Monday, August 31, 2020

Bespoke Cypher Skill Lists

 By Christopher Robin Negelein

I admit that I get impatient when I start a new campaign. I’ve spent months designing the plot, the world and some set pieces that I used to rush through character creation. Not the “here your backstory and motivation and the whys of why you all hang out,” but the mechanics of it. Cypher makes this even more tempting it makes character creation a breeze. 

But when I refuse that temptation and give a little extra attention to the skills my players have picked for their PCs, I’ve discovered a great tool for reinforcing the feel for the genre and power level of the game. By using these guidelines below, I’ve been surprised at how two Cypher games can feel completely different. 

When you dig into the Cypher System Rulebook, you’ll find Customizing Descriptors sidebar, p. 67, there are two types of skills, narrow skills like Running or Computer Code or Deceiving and then also broad skills like traditional areas of knowledge like Geology and other -ologies. There are over 70 such skills listed throughout the book.

I’m vague on the exact count because when you get into the Descriptors section, a “Skill” also becomes a set of actions or tasks that you are trained in, such as, “... all tasks involving training, riding, or placating natural animals,” or “all tasks involving identifying or using natural plants.” And for actions we have, “... involve seeing through a trick, illusion,rhetorical ruse designed to evade the issue,or lie.” And of course, as ever Speaker knows, there’s skill in “pleasant social interactions.” 

Essentially then a Skill is training that counts towards the Skill category for reducing a task difficulty.

Many generic systems have skill set that are either very encompassing (as in Savage Worlds were Guns covers from small firearms to capital ship weapon systems)  or are much more defined (see GURPS and - in a way - HERO.) Either way, the designer puts their stamp on the world and implies a set of expectations. 

But Cypher is a generic system based on two previous games that came with settings.  Out of that context, these skills suddenly become much more flexible. And while some of them may seem vague at first, it’s feature not a bug.  

Using  the Cypher Skill sidebar, p. 20, and the optional Skills rules in my Cruel Stars: Characters,  a Cypher GM and her crew have a methodology for customizing a skill list towards each new world they create.

A GM should let their players highlight the initial skill list as they create their characters. Also pay attention to the higher tiers of Types and Focus to see where other skills might come into play. 

Then the GM should divide the list into broad and narrow categories (tasks, actions and interactions skills will fall into the broad skill set.) Then review the list with your upcoming campaign in mind and be willing to tweak the list.

Planning a pulpy game of super competent protagonists?  Roll some narrow skills into a new broad skill. 

Have a setting that focuses on group with lots of shared background and some niche protection. Then break out a broad skill, like  Archaeology, into a few narrow ones like Archaeology - excavation, Archaeology - carbon dating and Archaeology - Mayan culture. You could even follow suit with the new Numenera rules and declare which skills give inabilities to the untrained. 

If a player still wants to have skill that overlaps with the skill in another player’s type or descriptor, you can off them them the long-term benefit of familiarity, p. 222, of a +1 for 3 XP. 

You could even let the Focus version of the skill determine the upper limit of what could be done to cast that PC as the best in their field. That freedom fighter who Builds Robots can control Level 2 droids, any other PC can only partially control Level 1 droids at best. With a little imagination, there are dozens of tweaks a GM could do. 

The final step is see if there are any holes missing in your list as it relates to your game. Things to address the genre or themes in your game, like steampunk or crystal frequencies. The trick being not to make up a new skill, but to slow down and see how a current skill in your list can be reskinned for a better fit. Builds Robots can become Builds Golems and anything with machines can be used for steampunk as well as a machine shop. Odds are that the need for a completely new skill will be rare.

Thus the final moral of our little story today is that a little focused prep on your Cypher campaign list can reap big rewards in customizing Cypher for your needs. Go forth, make worlds.

Go, Ganza, go!

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