Alternate Effort for the Cypher System

One thing that I don't like in role-playing games is when a player's decisions and strategy don't influence the outcome of a skill resolution. Whether that's combat or climbing a wall or talking an NPC into switching sides, if the player spends a lot of mental energy and character resources figuring out how to really do well, and then the die roll isn't influenced by that effort, this feels like a loss.

Of course, there should always be times when PCs fail to do stuff, don't get me wrong. I think, though, that there's room to say something like, "a character that is really good at XYZ should feel really good at it most of the time" or something like that. If you spend a ton of your character customization (skills, attributes, mana points, whatever) on being a good climber, but then only succeed at climb checks 10% more often than a random person, the game isn't balanced to reward your effort.

That's why I have a problem with the Effort rules in the Cypher / Numenera system. If you have a pool of say, 15 Might, which is reasonably high but not superhuman and spend 3 points on effort to modify a roll, you've basically shifted the required window of success down by 3 / 20. You take the chance of succeeding at a level 4 task from 40% to 55%. That sounds like a lot, but the likelihood that you'll just succeed anyway is pretty high too. In fact, with effort, you could say that on any given roll that involves effort, there's really only a 15% chance that the effort will matter.

This isn't really great. I fiddled with a house rule in my Numenera game wherein if you used effort and succeeded anyway (so rolled a 12+ on a task that was originally level 4 before you applied effort), you'd get a bonus minor effect (or bump a minor to a major or a major to a crit, in the event you rolled 17+).

This was okay, but I still found most of my players almost never actually spent effort. In a lot of cases, this is understandable - why spend 3 points of speed (or however many, after edge and effort limits and so on) if that just means you have a marginal benefit to maybe not take some might damage? The cost : benefit ratio is pretty not great.

So, here's my house rules for alternate effort.

  • Effort always costs 3 per level (not scaling to 2 per level after the first level).
  • Effort limits are the same
  • Effort for improving success can be applied retroactively, after the roll.
  • Effort for damage (in combat rolls) still has to be spent prior to the roll and is lost in a failure.
  • Edge used to offset costs for activating the roll and on effort for damage is still used - no double dipping if your Thrust misses.

That's it. Make effort a tad more expensive (but really this is because my players, after two years, still needed my help doing the effort math from time to time, so 3 per level is simpler), and make it available retroactively.

I'm going to use this rule in my next campaign. My guess is that we'll see more effort used, and PCs will be more depleted of resources at the end of an adventuring day here, because they'll want to spend effort to avoid the sunk cost of losing a turn of action because they rolled a little low.

I'll probably also use my d6 rules as well (more on that tomorrow). I might also use the hit point rules I proposed a while back, but those end up being pretty fiddly, and I still like the idea that stat pools in Numenera represent both effort and potential damage soak.