Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Nuts & Bolts #146 - Hacking the Cypher System - Blowing Up Advancement

The magic number is Sixteen right? Or is it? Four EXP per advancement. Yes, that's correct. Four advancements to gain the next Tier. Yes. No. Maybe.

I've been running a Cypher System game set in Freeport since this summer. We try to play weekly, but it's working out more like 2x per month right now because we are at minimum group size (IMO, 3 players and a GM is minimum, I know some folks will run for fewer PCs, but for me 3 is the bare minimum). The players are all somewhere in the midst of Tier 2 right now. They are pretty capable. They can combat like the best of them. They have some cool toys. They even have some strengths in certain kinds of tasks.

The more we play though, the more I am seeing that the characters are pretty threadbare for skills. This is the first time I'm really running into this in Cypher and I think it's because I've been making an effort to really throw in a variety of applicable skills. Lore: Local Knowledge helps when churning the rumor mill, or knowing current events. Lore: Magic for all those useful instances of "what the heck is going on"? Jumping, climbing, sneaking, speaking, running, tracking, and observing. Heck, even cooking has come up.

Sometimes the players have the skills they need sometimes they don't. The Cypher System isn't a super skill heavy game system the way other systems can be. There's no barrier to entry for tasks based on skill. If you aren't trained in locating secret doors or navigating that just means it'll be tougher for you. This works well and I wouldn't change that aspect of the system, but one thing I do thing I want to change is the acquisition of skill training.

And in the process I'm going to change the advancement process for my game. Possibly for all my games henceforth.

At the moment Advancements include: Effort, Pools, Edge, and Skill. BUT there's the option to ditch one Advancement for one of a number of other options. Note that while this is commonly thought to replace the Skill it can replace ANY of the "core four" Advancements. Also note that the list of options is different depending on the book you're using. Numenera (pg. 112) allows for a Type ability, while the Cypher System Rulebook (pg. 223) and The Strange (pg. 124) do not. Maybe this is a change Monte made after getting more time with the system, or maybe it was a matter of layout space and not wanting drift onto the next page (since all three of those pages are also the last of their respective chapters).

I mentioned to my group that I was going to change this last option. Instead of allowing it as a replacement for the standard four, I'm going to add it as a new Advancement entirely. Edge, Effort, Pools, Skill, and "Training". Personally I prefer the Numenera allowance of an extra Type ability so "Training" will be either, a recovery bonus, an armor penalty reduction, or a new Type Ability. This would also be a prime place to place "Guild training" for character's who join organizations that grant special abilities.

This has two immediate effects on character advancement of course. The first and most obvious is that characters now have to buy 5 Advancements before they tier up. They also will always gain training in a skill, the most commonly replaced Advancement, as a result of this. However there is a derived effect that may not be initially obvious. Each Tier get's a little longer. It now takes 20 EXP to tier up rather than 16 EXP. That means that Tier 6 is a minimum of 100 EXP away rather than 80 EXP. This may help some of you to run longer campaigns (I see people asking about that from time to time).

What's the in-game impact? Well, the direct impact is that character's will be even stronger late in the game. They'll either have more Type abilities to draw on, or they will have much more powerful Recovery rolls, or be able to wear the heaviest of armor without care. They'll also have more skills in all likelihood. Is this a problem? It could be. I have never GMed a game for Tier 6 PCs. I've never even played in a game past the Tier 4/5 tipping point.

Maybe it's a terrible idea.

I would imagine that in a Gods of the Fall game it would have barely any impact on the PCs who with shifts and Divine Cyphers will certainly be absurdly capable at Tier 6 already. On the other hand it'll make PCs in a "grim n gritty" game too strong. They'll have too much power.

Which is why I think I'd be OK doing the opposite for such games and having only 3 Advancements per Tier (or even 2 if you were planning an intentionally short campaign). If you wanted to give the players less power make them have to choose between their gains because they simply cannot do everything. You can alter the cost of Advancements as well. A game where players have to spend 8 EXP for an Advancement but gain a tier after only two Advancements is still 16 EXP per Tier, but results in weaker characters. I suspect that this would actually run longer as a campaign as well because the players will have more EXP available during games as they need to bank more. This will mean that they will more often have the ability to re-roll or reject a GMI, and need to choose which is more important in the moment; all of which will probably help to build the risk-reward balance that a "gritty" campaign style needs.

Lastly (because this is already a long and rambly post), if you decide to run with fewer Advancements per Tier that cost more EXP each, you can also start to play with either/or choices. Effort OR Edge but buying one locks you out of the other for that Tier, for instance. This will further drive the players to make critical choices and have limited resources. I'd suggest a pairing of Skill/Effort and Pools/Edge personally, but you may have different ideas. In a gritty style game I'd probably do away with the optional armor training and recovery roll Advancement awards entirely to help keep the game firmly grounded.

I'm sure there's other ways that a GM could tweak the Advancement and Tier mechanics to suit their game. I've heard of people charging EXP for Divine Shifts in Gods of the Fall, and I could imagine using EXP mechanics for Companion upgrades in Predation. Advancement is just another type of Long-Term Benefit so perhaps in certain games a GM may require players to buy one of those for Advancement (I could see needing wealth or a home in a Birthright-esque game for instance). Hmm, now that gives me other ideas for Gods of the Fall ... but that'll need to wait for another column.