The GM intrusion is my favorite Cypher System mechanic. In this post, I try to go beyond the basics and offer a few advanced tips.
Let’s quickly cover the basics and establish a good point of reference. High Lord and Savior, Father Monte says this:
GM intrusion is the main mechanic that the GM uses to inject drama and additional excitement into the game.
In the “Taking the Narrative by the Tail” glimmer, that narrative nature is further emphasized:
The GM intrusion is motivated solely by making the story more interesting.
We also get a clear signal on what they are not:
GM intrusions are not a way for an adversarial GM to screw over PCs or players. They are not a means of punishing players. They are not the means to make PCs constantly fumble and look like idiots.
GMIs & Player Agency
Reading the rules, you will find that the matter of a player being able to react to the intrusion or not is left open. Both are viable options, and choosing one depends on the situation and story needs.
From practice, I can tell you that there are players sensitive to the idea of the GM removing their agency, for example not allowing a saving throw as a reaction to an intrusion. If this is true for your table, make sure that your GMIs always leave room for a player reaction roll. As a rule of thumb, you should allow a reaction roll every time a target of the intrusion is a character’s stat pool, their damage track or any kind of status effect. Think: falling, getting poisoned, getting smashed, teleported, eaten, dimensioned and other horrible stuff that might impact the character in a major way. GMs always have an opportunity to apply states and effects directly without a reaction roll when fumbles occur (if narratively appropriate).
Further, some may be put off by the meta nature of the mechanic, and complain how something described by the GM during an intrusion suddenly vanishes if the player refuses. If you have old grizzled vets like that at your table, make sure that your intrusions have an in-game reason to disappear if refused. This of course assumes the GM tells what the intrusion is before the player accepts, which we discuss further down the article.
With the two problems described above in mind, here is a simple example of a non-meta, agency-friendly GM intrusion:
GM (holds 2XP): “Past the corner, a group of bandits suddenly show up on the road ahead. They don’t seem to spot you yet.” (This last part is essential as it allows a reaction.)
Player (takes XP): “I signal the party to stop and disperse before I jump into the ditch by the road to hide.” (rolls SPEED)
GM: “You hide in time, the bandits pass you without noticing.”
Here’s the same example intrusion but refused:
GM (holds 2XP): “Past the corner, a group of bandits suddenly show up on the road ahead. They don’t seem to spot you yet.”
Player (hands over 1XP): “No thank you, evil!”
GM: “In that one moment you thought you were toast, but fortunately they took a left turn and went the other way, without noticing you. You sweep the sweat from your forehead and kiss your lucky charm.” (Look ma, no meta!)
Apart from being meta-player-friendly, this intrusion example introduces the “wandering monster” into the scene at the most appropriate moment (or so the GM hopes). I might have instead prepared a table with random encounters, but using GMIs, I can quickly pick one that fits the scene best. As Father Monte likes to say: “Don’t randomize the fun, my dear child. The chaos will come from within.”
Complications vs. Plot
Sometimes players complicate situations for themselves, no GM needed. Once I was asked what the difference was between a plot/scenario and a complication?
The trick here is to be transparent with players how their actions affect the world they interact with. They pissed off the king, and sure he will send his guards after them, but at which point exactly will the guards catch up with the party? This is the narrative scope best handled with GM intrusions.
PCs killed someone? Detectives will show up at exactly the right time (narratively speaking) on their doorsteps, asking questions.
That merchant they robbed? His brother is the guy who has the information they need desperately. What a small world.
That boy they saved? His father is the High Lord, it turns out.
Deepening the Narrative
Usually, the target of the intrusion needs to handle the complication, but let’s switch things up a bit.
GM: Arrows start zipping around you, it seems they are coming from your left, what do you do?
Bruce: “I take cover behind the pillar.”
GM (offers 2XP to Diana but talks to Bruce): “You peek around the pillar and see that an archer has Diana in sight. Diana has no time to react. What do you do?”
Here we came up with a complication for Diana and offered her 2XP, but the reaction is on Bruce as Diana has no time to act. We created additional tension in the scene where players need to extend their team play in order to tackle the offered complication. Will Bruce react and jump to save Diana, or not? Will Diana pass that 1 XP to him if he does it or not? We’ve set the scene up and posed an interesting question that players need to answer. Their actions may bond their characters or affect them negatively. Either way, we are deepening the narrative.
Tell or Don’t Tell
There were discussions on whether a GM should announce the specifics of the intrusion or not, but I am not sure if the community arrived at any conclusion or consensus (god forbid). I actually do both, depending on a few factors.
When I want to “sell” an intrusion to players, I tell. I want to “sell” an intrusion every time I feel strongly about it, when I really feel it will enrich the narrative and need my players on board. I might even up the ante and do a group intrusion, which is more costly for the group to refuse.
I don’t tell when I just want to tease a player or have an intrusion which is not that important for the narrative, but might be a fun twist that happens. I also don’t tell general purpose intrusions that, if refused, I might reuse later on.
So if it’s a specific story thing that revolves around a player narrative or a scene, I like to tell and get players excited. But if it’s a regular run of the mill intrusion that can be reused, I don’t tell and only tease by waving the XP cards.
You might also be in a situation where players have a high level of trust in you and your narrative style, so that you don’t need to tell, as you know that they are on board with your GM-ing ways and tend to accept them most of the time.
Tracking Things with GMIs
Another great use is that we can delegate most of the resource tracking to GMIs. No need to worry if your players are tracking ammo count. Wait for that critical shot, that crucial moment where a hit is a matter of life and death. Of course, there is only one bullet left. It’s just good storytelling.
If you are not playing a survival game, tracking food and water is a bore most of the time. Wait for that perfect opportunity to jump scare their mounts, and off they go with all of the supplies. I swear there is one such scene in every book I read.
Are the characters encumbered? It’s probably not crucial until that dragon gives chase, and they need to run for their lives and also carry all that gold they stole from him. Now that is an exciting complication - will they drop the gold to save their lives, or will their greed be the end of them?
The initiative mechanic is also one of the things I solve with GMIs. Who goes first? Well, if I want to surprise attack my players, that is a GMI right there, else they always go first. If I want to interrupt their order - GMI. If I feel that the monster action economy will turn the encounter short and bland - group GMI for some extra special attacks to spice up that encounter.
Using GMIs at the Table
The main problem I had when starting out with Cypher was to remember to use GMIs. Here are a couple of tricks that will ease that task.
Buy and use the GMI deck for those games where you are low on inspiration. Just flip a card, and you are good to go. The deck covers combat, social interactions, and miscellaneous situations. Cards are color-coded, so you always know from which pile to pull a card.
Start each session with a GMI. Matt Colville once said that the hardest thing for him is that moment where he needs to move from friendly chat to the start of the session. I do it by grabbing a handful of XP and handing them over to the players. Oh, you can bet your shins that everyone immediately shuts up and starts looking at their sheets.
This is a great way to start the game on a positive note and get players interacting with the world, without that slight awkwardness when shifting from reality to fantasy.
This great addition came as a part of Numenera Discovery, where each Type has a couple of options for intruding into the story for 1XP. If you have problems with players hoarding XP for character advancement, this along with other options for short and mid-term XP spending should hopefully sort out the problem. Additionally, I recommend you print out all XP spending options and have it available at the table as an incentive.
Here is one more trick you can use for those Tier hungry folks. Allow your players to spend XP to activate a higher Tier ability. I stole this idea from the Cypher Speak podcast. Make sure to check them out, Darcy and Troy are full of wicked idea gems.
Heed these words of warning: Do not offer more than 2 XP for a GMI, as you will set an expectation that the amount is negotiable. As a GM you will lose out on that in the long run, which will make you do fewer intrusions, which in turn will screw up your XP economy. Stick to the fixed price of 2XP.
Four GMIs per session is a recommended amount by Monte. Make sure to keep that XP flowing, as you don’t want to create an inflation of XP value via scarcity. Inflation will lead players to hoard XP, spending it only on Tier advancements. Players should get 2 to 4 XP per session.
Let me know in the comments about cool techniques and ways you use intrusions in your own games.