Now it Gets Bad.
Now it Gets Ugly.
In Numenera, The Strange, and all other Cypher System games, the rule is: roll a one, the GM gets a “free” GM Intrusion with no experience point award. Ones are supposed to happen. 5% of the time.
But if you game enough, you’ll be sure to run into the dreaded plague of ones. So many ones, what’s a GM to do? A lot depends on what’s going on in an encounter.
Last time we talked about the good side, when everyone is still having fun, despite the plague of ones. Now let’s look at the harder problem, where the ones are wrecking your game.
A Plague of Ones in an Encounter that is No Longer Interesting
The cypher system is made for fast, exciting combat. But if the PCs just keep missing and are running out of pool points, what do you do? (For a more general solution, see End With a Bang.)
Adding typical combat intrusions (creature/artifact/environment) will slow down combat. But there’s yet another one sitting there on the table, taunting you. We’re assuming the combat is not spiraling down the TPK drain (see below), so why not try a different kind of intrusion?
If the foes flee, combat ends, and you can move to a more interesting scene. Next time the NPCs will be better prepared for the PCs (+1 level for attacks? Return in greater numbers? Find a higher level friend?). An iron door or a force screen could stop the party from pursuing and prolonging the pain. The foes might jump through a secret door and lock it behind them. Perhaps the foes can wave some treasure, say a cypher or artifact, at the PCs as they vanish. So long, suckers!
Or, give a typical combat intrusion a silver lining that helps bring the dragging combat to a close. The artifact sword slipped out of the PC’s hand and flew across the room, but it also cleaved through a statue revealing hidden cyphers (that are perfect for ending the fight) within. A creature careens into the PC, knocking them both across the floor, but put itself in a vulnerable position for a different PC. Thanks Nojo! And sorry about the concussion…
Environmental (climbing, crafting, and so on…)
It’s not any fun anymore, so end it. Maybe give some damage for doing something dangerous like climbing, then narrate how the rest of the party got the PC over the wall. The item in the workshop broke, the PC needs new parts, so try again another session. End it and jump to an exciting scene. The workshop’s doors fly off their hinges and in comes a hulking steam powered automaton!
Same thing, wrap it up and move on. Give the PC one last insult, and show the party the door. If this is a critical plot point, an NPC can whisper to a different PC to arrange a private meeting later. “The king will never listen to you now, but the prisoners in the vineyards still need you. Meet me in the park at midnight…”
A Plague of Ones in an Encounter that Threatens to Ruin the Session
Oh noes. Too many sessions like this can kill a campaign. At least you can blame the dice.
All these ones are pointing in one direction: TPK. Move to capture or let the PCs retreat. An intrusion could set off a trap that imprisons the PC, followed by an ultimatum for a party surrender. The PC could be mind controlled. A larger trap is sprung, and the way out is blocked while more foes join in the battle. “Surrender!”
Or nudge the party into fleeing. Describe how the tide has turned against them, and the foes are trying to encircle the PCs. A friendly NPC could try and hold off the foes. “Fly, you fools!” Drop the PC down the damage track and just let them know “You still have time to flee.”
Dropping a PC down the damage track encourages them to flee as it makes the player feel vulnerable.
Environmental (climbing, crafting, and so on…)
It’s hard to see how this kind of failure would kill a session, but if the players keep hitting their head on the wall, help them move on. Leave the scene and narrate to something fun. The wall collapsed, the workshop blew up, and a week later the party reaches the baron’s tower (or whatever the next fun scene is).
It’s sad their social strategies have failed, but they did. So move on and narrate them to something exciting. If you succeed here at the tower, those back home might change their minds. But first things first. Like those giant clockwork worms heading your way. What do you do?
You see a common thread in all of these suggestions? If it’s not fun, cut the scene and move on. Sometimes groups will get stuck trying the same thing over and over again, waiting for the dice to save them. Help the players move on, and everyone will benefit.
It’s a game. It’s supposed to be fun. So when it’s not, move on.