Wednesday, December 17, 2014

13th Age Backgrounds as Skills in the Cypher System

One of the larger transitions from Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder to the Cypher System is the way that it handles skills.  In the former systems, skills are detailed and have a relatively narrow range of applications.  These skills are drawn from a specific list that is tailored to the experience of the game (say a high fantasy adventure game).

The Cypher System takes a different approach.  While there are lists of suggested skills, the lists are open-ended.  Instead of having a narrowly defined application (or set of applications) for the skills, the skills are defined in play.  You can invoke them when they may assist you with a particular challenge -- and the boundaries of application are up to your table.  This is a relatively open approach to skills.  For a related discussion see  Marc Plourde's discussion of skill systems on his blog Inspiration Strikes!.  The recent fantasy RPG 13th Age provides an interesting approach to skills that may inspire your own character development with The Strange or other Cypher System games.

In the 13th Age RPG, characters do not have skills.  Instead, the equivalent of the skill system is the choice of backgrounds.  A military background may provide a character with insight into military strategy, the layout of military encampments, some knowledge of military equipment -- etc.  Basically, a player could invoke the background to add to a skill roll where their background could justify a bonus (previous experience, training, or knowledge).

One could simply replace the Cypher System's skills with a background system.  Instead of characters choosing skills, they would choose a relevant background.  The background would be a relatively loose way to handle skills.  This likely would make skills more valuable than they currently are (though the hard limit of two step reductions by skills per roll cap the value) but that may not be a problem.  When one is asked to choose a skill, one would simply choose a background instead.

There is a less drastic way to incorporate this approach to skills into your Cypher System game.

Instead of using backgrounds as a replacement for skills, you can use them as a way to fill out the nature of the specific skills.  For every skill (or maybe just a couple -- season to taste), explain how the character came by that skills in their background.  If a character has a background in geology, how is it that they came by this training or knowledge?  If the character is trained in overcoming security systems, were they white hat or black hat?  None of these choices need to have mechanical implications.  Instead,  they just provide inspiration.

I will illustrate with a harder case -- speed defense.  What does it mean to have speed defense?  This is one of the more blatantly combat-focused skills.  It had a direct and common mechanical effect.  Because of its boring name, common role, and direct mechanical application, people tend not to think much about it (other than pretty much always taking it when it is an option).

A background approach to speed defense can be fun without changing the mechanics at all.  Consider the background that could have provided the character with speed defense.  There are many options -- I will contrast two of them.  Maybe the speed defense comes from training in Judo.    

Judo -- Marion Age [flickr]

Speed defense based on Judo can work in exactly the same way that it would otherwise in terms of dodging mechanics.  What changes is the way that players can envision and describe a dodge.  For someone with a judo background, the dodge could consist of grabs, throws, or other uses of an opponent's momentum.  Just as you would expect a judo practitioner to fight differently than others, they would dodge differently.  Even at a range, they may roll or dodge in ways that come from their background.

Contrast the judo version of speed defense to an alternative, parkour.  With this background, the character would do a lot of flips, use their environment, etc. to avoid damage.  The narration of their dodges could be quite different than a judo practitioner.  A parkour dodge might involve running up walls for a flip, swinging on handles, or quickly climbing a wall.  I can say from experience that these moves rarely come up in traditional Judo training.

Parkour1 -- Susan [flickr]

The background approach to skills provides a new way to look at this part of character building.  It can provide a broader view of skills -- if that is what you want -- or simply the material for deeper definitions of your character.


  1. Forgive me if I double post, I'm not sure my last comment went through. In summary I like the 13th Age approach better, but I wonder if it isn't an easy change. I think there is some hidden complexity due to the way skills advance in Cypher, and the fact that combat skills are limited. I would like to see what Monte, Shanna and Bruce think of using backgrounds in Cypher system games. I do think that Backgrounds, are a better narrative fit than the current skill system because they influence the player to build story.

    1. Oh, I agree. There are a variety of ways to incorporate this approach -- ranging from very easy to more complex. You can do a full substitution or just add this as an optional method for fleshing out the skills chosen within the system.