Review – Cypher System Rulebook

CSR-Mockup-Cover            The Cypher System began as the rules for Numenera, the wildly successful kickstarted RPG from Monte Cook Games. As you can read about in more detail in my review of the original Numenera core book (be prepared for some commonalities between that review and this one), Numenera was a “fantasy with a twist” RPG, with the ‘magic’ of the setting mostly consisting of the leftover scraps of fallen hypertech civilizations of the past. The setting was founded on a sense of discovery, and the book featured some of the best RPG writing I can recall. Numenera was followed by The Strange, which used a unique science fiction setting. Now, the core ruleset of those worlds is presented in a setting independent format in the Cypher System Rulebook.

The Cypher System Rulebook presents the basic rules for the Cypher System (duh), a variety of character creation options, and then ways to use those rules in five different genres (fantasy, science fiction, modern, horror, and superheroes) and which character options may or may not be most appropriate for those genres.

Basic Mechanics

The core mechanic of the Cypher System is a d20 roll. The GM sets a difficulty, from one (routine) to Impossible (30 – normal human would not be capable of this, but it does not break the laws of physics). The target number for the check is three times the difficulty – so, obviously, you’re going to need some modifiers in order to be able to do those impossible things (maybe that’s why they call them impossible?).

Task difficulty can be modified in three basic ways (note that the modifiers are applied to the difficulty before it is tripled to come up with the target number): skills, assets and effort. If a character is trained in an applicable skill, the difficulty is reduced by 1. If she’s specialized, it’s reduced by 2. Assets is basically a catch-all term for anything else that helps you out – a buddy giving an assist, a relevant piece of equipment, etc. Assets can never reduce difficulty by more than 2. Effort requires spending points from the Pool associated with the relevant characteristic (more on that in a minute). The maximum total levels of difficulty reduction is equal to the character’s level, or Tier.

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If you reduce the difficulty of a task to zero, you do not have to roll. So a well-trained and well-equipped character, or one willing to burn a lot of effort (which you can only do at higher levels), can automatically succeed on even demanding tasks.

In combat, each enemy has a level, and this level is the default difficulty of the attack and defense rolls (the GM almost never rolls dice – rolls are made by players). Indeed, that one number provides the default difficulty for any sort of task at all against that character/creature, whether it’s a fight or talking or sneaking or whatever. Damage is not random, so you don’t need the usual D&D assortment of dice (although you will sometimes need a d6 and d%).

The Cypher System has its own version of critical hits and failures. Rolling a natural 19 (if you succeed at the task) produces a minor extra benefit, while rolling a natural 20 (if you succeed) produces a bigger extra effect. Rolling a natural 1 means you get a “complication” (more on those later).

Two other critical concepts are GM intrusion and the role of cyphers. GM intrusion lets the GM introduce some sort of unexpected complication into the story. GM intrusion is also used instead of a random roll to determine whether something happens that’s out of control of the players – for example, whether some guards a few rooms down hear a fight. When the GM intrudes, he gives 2XP to the affected player, who must then immediately give one of those XP to another player (more rarely, the GM might just hand each PC 1XP). The affected player has the option to refuse the intrusion by declining the XP offer, and paying 1XP.

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Cyphers are intended to provide a constant source of new and different things to the game. They’re one-shot items, intended to show up frequently, and the PCs can only carry a couple each. This incentivizes the players to use them pretty quickly, not hanging onto a given cypher for more than a session or two. The temporary nature of the most common “magic item” type lets the GM hand out lots of goodies without permanently messing up the game – the adventure-deforming presence of something like repeat teleportation is a lot different from handing the PCs a one-shot teleporter, which can potentially then be used by the GM to set up a unique adventure.

Characters (~170 pages)

Cypher-System-Rulebook-16-Cyril-TerpentThose familiar with the setting-specific Cypher books will notice that there are many more character options in the Cypher System rulebook. For example, Numenera has three Types, twelve Descriptors, and twenty-nine Foci. Assuming I counted correctly, the Cypher System Rulebook has four Types, fifty Descriptors, and seventy-three Foci. For hopefully obvious reasons, this review will not join my Numenera review in listing out every single available Descriptor and Focus.

Stats

Characters in Numenera have three stats (each of which has an associated pool and edge), and a Descriptor, Type and Focus (an “An adjective noun who verbs”).

The three stats are Might, Speed and Intellect. Might encapsulates both raw strength and health/constitution, Speed includes raw speed but also dexterity, and Intellect also incorporates social graces. Each stat has a value called Pool and Edge (the starting values for these are defined by your Type). Pool is what you’d normally think of as the value of the stat – how Mighty you are, how Speedy you are, whatever. Points from the starting Pool can be lost to attacks, can be used as Effort to decrease difficulty, or can be used to fuel some abilities. The Edge value for a stat reduces how much you have to spend out of the Pool. So if an ability required you to spend three Intellect, and you had an Intellect Edge of 1, then the final cost would only be 2. The Edge value reduces Effort cost as well, but it applies to the total effort spent, not each level of difficulty reduction applied.

Type

Cypher-System-Rulebook-14-Cyril-TerpentThis is the basic character class (or the noun in the “adjective noun who verbs” line). The four Types are a physical combatant, a physically unimpressive power user, a face, and an adventurer sort who’s physical, but not quite as good at combat, and with extra exploration options. Type also determines basic starting equipment, although what choices you want to make will be influenced by your Descriptor and Focus, which may hand out some equipment and will strongly affect how the character plays. It is important to keep in mind that character Type does not inherently say anything about how the character comes about his or her abilities.

The Warrior is exactly what you might think – good in a fight. Depending on the genre, a Warrior might be a swordsman, a soldier (with an assault rifle), a former soldier (with a pistol), a soldier (with a ray gun), or a bruiser-type superhero . The Warrior has slightly above-average Might and Speed, and slightly below-average Intellect, and can use any weapon. A starting Warrior’s optional abilities include various improved attacks, the ability to do more unarmed damage, physical skills, armor use, and improved defensive ability when unarmored. Higher-Tier abilities continue along these lines.

The Adept excels at whatever the setting’s special powers are (magic, psionics, biotics, etc.). Regardless of the nature of the power, the Adept’s prowess at it comes at the expense of physical capability. The Adept has very high Intellect but below-average Might. The Adept can carry more cyphers at once than any other starting character, and by default has no ability to use weapons. The Adept’s power options are varied, including mind-influence effects, movement, ‘magical’ attacks, and ‘magical’ defenses.

Cypher-System-Rulebook-15-Kieran-YannerThe Explorer is the most difficult to pigeonhole of the four Types. The Explorer is a somewhat physically focused character, but is not as physical (or as combat-focused) as the Warrior, and the Explorer can gain abilities related to general adventuring. Depending on the genre, an Explorer might be a dungeon delver, an athlete, a detective, or a xenobiologist. An Explorer is slightly above-average in Might, and is average in the other Stats, and can use light and medium weapons. Ability options available to starting Explorers include a danger sense, deciphering languages, endurance, running, unarmed combat, armor use, weapon use, and unarmored defense (note that, while the Explorer can expend ability slots to have as wide a range of options as the Warrior on attack and defense, the Explorer does not have the option to take abilities that enhance attacks).

The Speaker is a “face” – a character who specializes in social interactions. Depending on the setting, these abilities may be perfectly natural, or may be enhanced by magic, technology, or some other power source. The Speaker has above-average Intellect and below-average Might, and has the ability to use light weapons. A Speaker’s ability options unsurprisingly focus on interaction with other characters, via improved skill access or through specific powers. These may focus on friendly interaction or intimidation and/or deception. The Speaker also has the option to become capable with medium weapons.

Flavors

Flavors are packages of modifications to a Type. They have, to my mind, to functions – either modifying a Type to be more distinctive to the setting (the primary intended use), or as a sort of “multi-classing” (that thing the players will want to do regardless of the intended use). The five available flavors are stealth, technology, magic, combat, and skills/knowledge. Mechanically, each flavor provides a list of abilities, some of which will replace some of the abilities offered by the base Type. For making a Type more distinctive to the setting, this will probably something the GM cooks up. For that player trying to multi-class, I’d put my money on the player proposing to add in abilities he or she wants while dropping abilities he or she doesn’t care about, and then negotiation ensuing (as you may have noticed, I am something of a cynic on the topic of player motivations).

Descriptor

Cypher-System-Rulebook-18-Kieran-YannerA character’s Descriptor is something of a background (the “adjective”). Descriptors include things like Brash, Creative, Empathic, Hardy, Jovial, Mechanical, Skeptical, Swift, and Weird. Descriptors are not limited by character Type, although there are obviously “better” synergies for some combinations.

Each Descriptor is a collection of stat modifications, skill training, additional equipment, abilities and inabilities. As you might guess from that last one, some Descriptors are not all upside. As an example, the Clever Descriptor gives a bonus to Intellect, training in trickery, training at resisting mental manipulation or deception, and an additional starting expensive item – but also increases the difficulty of any lore/knowledge task.

Focus

The Focus is, to me, the most distinctive part of the three basic character aspects (and the section on Foci takes up more than half of the page count on character options). Although phrasing it as a “verb” is a kind of gimmicky (let’s be honest, “Carries a Quiver” is really just a fancy way of saying “Archer”), the underlying mechanic is distinctive in that it gives you a second, more specialized set of characteristics that are (like your Type) level-dependent. While Descriptors are mundane, Foci are often more exotic – and, like your Type, any given Focus might be the result of mutation, technology, psionics, magic, intensive training, or whatever else in appropriate to the setting. Unlike Descriptors, there are some Focus/Type combinations that don’t really work (for example, an Adept with Wields Two Weapons at Once may be a bit sad).

Each Focus also includes several options to establish a connection to another PC, one of which is chosen by the player. For example, if you Calculate the Incalculable, another PC might only have passed college math because of your help, or another PC might never seem to work out correctly in your calculations.

A sampling of Foci include Awakens Dreams, Builds Robots, Commands Mental Powers, Crafts Illusions, Exists in Two Places At Once, Fights With Panache, Infiltrates, Masters Weaponry, Rides the Lightning, Speaks for the Land, Conducts Weird Science, Doesn’t Do Much, Is Idolized By Millions, Fuses Mind and Machine, Interprets the Law, Pilots Starcraft, and Would Rather Be Reading. Different Foci are more or less appropriate for different genres.

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Leveling Up

Of course, characters are not static, so how is it that they improve? XP can be spent on a variety of things in the course of the game, but one of them is character advancement. In order to go up from tier to tier, the character must improve the character in a variety of ways. There are four “steps” to gaining a tier (they cost 4XP each), and the character must do all four (in any order) in order to gain a tier: assign 4 new points to stat pools, increase an Edge by 1, increasing Effort by 1, and becoming trained/specialized in a skill. Each tier the player can replace one of these steps with one of two other options: better recovery rolls or less hassle wearing armor. These things cannot be bought randomly, but only as character advancement steps – so not only do you have to spread the XP around in order to level up, but you cannot simply load up on one aspect of the character (e.g., just dumping tons of XP into an Edge).

Characters can also spend XP on more limited options that do not contribute to character advancement. 1XP lets you reroll a die (keep the better result). 2XP gets a character a limited version of a skill – for example, picking locks in this ruin rather than picking locks generally. 3XP gets a long-term story benefit such as a residence or a contact, or a different kind of mini-skill – a +1 “familiarity” bonus in a skill.

Rules (~30 pages)

The basics of this are covered above, but this is the place in the book where you find the details (not that it’s a particularly detail-oriented sort of system). In addition to the basic roll, this covers travel, crafting, experience, check complications and, of course, combat. During combat, each character gets to take one action per turn.

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The Cypher System was not created as tactical miniatures game, and so there is no precise positioning. Distances (and short-term speeds) are instead classified as immediate, short, and long (which ends at 100 feet). You get to take an action in a round, and pretty much whatever single thing you want your character to do is an action (attack, run, use a cypher, open a stuck door, etc.). A character also gets to move an immediate distance (no more than 10 feet) as part of another action.

Other combat actions beyond “attack” and “move” include activating abilities, waiting, defending, and … well, that’s it for the standard defined ones. The rules also cover some standard combat modifiers as well – cover, position, range, light, water, and moving and fighting at the same time. Vehicular movement and combat are addressed. The mostly non-combat actions that have rules include climbing, guarding, healing, jumping, remembering, spot/listen, interaction, moving heavy objects, pretending you’re a Thief (aka, disabling devices and picking locks), riding/piloting, sneaking, and swimming. None of these are particularly long.

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Special actions that get more attention are Gaining Insight and Crafting/Building/Repairing. Gaining Insight represents research or planning and gets one special piece of information from the GM that helps, but does not solve, a future task. Examples include learning something about the security system of a location the character is going to break into, getting a new clue to help in solving a murder (but never simply being handed the identity of the murderer), or learning a relevant quirk of a local NPC.

Damage is usually applied to a PC’s Might Pool, then Speed if that’s empty, and then Intellect (NPC’s just have a Health stat). Some sorts of damage specify otherwise (a psionic attack, for example, might hit the Intellect Pool). For each Pool that empties, the PC moves one step on the damage track. Moving three steps on the damage track = you’re dead (so if all three Pools empty, you’re a goner). Plus actions get harder when you’re damaged. Pools are refilled by recovery rolls, which you get after resting (a long night’s rest will produce four such rolls, which is the most you can make in a day) – this is one of those times you need that pesky d6. Steps on the damage track recover automatically as the Pools replenish.

How do you get XP? GM intrusions, and discovering new things. As Cook notes, the players will do what you give them XP for, and the system (derived as it is from Numenera) is about discovery things, not about killing monsters, so that’s what you get XP for. Discoveries can mean new places, new secrets, new artifacts, or whatever is pertinent to the genre being used.

Optional Rules (a different ~15 pages)

If it floats your boat, the Cypher System includes optional rules for trading damage in for an effect (e.g., give up two points of damage to hit a specific body part), permanent/long-term/detailed damage (e.g., getting a broken arm), distinctions between different kinds of weapons, using tactical play, requiring players to spend XP gained during a session only for non-advancement benefits (you’d probably have to apply this one to me, or else I’d just hoard everything for long-term benefits and character advancement), and bonus XP for coming up with character drawbacks.

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Genres (~40 pages)

The Cypher System Rulebook includes information for using the system across five different genres: fantasy, science fiction, modern, horror, and superheroes. Each genre gives suggested Foci, suggested ways of flavoring Types to fit archetypes for that genre, suggested creatures/NPCs, additional equipment, and artifacts for use in that genre, as well as brief tips for running a game in that genre. Some genres include unique elements. Fantasy and Science Fiction campaigns might add races/species as Descriptors. Superheroes can have power shifts, which are like permanent extra levels of effort for certain tasks, and increased difficulty maximums to match. The most extensive material is to be found in the Horror genre. While the horror genre is, in some ways, just a subset of modern, there are several systems included for invoking the mood of horror films and literature, including shock, madness (for your Cthulhu-flavored horror game), and “horror mode” (when things get tougher and tougher as the adventure goes on).

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Bestiary/NPCs (~65 pages)

Cypher-System-Rulebook-17-Jon-PetersenThis section covers ~67 creatures/NPCs, which includes generic monster-type critters (goblins, zombies, tyrannosaurus rex), specific super-villains (Doctor Dread, Anathema), and more generic NPCs (guard, wizard, secret agent, occultist). Obviously, not all of the entries from this section will work in every setting. Zombies can apparently show up in anything that isn’t a non-supernatural modern setting, but those little grey aliens who want to abduct you are a fairly narrow archetype.

NPCs/creatures work significantly differently from PCs. The basic thing that defines one of these opponents is its level. Any interaction with that entity that requires a roll is going to default to that as the difficulty for the task (remember, target number = difficulty x3). People and creatures other than PCs simply do not function at all like PCs do.

The bestiary includes creatures of difficulty levels 1-10. Each entry includes a general description, motives (some just want to eat you, some are intelligent, some are both), health value, damage caused, armor (if any), movement, modifications (places where the difficulty is higher or lower than the creature’s level – is the critter sneaky, hard to hit, charismatic, etc.), advice on using the creature in combat, how the creature will interact with PCs (again, this may be “try to eat them” or may be more complex), general use in a game (e.g., this monster makes for a good ambush), loot that may be found and (sometimes) suggestions for GM intrusions. NPCs are pretty much the same.

Creatures included run the gamut from level 1 nuisances that the PCs can knock off by the dozen (goblins) to low-level critters like orcs, zombies, and giant rats to scary foes like dragons and Doctor Dread to the all-consuming Kaiju. Note that, as exemplified by the “Kaiju” entry, these creatures are given fairly generic presentations (well, except for the super-villains) – there’s just “demon” and “devil” and “dragon,” not 17 entries defining all the different kinds of such creature that a GM has ever deployed. It is worth emphasizing how drastically the challenge presented by an opponent varies with difficulty level. A level 2 creature means that even if they expend no resources whatsoever and are untrained in combat, starting characters will hit it 75% of the time and it will miss them 75% of the time. Push that up to level 5, and now the characters hit only 30% of the time and they get hit 70% of the time.

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Equipment (~35 pages)

The Cypher System Rulebook contains a very short basic section on Equipment, and then contains more specific information in each genre chapter. Mundane gear are not assigned prices, but simply categorized as inexpensive, moderately priced, expensive, very expensive, or exorbitant. What dollar/credit/gold/whatever amount that represents will vary, but in rules terms this defines how affordable the item is to the typical person, with each category an order of magnitude more expensive than the prior.

Armor is simply Light, Medium, or Heavy. Weapons are, likewise, Light, Medium, or Heavy. Artifacts, on the other hand, are permanent items that are more powerful than mundane equipment. However, even most artifacts do not last forever, and require depletion rolls when used.

Cyphers

Cyphers get much more treatment than the rest of the gear. Cyphers, as noted above, are one-shot items that function more like one-shot special abilities than they do equipment. They are intended to flow in and out of the PCs’ hands to liven up gameplay, and are a central feature of how the Cypher System works. Although maybe you could already figure that out from the fact that it’s called the “Cypher System.”

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Cyphers can come in all sorts of form, which will vary wildly from genre to genre (or even within a genre). These might include potions, scrolls, drug doses, nanotech injections, a page from a forbidden tome, or any some sort of mystical doohickey. This could potentially make such cyphers difficult to use in some settings, especially modern settings with no supernatural elements, or horror settings where the fantastical is restricted to the crazy evil guys. To address this, the rulebook uses the concept of “subtle cyphers,” which include things like good luck, inspiration, divine blessings, mysterious whispers, or non-visible supernatural manifestations. The options available for the subtle cyphers, however, are more circumscribed than those for ‘normal’ cyphers.

All told, there are about 200 different possible cypher effects presented, if one includes things like different variations of Detonation.

GM Advice (~45 pages)

In my review of Numenera, I described the GM advice section of that book as “Possibly the most useful GM advice pagecount in any RPG core book I have ever read. For starters, it takes it for granted that you know what an RPG is and have some clue how they work and have probably run one before, so it doesn’t waste a lot of time on basic advice that would be a retread of every GM section of every core book you’ve ever read.” That remains true in the Cypher System Rulebook.

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Indeed, most of the GM advice chapter in the Cypher System Rulebook is close to a straight-up ‘port of two of the three GM advice chapters from Numenera (Using the Rules and Building a Story but, for obvious reasons, not Realizing the Ninth World). Which is a good thing if you want a good GM advice chapter, although something you might not be as excited about if you already own Numenera or The Strange. I shall take the liberty of re-using my own commentary as well.

A lot of the section on using the rules covers setting difficulty levels, why the vagueness/chunkiness of the system is handy, how to use GM intrusion, and some other rules aspects. It makes significant points about how the important thing with a lot of rules is to not break the players’ suspension of disbelief and to maintain consistency because without it the players cannot make intelligent decisions. (I agree with these points so hard) On the downside, I could probably do without being told that, as the GM, I can just fix power level problems or “broken” rules by fiat – I know I can do that, but when you go out of your way to point it out, it makes me feel like you’re using that as some sort of substitute for doing your best to “balance” the crunch in the first place. This part of the chapter adds material on using character Types to define the setting. For example, if the Adept in your setting is going to mean some sort of wizard, then the Magic Training ability could be made mandatory for that Type.

The section on building a story is, again, pretty down to earth and as detailed as this sort of thing is going to get (sample quote: “Skip the boring bits.”) – things like varying the kind of encounters, keeping good pacing, good description, and using specific language to bring the setting to life.

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Opinions

The writing for the Cypher System Rulebook is excellent, as was the writing for its precursors, although with more ‘crunch’ and less setting ‘fluff,’ there is less room for quite the same quantity of the highest-level material. On the flip side, that extra crunch is kind of the point – instead of getting a lot of setting material, the Cypher System Rulebook gives a vast array of character options for a variety of genres.

The Cypher System can make life really easy for the GM during sessions (once he or she gets the hang of GM intrusions), with straightforward target numbers, not a ton of NPC stats to keep track of, and keeping all the rolls in the hands of the players. When writing my Numenera review, I noted that the greatest difficulty for the GM would be working “to bring the right level of mystery/wonder/weird to the table every week, when you/I aren’t all really talented RPG writers who are able to do that sort of thing for a living.” A different version of that is probably the hardest thing for a GM using the Cypher System Rulebook, because the GM will need to do a significant amount of lifting to create a setting that fully makes use of the Cypher System. And, unlike with Numenera, the GM may not have the option of falling back on published supplements. Rules like the titular cyphers and things like gaining XP for discoveries mechanically intertwine with the system’s origins in Numenera, which was all about exploring this wild and crazy and wonderful setting and finding totally new things every week, which Monte Cook and company had spent many hours coming up with and describing for the GM. Obviously, this is a rules book, not a setting book, so nobody should be picking it up thinking that it a game is going to fall fully formed into one’s lap. But crafting a setting for a Cypher System game will, I think, require more attention than one where the PCs’ thirst for power can be sated simply by killing more things/defeating more foes. Even on the NPC/creature front, where the book does provide mechanical elements, the need to cover so many genres means that the selection for one particular genre is not going to be excessively deep.

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A potential problem for the GM might be how well the concept of cyphers translates to all of the genres covered. Even with the ‘subtle’ cyphers, I suspect that a GM for some genres could get pretty tired pretty quickly of trying to come up with the source of the ‘we-swear-it’s-not-magic’ powers that the PCs are constantly obtaining. One imagines that there are only so many times the PCs can inject themselves with drugs, throw a special grenade, or have ‘good luck’ before these cyphers feel played out. Extra doses of creativity will be required.


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Note: This review is based on a non-finalized, pre-production PDF. As such, although the Monte Cook track record indicates that they will probably be well done, I cannot comment on production quality of the hardcopy book, or the finalized editing, layout, and graphic design. Also, promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy (that copy being the non-finalized PDF).

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