Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Nuts & Bolts #143 - Hacking the Cypher System - Still More on Shifts

Unmasked was released recently. I wrote about it last week (here), and mentioned that regarding the Cypher System's Power Shift mechanic there was "more that enough for a whole different article about that specifically." Well, welcome to this week and another article about power shifts! I have written about the topic a few times previously.

Unmasked's chapter on Shifts actually resonates with that second article, and I think there's a lot to unpack and a lot to learn, not just for Unmasked, not just for using Cypher System for Supers, but for any use of Shifts in a Cypher game, including those in Gods of the Fall.

Chapter 8 isn't a long one, which makes it all the more powerful. It's the mechanical and narrative equivalent of Bruce Banner. It looks unassuming but it contains a powerful force. Heck I guess that fits with the whole theme of Unmasked. By page count the chapter looks like a Teen, but the content reveals that it's more of a Prodigy, and mask-form capable of wielding tremendous power that seems to defy logic. Perhaps I'm hyperbolizing a bit, but you'll have to be the judge of that for you. Me, I think there's some amazing stuff in these three, yes 3, pages!

Firstly, Unmasked basically rips the training wheels off. Instead of just pointing back to the Shift categories in the CSR (page 270) it offers the following.
Players should feel free to be creative with the three power shifts they can place on abilities in their new mask-form. There is no definitive list, because power shifts can be used on nearly anything. GMs should work with their players to establish what does and does not make sense for a power shift. (Unmasked, page 62)
That's HUGE. Instead of limiting players and GMs to the list in the book (insomuch as they are actually limited, MCG isn't going to HALO drop into your dining room to force you to follow the rules strictly) they are explicitly opening Shifts up to 11. This game goes full throttle in a way even Gods of the Fall didn't. However, you can't just tell players and GMs to make stuff up without giving some guidelines (at least not without people then asking you for guidelines). And guide it does. With three simple suggestions it gives people all the tools they need, it's now in the hands of the players and GMs to use them.

Power Shifts are suggested to be "Clear," "Restricted in scope," and "Indicative of the PC they are attached to." And with those three simple suggestions, and some prose to explain the intent, Power Shifts go from a pick and play assortment of prefabricated cookie cutter boosts to something that can be incredibly versatile and, best of all, flavorful and thematic. A whipping sixteen examples, a mix of the CSR shifts and entirely new ones, are then presented and further drive home just how much you can do when given the right tools.

I think this will be incredibly useful for Gods of the Fall where sometimes shifts were really difficult to fit for Gods with more esoteric Dominions. A God of Shadows for instance could have a shift called "At Home in Shadows" that would give a boost to any action where the God was hiding in shadows, attacking from shadows, or the like. A God of Chance could take a shift in "The Odds are With Me" and gain a shift on games of chance/gambling, and all re-rolls from spending XP as another example.

Lastly in a sidebar this chapter tosses out an interesting new optional rule: Pushing It. This reminds me of similar mechanics from other supers games like Power Stunts and Extra Effort from Mutant & Masterminds, or the effects of Hero Point or the like in any number of other games such as Savage Worlds.

The idea is that during a dire situation the player can spend some XP to have the hero temporarily move shifts from one area to another to affect the outcome of a roll. A mastermine character with shifts in "Smart as Sin," which usually affects their Intelligence and knowledge skills, to a one round bonus to Speed defense to avoid being hit by a bus thrown at them by a villain. It's a nice way to help balance the huge disparity in power that can come from shifts and I think it also fits the superheroic genre quite well. It'll also fit nicely into Gods of the Fall, because it's hard to think that a God can't occasionally do a little extra something something when needed.

All in all I think that despite being rather a short chapter the value of the advice here is going to come back tenfold or more. The Cypher System has always been open and welcoming to player and GM innovation but never has that mindset been so fiercely and advocated for and embraced. Taking these steps to a more toolkit oriented ruleset is something I encourage every GM to try. I think it'll help you and your players to engage more with both the settings and characters.

Friday, December 8, 2017

MCC Recap - A Branch to the Head for All

Recently I ran the first 1/3-1/2 of A Fallen Star for All with a ragtag band of seekers trying to breach the uncovered ancient stronghold.

Spoilers for the first bit of A Fallen Star for All ahead...

Because I'm trying to establish a non-murder hobo game I'm encouraging the players to invest in their community, and I think it's working! After the clan's elders tasked them with investigating the uncovered ancient complex that was recently revealed by a fallen star the briefly spoke with the clan's head seeker, Trev-gar about the dangers he saw before retreating (as wise choice). Deciding that the needed more protection they went to a barter session with Peek, the local tanner, to get some armor. Cypher traded a trio of glowing fingers for some hide armor, and Agutter commissioned a vest of pleather and purchased a cloak with some knick knacks from his prior outing.

Using their "sky-carriage" gained from the prior exploration ofthe Sky-High tower they quickly covered the day's travel and arrived at the crater of the fallen star. Warned that other tribes had sent seekers to this spot the group lands nearby in the jungle and hides their vehicle lest it be stolen or stripped for parts. Arriving at the edge of the crater on foot they decided to take the long way around to avoid the red fog that had "jacked up" Trev-gar and his team. This seemed wise (it was) but turned unlucky for them as they bumped into a seeker group from the Blessed Brotherhood. The mutants laid claim to Agutter's medipack but an enraged Cypher quickly murdered them with some clever RP and good dice and the support of a spine throwing Franswa. Well, all but one, who escaped (I'm sure they'll never see him again).

After circumnavigating the red fog they approached a pair of structures that looked much like stone mushrooms. An empathic/telepathic cat (now called Dr. Claw) warned them about some kind of murderous mutant. It didn't take long for Cypher to slay the mutant (seriously, this Shaman is a beast) but in the process Franswa the Frog-manimal was driven insane by a nat 1 on his mutation check to hurl some spines. Drawn by the sounds of battle the mutant's companion, a blue skinned man, emerged from the huts and was likewise quickly dispatched but not before downing the insane Franswa.

Looting the bodies and they structure yielded several artifacts, only one of which exploded and killed Feeleep (one of Franswa's 9 additional personalities, all dead now;  as an aside do I get to count that as 10 PC deaths? ;) ). Experimenting with a strange device within the structure they recovered a cube of some kind with a sunburst (or maybe an eye?) symbol on one side that Cypher deduced was a key (he would know, doors are his favored enemy).

The group also found a mutant who joined them, replacing the now perished Franswa as the group's "diversity hire" (3 PSH and a mutant currently, with +Craig McCullough playing a 4th PSH). So far our group's track record with manimals, mutants, and plantients has been poor, but we'll see if Andy's new PC bucks the trend. We wrapped up after about 2 hours of play with a break to generate Andy's new character. I think that if all goes well the remainder will make for the bulk of the January and February sessions, at which point I will either choose a new module to run, or poll the players for what they wish to do next...

Most shocking thing we learned about MCC:
  • Rolling a 1 on a mutation check means you gain and defect and permanently lose the mutation! I suspect this is one we'll be talking about for a while as a group. I'm planing to play as written but if this seems to excessively to punish mutants, manimals, and plantients I may need to houserule. 
Most amusing behavioral change:
  • After getting a net result of 1 on an artifact check and causing a 6 damage explosion that killed a PC the group is now quick to tell me that they are putting distance between themselves and anybody making an artifact check.
Interesting (to me) Rules Adjudications:
  • After getting healed Cypher made an attack on the adjacent enemy. I ruled it as a sneak attack and gave a die upgrade. He basically just sat up and axed the guy in the groin with no warning. Ouch!
  • After Franswa went insane and gained 9 new additional personalities I had Andy use the purple sorcerer to roll up 9 new sets of stats and ruled that each personality had its own Personality and Intelligence (which seemed entirely logical) AND Luck score. I also encouraged Andy to not have each personality just be a slightly different version of the base character, sadly we didn't have enough time to see how that would play out. 
  • After dropping to zero I ruled that the personality in control of Franswa's body would be permanently dead if the character dropped to zero but was healed, or succeeded on a body roll. I thought this was an interesting adjudication as it wiped out that combo of Per, Int, and Luck stats as well, making for some genuine stakes for the many personalities. I really hope to see another mutant with this come into the game to see how this plays in the long term. 
In Memoriam: 
  • Franswa (and Feeleep, and 8 other personalities)

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Nuts & Bolts #142 - First Impressions: Unmasked

It's here at last. The final release from the Worlds of the Cypher System Kickstarter. Hot(ish) on the heels of Predation this past summer Unmasked brings us a game that feels weirdly prescient and also very current. It was announced before we knew what Stranger Things was but feels like it is taking its advantage of the chance to fall into that particular groove of nostalgia within the current pop culture.

Either way we have a game that I think will find instant appeal in a certain sub-set of the Cypher System fandom, and potentially fly over the heads of others. Its setting is the 80s, and much of the way the game functions both from a perspective of characters as well as rules is anchored to a time when our world was substantially less instant, and substantially less digital. It's not nostalgia for the sake of mining a current fad, because while this game could work in a different era it just wouldn't work as well. The 80s were a turning point and the story of these teens with phenomenal powers is something that dovetails into that era in a way that just feels right.

The setting for the game is very much 1986. It's also, at least ideally I think, small town America. It's game of big things happening to some of the kids in this mid '80s small town. Sound like Stranger Things? It should, but again, this was announced prior so I don't know that this a a copy-cat so much as parallel development. The setting may well be one of the most familiar and easy to run for you, or it'll be something that requires research because you didn't grow up in that time or place. Either way there are easy touchstones for inspiration out there. There are a multitude of "classic" 80's films to draw ideas from, Stranger Things may well be a direct inspiration, and for gamers who were of the right age in the 80s they can also draw directly from memory. All this doesn't mean that there isn't setting resources within the book. There are tons including both a minorly fleshed out town used as examples of how to build one's own setting, and a fully fleshed out setting for Boundary Bay, New York (*cough* Montauk *cough*).

Similarly the game is about teens with superpowers. Kinda. Teens who can become people with superpowers is probably a more accurate description The titular masks allow the empowered teens to become another person, another personality with a different damage track, and fantastical abilities. This is not X-men because the teens do not have these powers directly.

Which isn't a bad thing, it allows for a different look at the concept of teens with power, and further allows for the powered version to have wildly different personality from the teen beneath. A player could have a nerdy introvert who becomes a loudmouthed extrovert with their mask. This also means that a character who gets bullied may be tempted to recruit their braver mask to fight back for them. It's a different enough take on super-teens that it feels new and fresh. It also means that the teen and the mask can be at odds, opening further room for roleplay.

Mechanically speaking Unmasked shakes things up for the Cypher System. Much in the same way that Predation and Gods of the Fall were willing to pull bits of the base code apart and re-write them Unmasked changes fundamental aspects of your character.

Firstly is the way that the Teen persona works. Teen would feel weird if they had a ton of skills or crazy abilities, and they don't in Unmasked. Instead a teen gets a stripped down set of pools, befitting an adolescent who is not yet fully matured, and a descriptor. The descriptors are an open option from just about any of those you have access to, so long as they are not overtly supernatural or powered. E.g. the Mystical descriptor wouldn't fit for a Teen. That's it. Your teen is a barely formed and unmatured person, and the rules support this. It's simple and I love it (and not just because I used this idea previously!)

There's more though. The Mask persona gets a full character sentence; they are a blank blank who blanks. They are in every way a fully realized Cypher Character. They also have to share their recovery rolls with the teen who wears the mask. Let me repeat that as is it hugely important for Unmasked GMs: the teens and their masks share the same recovery rolls. This means that a teen who takes a 1 turn recovery after a run in with the school bully is depriving their mask of that 1 turn recovery later that day when something happens. Or maybe it's the other way around and the teen can't compete during the big football game because his mask used up his 1 turn and 10 minute recovery rolls.

There's also some interesting ideas around power shifts (more that enough for a whole different article about that specifically), and how the teens and their masks interact with others and with cyphers. Specifically how teens and their masks are the only ones who can normally identify a cypher, called mementos in Unmasked, and make use of their power. This presents a different approach than the prior settings where cyphers were things of value to any person in the setting.

There's also the fact that mementos double down on the weirdness of cyphers by providing not only a useful ability but also a strong emotion, often with very specific context. Given that the protagonists and likely some of the antagonists are teenagers I could spin a talek specifically about a character who abuses mementos not for their abilities but to capture those feels that they feel unable to attain "in real life" as it were. Instead of the "I cut myself so I can feel" trop the character is constantly looking for cyphers because mementos are the only way they can feel. Pair that with a setting tweak where using mementos has some direct or indirect cost and things could get interesting very quickly.

I've not yet played Unmasked, but I can already see where the rules choices and setting structures can be pulled apart and put back together to not only tell the story I want within the context of this setting, but also for other settings. As the third (but hopefully not final) World of the Cypher System I feel like this game dives into the deep end of the possibility of the Cypher System in general. As a follow up to Gods of the Fall and Predation (and Numenera and The Strange before them), Unmasked is more than worthy, and a triumphant piece of nostalgia gaming that still feels innovative and very much like it's own thing.