Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Emergent Gameplay, Risk vs. Reward, Leveling Too Fast and Other Musings

Rambling thought warning ahead!

The title is weird, but it comes from a problem I am facing: a campaign I ran for the better part of this year (six months) in Cypher System came to a close on its main plot but all of the side plots were not yet clearly resolved (some were, but others weren't). This is at minimum a side effect of a reasonable sized group and the Cypher mechanics in which players can pursue personal plots/quests that net additional XP for achieving goals. 

Ordinarily I wouldn't stress it too much, but the problem arises from higher level play in Cypher System. Character advancement, even when you try to slow it a bit, tends to be much quicker than in D&D or Pathfinder. The group hit Tier 4 when we left off, and this means that for many of them, especially the characters optimized for their level of experience, will find most mid-range and lower threats in the game trivial to the point where, mechanically speaking, they don't even have to roll to succeed at task in combat. The best way to handle combat in the game with average opponents at this point is to avoid it or expediently dispatch it through a narrative. 

Now, in most cases with Cypher System the best solution is to scale the threats and risks (which aren't generally meant to be opponents in straight combat; Cypher works best when you get creative). But the problem is a lot of the lined up plots resolve on the more basic level.  So how to handle this? The system itself basically dictates that at this point we're just narrating the process. I could spice it up with something suitably exotic....but....and there's no nice way to put this....it's not really exciting me as much as it should to do this.

Part of the problem was I made a poor choice for setting with Cypher this time. I adapted a D&D world (Realms of Chirak) which is built from decades of D&D style gameplay, a style which drives much of the conflict through battle, and as a result there's an expectation in the default pacing of scenarios to rely on the tropes and styles of D&D. When I break from that, it works....but it stops feeling D&D and starts feeling Cypher. But I am restrained by the setting, still. I can break the rules of the setting and lean hard on what Cypher does best, but then I'm messing up what the setting is about. This is a very personal issue, mind you; my players would be happy no matter what, but I as GM have done this before in the past and learned that there are things you don't really want to do with a game world you create for specific purposes (unless you want to axe the future of that setting for your own use). So it's really an internal GM issue.

One more session could probably resolve enough plots for everyone to move on and we can then go play a game where I get to experience what I realize is the more engaging element of D&D (and Pathfinder) that I like very much: emergent gameplay. You've likely heard of the term or are familiar with it already. Emergent gameplay is the idea that you start with the rules and a setting, maybe a scenario, but nothing is on-rails, nothing is preordained and no one has plot armor. The story emerges directly as a result of how the players choose to engage with the environment and how the GM gets the environment to react. Unexpected things can and will happen in emergent gameplay, and often when you hear people talk about those amazing plot twists in games it's from adventures driven by the emergent gameplay process.

A game like Cypher System allows for emergent gameplay as well, but it does follow a different beat, and as you move through the Cypher System you realize the universe is informed (sometimes rapidly) by the power level of the players. There's emergent storytelling to be had, and mechanically there are layers of support for it in Cypher, but it also lacks a certain kind of non-determinism. If you can, as a player, get a guaranteed success that requires no roll in a system where the key GM tool is the GM Intrusion mechanic, then you cut off one of those random things the GM can do to make things more interesting. And as the game scales so quickly, it means you might (as in my case) run out of time for the loads of plot points designed for lower level characters because they are all now high tiered superheroes and no longer concern themselves with petty guild fights and other such nonsense.* I mean....sure, they can,  but what right-minded NPC in a world of level 1-5 foes would be willing to take on a gang of superheroes who can automatically attack and dodge without any chance of failure? It removes a lot of tension from those scenarios.

I suppose the issue here may not be emergent gameplay but instead lies within a mechanical framework that moved beyond the scope of what I wanted (gritty heroes with a sense of mortality vs. powerful superheroes at high tier) and combat with risk that doesn't evaporate.

My personal choice would be to retroactively go back and pick Pathfinder 2E as the base system. Pathfinder 2E has a different sort of problem: players will struggle to ever truly feel like superheroes, as the game system is brutal when the difficulty level spikes even a bit, but it is trivially easy for the GM to include an occasional feel good encounter in PF2E as well. That said, I think the emergent gameplay is more prevalent (and possible) in Pathfinder, at least in the way that I am thinking of it. But....there are better systems out there yet for that sort of gaming, too. My recent stint on revisiting Mythras has me thinking about the possibilities. 

Anyway....more thoughts as I gear up to return to gaming in a week or so....

*To some degree I've figured out with Cypher that the best approach is to either go in with zero expectations (really let the start state move along through emergent gameplay and just see where it goes with zero expectations) or you plot meticulously, which includes figuring out well in advance how much XP to award and be stingy if necessary. I think the latter fails with Cypher for various reasons, but I have to concede I haven't really pinned down the formula here with Cypher as this is now the third Cypher campaign that will end unexpectedly because the players reached a power level where it became difficult for me to figure out where to go with it next. This is a thing I need to think about, that as much as I like Cypher it might have....pacing issues, at least relative to my style as a GM.

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