Marsie's Musings: Making Mass Combat Work for the Cypher System

Marsie's Musings: Mass Combat in Cypher System


The Complication System

If you learn one thing about me in all of my GMing life, let it be this: I have a propensity for details and sweeping, elaborate combat, and hate all of the work involved when it gets to the large scale, including as a player. These rules below are rules that I have come up with for the Cypher System to meet all of my needs regarding these things.

At its heart, any time we sit down to play an RPG, what we are playing is a series of rules, prohibitions, and if-then statements represented by our words, or by a vector portrayed in front of us for audio and/or visual aid. The Complication System takes these rules and makes them actionable hurdles.

In a mass combat, or a mess of people, there are many muddled complications which can arise just from existing in one area. In this way, we attach complications to the PCs and groups themselves. Instead of only giving an effect or condition to track for the purposes of rolls, we are now giving them a complication which is solvable by meeting the condition’s requirement and nullifying or removing it.

Some of these complications are passive, and some are active. They will have varying levels of difficulty. They will need varying requirements of people to muster through.

Rules which affect the way your team can play the field.

Complications are conditional in the way they exist and behave, and must therefore be catered to environment and tone. The complications could vary from the slippery mud on the field of battle, to a patron’s list of allergies in your kitchen, amidst everything else. They are, in a sense, intrusions to your goal. You can achieve a goal with complications active, but you receive XP for complications by resolving them.

The Overall Object

Achieving goals individually, across multiple fronts is key to a successful mass combat. While the goal of an encounter could be to remove all complications, it’s recommended that your group have an overarching goal to meet, or several goals they are attempting to achieve such as: hold down the front line, escort the civilians to safety, move around the hills undetected to flank, etc. Your goal is modified by the sum of total levels of Complications you have, which can set a goal well over a level 10 task in some cases.
When an encounter starts, or when the action begins to happen, have your PCs make a game plan, and choose their goals. PCs will want to split up just as often as they'll want to stay together, and knowing what goals they're trying to accomplish is half the battle of completing them.

For example, if I have a level 5 and a level 2 complication muddling up what would be a level 3 goal, my task is a bewildering 10 until I spend some time alleviating those complications. In this example, I am attempting to take civilians to safety in an emergency. Getting them to safety is the level 3 goal. The dragon itself is a level 5 complication, and it is propped up on a wall, ready to take any foes it sees--and it's on alert. The fires which crop up and are heating the area and threatening our paths is a level 2 complication. I choose to distract the dragon by rolling out some logs tied to a crashed cart nearby. Rolling against the complication is equal to the level of the dragon, so it's a level 5 task. This may be a temporary solution, and the dragon could turn its gaze in a moment, but now, if I roll well enough to succeed on a level 5 task(the goal concerning moving the civilians to safety at a level 3, and the spurning fires at a level 2), I can move the civilians to safety before it returns its attention here.

Why You Want Complications
Complications make the goal interesting. They can be far and varied. They also award you one additional XP for each one you have resolved when you achieve your goal. Remember that resolving a Complication doesn't necessarily kill it--most of the time it just means it isn't your problem any longer.
In the example above, because I did not eradicate the fires, so I may not have learned anything from it. I did, however, remove the risk of the dragon. I gain whatever XP is allotted for completing the goal, in addition to one XP for each condition that I removed have when I completed the goal(+1XP).

Types of Complications

Passive- Passive complications are widespread environmental effects which are extremely conditional. For example, they could be poor weather conditions like heavy rain, strong winds, or muddy earth which affect sight, movement, hearing, or balance.
The fires in the example above are considered a passive complication. They're not unattainable to get past, in fact, if I spent 1 XP or rolled a 6, I could have doused myself and everyone in the party with water to not bother with them.

Active- Active complications are active players on the field. These players may be other teams of people, or additional creatures who are averse to you.
The dragon is an example of an active complication. I chose to get rid of it first because it's a higher level, and reduced my goal to something attainable within the next turn. I could have chosen to take care of the fires first, but nothing spurs more fire like dragons do, and I would rather not have endangered my company with something that thinks of them as a snack. There are many other ways that other people would have resolved this, however, this was my way.

Divvying Out Complications
 There are a few ways you can divvy out complications, by randomly assigning complications, or by using an XP factor per number of players per tier. 
Whether you are randomly assigning complications or doing it by a more standard scale, you may want to consider negotiating with your players if they want an easy, novice, or difficult time obtaining their goal. They're the ones who are getting the XP out of it, so let them decide how hard they want to make it on themselves. If you'd rather keep your hand hidden, I'd recommend sticking to the recommended tiers.
If the number of complications get overwhelming, feel free to mix and match and/or mold them into one or two complications instead. You can also choose to reserve some for intrusions later on in the fight. Think of it as more of a pool of interesting resources to draw from, and less like a map of chaos from the get go. Remember, the higher in tier you go, the more complex you'll want to make the landscape to keep bringing interesting and dynamic encounters.

If your PCs choose to tackle things as a group, they receive the same amount of XP as though only one of them were doing it for each resolved Complication and goal achieved. Let them decide as a group, how to split that XP.

Easy, Recommended for Tiers 1-2:  
Complications Per Player 1 - 3 (Roll 1d3)
Determine level of each by rolling 1d4, and adding Tier. 
Alternatively, plan for 2 Complications at a Level 3 or 4 each. You can use one from the get go, and another as an intrusion. If you only play with Subtle Cyphers, only roll a d4 to determine the level of each Complication.

Novice, Recommended for Tiers 3-4
Complications Per Player 2 - 5 (Roll 1d4 + 1)
Determine level of each by rolling 1d4 and adding Tier. 
Alternatively, plan for 3 Complications at a Level 5 or 6 each. Plan to use two from the start, and use one intrusion later. If you only play with Subtle Cyphers, only roll a d6 to determine the level of each Complication.

Hard, Recommended for Tiers 5-6
Complications Per Player 3 - 6 (Roll 1d4 + 2 ) 
Determine level of each by rolling 1d4 and adding Tier. 
Alternatively, plan for 4 Complications at a Level 7 or 8 each. Plan to use three from the start, and use one as an intrusion later. If you only play with Subtle Cyphers, only roll a d8 to determine the  level of each Complication.

Don't Pull Punches
The hard numbers above look rough, don't they? But don't forget to be straight forward with your players about how difficult it might become. Be straightforward about the recommended tiers. They will likely have to use more of their resources and cyphers to be able to attain these goals, and they are likely choosing for it to be difficult because they want the XP that comes with more challenging and elaborate complication-ridden goals.

Getting Rid of Complications
Getting rid of the Complications involves rolling against them, or spending XP equal to the half the level (minimum 1) of a complication to be rid of it. Your players might also have valuable technology or magical resources at their disposal, like Cyphers, with power capable of taking out such high level things. Work with the narrative to devise a solution that fits with the XP you’re spending or the complication you’re rolling to eradicate from play. If you are working with a team, your team can eliminate one complication so long as that complication is at least one level lower than theirs. If the complication or goal is equal to the level of your team or higher, you must roll for it. Your team uses their action on their initiative to perform this action.

Team Players
Although these rules are written to support single players in a mass scale battle, they also support leading a team of specialized individuals. Your PCs may take up a number of NPCs to resolve complications, or achieve a goal. Usually NPCs are level 1 or 2. The accumulated levels of them should equal the Team Level. For example, a Level 3 team will have 3 Level 1 NPCs, or 2 Level 1 NPCs and 1 Level 2 NPC. This number does not include yourself. The team has varying level of specializations and pay requirements. You may also choose to use words like squad, friends, or whatever else fits your game.

There are certain things you want to consider when running a team--like how much they trust you, how far they're willing to go, and what they're capable of, but these are all details which should be reserved for your table to decide.

Luck in Play
As always, there is luck in play. If you roll a 19, you may opt to use your minor effect to reduce the level of one of your complications, or your goal, by 1. If the level is already 1, you remove it. If you roll a natural 20, you reduce the level of 2 of your complications by 1, or 1 by two. If you roll a natural 1, your GM can choose to create an intrusion--either a new level 1 complication, or adding 1 to the difficulty of an existing complication.

Achieving Your Goal
 Once achieving your goal is attainable, either by ridding yourself of enough complications to work through the goal, or by eliminating all complications, gameplay continues. You may have a new goal pop up--a domino effect from the goal you just unlocked--or, alternatively, you might seek to help another player with their goals.

That's it, these are the very fluid guidelines I intend on playing with every time things get a little chaotic and mad in Owl, and other games I will dive into. I simply can't wait to take it for a test drive in some naval combat.

If you're looking for other advice concerning this, my other recommendations are:

  • Take your time. Make each complication feasible for the situation, and an interesting addition to the chaos. Take your time describing it. Make it real, make it meaningful, and make it last(you know, as long as it's going to.) Large scale combats, especially when abstracted, can easily leave players left in an unsure space. Encourage them to ask questions, and get on the same page as you.
  • If it seems like too much, leave it out. Just because you rolled it doesn't mean you have to use it, especially if it feels like too much. 
  • If it seems like it's too easy, give it time. Remember that the intrusions I recommend to hold onto for later are there for your use--you have them in the case of natural 1's, or if you want to negotiate an intrusion. Do it to make things interesting.
  • The Mechanics Inform the Narrative. Remember that being straightforward with your players about the initial complications to their goal works toward immersion. They're more likely to buy in to the circumstances if they have a good idea of what they're up against. And intrusions still allow you your surprises.
  • Narrative Informs the Mechanics. Allow your players to explore solutions in their own way, at their own pace. Roleplaying games are about exploration, and finding new ways to express agency. Your players will constantly surprise and delight you if you allow them to--and while it's perfectly fine to set limits on reality, remember to leave space for the surprising things that let us also explore the weird fantasy we love. In this way, their narrative helps guide for your call on roles.

Marsie Vellan is an Operator for the Phantom Rollbooth and the GM for The Owl of Lysia Cypher System Liveplay on Little Red Dot's twitch channel, found here at You can follow her on Twitter @MarsieVellan for news about all of her creative endeavors, including art, homebrew, and livestreaming updates. Her partner, the other Operator on The Phantom Rollbooth is here @ColinItLikeISee. You can also join the community on the Phantom Rollbooth's Discord for topical discussions on Roleplaying Games and Culture, and Creation. For Other Contact, you can e-mail us @


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