Setting up Vimspector

A multi-language debugging plugin for Vim

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Setting up Vimspector

This page contains instructions for:

  • installing and configuring vimspector to debug Vim
  • building a debug version of Vim



See the Vimspector readme for detailed installation instructions, but in short, if you’re running a supported OS:

  • Untar a release into ~/.vim/pack
  • Add this to your .vimrc:
let g:vimspector_enable_mappings = 'HUMAN'
packadd! vimspector

Getting Started

Once installed, you need to configure some debug profiles for your project. In order to debug your code, you need to tell Vimspector:

  • Which debug adapter to use,
  • How to start up or connect to your application.

Both of these are configured in a .vimspector.json file.

But first, we need to something to debug. In our example, we’re going to be debugging Vim itself (why not), so let’s get that set up. Whether you’re on macOS or Linux, the steps are roughly the same:

  • Check out the Vim code,
  • Build it with debug information
  • Set up the .vimspector.json to start vim and run a Vim test
  • Set a breakpoint in the Vim code
  • Start up vimspector and debug Vim.

The idea is to be able to run a Vim test and step through the Vim code to see what’s going on. We’re going to set it up so that you can run any Vim test, rather than just a specific one.

First, let’s check out the Vim code and build it with debug info.

Check out and build the Vim code

This is simple. Just follow the instructions for building Vim, but make sure that CFLAGS contains at least -g, but I recommend the following: -g -gdwarf-4 -DDEBUG -O0 -fno-omit-frame-pointer.

Here’s an example:

$ git clone
$ cd vim
$ CFLAGS='-g -gdwarf-4 -DDEBUG -O0 -fno-omit-frame-pointer' \
    ./configure --prefix=$(pwd)/root \
                --with-features=huge \
                --enable-python3interp \
                --enable-terminal  \
$ make
$ make install

You should now be able to run Vim by running ./src/vim. Bonza.

Set up the vimspector config

For full details of configuring Vimspector, checkout the reference. This section is just an illustration.

Starting Vim is simple, but we want to run a Vim test. For the sake of this demo, we’re going to run a Python test ‘test_python3.vim’. This is a little more involved, and the details aren’t really all that important, but the command we want to execute is, from the directory src/testdir:

$ VIMRUNTIME=../../runtime ../vim -f -u unix.vim -U NONE --noplugin --not-a-term -S runtest.vim test_python3.vim

You should be able to try this manually.

Structure of the config file

The config file is called .vimspector.json and should be placed in the root of your project. Vimspector looks up the directory stack from Vim’s current working directory to find it.

The JSON must contain a single object with the following structure:

  • adapters: Object mapping adapter names to adapter configuration. We won’t be covering this here as the bundled adapter will be used.
  • configurations: Object mapping launch configuration name to vimspector debug configuration.

Vimspector configurations contain the following keys:

  • adapter: name of an adapter to use. Must appear either in the adapters block, or in one from .gadgets.json
  • remote-request, remote-cmdLine: Used for remote debugging (not covered here)
  • variables: preset variables, or variables set from commands (not covered here)
  • configuration: the debug adapter protocol launch configuration object. This is where the actual debugger configuration goes and varies depending on the adapter being used.

In the configuration mapping, the following are mandatory:

  • request: launch or attach
  • type: sometimes has to be supplied for very picky adapters

Config Variables

Vimspector pre-processes the values of the configuration object, performing certain simple variable replacements.

Vimspector makes some things available to you as variables. In particular, entries in the vimspector configuration can contain variable replacements. The following predefined variables are relevant to this demo:

  • ${workspaceRoot} - Expands to the path containing .vimspector.json
  • ${gadgetDir} - Expands to the OS-specific gadget home.
  • $$ - A dollar sign
  • ${dollar} - A dollar sign

In addition, vimspector asks the user to fill in the values for any unknown variables, so we can use something like this:

  • ${anythingYouLikeHere} - Asks the user to specify the value

Or, more usefully in this case:

  • ${Test} - Ask the user to supply the name of the test, e.g. test_python3

Variables can also be set in the launch configuration and adapter configuration. In these cases it’s possible to set the variables by running some shell command. This won’t be used in the demo, but for example, to set the variable by running a script:

  "configurations": {
    "some-configuration": {
      "variables": {
        "gdbserver-version": {
          "shell": [ "/path/to/my/scripts/get-gdbserver-version" ],
          "env": {
            "SOME_ENV_VAR": "Value used when running above command"
        "some-other-variable": "some value"

That’s fairly advanced usage and we won’t use that here.

Debug adapters

Vimspector supports any DAP-compliant debug adapter, and you have to tell Vimspector how to launch the debug adapter thought an adapter block. Fortunately, Vim is a C program and there is a very good debug adapter for this bundled with vimspector called vscode-cpptools. All of its adapter configuration is bundled too (in .gadgets.json) so we don’t need any adapters.

For this example configuration, we’re going to use the pre-bundled vscode-cpptools package. Fortunately the required launch configuration is nicely documented, so we can see where to specify:

  • The program to launch, and how to pass command line arguments
  • The working directory
  • The debugger options, such as whether to break on entry

Putting it together

So the info we need for our single debug configuration is:

  • Debug adapter: vscode-cpptools
  • Program: ${workspaceRoot}/src/vim
  • Arguments: -f -u unix.vim -U NONE --noplugin --not-a-term -S runtest.vim test_python3.vim
  • Environment: VIMRUNTIME=${workspaceRoot}/runtime
  • Type of debugger: lldb for macOS, gdb for Linux

This leads to the following (complete) .vimspector.json. Write this to /path/to/your/vim/checkout/.vimspector.json:

  "configurations": {
    "Vim - run a test": {
      "adapter": "vscode-cpptools",
      "configuration": {
        "type":    "cppdbg",
        "request": "launch",
        "program": "${workspaceRoot}/src/vim",
        "args": [
          "-u", "unix.vim",
          "-U", "NONE",
          "-S", "runtest.vim",
        "cwd": "${workspaceRoot}/src/testdir",
        "environment": [
          { "name": "VIMRUNTIME", "value": "${workspaceRoot}/runtime" }
        "externalConsole": true,
        "stopAtEntry": true,
        "MIMode": "lldb",
        "logging": {
          "engineLogging": false


  • I enabled stopAtEntry so that the dbeugger breaks on start. This is optionsl
  • If you have problems, toggle engineLogging: this will include the gdb/lldb output in the console
  • If you’re on Linux, use gdb for MIMode
  • You can also use ${MIMode} and enter the MIMode when starting debugging if you run on multiple environments.

Starting debugging

Now that we have written the config and installed Vimspector, let’s fire it up.

First, let’s set a breakpoint. We could do this after starting, but it’s usually convenient to do this when editing or navigating the code. So let’s do that.

Setting a breakpoint

Start Vim from the vim source tree and open up src/if_python3.c, and navigate to the start of the function ex_py3. This is the entry point for the :py3 command.

If you enabled HUMAN mode mappings, press <F9> to toggle a breakpoint on that line. You should see a marker in the Vim gutter. You can press <F9> again to disable that breakpoint, and a third time to remove it.

Add a breakpoint on the { of the function.

Start debugging

Press <F5>.

This will read your configuration and as there’s only one debug config launch that one. You should be presented with a question about which test to run. You expected that though, so enter it.

Enter test_python3 and hit <CR>.

You may have to hit <CR> a couple more times, because Vimspector likes to conservatively spam you at this point as it is starting up the debug adapter.

At this point you might be a bit overwhelmed, so let’s take a look at the UI that you should see.