Tuesday, October 18, 2016

What the Cypher Systems Doesn't Do - and Why Thats Fine

The Cypher System (CS) is presented as a universal role playing system.  The Strange allows one to travel to many different worlds and have games related to different genres.  The Cypher System Rulebook opens this idea up even farther to allow for the customization of games to build your own CS game -- including settings like science fiction and horror.  It is easy to think this means you can do just about anything with the CS rules.  It is important to keep the qualifier "just about" in mind.

The CS is a broad framework for creating RPG settings.  The application of the system -- often with some modification -- to settings as varied as Numenera, The Strange, and Gods of the Fall (with Predation and Umasked still to come) makes it clear that the range of potential CS games is broad.  One can adopt various genres for your games and use the CS as the basis for the game.

However, the system does have limitations in scope that are important to recognize.  Several elements of the CS predispose the system to emulate action-oriented games with competent, hardy characters.  In many ways, the CS reminds me of the advertising for Savage Worlds and Fate.

In Savage Worlds, the games are supposed to be "fast, furious, and fun."  Mechanics built into the system (like exploding dice) reinforce the tone of the game whether the setting be weird west, ancient rome, science fiction, or Rifts.  All of the specific settings emphasize high action.  Similarly, Fate assumes characters are "proactive, competent, and dramatic."

These qualifiers don't seem like much of a limitation.  Who would want to have characters that are not "competent" or "fun?"  In both of these cases, these qualifiers are intended to alert players that these systems support action-oriented games.  Most players are looking for this sort of experience, so it is not much of a limitation.

There are games that pursue different themes and support different styles of play.  Call of Cthulhu is most famous for relying on characters that are not "competent" (the system it uses makes failure quite common) or even "proactive" (the game harshly punishes recklessness).  The game system focuses on investigation rather than traditional action (though one can include action, to be sure).

This brings me back to the CS.  The CS is much like Savage Worlds and Fate in that it encourages action-oriented play.  The system predisposition is built into the foundations of the game through several elements.

  1. Failure is relatively rare -- Players can use XP to re-try just about anything.  The entire task resolution system gives players various options for making actions easier so that they don't fail important attempts.
  2. Characters are sturdy -- The shared pool system of health points means that it is relatively rare for players to actually be killed within the game.  In all of my con games, I don't think I have taken any players down more than one level on the damage track.  It is about the same in my home games.  The game is not built for character death to be a constant threat.
  3. Cyphers are powerful -- Cyphers can potentially turn encounters around singlehandedly and the system is built to allow for this.
What does this mean for the CS?  The system is designed to facilitate high action games with skilled characters accomplishing amazing feats.  There is nothing wrong with this.  This is the experience that many (maybe even most) players are looking for in their RPGs.  However, it does not cover everything.  The action orientation means that players looking for an experience where the threat of character death is around every corner will not find it here.  Similarly, there are not a lot of mechanics to facilitate romance stories or deep investigation games.  The CS does a lot -- but it does not do everything.

Of course, one of the great elements of the CS is its flexibility.  One can modify core rules of the system to make it accommodate slightly different stories.  I am working on a series of rules modules to make horror games more.. well.. horrific.  I will have to update some of those in the future.  For now I just wanted to discuss how the CS is a broad RPG system - but it is not truly universal (if that is even possible).  Rules modifications will pull the system in one direction or another but fundamental elements of the system will always influence the tone of CS games.

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