Friday, March 17, 2023

Traditional Fantasy Worlds

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

One thing the Cypher experiment with Road War (my homebrew Mad Max-style game) has taught me, which should be obvious, is how great my imagination is. If I turn my attention to fantasy worlds, I look back and see how horrible most of them are, especially the theme park worlds.

I know people love the convenience of these, as you can "play in the same world" with the same system and have your characters experience a lot of different themes. But I get the "brash American tourist" vibe with these worlds, like these cultures are in these worlds to "entertain us" and never really be taken seriously.

Do you want to show them respect and take them seriously? Give them their own worlds. The players must immerse themselves in the culture and be a part of it instead of being planar outsiders "just here to visit and solve the local problems the people here can't."

The outsider-savior complex is high in these theme park worlds.

It is funny since I used to like theme-park worlds, but now I see them as a lower-quality buffet or fast food. They end up being like mall food courts, with an Egyptian-like area here, a Ravenloft area, a Norse area up there, and so on. They exist together because theme park magic keeps them culturally isolated or something. I see this in both Mystara and Golarion, and there are parallels in the Greyhawk, Eberron, and the Forgotten Realms worlds.

And what the designers are in danger of saying is the "adventurer class" outsiders are superior to the locals. In my Road War game, everyone starts with a job in the world - they are the locals. I am not doing any "lone wanderer" or "strange outsider" backgrounds since I feel they are done to death, and they are this strange "default character background assumption" in a lot of modern fantasy games. I liked Level Up 5E because they placed characters in a world and raised the stakes.

Ironically, Dark Sun was one of the better thematically unified game worlds that TSR put out. Still, toy companies can't put out anything remotely challenging to our psyches, so it is dead, along with all other TSR settings. I am not reminiscing over them anymore or revisiting them. Keeping the original spirits of these settings alive is a waste of time and energy better spent on making my own, and I found that out with Road War. For the longest time, I felt I had to do a Mad Max concept like this in the Car Wars world, and that setting held me back far more than it enabled my creativity.

It failed every time I tried to reboot Car Wars with another rues system. I had great ideas for a Mad Max-style game, but the Car Wars tropes kept getting in the way every time I tried. The vehicle designs, auto duel culture, or the game's history and structure kept popping up, telling me "my ideas sucked" and "use these instead."

The problem wasn't my ideas; it was the ones I was trying to fit them into.

Easy solution, dump that world and make my own.

I love Car Wars, but I don't want to play that game, and it doesn't fit the idea of what the world I am imagining should be like.

If I want a "Norse world," I will just create a Norse world and play in that. Why do I want 99 other things I won't use? Or worse, serve to break immersion and remove characters from involving themselves in factions and storylines? I'm an android! In the Norse world? Says I can be one in the rules! If I want an Egypt-style world, I will make my own and use a few history books to seed my ideas.

This is what Cypher is teaching me. Throw out the settings and games you try to "convert in" and do your own thing. But I need Car Wars to do a mad Max-style game! Turns out, I didn't. The Cypher rules handled vehicle combat just fine and better in a narrative-cinematic format. I am actually liking the Cypher vehicle combat better than Car Wars, even though they are incredibly simplified.

But I need the Forgotten Realms or Golarion to do a fantasy world! I will likely find out shortly that I don't, and by forcing myself to use them, I am setting myself up to fail again. This isn't to say they are bad settings, but they aren't the ones that inspire me to tell the stories in my head.

If I spend most of my time searching through a setting to find a spot for my excellent idea, that wastes a lot of time and forces compromise that weakens my creation.

If I were to create a world or even a mini-sandbox to start? One based on my idea?

No time is wasted, and I have exactly what I want with zero distractions or competing ideas.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Mail Room: The Strange

This is a strange game.

There is the familiar, which would be the Cypher rules and Earth itself.

But from there, everything goes off the rails. Parallel realities, dimensions, wars for control, planet-eating monsters, and dimensional alien factions. The game centers around a "Men in Black" style organization sworn to defend Earth. Still, it goes anywhere and everywhere into realms of cosmic realities and the nature of imagination.

We aren't being "attacked from the outside" by vampires, demons, zombies, aliens, elder gods, or ghosts - we are being attacked from inside our minds. Our very imaginations are under assault, and our dreams in this world can create real places in others, which the denizens of these places between time and space live in this fractal-like reality.

It reminds me a little of the Palladium game Beyond the Supernatural, a very cool game in its own right. But where this makes a hard left turn is in the structure of reality and how The Strange's metaverse pulls in every idea from our heads - in horror and fiction - and twists that reality into something where threats to the Earth happen, alliances must be made, and the stakes are either really personal or world-spanning.

Where BTS is more of a traditional "monster of the week" game, TS goes conceptual, imaginary, and almost spiritual in scope and concept.

And you can pull in fiction as well? The game can become reality-warping genres like The Last Action Hero, and fictional characters can become self-aware and invade and possibly visit Earth. If you want to go there, Jack the Ripper could escape fiction and roam the streets of modern London, and you can call on the help of Sherlock Holmes to track him down.

Want to go more pop culture than that? Go ahead, have Lara Croft meet Batman. Stumble into the world of Sonic the Hedgehog. Visit World of Warcraft and have one of the powerful magic-using villains or dragons escape. Darth Vader teams up with Skeletor. Shaggy realizes he is just a cartoon. Actual Cthulhu shows up, and Lovecraftian monsters escape fiction and have been real all along.

Parts of your mind are valid places in the campaign setting.

Even your experiences in other games, like a 5E campaign, you loved are on the table. The rules will be Cypher, but the feeling will be the same.

The game puts size limits on realities (called recursions) and rules how fast they can grow, but honestly, you are free to ignore those if you wish or make little "mini settings part of a larger imagined world" in those self-contained spaces. I see why they do this, to limit the scope. If you created a High Noon movie reality, the size of that would be the movie's setting, and everything outside it would be "assumed to be there" by those in that bubble, and travel in and out would be possible through retcons. A character could "visit Philadelphia" for a few months and return to the bubble with memories of everything that happened there and possibly with visitors from there. Still, the bubble's reality dictates that the town is the heart of the recursion.

Then, this is mixed with the game's "connective tissue" and lore. The universe's structure and those who live between the walls of reality seek to alter it and run the game's main stories. I need to dive into this part more; the possibilities blow my mind.

This is a fantastic game, very mind-expanding, and unforgettable.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Road War: It's Numenera

One of my stranger thoughts about my "Road War" campaign is, "This is also Numenera." I am not basing the game on a real-world version; all my locations and maps are made up. This is a "Road Warrior" world, but in that sort of strange, generic, desert-ruin, Hollywood-movie-style landscape of "this could be anywhere, but nowhere" setting.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

This is a strange sub-plane of Numenera somewhere or even a part of the world where nano-technology has adopted a post-apoc road-war reality. It is modern-day, but it isn't. There are fantastical monsters alongside muscle cars, rocket launchers, and machine guns. None of the weapons are "modern-day," but they are like that.

Or this world would fit in as a  "recursion" in The Strange. This would make sense if you wanted this world as a "standalone" experience. I could go either way and easily "flavor" an area of Numenera if I wanted to.

Suppose you look at the world of Numenera being like an entire planet under the control of rogue nano-machines and massive underground AIs of past civilizations. In that case, you get a "Westworld" feeling, but instead of a company running the show, something else is. An AI, an alien intelligence, a computer that ran an automotive theme park, or the "God of the Road?" Who knows? A massive automotive factory could be lost underneath a desert, cranking out muscle cars, and many machines and AIs aligning their world-view on competing versions of the apocalypse based on 1980s action movies. And since this is a billion years on, those get twisted, and there were probably a few hundred thousand "1980s" style eras (of different alien cultures) the machines can pull a reality from.

And the Numenera rulebook says you can play the game from strict high fantasy to sci-fi. Post-apocalyptic and horror are in there too. Nothing in the book says that you can't play the game as a Road Warrior-style game. And since you can paint the game with any feeling, like calling lost tech magic and glaives "fighters," I can easily flavor the entire Road War area as a post-apoc 1980s movie.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

One of the enormous problems I had with previous iterations of this world I played with Car Wars to Pathfinder 1e was linking it to Earth. I had to deal with geography, roads, maps, governments, history, cultures, borders, and the possible lack of the above. Things change, why, and how? Is this group still around? What about this border? What about the military? The Internet? Satellites? Technology? Air travel?

With my Road War world in its own self-contained "hex crawl" sort of place, I can play a more local-focused game and not worry about the big-picture details. I just have one map of one valley; the rest of the continent and world feel free. The cultures? Your typical post-apoc mix with a Southwestern style, and then go as wild as you want. Why? No idea; that is the media and information the local underground AI pumps out. Other sources, even alien sources, mix in there, but you can easily have a "themed" area of this world.

I don't want to worry about "what happened to the real world?" I don't have to write history. And I don't have centuries of geopolitics breathing down my neck. The world is that magical place of blacktop highways, deserts, fortress cities, strange ruins, ghost towns, remote stations, abandoned sprawl, and lawless crime zones.

I am using the Cypher System since that feels like a better fit, but since Numenera is 100% compatible, anything from those books can drop in. Tech, cyphers, monsters, or artifacts? They all work or flavor them to fit in. Aliens or other species could show up, and no one blinks an eye. They are just "other landers," which is how things work.

Will I play the standard setting? Likely, yes. Is the Road War version of the setting fun? Oh, yes! Any of the AI-generated art fits for cars and scenery since those are so strange, they fit right in. Some are normal, and some are insane, but everything is fantastic.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

The needs are simple. Food and resources. Oil, steel, fabric, glass, and rubber for the cars. Roads. Towns. And minimal technology in other areas. Yes to radio and vinyl, and no to TV and digital. No computers or internet. Wire-based analog rotary phones in small areas. Books. Telegraphs. Newspapers. Hand-carried mail and package delivery. Movies on large film reels. Film cameras. The feel of the 1950s without the slide into the 1970s. And if the technologies are not the same, the Numenera equivalents are "like those" since they align with the whole reality zone of the area.

Which is essential. The tech of the area matches the flavor and feeling. Cyphers are subtly adjusted to match 1950s tech or even 50s science-fiction devices. People get together to watch movie-like entertainment, and maybe these are found like cyphers that play a movie once, and that is it. So everyone has to be there to experience it together. Some watch, others write down, and maybe others draw the things they see. And others take it in, knowing this is the only time they can.

The radios are playing strange songs. Books, dances, concerts, and plays are popular.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

Then there are the roads. On which survival depends. The wastelands are home to many lawless areas, and those forces of chaos descend on the fortress communities of those seeking to build, not destroy. The convoys keeping the good places fed and supplied need to get through. Air travel is not seen that often, if at all. And the world is simple in some ways and fantastical in others.

So it is Numenera. Or The Strange. Or is this a standalone Cypher world? But as Numenera, this flavor is as valid as the high fantasy or science fiction version. As the game says, it is all flavor. What matters is having fun.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Cypher Play: Road War, Part 4

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

The coyote-don (arms not pictured here, lol) is a level 6 monster that defends as a level 4 to magic and attacks all targets in immediate range. My priest and scout lose initiative; all they can do is board up their garage and take a turn to prepare.

The priest is on the garage floor while the girl and the scout climb up to a second-floor perch to ready his rifle. The priest cannot climb any higher, so the coyote-don bursts through the garage doors quickly and begins mauling our man of faith, running for his life on the first floor.

The scout opens fire, and shots bounce off the tough hide.

The priest smites the beast with a holy bolt and puts some effort behind the blast, taking away a third of the beast's health, which angers it more. The priest still gets mauled, and things are looking grim down there, and the scout fires again and gets an 18, which is a ton of damage with a level of effort thrown behind it - and the beast turns its attention to crawling up to the second level.

As the coyote-don begins to jump up to the upper level, the priest strikes it down with another effort-backed holy bolt and slays the creature on top of a broken tractor.

Multi-attacks and "frenzy" attacks that melee or ranged attack all targets in an area are critical to higher-level monsters. Do not be afraid to throw multiple attacks in for monsters of level 4 and higher, and above level 7, start putting three or four attacks in there. Armor and the player's ability to soak and heal damage is more significant than you think, and you want to give the players the idea that if they don't spend points on effort, they will lose them as the damage they take (and get nothing for it).

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

Was the fight brutal? In some ways, yes; in others, no, but it doesn't matter. Encounter balance is difficult in Cypher, but don't worry about it - toss a GM Intrusion in there and add another monster or two to the encounter. That is one of the core rules of balancing Cypher combats; if you feel something is going too easy, it is immediately GM Intrusion time to ramp up the challenge - and no feeling terrible afterward if you don't.

But I didn't need to since the best dramatic focus wasn't a loss here; it was the significant burn of resources and another tough choice. The characters burned through about 20 points of abilities in effort use and damage taken, and all of their remaining rests for the day were burned through recovering - except for the 10-hour one. Now we have a choice:

Rest for 10 hours and recover everything?

Or press on into the night and get distance on the bandits that are chasing them?

Again, the Cypher system is forcing me to agonize about my choices in solo play! I weighed all the bad things that could happen if they stayed, the higher-level bandits showing up for revenge, and the dangers of driving into the night in a destroyed and monster-filled darkness into uncertain terrain.

So, in essence, the fight with the coyote-don did precisely what I wanted it to do: burn resources and give the group a hard decision. That gave me more narrative punch and drama than something too hard or possibly killing one of the group. That would have given me another equally dramatic decision, but this one felt perfect. Cypher is much like OSR games in that you constantly burn limited resources, making the choices increasingly tricky. In OSR, it is the dwindling pool of spells, hit points, torches, food, and time. In Cypher, you are balancing your pools and the remaining number of rests.

5E is too easy on resources, like an MMO where you can restore party ability to parity after each fight, and 5E isn't in the same genre of game as most classic RPGs. 5E has the same design goals as 4E, to be a videogame played on the tabletop. Pathfinder 2 is an even better videogame on the tabletop since the balance is so tight. Both are good but not classic resource management games with that constant threat and tension essential to the genre.

If I am sitting here in a solo game and feeling terrible about two equally bad courses of action, that is a good game that draws me in deeply. I don't get that in 5E or many OSR games since I know how to "game" those systems. In Cypher, it is all about the burn. Making fights "too easy" by burning effort will cost you later. And in some cases, the resources you need later will be the difference between life and death.

This is also why "balance" in Cypher needs to be looked at with a broader lens than in other RPGs. The first fights in a day may be easy, and you are burning effort like dollar bills tossed in a nightclub. But at the end of the session, when no good options are left, when all that frivolous spending catches up with the group, is the time you judge the challenge of all the previous encounters.

The better of the two choices was to press on, but if they ran into anything along the way, they would be in a terrible position to deal with it. So off into the night, they drove together, not knowing what was next.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

They press on with few resources left, and the priest is still pretty banged up. They load the ATV into the back of the pickup with a makeshift ramp and head off as the sun sets. They find a ruined town with no good places to hide or rest, and through some makeshift crafting, they find a few dirty tarps to turn a carport into a shelter.

They take turns on watch and fail to craft comfortable places to sleep, so I plan to pull a GM Intrusion the next day when the fatigue kicks in and they are hindered in all further actions. They find a few old cans of food and a little water, so the night isn't all a total loss. Still, not having a place to rest and recuperate will hurt them tomorrow, and while they may be fine for a while, that fatigue will kick in, and they will be in even greater danger.

Their vehicles are still damaged, the ATV is out of ammo, and they only have two forward firing machineguns on the pickup. Tomorrow they press on and try and reach civilization.

Cypher System: Combat Skills

One of the fascinating design choices behind Cypher System is a lack of generic "combat skills." There are ways to ease attack difficulty through abilities, but those are rare and needed for the game's balance.

How do you make attacks easier?


And using your head.

Every character can do well in combat and contribute. Those specialized in combat will be more effective over multiple rounds and battles, but all character types can defend themselves and contribute. Warrior types in Cypher make fighting easier and more effective - but not so much that other characters feel excluded.

My combat-focused characters are excellent and tear things up, but my non-combat characters also feel effective and like they can contribute. When my combat characters land blows, they do so with less effort, and the hits are more effective - but they aren't excluded from even trying like in D&D 3.5, many OSR games, and earlier, where the combat modifier progression eventually excludes many characters from even contributing or landing a blow.

And unlike games with dozens of combat skills, you don't need time or mental effort trying to min-max them. The design of some games feels like a "race to breaking the game" with combat skills, where they level up so high nothing is a challenge, or the AC of monsters raises so high only the mix-max characters have a chance of landing a blow.

Or the combat skills are so esoteric and specialized that you are forced to choose between sabers and short swords in your skills, and you are narratively locked into a small subset of weapon types. Your character can never change or adapt, as that would mean "points were wasted." I love GURPS, but jack-of-all-trades characters tend to feel weaker than specialized builds. I know, of course, that is true! Sometimes I wish the skill system wasn't as narrow-grained and the game focused more on the bigger picture with a broad brush.

Even some narrative games fall into the combat skill trap, and I remember our time in the Star Wars/Genesys system when combat skills got to three of four yellow dice; that was the end of combat challenge for our games, and we felt those characters were a mix of OP and "nowhere else to go" in regards to focus and improvement. We also had this happen in FATE with the Fight and Shoot skills. These are still fun games, but they break easier in long-term play.

In Cypher, I like that everyone can defend themselves and contribute offensively - and in non-linear ways. The game does not feel as stratified as many traditional games derived from D&D and exclusionary in fighting, where a monster with an ascending AC of 35 shows up. This ends up with many players at the table saying, "Why bother? Use magic."

Friday, March 10, 2023

Cypher Play: Road War, Part 3

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

So my delivery driver had the day off, so I tried a few new characters in my Cypher road-warrior-style game. A priest and a young lady wake up in a wrecked bus, with a gang of bandits picking through the survivors. This is sort of a Last of Us type story, where they were headed to a church in my crossroads town to take ownership, but their bus got attacked, and now they need to figure out how to survive.

This is a non-combat adept with an NPC companion, so he needs to get her to the town. I am finding giving the characters "jobs" in my sandbox gives me a lot more direction and impetus to act than the boring, stereotypical, no connections adventurer or survivor-type characters. I play with those character types, and my game dies due to disinterest. My new rule is "you must have a job" to start the game, and I don't care if the character quits it for something more interesting; they just have to have that role and place in the world for the story to be interesting for me.

The "adventurer class" of characters that "have a job raiding dungeons" is like cancer in modern gaming. I even feel the  "lone survivor" with "no connections here" is overused and boring. I can't play them; they are a massive turn-off. Every game I try to play solo with them ends after one or two sessions. I would much rather play characters with a job or role in the world because when you don't know what to do next, you can always fall back on a mission or task given to you by your employer.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

So the priest pulled her to the wreckage of the bus where they hid, and now enter our second character, a desert ranger with an ATV nearby who hunts mutant creatures for the crossroads town, and he spots the carnage and decides to intervene. He sets up on a hill, spots the priest and the girl, and starts sniping the bandits one by one, forcing them to take cover and return fire. And again, this is a character who can at least take missions from the local government, law enforcement, and others who call him in to deal with mutant critters and monsters killing livestock. He is in the right place at the right time to take a stand.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

So the priest and the girl dash to one of the bandit's pickups, hop in, and race away! And our ranger keeps taking the bandits out, managing to pick off a passenger each from the other two pickups, but not two of the bandits who hop in the bed of the last pickup truck as the two pickups give chase to the fleeing priest and girl. The ranger hops on his ATV and chases them all.

And the chase is on!

I am doing a lot of vehicle combats and chases in this system and trying to break things. The entire fight was easy since the bandits were level 2, the pickups were level 3, and our ranger burned points, taking them out. I am still learning system balance, so this is expected. I decided to lower their levels because there were multiple combatants, but in hindsight, I should have left them level 3 or 4 for this fight. It doesn't matter story-wise, so I just retroactively said these were the new recruits of the bandits going out to raid a bus.

Does it matter the car combats are a step abstracted? Not in the least. They are more fun this way than a detailed Car Wars-style sim, at least for the cinematic play Cypher encourages.

Every car had machine guns mounted forward, and the bandit pickups had bed-mounted machine guns on pintle mounts. The ATV the ranger rode on had one machine gun mounted front. The priest's truck was getting shot up out in front, and the ranger caught up to them from the rear.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

The ranger on the ATV and the rear truck with the bed-mounted machine gun and bandits in the back went at it first. The ranger's ATV got hit, and since it was a level 2 vehicle, it lost 2 of the 6 health it had, which wasn't good. The ranger then traded fire a few times until he made a called shot targeting the crew in the bed, and firing the mounted machine gun.

He hit and mowed them down, eliminating the bed gunners, but with a 19 - an extra minor effect. So the ranger had one of the bullets fly through the rear window of the pickup truck and hit the driver's arm, forcing a vehicle control roll. Since the pickup driver was level 3, the ranger made the roll for them - an 8 or under is a "bad result" and means the vehicle kept control, and anything 9 and above helped the ranger and meant the vehicle lost control. This "flipping the roll" was one of those "light turn-on moments" for me for Cypher. A success for the player is a failure for the enemy.

The ranger rolled a 20.

The bandit pickup lost control, barreled off the road, flipped end-over-end, and exploded in one of the most incredible vehicle eliminations in a chase scene I had ever experienced in a roleplaying game.


Thank you, Cypher System.

The ranger's machine gun rolled a 1 while attacking the last bandit pickup, so it ran out of ammo. That pickup had no way of attacking the ranger outside of the front arc, so it dropped speed and tried to chase the ATV to get a shot off with its forward guns. The ranger took the ATV off-road, forcing the pickup to chase and make a control roll, and a minor effect meant one of the bandit pickup's tires was damaged from a rut and hindered the pickup on control rolls. The pickup kept firing at the ranger while off the road, and the ranger did a maneuver through a ditch, and the bandit pickup got stuck in it, leaving the bandit immobilized and out of the chase.

Elimination is an elimination; I will take it.

Chase scene over, and that was fun. It was easy, but I am still learning to balance multiple party members, which is all good. These were the rookie bandits; the tough ones may show up later to discover what happened. This is a good note; if you have a too-easy fight, Cypher lets you roll with it and make it up later.

Or, trip a GM Intrusion, problem solved.

Part of this was I never expected combat-focused characters to be so good in the system. In this game, you can design enjoyable combat characters who shine by throwing fists and flinging lead. The priest has powers, but nothing that came into play with a vehicle chase other than avoiding getting shot. He did have his "1 point" of divine armor protection on, and I ruled that applied to his stolen truck, too, since "Jesus take the wheel."

I know this is not how that power works, but it was silly, and the truck had no other defenses or offense, so I ruled that was a cool use and it added to the fun.

The ranger waved hello to the priest; thanks were shared, and they ended up in a deserted mining town to take stock of their damaged vehicles and options. This is where I ended the game, but not before a massive tease for the next session. A short rest restored their spent points, but I am not letting them rest yet. That chase was too easy; time to turn up the heat on them.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

GM Intrusion time!

The local animals started running away as something massive approached the town. A giant mutated coyote-don cross between a coyote and a dinosaur. I figure this monster will be level 6, have 2 points of armor, have a howling attack, and 21 health, but be weak to the priest's "divine magic" powers at level 4. I want a tough fight for this one, and they need to feel the burn.

God, I love AI image generators for creating stupid-looking mutant monsters.

Fear the Coyotedon!

The fight happens next time...

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Cypher Play: Road War, part 2

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

Cypher remains an interesting narrative system for solo play, and it holds its own with my second session. A lot gets done in these games, large narrative sweeps of action and story, and in an hour, I can finish a day-long story arc of missions and activities.

My day two started with returning to the delivery garage and getting a mission to haul solar panels to a remote power facility. The truck was loaded with ammunition for the front and rear MGs, and one crew spotted the broken RPG turret on the roof, which was also fixed and loaded with HEAT shells (-2 armor, medium weapon). The solar panels were loaded up, and my driver and the crew headed out of the fortress town for the delivery.

Things got interesting along the way, and I wondered if a "road encounter" was a GM intrusion. In my ruling, I had pre-planned two encounters I wanted to happen in my head, so those were not GM intrusions on this trip. Just because you roll a random encounter or do something pre-planned does not equal a GM intrusion; this is only for stuff "outside" the planned adventure. What would happen on the way there was planned in my head, so I knew what would be written in my adventure module.

In the first encounter, a motorist with a flipped car waved for help. One of the crew spotted an ambush, so my driver pre-pointed the roof RPG at the rocks the sniper was hiding behind, spent a level of effort pre-planned lining the shot up, and told the crew to fire if things got sticky. It was an ambush; my driver rolled a 1 on looking at the flipped car to see if someone was there, and the car exploded on a GM intrusion, and the ambush was on! The rocket blew away the sniper's MG position, and the one on the road ran to a hidden motorcycle and tried to escape. A vehicle chase later, the bike was rammed and forced off the road, and the cyclist did not survive.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

The second encounter was a vehicle-on-vehicle fight, and my driver felt the effects of burning pool points. This was a close one, the delivery van got half its health shot up by minigun fire, and the HEAT shells and accurate return fire (with more pool spends) blew up the pursuit. The "creature on creature" vehicle combat worked well, and it mirrors character combat in the weapons and armor scales are the same, only the damage is going to car health. One thing my driver did is roll a 20 on initiative and used that to make a driving roll to go offroad and stir up so much dust the chase car was hindered in driving and shooting tasks. That was a smart move that saved the fight and a trick worthy of using again as a player intrusion.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

We got to the solar station, installed the panels, got a few repairs to the van done, and rested a little - but my driver was still tired. We got a side quest to take the mechanics out to a cell tower to fix that, and the van got stuck in a rutted road and ambushed by another sniper. That was taken care of quickly, the cell tower was fixed, and one crew spotted an ambush on the way home - another minigun car.

The van returned to the solar farm, and deciding to go home was tough. My driver was spent, the can was damaged, and we could not risk another 50-50 fight. The solar farm gave us a vehicular cypher, a 1-use drone, mounted on the van.

We plowed home, and fought the last car to a victory, taking more damage to the van in the process. The fight was short and brutal, and my driver had to spend an XP to reroll a 1; it was getting late, and I wanted this session done. Vehicle combat with the "monster vs. monster with weapons" abstract system is excellent.

We limped home, and a GM intrusion was flipped - another broken-down vehicle by the side of the road. This wasn't an ambush; it was a badly-damaged minibus full of migrant workers trying to get to town. My driver told them all to pile in, and the half-wrecked and shot-up van crawled back to town, where the workers were thankful for the ride, and the fruit workers' union sent along some crates of fresh fruit later as a thank you.

A good deed is done, and valuable contact with the union is earned.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

My driver had three rests and ended the adventure with 10 down on SPD and 6 down on INT. The next day off will be needed to rest, and a new character will be started. The burndown led to a really dire moment at the end of the day. Should we spend the night at the solar station and let the road get blocked or reinforced? Or do we press home with a tired driver and a damaged van? We decided to press home, a risky decision that paid off since my driver burned XP on rerolls.

I love using XP as a resource. They are not as precious as other games, and you are not "losing progress" when you burn points. Considering spending them was the difference between my driver being left a burning wreck on the road versus making it home and saving a bunch of innocents.

I did the first two sessions in a day, one or two hours each, and I am amazed at how fast the game plays and how much narrative I can play through. I needed to eliminate my D&D "roll for random encounters" mindset, pre-plan a few encounters, and mix in GM intrusions to make the game unpredictable. You do need to "prescript" a few encounters in your head for travel and go by "what would be best for the narrative" instead of "I play this game with charts."

And again, my driver was spent. Sixteen points down with only one long rest left. An end that had me wondering if I would live through the fight. This is good, dramatic stuff, and I would not get that in a 5E or GURPS. Not that easily.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

I am moving away from chart games, especially ones that drive the entire experience with random rolls. For this, I had a classic scenario, an ambush and vehicle combat; those were the two "movie moments" I wanted in the game. Everything else was winging it and having fun with the moment. I will use charts if it makes sense, but my imagination is good enough to surprise me. I also tire of games that deliver simple rules and a few hundred pages of charts. Charts don't make a game; gameplay does.

There are times I feel charts are used in some games as filler.

Plus, I sometimes roll on a chart and "freeze up." Yes, charts can provide incredible "I did not expect that" types of experiences, but too many charts can give you this "nothing matters" feeling where the game is random chart interpretation. Sometimes, a chart result does not fit, and I do not play the game I expected or wanted. For this game, I said my "basic 32-page module experience" involves the following:

  • A wrecked car ambush.
  • A vehicle battle.
  • Getting stuck on a rutted road.
    • GM Intrusion added an ambush here.
  • The solar station.
    • GM Intrusion added a side quest here.
  • A vehicle battle on the way home.
    • GM Intrusion added the broken bus side quest after this happened.

An adventure consists of 3-5 small goals or combats, which GM Intrusions expand upon. Random charts can be used to fill in blanks, but I did not need them for two sessions, and to feel free of them for my solo gaming was nice. But I do not need charts to craft a 3-5 beat adventure structure; I will just say what will happen and play through.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

Cypher System is holding its own, and it is a challenging game for solo play. You focus on story and resource management, and you find yourself in some tough decisions. The play is also much more "loose" than a game like GURPS; you move quickly between narrative moments and handle what is essential to the story.

It reminds me of those "choose your own adventure" books in the 1990s that had some resource management, like ammo, torches, or health pools. Cypher is close in spirit to those, and the broad-brush narrative systems make refereeing this game solo easy and fun. If my driver is so tired he needs an extra day off, that is a great game experience.

The game also refuses to get bogged down in math, skill lists, and builds, which is excellent for solo play since if I did this in GURPS, my character would never have 90% of the skills he needed. He can do most tasks at a basic level and is good at driving and fixing things. That covers most of it, and the encounter level covers the rest. In 5E? Forget it, base rules plus a hacked-together road warrior style expansion, a lot of money spent, and hours to do anything simple. I would have never gotten this far in a 5E game, and I no longer need that system.

Cypher went from a game I couldn't figure out to a game I couldn't live without quickly.