Optional Rule: Effort for NPCs

The general idea in the Cypher System (the engine behind both Numenera and The Strange) is that if the GM wants to reflect an NPC doing something special, acting out of desperation, or just really giving it her all, the thing to do is to use a GM intrusion. With the intrusion, the NPC can do something that would normally break the rules–take an extra action, perform a (seemingly) impossible task, get really lucky, etc. That’s not the most exciting use of a GM intrusion, but it’s in the toolbox and should be used as needed.

Cypher System GMs are also free to do whatever need be done to make for a great story, rules be damned. Because these are narrative-focused games, not competitive exercises to test character min-maxing abilities. However, sometimes it’s nice to have a bit of a fall-back, “rule of thumb” way of spicing up encounters or more accurately reflecting an NPC in the context of the story without using the larger, more dramatic GM intrusion.

In a system where PCs can decide to put effort into actions that are important to them, it sort of makes sense to allow NPCs to do the same. It makes the (usually very simple) NPCs in a Cypher System game more complicated, but just a little. Effort for NPCs works just like Effort for PCs, but remember that PCs do all the die rolling, so using Effort for an NPC would often affect the difficulty of a PC’s roll.

This would mean that an NPC in a fight could use a level of Effort to make their attack harder to dodge by one step, or to add +3 damage, just like a PC. They could also use it to make their special ability harder to resist by one step. Or they could use a level of Effort to make themselves harder to hit, or harder to affect with an opponent’s special ability. Like with PCs, the use of Effort would affect only one action.

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Effort can also effectively alter an NPC’s level on a one-time basis, when there’s no PC roll involved. It would mean that, when comparing level to difficulty to determine if a NPC can accomplish something (climb a wall, break down a door, figure out a device, resist a poison’s effects), they’d be treated as a level higher than normal.

Like PCs, however, NPC Effort should be a limited resource. I recommend two methods.

Method 1: Based on Level

Every NPC–creature or human alike–can use Effort to modify difficulty, and they can do so a number of times equal to their level. Or, to be even more generous, they have a number of levels of Effort equal to their level that they can apply in any amount. So a level 4 NPC can use 1 level of effort four times, or 2 levels of effort twice, or 4 levels of effort once, and so on.

This resets when NPC health does–in other words, when the GM feels it’s appropriate. It’s okay to think of it as a sort of “per day” kind of thing, but it’s better to think of it as “as often as makes sense.”

Method 2: Based on Health

This is harsher on the NPCs, but much easier to keep track of. Basically, the idea is that 1 point of health equals a level of Effort. If the GM wants to make an NPC’s attack 1 step more difficult to avoid, it costs the NPC a point of health. A pretty grand expenditure for a level 2 NPC, but a pretty easy price to pay for a level 6 NPC. Which is really as it should be, actually. And of course, 2 levels of Effort are 2 points of health, 3 levels are 3 points of health, and so on. You might want to cap it at 6 levels–the most Effort a PC can use at once–but that’s up to you.

This isn’t so different than how PCs work, really, since stat Pools are sort of the equivalent of PC health. (It’s not as 1-for-1 as it looks, but the comparison is apt.)

This optional rule makes NPCs “more powerful,” but in the Cypher System, that does no damage to the balance of the game because PC vs. NPC power is not the fulcrum upon which the game turns. What it really does is makes NPCs more interesting. When you describe the barbaric warrior going into a bloody frenzy as he’s backed into a corner, and suddenly the players find the difficulties of their Speed defense rolls increasing, that’s both interesting and truer to the story you’re trying to create.

Monte Cook
Monte Cook

Monte Cook has written hundreds of roleplaying game products, along with numerous short stories, novels, nonfiction titles, and comic books. He is probably best known for his work on such notable titles as Planescape, Ptolus, the 3rd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons (which he codesigned with Jonathan Tweet and Skip Williams), Arcana Evolved, and of course Numenera and the Cypher System. He is a cofounder of Monte Cook Games, and is our lead designer.