A Plague of Ones, Part II The Bad and the Ugly

Now it Gets Bad.

Now it Gets Ugly.
crapIn 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.

ZzzA 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.


tpkAll 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!”

way outOr 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?

Move On

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.

A Plague of Ones, Part I

Too many Ones in a Cypher System Game? — It’s All Good

crapIn Numenera, The Strange, and all other Cypher System games, the rule is: roll a one, and 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.

Subjectively, more ones than is normal feels like a lot more. If the group’s been rolling 10% ones instead of 5%, they’re sure to notice. And claim that 25% of their rolls are ones! And since rpgs are entertainment, it’s the perception that counts.

A Plague of Ones in a Fun Encounter

This is the easy case. Everyone’s having a good time. People are laughing at all the ones showing up. (For when the Fun-O-Meter flatlines, see Part II: The Bad and the Ugly). The biggest problem is coming up with new and entertaining GM Intrusions.

Go with, or against, the theme of the game. Numenera intrusions should be high-weird. Intrusions in The Strange often work with the theme of the recursion. Playing a horror game? More horror!


Praithian War Snake from The Sun Below adventures for NumeneraOMG, another GM Intrusion, what can I do? Try another kind of GM Intrusion. You’ve been using creature intrusions? Great, now try a cypher or artifact intrusion. Or have the floor fall in, gravity reverse, objects turn into bubbles. Another foe shows up. A dead foe gets back up, always a table-pleaser. Or have the PC spring a trap.

There’s nothing wrong with going back to creature intrusions, just sprinkle some other types in between.

Environmental (climbing, crafting, and so on…)

The poor nano has rolled three ones in a row trying to climb that wall? OK, falling is good to start with, but then think outside the box. Itchy insects have a hive right where the nano puts his hand. A passerby spots them, and wants to talk. The PC gets to the top, but falls over the other side. At least they’re with the party now.

Crafting? They made something, but not what they set out to make. Perhaps it will work as intended, but have side effects, like being loud when the PCs want to be stealthy, or dripping oil on the Prince’s favorite carpet, and so on.


MasksPerhaps you started with a social faux pas or two, now what? The PC is already looking like an idiot, move on. The PC could convince an NPC to do something, but not at all what the character intended. Communication breakdown! Has the slip of the tongue implied a marriage proposal? Was the party trying to hide their true motives? Oops, they just gave them away.

Next Time

Next time we’ll look at the harder problem when people are rolling ones and the players are not having fun. Attention is flagging or maybe even people are no longer willing to engage. What will you do?