GM Intrusions: What They Are and How to Use Them

So there we were, taking an evening walk after the opera when suddenly… SQUID!

One of the biggest differences between the Cypher System and its associated games (Numenera, the Strange, etc…) is the mechanic of GM Intrusions.  When I first read the idea in Numenera, I struggled with it quite a bit.  Coming from Dungeons & Dragons, the bulk of the time, the GM focuses on telling their portion of the story directly, through adventure and campaign design, reacting to character choice as an afterthought (or if that ends up being too uncomfortable, often through railroading the game).  That was what I knew.   But when the GM doesn’t roll dice, and the advice of the creators, and even the mechanics of the system encourage the GM to remain fluid in their preparation, that kind of a rigid approach doesn’t work very well.

Enter the GM Intrusion.  No preparation, no planning.  An opportunity comes along, a narrative twist or interesting set piece presents itself to your mind.  Pull two of those sexy XP cards, state you’re giving a GM Intrusion and ask if the player it applies to (or the whole group) want to accept it.  If they don’t pay an XP to reject it, they get an XP and give one to another player and you change the narrative.

Now, many times, when the GM introduces a shift, it’s a bad thing.  Like the thing (whatever it is that’s appropriate to the situation) that happens on the roll of a natural 1 on a d20.  The common gaffe here is that a player drops their weapon or does something that potentially harms another party member. But more broadly, the GM Intrusion is meant to be the method by which a GM introduces unexpected narrative tension into the game.  GM Intrusions do not have to be things that are outright bad for the players.  One of the examples used was that of going to see a monarch to negotiate a point of state.  If, on walking into the throne room, the GM introduces an Intrusion (that is not refused by the player) that as they start in, they trip over the edge of the red carpet that leads up to the throne.  This is not something that is going to harm the character physically, but it could certainly set the tone of the coming conversation and negotiations.

The GM can also give a free intrusion when a natural 1 is rolled on a task roll.  Some examples of these can be found in the Revised Cypher System Rulebook on page 411.  If you’re playing Numenera, there is even a GM Intrusion Deck that is broken into three color coded types (Combat, Interaction, and Miscellaneous).  I use it often to give quick ideas either to use wholesale, or like with the other decks, to riff off of.

The recommendation for GM Intrusions is 4 per session (depending on session length) in addition to any that are given through the roll of a natural 1 (I typically call it 1 per hour). This does several things. It keeps the XP flowing so that players have fuel to use for re-rolls, player intrusions, and forms of advancement (if you’re not simply handing out advancements based on narrative milestones as mentioned in my previous post). It allows you to react to the narrative flow of the game in a way that the players don’t feel simply railroaded (if they have XP, they can refuse it). And it allows players to participate in XP distribution as they are supposed to give a reason for the XP award they give to another player. Having another player tell you that something you did was a good job or helpful to the group always feels good. Basically, any time you, as a GM feel the inclination to roll dice (from past “training”), consider using a GM intrusion instead.

Koan Mandala wrote a very detailed blog post on GM Intrusions, ways they can be used, and considerations for them in various situations. At the very beginning of that post, he notes:

In the “Taking the Narrative by the Tail” glimmer, that narrative nature is further emphasized:

The GM intrusion is motivated solely by making the story more interesting.

We also get a clear signal on what they are not:

GM intrusions are not a way for an adversarial GM to screw over PCs or players. They are not a means of punishing players. They are not the means to make PCs constantly fumble and look like idiots.

Koan Mandala (Cypher System GM Intrusions, d20.rs, April 3, 2019), bold italic added for emphasis

Once I wrapped my head around the potential of GM Intrusions, and later the “diceless” Player Intrusion mechanic for the PC’s, it felt very much like a natural thing to me. It was one more way to drive creative storytelling without using dice, without randomizing my fun. I thought that was a very good mechanic to introduce as a core part of the system and one that fit very well with the overall thrust of the kind of game that the designers wanted to present. Happy gaming!

  • Josh Walles

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