Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Dungeons & Dragons 5E in Contrast with Cypher System

Very short version: I'm thinking about ways I can elicit the same style, effect and pacing that I am experiencing with Cypher System in D&D. I can do it, but this usually means eschewing some of the "stuff" that D&D tends to work well with, or at least expect in play....such as:

Maps and minis (we had them tonight, and it reminded me that D&D both benefits and suffers from their presence)

The need for locational relevance in actions (D&D 5E, despite being written to allow for looser game play, still requires that players regularly stop and worry about highly specific measurements)

De-emphasizing combat in general (D&D 5E provides a lot of bells & whistles for the players --and occasionally the DM-- that show off best in combat)

These struck me as the three things that D&D has which can, despite their contribution to the game experience, slow down the overall role-play/story engagement. They work great on tired nights when I, as DM, would like to relax a bit.....just throw a big combat or two in to the game, and things slow down rapidly. But after weeks and weeks of Cypher System this was sort of tough to do with my Wednesday night D&D game. The slow-down of story progress and excessive emphasis on positional movement in combat became almost palpable.

People were having fun, sure. But we weren't having Cypher level fun.

The thing is, I know that this pace and feel isn't something unique to Cypher System...and I've even achieved it on plenty of occasions with different iterations of D&D, but Cypher stands out because the game system is designed from the ground up to emphasize and accent that style of play. I think a significant component of why Cypher can do this so easily and still feel like a rich experience was had despite a dearth of elaborate combat mechanics boils down to the fact that the system's core conceit (level mechanic for tasks) applies so well. It's deliberate de-emphasis on parsing out actions is a close second.

Other games do this, too. Call of Cthulhu, for example, pulls it off without having a specially tailored mechanic, but instead by supporting investigative gameplay exceedingly well. You could play CoC or Cypher with maps and minis and worry about position....sure.....but neither game requires nor really encourages it; they shun those gameplay elements which can potentially pull you out of the moment.

D&D has some issues with this, because sometimes you have seven PCs, 11 zombies, a skull lord and a gang of ibixians on the table, and you really want to know whether that player's fireball is going to hit the right # and miss her allies. Sometimes you need those minis on the board just to keep track of it all.

Or do you?

I have run plenty of games where I never used a map and minis. Prior to 2003 I had never used such implements for D&D, and only grudgingly accepted that they made more sense with the way 3.5 was written. Sometimes, I have players who need that physical visual to understand what is going on.

But also, sometimes I wonder if D&D deployed simple language for positioning, as Cypher System, 13th Age, and other games (T&T, for ex) do....maybe it would flow a lot better? Maybe then the need to drag out minis in complex combats would be less of an issue. People could worry less about whether their PC is standing at exactly the right distance for exactly the right 20 foot radius effect, and focus instead on being adjacent, nearby, far away or whatever scheme helps to track actions without going for the maps and minis.

See, thoughts like this are why I am totally not digging the Pathfinder 2.0 playtest right now.


  1. Did you pick the 2nd Edition of Numenera or the 1st?

    1. I've got Numenera 2nd edition now, still absorbing it.....but so far seems like "New Game+", not much different mechanically but a ton of extra content.