Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Nuts & Bolts #99 - Hacking the Cypher System - Grading on a Curve

Image Source: https://ithemes.com/2015/07/21/success-is-an-iceberg/

I've been thinking lately of something in the Cypher System that is missing. No, not missing, but instead it is implemented in subtle ways. I should note that for a good long time even after I realized it, I didn't really realize what it all meant. What I'm discussing is success on a gradient. This isn't simple success or failure, but a case where one can objectively see that one success was more so than another success.

It's there in part, in whole, and in subtle ways. There are aspects of the game that obviously grade success on a kind of gradient, but others are less apparent. Let me show you...
Example: You can hit in combat and do your weapon's damage, OR you can hit in combat and do your weapon's damage plus extra based on Effort; a crushing blow, a critical hit, a strike to a vulnerable area. You still hit your target but that Effort you invest adds gradients of success beyond the base level. 
Example: Reveal, the 2nd Tier Adept ability that grants a target the ability to see in the dark or low light. Each level of Effort (again, Effort is key here) allows two additional targets to gain the benefit of the ability. It's an expanded degree of success in that the user's ability or expertise allows more people to gain the advantage. 
Example: Word of Death, a 6th Tier ability in the Casts Spells focus, allows the user to slay a foe of level 1 outright. A roll is required but Effort can be used in more than one way. Effort can reduce the difficulty of the roll, as usual, or it can increase the level of the creature you can slay. A character could apply all six levels of effort to the ability effect and in doing do slay a creature of level 7 outright ... if they have a way to succeed on the ability check. 
So, as you can see, there are already ways in which the Cypher System uses grades of success. Now you might counter by pointing out that if you fail a roll to attack that Effort is wasted and so the roll is still one of binary success or failure. Likewise the roll to use Word of Death. So you may say that there is no gradient on success but instead gradient of effect. Or you may reject my arguments entirely.

Regardless, the fact remains that in some cases, and in some instances, Effort can improve the baseline of success into something more. A weapon strike does more damage, an ability has a greater effect. These are laid out in the combat rules, in the descriptions of abilities.

What about in skills and other abilities?

I propose that while Effort can, and should, continue to be used to make checks easier, it should also be able to expand on the scope of success for these skills and abilities. Perhaps a lock would normally take a minute to pick, but the PCs need to get past it quickly before a guard shows up. Effort could make it easier to pick, but perhaps more importantly it can speed up the time required. Maybe a character who Carries a Quiver needs to make a new weapon and some ammunition. Crafting a bow and some arrows might normally be the work of day or more, but Effort can reduce the time needed.

Perhaps instead its a matter resources. The character thinks they have enough to make a dozen arrows, but each level of effort allows them to squeeze a little more from their limited resources, and gain an extra arrow or two. A group trying to find food and water might use effort to increase the resources they mine with each attempt to hunt or gather food, or collect water. In social situations this can also work. A character may be petitioning a local lord for a favor, effort may gain them an extra favor. A character in a market may desire to reduce the cost of an item by bartering, a basic success may reduce the cost by 10%, with an extra 5% for each level of effort applied to the attempt.

Obviously this is the tip of the iceberg, and I clearly cannot think of every possible use of Effort in this way. It's even possible that some GMs may wrap such things into their internal calculation of difficulty for a task. "OK, you are trying to pick this lock, which is level 3, but you have to do it quickly, so that'll make it a level 5."

In this way the expanded effect is rolled into the difficulty and the effort applied to success is consequently rolled into the effect. This will depend on the style of the GM and how much they know of the player's intent. It's easy to know that the players need to pick that lock quickly because as GM you set that situation up. It's less easy to know that the player intends to ask for not just horses, but also a pair of knights to ride out with them. The NPCs social difficulty is already set in this case so it may be easier on the GM to say, "You'll need to apply a level of effort to convince the lord to lend you two of his knights as well, and that Effort will not make the roll easier."

So in the end I guess it's up to us to understand how graded successes are in the game and how to make them work in our games as both player and as GM. Either way I think it's important for everybody at the table to remember that effort can do more than just make things easier, it can make successes count for more, or produce more, or take less time. Together, with a little Effort, we can make our game a success, or maybe just make it a little better.