Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Nuts & Bolts #165 - Hacking the Cypher System - Slow Burn Horror Mode

Image Source: Stay Alive! page 71, (c) Monte Cook Games

Horror Mode is one of the many "bolt on" rules introduced in the original Cypher System Rulebook and carried forward in both the Revised edition and the Stay Alive! horror themed book. It's a simple enough rule where the range for player rolled GM Intrusions expands beyond natural 1s. As written it can be really useful for horror games and really help to build tension as the rolling of dice becomes fraught with the risk of a GM Intrusion without the balm of XP. 

A while back I had tried an alien invasion horror survival game I called Invasion! It stumbled early on due to players being unable to make it and I ultimately shut it down rather than try and force it to work with an uncertain roster of players. Continuous stories really require a strong recurrence of the cast at the table, so I felt justified.

Recently I have been prepping to reboot and try again, and part of that is a conscious decision to look at what rules I could add or manipulate to further add to the tone and feel of their weird idea of mine. Horror Mode seems like a good choice but the way that it ebbs and flows wasn't what I wanted in my game. Instead I wanted a slow pressure that would build reliably over time as the alien invasion pressed onward. I built a timeline of events that would take place (assuming the players don't find ways to slow the aliens down), and in the process I had milestones that would put pressure and stress on the setting and characters. It started to resolve that as the aliens hit their milestones things would get more dire for the colonists. 

Horror Mode is the perfect fit here, but at a much slower pace. Days will pass as the aliens execute activities and so days will pass between increases in the GMI range due to Horror Mode. The players may experience several sessions at a GMI range of 1-2 until another alien milestone is hit, permanently raising the range to 1-3. The players may also decrease the range by setting in motion their own actions to either set the aliens back, or make their own positions stronger to either counter the aliens or escape the planet. 

By slowing the increases in GMI range for Horror Mode, and allowing player actions to help roll that range backwards I hope to create a palpable sense of slow burning dread that will help motivate the actions of the characters. Slowing the speed at which Horror Mode ramps up and down is a minor change, but I think it can pay off for Gamemasters who are looking for a very specific slow burn experience at the table. 

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Nuts & Bolts #164 - Hacking the Cypher System - Super Smash

Image Source: Cypher System Rulebook page 272 (1st edition), (c) Monte Cook Games

So, I really enjoy superhero RPGs as a palette cleanser, especially nowadays. Especially when I am kicking off a dark campaign shortly. I use Cypher System a lot of the time (most of the time) because it does a good job emulating the feel without also getting in the way rules wise.

One of the things I like is GM Intrusions (and Player Intrusions) can allow characters to do super stuff that may not be written down on their stats or sheets. I can use it to have a metal guy ring like a bell and stun nearby characters after being hit real hard, or to have a character who cannot fly use a fiery rocket blast to gain limited flight.

One thing that is darn near ever present in the superhero genre (regardless of the sub-genre tones you may use) is that people tend to go flying when hit knocking into objects, smashing walls, or just being tossed away from the melee scrum. Usually in Cypher games I would treat this as a GMI or PI depending on the character and situation, but that doesn't really work in a supers game where it should be happening a lot. And I do mean A LOT. Characters getting knocked and thrown around helps to make combat less static, it moves the action around, and makes players consider the environment more. I think sending a character flying will also help make some of the super strong characters feel stronger. It makes faster characters gain an advantage over slower ones (they can get back into combat faster), and it is exciting as a it gives the impression of the attack really impacting even if it doesn't do any extra damage in the process.

In other words, IT'S EXCITING.

Sadly, I realized this all to late for my most recent game. It was still fun and had some really memorable moments, but I think about the missed opportunities for sending heroes and villains alike hurtling through the air and I wish I hadn't been locked into a mindset that these kinds of reactions were GMIs/PIs.

Instead I should have played it as a feature of the game. A default that such hits would cause recoil and send characters smashing through walls, flying through the air, and skidding along the ground. In the future I will being making a more conscious effort to do this. Non-super strong characters shouldn't send others very far unless they are specifically trying (PI, special ability, or result of a Major or Minor Effect), maybe just one foot per level (or tier) which can largely be hand waived entirely unless geography dictates that it matters.

For the super strong however, each shift in strength will increase this from 1' to 5' to 10' to 20'. Similarly characters with Single Attack shifts should have their attacks hit so hard that they gain a similar increase. An NPC who is level 6 and have 2 shifts in strength could hit another character so hard they would fly 60 feet away! (10' for 2 shifts x level 6 = 60).

This seems an easy fix, and I would rule that a player could opt out of sending their opponent flying by holding back on Strength Shifts or by attacking in other ways. An overhead smash might instead drive their enemy through the street and into the subway or sewers, or simply drive them into the dirt like a nail. The goal in the end is to play up the over-the-top aspects of the supers genre so that not only does it feel like a comic book (or a Marvel movie), but so that it feels different from other games you may run with Cypher System.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Nuts & Bolts #163 - Hacking the Cypher System - Sidekicks

Editor's note: It's been WAY too long, but sometimes you just don't have anything to give. You can't squeeze blood from a stone. I'm going to try and be better about posting here but these are uncertain times and it's hard to think about happy fun times games when the world is burning down around you.

Superhero RPGs are an occasional fun diversion for me. I don't play regularly for various reason, and as a result I find some of the better superhero RPGs a bit cumbersome because I have to relearn the rules a bit each time. Thankfully the Cypher System is pretty capable for superheroics in most cases (some weirdness aside when it comes to the ability to fly).

One thing that Cypher doesn't do well (IMO anyways) is sidekicks and support characters. Most the time you get a low level critter, robot, or hireling who is some use at Tier 1, and decreasingly useful as you gain Tiers. Often they are rolling unmodified for most actions other than a small handful that they have training for. Without ability to apply effort they can feel very weak against tasks and enemies at level 5 of higher.

In supers games the sidekick can often be very important for certain characters, and they can help a smaller group of PCs punch a little higher than they could otherwise with the power of numbers. Thankfully there is one Cypher game that made an effort to make companions a little more interesting and stronger: Predation.

Predation is a pretty great setting with some interesting rules to support the Dinosaur companions that are nearly ubiquitous within the setting. These rules, like most rules, can be easily adapted or modified to suit other settings and genres to enable PC companions. I already discussed this idea a while back in regards to a high tech or cyberpunk game where PCs can be reasonably expected to have AI assisted drones. Another common genre with a historic trope that fits well with these rules is comic books & superheroes. Oh hey, how topical!

I think the companion rules will work wonderfully for this purpose. With a minimum of additional work required to fit the rules to the genre. While I presented the idea of this prior but did not elaborate on what those changes would look like, this time I would like to present my full hack for Sidekicks.

First thing's first, we need to skin over the dinosaurs into sidekicks. This is really just a matter of renaming them to fit a superheroic game:

  • Tyrannosaurus become Brawlers, sidekicks who are bigger more aggressive fighters than most of their peers (though not likely as big and tough as their hero).
  • Raptors become Hunters, sidekicks who use teamwork and stealth to stalk the the enemy. 
  • Ornithomimids become Speedsters, sidekicks who use their speed to avoid enemy attacks while drawing fire from their hero.   
  • Ceratopsians and Ankylosaurs become Tanks, bigger and tougher but slower than their peers, Tanks can take a lot of abuse and help their hero by sticking in combat for the duration.
  • Pterosaurs become Fliers, sidekicks who can take to the air and aid their hero from a position of advantage above the city.
  • Early Mammals become Scouts, who make up for for their weaker physical ability by being premier scouts, reconnoitering ahead and searching out the enemy's weaknesses. 
The companion ability lists for each type can stay as is, and even those ability names can be retained for the superhero genre. The exception to this is the Temporal Hunter ability which can either be removed, or rejiggered for the setting (example, Mutant/Metahuman Hunter, or the like).

Lastly the companion dispositions from the book. These are the biggest change as I would not use these and instead use the same Descriptor list as the main player characters in the game. This will allow more options and better suit the fact that sidekicks are people, not animals. Descriptor bonuses to pools can instead be applied directly to the sidekick's health stat, and the skills and inabilities can be applied as normal. 

When your hero interacts with their sidekick they should still use the Interaction mechanisms from Predation (pg 49) to represent the development of the sidekick from a trainee to an eventual highly trained hero in their own right. This means that initially they may misunderstand their hero's instructions, or may balk at their orders/mission due to lack of experience. As your hero gains experience so too will their sidekick and they will be more confident and capable following your hero's lead. 

Since superheroes use the power shift rules I would also allow sidekicks to apply 1/2 rounded down the number of shifts that their hero has. These might be different from the hero's shifts as in the case of mutants or sidekicks with different themes from their hero, or they may be the same because of training and similar power themes. Likewise I would grant each sidekick a choice of +4 Health or an level of skill training at Tier 1, and then apply a bonus of +2 Health per tier in addition to the normal progress. This will help these sidekicks last a little longer as the superheroes they serve get stronger and the super-villains they fight likewise gain more power.

Lastly I would definitely suggest that other players at the table play the sidekicks of other heroes. This will allow far more interesting roleplay than if the sidekicks are played by the same player as the hero. Predation got this perfectly and I see no reason why it should change with a new genre.

That's it (I think), a set of perfectly useful rules for making genuinely interesting Sidekicks for use with Superheroic gaming using Cypher System.