Flipping the Switch – Adapting Foci and Abilities to Different Settings

In a previous post I talked about using flavors with types to make them fit your setting better. This time we’re going to talk about Foci and specific Abilities. Foci: There’s a lot of them. Some of them are even listed as genre-recommended in the Revised Cypher System Rulebook. This post is going to be less focused on the genre recommendations and more focused on how to make the flavor of the Foci fit your setting. Of course if you don’t want to do all this, each of the Genre Chapters, starting on page 252 with Fantasy, comes with a list of what Monte Cook Games recommends as appropriate Foci for a given genre. Due to Monte Cook Games’ Fan Use Policy, instead of describing the ability herein, I will give you the page number of the book you can find it in.

Let’s start off looking at two that appear to be highly science fiction, Battles Robots and Builds Robots (pages 64 and 65, respectively). When someone sees the word “robot” they tend to focus more on modern or futuristic science fiction. But the question is, how would you incorporate that into fantasy? Well, what if instead of building robots, it’s creating golems. You reflavor or reframe the abilities for them to make creatures that obey their commands. Of course, sometimes this creature escapes their creator and requires someone to fight them (Battles Robots becomes Battles Golems). Or perhaps there are gladiator arenas of man vs machine or summoned creature in your world. Either of those situations would work as a simple explanation for such Foci.

Outside of just narrative flavoring, you can also do ability swapping. Luckily the Cypher System makes it remarkably easy to do so. Each of the abilities in the Rulebook has been sorted into Low Tier, Medium Tier and High Tier categories. Usually you can just do a one-for-one swap to change the ability to fit the genre better. In the case of Build Robots (page 178) for example, you can replace something like Robot Assistant with a Loyal Companion or an NPC that would serve the same purpose of giving you an asset to tasks (see Followers, page 233). Or, if you would rather have them build the “robot” with magical components, replace Robot Assistant with Bound Magic Ally (page 115). Use whichever fits the theme of your setting better. Of course, for those of you that state that “Magical Robots” don’t belong in a fantasy setting, I’d like to state one word and point to one setting: Warforged from Eberron (a Dungeons and Dragons setting). They came into play in 2004, so I’d say there is a precedent for them to exist. However, flavoring them for your personal setting is entirely up to you to work out together between you and your players.

Loves the Void is another example. In the darkness of space no one can hear you scream. Now, this Focus, on the surface, seems to say very much, science fiction. So, what possible use could it be in fantasy. Well, what if you replaced the darkness of space with the darkness of the ocean, or perhaps even something like a demi-plane of shadow. Replace the use of vacuum suit with the ability to swim, or use a diving suit. Repairing space ships can be replaced with repairing sailing ships.

Brandishes an Exotic Shield is another one. At first glance it looks like it would be fantasy-focused, but you can use it in science fiction settings or even modern ones. Instead of a force field shield that you use in your hand, page 143, it could be a nano-created shield for science fiction, or a riot shield for modern. I personally wouldn’t change the abilities on this Focus because the entire premise of this foci is on using and having a shield regardless of the type of shield or material of construction. If my players wanted something truly unique, I would instead work with them to build an appropriate Focus using the instructions on page 80.

Now, before you get concerned about the difficulty of creating Foci, it’s actually remarkably easy. Monte Cook Games has broken up the abilities section in the Revised Cypher System Rulebook in two ways. The first way is the Ability categories and relative power. Each Ability category, starting with attack skill, page 96 is broken into three power levels. Low Tier, which means these are typically first or second tier character abilities, with judgement calls being made with regards to cost of the ability. Medium Tier, which covers third and fourth tier character abilities. High Tier, which covers fifth and sixth tier character abilities. The second breakdown is alphabetical and covers the Ability, cost and flavor text. I personally use the PDF when building Foci for the simple fact that I can flip between the Ability and it’s descriptor quickly. Or I would recommend writing down the abilities you want to investigate and then checking them. I’ve known people who write up index cards with each Ability for personal use. I can also state for my personal use I’ve used two separate programs so I can have the PDF open in multiple places at the same time. My husband, who is fond of hard copy, will sometimes have his open and then ask me about an ability and I’ll go to that page on the PDF.

In summary, the Cypher System not only has flexible building blocks that allow you to create a vast array of characters in different genres to play. They have also made it extremely easy to re-flavor the building blocks of those characters so that, with only minimal work on the GMs part, such Foci and Abilities can be used both mechanically and narratively across multiple genres. This philosophy is what is so often in the community referred to as the “Cypher way”. In other words, the focus on driving each of the components of the system down to their simplest building blocks and teaching the GM how to use those to build back up to the game that they would like to run. Doing so gives the GM an immense degree of flexibility in the types of games they can run, the types of characters they can help their players create, and the mechanical feel of different Cypher games. All of these add up to a high degree of variability in the fun one can have playing this system, and isn’t that really the point? Happy gaming!

  • Joann Walles

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