples) to whip out when PCs attack somebody unimportant or unexpected. (Similarly, for NPCs that I expect to be combat-fodder I'll give core combat-related stats and improvise with defaults if the PCs unexpectedly do something else with them)

Allow and encourage combat between PCs in a way that doesn't make the outcome of the battle trivial or deterministic

Absolutely. We also incorporate rules for Stunting to give players small bonuses for doing something dramatic (using the scenery, cool descriptors, etc.) instead of just punching at their foe.

Gives a level system that establishes clear divisions of power (because: Servants outpower any normal human being by a huge margin. A regular human can never beat a servant - Character level or some other attribute should reflect that)

There aren't strict character levels in the WoD system, but there are definitely divisions of power! To emphasize the human/servant power gap, keep NPC humans close to human-average (2 in each of the Ability scores, few skills) and buff the stats of the servants with high XP totals (or apply a supernatural template either from one of the published lines or of your own devising).

Allow and encourage round-based actions, both in combat and in-between (the only sensible way to pull this off, in my opinion)

Dice pools generate successes, and extended actions take time between rolls to reach a target number of successes. The length of a round varies depending on the task - combat rounds are typically faster than research or construction rounds - so this should be flexible enough to give both action-time and downtime-time for making rolls in a sensible fashion.

Have a points / stat system that reflects a character's strengths and weaknesses. Such as: Some servants have strong sword fighting skills, but cannot cast spells or know nothing about magic. Other servants would be pure wizards (glass cannons, if you will). The same goes for the masters that summon the servants. Some kind of stat system should reflect that, and have an influence on the outcome of battles (i.e.: If two otherwise equally-matched servants fight each other, but one servant has a higher sword skill than the other, the stronger servant should have an advantage (but NOT a guaranteed win!)

Absolutely. A low-XP character can certainly beat a high-XP character if the low-XP character is playing up strengths/weaknesses, and a lucky roll for either side could radically change the outcome of a contest. Because there aren't any strict classes you could also have some unusual strength/weakness combos, too.

Have a spending system. In particular, in the original visual novel, a lot of time is dedicated to explaining that mages have a source of power (mana), which they can draw from their surroundings and use to cast spells. When mana is expended, it takes time to replenish, meaning that spells cannot be cast ad infinitum. Players should have a limited resource to cast their spells.

Such is the mechanic created with Quintessence and Nodes in Mage. Not all spellcasting needs Quintessence in the Mage system as-written, but than could be modified for your setting if necessary. The Mages in the WoD setting also risk generating Paradox depending on what/where/how they are casting spells, which may be a section that you would want to houserule depending on the needs of your setting.

Allow pre-defined spells. Although I am trying to avoid typical things like: "Player A casts magic missile", certain masters / servants have special spells which they can use. The system should allow this.

Rote spells would serve this purpose. These provide a few specific, defined spells for a character and do not limit the character's ability to create new magical effects as needed.

The system should support classes (the original holy grail war distinguishes seven servant classes, and of each class, only one servant is summoned in one grail war. Each class has special attributes and skills, which always ensure an unpredictable battle and that each servant can win the war, even if they are weaker in some aspects than their enemies)

Classes in the WoD settings are possible and also a lot fuzzier than most other settings, so class divisions will be largely influenced by your implementation decisions.

The combat system should be die-based (otherwise, the outcomes become deterministic)

Check.

The combat system should allow flexibility. This is, for me, the most important point. What I absolutely want to avoid is a D&D-style spamfest with fixed skills and spells which have pre-determined damage, hit rate, etc. Ideally, I would like to make the battle itself a story. In other words, I need a system that allows me (the GM) to use the player's choices and die rolls to weave a story such as the following: Player A is a lance user and decides to attack player B with a direct thrust. He throws his die to determine the outcome and the damage. Let's imagine the die roll goes very bad. Player A therefore not only misses, but loses his balance, leaving an opening for his opponent (making the opponent's strike easier, for example).

There is definitely room for this, especially if you implement some form of stunting rule3. It's also easy to add small positive and negative circumstance modifiers to dice rolls. Because it's a dice pool system with a fixed difficulty (8+ on a D10 with 10-again rule), each individual die only contributes 1/3 of a success on average (but with a possibility of an exciting 10-again chain) and a single die modification isn't normally an unbalanced or unfair (dis)advantage.


1I have experience with both the New and Old (classic) WoD games, and both may fit your requirements. Combat is more balanced and streamlined in New WoD, which is why I recommended New over Old. Old WoD has a higher frequency of Botched rolls which can make for some fantastic unexpected twists in the hands of good players/GMs - depending on your priorities, the Old WoD may be worth your consideration as well. There is also a New World of Darkness, 2nd Edition that has recently come out - I do not have experience with that system yet so cannot recommend it, but it may be worth a look as well.

2 I'm assuming Mage will give the most appropriate template for what you described. Other core games, such as Werewolf: the Forsaken and Vampire: the Requiem may give you some ideas for creating your Servants, but I expect that they would need to be extensively rethemed/reskinned to work with the basic setting details that you provided.

3 I can't remember if Stunting is included in the New WoD core books. The version we use we lifted from a different game by the same publisher before New WoD was released. In short, grant players +1 to +3 dice to their dice pool for doing/describing something Really Cool with their action. Each die in the dice pool adds, on average, 1/3 of a success to an action.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ There's a similar system by the same publisher called 'Scion' where characters are children of gods and demigods. I haven't played more than a single session so can't recommend for or against, but it had a neat aspect where normal humans had stats ranging from 1-5, Scions from 1-10. You could also take epic levels for your stats, with each point of Epic Stamina or Epic Charisma (etc) giving cool bonuses. If the WoD system sounds close to what you want, maybe thumb through Scion as well for extra ideas? \$\endgroup\$ – Dave B Jul 27 '15 at 19:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you, Dave, for that fantastic response. I've given it an upvote (it's a great effort) and will try to get a hold of the New World of Darkness (as well as Scion, for comparison). If it fits my requirements, I'll accept your answer. If you would like an invitation for the game when it starts, let me know. I'd love to have you as a player and, if you wish, your expertise as well. \$\endgroup\$ – John Torwalds Jul 30 '15 at 12:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ @JohnTorwalds: Thank-you for the upvote! I unfortunately don't have very regular times where I can commit to being online (and I would be surprised if I'm in your area), so I'm afraid I have to pass on the invite. \$\endgroup\$ – Dave B Aug 14 '15 at 19:06

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