Thursday, December 11, 2014

Non-Combat Encounters in the Cypher System

The recent discussion of the role of combat in the Cypher system has touched on a subject I have been considering for awhile -- since before there was a Cypher system, really.  People have long suggested that role playing should include more than combat.  There were many complaints about DnD 4e (a game I played quite a bit, and enjoyed) that the system privileged combat over social interaction and exploration.  It was into this dialogue that the Numenera kickstarter included a great deal of language about how the game rewarded discovery rather than combat.  Did this language over-sell Numenera's non-combat options?

Investigation -- by Paul Vladuchick (flickr)

I think it is this early language that has led many people to expect to find the Cypher system to have equal representation of combat, social, and exploratory aspects.  However, it is a major jump from a system that includes more than combat to a system that even attempts equality in combat, social interaction, and exploration.

As Lex pointed out, there are many examples of how the Cypher system still privileges combat mechanics.  Players will follow where the options are.  If there are far more options for combat, the players will likely end up with characters that have more combat than non-combat options.  If they have the options, they will want to use them.

Just to provide an example of this.  There are strict controls on which combat skills and specializations a player can take (and when) -- there are few (no?) similar restrictions on non-combat skills.    This says from the beginning "combat skills are so important that we have to meter them -- have all of the non-combat skills you want."  I won't go into more details to document the primacy of combat but consider:  is there any non-combat system that is as detailed as armor?  weapon types?  positioning (as loose as the system is here)?

This is not a crippling problem.  There are options between completely combat oriented and complete equality of combat, social, and exploration aspects.  Every group will need to find their balance between these aspects.  Emerging from a tradition of RPGs that came from war games, it should not be a surprise that the system includes more options and detail in combat.  This is the domain that has dominated the field of RPGs for decades.  Even looking at the major adventures for Numenera and The Strange, you will see that most of the encounters privilege combat.  Most (not all) of the encounters involve working towards some combat encounter with a memorable creature.  This is consistent with the tradition of published adventures -- even having more non-combat encounters than most, I would say -- and likely the most popular option for people wanting to buy campaign adventures.  

The Cypher system, though, provides many options for GMs to increase the role of social and exploration components -- something hard to do in some other systems.

I will sketch out some of the things that groups can do if they want to de-emphasize combat within the Cypher system.  First, it is important to note that the uniformity of the conflict resolution system creates a scaffolding that allows for groups to build more complexity into social and exploratory challenges with relative ease.  At a fundamental level, overcoming a non-combat challenge is similar to a combat challenge.  You have difficulty levels.  You can apply assets, skills, or effort.  This parallelism says a lot about how the Cypher system has a space for non-combat resolution of conflict.

I will likely have more to say about this later -- now I am kicking around the idea of developing a whole investigation/research system to look more like combat -- but I want to address the core problem of limited options. Getting players to select non-combat skills, descriptors, or foci is difficult if they are coming from a tradition that focuses almost entirely on combat.  You have to work against the expectation that most encounters will be combat-oriented.

The first thing you have to do is have credible alternatives to combat skills.  Why would anyone take "biology" when they could take "speed defense?"  The obvious answer is to express the identity of the character.  This is true but when you are working against the tide of decades of RPGs focused on combat, it is not likely enough.  You will need to assure players that the game will consist of a mixture of social, exploration, and combat encounters and that they should design characters accordingly.  It does not have to be an even split -- but the division should be clear.  Players who take 1/3 of their skills and powers with a social concentration will be frustrated if these are not used at all.  If you ask they take social and exploration skills, don't start with four combat encounters.  GMs need to commit to a rough balance (again, this could be 50%/25%/25% - or 80%/10%/10%) and then communicate this to players.

Communication will not be enough.  You also need interesting and credible alternatives to combat skills.  Again, speed defense is really, really useful in combat.  You need non-combat options that are just as useful.  Skills need to be distinct and useful.  This will fall to us as a community for elaboration and discussion.  A glimmer\fractal\frammer on social and exploration encounter design/systems could be really interesting though (hint. hint).

I would also recommend that players match their characters (not their parties) to this division.  Even if the party (as a whole) is split evenly between combat, social, and investigation, a campaign that evenly splits counters between these domains may bore 2/3rds of the party all of the time.  Players should seek something that contributes to each type of encounter rather than being optimized for only one type.  This means the socially awkward, weak scientist is just as bad an idea as an exclusively combat-oriented type.  Think of matching the encounter type balance within characters -- rather than within parties (despite the tradition on having the "face", the "bruiser", and the "brains" as separate characters).

I will briefly take exploration/investigation encounters as an example.  I plan on having these make up AT LEAST 1/3rd of my campaign.  I will need to make this clear to players from the start.  I will also need to elaborate and clarify the existing system.  For example, perception is too much a "catch all" exploration skill in the base system.  I would always take perception over any specific knowledge skill.  This indicates both the strength of perception and the relative weakness of the specific knowledge skills.

My proposed solution is to limit perception to literally "sensing stuff."  Perception can help with the extremely short term perception of threats moving into the area, distant or camouflaged material, etc.  It does not cover any sensemaking of what you perceive.  This will still be useful for purposes of noticing that creature crawling up behind you (the skill is combat-relevant -- which is one reason it is the exploration/investigation skill most often taken with combat-focused expectations).  However, it will not help with anything that requires that you understand  what you perceive. It is not "clue sense."

Instead, specific knowledge skills provide meaning for what you perceive.  If you have biology as a knowledge skill, you will notice things in the encounters relevant to biology.  You will notice the notes on the development of a chemical weapon on the lab desk, for example.  Adding a perception-like use of the knowledge skills simultaneously increases the value of the knowledge skills and reigns in the overly broad perception skill.

This approach still requires some fine tuning but I am excited by what the direction could entail for my campaign.  I need to figure out who to limit a couple of overly general skills (namely the titular skills of Numenera and The Strange) but I don't think that will be too hard.

Would people be interested in seeing a more developed investigation system for The Strange (it could easily be applied to Numenera as well)?  Think of it as having modular components like adding armor to combat...  dealing with multi-stage investigations (like multi-round combat)... etc.


  1. Combat being different than S&I (Social and Investigation) is probably a large part of the problem, combat is bout having targets, hitting them and dealing damage, while S&I seems to revolve around single rolls for solving issues or some kind of skill challenge.

    What if instead S&I were "combat"? An argument in social has targets, negotiation, intimidation and debate could be weapons, etc. The same with Investigation, leads could be targets, working them with skills could be Perception, Investigation or knowledge "attacks". Etc.

    just some thoughts.

    1. I have am not sure that the same sorts of mechanics (hitting, damage, etc.) are going to translate well to investigation or social encounters. That being said, there may be something parallel that can work. This is something I am still mulling over. The key is to have a similar level of complexity across these three elements or the system will naturally reward preparing for one type of encounter over the others.

    2. For all they were reviled in their time, 4e skill challenges were a nice start for a framework. if not attacking and HP, perhaps some kind of framework where a bit more complexity than single rolls to accomplish goals.