Legos: blocks of creativity and play. Most of us built with them as children, in classrooms, at home. Sets are built now to target adults, or older children, from Star Wars to NASA Rockets. They’re both the brightly colored bricks of before, and the new, less brightly but still bricks of today. Legos have always let you create worlds of wonder, places of imagination and hope, from the cute villages to massive ships. From fantastical creatures, to realistic places. It’s all in your head for you to bring to life.
The Angel’s Citadel blog, however, is about tabletop roleplaying games with a significant focus on the Cypher System from Monte Cook Games, so why am I talking about Legos, and what do Legos have to do with tabletop roleplaying games and the Cypher System? Well, like Legos, many of us played roleplaying games as children, and most of us do so now as adults. But if you think about it, each Lego kit is a toolset to create. Quite literally, you break the pieces or a previous construction down to fundamental building blocks of different shapes, and build them back up to do something new. Monte Cook Games has been releasing tool kits with the same idea behind it. Giving us the pieces to build our own worlds and adventures. Just like when we were kids with the brightly colored bricks of Legos.
It started with the release of the Cypher Core Rulebook after the resounding success of the release of the Numenera product line. That book brought more and varied foci, generic character types, many descriptors and advice on genres and how to create your own foci – the big box of legos. Not only that, with the chapters on genres, other tools were introduced, like power shifts, shock, horror mode, and madness . Then, in 2018, Monte Cook Games held a Kickstarter and revised the Cypher System Core Rulebook. One of the big things that came out of that revision was the concept of modifying types through flavors, adding yet another tool to the toolbox.
Then, out of that same 2018 Kickstarter, came the toolkit sets, each one building on the core rulebook in the form of a genre but extending and showing how you could take the pieces of the Cypher System, the Legos, and put them together to form something that felt a specific way. First, we had The Stars are Fire, a science fiction tool kit for us to travel the stars. It had, like Lego sets do, a blueprint in the form of a completed setting in the back to give you a feel for the possibilities of what could be done. However, with all these pieces we could build our own thing. And we did: Hope’s Horizon.
Next came Stay Alive which did the same thing for the horror genre, with what is probably the most toolbox-y “feel” in any of the books we’ve seen with an entire chapter filled with horror “set pieces” and a discussion about how they might fit rules-wise into your game. This was followed by We Are All Mad Here which did the same with the Fairy Tale genre, and finally Godforsaken which was just released and does the same thing with Fantasy. They have done so well, that there is a new Kickstarter called Heroes of the Cypher System ending soon that is tackling superheroes (with Claim the Sky) and everyday heroes (with First Responders).
Each of these books was designed with the philosophy of taking the idea of what you want to play and then selecting the pieces you needed to create that feel. When you play a different game, you go back into the box and pull out different pieces to create the new feel that you need. All the different pieces, like Legos themselves with the idea of simple “stackability”, are designed around the same core mechanic of setting difficulty levels and rolling against target numbers. Ultimately, these tools only give minor changes to such rules, but the idea is to shift how play feels to allow you to put together the game the way you want it to feel.
So how should this affect your gaming? This is not, strictly speaking, an idea that is or should be unique to Monte Cook Games’ properties, although they do it quite well and their products are designed around this philosophy. One of the things that is often encouraged for GM’s to do is to run multiple systems so that you get an idea both of what else is out there by way of feel and also by way of mechanics. House rules have been a thing for a very long time, and there is absolutely nothing saying that you can’t take a mechanic you like from a World of Darkness game and drop it into your Dungeons & Dragons 5E game if everyone agrees on it.
A good GM gets their ideas from all over. Like with writers, inspiration can come from anywhere and they should always be open to it. Study other systems. Talk with other GM’s. Watch live-plays of different systems. Spend time pondering what you can do with your game to make it feel more alive. Story, in our experience, is best when allowed to evolve naturally. But game feel and in particular, how the mechanic affects that feel? That should be a considered choice. It deserves your thought. But it is also not something that you have to swallow whole-cloth. You can, using a Lego analogy, take bits and pieces and craft the game you want. Some systems like Cypher, do this by design, but you are in control. You can make anything work this way with enough effort. And the payoff of a game that captures the imagination and puts you in the setting is worth it. Happy gaming!
- Joann Walles
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