Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Nuts & Bolts #70 - Playing the Race Card

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For various reasons, not the least of which is the promise of the stuff coming from the Worlds of the Cypher System Kickstarter, I've been thinking about Cypher System a lot lately. I've also been thinking about Shadow of the Demon Lord a lot because of my Shadow of the Sea Lord project. I'm considering converting my pre-gens for the latter into usable characters in the former. That would allow me to play-test and run Shadow of the Sea Lord in Cypher System. In considering this I started to think about how races in RPGs are portrayed.

On the one hand you have games in the classic tradition, where each race has a template that grants bonuses and penalties to attributes and bonus abilities and weaknesses. On the other hand you have games where race is no more than a background trait of your character that has no mechanical influence on play. There's also a third hand (woah, freaky) where character race a little more ambiguous.

Like the Cypher System. In Cypher every character fills in the blanks of "I'm a [descriptor] [type] who [focus]." Race has been handled differently in each of the Cypher System games. In Numenera non-human "visitant" races used special descriptors to cement their status and grant them their "templates," such as Varjellan, and Mlox. In The Strange character's could adopt most any race available for the recursion they were visiting, but if they wanted a racial power set it came in the form of foci tuned for that race, like "Embraces Quephilim Ancestry" or "Abides in Stone."

The Cypher System Rulebook takes two tacts for race. On the one hand it suggests that any of the descriptors can in fact indicate membership to a different race (see sidebar pg 89). A dwarf might be Strong, an ogre might be tough, and a elf might be graceful. These descriptors, these adjectives, can easily tag the special traits of another race as easily as they can that of a specific human. Alternately, for campaigns that play specifically within fantasy worlds it suggests that one could generate specific racial descriptors (see pg 243) much in the way that Numenera does.

But there's a third option that I think is legitimate and yet different from these two (though similar in ways to the sidebar suggestion). Race and racial abilities can potentially be taken from any source, descriptor, focus, and even type.Consider a typical halfling, they are small, affable, stealthy, and often well known for having an innate affinity for thrown weapons.

You could easily make a Stealthy Speaker who Throws with Deadly Accuracy. Each of these choices, and the choices made within the Speaker type can give your character a small portion of the typical traits of a halfling. Stealthy is obvious, and the first tier of Throws with Deadly Accuracy alone can cover the natural affinity for thrown weapons; add Enthrall and some training by way of the Interaction Skills ability and Speaker can easily cover the halfling's talent for tale telling and generally affable manners.

OR you could be a Charming Warrior who Works the Back Alleys. Grab the Pierce and Quick Draw abilities from tier 1 warrior to make your thrown weapon attacks faster and more damaging. Or maybe you're a little more of a homebody halfling only just starting out, perhaps an Appealing Spinner who Doesn't Do Much. Sure you're probably not the best suited for adventure, but then Bilbo wasn't either and he got by. Don't forget flavors as well. You always make up for lack of stealth from your descriptor, type or focus by taking some aspects of the Stealth flavor like Legerdemain and Stealth Skills.

What about a troll mage? How about a Tough Adept who Regenerates Tissue (borrowed from The Strange)? Seems like a good fit with the right Adept abilities to stand in for "spells". How about a World of Darkness Style vampire? That's tougher because of the breadth of vampire types in WoD, but a Charming [type] who Siphons Power might work with a little tweaking of the Tier 1 and 4 abilities from Siphons Power (since vampires can't take power from machines, and cannot take power at range. Use the Customizing Foci options and at Tier 1 grab Training in a skill, or maybe just 6 more pool points. At Teir 4 Incredible Health and Fusion Armor could both fit well within the paradigm of a vampire depending on the specific flavor of bloodsucker.

Rather than force any one portion of your character choice to speak to your race, or ignoring it altogether, you can build your race into your character by canny choices of descriptor, focus, and/or type. The best part about this is that you can run with crazy ideas. My freind +Jeremy Land is playing a werejackal in +James August Walls Cypher Fantasy game, using powers from his focus (Wields Two Weapons at Once (his clawed hands)), and his type (Sculpt Flesh from the Adept type to create his claws). It's a brilliant way to envision a character concept that is complex in a way that isn't just laid out for your use. He's gone steps further and uses Reveal to grant himself and others darksight by "transferring a small amount of his lycanthropy" to them.

The same strategy can apply to science fiction games as well. Maybe you have a wookie who is a Strong Warrior who Pilots Starcraft. Perhaps you want a Klingon; how does an Honorable Warrior who Master Weaponry sound? The sky's the limit here.

This technique isn't limited to Cypher System by any means, so next time you are working with a "universal" or "generic" system (terms which I find less and less accurate the more RPGs I play) consider that race and racial abilities can come from any number of sources within your system. Think about where skills that you choose can act as skills that would be granted by your ancestry, and how easily abilities you pick can fit the needs of abilities gained from your ancestry.