RPG Reviews – Cypher System Rulebook

Cypher System Rulebook

The world was first introduced to Monte Cook Games’ Cypher System in the original Numenera game. This far (far!) future science-fantasy world presented combative Glaives (Warriors), inquisitive Nanos (“wizards”), and wily Jacks (Rogue-types), who explored the Ninth World looking for the Numenera – items of legend and the past. These came in the form of artifacts and “cyphers”, which were single-use items taking the place of healing potions, scrolls, and other disposable utility items of dungeon fantasy games. Later, the same system would be used in the world- and genre- hopping game The Strange and cyphers once again had a presence.

The universality of the core mechanic and character creation system was apparent, so it was no surprise when the original, setting-neutral Cypher System Rulebook was released. I liked it, as well as the two settings released for it: the divine fantasy Gods of the Fall and the prehistoric science fiction world of Predation. Even with the excellent supplement Expanded Worlds I felt it wasn’t including everything I wanted.

With the release of the new Cypher System Rulebook we’ve been given a fantastic update of the game. It hones old rules and presentation, with guidelines and systems to expand further on the original game to give you the tools to really make it your own.

The goal of the Cypher System (and arguably any universal rules set) is “anything goes”. Most every universal system I’ve encountered is able to achieve that, but where Cypher stands out (along with a couple others) is the ease with which “anything goes” is possible within the rules. In Cypher’s case it’s through using a lighter system focused on characters and narrative. One can build anything they like in the Hero system, but due to the build being mechanical in nature, it’s easy to “mis-build” something – it requires a higher level of system mastery. Cypher goes under the hood in a different way, managing expectations and establishing boundaries and genre tropes that aim to achieve the same end – “game balance”. Rather than the result of precise calculations that ensure everyone is equal and everything is fair, it creates a discussion that gives the players the opportunity to feel everything is fair, under the idea that if everyone is happy then you have a good game.

With that goal in mind, the introduction to the rulebook establishes that the contents are here to facilitate a game for the players to enjoy and that the core mechanics are simple enough that they can be molded, twisted, and shaped to what you want. It also briefly discusses genre and game concept, though those will have their own places later in the rules. Honestly, it’s a great way to open the book, especially if you’re coming to Cypher, or any RPG for the first time, and reassures that you’ll be in skilled hands when setting up your own game.

The basic system is really very straightforward. All tasks/challenges belong to one of of the three character statistics (Might, Speed, Intellect), are assigned a Difficulty and resolved by rolling a d20 against a Target number, which is the Difficulty multiplied by 3.

The Difficulty can be modified in steps through the use of skills or abilities that shift it in one direction or another, adjusting the Target number accordingly. Combat is handled similarly, with enemies receiving a Difficulty, like any other challenge. Only players roll dice, so the enemy’s level will also reflect its ability to harm its opponent. Special maneuvers or effects are achieved by rolling particular high numbers on an attack, and distance is abstracted to range bands. There are more rules to cover various aspects of gameplay that are likely to occur.

Experience gain is interesting. While characters accumulate experience points by achieving objectives, they also gain them through “GM Intrusions”. Any time the GM wishes, they may introduce an unexpected complication for a character. This could be a snapped rope bridge, oil slick on the road, anything that will make life more difficult. Immediately the player is given 2 XP and must give 1 to another player. They can also spend 1 XP to refuse the intrusion. XP can also be spent for rerolls, or on various benefits or improvements to a character. I think this can work well so long as the GM is ensuring everyone’s being “intruded on” equally. It reminds me of the metacurrency economy in Fate, which I quite like.

Character creation is delightful and one of the places this game shines. The three stats of Might, Speed, and Intellect are composed of pools of points which represent a character’s available inner resources in each area. These points are used to fuel abilities and effects and as health points. You can spend them to reduce your challenge difficulty as well, but don’t worry that this means you might enter a vicious death spiral in physical combat where you take Might and Speed damage, but then need to spend points from those pools to try and succeed, further reducing your “health.” To counteract those situations and indicate that a character has a particular advantage in an area there’s “Edge”. Your Edge rating reduces the cost of Pool spends, even down to 0, so a mighty warrior or wizard can succeed more often or fuel their mighty blows and spells at no extra cost.

While Stats may seem perfectly usable but not super-exciting, the fun part involves the character’s Descriptor, Type, and Focus. Cypher operates off loose and numerous archetypes, and a character is described as “an Adjective Noun who Verbs” – your Descriptor, Type, and Focus. While there are only 4 Types (Warrior, Adept (catch-all supernaturally-powered type), Explorer, and Speaker), the other two elements include numerous options that provide you with possibilities to make a wealth of characters. Each of these elements establish your starting Stat Pools, give you starting gear, provide abilities, and assist with background and connections to other characters. They can represent a variety of things – a character’s connection with supernatural forces, their skill with weapons and tools, their sheer charisma, or that they’re particularly strong.

For example, you may have Hermione, an Intelligent Adept who Would Rather Be Reading, or Worf, a Hardy Warrior who Performs Feats of Strength. You might need to be creative with your choices, as your full character concept may not be immediately possible right from the start. While brainstorming how to make Kamala Khan (Ms Marvel), it seemed like I would need advanced powers to duplicate her abilities at higher Tiers (“levels”, of which there are 6).

One nice thing about this system is “Species” is not immediately taken into account – everyone is mechanically the same in that respect. If you do want to represent them mechanically, Species fit as Descriptors, so Worf is a Klingon Warrior who Performs Feats of Strength. Guidelines are given to customize Descriptors which can be applied to Species.

New to the Revised version of the Cypher system is a rundown of how to create your own Foci, and there are a variety of options that aren’t immediately available to the default Foci. I think this is an excellent inclusion that increases the universality of the system. All the Abilities one can gain from Foci are collected in one section, handily separated by purpose (Exploration, Combat, Transformation, etc), but it would be helpful if the Focus entries had a brief explanation of each Ability, as it is, they only list the available ones, and you need to reference the other section to learn what it does.

There’s a fourth aspect to character creation called “Flavor”, which modifies Type with abilities that can be swapped in. These include Stealth, Technology, Magic, Combat, and Skills & Knowledge. It’s a nice way to further customize your characters.

Equipment is not emphasized in the Cypher System and treated very basically, as the focus is meant to be on the characters themselves. I mentioned cyphers earlier but will get into more detail now. In previous iterations of the game they were frequently physical, one-use objects that would provide an ability to a player. They could be anything from healing potions to computer programs, scrolls, etc. They were perfect in Numenera, representing ancient items unearthed by adventurers. When it came to other settings though, it was a little more difficult to justify them in-setting. Subtle cyphers were introduced as less-overt one-shot abilities and the Revised version of the game gives them greater emphasis, suggesting that they’re more frequent than physical, or “manifest” cyphers. These can represent good fortune, favors, blessings from otherworldly beings, and other circumstantial bonuses. There are lots of examples to use and good guidance on how to use and distribute them, including how they can be represented in different genres.

There’s a very expansive bestiary covering everything from orcs and mechanical soldiers, to demons, djinn, demigods, and kaiju! Each entry has a fair bit of detail along with full statblocks and special abilities for each enemy (since the statblocks aren’t particularly huge). At the very least you should find the building blocks for most enemies you want to throw at your players.

A 60-page section on genre helps you develop your game and setting in the context of the Cypher System. The different genre entries position your game in terms of how to translate character types (how you build a barbarian or Nurse), enemies, equipment, and suggested Foci. They also include subgenres and ways to change the rules to best represent different aspects of the genre.

The Gamemaster’s section is really good. Written conversationally to the reader, it’s an expansive examination of what it is to be a GM, how to use Intrusions and other unique aspects of the Cypher System – all in the interest of helping you run a great and enjoyable game. It’s most helpful because it’s not just a “how to GM” section, but a “How to Cypher System” analysis, that looks under the hood of the game to discuss each aspect of it from a GM’s perspective.

This line raised my eyebrows: “it’s not really your job to teach the players the rules.” It’s a very interesting take that I imagine many would dispute. However I think I see the reasoning – it’s up to the GM to run the game and adjudicate and interpret the rules, but up to the players to learn the necessary rules for their character. Not everyone learns the same way and may require some guidance through them (which is why that statement is in the “How-to-teach” section), and that’s entirely fair. But the GM has a lot to do besides learning the rules, so it’s always nice when players take the initiative. Regardless, I don’t remember seeing that sentiment in any other GM chapter.

The Cypher System Rulebook is a great product. If you like universal toolkit RPGs then the Revised version will treat you very well. It does everything it can to take the heavy lifting off the GM’s shoulders and create a smoothly-run environment. It’s not as crunchy as some other universal systems, so tinkers may find it lacking, but there’s still a lot to play with and modify. It’s also a definite improvement on the original (not to say the original was bad) and I feel much more inspired to use the system now.

To purchase the Cypher System Rulebook visit DriveThruRPG (Affiliate Link) to help support this site!

One thought on “RPG Reviews – Cypher System Rulebook

  1. Pingback: RPG Reviews: The Stars Are Fire | The Tabletop Almanac

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