Adapt, Don’t Convert

One of the great things to me about the hobby of Tabletop Roleplaying Games is that there is such a wide variety of games out there.  With the advent of publishing platforms like DriveThruRPG, it has never been easier to make your own game, which has resulted in a flood of third party publishers making specialty games where it used to be only companies like FASA, TSR (now Wizards of the Coast), Catalyst Game Labs, Steve Jackson Games, and others.  In my mind, this is a very good thing for gaming because it means that the barrier of entry is lower.  Want to learn to play roleplaying games but aren’t interested in swords and sorcery?  No problem, we can find something out there that interests you.

There are a few games on the market, the Cypher System being one (GURPS, FATE, and others join it), that try to be flexible enough to tackle a wide-variety of game themes.  Some, like GURPS, do this with exhaustive mechanics.  Others, like FATE and the Cypher System take a different approach, trying to offer a varied experience through rule simplification (or perhaps more accurately stated, rule abstraction) and encouragement of narrative freedom and improvisation.  Both of these approaches have things to recommend them.  Since this is, however, primarily a Cypher System blog, I’m going to discuss the “Cypher way” of looking at flexible approach gaming.

With roleplaying becoming a much more accepted hobby than it has been in the past, we find more and more coming to Cypher System from another system rather than with no background at all.  Because of their market share, many of these have been players of Dungeons & Dragons, but many other games are represented as well.  One of the most frequent things I see when this happens is that the new Cypher player will read the rules, then ask where some concept is that they had in their previous game.  When they are told it isn’t there, that it has been abstracted, and either shown the concept that covers that mechanic or have it explained that it is a narrative function and not a mechanical one, they get confused.  Then, and this is where I struggle, they assume that the system is broken and that they need to add mechanics to fix it.  That, in my opinion is a trap.

The Cypher System, by design, does not attempt to approximate the mechanics of other games.  If you are looking for the tactical level of depth espoused by games like Dungeons & Dragons, Battletech/Mechwarrior, Shadowrun, or other such games, you’re not going to find it.  That is not an oversight, it was a design goal.  The Cypher System is about telling stories.  Paced, exciting stories with sweeping narratives and powerful characters doing cool things.  That is not to say that such stories cannot be told with other systems.  But the focus is different.  In Dungeons & Dragons, you can tell a sweeping combat with description and detail, but at its core, it is a mechanical, tactical thing.  The narrative is added on.  With the Cypher System, I submit that the narrative is the thing and the mechanics are what is added on to give it a little bit of structure.

So what is one to do?  You want to bring some of the excitement or setting or whatever you enjoyed from a previous game to the table in Cypher.  Great!  That’s a fantastic idea!  You simply need to throw out the idea of recreating that game mechanically in Cypher.  In other words, Adapt, don’t Convert the game.  The key here is thinking about and understanding what makes that game feel so compelling to you.  Is it a sweeping fantasy with massive beasts, power-hungry rulers, and cruel and mysterious villains?  Is it an epic science fiction space opera where you discover strange creatures and boldly go where no galaxy mapper has gone before?  Cypher will do all this and more.  But the point is not to recreate the mechanic.  It is to recreate the feel of the stories.  The grip on your imagination.  That, in a nutshell, is the “Cypher way”.

Use the tools that the system gives you.  Use them in narratively exciting and new ways, to be sure, but consider the advice given:

“Don’t call for die rolls when they’re not really needed. Sometimes GMs fall into the trap illustrated by this dialogue:

GM: What do you do?

Player: I ______.

GM: Okay, give me a roll.

“That’s not a good instinct—at least, not for the Cypher System. Players should roll when it’s interesting or exciting. Otherwise, they should just do what they do.”

Revised Cypher System Rulebook, p. 406

The feeling of this comment is very much one of, “We understand that other systems make you roll dice for a lot of different things.  We’re trying to handle this differently.  So set that instinct aside while you’re playing Cypher System and let’s try something different.”  The Cypher System version of “reach for the dice” is “use a GM Intrusion”.  Does something need to complicate the character’s progress?  It’s a GMI.  Is there an opportunity for a cool side scene that pops up or a narrative twist?  It’s a GMI.  Don’t roll for it, DO it.  Inject the feel of whatever you’re trying to bring into the Cypher System in your storytelling and your use of GM Intrusions.  Potentially even using optional rules like Horror Mode or Power Shifts.  But don’t add rules just to add rules.  You’re missing the point of the system if you do.

Now, with all this being said, am I telling you that you can’t run the game you want to run?  Of course I’m not.  Your table, your rules.  But I am saying that in my experience, truly understanding a system is almost universally a prerequisite to being able to effectively modify one.  Rather than immediately trying to remodel the house, live in it for a bit.  See how it settles.  Sleep on it a few times even.  You might find that the designer did indeed have good reasons for doing what they did and changing it would have unintended consequences.  Perhaps even try a different approach.  Instead of making Cypher a copy of a game you came from, make Cypher feel like the game you came from, only simpler.  You might even find it more fun doing so.  For more discussion on this topic, the guys over at Cypher Unlimited had a discussion about it with the amazing Chris Negelein of Ganza Gaming that you can find HERE.  Happy gaming!

  • Josh Walles

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2 thoughts on “Adapt, Don’t Convert

  1. It’s interesting thinking back over my years of playing D&D. When I started back with 2e, combat was abstract, not grid based. I didn’t start heavily using them until recently, and the game does work fine without them. Applying that same concept to D&D and other systems, there’s plenty of things that still work well in the abstract. That’s not to say that a more concrete system isn’t helpful in many instances. I think there’s a balance and we’re used to one of the extremes.

    On a separate note, even though most systems use a sort of skill check to indicate a chance of failure, it’s frequently overused and for various reasons. While everything a character tries shouldn’t automatically succeed, they shouldn’t be rolling every five minutes either. They should be deliberate and with meaning. Thinking about it, I’m not sure why we do it, but, I have an idea: rather than directly having something happen to a character, even if it’s a minor thing such as stepping in a puddle, GMs use those checks to absolve themselves of doing things directly to characters, shifting liability to the dice. As players, we’re notoriously protective of our characters and DMs taking away our choice (or illusion thereof). It seems to me excessive checks are a symptom of a lack of trust between players and DMs.


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