Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Nuts & Bots #82 - Hacking the Cypher System - Artifact Depletion

I think it's useless now ... Image Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antikythera_mechanism

Artifacts are kind of a big deal in Cypher System games. They can provide great power to the players, but depending on the artifact they have varying degrees of use. Some powerful few are single use, like ultra powerful cyphers, others deplete on rolls of a d6, d10, d20, or d100, and some few even last indefinitely, never depleting.

In my experience some GMs are reluctant to introduce artifacts into their games for fear of their power, and especially because of the fact that players often make a point to hold back an experience point or two to ensure that failed depletion rolls can be re-done to keep artifacts working-essentially nullifying the depletion aspect of artifacts. Should we be so reluctant? Should we be concerned for the impact of artifacts on a game? And what ways can we tinker with the depletion mechanic to help?

Fickle Fates

Depletion is a random occurrance. A chance on the roll of a die can make a powerful item suddenly useless. But experience can let you re-roll the die and maybe keep your item in working order. Or can it?
"The most straightforward way for a player to use XP is to reroll any roll in the game—even one that she didn’t make." (CSR pg 221)
The text is plainly clear; character's can re-roll any roll, from an attack to a depletion roll, or even a roll on a random artifact or cypher table. However, rules are meant to be broken, and a simple means to ensure artifacts don't overwhelm a game due to experience fueled re-rolls a GM could simply rule that depletion rolls cannot be re-rolled. This has the advantage of being simple and requires no special bookkeeping and cannot negatively interact in any other way with the existing rules. It also has the advantage of letting depletion go back into the hands of fate, and the roll of the dice.

Pay to Play

Because RPGs are a social game with a goal for all involved to have a good time some GMs may not be in a position to simply do-away with the players' ability to spend experience to keep their artifacts working. Is there a way to split the difference? Maybe.

Instead of allowing a player to pay for a re-roll after a depletion roll fails (an occurrence with varying degrees of probability) a GM may instead opt for a "pre-payment" option: spend an experience to avoid the re-roll entirely, or do not and roll and accept the result. Players will need to make the experience investment depending on the chances of depletion or take their chances with the dice. This skews the "cost" to the players a little more than the rules as written, but still allows players to "protect" important artifacts.

Maintenance Time

Another way to partially mitigate re-rolls is to defer them to a later time. Players must spend time and do "maintenance" on the item before they can spend the experience and re-roll. This may not jive with some game paradigms, but others, like cyberpunk or science fiction games, can readily accept the idea that artifact items may be subject to temporary inactivation. The time a player must invest prior to the re-roll should be set by the GM and may be as little as a single round's action to unjam or reload a weapon, to several hours or days to refit a starcraft or advanced device.

The advantage here is that while artifacts may remain in game for the long term, the GM will still have the ability to complicate stories as a result of temporary artifact downtime. Even if a GM opts not to use this as a permanent addition to the rules, a GM Intrusion could be used for similar effect either after a failed roll that has been re-rolled, or even after a successful roll.

Gradual Degradation

Artifact depletion rolls are a set thing, a 1 on a d6, or maybe a 1 on a d20. As written this is static, but GMs could change that. After a depletion roll a GM could offer up a GM Intrusion that reduces the die type of future depletion rolls. This would bring a d100 to a d20 then a d10 and finally to a d6. Using this when the depletion roll is already a d6 could even impose a -1 to future rolls if the GM desired. In this way the artifact slowly degrades and eventually fails.

The Cypher System uses a small subset of the weird dice commonly available to RPG players. With only d6, d10, d20, and d100 the depletion rolls for artifacts are somewhat limited. GMs may want to use the full range of dice they have available, or a subset of those dice. Adding more dice would slow the degradation and allow artifacts to last longer with a greater possible number of GMIs before the artifacts depleted fully.

Planned Obsolescence 

Of course if you want to deal with artifacts via GM Intrusion there is nothing stopping you from having depletion happen as the result of a GM Intrusion without. This is the most heavy handed solution, but it should always be on the table, especially if a GM sees an artifact is beginning to dominate play in unintended ways.

Are there any other ways to deal with artifact depletion that I haven't mentioned? Do you feel that artifacts tend to overpower your games or do you feel that they work just fine as is? Do you have any other advice for GMs of Cypher System games with regards to artifacts?