Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Nuts & Bolts #73 - Hacking the Cypher System Part 1: Horror Mode


Recently +James Walls +Ryan Chaddock and I examined the Cypher System Rulebook's contents. Specifically we looked at the rules that were new to that book, rules that were designed to facilitate genre play, but that can be hacked for other genres, other uses, or both. Over the next few months I'm going to look at these again and see how else I can break these rules down and rebuild them. I may even look at some of the more core rules and see how those can be made to work for us in new ways.

For starters I want to look at Horror Mode yet again. Horror mode presents a way to increase tension in a scene or scenes by increasing the range of rolled GM Intrusions. Starting with the default natural 1, Horror Mode allows this range to expand by one each time a GM Intrusion is rolled from 1-2 to 1-3, and so forth. During the show we suggested using Horror Mode like effects to represent insanity, corruption, hostile environments, and even the effects of holding too many cyphers. But what else can Horror Mode do? And what else can in inspire?

Time Limits

Sometimes you want to put the characters under pressure to accomplish a goal in a set amount of in-game time. Time constraints are stressful and rather than making tasks more difficult to represent this pressure you can increase the range of rolled GMIs instead. As time counts down, the chance of GMIs increase and the players are incentivized to act quickly to meet the goal or reach their objective before things go from bad to worse.

Much like normal Horror Mode the name of the game here is to create tension. As the timer counts down the GMIs start rolling more frequently, and the players start having to dread those dice. But unlike in a horror genre game you shouldn't be punishing the players unduly, the fact that their time is running out should be the biggest factor here. Good use of GMIs would be having a task take longer than it should have, or similar setbacks that will put good time to bad use.

Environmental Effects

We touched on this briefly during the show through Jim's use of an increased GMI threat range to represent the danger of the wastelands in Dark Sun or the Reckoner's corruption of the world in Deadlands. In this instance instead of starting small and growing these environments have a fixed increased range. Those ranges may shift, lowering if the local fear level decreases, or the characters take steps to ensure the dangers of the wastelands pass them by, but they have a set starting value.

That's not the only way to deal with environmental threats though. In the Numenera adventure Vortex the players are transported to a facility within the sun itself. As they explore this ancient structure they find that the station is deteriorating, exposing the players to the potential of a fiery death. You could play this as a kind of time limit, with each hour adding to the GMI range, but the actions of the players can accelerate, slow, or even mitigate the stations deterioration. As a result it makes sense to treat this less as a time based effect and more as an effect based on player action and inaction. Accidentally (or intentionally) lower the deflectors and the GMI range increases as the station is bombarded by even more solar energy. Repair the station-keeping thrusters and the GMI range decreases. GMIs of this kind should be environmentally focused. The space station has a hull breach, the burning building collapses in one spot, the deadlands spew forth something horrible, etc.

Personal Corruption

In a darker toned game the characters may be fighting a losing battle against the corruption of their own selves. The Aberrant setting from White Wolf featured supers who tended toward mutation and madness if they grasped for power too quickly. Players might be given the option to willingly increase the range of GMIs either for the session or the campaign in exchange for a boost of power. Take a session long increase and gain the benefit of a major effect as though you rolled a natural 20. Take a campaign long increase and gain a commensurately more powerful bonus like a free advancement, or possibly even a power shift (depending on how big/how many steps the increase is).

Hero Mode

But wait, what about the other end of the system? Why not use the concept of Horror Mode but flip it on its head. Expand the range of Major and Minor Effects to show the characters gaining "good karma" or some similar benefit as a reward for their heroic deeds. This could be the reward for a GMI in a supers game, where the players gain a bonus that makes their dice rolls that much better. This might require some kind of reminder on the table, but think about how fun it could be to have the players gaining a Minor Effect on 15-17 and a Major Effect on 18-20.

Match GMI Range to Task Difficulty

This is a pretty big change, but it's one that will encourage uses of training, effort, and assets which is a good thing. Basically the range for rolled GMIs should be equal to level of difficulty of the task. A level 10 task rolls a GMI on a 1-10. Of course one doesn't roll for anything level 7 or higher because you cannot possibly roll a 21+ on a d20. Instead, as the rules intend, the level of the task is reduced by the training, assets, and effort that the players put forth.

Example: A player has a level 6 task in front of them; the rolled GMI range is 1-6. They are trained in the task, have an asset from equipment, and put two levels of effort into the task reducing the level of the task from 6 to 2 and the range of rolled GMIs when they filly roll a d20 to determine success is now a 1-2.

This change is obviously one that will alter the game from the ground up, and probably will result in more uses of effort. It also emphasizes the difficulty of rolling against a task at high difficulty level. Taking a roll on an unmodified level 5 task has a 25% chance of a GMI being rolled! Reducing the difficulty of your tasks, even a little will have tangible increases in the odds of success, and also tangibly reduce the odds for something even worse to crop up.

Other ideas?

That's what I have at the moment, but I think there are probably other ways to leverage the Horror Mode concepts for use in the Cypher System (and maybe other games). What ideas do you have for using the Horror Mode concepts?