Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Investigation Skills for the Cypher System: Science Nerd

In this series of investigation/knowledge skills for the Cypher System, I have previously focused on what one can call procedural skills.  The previous skills (information systems and chatter) had involved general skills (to provide broad usefulness compared to other skill options) related to classes of actions one may take in a roleplaying game.

These procedural skills focused on information collecting rather than a specific knowledge base.  However, some players may want to play characters with an actual knowledge base.  This calls for a skill in a substantive knowledge area.  One possibility is "science nerd".

Female Scientist Checking A Culture -- Kenneth Ingham (flikr)
I will start with a minor complaint about a MCG product -- a delightfully rare occurrence.  The pre-generated characters in The Eschatology Code included a character with skills in "high energy physics" and "setting up experiments."  There is nothing wrong with these skills but they are quite limited in scope.  There is no reason to use these skills in the adventure and one would need to work hard to design adventures that regularly called for these skills.  Consider that other characters had skills like "deceiving" -- not to mention the combat skills.

The example skills in the core book for The Strange also create some potential problems.  Examples include botany and biology.  Of course,  biology would be relevant in just about any situation where botany is relevant.  It is not clear why a character would take botany when they could take biology. One may want a skill to define her character in a specific way -- but the end result seems to be to reduce the incentive to choose this or any knowledge skill.

As an alternative, I propose a skill called "science nerd."  Instead of carving up the world of the natural sciences (and I do mean to focus this on the natural sciences like physics, biology, chemistry, and geology) into specific domains of knowledge, you can simply describe the character as someone who keeps up with cutting edge science of various kinds.  This fits with the pulp trope of the generalist scientist character.  The same character in the pulp tradition may comment on the the physics behind an experimental engine and diagnose a poison based on its symptoms.  This gives characters a broad skill that is more likely useful than something specific (like high energy physics).

You can allow characters to specialize within this skill.  In fact, I would likely require anyone who sought to specialize in this skill to provide a specific background and an area of emphasis.  This is where a skill in high energy physics would be appropriate.  However, the specialized level of the skill would come with a background-like characteristics to accompany the narrowing of scope.  A specialist in high energy physics would not only have additional knowledge, she would have (possibly limited) access to a laboratory and extensive contacts within the field.

This approach to a science knowledge skill still faces some challenges in The Strange.  The laws of physics vary from recursion to recursion.  A skill in high energy physics would be useless in Ardeyn.  However, science nerd might still have some use.  A science nerd would understand the scope and limits of the physics of any given recursion.  He would be able to tell which sorts of technologies are likely to work within a given recursion based on observation of the natural systems operating.  If he visits Aredyn, he can explain how the physics there would limit access to gun power -- despite a character potentially knowing how to mix the ingredients.  Similarly, the science nerd could explain the scope of a mad science -- a classification that includes a WIDE variety of limits.

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