Friday, March 31, 2023

Castles & Crusades, OSR, and What I Play

Castles & Crusades is still one of my go-to fantasy games. It feels just like classic AD&D, but with many modern improvements to simplify the game to play from 3x5 cards. I don't need any 5E-like OSR games; while they are fun, they don't do it all like C&C does - while still feeling like a classic experience.

It is a mix between 3E and 2E that feels right, and so many of the "charts needed to play" simply do not exist in this game - you don't need them. You have a character card and 90% of what you need to know. If you want to unify the target numbers, set them all to 18 and give +6 to primaries.

The 5E OSR clones (Shadowdark, Low Fantasy Gaming, and a few others) strip the experience down and try to provide the OSR experience through a 5E lens, which is fantastic. Those games have beautiful art and are real collector's items, but another part of me feels I have been down the niche OSR and 5E road a few times. I am not really feeling the excitement for Shadowdark, it looks fantastic, but I have shelves full of amazing OSR games I never play. I wish Shadowdark the best and hope they become a de-facto 5E OSR-style experience for many.

I have a lot of OSR games I like much better, and I have too many of them to play.

Old School Essentials does everything OSR and more, with the only difference being mechanics. I am not playing OSE, but this still stays on my shelves since it is such an incredible experience and set of rules. I can see why someone would prefer Shadowdark over OSE; infravision proliferation exists in every fantasy race except humans and halflings. There comes the point in 5E and a lot of games where "easy" takes over, and everyone wants to see in the dark, and then the referee has to account for some races having 60' or 90' ranges, and no one picks humans or non-night vision races because "who wants to be carrying torches around?"

The Shadowdark game addresses this fatal flaw and makes light sources a part of the game, which touches on our fears of the dark and that primal instinct. I like that game designers are starting to recognize this D&D problem and address it with their designs. The fear of the dark is a powerful force, and to see it marginalized in games takes away a considerable part of the fear and unknown when exploring dungeons. It doesn't help when so many races in 5E have night vision and light sources get factored out of the game.

Low Fantasy Gaming does the 5E-style grimdark experience very well, and it also addresses the night vision issue by giving no races this ability. I love LFG's take on feats since you get to make the powers and abilities up yourself (with GM approval), and every character is unique. This game also tackles many of the 5E gripes and fixes them through pools and mechanics. LFG also has many exciting classes and powers, with this "savage survival" feeling that appeals to me more than stock 5E or Shadowdark and focuses on the wilderness and exploration along with dungeons. They renamed the spells, which is annoying and cool, but I get why they did it so I can play along.

These days, I look for longevity and publisher support in a game, and I love feeling. The Shadowdark game hits those notes, but I like LFG for my 5E-style old-school games, just for the gritty feeling and innovative mechanics. Whereas Shadowdark leans more toward the OSR and even games like Lion & Dragon, LFG leans in the direction of Cypher System and even Warhammer.

The mind-blowing Appendix N game with dangerous magic and incredible feats of heroism? Dungeon Crawl Classics is my best-in-class game for that. This is OSR gaming at its finest, with all sorts of strange dice and nothing ever being the same twice. DCC is another S-Tier game for me. I am not currently playing this, but just for inspiration alone, the game is incredible.

I am currently out of the market for random OSR games and taking stock after the January OGL disaster. Many games are abandoning the OGL, which is a good thing. The next one I am looking forward to is ACKS 2 since that game fills a Middle Ages niche that I love from a historical and 4X kingdom-building point of view. ACKS has a darkness and uniqueness that sets it apart from many of the AD&D clones, and the conflict against the "Conan-style old world" and the "civilized forthcoming new world" sets the stage for everything that comes after.

Work is continuing on ACKS 2 to remove the OGL from the game, and what I have seen so far is incredible. The game is going from a B/X-style game to its own standalone game. This gives me the same feeling OSE Advanced has; the game moved away from its B/X roots to become something of its own game with its own identity.

But I keep coming back to C&C. There are a lot of flash and hot games out there, new mechanics, and some beautiful art in the newer games. I keep returning to something stable, where everyone is welcome, and the game feels like the familiar one I grew up with. I don't want a lot of complex rules, so I am stepping off the Pathfinder 2 releases for now. I don't have the time or the group to play that. Also, many of the newer PF 2 releases do not speak to me; they feel pop-culture and anime-influenced, which is not what I look for in a dungeon game. They are fine, but not for me.

Castles & Crusades is one of my S-Tier games, quickly replacing Pathfinder 1e since it does everything much more manageably and cleaner than a 3.5-era set of rules. The options and multi-class features are the absolute best in the OSR, giving you so much flexibility in creating characters that it blows my mind. Multi-classing is so much better in C&C than 5E, and this is the old-school style where you can level up both classes simultaneously, not pick and choose levels.

Playing off a 3x5 card without having to open a book feels the most like old-school gaming, and C&C does that wonderfully while still keeping the feeling of AD&D at the table, but with a modernized and streamlined flow of play.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Swords & Wizardry Complete

My heart is with Swords & Wizardry and the new Kickstarter. This is arguably the more important game to the OSR since it takes the version of the SRD rules released to the Creative Commons and rebuilds the entire game from that unassailable base. The project may use the ORC license and seeks to create a solid foundational game for 3rd-party support.

What I want in an OSR game post-OGL 2023 is something third-party publishers can build upon and support. Swords & Wizardry has always been that "OSR DNA" sort of game that many other games could be created from.

As for 5E-style modernized OSR games? I am lukewarm to them. 5E is such a behemoth at this point; playing anything like it - or with similar mechanics - feels like a diversion away from the elephant in the room. Whenever I played the 5E-like games, that feeling in the back of my head would never go away, "When are we going back to 5E again?"

I felt it with Low Fantasy Gaming, Advanced 5E, and anything else. I would feel it even with Shadowdark, but I congratulate them on their success and applaud them for their presentation and hard work. But to me, 5E will always be in the room.

And the OSR does not need 5E mechanics. I don't like the 5E advantage/disadvantage system, which has become overused and a bit too expected - and gamed - by players. The 5E mechanics don't work well in an old-school experience. There is a finality to beating an AC 13 on a to-hit roll and knowing you will miss that more than you will hit. I don't want players arguing for advantage. It is what it is.

It is good to see Swords & Wizardry back, and after the 2023 disaster, we are back to square one. The OSR has a superb new entry into the hobby - a fantastic little game called Swords & Wizardry.

And this game is out there for us to build a new future.

Using the things we know.

Science Fiction: The Sense of Wonder & Unknown

When comparing Starfinder with Numenera, I kept returning to the sense of wonder and the unknown. There is very little of the unknown in Starfinder; magic is magic, tech is tech, and I get the feeling "everything is known." If it isn't tech, it is magic - and we know both, so everything (outside of a plot) is known.

With Numenera, most of everything is unknown. You can pick up a strange artifact, know nothing about it, and be amazed when something incredible happens. Every time you play, the world could be dramatically different.

A lot of science fiction games fail this test. Star Frontiers, Traveller, Space Opera, Alien, and many other mainstream science fiction games have this "modern-day" in-space feeling, and the sense of mystery and wonder feels lacking. The Traveller game is a sort of; they have a "mystery of the ancients" subplot, but its effect on the game and mechanics is minimal.

Star Trek or GURPS has a sense of wonder if you play them right, but they feel like they default to an "everything is known" state and the effect on mechanics is minimal. I would put a lot of OSR games in this middle category, just since GM fiat with "strange magic effects with custom rules" tends to be a more significant thing in old-school modules.

Numenera, The Strange, Cypher System, Coriolis, Gamma World, Tales from the Loop, Call of Cthulhu, and surprisingly Dungeon Crawl (and Mutant Crawl) Classics have that sense of mystery and wonder, and this is reflected directly in mechanics - some more than others. In some games, there are corruption mechanics, or insanity can drive your character mad. Magic and technology are unpredictable. Some have strange artifacts you must examine to figure out what they do. In Numenera, the entire world is strange and needs to be discovered, and every game and interpretation of that world can be different.

Numenera kills it when it comes to wonder and amazement. It was so different; it felt like logging into Minecraft for the first time, not knowing what was going on, being unable to figure anything out, and quitting in frustration. This happened to me once, and then I learned things and fell in love with the game.

With many games, the only surprise lies in "what players don't know" in the treasures and monsters. We see book after book of "monsters we haven't fought yet" and "treasures we haven't seen." It feeds a content addiction, but also, this tells us the base game is devoid of rules for mystery and discovery. If all the mystery and discovery in a game is "how do we kill the next thing," I lose interest.

The game becomes a game of lifeless lists.

And many games die here for me.

Too many books, too many lists, and no room for imagination.

A lot of the fun and wonder has been lost. The feeling of discovery. The unknown. I get why some recoil at the genre when it gets too challenging and speculative. We want to return to the cave of our 5E builds, familiar rules, and our "sure things." It isn't easy or comfortable to "not know" anything. But to me, that is the heart of science fiction.

Many science fiction games are just math.

That isn't science fiction; that is math, rules, charts, and random tables painted like science fiction.

Starfinder sits in this strange space. Everything can be explained by magic or technology. It is fantastic and adventurous, but other than surprising me with a new race, item, or monster, it doesn't feel like much of the unknown is here.

And the blank space for my imagination feels filled in or quickly understood by magic or a skill roll. I can find it in a book if I don't know something. The game doesn't encourage me to make it up on my own, and free me from the chains of explanation.

Monday, March 27, 2023

Cypher: Starfinder

I love the Starfinder setting; the rules are one of the best 3.5-style science fiction games. I don't have the time to play it and manage all the characters I want to run. I tried, but when you struggle to run five characters with printouts of 4-5 pages each, you wonder if this much work is worth the trouble.

I have the same problem with Pathfinder 1 and 2. The games are far too in-depth for my time during the day, and the effort is not worth the fun I get from the system. I don't doubt the depth and detail are incredible for some players and groups; I played these and appreciate the incredible designs and options.

And I flip through the Starfinder adventures, and it is page after page of stat blocks for monsters. Yes, the challenge! But can we do better? Is roleplaying storytelling or World War II wargaming? If I want the ultimate tabletop experience, I will play Pathfinder 2.

My time with the Cypher System has really been an eye-opener. I plated rules-light narrative games such as FATE and Index Card RPG, and these are incredible games that keep character sheets simple while focusing on narrative flow. FATE is still a fantastic game, one of those classic pick-up-and-play gems.

Cypher is entirely different; it keeps play simple while providing a 5E level of depth in the character options. And it dispenses with monster stat blocks entirely. The characters aren't 4-5 page PDF printouts I feel endlessly waste paper. I can maintain sheets by hand.

With Cypher, I sit down, turn on some music, and play. Since the level of "GM prep" is near zero, I don't need to spend any time getting a dungeon laid out, encounters built, treasures stocked, monsters selected, and all sorts of flipping through GM books or adventures to begin. I use my solo-play oracle, generate some starting situations, and get playing as the Cypher System flow takes over, and "me as GM" is not rolling dice and just presenting the challenges. "Me as the player" is rolling the dice.

And if I want to rate challenges of anything from skill checks to monsters, it is all on the 1-10 scale.

What is that, those Starfinder space goblins? That would be a level 2 monster, and maybe the special ones with heavier weapons would do 4 damage on a hit. I do not need to look at stats, books, or special attacks and defenses. The low level of detail in the Starfinder game does not matter; only the general challenge level and the few special rules that may apply to a monster, such as special attacks and defenses or multiple attacks.

If I pick a monster token I know nothing about, I would guess the abilities or look it up in a book, but I keep the design fast and loose, using generalities to determine monster abilities. Weakness in an element would ease the elemental attack, whereas resistance would hinder the same. You could do elemental immunities. Armor. Special attacks. All of it is easily translated, and it is a more straightforward translation than games like GURPS or Savage Worlds.

I could use the Cypher System for the rules to play in the universe and tell stories. If I want the whole experience of the rules, I will use the rules. Right now, my playtime is minimal, and while I enjoy the whole experience of the Starfinder system, I just don't have the time to play it and maintain a collection of characters.

Is Starfinder compelling enough to play with another system? The big draw of Starfinder is the crunch and rules. The setting? It is good, but a part of me says if you want to play in that universe, use the Starfinder rules. You pay for the stat blocks and playtesting with the adventures, so you should use and appreciate them. So no, I won't convert.

I made this decision by reading the Dead Suns adventure path and realizing the structure of that module:

  • 50% is combat with finely-tuned encounters
  • 25% is exploration glue between combats (maps, etc.)
  • 25% is guidance on the DC checks needed to progress the story for the first two

Throw out the rules, and you are mostly throwing out the adventure. So to be fair, this was made to play and show off how great Starfinder is, so it is unfair to replace rules and kinda-sorta play through a story that is the glue for the encounters. I also have a problem with many Paizo adventures; they tend to focus on combat more than discovery or problem-solving - but they play to their audience, of which I am a part, so I can't complain.

I could have 80-90% of the same science-fantasy experience with Numenera. What is missing? Starships? Add them in and do inter-system travel. Star elves or any of the fun races? Add them in. Again, I hit the quandary of conversions. How much of what you like or want about the system is there, really? I feel the same with settings like the Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk; very little I like about those settings is tied to the setting itself. Dark Sun? A generic "fantasy desert survival" world with "dragon emperors" and their "sorcerer kings" painted with a roughly savage Conan-style brush would work for me. I could play that with anything from GURPS to Cypher System.

This is also the problem of current-day Wizards of the Coast. All they see is what is problematic about a setting, and they are blind to what makes a setting excellent and engaging. You could rebuild a 5E Dark Sun along the thinking I laid out, and there would not be anything problematic about it, and the setting would be re-engineered towards the flavor and fun of the original game world. Put "what is fun" on one side of the whiteboard and "what we would like to update" on the other. Make everyone oppressed by the evil rulers, and make the game about overthrowing them.

It is elementary to update these worlds, yet they don't do it.

But I feel the same way about Starfinder. My starship captain and about 4 NPCs form the group's core. None of them are strongly tied to Starfinder. As long as I have "space science fantasy" with a few "classic fantasy in space" tropes, that is 80-90% of what I want anyways. Numenera fits them well.

I am falling out of the conversion game and more just doing what I want these days or playing settings how they were intended to be played.

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Cypher: One Note Characters

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

Ah, the Empathic Speaker who Entertains.

I was trying to create a bard character in Cypher System, and I came up with this combination, and she was heavily overloaded with social abilities but could not do much else.

She was a 'one note' character; please forgive the pun.

She couldn't do much else than break the will of people's minds in roleplaying and then assist in combat - cheering on other characters as they fought the bad guys. She could not make any potent attacks; all she did was cheerlead.

She felt useless in anything other than social situations, and then she completely blew those out.

So I redesigned her with an alternate ability, gave her a secondary that did not double up social, and let her make some combat moves. After that, she was 100% better, and I felt she could contribute in more situations than just social interaction.

She was weaker in social situations but still better than everyone else. The trade-off here is that she gained many new abilities to help out in combat and skill tasks and could contribute more towards the group's success in various situations.

This is one of those pitfalls in the system, especially for new players, where you would not know you fell into a one-note trap. Stop if you see something you pick, starting to double-up on powers and bonuses. Come up with an interesting secondary set of abilities and pick that instead. Is your bard sneaky? Does your bard animate objects into dancing forms when they play? Can your bard focus sound into powerful sonic attacks?

I see a few "let's play" videos about Cypher System, and I seen one where a player felt their character could not contribute meaningfully. This may be a character design issue, a refereeing issue - or both.

Don't be afraid to pause after your first few sessions, review characters with the players, and tweak their designs based on how things are going. This can be done through XP and buying abilities, but some designs can be so tragically one-note that they should be rethought, and the player's ideas about "what they are really doing in the game" factored into a design that makes the player happy.

Suppose you have a one-note bard like that, and the player is trying to sneak around and have fun being stealthy without any help from their character's abilities. That is a warning sign that a thoughtful redesign is needed to better reflect what the player wants from the game.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Cypher: Change the World

I ran a session of Cypher where, as an experiment, I handed out experience points like popcorn. I heard all sorts of stories online about the following:

  • Players only spend XP on advancement.
  • Groups keeping two totals of XP, one for character improvement and another for player intrusions.

And I am of the Savage Worlds mindset where "XP are bennies" the more I hand out, the faster, the better the game gets. And I was right.

What happened is something I did not expect; along with player intrusions, arcs, and rerolls, players were spending XP on the other 2 and 3 XP items:

  • Narrow skills
  • Short-term benefits
  • NPC contacts
  • Dwellings, money, artifacts, and titles

And the "cold start" of the game I expected for new characters became something else entirely: the players had a say in how the game started and what they wanted to see. They got an NPC contact and a home base. One of them learned a spell to balance out their contributions in combat. They had a few new arcs. The players did not hoard those points; they used them to help create an interesting starting situation and place in the game world.

They could have saved them all and got two increases, but they ended the session with 2-4 XP each. What they didn't get in "character improvement" was a massive slice of "game world improvement." They cemented their stories and place in the world in a compelling way none of my other players' starting scenarios did. And their start was more robust and compelling than the others, and their playthrough will have a deeper and more intricate connection to the world.

Also, while player intrusions are immediate narrative changes, I may allow the 2 XP "short-term benefit" to allow players to "change the map." Players could add a dungeon, cave, bandit fort, ruined temple, or any other adventure location to an area (with GM approval) with 2 XP spent. This counts as a "short-term benefit" because the dungeon could be cleared, and the benefit is XP and treasure. The same goes for "safe spots" such as a cave to create a camp in, a secluded area, or a short-term hideout the characters could use as a temporary home base. With the XP spent, give the place the benefit of the doubt when determining encounters and if enemies can find it.

All because I was not afraid to hand out XP, and my players were not afraid to spend them.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Cypher: The Best Game to GM?

I would put Cypher System and the incredible Index Card RPG in the category "best games to GM." These two game-changers redefine the concept of tabletop gaming and deconstruct the notion of traditional tabletop games into base concepts and rebuild the entire experience from there.

I love them so much since they break with the notion that tabletop RPGs need to be complex, with paragraphs of rules for specific things, such as a wild shape, and require encyclopedias of spells, treasures, gear, and monsters. My Pathfinder 2 collection is already the size of my entire Pathfinder 1 collection, with two shelves filled, and that game isn't stopping anytime soon. Some games get too big to play, and when I sit down to referee them, my mind blanks at the complexity and scope of all the material I need to master, and I end up not playing.

With Cypher and Index Card, I will walk by a table with my current game and a few character sheets on it, and I will sit down and begin playing for a while - without touching one book. I will update my journals, advance the story, and leave it there for the next time. I don't need to sift through paragraphs of specific rules for certain situations, such as weapon length and dual wielding. Some of these "big box" games get so deep into rules entire sections get exploited, and you can see the rules bloat in every update and edition.

I like Cypher/Numenera the best since the game realizes the "5E dream" of multiclass builds without needing multiclass builds. All of the best 5E powers are in there, a step simplified, and you get to mix and match different character types and power sources, along with your "base party role." Your character is this fantastic combination of powers, background, attitude, and ability that feels like a unique combo-build 5E character designed with a few hundred dollars of add-on supplements and over a thousand pages of reading and rules synthesis.

And Cypher lets you play any combination. Do you want a magic-using fighter? You got it. A mechanic who crafts robots? A thief-druid? A barbarian bard? Anything you can imagine, you can build - and you can also create the building blocks yourself. If the game is missing something, you can quickly create the framework of the power system you want to see in the game, and it is there.

In fact, any of my 4-page Starfinder builds could be more manageable in the Cypher game than in Starfinder. Starfinder is still in that Pathfinder 1e framework, and the classes and rules are incredibly involved and detailed. While Starfinder is a fun game, how I play it does not match how it is designed.

I do broad, sweeping swaths of narrative action and story, and the individual combat stats, AC, and hit points of one space goblin do not matter to me. I don't care; this one has AC 13, and that one has AC 14 and 5 versus 7 hit points. None of that fine detail matters to me. I love the characters and story, and what ends up happening is I will play a section of the story with my nose stuck in a book or flip through PDFs for half the session.

That play experience for a creative story-based person - especially in solo play - sucks.

You repeat it enough times and eventually end up not playing the game.

And I have a stack of character printouts an inch thick that feel like a waste, and I am probably shredding them all.

Statistically, there isn't a big difference between one point of AC and two hit points. Yet, here I am, spending 5 minutes every time looking up stats and making notes before every combat. for something where the variance in the rolls of a d20 and the weapon damage dice make a 1-point difference in AC and a few hit points meaningless.

Especially when compared to the story.

I like OSR games because I know the parts stuck in my head from playing them growing up, and I do not need book references during play. But still, even though I know it all, very little of it matters, and I do not care. I end up being stuck in the same old rigid classes, buying the same old set of chainmail, and swinging a longsword at an orc. I have lost interest in the classical d20 mechanics, which no longer mean much to me. They are just a means to a combat's end and do not interest me in gaming.

Numbers and math mean very little to me compared to stories.

Games that put story and narrative over mechanics excite me. But they can't be too abstract, such as FATE, because I lose interest. There is this sweet spot of structured character builds and that point where the game says, "make the rest up yourself," and that structure draws me in. The character sheets sit on a table, the promise of immediate fun draws me in, and the game is so easy to play no book reference is needed.

Do you wonder why mobile gaming outshines consoles when compared to revenue? It is all about accessibility. Cypher and Index Card are infinitely more accessible and easy to play. I love my console games, but they have a time and a place. Cypher gives me that "big box" game feeling in a pick-up-and-play package.

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...