Posts Tagged ‘cypher system’

Hitting the 30th anniversary of my first experience running an RPG feels like a bigger deal than I would’ve expected, possibly because this kind of game is currently a larger presence in my life than has been the case for many, many years. I have lost track of how many hours I must have spent GMing in all that time, but the total must be well into three figures. Obviously not many moments of that stand out, but one which does came near the end of my one big Vampire chronicle, back in 1996.


We were about six months in and the climax of the story was looming, but just prior to this we were resolving a little side-quest as one of the characters had inadvertently tainted herself by consuming the soul of her evil sire (ah, Vampire…) and felt the need to expiate this. During this, one of the group got into a fight with a Spiral Dancer, the dice were unfavourable, and the numbers indicated a PC with a key role to play in the conclusion was, in fact, a pile of ash on the floor.

‘Oh, looks like I’m gone,’ said the player, with a resigned smile on his face. Almost at once I stepped in and explained how his frenzy, or the significance of the moment, or something, allowed him to keep going, with enough strength to either escape the combat or hide or finish off the evil werewolf. I forget exactly what.

It was, of course, a classic dice fudge, one of those occasions where the GM steps in and over-rules the numbers for the sake of the story. (Note I say story rather than game.) It’s something I’ve found myself doing more and more as my style of gaming has become increasingly focused on stories rather than strict adherence to rules mechanics. You wouldn’t enjoy a movie where the protagonist slipped down a flight of steps and broke his neck on his way to the final battle with the villain, and you wouldn’t enjoy playing in a game where a character failed a Dex check and suffered the same fate twenty minutes before the end (this actually happened in a Call of Cthulhu game I was a player in).

I’ve never thought much about this, beyond contemplating different ways of trying to keep dice fudges from being too obvious, but then I was browsing a ‘how to be a better GM‘ discussion the other day and found someone arguing that dice fudging is not fair. The GM may justify doing it on the grounds that he’s serving the story and creating dramatic moments, but couldn’t a player justify disregarding a dice roll for exactly the same reasons? Why bother rolling dice at all, if you’re just going to stick with the story you have in mind? Isn’t this just another example of railroading the story?

Hmmm. Well, this gave me food for thought, and I would still defend the GM’s right to fudge the dice. Firstly, many modern games have a mechanism which gives players the ability to disregard bad dice at critical points, either by a reroll or something else. Every game I currently run has one – Mutants and Masterminds has Hero Points, the Cypher games allow XP to be used to buy rerolls, and the FFG Star Wars game has Destiny Points. Implicit in all these games is the idea that the GM can fudge, in the name of a good story, it’s just that doing so gives the players an increased ability to overrule the dice in response (the implication seems to be that the GM will always be trying to make the story more interesting, i.e. difficult, which doesn’t really include things like saving players’ lives from bad dice rolling and the like).

Also, the player-GM relationship is not really an equivalent or symmetrical one, in the sense that the GM has a lot more power over everything that’s happening. This is a truth of this type of game, where one person is basically the god of the story. The only exception is a game like Fiasco, which doesn’t have a GM or storyteller at all, and which is a rather different gaming experience. Denying the GM the right to fudge is, firstly, an almost impossible restriction to enforce, and, secondly, something which feels like a throwback to the days of wargame-style rules-implementation GMing.

So, on reflection, I think I’ll continue to fudge at key moments. The issue has become a little more complex of late, however, as I have found my own gaming style doesn’t really give me the opportunity to fudge the dice as easily as I once could. This is because I only roll a tiny handful of dice each session in most of the games I run.
This is a core element of the Cypher games: one of the mantras of the system is ‘the players roll all the dice’. I was initially a bit unsure about this, but I quickly became a bit of a convert, mainly because the vast majority of my Cypher experiences have been on roll20 where the last thing I need is to worry about how to use the dice rolling utility. It also makes sense, as it gives the players a bit more to do (one person shouldn’t be throwing almost 50% of the dice, as is sometimes the case in games where the GM rolls).

I’ve got so into the non-rolling GM mindset that when I was recruited to run a Mutants and Masterminds game I gave the system a minor hack so that I didn’t need to roll any dice there, either. (One of my players pointed out, six months into the series, that opting to have heroes roll damage against a villain’s Toughness-based DC meant they could use Hero Points to make villains fail their Toughness checks, which isn’t possible in the original rules, so I may need to house-rule that a bit further.) And this also seems to work pretty well and be popular with my players.

And it doesn’t mean I can’t fudge stuff, either: I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve decided to have a bad guy cave in when the players’ attack rolls haven’t quite justified it, simply because the battle was a foregone conclusion and it would have been dull to go through three or four rounds of the players just mugging someone. As long as the players can’t see your notes, you can always do that sort of thing.

However: now I’m hoping to run FFG’s Star Wars rules, a system perhaps most distinctive for its unique dice (and dice system). The nature of the game is such that I’m not sure it can easily be hacked in the same way – the way the dice are weighted means you can’t reverse the maths and easily turn an GM-rolled attack into a player-rolled dodge. At least, I’m not confident you can. But this will be a face-to-face game so at least rolling the dice will be easy enough.
But will it be easy to fudge? The whole point of the game is that everyone involved comes up with a way to interpret every dice roll together. (One wonders quite why FFG sells GM screens for these games, given all the dice rolls are supposed to be done in the open – then again, FFG don’t usually seem to have an issue with selling things which might seem at first glance superfluous.) The flow of information is still in my hands, and I still have my godlike GM faculties when it comes to NPCs and the game world, so I suspect I still have options. Anyway, we shall see how it goes.

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We were having a training session at work not long ago and one of the tasks was to mingle about and talk about something we really wanted but hadn’t told anyone before. And, trying to enter into the spirit of the thing, I found myself saying ‘I want to play Dungeons & Dragons again.’ Responses varied from glazed, terrified smiles, to ‘Yes, it’s too bad it’s not the 80s any more.’

I suppose I was using D&D as a shorthand for RPGing or storygaming in general, not least because people who’ve absolutely no idea what The World of Synnibarr or even Vampire: the Masquerade is are still aware of D&D (although their preconceptions may well be wildly inaccurate). D&D is to roleplaying what Hoovers are to vacuum cleaners.

I mention this because I don’t think I’ve actually played any version of D&D in nearly 25 years, although some storygaming has taken place in that time: a couple of swings at the slightly byzantine FASA Doctor Who ruleset, a surprisingly rewarding Palladium-rules campaign where all the characters were mutant animal vigilantes, a couple of stabs at playing Call of Cthulhu, and – last but very much not least – an eight-month Vampire chronicle in 1995 and 1996, during which made friends I have kept to this day.

Since then, however, nothing much except for an abortive attempt at playing Werewolf over ten years ago. Hasn’t stopped me wanting to participate in this kind ofstorytelling, though, nor has it stopped me keeping up with rulesets that particularly interest me: the original World of Darkness, because the setting is so extraordinary; supers systems, because I’m a comics fan; licensed Doctor Who games, because duh; and generic fantasy systems like D&D and its close relation Pathfinder, because in many ways this is the ur-RPG, the purest example of the form.

Yet I’ve always had issues with D&D in its classic form, which may be the reason why I haven’t played or run it since 1990. One of these is really the sheer crunchiness of the rules – it would take a long time to teach a new player D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder, and the rules seem to promote a tactical wargame approach to play. The other is to do with the nature of the game and the setting itself.

The default D&D setting is derived from classic fantasy, most obviously the works of Tolkien and Robert E Howard, and the fact that the game is 40 years old means that most players don’t just have a good idea what the difference between a dwarf and an elf is, they also know in some detail the capabilities of even reasonably obscure monsters like slaad and yuan-ti. The result is that the game becomes less about mystery and tension and more about number crunching and – again – tactical wargaming.

I also have problems with finding the default setting a bit implausible, especially after having read books like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel: where are all the orcs and kobolds getting their weapons from? What’s their food supply? If they’re just nomadic raiders, they must only have a relatively tiny population, so why don’t the civilised races just wipe them out? To say nothing of coming up with an explanation of why all orcs are inherently evil. Even beyond that, most settings ignore the dire mammoth in the room: why is the landscape studded with vast dungeons full of useful, dangerous stuff?

None of these are insuperable problems, provided you’re prepared to put the time in, but sometimes you can’t or don’t want to. However, I think I have found an alternative, a game intriguing enough to make me put in the effort and organise my first game session in over a decade. The system in question is Numenera, from Monte Cook Games, and it honestly reads like an attempt to address my specific problems with D&D while retaining everything which makes the concept of the game attractive.

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The setting of the game is post-apocalyptic – or perhaps I should say it’s post-post-post-post-post-post-post-post-apocalyptic, for the citizens of the setting generally agree that eight previous civilisations have risen to unimaginable heights and plunged back down into nothing, leaving only mysterious relics as signs of their existence. These relics include megastructures, bioengineered creatures, dimensional rifts, machine intelligences, and much more besides. The ‘native’ human civilisations of the Ninth World operate at about the level of Dark Ages Europe, but there are those amongst the people who make it their mission to explore the vestiges of these previous realms, whether that be for profit, knowledge, or power. These, of course, are the player characters.

The genius of this setting, if you ask me, is in the way it allows the storyteller to comprehensively re-skin all the classic tropes of fantasy rolegaming, restoring a sense of mystery and wonder to them while still leaving them intuitively familiar. Every seasoned rolegamer knows orcs as well as their own family, knows what to expect, know roughly how hard they hit, and so on: but when a mob of twisted abhuman creatures with tentacles for heads comes boiling out of the woods around you, that’s a different matter – what the hell are these things? What are they capable of? The potential for metagaming – which even the best of us can find hard to resist – is vastly reduced.

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It would be remiss of me not to mention, by the way, that the setting as presented in the Numenera core book isn’t just imaginatively conceived, but worked out in some detail: there are nearly a hundred full-colour pages just describing the places of the setting, mostly in story terms, to say nothing of many more outlining a representative selection of monsters and ultratech gadgets (the setting equivalent of magic items). This is a genuinely exciting setting – at least it is if, like me, your taste in science fantasy takes in Tolkien and Howard and goes on to include the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, Michael Moorcock, and Olaf Stapledon – and the whole book is a thing of beauty even if you never actually get around to playing the game itself.

This would be a shame, because as Monte Cook himself says, he believes his company produces books that are fun to read and look beautiful, but they’re really intended to be played – they’re ultimately games, after all. The ruleset of Numenera reads like a passion project, Monte Cook’s attempt to put everything he believes about storygame design into a single system.

That may sound intimidating, but the core rules of the system comfortably fit onto a double-sided piece of A4. Every action is a 1d20 roll against a difficulty assigned by the GM, with the players having the option to spend resources to modify the difficulty if they choose. That’s the core mechanic; this is as easy to teach as the Vortex system or old-school World of Darkness, if not easier. (One of the unique things about Numenera, by the way, is that, in play at least, the players will be making virtually every dice roll. They make attack rolls to hit the bad guys and defence rolls to avoid being hit in return.)

Even character creation is about a 15-minute job, as players just fill in blanks in a I am a [adjective] [noun] who [verb]s sentence and make a few other minor choices. The game looks like it has classes – glaive (essentially a fighter), jack (utility character), and nano (technomagic user), but there’s still a lot of flexibility built into this. So you can play a Rugged Glaive Who Hunts With Great Skill, or an Entertaining Nano Who Bears A Halo Of Fire, or a Graceful Jack Who Carries A Quiver. A good selection of character choices come with the core book, but it’s actually very easy to customise your own – working out rules for an Obsessive Jack Who Walks In Shadow should be pretty easy once you get familiar with the system.

Now, my usual practice when picking up a new RPG is to make up a load of sample characters and let them fight each other (with some systems I never seem to get any further, to be honest), but another unique thing is that it has an assymmetrical game system. Player characters are defined by half-a-dozen numbers, but monsters and NPCs usually have only two or three: in extremis, you can assign any given creature a rating between 1 (a slightly asthmatic rat) and 10 (Great Cthulhu in one of his moods) and literally take it from there: every other key stat derives from the initial rating.

This, by the way, means there’s no reason why Numenera players should ever find themselves going ‘Hey ho, another band of grush marauders – where did we put the axes?’ in the same way that D&D veterans treat kobolds and hobgoblins as reassuringly familiar old friends. Creating new D&D monsters can feel like time-consuming maths homework; creating Numenera monsters is a breeze.

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Now, while the core rules of Numenera are almost uncannily brief, there’s a lot of guidance and optional extras also included. It took me a while to get through this, mainly because other parts of the book are just so enticing, but this meant I missed a couple of key things which would have answered some of my misgivings about the game. I did wonder what would happen if there was a PC vs PC clash, given the nature of the system, or indeed for that matter an NPC vs NPC confrontation. Well, these are addressed, of course.

I’m still a little uncertain that the players-roll-all-dice rule should be as definitive as the book suggests. Let’s say the players are trying to cross a river and find a rickety old bridge, and they ask me as GM whether it looks like it will take their weight. Now, I know it probably won’t. What happens if the players roll and fail their perception check? No matter what I say, they’re not going to get onto that bridge in the same way they would if I’d rolled the dice and hidden the result: they are metagaming again, and understandably.

Even as I think about this, though, it occurs to me that Monte Cook (I hate to keep calling him that, but ‘Monte’ is just too overfamiliar, ‘Cook’ is too disrespectful, and ‘Mr Cook’ is too formal) has found a smart answer to this too: there’s another mechanic where the storyteller gets to stick his nose into the story and say ‘suddenly, the bridge collapses’ in exchange for giving the poor devil who’s now falling into the river some extra experience points. There’s a sense in which this formalises something a lot of GMs have been doing unofficially for decades anyway, and it’s all in aid of a good story, which is one of the guiding principles of Numenera.

The designer (that one’s too impersonal, I fear) goes into much detail about this in the section on actually running the game, which must be one of the best I’ve ever read: there isn’t just advice on adjudicating the rules and the underlying principles (logic, creativity, flexibility), there’s a section on the GM’s rule as mediator of the setting in terms of establishing mood and so on, which even extends to things like choice of diction. It’s almost like a thesis on storygame design and RPG refereeing, and an extremely good one.

Perhaps a little more advice on scenario design would have been ideal – the book recommends avoiding the traditional map-based dungeon crawl scenario, but is a little vague on how to design and run a map-free dungeon crawl, or indeed another style of adventure, especially given that Numenera is in theory an exploration-centric game and I suspect some groups may default back into D&D-style Murder Hobo mode without even realising it. On the other hand, the core book includes a selection of different styles of adventure (one of them is, ironically, a map-based dungeon crawl) and these seem pretty solid.

Not that I will be using them myself, partly because I want something quicker and more straightforward, partly because I’m always wary of the problems inherent in running a scenario the players have access to. Normally I would feel a little uncertain heading into a new game with a new system and new players, not to mention my first time playing a game over the internet: but Numenera seems enough in sync with my own ideas about storygaming, and a strong enough system and setting, for these not to be real issues. This game looks very much like an instant classic, even just considering the core rulebook (the supplements I’ve seen all maintain the same standards). My main worry is not that the rules are not up to scratch, but that my GMing skills are so rusty I may not able to do Numenera justice. That should tell you something about just how impressed I am by it: it’s a completely new and in some ways almost radical system and setting, but it also somehow feels like it contains the essence of every reason why people have been playing storygames since the 1970s.

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