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Campaign Diaries: One is the Loneliest Number

By Jason Campbell

Recently I ran a one-shot in the Old Gods of Appalachia game setting, which uses Monte Cook Games’ Cypher System. I ran this at a local game store, in a group where two of the six players knew nothing about the Cypher System and two others had only minimal experience with it. I briefly reviewed the game system rules, but a lot of the rules are easiest to learn while playing. 


It’s important to note for this story that in the Cypher System when a player rolls a natural 1, it’s not simply a failure, it triggers what’s called a GM Intrusion. This means that the GM introduces an additional story element that changes the trajectory of the narrative. Although GM Intrusions do not always have a negative effect, when it’s because a player’s rolled a natural 1 it usually involves a complication which the PCs must deal with. 

In the pre written adventure I was running the PCs had stowed away in a box car of a cargo train, and were headed to a house right on the shore of a river, but the river was a water spirit with a temper. When they jumped from the train I had them make a roll to avoid injury, which one player missed with a natural 1. The damage was only 2 points, but I also needed to create a GM Intrusion. They were close to the river and I knew there was a pre-written intrusion at the river, where the river attacks and pulls one PC into the water. I decided that I’d use the river intrusion for the natural 1 they rolled while jumping off the train. The player knew they’d  get a GM Intrusion, but I just told them “you take the damage, that’s it for now”. FWIW, this can be a fun way to play it, if used sparingly, it puts the players on edge.

When they arrived at the river the river attacked and dragged the PC (who rolled a natural 1) into the water. One of the PCs jumped into the water to keep the other PC from being swept away. He then rolled a natural 1 to see if he could succeed on this action. So I ruled that he was also dragged into the water. Another PC ran into the house and rolled a natural 20 on an investigation check, so I let them find a rope and a net. They passed this to another PC at the river’s edge, who attempted to throw it to the PCs in the river, but their roll to succeed on that action was - you guessed it - a natural 1. They survived, but in the next scene rolled another natural 1. 

The PCs ended up surviving by using many points from their ability pools (Cypher System is a game of resource management more so than many RPGs). It brings up a question for GMs - what do you do when you’re completely out of ways to add complications to change the narrative? There are many out there who might say that the dice fated this scene to be a total party kill, and anything else would be taking it too easy on the PCs. That’s certainly one way to look at it, if your table prefers that type of game. I personally have a different philosophy about GM Intrusions resulting from natural 1s. I run games such that they should make the scenario more difficult for the PCs, but not straight out kill them. But in this scenario, were all these horrid rolls dictating that this should kill them all? 

Another difficulty in this scenario was that this was a one shot and at this point we only had about one hour left in the session. I knew that I could only add complications that didn’t extend the time to complete the story. If all the PCs were swept down river, we’d likely not have time to resolve that situation and finish the scenario in a satisfying conclusion. If I was advising someone else in this scenario I’d suggest a creative, out of the box solution, but during the game session I felt like I was just out of ideas. 

So what would you do as a game master? Let us know in the comments!