Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Nuts & Bolts #98 - Hacking the Cypher System - Recovery

This seems apt...

I'm going to preface this discussion by saying that I haven't tried this as of yet, and that like most of these Hacking the Cypher System articles what I propose may look good on paper and fail utterly at the table. Likewise what works for some may not work for others. Grain of salt and all that.

That said, I found myself having a discussion about how the Cypher System compares to other systems, and one of the things that I feel fundamentally informs how the Cypher System plays is the resource management aspects of Cypher as they compare to other games. Almost every RPG uses some form of resource management during play, resources may be as simple as Hit Points, or as complex (relatively) as the Cypher System's multiple pools which function both as a form of health and a resource for getting actions to succeed or expanding on success (e.g. doing more damage with attacks).

Some RPGs, like the old school clones, tend to make resources very tight. Daily spells, limited hit points, expensive single use potions (if even those), and the like. Contrast that with the Cypher System where resources are relatively plentiful, and easy to recover (via recovery rolls), or replenish (via gaining of new cyphers or XP from GM Intrusions). But can you change the basic "economy" of the Cypher System to change the way the game plays? And will doing so actually make the game feel different?

The GM already has implicit control over the rate at which new Cyphers come into play (more on that in a different column) and the rate at which they use GM Intrusions. When I play in a campaign session I aim for one GMI per player +1 for the group (or possibly just an extra normal one) per session, but when I ran game at Gen Con this summer I knew they were one shots and threw GMIs out like they were going out of style. They weren't always full on bad (though seldom full on good) but I think (hope) they made for good story beats that reeled the players in.

Recovery rolls are in the player purview however, and the players can stop and rest when they like. Right? Well, kinda. As a GM you have ways to prevent the players from resting, especially the longer 1 hour and 8/10 hour recoveries. Keeping the pace fast and the pressure high will drive some player groups to push through and play without a rest while others will retreat and find safe places. GM Intrusions can help a group that is overly conservative moving without taking a rest after every encounter. Likewise having a (sometimes literal) ticking clock may prevent players/character from having the time to rest. If you are on a sinking ship you probably aren't going to waste 1 hour grabbing a catnap.

These are aspects of play that fall into the grey zone between players and GMs and a GM must tread carefully and not abuse such tactics. There may be times however when a GM wants to tell a "grittier" feeling story. And in those instances it may benefit the story and the players (including the GM) to discuss possibly changing the rate of recovery rolls.

A game set in a low fantasy world, or a zombie apocalypse (or other post-apocalypse genre) may gain an added level of grit if the GM and players agree to slide recoveries out from the normal cadence. Allowing first recovery after a 10 minute rest, 2nd after 1 hour, 3rd after 8 hours and dropping the 4th entirely will do two things to the game: first it will change pacing and the balance between deliberate caution and forced action will shift as the time to rest will be harder to come by, second it will reduce the available "action currency" by eliminating a recovery roll and making players slower to recover.

For genres where survival is a paramount theme this may work to help establish the feel and tone of the game by shifting Cypher slightly away from its heroic and pulpy norm. Then again it may not. As I mentioned above, I haven't tried this and I don't know how well it would work, if at all. Still considering how your group uses (or abuses) recoveries may help you to run better games were the stakes feel a little more real regardless of the tone you are looking for.