Tuesday, January 27, 2015

An Alignment System for the Cypher System?

In my early experiences with RPGs (mostly ADnD), alignment was a central part of the character creation.  Getting parties together often involved discussion of how the mix of alignments could co-exist.  Players would point out that one character or another was acting inconsistently with their environment, etc.

Peer Lawther (flikr)

Alignment was even used as a balance element.  Paladins were simply more powerful than their fighter counterparts but this was justified because of the higher ability requirements (which really just made the balance issues worse) and a strict code of conduct related to the alignment system.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Precision and Balance in Narrative Skill Systems

One of the biggest transitions I have faced moving from DnD to the Cypher System was in implementing the skill system.  I was accustomed to fairly detailed skill systems like that in DnD 3e/Pathfinder or DnD 4E.  My prior experience with other systems (Vampire, Wraith, Rifts, etc.) had involved similar skills systems.  When you invested in (or selected) a skill, you became better at a fairly specific set of actions.  Sometimes the specificity was the result of strong genre definitions of the capabilities of characters.  Sometimes the specificity was just a result of the presumption of some other parts of the system that implied that all that was not stated to be allowed was presumed to be forbidden.  The result of these systems was a fairly narrow range of application of skills -- and an exhaustive list of skill options.

In the Cypher system approach to skills, skills do not represent a specific set of player capabilities.  Instead, the skills assist in all relevant cases -- with relevance defined by the group and the context. If a character has a skill in bluffing, all tasks that involve bluffing become a little easier.  There is not a specific set of moves or actions linked to the specific skill.  Instead, the player needs to assert that her skill at bluffing will help her in a specific context.  The skill will clearly apply in a situation where the character is pretending to have an asset that she does not actually have (possibly as part of a hostage stand-off - or simply poker).  Does it apply to all situations where a players is pretending to have different credentials than they have?  Does it apply when a player wants to exaggerate his strength to intimidate an opponent?

This approach to skills has become increasingly popular.  In a previous post, I noted the similarity between the Cypher System approach to skills and 13th Age backgrounds.  One can see similar parallels with Fate System aspects.  In each case, the game includes a great deal of ambiguity and flexibility to allow players to participate actively in the game and its narrative.

 The result is a system in which the influence of any individual skill can range in its coverage.  Some skills may have relatively narrow ranges of application.  Some question whether the result is an unbalanced skill system.

Is Balance a Problem for Narrative Skill Systems?

It is fair to ask whether having balance across skills is even an issue.  The Cypher System does not emphasize traditional sorts of balance across players.  In some systems, it is important for each character to have a similar power level.  In these systems, it would be a major problem if one character was able to deal out a great deal more damage than the others.

The narrative skills system may have similar problems.  If a skill in bluff can cover all of the situations in which intimidation would be useful, why would you ever choose intimidation?  Does it render character creation options that include intimidate "less powerful" than options that include bluff.

In the playtest for The Strange, my players ran into this problem several times.  Even focusing on the recommended skills (while lacking an exhaustive list, the game does provide several examples and recommendations), imbalances became obvious.  Training in "all positive social interaction" is a fairly broad ability.  Boundaries between "persuasion" and "bluff" are blurry.  This frustrated some of my more rules-oriented players.

The clearest example is in the lore/knowledge skills.  One could be skilled "medicine" or "biology."  The biologist in my group was fairly adamant that medicine is a subset of biology.  This raised a question of whether anyone would ever choose medicine over biology.  Similarly, my would one focus on "high energy physics" or "astronomy" rather than "physics?"  Could one simply be skilled in "science?"

There are some other potential problems of balance unrelated to one skills subsuming another.  The primary problem is the differential utility of some skills.  It seems clear that MCG saw this problem for weapon and attack skills.  Putting some skills off-limits or behind gates indicates a sense that these skills are more important than others (and should be taken at the first opportunity).  I have seen few people pass up "perception" or "speed defense" for similar reasons.  In combat oriented sessions, these skills are simply more valuable than just about any other skills.

Is this a problem?  It could be.  If players face an incentive to choose some skills rather than others, the game will track players towards the specifically valuable skills.  The result is reduced player choice and increased character homogeneity.  I am reminded of the talent system in a alot of MMORPGs.  With every release, World of Warcraft designers have said they want there to be diverse builds (skill choices) for characters.  Every time, players do the math to identify the one or two optimal builds for each class.  While it is entirely possible to deviate from these builds, it typically comes at the cost of top raiding guilds not allowing you to participate in the cutting edge content.  If some choices are clearly superior to others, players will gravitate to them.

A Possible Solution to Balance Issues in Narrative Skill Systems

There are ways to address this balance issue.

Of course, you could simply ignore the problem.  Narrative skill systems are not built to be balanced.  It should not be a surprise that such problem arise.  If the players accept that some skills are more valuable than others, then this is not a problem.

One could also generate a set of house rules that empower some skills while disempowering others.  An example of this is in my previous post on how to make perception a little less unique by adding a perception component to all lore/knowledge skills.  Following MCGs lead, you could also gateway some skills by making them only available at specific tiers or with specific foci options.

I prefer a less elaborate or formal solution.  Skill choices, especially in such an open ended system as the Cypher System, are expressions of players' desires about their characters.  If a player chooses a skill in "biology," it is because he wants stories that involve biology.  This is less obvious in some combat skills -- but a choice to focus on combat skills is suggesting that the player wants to focus on combat.  Each choice is an expression of the sorts of stories that player wants to experience.

You can take an inventory of these skills.  List all of the skills that your players have chosen.  Try to include opportunities to use all of the skills.  If the players are choosing mostly combat-oriented skills, then make more encounters combat-oriented.  If a player chooses a skill in "music history," think of ways to make music history a part of the story.  The skills are exactly as useful as you let them be in designing challenges and stories.  If you wanted to make combat skills completely useless, don't have combat (not something I am recommending -- just pointing out the possibility).  Similarly, if players have ignored social skills they may be telling you that they do not want social encounters.

As usual, this is best handled through communication with your players.  Building on Lex's recent discussion of character preludes, let your players tell you what sort of stories they want to participate in.  Skills can act in a very similar way.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

A Quick Assessment of Community Interest

I wanted to update you on the direction of the blog.  I have been experimenting with different types of content to see what got the best response.  The response seems pretty clear.

The best response has come from the articles that adapt material from other games and discuss issues at a meta-system level.  Some of this is to be expected.  Discussing the Dracula Dossier while there is an ongoing kickstarter campaign was pretty well assured to generate some attention -- though that was not the primary motivation for me to do it.  Discussing other systems brings in people from other game communities.

Content that was specific to the Cypher System (like reactions to the Eschatology Code, NPCs, etc.) was less popular.  While there may have been a few dozen views of this content, there were 100+ views of the cross-over and meta-system discussions.

I am taking this as a reason to focus on the meta-system discussions.  This is not entirely unexpected.  After all, the Strange Encounters segments started with just this sort of meta-system content.

I will resume the podcast segments (the gap was just a short vacation on my part) soon and keep posting.  Some of the upcoming content may include:

  • Adapting elements of 5E DnD (bonds, ideals, inspiration, backgrounds)
  • Adapting paths/roads from World of Darkness RPGs as an alignment system
  • Planning skill balance in sessions (with a dash of Gumshoe)
  • Expanding research and discovery options
  • Adapting FATE-style environment descriptors as a planning approach  
  • Heck -- I may even pull some ideas in from boardgames :)
Of course, I will sprinkle in other types of material as it strikes me.  I will keep watching where the interest seems to be.  Feedback, as always, is appreciated.

Encouraging Role-playing at Your Table

We are in a golden age of gaming.  There are a lot of ways to scratch ones' gaming itch.  Superb new board games release every month.  Video games provide increasingly more immersive experiences.  But still, there is something special about tabletop RPGs (even across electronic communication).  The experience is truly and dramatically emergent.  There is some of that in each of the other examples -- but it happens more consistently and is more central to the experience of tabletop roleplaying games.  This leaves us wanting to encourage role-playing.

1202 Vul-Con [Adams] -- Devon Christopher Adams [flickr]

The challenge is, of course, that role-playing can be intimidating.  Some players may only have experience with video games where there are clear limits on character's actions and dialogue options may be limited.  Other players may have previous experience with RPGs but have used systems that more-or-less limit you to a specific list of options (particularly for non-social encounters).  

How do you encourage people to role-play?

I have a few suggestions based on my own experience as a reluctant role-player.  

[1]  Have modest expectations.  Fundamentally, role-playing is a lot like public speaking.  The fears that people have related to public speaking cross-over into reluctance to improvise in role-playing.  Those who are reluctant to role-play are likely to be confronting these sorts of anxieties.  Make the space safe for them to contribute (more on this in a bit) and let them reach out on their own time-table.  This means being encouraging and avoiding (as a group) anything that could make people feel self-conscious about their role-playing.  In a safe space, reluctant role-players may try (maybe only once in a session) to actually reach out.  See each attempt as a success, encourage it, and build on it.

[2] Allow people to choose their contribution.  Not all writers excel at different parts of fantasy narrative (just to take that as an example).  Some writers are excellent at narrating combat.  Others dive into the voice of their characters.  The same is true for role-players.  Some players are (and want to be) better at providing detailed descriptions of their combat actions.  Others will want to provide direct dialogue in social encounters.  Not all players will want to do both.  Allow your players to choose which part of the game they want to most actively role play in.  If someone wants to start with detailed combat narratives, allow them, encourage them, and don't push too hard for them to participate in other types of encounters.  Let people get comfortable with role-playing where they are most comfortable.

In my personal case, I am reluctant to do anything with voices.  I am just not that brave yet.  My contributions when I play (or GM for that matter) are focused on providing descriptions of environments and actions.

[3] Diversify encounter types

Part of allowing for diverse contributions is to create diverse encounter types.  If a session only includes direct social encounters, there is little room for a person who wants to focus on narrating combat.  Similarly, if a person wants to try social encounters then a series of strictly combat encounters will not give them the room to role-play.

The balance you strike between different types of encounters should depend on what your groups is looking for.  Your group may want to focus on combat with occasional forays into social encounters.  You may want an even balance between opportunities to narrate combat, narrate environments (with exploration and obstacle encounters), and directly interact with NPCs.  There is no wrong answer for this balance -- the only problems are when expectations for the balance differ across the group.  While there may be some variation session to session, players will not know what to expect (for role-play or for character creation -- for that matter -- if the balance is not well-understood).  

[4] Ensure that player choices are important

My last recommendation is to make choices within role-playing matter.  If you only allow players to choose the color of the robes the cultists where, they won't invest much in role-playing.  If social interaction seems pre-determined or irrelevant to the outcome of the session, there is no reason for the players to pay attention to this interaction.  If you want role-playing to occur, role-playing must matter.

Different types of rule-playing will require different types of consequences.  For social interactions, winning or losing favor must have consequences (access to resources, access to information, active opposition or support).  For exploration, pay attention to the choices players make in describing the environment.  Make sure those choices persist.  Vivid descriptions of the environment or combat should result in the ability to use skills to make particular actions easier.  This is made easy with assets in Cypher System.  By generous is allowing players to create assets through their descriptions.  Once they see that these descriptions can result in a 15% bonus, many players will work harder to describe the environment.

There is no formula for increasing role-playing.  You will find these little hints helpful, though.

What do you think?  Feel free to discuss on Google+ or in the comments.  This post is part of a broader discussion across several Cypher System blogs.  You can find the other contributions (when they are posted this week) at: