Cypher System – Increasing difficulty without increasing frustration

I have been considering the difficulty level of opponents in the Cypher System recently. This has been driven by two things…

Firstly, over the course of my last couple of Numenera sessions, my character has been a bit of a poor combatant. This has largely been down to tough opponents and unlucky dice rolling; when I need a 15 to hit, I’ll roll a 12 and when I put some effort in and need a 9 to hit, I’ll roll a 7. Strangely enough, my defense rolls have generally been excellent, leading to rather unfortunate combats where my opponent and I just flail wildly at each other without effect.
Secondly, I am busy converting a Deadlands campaign into the Cypher System and I am looking for a way to model the toughness of Deadlands monsters, without combat bogging down into a drawn out fight of attrition.

The starting point of any enemy in the Cypher System is to pick a level for it; damage is equal to its level, while health is three times its level. This is a decent enough baseline, particularly for an inexperienced GM, and when looking to make enemies more of a challenge, the obvious approach is to up the level. This simultaneously increases both damage and health, making the enemy more dangerous… perfectly logical. However, let’s take a look at what actually happens if we raise a generic level 3 enemy to level 5.

Chance of hitting them decreases by 30% – That’s quite a drop in hit chance, particularly considering that missing is dull for everyone.
Health increases by 6 – That’s only one hit from a heavy weapon… their survivability is far more tied to them being much harder to hit.
Chance of being hit by them increases by 30% – That’s a fair bit, but at least it does legitimately increase the danger.
Damage increases by 2 – That’s not much, compared to even a tier 1 character’s pools… it’s only going to add up significantly over a number of rounds.

The overall effect is therefore one of drawing out the combat; the PCs will miss a lot more often (or really have to burn through pools, using effort), while being regularly hit for a fairly middling amount of damage (a PC with a couple of points of armor shouldn’t even expend effort dodging).

The approach I’m increasingly starting to favour is to increase the health and damage, without raising the actual level. Instead of bumping our level 3 opponent by two levels, let’s instead give them an extra 21 health and increase their damage to 9. This sounds a lot, but is mathematically similar to raising them by two levels and is a lot less grindy… players will hit much more often, but have more health to get through; players can dodge more easily, but getting hit will seriously hurt.
[Maths for anyone who cares: Level 5 enemy with 15 health will require an average of (15/(0.3*4))=12.5 attacks with a medium weapon to kill; level 3 enemy with 30 health will require an average of (30/(0.6*4))=12.5 attacks with a medium weapon to kill. Level 5 enemy who deals 5 damage will deal an average of 0.7*5=3.5 damage per attack; level 3 enemy who deals 9 damage will deal an average of 0.4*9=3.6 damage per attack.]

Obviously, this needs some caution and I wouldn’t recommend raising a creature by more than a couple of levels this way. The high damage means that a player who gets very unlucky with defense rolls could go down fast; whether this is acceptable is obviously dependent on the group and the campaign. Also, at higher tiers, the PCs have enough effort to make low level enemies trivial, so the base level clearly still needs to rise as they advance in tiers.

Another approach that I am liking (this is very much geared towards Deadlands abominations) is very high armor values, with methods of bypassing them. Some opponents (say, maze dragons) should be very difficult to kill and this could be achieved through a number of methods. They could be very high level, but that doesn’t necessarily work as they’re often gigantic and not necessarily that hard to hit. They could have a huge amount of health, but that will lead to a long drawn out fight as they get gradually stabbed to death a few points at a time. The approach I would favour is giving them an average amount of health and a very high armor value, 5 or 6 (depending on whether you want heavy weapons to have some effect or none), but then having some method of bypassing that armor value. Make it clear to the players that their attacks are doing nothing significant and that this isn’t a foe they can just wear down, then reward any sensible ideas to overcome the armor, whether that’s targetting unarmored weak spots or using the environment to deal massive damage that clears the armor value… whatever. With this method, the toughness of the creature is readily apparent, but the fight will still go fairly quickly once the players come up with some smart strategies.

As a final note, I should point out that I don’t consider my problems with enemy levels to be an inherent flaw with the system itself. There are many instances when throwing a high level enemy against the PCs is completely appropriate. There is simply a natural sliding scale between ‘swingy’ and ‘grindy’ combat; high level enemies can potentially pull things a little towards the grindy end (particularly at lower tiers), so these are just ideas to move the slider back towards the centre.

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