Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Cypher System - first impressions

New Beginnings - d101 Games
So here's a useful way to learn a new rules system. First, sit in on a game as a player, then generate some player characters, and finally convert an existing adventure. This is exactly what I've been doing, using the core rules of Monte Cook's Cypher System, which are now available in a generic format. Wise connoissuers of Mister Cook's output will be aware that this system underpins his Numenera and The Strange offerings.

Last year I took the opportunity to sit in on a game of Numenera, as part of the BURPS RPG get-together at Brighton's Dice Saloon in September. I went away with a favourable impression. Since returning from India last month, I've been teaching myself the generic version of the rules system. I am using a copy of Gloranthan Adventures - New Beginnings, from d101 Games, which I've had for a while, but have never used. This series of adventures set in Dragon Pass is written for HeroQuest, but up until now I've had problems getting my head around the system.

Using New Beginnings as a template, I have generated five pre-gens for Cypher, based on the characters in the back of the d101 Games supplement. It has proved remarkably simple to do this, and each character really only took about 20 - 30 minutes to make. Even though the characters are Tier 1 (out of six), they are still relatively potent. Although there are four 'classes' in generic Cypher (as opposed to three in Numenera), they are so highly customisable with the other aspects of their backgrounds, that each appears a unique personality in their own right.

Each character is composed of three elements, a class, a description, and what they do. So, for example, the character of Oldra Rainwarrior, an initiate of Helamakt and a shepherd who has had his steading destroyed by Lunars, has been created as a Sharp-Eyed Adept Who Speaks For The Land. This aptly describes what he is, an adept, what he does, he is sharp-eyed (a good skill for a shepherd), and what he does (speaks for the land). His devotion to the warrior aspect of the Heortling rain god Heler is covered by a mix of his adept class and his speaks for the land.

The core classes bring most of the practical skills including the critical attribute pools, while the other features add further flesh with skill specialisations and personality traits. What I like about Cypher is that it brings character into the mechanics. Characters are not simply a combat matrix. There are rules that enforce behaviour. There is also an opportunity to tie characters to other characters via relationships.

So, taking Oldra as an example again, part of his background is that he has lost his sheep. In the confusion of the Lunar raid, he suspects the sibling of one of the other characters took the opportunity to steal them. The player gets to choose which character it is, and the players between them are left to work out the rest. It is a great little sub-plot, it is introduced right at the beginning, in the character generation phase, and adds context to the relations between the characters.

Ease of conversion and customization

Overall, the Gloranthan characters have been easy to convert to Cypher. I have also added XP rewards within their backgrounds to reflect their devotion to their gods, and also to reinforce some personality traits. If I travel further down this road, it might be worth looking at attaching XP to successful emulation of the core values of a deity, and possibly also to the successful completion of Heroquests.

I have converted two adventures into Cypher from New Beginnings. They are traditional sword and sorcery adventures, but also good as introductions to Glorantha. I've held off converting a third, largely because it is a little different from the first two, involving more politics, social interaction, and scope for mass combat. Currently I remain unsure how successful Cypher would be with a densely political scenario. That's not to say it can't manage intrigue, just that I've not attempted it yet.

I will just finish this post by saying that there are probably some settings / situations that Cypher will not work for. Because of its reliance on the discovery and use of cyphers, which play an important role in the game, some genres, like investigation, probably won't work so well. Cypher came out of Numenera, the central plot of which is the discovery of, and interaction with lost technology. It is difficult to see how the game would work in an environment where there was not scope for the cyphers to be there to be discovered and implemented by the characters. Doing this seamlessly is one of the key elements of converting existing adventures or settings to the system.

Thus far Gloranthan encounters have been relatively easy to manufacture using the template encounters in the Cypher book. There is no big Cypher bestiary to my knowledge, and some of the encounters in New Beginnings are fairly unique, even for Glorantha. But I think I've captured them adequately. The flexibility of Cypher is such that it takes less time to port them over than it would do converting these same NPCs into RuneQuest, which would be a much more complex task.

Stay tuned for more on this project as it progresses.