Sunday, July 19, 2020

You Can't Play PARANOIA with Cypher System: Why Mechanics Matter

Cover: "Expanded Psionics Handbook"
(C) 2004 Wizards of the Coast
In 2015, a few days before my oldest son was born I decided that I wanted to grab something to read in the hospital to help distract me from the constant swirl of worries going on in my head. And to help me pass what I knew were going to be sleepless nights. I find game rules and really take up a lot of cognitive load when you are learning them, so I scanned Humble Bundle and saw the name of Bruce Cordell attached to a role playing game entitled The Strange.

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,"  
TM and © 2019 Monte Cook Games, LLC.
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.

Around the same time that the setting-neutral Cypher System came out, Humble Bundle did a PARANOIA bundle that included most of the manuals from 1st and 2nd edition versions of PARANOIA. Paranoia was a game I had heard about frequently, and have wanted to try for years. Now that I had acopy, I was disappointed by the clunky confusing mechanics, even as I absolutely adored the setting and the tone.

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.

As absurdly designed as PARANOIA's game engine is, it does what it does very well. Shootouts are wacky and incredibly lethal, PCs are bungling, the violence rapidly becomes cartoonish, fumbles are frequent and funny, characters fail forward, and death is a good mix of silly fun and a deterrent from being a total fool.

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?


  1. On the topic of ideal game experience what I find really interesting is the variations in what my players want. Some want to be the epic hero, some want to be the frustrated every-person who's in over their head, and some just want to be punished. I think that's often what drive's player preference.

  2. I have an article on this topic plan, and now I have an incentive to move it up the queue.

    The absolutely shortest version of it is that every dungeon master is a content creator, game developer, and designer. Most aren't aware of it. Once you realize that the rules are yours to hack and modify, and you do it constantly unconsciously, you can begin to do it deliberately and build a better game experience. The rules are not, and cannot be sacred in a narrative game.

    One of the most brilliant pieces of content I've ever seen is a 2016 Gongfarmer's Almanac character class for Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG called Hot Dog Suit You play a screw up from Earth who has been transported to a fantasy world with nothing but a stack of flyers and a ridiculous costume. It seems ridiculous at first glance to put this character in the same party as an immortal Elf or a mighty Barbarian, but certainly, the character who chooses it is getting to play exactly what they want.

  3. I like the system for Numenera, If I were you, try Numenera first, then get into TheStrange. The other thing is use the cards, the cards are awesome, in fact I use the cards for Traveller as well now. I like the idea of GM intrusions when someone rolls snake-eyes. You will get more insight with Numenera and then with the Strange, you'll feel more at home. My Numerera game felt like Mad-Max in one fucked up world, but my players enjoyed rolling for everything, and All I did was pull cards and rolled with the flow.

    1. Numenéra is definitely easier to get into. The world is richly detailed with hundreds hooks in a given book. I would definitely second your suggestion.

      I am not really familiar with the method for playing it with cards. Which decks are worthwhile?