"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017


EVEN THOUGH I AM currently running The Dracula Dossier, Monte Cook Game's Cypher System remains my current favorite RPG.  Despite all the things I love about it--the simple "on a scale of 1 to 10" resolution mechanic, the "hands free" approach to game mastering, the experience system, etc--after a lengthy Numenera campaign some of my players had concerns.  Well, perhaps "concerns" is the wrong word, but "complaints" isn't right either.  Let's just say they expressed a preference, and not exactly a new one.  As the perennial GM, I think it is crucial to listen to your players, and since the preferences they expressed exist throughout gaming circles, I thought I would share their feedback and my response to it here.

It's the d20.

Cypher works--as you may already know--by assigning a Difficulty of 1 to 10, with 1 being ridiculously easy and 10 being nearly impossible.  Applying character assets--skills, abilities, equipment, favorable conditions--lowers this Difficulty. The final Difficulty level is then multiplied by 3, giving the number you must roll equal to or higher on a d20.  It works beautifully.  

But...the d20 is a flat roll.  There is no bell curve there.  You have the same chance (5%) of rolling a 1 and triggering a free GM intrusion as you do a 20 and earning a major effect (think fumble and critical if you are an old grognard like me).  Technically you have the same chance of rolling your target number as well.  Imagine the frustration of tackling a massive, Level 6 Difficulty; you apply your skill specialization and drop it two levels to 4, and splurge on a massive three levels of effort to lower that to 1.  All you need to do is beat a 3.  Aaaaaaand then you roll a 1.

Sure, "them's the breaks" in a dice-based system.  It's been an (in)famous aspect of d20 systems for a while (and the source of innumerable D&D memes).  On the other hand I can well appreciate the player frustration of exerting such massive skill and effort to a task and still failing disastrously.  Not only that, but it tends to make games more extreme with disasters and amazing successes cropping up equally often.   

Now you may well see this as a feature rather than a flaw, and to be honest so do I.  I've heard similar complaints over the last thirty years running Call of Cthulhu with Chaosium's equally flat percentile roll, in which far too many detectives miss vital clues and expert scientists botch the most basic analyses.  Heck, that's where Trail of Cthulhu came from.  To my mind Cypher has greatly mitigated the frustrations of the old Basic Roleplaying system with ideas like assets and effort.  But for groups who dislike the flatness of the d20, there are a couple of easy fixes.


Peering back through the ages to West End Game's TORG, we find one possible solution.  TORG had an experience point/hero point combination called "Possibilities."  While used to advance characters with new skills and higher stats, they could also be spent for in-game goodies.  Like Cypher, TORG used a d20, and one of the things a player could do was spend a Possibility to ensure a roll of 10 or higher.  After spending that point, any roll of 1-9 effectively counted as a 10, while 10 or higher remained the same.

This works just as well for Cypher.  Spend an XP and guarantee a roll of 10 or higher.  This is a perfect solution for more cinematic games, where players usually succeed at the critical moment.  At the same time, experience is experience, and not something players want to spend willy nilly.  

If you really want to go over the top--and this works very well for four-color supers and cinematic secret agents--allow a player to spend two experience points for an automatic 20.


Trade in the d20 for 2d10.

This was the way Steve Jackson went with his GURPS, built around 3d6 for all die resolutions.  By making the switch, you are installing a built-in bell curve.  Behold the following graph, shamelessly borrowed Scott Boehmer's excellent discussion on 2d10 in D&D

Click me to enlarge

Making this switch, you have roughly the same chance of rolling a 10 or less, about 50% in both cases, but the likelihood of extreme rolls greatly decreases.  The odds of rolling a 1 or a 20 drops from 5% to 1%.  This has the effect of really making a character's assets and effort more important; in the example above, after dropping the Difficulty from 6 to 1 the player has a 1% chance of failing, down from 10%.  In essence, it shines the spotlight on a character's training and determination, reducing the whims of chance and fate.  On the other hand, you are greatly reducing the odds of triggering the special effects and bonuses that come with high rolls.  


1 comment:

  1. Mr. Andrew,
    This article is ancient, but I just happened upon it. I like the idea, but you didn't really expound on how the idea would change the system. Have you experimented all all with this? And how did you like it?
    Mr. Andy