Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Nuts & Bolts #146 - Hacking the Cypher System - Blowing Up Advancement

The magic number is Sixteen right? Or is it? Four EXP per advancement. Yes, that's correct. Four advancements to gain the next Tier. Yes. No. Maybe.

I've been running a Cypher System game set in Freeport since this summer. We try to play weekly, but it's working out more like 2x per month right now because we are at minimum group size (IMO, 3 players and a GM is minimum, I know some folks will run for fewer PCs, but for me 3 is the bare minimum). The players are all somewhere in the midst of Tier 2 right now. They are pretty capable. They can combat like the best of them. They have some cool toys. They even have some strengths in certain kinds of tasks.

The more we play though, the more I am seeing that the characters are pretty threadbare for skills. This is the first time I'm really running into this in Cypher and I think it's because I've been making an effort to really throw in a variety of applicable skills. Lore: Local Knowledge helps when churning the rumor mill, or knowing current events. Lore: Magic for all those useful instances of "what the heck is going on"? Jumping, climbing, sneaking, speaking, running, tracking, and observing. Heck, even cooking has come up.

Sometimes the players have the skills they need sometimes they don't. The Cypher System isn't a super skill heavy game system the way other systems can be. There's no barrier to entry for tasks based on skill. If you aren't trained in locating secret doors or navigating that just means it'll be tougher for you. This works well and I wouldn't change that aspect of the system, but one thing I do thing I want to change is the acquisition of skill training.

And in the process I'm going to change the advancement process for my game. Possibly for all my games henceforth.

At the moment Advancements include: Effort, Pools, Edge, and Skill. BUT there's the option to ditch one Advancement for one of a number of other options. Note that while this is commonly thought to replace the Skill it can replace ANY of the "core four" Advancements. Also note that the list of options is different depending on the book you're using. Numenera (pg. 112) allows for a Type ability, while the Cypher System Rulebook (pg. 223) and The Strange (pg. 124) do not. Maybe this is a change Monte made after getting more time with the system, or maybe it was a matter of layout space and not wanting drift onto the next page (since all three of those pages are also the last of their respective chapters).

I mentioned to my group that I was going to change this last option. Instead of allowing it as a replacement for the standard four, I'm going to add it as a new Advancement entirely. Edge, Effort, Pools, Skill, and "Training". Personally I prefer the Numenera allowance of an extra Type ability so "Training" will be either, a recovery bonus, an armor penalty reduction, or a new Type Ability. This would also be a prime place to place "Guild training" for character's who join organizations that grant special abilities.

This has two immediate effects on character advancement of course. The first and most obvious is that characters now have to buy 5 Advancements before they tier up. They also will always gain training in a skill, the most commonly replaced Advancement, as a result of this. However there is a derived effect that may not be initially obvious. Each Tier get's a little longer. It now takes 20 EXP to tier up rather than 16 EXP. That means that Tier 6 is a minimum of 100 EXP away rather than 80 EXP. This may help some of you to run longer campaigns (I see people asking about that from time to time).

What's the in-game impact? Well, the direct impact is that character's will be even stronger late in the game. They'll either have more Type abilities to draw on, or they will have much more powerful Recovery rolls, or be able to wear the heaviest of armor without care. They'll also have more skills in all likelihood. Is this a problem? It could be. I have never GMed a game for Tier 6 PCs. I've never even played in a game past the Tier 4/5 tipping point.

Maybe it's a terrible idea.

I would imagine that in a Gods of the Fall game it would have barely any impact on the PCs who with shifts and Divine Cyphers will certainly be absurdly capable at Tier 6 already. On the other hand it'll make PCs in a "grim n gritty" game too strong. They'll have too much power.

Which is why I think I'd be OK doing the opposite for such games and having only 3 Advancements per Tier (or even 2 if you were planning an intentionally short campaign). If you wanted to give the players less power make them have to choose between their gains because they simply cannot do everything. You can alter the cost of Advancements as well. A game where players have to spend 8 EXP for an Advancement but gain a tier after only two Advancements is still 16 EXP per Tier, but results in weaker characters. I suspect that this would actually run longer as a campaign as well because the players will have more EXP available during games as they need to bank more. This will mean that they will more often have the ability to re-roll or reject a GMI, and need to choose which is more important in the moment; all of which will probably help to build the risk-reward balance that a "gritty" campaign style needs.

Lastly (because this is already a long and rambly post), if you decide to run with fewer Advancements per Tier that cost more EXP each, you can also start to play with either/or choices. Effort OR Edge but buying one locks you out of the other for that Tier, for instance. This will further drive the players to make critical choices and have limited resources. I'd suggest a pairing of Skill/Effort and Pools/Edge personally, but you may have different ideas. In a gritty style game I'd probably do away with the optional armor training and recovery roll Advancement awards entirely to help keep the game firmly grounded.

I'm sure there's other ways that a GM could tweak the Advancement and Tier mechanics to suit their game. I've heard of people charging EXP for Divine Shifts in Gods of the Fall, and I could imagine using EXP mechanics for Companion upgrades in Predation. Advancement is just another type of Long-Term Benefit so perhaps in certain games a GM may require players to buy one of those for Advancement (I could see needing wealth or a home in a Birthright-esque game for instance). Hmm, now that gives me other ideas for Gods of the Fall ... but that'll need to wait for another column.

Friday, January 5, 2018

MCC Recap - A Door Too Far

This week I ran the second third (I think) of A Fallen Star for All with a ragtag band of seekers trying to breach the uncovered ancient stronghold.

Spoilers for the first bit of A Fallen Star for All ahead...

New player! New character! +Forrest Aguirre (a.k.a. the other host of Glowburn) joined the group this session (I'm Judge to the stars now I guess) as Piertramp the Sentinel. I started play off by filling him in on the lead up events of the starfall and explained that he was with a group calling itself the Tribe of the Golden Frog, but had been separated during an attack. He found himself weaponless and approaching a patch of strange jungle that seemed untouched by the apocalypse of the starfall. Within he could see the forms of two beast-things being apparently consumed by the plants, and one of them had a huge bone club! Piertramp risked an approach so that he could arm himself, and was rewarding with a two-handed greatclub doing d12 damage! He also grabbed a strange fruit from the jungle before escaping its entangling vines.

Meanwhile the others, now with the mutant Sinclair in tow, had left the ancient structures behind and were making for the starfall crater where helpful artifacts could be found.I informed Andy that Sinclair could not remember how he got to the buildings but that he had been separated from his group, the Tribe of the Golden Frog, in an attack. This had the effect that I hoped when the group met up with Piertramp and made the meeting go a little more quickly (and with less bloodshed, although a PVP TPK could have been hilarious). Sinclair made a snack of the strange fruit that Piertramp had found, and then tried to get some more with Flik-Flak's help. The two of them came away empty handed however as the carnivorous jungle was more than a match.

Opting to go around the strange plants the group ran into a strange creature. Short with soot dirty white fur and long ears it saw them and retreated carefully. They attempted to talk with it but it seemed unwilling to entreat. Further attempts were put off by the sighting of a pair of beast-things at the rim of the crater. Approaching carefully the group found the pair at the opening of a damage structure of the ancients uncovered by the fallen star.

Combat ensued with the group quickly wiping the two creatures out in a single round but not before their champion could emerge from the ruins. With a swipe of its mighty axe the champion downed Tarn but was easily dispatched by the group while Agutter set about to save Tarn's life. Exploring the interior of the cave with a makeshift torch the group found a number of artifacts but decided not to take the time to study them and instead moved on, crossing the crater by circumnavigating the rim to a second exposed structure.

Within this space they found a strange metal door that was extremely difficult to open because Cypher was zoned out communing with ACHROMA. When the group finally levered the door open they found a dark shaft leading downward, the walls of which were studded with strange ovoid pods. Prying a couple open they found a pair of flame retardant suits and a strange sphere. Agutter tried to get another pod open but fell into the shaft and luckily grabbed hold of the pod to arrest their fall. (Aside: AGutter's player Paul couldn't settle on a male or female pronoun and so we determined that Agutter is apparently genderfluid).

While hanging in the shaft Agutter opened another pod and released a hostile robot that attacked them. The others, clustered around the door above attacked with bows and spears and Gauzer pistols until Piertramp smashed the robot with a one-handed swing of his mighty club while hanging onto the doorway with his other hand (a 14 on a d14 attack roll!). The falling robot impacted with something about 20 feet below (30 feet below the doorway) and Agutter decided to try and climb out of the shaft but slipped (again) and fell (again) taking some damage (2d6 but I rolled low) when they landed in in a heap on the remains of the robot. Investigating Agutter found that this was a machine, apparently capable of navigating the shaft up and down. It was lacking power but used C-cells and grabbing one from the Medi-pack Agutter was able to power the lift and get back to the rest of the party. Now they had a way down into the structure, and planned to see what they could find within...

Least shocking thing we learned about MCC:
  • A good swing with a d12 damage weapon will really cut short a combat. 
Most interesting behavioral change:
  • Apparently the time and possible detrimental effects of artifacts checks are making the group more cautious. They are careful to clear away from the artifact in question, and generally try to parallel path artifact checks between characters to save in-game time.
Most Clutch moment(s):
  • Forrest's new Sentinel, Piertramp was a machine. With his d12 bone greatclub he critted against a beast-thing champion (d12+d8 damage, OUCH!). He also managed a 14 on a d14 when one-hand swinging his club while dangling into an open elevator shaft. 
Interesting (to me) Rules Adjudications:
  • Piertramp wanted to lean into an elevator shaft and one-handed swing his bone club at an enemy (using the other hand to hold on to the doorway). Two dice steps down seemed appropriate. 
  • Agutter lost their grip twice while climbing. I allowed a luck check to grab hold of the wall after falling 10' rather than a simple plummet to near certain death. I still inflicted 1d6 damage for the 10' of fall though in the form of wrenched muscles in arms and shoulders. 
In Memoriam: 
  • none, but we had a couple of close calls

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Nuts & Bolts #145 - Review: Kamandi Challenge #12 & Series Review

Kamandi Challenge #12 is out and at last the series is wrapped up and complete. Here's my thoughts on

Prior issue reviews:


Published By: DC Comics • 31 pages • $4.99 • full color • Art: Jill Thompson, Ryan Sook, & Joe Prado • Words: Gail Simone & Paul Levitz & José Luis Garcia-Lopez

What's In It?

Spoilers ahead folks last warning!

OK, where were we? Oh, right, Kamandi was in hard vacuum and falling toward earth. A briefly has a weird dream, or perhaps a vision of a girl like him named ... wait for it ... Kamanda. Get it, Command A, Kamanda. Ugh. Yeah, sadly it doesn't get much better.

Kamandi gets woken from his reverie by Royer and Silverback as the three plunge downward toward the Earth. No, no final confrontation on the Tek-Moon, instead with the help of his jetpack and the self sacrifice of Silverback to protect his companions Kamandi and Royer crash in the wastelands once more.

There they are attacked by a group of rats but quickly a peace is made when the rats realize who Kamandi is and take him to their leader. Gnawbit, the rat leader begs Kamandi's aid in destroying the Misfit's Terror-Naut by being the pilot for ... a gestalt of rats in the form of a huge "king rat." Mecha on rat-gestalt combat ensues with the Terror-Naut finally being destroyed by the use of a Cyclo-heart to cause a massive fusion explosion.

And then things get weird...

Kamandi at last meets his dad in the form of Jack Kirby. Kirby grants Kamandi three wishes. We get a couple of trippy almost if situations, and then Kamandi uses his third wish to apparently reset the world entirely.

OK. Story wise this issue was a disappointment for me. I don't know if this was planned or if the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of Simone & Levitz but I was underwhelmed. Artistically this was a good to great issue. The panels are detailed without being busy, the story in pictures flows cleanly. World building was limited with only the introduction of the apparently techno-organic rats. Who is the Misfit? We'll never know. What happened to Kamandi's parents? They don't tell us. Truly the end did not justify the journey.

  • Issue #12 - 50% - The final story lacks a satisfying conclusion saved only by the art.

The Series Overall

OK, So I didn't much care for the denouement of the series, but what about the series as a whole?

As a whole I can say that it was an interesting experiment. Having a variety of voices and artists on the project led to a wide array of styles of the story telling and the stories themselves. Unfortunately the "challenge" part of this project also led to very disconnected story transitions at times, and, ultimately, a less than satisfying ending. I think there's something there if there's a little more editorial oversight of the whole to ensure that the parts fit. 

That said, I think that for people new to Kamandi (as I am) it worked well as an introduction to the world. The various authors skipping about the world and introducing all corners of the setting in brief or in depth provided great world building for the most part. As a gamer, and a fan of post apocalypse stories, I could easily take what parts of this setting I was shown and flesh it out for use on a tabletop. Would it be deep and detailed? No, but that's part of the fun of playing RPGs is creating that depth and detail as GM or player in game at the table. I'd rate the world building at a 8.5 out of 10. 

Story wise the series overall is hit or miss issue to issue and the overall is a little disjointed and lacks a satisfying conclusion. Other than Kamandi there are no long term characters to last more than 2 issues which is not a point in its favor. Likewise there's a general lack of strong female characters which is also a disappointment. Story I'd rate 6 out of 10, buoyed by some of the better early issues.

Art is also hit or miss. Generally though the art was good to great. There were 2 or 3 stand out issues where the art was amazing, and only one where I really thought the art was lacking in quality and clarity for storytelling. I'd give the art a 9 out of 10 overall, with a few standouts that are easily 10s.

My overall rating of the series is an 8. I considered a 7.5 but the good parts were good enough to raise it up. 

Series Rating
  • 80% overall, or about 9 of 12 issues worth their salt.