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.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Inspirations for Fall of the Gods

I have had the pleasure of both reading and playing in Fall of the Gods games based on the Cypher System.  One concern I have heard is that people are not sure what sort of material the game seeks to emulate or what sort of inspiration they can turn to.  I want to make some recommendations to get people thinking about material for their games.

The tone of the game is somewhat atypical of fantasy tropes popular today.  The game does not emulate the grounded low-fiction or even the most popular expressions of high fantasy.  What I see reflected most in the game is mythological fantasy.  Rather than a traditional fantasy party, the characters represent a group of emerging gods.  Rather than turning to Tolkien or Forgotten Realms, you should look at mythological sources.

Details of the Mosaic with the Labors of Hercules -- Carole Raddato (flikr)

The most obvious source would be the various versions of the labors of Hercules.  The character development of the game builds labor-like structures into the heart of the game.  You can look at traditional discussions of mythology (Bulfinch, Hamilton, etc.).  Alternatively, you can look at different takes on similar material.  I think the old TV show "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" with Kevin Sorbo would be a useful inspiration for both stories and tone (big action / a little cartoonish).

This is also a great opportunity to read into the mythology of cultures with which you are less familiar.  If you have not read the Epic of Gilgamesh, this would be a great excuse to do do.  Similarly, looking into the mythologies of India would fit the tone well as far as I know (this is homework I need to do).

What is different about a mythological tone (especially as compared to more typical Tolkien-esque fantasy)?  This is a little hard to pin down.  Certainly Tolkien was basing his work on mythology (especially Nordic and pre-British mythology).  But there is a difference.  The mythological tales present clearly super-human tasks.  Note the emphasis on tasks -- not just victories over creatures, armies, or active opposition.  The labors of Hercules involve vanquishing creatures (the Hydra, Nemean Lion, etc.).  But they also include tasks that are not combat-oriented.  Can you imagine a session focused on cleaning a stable?  It was a labor of Hercules.  What made it the stuff of myth was that it was a task that required superhuman efforts and dramatic action.  You can give your players similar tasks -- mundane tasks with a large scale that requires extraordinary actions to complete.

The tone is also a relatively positive one (usually).  Though there are way to seek other tones, the basic setting seems to set up a strongly optimistic campaign.  It is not really a question as to whether the characters will reach full godhood.  It is just a matter of whether they play through the whole story.  The adventures should not really depend on whether they may or may not get killed by a kobold (or its equivalent).  Instead, it is about accomplishing the impossible.  From Tier 2, players should be attempting -- and succeeding -- at impossible tasks.  That is the stuff of legend.

Encourage players to ask themselves whether their strategies are the stuff of legend - or just the stuff of traditional action fantasy.  Encourage them to re-route rivers or lift the impossibly large boulder.  That is much more heroic than punching a goblin -- even punching them really, really hard.

Friday, September 9, 2016

I Have Seen the Future - Surreal It!

"We are faster, faster than pain
We are a nerve ending without a brain
We have evolved, we have no feeling at all
It is a brave new world"
 -- "I Have Seen the Future" by The Bravery

March of Remembrance 2 by Michelle Robinson (flickr)

To illustrate my proposed method for adding surreal elements to your RPG session, I want to present an extended example of the method I proposed earlier.

The first step is to identify a compelling metaphor.  I have selected the lyrics that opened this post from The Bravery (with the video available here).  The metaphor is useful as an illustration in that it can motivate a potential antagonist and is sufficiently coherent as to provide the material we need to develop.

The second step is to turn the metaphorical elements into physical (in the game world) elements.  Here there are many elements that we may want to translate.  Here are some of the elements we may want to translate (we can be selective):

  1. We - a group/collective
  2. speed
  3. pain / nerve endings
  4. lack of a "brain"
  5. evolution
  6. lack of feeling
  7. "Brave New World"
  8. The march-like nature of the song itself
I won't try to tie all of these together within a short blog post - but it would not be too hard.  Instead, I want to focus on the elements of:  a collective nerve system lacking a central control or feeling.

I take these concepts to indicate a widely distributed network of an almost military organization lacking a central command structure -- and acting without regard for feelings, emotion, or (maybe) ethics.  

The key part of this translation process is to make the metaphor physical within the game setting.  The notion of connected nerve endings could be made physical (or manifest) within the RPG session.  These antagonists could be connected by a physical or psychic connection like nerves within a network.  The members of the network could all respond as if they were one entity (taking the "we" seriously) without there being a specific leader or central point (taking "without a brain" seriously").  The physical/psychic connection should be visible to make the metaphor manifest in a way obvious to the players.  The lack of emotion may be clear from how the antagonists communicate with player characters (monotone, efficient, no regard for pleasantries) or their plan/goals (ruthlessness, willingness to sacrifice others or even their own members).

The final step of the method is to look for connections to other potential metaphorical elements.  We could look at evolution as a fruitful source of metaphor.  However, I will focus on the term "brave new world."  Inspired by the book of that title, we could incorporate biochemical self-modification and a sense of hierarchy within the group.  Maybe the group recruits (or somehow adds to its members) through the spread of a drug (Soma) or through genetic manipulation (which could tie in the evolution theme, despite my best efforts).  

With this brief exercise, we have a fairly robust surreal antagonist for a game.  An army is connected through a series of psychic or physical (say, wireless - but visible) connections and acts as a hivemind.  This hivemind lacks a central command but ruthlessly pursues its goals -- which may even be self-replication.  The closer to the metaphor - with actual floating connections between the members of the group - the more surreal this antagonist will be.  

You can use this in just about any game (turning up or down the surrealism by manipulating the literalism of the manifestation of the metaphor) but it could work well in a surreal setting.  

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Problems with Physics in the Strange

The Strange defines itself (and differentiates itself from other RPGs) by the ease with which the game can slide between different settings -- including settings of widely varying theme, tone, genre, etc.  It succeeds in this regard but there are some limitations that one should watch when using published material for the game.

The typical approach to structure the use of material for different creatures, items, etc. is the use of a "physics" qualifier.  This makes a great deal of sense.  A lightsaber would be out of place in a paleolithic adventure.  The entry for a lightsaber would include a qualifier that the item relied on "weird science" to indicate that it would be a poor fit for a recursion based on low technology (like "sub-standard physics") or even contemporary technology.  

This system works fairly well but one needs to be careful in implementing this advice.  

First, the use of underlying physics to define recursions can lead to some confusion.  It may be that a lightsaber is entirely consistent with realistic physics -- we just don't know how to develop that technology yet.  A better term may be technology, then, than physics.  However, with "sub-standard" physics, the assumption seems to be that some technologies like gun powder and electricity actually would not work at all -- even if you brought that technological knowledge with you as you translate.  

Second, the categories can be quite broad.  "Weird science" includes a broad range of categories from far-future transhuman technology to retro-futurist technology to outright science fantasy.  A Rukian graft would be as out of place in some science fantasy settings as it would a "substandard physics" recursion.  The category is quite broad and includes many different genres wherein different rules of appropriateness may apply.

Similarly, "sub-standard" physics could include anything from a world where specific technologies are dominant and others don't work (steampunk) or where technology is pretty much absent (paleolithic).  

So, what are we supposed to do?  First, we should recognize that the physics limiters are good starting points for the development of material for our games.  For creatures in particular, the physics limiters are actually pretty much all you need (though there are some exceptions).  The real problems come in when using items (cyphers and artifacts). 

Second, we have to use our own judgment.  You can use technological level as one indicator.  You can use the basics of magic or other what other supernatural forces (if any) operate within the recursion.  You should feel free to make your own judgments about what would or would not fit within any specific recursion.  

So, "problems" is probably too strong a word.  The Strange is a game that encourages flexibility in adventure design -- but it also calls for direct judgment on the part of the GM about the appropriateness of including specific elements in a recursion.  Don't take physics limitations as a necessary or sufficient indication for the appropriateness of an element for your game -- take it for the soft recommendation that it is.  

Friday, August 26, 2016

An Easy Method to Up the Surreal

The challenge of the surreal

When I first saw the kickstarter for Numenera, I was intimidated.  Though the launch event at Gencon and my first read-through of the core book, I continually told myself "you can't write adventures that live up to this premise."  I doubted my ability to offer the Gene Wolfe experience of slowly revealing the forgotten purpose of ancient technology while still telling a traditional adventure story (and still do, really).  I enjoyed reading the material but it was not a setting for which I was comfortable designing material (even for my home game).

I hear similar concerns about Invisible Sun.  It so happens that I am much more comfortable with the notion of surreal fantasy so I wanted to provide some tips to overcome the hesitation of working with surreal storytelling.

While it is antithetical to the spirit of some of the founders of the surrealist art movement (particularly Breton and his calls for automatism), I would like to propose a simple process for getting you started in developing material for a surreal fantasy game.  For now, I will focus on encounter elements and small pieces of games.  I need to think more about how surreal fantasy affects the development of adventure structure, pacing, and related issues.  If I think of anything, I will definitely post on that subject.

For now, here is a simple process to jumpstart your thinking about surreal fantasy.

The Process

The process I propose is simple.  Start with a metaphor.  Think how you would describe the encounter you want to design and commit to expressing the encounter in metaphorical terms.  Yes, similes are fine as well.

Second, turn that metaphor into a physical representation.  Instead of having a person who floats like a butterfly, have a person who IS a butterfly (at least to the characters).  Take the metaphor in the first step seriously and consider what physical characteristics would be needed to render the metaphor into reality.

Finally, consider whether the physical representation conjures connections to other metaphorical elements.  This is simply the follow-through for taking the metaphor seriously.  Don't necessarily stop with one physical manifestation of the metaphor.  Consider all of the potential manifestations and how they may be connected into this particular element of your adventure.  Maybe consider related (or even contradictory) metaphors to mix into the element.

An Example

While I think this process is simple, it is vague.  I want to illustrate the process quickly with an example.  If there is enough interest, I will provide more detailed examples down the line.  Consider this line from a Police song that is not Invisible Sun.

>I chased his thoughts like birds

-- *Secret Journey* by **The Police**

Open Your Mind by Lucas (flickr)

Here we start with step one complete: the metaphor.  We need to break the metaphor down for step two.  Consider all of the pieces of even this simple line from a song.  Well, it is simple in terms of language.  It may be complex in terms of metaphor.

The metaphor includes several elements.  Someone is "chasing."  That is a great term for us because it indicates an action.  This will give us a sense of how to incorporate the metaphor into the game in an action scene.

The subject is chasing thoughts.  What does that mean, exactly?  In a non-metaphorical sense, it may mean an attempt at comprehension.  If we are to turn the metaphor into a literal experience for our players, we need to embrace the metaphorical sense.  The thoughts become an element in the scene that can be chased.  You can go in different directions with this process but I will take the sense of physically chasing a manifest thought.

Finally, the manifest thoughts are "like birds."  Taking the metaphor seriously, I can present the manifestation as actual birds.  Now we have a good central hook for a surreal fantasy scene.  The players have to chase down thoughts that have escaped from a wise person (that part comes from the rest of the song - its great, you should listen to it) and are flying away in the form of birds.

The final step in the process is to consider what related images and metaphors may fill out the scene.  This can be close to a free association process - so maybe Breton won't haunt me.  My first reaction to the notion of "thoughts like birds" was Odin's ravens representing memory and thought.  You can do a little research on this related image to see how the process can spiral out to create more-and-more developed scenes.

This is just a simple example from a single line from a song.  I hope this provides a way to bootstrap your development of ideas for surreal fantasy scenes.  If nothing else, it is a fun way to distract yourself.   Listen for metaphorical language and consider what it would look like if literally true -- then game-ify it.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Microcosm and Magic in Invisible Sun

Following my discussion of surrealism, I wanted to continue to dig into "big" concepts that are key elements of the Invisible Sun setting.  Today I want to explore a notion that has gone without a direct name in several recent interviews with Monte Cook:  the concept of microcosm.

Microcosm has specific meanings within literature and several domains, but the most relevant to our purposes is its use within early Medieval magic.  As Valerie Flint writes in The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe:

...Isidore was a most enthusiastic early medieval propagator of the notion... that the body of a man is a microcosm of the universe and reflects in little all the constituent parts of it. (p. 130)

Aries by jess (flikr)
There is a lot packed into this notion of microcosm.  In early Medieval magical thought, some thought that the waxing and waning of constellations affected different parts of the body because the individual body reflected these movements.  Others thought that the various constellations were arranged in ways that were similar to the connection between systems within bodies.  Each (the constellations and the body) reflected the other.

The concept of microcosm had important implications for astrological medicine (a foreign concept to modern ears, to be sure).  An illness may be an imbalance of forces within the body brought on by the dominance of a specific star.  Healing of some organs may be easier under some constellations than others.  The core concept of microcosm is that each individual is connected to the whole universe and reflects that universe -- in ways reflecting a type of sympathetic magic (Sympathetic magic may be worth an exploration on its own in a later post).

Another way to express this notion is in the phrase "as above, so below."  Important to alchemical traditions, this phrase emphasizes the parallelism of the cosmic and the personal.

What does this mean for the setting of the Invisible Sun and adventures/stories told within it?  The most important implication seems to be that the Path of Suns represents operations at two levels.  It refers to a greater geography of planes as well as the parts of an individual character (probably more the character's soul, "essence", or personality than physical parts of her/his body).  Moving through the parts of a character's path is parallel to movement through the various worlds.

This may create interesting opportunities for storytelling.  If the individual reflects the greater cosmos (and vice versa), a personal story is a cosmic story.  A personal imbalance may create a universal imbalance.  The destruction of a person reflects the destruction of a cosmos.  There are no "small" stories.  At the very least, the waxing and waning of the various suns are likely to affect characters in direct and personal ways.

The mechanics may (I just guessing here - I have no more information about the game than anyone else) similarly allow for influences that reflect cosmic and personal influence.  A card from the sooth deck may indicate either a development at the personal or the cosmic level.  The same card may even have different interpretations at each level -- but reflect a connection between the two.

This view of microcosm has some connection to surrealism as well.  A common theme of surrealism is to play with scale -- including elements much larger than they are expected to be (or much smaller), etc..  The use of microcosm in the Path of Suns suggests that our stories can play with scale to a degree difficult in many other games or settings.  The game may accommodate both stories of personal discovery and cosmic secrets -- and may let us switch between them.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Weird, Strange, Surreal

Presence -by Berli Mike(flikr)
The current kickstarter campaign for Invisible Sun describes the setting as one of surrealistic fantasy.  It is worth taking a moment to compare this tone to that of the previous MCG core games -- Numenera and The Strange.

In a previous post, I compared "the weird" and "the strange."  I won't go into great detail recapitulating that comparison but it is useful as a starting point.

"The weird" represents the incomprehensible.  Characters in Numenera don't know why certain technologies work and it is basically magic to them.  Monte Cook has been clear, though, that it is technology and just not understood.  In this sense, the world works by rules the characters (and, maybe the players) simply don't know.  The result are unpredictable elements -- the weird.

The Strange relies on... well... "the strange."  Strange refers to the unlikely.  All of the setting elements work within a set of (albeit fictional) rules involving a dark matter computer network.  What the characters experience operate within a defined set of rules within the setting.  Something is strange, then, when it operates within the understood rules of the world but is unlikely or rare.

Where does that leave "the surreal."  Well, surrealism is a lot harder to define.  I have to admit that it is the surreal elements that draw me to the Invisible Sun setting (and, thus, the game).  Many will look at the art for the game and say "ohh... weird."  Well, not exactly -- or, at least, not precisely.

I should add that surrealism is an essentially contested term.  Many will disagree with any particular definition.  The term has been used in different ways in visual arts, film, literature, etc.  I will be greatly simplifying the discussion for a blog post - but I think the exercise will get people off to a useful start researching the topic if they choose.

It is worth considering the history of the surreal movement in art, in particular.  I may go into more detail on this in the future but a short introduction will work for now.  The horrors of the early 20th Century convinced many artists that the basic foundations of their cultures were deeply corrupt.  Nothing called enlightened or reason could lead to the atrocities of the Great War.  There were several reactions to this loss of faith in reason (including precursors to the self-described surrealists -- like the Dadaists).  The surrealists sought to attack what they saw as the corruption in realistic and classical art forms by creating art that subverted these realistic forms.  The means of pursuing these attacks were diverse -- including techniques such as "automatic writing" in which writers simply recorded thoughts trying to bypass the pernicious disciplinary influence of reason.  Recording dreams was thought to similarly bypass the corruption that is reason.

What is important to consider is the political nature of surrealism.  It focused on questioning elements of culture taken for granted, taken for objective facts, and taken as permanent.  These seemingly (surrealists thought -- mistakenly) foundational elements of culture were oppressive and limiting.  As a simple example of this questioning, consider Dali's Persistence of Memory.  The realism of the painting (as in, the level of detail -- almost photorealistic) makes the image of melting clocks all the more disturbing.  Here Dali is calling into question the physical coherence of objects like clocks as well as the limp, molten characteristic of memory (and time).  One can find a longer analysis at Legomenon.

Where does this leave us to define the tone of "the surreal?"  There are, of course, many answers to this question but I am excited for a game that explores the political aspects of surrealism.  The emphasis on "escape" and a sense of the oppression of the shadow ("real") world suggest that the game will take seriously the surrealist questioning of what is reality, what is really permanent, and how many seeming facts are really a source of oppression?

So, surrealism is not simply weird -- it adopts a questioning stance.  Surrealism does not merely defy understanding.  It draws into question elements of our world that we take for granted.  How much of the world around us are convenient lies?  Convenient to whom?  What is our responsibility to question the world and how ought we act in such an unreliable world of lies and secrets?

I look forward to exploring these themes in Invisible Sun.

PS As I worked on this post, the kickstarter fully funded.  Congratulations to MCG and I look forward to following this ride.