New Year, New Game: the Cypher System

Monte Cook Games

D&D 5th edition is a great game. It’s not perfect, and there are definitely problems with its mechanics that need fixing, but, for now, it’s my go-to RPG. If nothing else, it is comfortingly familiar, and the game your friends are most likely to know already.

Over the next few weeks, though, I’m hoping to take advantage of my time off work and get some one-shots together with my friends from home. There are a number of systems I’ve been wanting to look at closely for a while, and this week we’re going to be trying out the Cypher System from Monte Cook games.

The Cypher System evolved from Numenera, a science-fantasy RPG launched on Kickstarter in 2013. It won Product of the Year at the ENnies and Best New Roleplaying Game at Origins. If you’ve been following RPGs for a while, you might recognize the creative team behind the system: Monte Cook, Bruce R Cordell, and Sean K Reynolds. Cook was one of the three lead designers in D&D 3rd edition (he worked primarily on the Dungeon Master’s Guide), and Cordell and Reynolds have both worked on numerous products for Wizards of the Coast.

RPG Review: Numenera - Shut Up & Sit Down


Unlike Numenera, which is set a billion years in the future, the Cypher System is both setting- and genre-neutral, much like Fate Core or GURPS. In many ways, it is more ‘rules light’ than D&D: there are just three stats, Might, Speed, and Intellect, and only four character types, . There is also much more of a focus on narrative: as the introduction states, ‘story is king’. However, the crunch is still there, and, if anything, the simplicity of the rules can be liberating when creating new characters.

This week, we’re probably just going to get together to make characters and agree a setting, so I’ll hold back from commenting on the gameplay until we’ve had a chance to run a session together. To get a sense for how the game works, though, I thought I might walk through the character creation process to see how the game is different yet familiar for long-time D&D players.

My first ever D&D character was a dwarven cleric called Belise Samilkin. He was in many ways a stereotypical fantasy dwarf: he would run into melee combat as fast as his little legs would carry him, swinging a huge hammer and casting spells of protection and healing. So: how would Belise look in the Cypher System?

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Wizards of the Coast


Each character has three defining stats: Might, Speed, and Intellect. Might is an amalgamation of Strength and Constituion, Speed is roughly akin to Dexterity, and Intellect covers Wisdom and Charisma as well as Intelligence.

Each stat also has three components: your Pool, your Edge, and your Effort.

Your Pool is the basic measure of your stat, just like your ability score is in D&D, but it is also rather like your stat’s ‘hit points’: physical damage from a sword will reduce your Might Pool, for example, while a psionic blast might reduce your Intellect Pool.

You also have an Effort score (but not for each stat). In the Cypher System, you can spend points from your stat Pool to make a task easier, and your Effort score indicates how many steps you can reduce the difficulty by. By default, your Effort score is 1, but, as characters gain experience, they can increase their Effort scores and attempt increasingly more challenging feats.

So what’s Edge? It’s kind of like a cushion for your Pool and your Effort. When something requires you to spend points from a stat Pool, your Edge for that stat reduces the cost. For example, if it normally costs you a 1 point from your Intellect Pool to activate your mental blast ability, then a character with Intellect Edge 1 instead uses the ability for free. Your Edge also reduces the cost of applying Effort to a roll. If you had a Speed Edge of 2, for example, and you were applying Effort on a Speed roll – something that would normally cost 3 points from your Speed Pool – you would instead only spend 1 point from your Speed Pool.

So, what are Belise’s stat pools? That depends on what type of character he is. In the Cypher System, you describe your character as ‘an adjective noun who verbs’, and the noun is your character type.

Monte Cook Games

‘I am an adjective noun who verbs

At first, I thought Belise was not really a warrior, an explorer, or a speaker. He’s an adept, surely. However, that’s not a perfect fit. Belise might be a spellcaster, but he’s good at fighting, too! The Cypher System lets you do this with flavours. Perhaps you are a speaker who knows a little about magic, or a warrior with ‘skills and knowledge’ (eg, a military engineer). Belise is going to be a warrior with magic abilities, which means I can trade a few of my warrior abilities for some more cleric-like options.

As a first-tier warrior, Belise starts with Pool values of 10, 10, and 8 in Might, Speed, and Intellect, with 6 additional points to divide among my stat pools as I see fit. (‘First tier’? The Cypher System doesn’t have 20 character levels: it has six tiers instead, and first-tier characters are already pretty competent.) Speed is not that important to me, so I split the six points between Might and Intellect. I’ll put the remaining 3 points on Intellect, so my final stat Pools are 13 for Might, 8 for Speed, and 11 for Intellect. My Might Edge is 1, and my Edge for Speed and Intellect is 0.

My character type also determines my starting equipment and my special abilities. I’ll leave equipment for now and focus on my special abilities.

Monte Cook Games

I can choose four special abilities from the warrior list, and I can also ‘sacrifice’ any of the warrior options for a magic option (meaning I can never choose that warrior option in the future). I definitely want ‘Magic Training’ from the magic abilities, and I’m happy to sacrifice ‘Pierce’ for it. I also like the ‘Premonition’ ability, for which I will sacrifice ‘Trained Without Armour’. For my other two special abilities, I will take ‘Practised in Armour’ and ‘Bash’ from the warrior list.

Character creation doesn’t stop there, though! Belise is not just ‘an adept with combat flavour’: he is an adjective adept who verbs. In the Cypher System, this adjective is called your character descriptor and the verb is called your focus.

For my descriptor, I considered a number of options: Brash, Clumsy, Hardy, Honourable, Jovial, Kind, Strong, Strong-Willed, Tough, and Virtuous. I ended up going with Clumsy, which, among other things, boosts my Might Pool (‘Thick-Muscled’) and lowers my Speed Pool (‘Butterfingers’: yep, that’s Belise). For my focus, I went with ‘Channels Divine Blessings’. This focus gave me the option to choose two abilities from the ‘Blessings of the Gods’ list, and I went with ‘Health’ (a healing ability) and ‘Benevolence’ (which lets me banish demons and spirits).

So that’s that! I am a clumsy warrior who channels divine blessings. I have a Might Pool of 15, a Speed Pool of 6, and an Intellect Pool of 11. I am practised in armour and trained in magic. I can channel divine blessings to heal my friends or banish the undead. I can pummel enemies to leave them dazed and I can use my Intellect to learn random facts about creatures and locations. Other than equipment, my character is complete. Time to head for that tavern and find an adventuring party!

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