Review: the Cypher System in Play

Monte Cook Games

Yesterday evening, my friends and I played a Cypher System one-shot. None of us had played the Cypher System (or Numenera) before, although all five of us have experience of roleplaying games generally.

Two days previously, we had agreed to try a post-apocalyptic genre: dystopian London in the near future, with a climate disaster and a complete collapse in social order. Think Mad Max meets Deus Ex meets Nineteen Eighty-Four.

We had four characters:

  • Jackson Bollox, a foolish explorer who drives like a maniac;
  • Wrigley Green, a mysterious, stealthy speaker who mutates;
  • Meat Hooks, a fast explorer who scavenges;
  • and Cobalt Moss, a mechanical techno-warrior who wears power armour.

Here are my observations at the end of a three-hour session. Before I start, a hat-tip: Justin Alexander’s system cheat sheet was a godsend, and if you are thinking of playing a session of the Cypher System, I highly recommend you have it in front of you.

Pros

Monte Cook Games

Character creation is streamlined, intuitive, and relatively speedy. (I wrote about this in more detail in my previous post here.) The system does a great job of facilitating different genres and playstyles.

Combat is fast and narrative-led. Having players roll all the dice frees up the GM considerably. I wasn’t twiddling my thumbs by any means – I found I was constantly thinking up target numbers, for instance – but my turn was over very quickly, and the focus was more on description and imagination than dice rolling and rules calls.

Dice rolls offer varied degrees of success. In D&D, a 20 is an automatic hit and a crit, and 1s are automatic failures, but only on attack rolls and death saves. Most of the time, rules as written, your roll is either a success or a failure. In the Cypher System, 17s, 18s, 19s, and 20s offer you slight boosts to your attack rolls, like the chance to stun an enemy or deal extra damage, and 1s give the GM a free ‘intrusion’: a complication of some kind, rather like the ‘compel’ mechanic in Fate. (I see ‘free’ intrusion, by the way, because GMs can actually make intrusions at other times, too: the only difference is that the player normally gains XP for an intrusion, but on a natural 1, they don’t have a choice.) In other words, a quarter of your d20 rolls in combat are going to be interesting.

Mundane equipment is largely abstracted. All light weapons do 2 damage, for example, and armour is essentially just damage reduction. There are optional rules for making weapon types a bit more distinctive – crushing weapons ignore armour, slashing weapons are more effective on unarmoured foes – but the crunch is minimal. There also isn’t much of an economy: items are essentially expensive, very expensive, inexpensive, or somewhere in the middle, and a few very rare items are ‘very exorbitant’. Some players won’t like this very much, as they want the opportunity to optimize, but, to me, a character’s equipment isn’t of much narrative interest anyway, and I welcome the chance to handwave it a bit. The focus becomes them as characters, not the gear they’re carrying.

Cyphers are fun. If you’re not familiar with the concept, cyphers are essentially single-use abilities that characters pick up in the course of their adventures. Unsurprisingly, they are the Cypher System’s ‘big thing’. Cyphers might be potions, pills, nanotechnology, smartphone apps, gadgets . . . anything. They can also be subtle if you’re running a game without obvious fantasy elements: a stroke of luck, a haunting song, a bolt of inspiration. Because cyphers are single-use, they don’t run the risk of ‘breaking the game’ in the way that magic items do in D&D, and because characters are only allowed to have a few at a time, there’s an incentive to use them regularly.

Damage and recovery is handled well. Much has been written about the weirdness of D&D’s hit point mechanics, and various attempts have been made to come up with something more naturalistic. (Think about those ridiculous moments where a character withstands a ton of damage, from a dragon, say, or a bad fireball, only to be taken down by a rat bite.) The Cypher System doesn’t iron out these inconsistencies completely, but it has nice mechanics for taking and recovering damage which feel a little more realistic.

Cons

Target Numbers take a bit of getting used to. In D&D, it’s actually quite rare that a DM has to come up with a DC on the fly. Whether it’s Armour Class, a save DC, a spell effect, or something else, you probably have the DC in front of you somewhere, and if you don’t, then the difficulty categories are quite broad: 10 is easy, 20 is hard, 30 nearly impossible, and so on. In the Cypher System, I found I was constantly having to make a call as to what the Target Number would be. Perhaps that’s down my inexperience with the system, however.

Light weapons seem ineffective. This was a weird one. In the Cypher System, damage is a flat number, not a roll, and light weapons all do 2 damage. An opponent’s Armour is also a flat number, reducing damage like Damage Reduction in D&D: medium armour, for example, provides an Armour of 2. So here’s the thing: if you’re a character with a light weapon – a knife, say – and you’re up against an opponent in medium armour (eg, chainmail), your 2 damage is reduced to zero every time you hit, and you would essentially have to roll a 17 or higher to do any harm at all (17+ deals extra damage in the Cypher System). Perhaps I’ve missed something, but this seems a little debilitating.

There is no defined skill list. Some players might welcome this, but I felt skills in the Cypher System could be better explained. The system presumes that you do have skills – you can be ‘trained’ or ‘specialized’ in skills, for example, and both have defined in-game effects – but new players aren’t given much guidance as to what skills are available. Don’t get me wrong: skill lists are often handled badly in tabletop RPGs, 5th edition D&D included, but having no skill list at all isn’t necessarily better than having a bad skill list.

Fantasy magic is going to feel very different to D&D. Let’s say you want to play a wizard-type character who can throw fireballs, channel lightning, put monsters to sleep, that sort of thing. In the Cypher System, you would probably be some kind of adept: perhaps ‘an intelligent adept who casts spells’. Your character focus would give you a spellbook, but you would only get one readied spell per tier, from a choice of two. You might get a few spell-like abilities from being an adept, like the ability to hover or become invisible, but the choice on offer is considerably more limited, and less crunchy, than what D&D players might be used to.

Players used to ‘levelling up’ might be disappointed. Character advancement works quite differently in the Cypher System: there are only six ‘tiers’ (not levels), and it is emphasized that gaining experience points is not a goal in itself. That said, unlike in D&D, XP provides other rewards, like rerolls, wealth, artifacts, long-term contacts, and story benefits like a home or a new job.

Implications for D&D

At the end of the session, we talked a bit about what we liked and disliked about the system, how it compared to D&D, and – crucially – whether we would want to play a Cypher System game as a full campaign.

There were things I liked very much about the Cypher System. I liked the focus on exploration and narrative. I liked the speed of combat and the lack of book-keeping. I liked character creation. After playing the Cypher System, I now want to go away and tinker with D&D a bit. I would be interested to handwave equipment, for example, and introduce more degrees of success for d20 rolls. I even wonder whether the game would suffer much from using average damage rolls.

However: D&D is RPG comfort food. It can be weird sometimes, and frustrating, and it bears the baggage of nearly half a century of tinkering and revision. But for all that, it’s reassuringly familiar. D&D suffers sometimes from trying to be all things to all people: it lists exploration and social interaction as two of its ‘three pillars’, for example, but, rules as written, it seems to reward little except combat. The Cypher System is certainly better in this regard. For a game of high fantasy dungeon-crawling, you might miss the crunch and precision of D&D. But if you have a group that wants to do more than bash, bash, loot, then definitely give the Cypher System a try.

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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

Numenera

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?

Dwarf Paladin, Dnd Dwarf, Dnd Characters, Fantasy Characters, - D&d Rpg -  Cleric Spellbook Cards PNG Image | Transparent PNG Free Download on SeekPNG

Wizards of the Coast

Stats

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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