Friday, August 28, 2015

Investigative/Exploratory Skills for The Strange and Numenera

Skills are some of the least discussed aspects of character generation in the cypher system.  There is some attention to issues of combat-relevant skills (defense or attack skills) but little discussion of knowledge skills.  With the release of the Cypher System rulebook and the coverage of horror/suspense games within the system, knowledge and investigation skills warrant some additional discussion.

Looking Glass -- catd_mitchell (flikr)
The basics of skills in the Cypher System apply across different uses: combat, social interaction, investigation, etc.  They operate a bit like aspects in a Fate game -- they serve as a bonus when taking any action that would benefit from training (or specialization) in a given domain.  If you are trained in perception, you apply the bonus whenever you take an action that involves perception.  That is potentially a long list of actions in an RPG -- especially one with an exploration component (or even focus).  Between the power of combat related skills, perception, and social interaction skills, investigation and knowledge skills tend to be neglected.

Of course, players will invest in skills and powers that they see as relevant.  If you want players to invest in knowledge skills, make a point to ask whether they have them and illustrate their use in your adventures.  For example, ask if any of the players are skilled with surveillance systems as they try to break into a building.  Alternatively, ask about whether any of the players are skilled in architecture if they want to infer something about the interior or a structure (or its structural integrity) by looking at it from the outside.  If you illustrate where knowledge skills could be important, your players are more likely to invest in them when they next spend XP on advancement.

This problem is particularly acute for The Strange.  When players move from recursion to recursion, their investigation skills can seem moot.  If a player has a skill in electronic surveillance, what use is it in Ardeyn?  If she understands how to break into a building on Earth, does she really have any advantage for breaking into a building on Ruk?  If knowledge is recursion specific, those skills become much less valuable when your campaign involves visiting multiple recursions.  It is hard to recommend a player take "lore" skills (like Ardeyn Lore) if you know that half or more of the the sessions will be in other recursions.  The natural tendency is to, instead, take general combat, social, or exploration skills.

One solution for The Strange and other Cypher System games is to make knowledge skills quite general.  This is a game in which "perception" and "positive social interactions" are skills.  Those are staggeringly broad -- and knowledge and investigation skills can be as well.  Design investigation and lore skills in a way that allow them to have general applicability or cross recursion boundaries.  Take surveillance as an example.  Make it clear to players that knowledge of surveillance will cover skills in the context of their recursions or setting.  This could be the equivalent of finding sight lines and other low-tech surveillance -- maybe even shaking off someone following you through Ardeyn -- as well as ultra-tech laser devices.  In a future post, I will propose some general investigation skills (and borrow some from other games).

Another option is to move from recursion-specific lore (a la' "Ardeyn Lore") to "local lore" as a single skill.  If a player always wants to have the character that knows what is going on locally, let him take a general skill in "local lore" or "streetwise" or "local gossip" or something that makes sense in a wide variety of contexts.

For now, I just want to end with the simple lesson.  If you want players to invest in knowledge skills, explain how they can be useful and illustrate the uses in game.  Make the skills general (not "high energy physics" -- unless you anticipate A LOT of high energy physics information in your campaign) in the same way the game has made social skills general.

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