Monday, August 31, 2020

The OSR and Cypher walk into a bar, roll a d20

By Christopher Robin Negelein

[Before I dive in, I just have to say that great minds think alike. Both and I had thoughts about how the OSR is baked into Cypher and the GM advice chapter of both Numenera and the Cypher Rulebook. It's a big subject, so we decided to split it up and tackle it in both of our unique ways. After enjoying my take, check out d20's own take!]

First, I’ll start off with reminding all of us that the Internet is the world’s biggest telephone game. Just a little over 15 years in and we can’t even remember or agree on what the “R” is OSR stands for, is it Old School Renaissance? Old School Revival? Resurrection? Recyclables? Several someones are going to claim they know and for every four posters,  I guarantee we’ll get six answers. 

For our purposes with Cypher, we’ll stick to two main OSR ideas; creating encounters with open solutions as compared to mechanically balanced combat encounters and fostering more liberal interpretation of player vs. PC intelligence as it goes hand in hand with IC vs OC table talk.*

And while most articles start with the first idea, I’m going lead with the latter. 

Gathering intelligence

You’ve probably been there when the party splits. You’re sitting, waiting your turn and listening to the other half do something on the other side of the dungeon and then you chime in. Your GM stops you and says, “Nope. You are not there, remember?” 

That’s actually a bit of confusion to untangle because which you is the GM talking about? The player or the PC?

It might seem obvious that the GM was referencing the PC, but what if the player was offer OC advice?  Lots of players in that moment don’t really designate if their comments are from themselves or their tabletop avatar. (This is why I have a character voice, people! And no one really talks about this grey area until it comes up in play, so it’s something to add for your next Session 0 chat.)

For some GMs, they only want the active players to be active. If your PC isn’t there, you are automatically a passive audience so their edict cuts both ways. The OSR, though, takes a different tact. (Remember kids! There’s no wrong way to play and this is a column about doing things different, not saying one way is better than another!)

OSR GMs are perfectly fine with all the players at the table contributing, even if their PCs are absent from the scene. Table talk and scheme between players is not only permitted, but encouraged. Better yet, Cypher also encourages this model with not only mechanically but also in the advice of the Cypher System Rulebook (Dealing With Character Abilities, CSR p. 385 and Encouraging Player Creativity, CSR p. 387). 

In a game where PC already start as competent heroes and the Intellect Pool/ Edge are abstractions, you can manage to claim that your character has at least average intelligence.  And even people with average intelligence can have an epiphany in problem solving.

Your hero might not be a mental battery and others can focus on a problem far longer than you, but a low pool and no Edge only means someone is “dumb” if the player wants to play it that way. 

So every event the party faces becomes a chance for collaborative problem solving that goes beyond just literal dungeon puzzle traps. For such a crew, a dragon sitting on a horde of treasure is not a mere martial challenge, but a lock waiting for the right key thought to open up opportunities for the party.

I can see how for a lot of GMs that might seem like a nightmare, but it’s a style that’s a perfect fit for Cypher and its innovations to your improvising.

It is what it is

With this OSR atmosphere at the table, designing encounters in the Cypher mindset becomes easier to understand. Combat is but one possible strategy to solving a problem (Resolving Encounters, CSR p. 403), which makes sense. The question is how do you build such encounters and how to you reward XP for them?

Both OSRians and Cyphans will tell you to create situations, instead of“encounters” and let the number fall where they fall. In a sandbox OSR setting, you put a dragon in a mountain where it seems cool to so. If the heroes wander in that direction, they may meet the dragon - with no CR safety net. 

But it’s not just like the PCs walked around the bend and BAM there’s a gout of dragon’s breath cooking them up in their armor like some tasty campfire corn on the cob in tin foil.

Nope. They see charred houses and entire cows eaten in half as the sooty mountain comes into view. As they insist on getting closer, they keep getting more and more clues that say, “This scaly mofo is going to make lunch out of you.” They may even see the enormous creature flying from on high and do the the math on how they are outweighed they are by several tons. 

Then table talk and strategy begins.

They ask the GM questions. He sends them on side quests for the information they need. They decide the juice isn’t worth the squeeze and head in another direction. Or they make plans and the GM offers information and advice that their PC may know as compared to player who don’t. And then the party makes their move to trick or steal or even lay a trap that produces a reward even if the dragon is still alive -- and peeved-- by the time the players close their books and schedule out next week's game. 

Simply, you design the world as it should be -- for a world with magic and miracles. Provide your players with opportunities to get information, or get into mischief, and let them entertain you. Things like overarching plot and fictions sort of fall into place as the group creates a history of consequences with their interactions and deeds. 

In other words, if you base a whole plotline on the PCs fleeing the tower to get away from the mutants, but instead they manage to drive the mutants out instead, all your plans are wasted.

Plan for various possible outcomes, but don’t predetermine them. Think of your story as having many possible plotlines, not just one.

-- CSR, p. 403

And XP, how does that work?

For Cypher, XP works out in a very OSR style by rewarding exploration and discovery. It’s that simple for a Cyphan GM. 

For those curious about how the OSR does it in d20; it’s mostly by giving out a lot more XP for gold as compared to killing. What also helps is that OSR style combat usually very deadly. With money AND staying alive being bigger motivators, it becomes more enticing to get ahead financial without risking life and limb to do so.  

Of which the TL; DR version would be “The biggest difference between Cypher and the OSR is if you want the PCs to live to see all your weird creations or recycle the ones no one saw because they all died.”

Stay weird, have fun. 
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*Two philosophies that have been a thorn in the side of CRPGs until recently. Oh? What is that “C” for? It stands for Computer Role Playing Game and was used quite often in the stone age of video games until the AAA companies got tired of getting grief being only able to model the dungeoneering part of the game and pushed to drop the C. Lazy video game journalist helped with that (it was just one letter, guys!) So that’s why the hobby that started it all has to add “TT” to the front RPG while somehow the offspring hobby is now the default spelling. 

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