Saturday, May 18, 2024

Thoughts to De-Cypher

My Sunday group recently finished an original 'Mecha vs. Kaiju' campaign using the Cypher System by Monte Cook Games. It's OK, you don't need to apologize. You didn't do anything. I'm not blaming you, nor anyone really. It was my own decision. I could have said no.

In defense of the GM*, he did a good job with the campaign itself, in spite of the fact that he didn't have a really good source for running this particular genre with the Cypher system. Had he had a solid sourcebook/rule supplement specifically geared towards helping a GM to run a Mecha vs. Kaiju themed game, he would likely have been able to add a spoon full of sugar to help the system go down better. 

I'm just joshing of course but yeah, I don't like those mechanics OK, I basically despise them but that isn't really what this post is about. The point of this entry is something I observed during the game that related to something else I've been thinking about lately. In order to wash away my feelings about Cypher, I want to take a look at why it didn't work for me and why a very different outlook on game design is appealing to me more and more. 

In Cypher, the player rolls a D20 and attempts to beat a number determined by the opponent's or situation's Level (or Tier? PCs have Tiers which are just Levels so...) times 3. So, to hit a Level 3 monster, the PC needs to beat a 9. Yep. You get a number (Level - Difficulty), multiply it by a number (3), in order to get another number (in this case 9). Way easier than saying, 'OK, you need to beat a 9', right? Anyway...

During the actual campaign, it seemed like the overall average difficulty for enemies and tasks was 12 and 15. A PC can spend points from one of three pools (which pool dependent upon the nature of the action) to lower that difficulty. Based on another aspect of your character, it can cost between 1-3 pool points to drop the Difficulty one Level. I would guess each of the three Players/PCs spent points one out of every three actions. Why so often? Because we missed a lot. A LOT! Even after spending the points, we still missing fairly often. So much missing!

In a game with a binary Success/Fail outcome, missing sucks. Sure, sometimes you miss or fail, that's gaming and life. That said, if I go and miss and then the next player, two villains, and then the last player go before the GM gets back to me and then I $^%&ing miss's more than frustrating. It isn't fun.

Bare in mind, nothing else is happening. I just miss. There is no cool side effect, no interesting 'you miss but this opportunity opens up...' or anything like that. You just sit and wait your turn until you miss again. You could also hit. It's possible. Through out this, you are likely spending points from the same finite pool that powers your special abilities and in the case of 'Might' serves as your Hit Points as well. 

Anyway, I don't want to dwell on the specifics of Cypher but rather the mindset that went into the design. It doesn't reward failure, regardless of the context of that failure. A good idea followed by a poor roll equals a failure result. Having a good idea doesn't really matter. Sure, the GM can award you a reduced Difficulty if they want want but I am not sure if the rules-as-written include that idea. My point is, Cypher appears to be built on much the same mentality as Dungeons & Dragons (not surprising - Monte Cook don't you know); Hit/Miss resolution, little Narrative influences or results, and your PC begins the game incompetent. 


I've seen some talk about the upcoming Final Fantasy XIV Tabletop Roleplaying Game from none other than the 'House of Final Fantasy' itself, Square Enix. One of the interesting ideas the game is supposed to feature is the way your 'To Hit' roll works. Based on the way it works in the MMO itself, you always hit. Take a moment, step back, breathe deeply and release it slowly, now read that over again. You always hit. 

The Starter Set and Core Rulebook
All coming soon...

From the FFXIV Reddit Community:

  • Attack rolls are checked against physical or magic defense (AC). Attacks will always hit, but rolling (+ bonus) above defense is a Direct Hit and has additional effects (just more damage?).
  • Nat 20s are Critical Hits, which double your damage or healing. There are no critical misses (Nat 1).

What a fascinating approach to the normally punitive to the players combat systems of classic Fantasy TRPGs. I'm not sure I love no Critical Misses as those offer opportunities for cool complications and narrative additions but I get it as those wouldn't appear in the MMORPG. Hmm. Wonder how hard it would be to mod that? Sorry, where was I...

On this same line of thinking there's the Japanese game I recently covered (and merged with Ghostbusters), Tokyo Ghost Research. TGR also has every roll (combat or otherwise) succeed unless the player decrees that they fail. If the roll meets or beats the  Target Number it results in a positive outcome. If its less than the Target Number you get a generally positive outcome plus a negative or problematic outcome to go with it. You either succeed or succeed with 'Trouble'. What's Trouble? Something interesting.

I know I use the word 'interesting' a lot here but really, after 47 years of gaming, games that go: roll, hit, damage, roll, miss, roll, hit, damage are immediately followed by yawning. A lot of RPGs, the majority I think its fair to say, focus on Combat or more accurately have Combat as a key component of the game. If that Combat is flat, untextured, and dry it means you're going to be experiencing that blandness regularly. I just can't take that. I don't have the attention or patience for un-engaging combat scenes that happen often. Ugh. 

The same is true, to a less extent perhaps, to non-combat activities amounting to nothing. Skills rolls for things that should just happen because of the in-setting context that a character is a specialist in the thing they're doing and/or the meta-context that if its just a failure the game comes to a halt. Either just allow the PC to succeed at the endeavor or make the roll have the possibility of an added positive or negative outcome. 

Have actions worth rolling for result in a useful, detrimental, or otherwise memorable outcome. Also, I personally prefer games where the PCs, the protagonists of your story, don't seem like they absolutely suck. They shouldn't always be successful; I want to be clear that's not what I'm saying. What I'm trying to convey is the idea that out of five actions, four of them being failures is lame - unless that failure comes with a 'and yet', 'but you notice', or some other narrative element that makes failure as fun, or at least nearly as fun, as success.

Barking Alien

*The GM of our Cypher game, as well as the other players, enjoy the system very much. They have various reasons for this and they're all as valid and legitimate as my criticisms (for whatever that amounts to). The GM finds the system extremely easy to run, the rules requiring the least amount of prep of any game he's played. Understandable that this would be appealing, even more so given the differences in how he preps and executes a game compared to myself [who's generally loosey-goosey with rule mechanics in favor of rule of cool.]

Cypher isn't a bad-wrong, terrible system. It just really isn't for me. 


1 comment:

  1. I like a lot of Monte's past work but I'm not a Cypher fan myself, for similar reasons.

    The hit/miss issue does seem to be something people are paying attention to now. I'm not a Critical Role fan by any means but the RPG they are putting together, the MCDM RPG has some interesting takes:

    Fighting monsters in this game is a dynamic, action-oriented blast.
    Heroes and monsters often have abilities that knock their opponents into walls, through doors, into each other.
    Every hero has a small array of cool, thematic abilities they can use every round. You gain resources in this game as you play, so battles get more epic as they go. No slog.
    The game uses 2d6, plus a handful of d4s and d8s.
    When you attack, you roll 2d6, add one of your attributes, and that is how much damage you do. Your attack roll IS your damage roll.

    You cannot miss. No more wasted turns, no more burning resources on spells only for your target to “save.”

    I think it's worth a look.

    Also for what it's worth 4the Edition D&D started down this road on many of the big daily powers by breaking out a "Hit" result, a "Miss" result, and then an "Effect" result that happened regardless of hit or miss. It made firing off the big ability far less disappointing even with a bad roll.