Why Game Balance Doesn’t Matter…

… in the Cypher System

Jumping from one car toward another while capping the driver through the roof? I’ll take Bad-ass Super-spies for $500, Alex

I have heard the story countless times.  For whatever reason, the one that sticks out most recently lately is the Dungeon & Dragons adventure book Curse of Strahd.  A group of players goes through the adventure and gets to the climactic battle.  The story ends in one of two ways as I’ve heard it.  Either Strahd wipes the floor with the PC’s in a TPK and goes about his business, or the PC’s end the fight in one to two rounds and the GM is left wondering what to do for the next couple of hours of game session.

Now, let me be clear.  I am not suggesting that in a great many games, game balance isn’t something that a GM needs to consider.  It is not very fun for players to run their party of first level adventurers up against the Tarrasque… riding Tiamat… at, you know, Cthulhu’s behest.  Neither is it much fun for a GM (or perhaps even the players) to have their mid- to high-level PC’s curb stomp an encounter that the GM carefully tried to craft simply because of bad dice rolls, or worse, selecting the wrong challenge.

However, as I mention in a previous post, the Cypher System, by design, is not a combat-focused (nor, by extension, a tactically-focused) game.  This is not to say that you cannot do tactical combat in the Cypher System.  You can, but it was not the design intent.  So, what does that mean for Game Balance (which typically shows up most often in combat) in the Cypher System?

The Cypher System lets you, as the GM, play fast and loose with combat and other encounters.  The practical upside to this is that you have a vastly more intimate control over the pacing of those encounters.  Combined with the fact that at low Tiers, PC’s are actually fairly capable already when compared with a singular or even low multiples of NPC’s or creatures, this makes a versatile combination.  While there is some advice for what would be a “challenging” encounter in the Revised Cypher System Rulebook on page 435, this is not anything close to the Challenge Rating tables (and the associated fractional math) of Dungeons & Dragons.  With as flexible and “stat”-lite as monsters/NPC’s in the Cypher System are, it is a relatively easy matter to adjust difficulty level with a narrative explanation.  Giving something armor, or making it hurt to start the fight or any myriad of other reasons can tailor the encounter to the capability of the players on-the-fly.

Thinking about non-combat situations is even easier using the Cypher paradigm.  If you’re focused on telling an amazing story, let the players do amazing things.  Take the Focus “Exists Partially Out of Phase” for example.  You can basically see or walk through walls.  Don’t think in terms of making walls that a player can’t get through.  The action is on the other side of that wall.  Get them in there.  Let the player walk right through.  It’s what that character does.  Don’t look at it as “game-breaking”.  Expect it, and look at it as AWESOME, because that’s what it is.  Players and their characters doing awesome stuff.

From the standpoint of the system’s namesake, Cyphers, the Revised Cypher System Rulebook has this to say which hopefully gives you a bit of a feel for the thought process behind the design (bold italics added for emphasis):

First of all, most of them don’t throw a wrench into anything—they just help the character deal with a situation in a faster way, giving them some healing, a temporary boost, or a one-use offensive power. Second, the PCs never end up with a cypher that you didn’t give them, so you can have as much say over their cyphers as you want. And third (and perhaps most important), when a PC pulls out a detonation cypher and blows up the lead wagon in the caravan, completely changing the situation, that’s part of the fun. You’ll have to figure out on the fly what happens next, and so will the players. That’s not ruining things—that’s what is supposed to happen. Players surprising the GM is part of the game. Cyphers just make those surprises more frequent, and in ways as interesting as you’re willing to allow.

Revised Cypher System Rulebook, page 419

Even more fundamentally than that is the idea of rolling dice. In the Cypher System, it is usually not a useful thought process to think in terms of, “I want to do <insert the thing here>”, “OK, give me a roll”. Players should roll only when it’s interesting or adds excitement. Monte Cook and Darcy Ross made an excellent video called Don’t Randomize Fun that discusses this in depth. It’s about an hour long but well worth the time. There’s an article that covers the same subject if you’d rather read it called Do Not Let the Dice Fall Where They May.

As a Cypher GM, remember: You are not playing against the players.  You are playing with them.  You are their cheerleader, their partner, their advocate, just as they are yours.  Work together, and tell an awesome story, one that will live vividly in your minds for years to come.  At that point, are you really going to remember how mechanically balanced the adventure was, or are you going to remember how excited everyone at your table was to do something awesome?  I know what my answer is, and Joann and I have the stories to back it up, things that we still talk about with our friends years later.  Happy gaming!

  • Josh Walles

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