|Cover: "Expanded Psionics Handbook"
(C) 2004 Wizards of the Coast
I knew Cordell's name from one of my favourite books for Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, the Expanded Psionics Handbook. The bundle had a half-dozen books in it, and, while the website was absolutely useless, the art for The Strange looked fantastic. I grabbed the bundle, and started skimming the introductory text as my wife and I played the waiting game for her to go to into labour
As you can imagine, I got very little actual reading done. At least, not until my son was almost ready to come home from the hospital.
I fell in love instantly with The Cypher System that served as the backbone for The Strange. It was smart, light, and easy to run. It focussed a great deal on DM Fiat and building trust between players and Dungeon Master. It also included a few of the story game innovations that I actually like, like on-the-fly character building.
|"The City of Juvanom,"
I actually found The Strange was, in practice, hard to run. Its so broad in scope and it can be hard to figure out how you are going to have your Estate agents get into the trouble that will take you to the reality of your choice. When the generic Cypher System Role-Playing Game came out a few months later, I bought it within an hour of it going live on DrivethruRPG.
(I have also since become addicted to setting books for Numénera.)
Cypher System is by far one of the cooler role-playing games I have looked at in the last few years. Very early on, I did a number of game adaptations using the Cypher System. For example, I had players who had never played the original Fallout game, so I played it as a Cypher System scenario for them. I also created a "Cypherrun" document that adapts Shadowrun for play in Cypher system because I love the 6th World, but hate the game engine it runs on. I have also done janky adaptations of Deadlands, the video game Bastion, and Rifts using the Cypher System. I'm put a lot of effort into trying to adapt classic role-playing games to it over the last few years.
Naturally, I tried using my go-to engine to build a better PARANOIA: I started tinkering with building a Cypher System adaptation. And I failed miserably.
Here's the thing: PARANOIA is a game about being completely out of your depth. You are incompetent, under-equipped, uninformed, surrounded by back-biters, and answerable to a deranged computer that will kill you for incompetence, excessive competence, grievous stupidity, or being too clever. Much of the fun of the game is that PCs are reduced to smouldering ash with insane regularity, only to be replaced by a near-perfect clone. Racing to see who can get whom disintegrated by passing blame is a core part of PARANOIA's entertainment value.
Cypher System cannot readily replicate that. Characters in Cypher System are assumed - and structured - to be confident. Players are in control of the narrative through XP expenditure. The XP-sharing system takes away the incentives for treachery. Moreover, the way damage is handled makes disintegrating a Cypher System character in stray laser fire pretty difficult. By the time you separate the resource pools from damage, strip out the Intrusion system, write a collection of character descriptors that allow for bungling, add in a fumble mechanic, and change the way weapons work, you don't have much of Cypher System left. You are better off just using PARANOIA.
My playtests of "Cypher-noia" tended to turn into gruelling PvP death matches that dragged on too long. And you found yourself asking why you didn't just gun down your superior officers. The lies and deceit practiced at a PARANOIA table became resource bidding wars about who was willing to spend the most Intellect points to be believed.
This was a revelation for me at the time. The engine of the game wasn't just a tool for resolving uncertain outcomes to the game: it subtly sets the tone of the game. It facilitates the style of play. The wrong combination of engine and setting strips the fun and functionality out of the game.
As I have moved into OSR gaming and began looking for ways to balance gaming and the demands of parenting, I have also noticed that the right mechanics vastly improves play. The newer 2017 edition of PARANOIA, for example, uses bluffing card games, character generation that is designed to encourage a mildly adversarial climate, and a character advancement system that rewards conniving. The mechanics complement the game play, and make the game play experience more immersive.
This might be the next imperative in RPG development: focusing not just on which engine or rules we want to use, but which mechanics best create the game play and experience that we want to offer our players.
I think that is some of the genius of both the OSR and PbtA (and, for that matter, Tunnel Goons) developer crowds: they are taking familiar games and figuring out which rules and hacks help them create a streamlined experience appropriate to the genre and experience they are aiming for.
So the big question worth exploring becomes: How do we know which rules promote our ideal game experience?