Depending on your point of view, it’s either enlightening or disheartening to look behind the curtain of a game’s design. Enlightening perhaps, because you see why things work the way they do. Disheartening, on the other hand, maybe, because it takes some of the magic out of it.
Case in point, in a game like Numenera, we want to think of things like the Glaive’s ability to pierce foes with a sharp weapon to be entirely different than a Nano’s ability to scan, because one is skill and the other taps into the weird world of the nano-spirits. We want both to be completely different from someone who Fuses Flesh and Steel’s great strength because that’s cybernetics. But behind the curtain, from a game design point of view, they’re all just bits of design tech. In this case, two different type abilities and a focus ability. They’re based on the appropriate tier, and in the end—just looking at it from the game side of things, not the worldbuilding side—there is no difference where they come from. An ability is an ability is an ability. They’re just special things your character can do that other characters (often) cannot. At the table, the player and GM can make them as flavorful and descriptive as they wish, but the framework behind the game just says that the PC earned some XP, spent those XP in the right way to gain a tier, and the tier gave them some new ability.
In Invisible Sun, I want that framework to be slightly more intricate. By that, I mean I want the distinction between a spell and a forte ability to be meaningful both in front of and behind the curtain. So how do we do that? I could create arbitrary categories of the kinds of abilities that are unlocked in different ways. Thus, healing can only be obtained through spells, but fire effects are only from forte abilities, and magic that affects other magic is only learned from the orders. But I didn’t do that, because that straight jackets character-focused decisions more than I want to in this game (I don’t want to say, in order to be a fiery character, you must use these choices, but to be a healer, you must do this other thing). I could make one kind of ability more powerful than another, but that doesn’t fit with the idea that every effect in the game (just like every NPC, every object, and every challenge) has a level, and that level means something. So a level 3 spell is at least in some way “equal” to a level 3 ability gained from a forte, and a level 3 ephemera, and a level 3 ritual.
No, I decided to go at it from another angle and differentiate these abilities in how you get them. Characters don’t “level up” in this game in any fashion. There are no levels, tiers, or anything of the kind. Abilities are bought as the player wishes, piecemeal. A new spell here, an ability learned from their order there, as well as forte abilities, secrets, and more. This gave me the freedom to introduce different “experience point currencies” that purchase different things.
Thus, in Invisible Sun for moving through your character arc and accomplishing things, you earn Acumen. In the Cypher System, as well as other systems, this is the closest analog to good old XP. When you earn Acumen, you can spend them on new spells, new skills, or new abilities unlocked by learning secrets. However, there are currencies different from Acumen called Joy and Despair. Not surprisingly, you earn Joy when good things happen and Despair when bad things happen. What constitutes “good” and “bad” in this context depends on the character’s background as well as the game choices made. What’s good for a Vance who Dwells in Darkness is quite different than for a Weaver who Warps Time and Space. Thus what earns them Joy (and Despair) is also different.
One Joy and one Despair together form a Crux, which can be spent to improve your Order or your Forte. Because Joy and Despair are a more precious resource, what you get when you spend them is both greater and more precious. Advancing to the next degree in your Order gains you more than just a new ability, it’s an improvement on your core ability. A Goetic’s conjurations have more power and more options. A Maker’s creations are more advanced.
Advancing in your forte gets you a new ability but it also allows you to increase your stats. It’s the easiest and most common way to increase your stats, in fact. So Crux are vital. But so are Acumen. You’ll be earning and spending both throughout the game, at very different rates. The different rates make the different currencies really interesting. There are non-mechanical requirements to advancing in the orders or in your forte and to learning new skills, spells, and secrets as well, and they’re all different. Because what’s going on in front of the curtain is just as important—likely much more so—than what’s going on behind. Either way, should two characters among the PCs have similar abilities like, say, the ability to conjure a demon, it’s likely that those abilities will feel very different because of how they were acquired, mechanically and non-mechanically.
As a complete aside, I thought it might be interesting to note one more thing about Joy and Despair. Acquiring these tokens can involve actions on part of the player or the GM. For example, a Vance character gains Joy when they find a higher ranking Vance who will sponsor them before the Telemeric Court (the governing council of the Order of the Vance). That’s something the player initiates. Likewise, that PC might try to avenge their murdered brother… and fail, earning Despair. Yet it’s still something active the PC did (or tried to do) to get it. However, the GM has a role to play too. A GM can say to a player that a strange magical fluctuation has contaminated their ritual and produced an unexpected effect. This is GM initiated, and it earns the character Despair. It also makes the story more interesting. Similarly, the GM can say that when the PC talks to a conjured spirit about the location of a magical gateway, the spirit not only reveals what the character wanted, but tells them about a hidden ruin of mystical significance near the gateway. This is GM initiated, makes things better for the PC, and earns Joy. And it makes the story more interesting.
Because that’s what it’s all about. Game design tech pieces are just there to fuel a story that everyone wants to be a part of. And two different currencies for buying them (two different economies, really) allow players to focus on what they want, when they want, and in fact on more than one thing at a time. When we talk about character arcs—the hub upon which the game really turns—that concept of dealing with more than one thing at a time will come back with a vengeance.