OSR and Cypher walk into a bar and the bartender asks them: “What do you do now?”
Weird Minds Think Alike
These thoughts sat for a long time in my drafts folder. A few days ago I mentioned it on the CU Discord chat, and Christopher of Ganza Gaming fame said that he too has a draft on exactly the same subject. We shook hands and today you have two posts for your reading pleasure.You can read his take here. Enjoy!
I am not an old school gamer. I started playing “new school” D&D, Pathfinder and such. From there Numenera & Cypher came into my life, at a point where I was reflecting about my experiences as a player and was struggling to pinpoint all the stuff that was bothering me.
Everything clicked into place for me with Cypher. For every word Monte wrote, my brain screamed yes! It was like a cult thing. The world made sense again.
And then I discovered the OSR community. The 300 blogs DIY army, the Google+ horde. I was smitten by the amount of creativity and love produced and shared day in and day out; all the crazy ideas, plots, monsters, locations, and tables. I realized I wanted to be like them, so the blogging part of my life started. I wanted to be a part of 300 Cypher blogs. To be a part of the Cypher Unlimited Discord horde. This cross-community insight changed my life.
Somewhere along the way I figured out that the connection between these two communities is even more profound. This realization came the first time I read an ancient manuscript that outlined the sentiments of OSR gaming and was confirmed when I found other people who think the same way.
So, let’s dive in and explore all the likenesses and differences between OSR and Cypher. Yes, the title is a clickbait. I am not sorry.
Elementary Axioms & Aphorisms On Running & Playing Tabletop RPGs In The Old School Style From Ben Milton & Steven Lumpkin Assembled & Amended By David Perry Illustrated & Illuminated By Evlyn Moreau
That was the subtitle. It’s free to download if you want to read along. It is the best effort summary of OSR (though not the only one), generally held to be true and good enough for our purposes.
OSR sometimes struggles to define itself, I assume because it encompasses a lot of different ideas across a broad spectrum. The Principia Apocrypha booklet offers Ben Milton’s take as the “least wrong” definition:
The more of the following a campaign has, the more old school it is: high lethality, an open world, a lack of pre-written plot, an emphasis on creative problem solving, an exploration-centered reward system (usually XP for treasure), a disregard for “encounter balance”, and the use of random tables to generate world elements that surprise both players and referees. Also, a strong do-it-yourself attitude and a willingness to share your work and use the creativity of others in your game.
Can you feel it? Straight from the start, we have a lot of overlap with Cypher: exploration-centered rewards, disregard for balanced encounters, and an open world. Some of these are generally true in Cypher, and some might depend on your styles of play, like high lethality and lack of pre-written plots.
After that definition, the booklet gives us a “cardinal rule”:
Your Table is Yours
If I were to tell you that Monte Cook said this, it would not be a lie. Because he did.
We are already on the right track, so let’s check out some of the principles. I will not go through all of them, as some are just plain ol’ good GM advice and not strictly OSR tenants.
Rulings Over Rules
When you encounter a situation that the rules don’t seem to cover, don’t get distracted searching for it. Instead, make a common-sense ruling within the spirit of the game and move on. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Later, if you find there is in fact no rule and it could come up again, make a note of the ruling and apply it consistently.
This one might’ve been copied straight from the Cypher books, right? Cypher is designed from top to bottom to allow GMs to adjudicate using logic.
Divest Yourself Of Their Fate
There are two things here, and we find our first difference between Cypher and OSR.
As GM … you are not an antagonist to the players or characters. Nor are you an author writing their story. Portray the world and embody its denizens genuinely, as they would react to the characters’ behavior. Don’t set out to tell a story, let one emerge from the characters’ interactions with the world.
Cypher supports this principle, and although the GM can intrude in the story, this is limited as his players can refuse the intrusions.
Antagonistic GMs are directly called out in Cypher as well:
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.
The main thing that is going on here is to stay impartial. A neutral “referee” has only one option which is to rely on random dice rolls. Cypher recognizes a problem with this; random dice rolls are not equal to fun, or good stories.
Don’t randomize fun.
You can learn more about this philosophy in this video:
The Cypher system empowers GMs (and players!) to nudge the story to make it more exciting, interesting, or just to make more sense. Mind you this is not a hard rule; the GM is free to prepare random tables and roll on them if she’s inclined to do so. It is but one of many options, a tool available for crafting better stories.
Leave Preparation Flexible
Don’t prepare a plot for the players to follow.
A good, general GM-ing tip. In the words of Justin Alexander: “Don’t prep plots, prep situations.”
Don’t overdo the preparation! Keep your situation ideas loose enough that they can be adapted to the PC’s choices and the flow of the game.
The above principle is supported directly by Cypher’s “instant adventure” format. If you’ve ever read Weird Discoveries or Strange Revelations, you know what I mean. (If not get these books, you are missing out big time!)
Listen to that capricious muse, the dice. Relying only on your own imagination can become exhausting and predictable, and can feel less like a concrete world to the players.
Cypher System setting books come with loads of tables. Ruin mapping engines, weird things, monster tables, “wondrous items” and artifacts, all kinds of card decks… It’s all there, ready for rolls, but again Cypher extends this and allows GMs and players to nudge the narrative, in a mechanically sound way, if they choose so.
…But Uphold Logic
But don’t use random results to the extent that the world feels nonsensical. If there is an obvious choice, consequence, or cause, use it. This can help maintain verisimilitude and let players make reasonable plans. It also emphasizes the surprise and intrigue of the instances of randomness when you do use them. You might also customize random tables to give a more cohesive feel to your game’s setting.
Exactly! It’s like he’s trying to say something, like “Don’t randomize fun”. Right?
XP For Discovery & Adversity
XP-for-treasure is like the fuel of the game’s engine. Player decisions almost always hinge upon it. It’s also an effective control knob. By adjusting the amount of treasure available, you can control the rate of PCs leveling. And you can tailor the focus of your game by adding value to exploring wilderness, saving prisoners, acquiring books, artisanal brewing ingredients, crystallized memories…
XP for discovery always made more sense than XP for killing. It is THE standard nowadays. Let’s just pretend it was always like this. It is the only way to get XP in Cypher apart from GM intrusions.
Player Ingenuity Over Character Ability
Old school PCs are very minimalistic because the character sheet is mostly there for when players make a mistake. Players are not meant to solve problems with die rolls, but with their own ingenuity. Therefore, present them with problems that don’t require obscure knowledge, have no simple solution, but have many difficult solutions.
Personally, I always liked this. In Cypher this kind of play is regarded as a default driven by how the task resolution works. A player tells the GM what she wants to do. The GM adjudicates. Only then does the player look at her sheet to check if there is anything that might help her lower the difficulty of the task, not if she can do or not do a thing.
Cleverness Rewarded, Not Thwarted
Clever solutions to a problem should usually work, as long as they are within the realm of possibility. Be generous. If the action is unlikely or dangerous, call for a save or ability check, but only forbid a creative solution if it is clearly impossible.
Cypher difficulty system directly supports this, it’s how the game is played. Ranging from routine tasks where no roll is needed to the impossible ones, where again no roll is given. Everything in between these two extremes lies in the realm of possibility, and players can try and bring it into reality.
Ask Them How They Do It
Encourage players to interrogate the fiction of the environment “manually”, asking them to describe the manner in which they interact, rather than eliding their actions via a roll or assumed character ability. You can always grant them a roll for a discovery or insight if they give up.
Because in Cypher a roll (if needed) happens last, and before that an appropriate pool needs to be selected to determine a cost (if any), the first thing that a player needs to do is describe her action. Another out of the box OSR feature, let’s move on!
Good Items Are Unique Tools
A good tool doesn’t (only) increase PCs’ damage or add an ability bonus; it does an odd, very specific thing that is only powerful when used cleverly. This turns every problem into a puzzle and encourages creative solutions. Just don’t let magic items become superpowers that trivialize every challenge. Give them a downside, an interesting cost, or a chance to deplete each time it is used.
Oh, you are talking about the cyphers, ok.
Deadly But Avoidable Combat
Combat in old school RPGs is often neither balanced nor fair, and PCs should encounter foes far more powerful and numerous than they are. Players should learn to treat combat like real-world warfare and use ingenuity, preparation and underhanded tactics to rig the results in their favor. Encourage the players to outsmart and out- plan their enemies if they want to survive.
Now, the deadliness of combat in Cypher can vary depending on how you utilize the damage track. Characters can have a big buffer in their pools, but they are always 3 steps from death on the damage track. Some Cypher games are super deadly, like Vurt, and some just depend on the GM and the tone of the game. One more thing that increases deadliness in Cypher is that there is no fudging by the GM, as players roll for everything. A few bad defense rolls can take a character straight from being hale to being dead, in what initially seemed like a harmless situation.
Keep Up The Pressure
Whether it’s through random encounter rolls when time passes, or because the dungeon is filling with sand, or because a PC will die in 10 turns from poison, keep the players desperate and on a clock. Maintain a tension between the desire to explore and loot, and the terror of remaining too long.
As noted above, whether you prepare random tables, or even better use GM Intrusions, Cypher has you covered.
Combat As War, Not Sport
Don’t expect encounters to be “balanced”. Approach combat with as much trepidation and preparation as you would in real life. Nor are encounters self-contained. Think outside the box, outside the encounter area, outside the dungeon. Think like Sun Tzu. Think laterally or die.
There are no challenge ratings in Cypher, and no balancing apart from general guidelines for Tier 1 characters survivability. Cypoher characters that engage in combat have no guarantees of survival whatsoever.
Power Is Earned, Heroism Proven
Unlike many modern RPGs, your character starts with little power. Your meager means and abilities at first level encourage lateral thinking to get you out of trouble. Rising to a challenge (or fleeing it) means more when their life is on the line.
Finally a substantial difference, phew. Cypher characters start the game at Tier 1, which is not your meager Level 1 in D&D speak. They are already accomplished and above average. Think Level 3 or 4 in D&D. This is a conscious design choice by the system, where you start with a couple of abilities and can already accomplish minor heroic things and have fun from the get-go. That being said, the system does not prevent you from starting as a lowly peasant with nothing but pitchforks for those low fantasy grinds. You don’t even need to hack the system - just customize your characters and abilities to suit.
Devil is in the Details
Nowadays when people ask me to define the Cypher System, I tell them it’s an old school way of play with modern storytelling tools baked right in.
Of course, there are a lot of mechanical details we didn’t cover here. Such as the redux of stats from classical 6 to 3, spending those stats as pools instead of hit points, static DC numbers, and other innovative mechanics that actually separate Cypher from traditional and old school games. You may or may not like these. They click for some, like me, but seem horrible abominations to others.
The sentiment on how the game is played, what is fun and what works is shared by OSR, but mechanically Cypher is a modern system that is not afraid to break the mold and offer a new take on our favorite hobby.