Sunday, July 15, 2018

Cypher System Notes on the Actual Play Experience

Technically this is our second night trying out Cypher System, but the first night exclusively dedicated to the new system. I'm using the actual Cypher System (generic ruleset) as opposed to Numenera or The Strange, but based on reading all the giant mess of rule systems together it's pretty clear that the experience of one iteration of Cypher is fairly applicable across the table.

Anyway, Cypher System is striking me as one of the simplest game systems, mechanically, that I've encountered out side of the OSR experience, especially for the GM side of the table. The gamemaster experience for Cypher System is completely different from the player experience. Here's an example:

A Player in Cypher needs to do the following:
--manage his resource pool of stats to advantage; don't use up too much, don't hoard too much
--Keep an eye on effort and edge and apply them
--track skills and modifiers which provide assets to your checks
--roll for all attacks and all defenses (in Cypher, all dice are rolled by the player for game actions; the GM pretty much has to roll percentiles on encounter dice and cypher tables and that's it)

A GM does the following:
--figure out creature level and apply any creature abilities
--Adjudicate the level of difficulty for tasks and apply specific spot rules (falling, drowning, etc.)
--run the story

"Sure," you say, "but running the story takes a lot more time and effort in RPGs than anything a player does." But nope, you'd be wrong.....Cypher System actually strips away so much of the mechanical element normally handed to the GM in other games (like, as in most RPGs) that this game's GM-facing rules feel almost anemic.

At one point during the Saturday night game a question of recover arose the pool cost for a task, and the players were explaining it, so I had to remind them that it didn't matter....this was an NPC so the rule of thumb for the GM is "Do what is needed and makes sense for the story, and eyeball the level of the creature if in doubt."

I haven't seen another game system with such a simplified creature mechanic since Tunnels & Trolls. Seriously. T&T has at its most essential one monster stat: the Monster Rating. You define the monster's hit points, attack dice and adds from this number, and essentially that's all you need. In Cypher System it uses the monster level, which gives you it's health, damage and attack/defense target number....and is all you essentially need. Both systems let you add special abilities and details, but the base stat is completely derived from a single number.

Players are on the opposite end of this, with a mess of pools, edges, an effort stat, skills, abilities, limits and other features which all work toward a point-spending resource depletion mechanic in which you can choose whether or not to spend resources (at the risk of not having them later) in exchange for making tasks easier. It has some advantages and some flaws I can already detect from a couple play sessions as follows.

Players don't need to spend resources unless they feel the need; if you have the sort of players who are low-risk, or who are more worried about keeping health high (health comes from the same pool as other actions) then they may not feel motivated to push the envelope and as a result a game could feel a lot like just rolling D20s and hitting the GM-set target numbers.

There's also a lot of disincentivization to spend your pools of points. When you take damage, it comes out of your might, speed and intellect pools. So spending these points to improve your odds of success is, for Cypher System, literally spending your hit succeed, in a manner of speaking, by taking damage to yourself. Special abilities (such as magic like effects) also cost pool points (usually intellect) thus making this an issue on every level.

The game's focus on risk assessment means you rarely have static modifiers (but gaining some skills will count). With so few static modifiers, there's a problem, to some degree, with how you visualize your character. If you assume a lot of Might in your pool equals a strong character, but that strong character is played "safe" and fails a lot of rolls for failure to exert effort, then what's really going on here? In some ways the mechanic is inventive genius....a resolution mechanic with fatigue/stress inherently baked in to the game itself in a manner that can not be ignored and is also sufficiently easy to grasp that it doesn't feel like a chore as most fatigue/encumbrance systems tend to.

Something I also thought about was the problem of cheating on die rolls. As a GM I roll up front and for all to see, but I don't enforce that of my players at the table. If you think there's a cheater, it may show up in this game system more prominently if you have the occasional player who suddenly hits every time, dodges every time, and always somehow manages to win. And since the book-keeping is entirely on the player side, it can mean the GM must demonstrate a lot of trust in the accuracy (and honesty) of their players. Conversely, the players must "know" the system well enough to understand what they are doing and not muck up how pool, edge and effort work together.

Cypher System also emphasizes a mechanical process that aims at descriptors, types and foci that are used to identify characters and provide the operational packages with which characters function. It seems to provide a lot of stuff for players to pick from and work with, but time will tell if that is enough choice for my veteran gamers to enjoy building their PCs. Some criticism I have read of the system is that it is a "wide but shallow" experience. I don't know what those reviewers were comparing it to....right now on the face of it Cypher System seems to offer more overall content and character design options than most other recent popular RPGs do (that aren't D&D or Pathfinder, anyway).

The biggest concern I have after our two sessions of play so far comes down to the fact that as a GM I am really used to game systems built around verisimilitude. Cypher System is a mechanical experience designed to emulate a stories, which is great, but it's the kind of game where you, as GM, have to prefer to say "I know how this goes down," for the GM-controlled elements of play, and not instead say, "I'd like to see what the system determines here." It's a subtle point, and one I seem to be comfortable experimenting with right now, but for me it was a bit weird not having some die-determinants in more of my story options. As a GM I can see where Cypher System was built from the ground up to remove as much perceived work from the GM's table as possible. It's a very different experience from D20 systems, to contrast. But I really like verisimilitude in my games, and it's really interesting (and a bit outside my comfort zone) to play a game like this where every game element feels like a suggestion or inference rather than a hard-coded example.

Anyway, I'm running Cypher System on the weekends for the foreseeable future, using it for a fantasy campaign with sci fi elements, and plan to keep playing it until (like Genesys Core before) I feel I have decided I like it, love it, hate it, or just want to go on to the next shiny new system. We'll see what happens.....but I am cautiously optimistic here. I like how it liberates the GM, but wonder if after 10-20 games the simplicity of creatures and NPCs will leave me wishing I had more mechanical elements or procedural verisimilitude at my fingertips to let the system surprise me as well as the players. We'll see.

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