Races in Numenera & the Cypher System

I love Numenera, but using a descriptor for your race bothers me. It keeps non-humans from having “regular” descriptors like charming, rugged, or lonely. And if they really want to lean into their race, they lose their choice of focus, like murders or masters insects. What can you do?

Numenera Dread Unicorn Games

Don’t use the Racial Descriptor

This is the “Doctor it hurts when I do this,” “Then stop,” solution and the one found in the Cypher System rulebook. You’re PC is a varjellen because you say they are, and you get to use any descriptor you want. You don’t get the varjellen abilities in the core book, you just use your descriptor powers.

I like this for Numenera if you make it optional, and you let your players use racial foci without the descriptor. Some players like to lean into their race.

For the Cypher System, it’s fine if it works for you, but if a player wants to really embody a race, I’ll have to look elsewhere.

Two Descriptors

I’ve heard Monte Cook and others say, “just use two descriptors for each player.” The idea is everyone gets two, and now you can be that lonely mutant you’ve always pined for. After all, real people have more than one adjective.

I like this simple change. I don’t think this makes PC’s too powerful. The descriptor does not scale with tier, so the worst effect would be a little more resilient 1st-tier PCs, not a bad thing at all.

Racial Flavors

You use flavors, from the Cypher System rulebook, to represent a race. This lets a player really lean into their golthiar character. A flavor lets the player choose to add a flavor ability, instead of a standard type ability. Just like type abilities, flavor abilities become available by tier. A player could choose to be a little more golthiarish, and a little bit less glaivish. Those are words.

The character can have access to regular descriptors and foci, yet still be cool because of their race. This allows the player to choose how much they lean into their race. One player might have one race flavor ability, the other three.

The downside is this is work. Unlike the other two solutions we talked about here, you need to come up with a few new abilities for each tier. You can always use type abilities from a variety of types.

I’ve seen a great example of using flavors for races for Cypher System fantasy in Megan Tolentino’s Fantasy Ancestries.

Slithik from The Sun Below adventures for Numenera; Dread Unicorn Games

I put in a racial descriptor and foci in The Sun Below: Sleeping Lady. Maybe I’ll put in a racial flavor in The Sun Below: That’s How the Light Gets In. No promises, but I’m kind of excited to do one.

Piggybacking Part II

Before we steal Piggybacking from GUMSHOE, check out how it works there in Piggybacking Part I.

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The Noisy Cleric Problem

The problem piggybacking solves can be found in all sorts of roleplaying games with all sorts of skills, but the example that comes to mind is sneaking into a castle in a fantasy game like Dungeons and Dragons. In fantasy books and movies, the heroes sneaking into places is a staple of the genre. In D&D games, sneaking is left to the rogue and the ranger for scouting. Once the GM tells the entire table to roll dice to see if they sneak into the castle, somebody always misses, and the exciting infiltration turns into a frontal assault.

GUMSHOE Roots

In games like TimeWatch, Nights Black Agents, or Trail of Cthulhu, the whole spend resources to piggyback fits perfectly, since they are all GUMSHOE games. Most of my players have points to spend in Infiltration, but some have zeros. Every general skill is like that. You aren’t giving the party something for free, they are spending resources they might need later to succeed now.

Let’s look at other systems. I haven’t tested these, but I will.

Cypher System Piggybacking

In games like Numenera, Predation, and The Strange, GUMSHOE style piggybacking is easy, since you’re already spending the resources of Might, Speed, and Intellect to do anything.

The expert spends from their pool as normal, but the difficulty is harder because they are pulling the rest of the party with them. For a sneak into the castle test, the expert has their difficulty raised (+2 sounds good, +1 for less than 3 followers) and uses Speed. While the expert can use their Edge to lower their costs, the followers can not. They each spend one point, no discount.

If the expert succeeds, everyone sneaks in. Move on with the adventure.

Nothing to Spend Piggybacking

In games as varied as Call of Cthulhu, 13th Age, and Dungeons and Dragons, you don’t have resources to spend to sneak into castles or climb up icy cliffs. You’ve got hit points, and while spending those might make sense in a few cases, usually not. Same with Sanity, Recoveries, or Spell Slots. These games are not about spending resources on skill tests, so it seems wrong to try and force them do that just for piggybacking.

In these games I’d boost the difficulty for the expert (+5 for d20, +25% for Call of Cthulhu), but then I’d require the rest of the party to roll just to assist. And if someone fumbles, well then, we’re right back where we started from. That’s the cost right there, the more players rolling, the greater the chance of a fumble. 🙂

 

Surprise!

Almost every roleplaying game that supports combat scenes has a rule for surprise. The surprised side gets some disadvantage, usually for the first round. Today I’m talking about when the player characters get surprised by the GM’s characters (NPCs or GMCs depending on your system), not the other way around.

SurpriseWhy bother with surprise? How does it translate into fun at your table?

  • The default kind of fun is a more challenging combat. This is a great way to stress the PCs, and is particularly fun if the players are getting just a little too cocky. How long has it been since the players sweated the outcome of a combat? Standing there with targets on their faces while the opposition gets free shots is sure to get their attention.
  • Surprise can help in world building. Maybe here in drow territory, drow have ambush points set up all over the place. You can tilt the odds of whatever surprise mechanics your system has to make it favor the drow in these encounters. As the players venture deep underground, drow ambushes become part of their world. “We go north, we need to be extra careful for drow surprises.”
  • Surprise can help in shared world building. If the dice dictate the PCs are surprised, you can ask the players “Why are you surprised?” They can come up with all sorts of explanations you would never think of: “I’m so tired. Henrik’s ghost stories didn’t let me sleep last night.”
  • Surprise can help build story. An antagonist might run ahead of the PCs, helping potential adversaries set up ambushes. Maybe it’s because they feel the PCs have cheated them. The GM can leave clues such as “this is the third ambush in a row that has the hallmarks of a Dr. Wild setup. The doctor sure seems to have it in for you.”
  • Avoiding surprise by roleplaying can be rewarding. The players may meet someone who knows about the ambush ahead. If the players make friends, they find out about it. If the players are all murder-hobos, they’ll never learn that information.
  • Avoiding surprise can be a good use of resources. Maybe use of a magic spell can reveal the ambush ahead. In a game like 13th Age, spending an icon boon could have icon send a message about the ambush. In a 5E type of game, a PC that is part of a faction may get the info as a faction favore. In a GUMSHOE game, players can spend their Sense Trouble points. The players can feel very good that they avoided walking into that trap, by spending a resource wisely to avoid it.
  • In some systems, surprising the PCs can end up giving them resources. In Numenera and other Cypher System games, the GM can just declare the party is surprised as part of a group-wide GM Intrusion. Each PC then gets an experience point.

How have you used combat surprises to make your game more fun?