Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Nuts & Bolts #111 - Hacking the Cypher System - Mastery

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inability. Untrained. Trained. Specialized. Cypher System players will no doubt instantly recognize these terms and the significance of them. The skill spectrum assumes that Untrained is the default state; that any character can attempt any task with this basic level of competency. Depending on your type, focus, and descriptor you may have a few, or many skills at levels other than default. Of course, beyond their level of training characters can apply effort to varying degrees to make tasks easier beyond even that which their training affords.

The Cypher System Rulebook introduced a new variable into the dynamic when it brought us Shifts. Shifts are incredibly powerful, which fits their use within Superhero games and the players as divinities setting, Gods of the Fall. Using shifts turns a character to 11. Not only do Shifts grant what is essentially a permanent and free level of effort, but depending on the shift type these can apply to a very wide scope (such as with Dexterity or Intellect shifts) or a great depth (such as with Single Attack shifts adding both a level bonus and additional damage).

I've said in the past that at its default style of play Cypher System is very well suited to games with a pulpy tone. The characters are very capable, very robust, and stand out from the norm with special abilities or skills (foci). The mechanics of effort and recovery further increase this feel. Characters can take their chances on less important tasks but with effort they can make success of more important tasks more routine. Likewise the ease of recovery (at least the first two recoveries) allows for characters to bounce back quickly at first.

Why am I detailing all of this? Because there are times when I feel like a step between basic Cypher and Cypher with Shifts would be nice. While one could certainly limit the number of shifts given to characters the breadth & depth of scope would still greatly alter game play. So what's a GM to do if they want to add just a little more punch to their PCs in keeping with something like a Golden Age Supers game, or a more heroic game of myth?


Mastery works a little like a Shift and a little like an extra level of Training. Mastery is applied to a skill the character has already gained at least a level of Training in and grants not only an increase in the level of training, but access to a higher level of skill competency: Mastery. Characters with Mastery in a skill reduce the difficulty of tasks associated with the skill by three levels. It's as simple as that. In order to gain the most from Mastery characters will need to already be (or soon to gain) Specialized in the skill in question, and taking Mastery makes them one of the (if not THE) best in the field. These are the peerless Samurai, the genius mechanics, the bleeding edge scientists and engineers.

I'd suggest granting not more than one, maybe two, levels of Mastery to characters to hit that sweet spot of allowing characters to truly excel. The use of Mastery can help differentiate between characters of similar type and role. A pulp aviators game (such as Skyward) may find itself with two characters specialized in piloting and mechanics, but one may choose Mastery in the former skill, where the other applies Mastery to the latter. Instead of stepping on each other's toes one becomes the undisputed best pilot and the other the best mechanic.

I've not tested this idea out, but I hope to eventually. In the meantime, if you get a chance let me know how it went.