Fifth Cyclin’, Fantasy Trippin’, and Vampirin’

Jon, Sean, and I are about a dozen sessions into Fifth Cycle, and we’re going to continue carrying on with the game. But we’re also reassessing some key aspects of the combat system, and I’ve proposed some changes to oil the wheels and to improve the game in terms of pacing, magic use, and mechanics. I’m importing some ideas from The Fantasy Trip, and if you’re interested in diving into specifics, I’ve pasted them below.

Sean and I sat down to talk about our reactions to the game and my proposed revisions. I’ve got that recording posted down below as well.

One sticking point for us has been the game’s magic system, which has some robust combat spells, but which also imposes painful casting times on those spells at early ranks. When you first learn a spell, it takes four combat rounds to prepare the spell, so Sean’s character Llewyn has found few opportunities to use his magical arsenal. We are retaining the rule about casting speed, but now characters can opt to hasten matters by paying a 5% penalty per round. 

We are also making changes to Fifth Cycle’s hit location system, which regularly leads to protracted and dull moments in combat. One key problem with the system as written is that hits tend to get scattered around 10 different hit locations on the body, and usually you need to score multiple hits on the same area for the damage to be truly consequential. If you are wearing armor, which absorbs damage, the number of hits needed becomes even higher, and since hit locations are randomly determined, it usually takes a long, long while for bodies to hit the floor.

The more substantial revision to the game involves the use of rules from The Fantasy Trip to guide combat sequencing, stipulate combat options, and reward tactics. Though I don’t believe Fifth Cycle acknowledges its pedigree, it seems clear that the game has The Fantasy Trip in its blood. But some of the “innovations” of Fifth Cycle lead to frustration and curious consequences at the table.

To take one obvious example: When combatants square off in Fifth Cycle, the movement rules lead to awkwardness from the outset. If you want to engage in melee, you have to wait until after the combat phase of the round before you can move to actually get in reach of your opponent, and then you actually have to wait again until the next round before you get to strike. And the system as written allows for a fast-moving character to move to the back of an opponent even if they have previously been engaged with you in combat (and this, moreover, would prohibit that character from attacking). 

The Fantasy Trip, by contrast, allows you to move into your adversary first, and then to attack, which is a much more straightforward and sensible way of handling your violence. And the game also includes some logical rules about movement and options when engaged in combat vs. when unengaged.

My hunch is that Fifth Cycle found many ideas of The Fantasy Trip to be appealing, but then felt a desire to be different and this led to a number of tactical missteps.

The second half of our discussion turns to the Thousand Year Old Vampire by Tim Hutchings. We talk about solo play, the Barbarian Prince (a game which I nostalgically remember), what makes a game a game (as opposed to a programmed writing prompt), the issue of pacing, and other matters. It turns out that there are solo adventures for The Fantasy Trip, and so the two parts of our discussion are not quite as distantly related as it might initially appear.

Among other appeals of solo roleplaying is the way that it provides an opportunity to work through mechanics ahead of time, and I’m planning to take advantage of that opportunity by working through the solo scenario titled Death Test before our next session of Fifth Cycle. I might even decide to record the actual play of that solo effort and see what it looks like.

Modified Rules for Fifth Cycle Combat (with Fantasy Trip Seasoning)

Spell Casting Speed

  • Characters may speed up the time of casting at a cost of -5% penalty per round of casting time.

  • Example: If according to the Casting Speed Chart (p. 85) a character would take 3 rounds to cast a spell, they can reduce that to 0 rounds with a -15% penalty for casting success.

Special Hits

  • Remains unchanged: A character needs 20% or less of target number to qualify.

Critical Hits

  • Changed: A character now only needs 10% or less of target number to qualify.

Turn Sequencing and Options

We will use the rules as laid out in Fantasy Trip: Melee for turn sequencing and options. One major change is that the movement phase will occur immediately after initiative, and the winning side of the initiative roll decides whether they wish to move first or second.

Here are the stages:

  1. Roll for initiative. Each player rolls a die. The winner may choose either to move their figure(s) first that turn, or to have the other player(s) move first.

  2. Movement. The first player to move chooses one option for each of his/her figures, and executes the movement part (if any) of that option for each figure. How far each figure may move depends on its movement allowance (MA) and the option chosen.

  3. The second player then chooses options and moves all his/her figures the same way. (If there are more than two players, the third, fourth, and so on then pick options and move.)

  4. Combat phase. All attacks are carried out. No figure may attack unless it chose an option including the word “attack.” Figures attack in the order of their adjusted DX, highest first; ties are resolved each turn by a die roll. When figures are firing two arrows per turn, they fire their second arrows (again in order of adjDX) after all figures have made their first attack. If a figure is killed or takes 8+ hits in one turn before its time to attack comes, it does not get to attack that turn.

  5. Force Retreats. If any figure inflicted hits (except with a missile or thrown weapon) on an enemy, and took no hits itself, it may retreat that enemy one hex (see p. 20) and either advance to the hex vacated by the enemy or stand still (thus possibly becoming disengaged).

  6. Counters for thrown or dropped weapons are placed in the appropriate hexes, and counters for slain figures are flipped upside down.

Combat Options will follow the basic outline of The Fantasy Trip: Melee. See pp. 6-8. 

Movement Rate x 2 (5th Cycle) will be used in place of Movement Allowance.

Attacks: Note that all attacks (melee, missile, and magical) occur in the Combat Phase. Order of attacks will follow rank in Combat Tactics or (in the case of magic) Magic Training.

Character Hit Points and Hit Location

  • Character Hit Points equal STR + EN.

  • We will no longer use hit locations except in the case of Special Hits and Critical Hits. In these cases, hit location will be rolled and GM will have the ability to assign added consequences appropriate to the situation and the hit location.

  • Armor can no longer be customized. That is, you must have a full suit or no suit.

  • One consequence of a critical hit is that it will automatically reduce armor to half effectiveness until the armor is repaired.

  • If a character receives two special hits, their armor is reduced to half effectiveness until the armor is repaired.

  • If a character loses all Hit Points, they fall unconscious. If the character falls to -5 hit points, they die.

2 responses to “Fifth Cyclin’, Fantasy Trippin’, and Vampirin’”

  1. The Bravery of Hackery

    I’ve been trying to figure out how to word this comment for almost a week. The words that come to mind are: Bravery and Confidence.

    When I was younger the sections in the game books that said the rules were “guidelines” always confused me. That confusion was rooted in my own personal desire to be “good at games” and how can one say they were good at a game if they weren’t meticulously adhering to the rules?

    As I’ve gotten older, there’s still a part of me that assumes when a game isn’t working for me, the problem must be with me. I’m not approaching it with the right mindset or there’s an intended experience within it I’m not connecting with, or there’s some subtle application of the rules I’m not grasping.

    This has led to me being very all or nothing about games. Either I’m going to embrace this game and play it in full, or I’m not going to play it all. But posts like this, and thinking about Heartbreakers in general, has me thinking about the excluded middle. Games that have compelling premises and system components “good enough” to get you going such that you can embrace what works for you, discard what doesn’t, and alter what’s left to better suit yourself.

    And, as I said, there’s a kind of bravery and confidence at the heart of that kind of ad-hoc design. It’s great to see such clear headed and purposeful alterations rather than simply hand-waving or expecting the GM to “fix it” on a moment-by-moment basis.

    • Thank you for the kind words

      Thank you for the kind words and comments, Jesse. 

      In making the modifications to Fifth Cycle, we're trying to be respectful of the game creator (Robert Bartels) and also strategic. The goal is to walk a fine line: We want to keep the core of the game intact and limit the alterations to those areas that are the true sticking points. When we started playing the game 12+ sessions ago, we were committed to playing Fifth Cycle as it was presented. We found plenty of inspiring material in our initial reading of the rulebook and some supplements, and our aim was to see what the game had to offer us in actual play. We've been patient, and our criticisms (and subsequent revisions) of it have been side effects of our experience, not the goal.

      The hope going forward is that we have a game that remains true to Fifth Cycle and isn't some patchwork monstrosity of hastily cobbled together house rules. I've had many experiences with groups who have modified game systems and rules in slapdash manner–in some cases, it's not even clear that the "house-rulers" have even bothered to read and absorb what the designer had in mind. In those cases, I'm left confused as to what the game was that we had just played.

      Our group, by contrast, has been committed to giving Fifth Cycle its due, and with many sessions under our belt, we are trying to be surgical and precise in our modifications. The thorns of Fifth Cycle had caused sufficient recurrent pain for me that I asked the group if they wanted to put the game aside and turn to another Heartbreaker. But we have happily opted to continue onward with some deliberate and careful pruning of the thorns.

      p.s. The major change I've proposed involves importing some of the procedures of The Fantasy Trip, and I've been doing additional homework on that front doing some solo play. Out of curiousity, I've recorded some of these sessions along with other titles like Quill: A Letter-Writing Roleplaying Game for a Single Player. So I might be forthcoming with some Actual Play posts dealing with the curious realm of the solo rpg.

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