Friday, August 30, 2013

Unpacking Numenera's Cypher Economy

Two of my players have created characters, I’m waiting on two more, and then it’s nailing down a time and place for play (which will absolutely be after WorldCon sometime; just how long will depend on my recovery time).  As I work on a first adventure (because the four in the book are real stinkers) I’m going over the rules bit-by-bit in more depth.  One thing that stands out is how stats work.

Your character has three stats: Might, Speed, and Intellect.  Unlike most beat-the-number mechanics, your stats, by themselves, don’t modify your rolls.  They do create pools of points you can burn to modify your rolls, however.  So if you have an Intellect of 16 and you’re attempting to break a really difficult code (Target Numbers are three times Difficulty, so a Difficulty of 5 means you need to roll a 15 or better on a d20), you can choose to burn 3 points of Intellect to lower the Difficulty by one (and thus the Target Number by 3; from 15 to 12 in our example).  This lowers an Intellect pool of 16 to 13.

So far, so good.  Having high stats means you can put forth more effort (ie burn points from your pools) to make tasks easier.  (Having the right skills, tools, situation, or help can also make tasks easier.)  Things get exciting when fights and traps and such kick in because these pools are also your hit points.  Get chewed on by a Broken Hound and you’ll lose 4 points from your Might pool.  Once your Might pool drops to zero, you start losing points from your Speed pool.  Lose all the points in all three pools and you’re dead.

But wait, there’s more!  Each time a pool goes to zero, things get worse in other ways as well.  Not only do you not have any points to use from that pool to make tasks (like avoiding getting bit) easier, you also endure additional penalties.  A character with one pool at zero is impaired.  It now costs four points from a pool to lower a Difficulty by one.  They also don’t get special bennies from rolling high.  A character with two pools at zero can do nothing but move, unless one of the pools at zero is Speed, in which case they can’t even do that.

Put it all together, and you’ve got one nasty death spiral

Death spirals are generally decried as a blemish on the face of RPGs. Sure, they make sense from a simulationist point of view, but they are generally not much fun at all. They drag out combat even as they make the final result more and more a foregone conclusion. So why did Mr. Cook include such a nasty one in Numenera?

While Mr. Cook and I appear to have diametrically opposed ideas as to what makes a good adventure, I have to give the man props for his rules-design skills. Numenera has some really slick design work in it and the interaction of the death spiral and the core themes is probably the crown jewel of the book.

First, the death spiral works in steps. Yes, every time you get hurt or burn points from a stat pool, you do have fewer to work with. However, as any veteran Magic or D&D player will tell you, the only hit point that really counts is the last one. Just so in Numenera; so long as you have enough stat points to apply effort or activate a power, it doesn't appear to matter whether or not this is the last time you can do it or the first of many times.

(This assumes that powers don't stack in synergistic ways. That is, if activating your Vapor Cloud power made using your Lightning Bolt power more effective, then it might begin to matter how deep your pool was. My brief glance through the powers didn't reveal any like that, but folks who've actually played might tell a different story.)

Granted, reaching zero in a pool is a double-whammy with the damage track penalties on top of not having any more points to burn from that pool. However, it's more a stepped spiral than a sloped one; that is, until you pass over the edge of the step, things really aren't much worse from the beginning of the step to the end of the step. This gives you lots of time to see the train coming while you still have the resources to get off the tracks.

And when I say “resources” I don't just mean points in your pools. Mr. Cook is also a big fan of single-use get-out-of-jail-free cards. In Numenera, there are two kinds of such. The first is EXP. You can burn an EXP to reroll any single roll, even one you didn't roll yourself. And you can do this as often as you have EXP to burn. (Which goes very well with Numenera's the-players-roll-all-the-dice. And note that since the players roll all the dice, no dice are rolled behind the screen.)

However, the biggie is the cyphers. Cyphers are one-shot techno-magic devices that work very much like potions in D&D. However, unlike potions, cyphers are not bought or sold in shops, and they should be so ubiquitous in adventures that each player should always have a handful in their packs:

Cyphers are found with such regularity that the PCs can use them freely. There will always be more, and they’ll have different benefits. This means that in gameplay, cyphers are less like gear or treasure and more like character abilities that the players don’t choose. This leads to fun game moments where a player can say, “Well, I’ve got an X that might help in this situation,” and X is always different. X might be an explosive device, a short-range teleporter, or a force field. It might be a powerful magnet or an injection that will cure disease. It could be anything. Cyphers keep the game fresh and interesting.

And, in fact, the cyphers range from generic healing potions to devices that muck with time, or cause the PC to teleport around like a blink dog, or open up small black holes! They can give you temporary skills (“I know kung-fu!”), allow you to remotely control machines with your mind, record audio or video, or fix a nearly-unmoveable spike anywhere (even midair). And those are just the ones in the core rulebook.

The cyphers are the key to making the game work differently than other games. Numenera isn’t about playing for years before a character is allowed to teleport, travel to other dimensions, lay waste to a dozen enemies at once, or create a mechanical automaton to do his bidding. He can do it right out of the gate if he has the right cypher.

Where most RPGs are built around a leveling treadmill, Numenera is built around cypher-churn. The players should constantly have new cyphers (that is, new abilities) to play with and plan around. The game stays fresh, the players stay eager for that next cool thing, and they also stay focused on out-of-the-box thinking and going places to get more cool cyphers.

Now witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational Monte Cook:

  • Stats as fuel for special abilities plus stats as hit points creates a potentially vicious (but stepped) death spiral. 
  • Players, recognizing the dangers of the death spiral, look for ways to solve problems that avoid burning stats. Cyphers are the obvious go-to solution but... 
  •  …each player can only carry so many cyphers before they start interacting in their packs in ways reminiscent of D&D's old potion miscibility table (only without any of the good options).
  • Luckily, cyphers are plentiful for adventurous types who go places cyphers can be found.

Thus you get a benevolent feedback loop of using cyphers and hunting cyphers. Unlike old school D&D where players could wind up buried in mountains of gold, you never run out of uses for cyphers and, in fact, are encouraged to find novel uses for the things.

How does this all actually work in play? I'm anxious to find out.


Oliver said...

Man, oh man, do I agree with you about the adventures in the core book. I haven't actually played yet, either, so I'm anxious to see if the system is as smooth as it seems. Here's hoping.

trollsmyth said...

Agreed. This is the first time in a long time I've looked at a system and thought, "Ok, yeah, I can run this. It looks like fun!" as opposed to, "Oh gods, what a mess!"

tjduck85 said...

Something to keep in mind in regards to the death spiral: Many games reward you experience for killing monsters, so players purposefully put themselves into combat situations, where maintaining high HP is required. Numenera does not reward XP for monster kills, so players have no inherent incentive to fight and engage in a death spiral dance.

Matthew Miller said...

Sounds like this has some cool stuff to steal and strip in my RPG chop shop :-)

The idea of stats as pools of roll modifiers that you can burn through is neat. In BTB Numenera, are you allowed to apply these modifiers after a roll? My annoyance with the application of "hero points" et al has always been the gameplay sequence: "You miss!... ok, use a hero point, so... You hit!"

trollsmyth said...

tjduck85: Yep. In a lot of ways, Numenera reminds me very much of old school D&D.

Matthew Miller: You spend the stat pools before you make your roll. You can spend EXP for rerolls after you make the roll, but it's too late by that point to spend from the stat pools.

Which means, yes, you can burn from the pool, lower your target number, miss, and then spend an EXP to reroll still at the lowered target number. However, EXPs are harder to come by than refreshing your stat pools.

Matthew Miller said...

You spend the stat pools before you make your roll.

My favorite implementation of this kinda thing was TSR's Marvel Super Heroes, where you could announce before a roll that you were going to burn Karma points. You had to decide what level of success you wanted to achieve, roll, then (if you fall short) burn the number of Karma points required to make up the difference. If you rolled OVER your target, you still had to pay a small Karma point "fee." That way, you avoided committing a big load of Karma points to a roll that would have succeeded anyway.