Decrypting the Cypher system

I was wrong. I did not understand at the first glance, which is irritating actually. Because, you know, for reasons. Perhaps I was so blinded by another shiny promising system. Nonetheless, it took me a few months, several sessions, and a new game to figure the things out. And I eventually understand the subtlety of the Cypher system. At last!


A few months ago, I put the hand on Numenera. I was excited, because the setting is really, really fantastic, a deep, rich, enticing setting, beautifully illustrated and superbly written. I should write some reviews one day for the core book and some of the awesome supplements. Anyway. Numenera is powered by a brand new RPG system imagined by the top-notch designer, Monte Cook. I’m pretty sure you already heard of him. He named his system Cypher, which appears to be also the name of some kind of techno-magical devices in the Numenera universe. Cypher also powered The Strange, a game designed by Bruce R. Cordell and Monte Cook, and published last year. The Strange, as the name suggests, presents an enticing, exciting, yet mysterious setting. But I won’t write about the games specifically. And Monte Cook announced the release of the Cypher System Rulebook in the summer of 2015.

I gave another chance to Cypher. It is full of great ideas everywhere!

The Cypher system is basically a D20 offspring. It features character classes, levels, and some others core ideas from the classical D20 system, with a twist. I must admit that I’m not a big fan of the D20 system or its variants. Or perhaps, to be fair, I WAS not a big fan. I changed my mind recently, there are new exciting games that reinvent the D20 and are really awesome. But, when I first read the book, I didn’t like the Cypher system that much, neither my players. I wrote a Fate conversion book and played several games with this hack. It was certainly fun. But I felt that I missed something. So I gave another chance to Cypher. It is full of great ideas everywhere!

Imagine a character

The character creation is brilliant. Your job is simple, you’ll have to complete a single sentence: “I am a [fill in an adjective here] [fill in a noun here] who [fill in a verb here]”. Three words! A descriptor, a type and a focus! That’s it! Almost.

The type is obviously the character class. The focus is what the character do. And the descriptor is what your character is. The sentence defines a character completely. The game stats are simply derived from the three keywords. I found that the idea is just great! Now, when I create characters, as a player or as a GM, no matter the game, I just ask for a noun, an adjective and a verb. It works for all the game you could imagine. Then, with the sentence as a guide, you can take care of the mechanical stats.

Three words! An adjective, a noun and a verb! A descriptor, a type and a focus!

One of the points that bothered me was the number of character types. It is limited to three. Glaive, Nano, Jack for Numenera and Vector, Paradox, Spinner for The Strange, roughly Warrior, Magic-user, sneaky fast-talker Jack-of-all-trades. I thought that, without fine granularity, the characters were resemble each others. But, actually, this is not the case. The character type is certainly of importance, because it’s describing the place of the character in society. But the crucial point is what the character does, her focus, and how she does it, her descriptor. We find, in both core books, sufficient options to build hundreds of different characters. Which gives pride to diversity. Diversity is also a key point in the design of the two Cypher games.

A mechanical consideration

Speaking of game stats, a characters has three main stats: Might, Speed, Intellect. Each stat consists in a pool points and a number, the edge. The pool represents the raw potential, and the edge represents the ability to use her potential. As for games that make use of pool points, this leads to interesting choices during play: when spend points from the pool to gain advantages.

Playing the game

I won’t describe step by step the game mechanism. I will rather point what I beleive to be a great idea. When a character takes action, the GM decides if a roll is needed, which stat the task use, what is the difficulty of the task and the player rolls a D20. This is not that new, this is a very streamlined version of the D20 system. But the interesting point is that the GM never roll a die. The GM has another job.

Concerning the rolls, the philosophy of the Cypher system is that a roll is needed if a failure could lead to interesting and fun development of the story. Which is not that obvious if you come from other D20 games, where rolls play an important role in the scenarios, like in heavy combat oriented games. But which is rather obvious is you come from indie-style games, like games inspired by The Burning Wheel (or others). I’m not going to start a debate on the subject. Everyone has their ideas and preferences. I just believe that this specific design idea is great, and has subtle effects on the scenarios. It ensures that the game will run smoothly, without interruption, at a pace mastered by the GM and the players. And it gives a tool to the GM to create twists in the story by asking a roll when the failure could be interesting. But the Cypher system goes further.

Narrating the game

The actual great idea of the Cypher system is the GM intrusions. Basically, GM intrusion is a tool to inject drama, excitement, twists into the story. I must admit that I did not understand the underlying design philosophy at first. I thought that it was a railroading tool, a toy for authoritarian GM. I was wrong. GM intrusion is all about fun, surprise and memorable games.

A GM intrusion should always be used to surprise the players, to create fun and to enhance the narrative flow.

Basically, a GM intrusion is a narrative complication, a story twist, or whatever interesting imagined by the GM A GM intrusion is offered to a player, or the group, in exchange of a XP point. The player can refuse the intrusion at the cost of a XP point. The mechanic certainlt create a XP points economy but this should not beacome the heart of the system.

Actually, the heart of the system lies in the narrative tool. A GM intrusion should never be used to direct or railroad the players. A GM intrusion should always be used to surprise the players, to create fun and to enhance the narrative flow. With a little practice, and perhaps a look at what other GMs are doing, GM intrusion reveals itself as a subtle, yet powerful, way to create a memorable RPG experience. Well, GM intrusions are something you must experience in action, so I won’t give you examples. It’s far more better if I encourage you to look at the “How to play Numenera” video.

About Cyphers

In both games, an element should not be overlooked. A cypher is a one-use techno-magical stuff. A GM should be generous, and give cyphers lavishly. The players should be shy and use them without hesitation. Basically, cyphers grant mechanical bonuses, or trigger mechanical effects. But, looking further, cyphers also triggers narrative effects. Especially in the hands of a creative GM.

Sanboxing the game

Sooner or later, a GM intrusion will pop and lead you on the other side of the mirror.

I found that the core mechanics of the Cypher system encourage sandbox-style games. The streamlined D20 task resolution, the GM intrusions, even the character creation, are all tools that develop all their flavors during open campaigns. I guess that the settings are also well suited for this style of play. I ran several Numenera scenarios, from the core book and supplements. There are great scenarios, The Beale of Boregal especially as an introduction to both the system and the Ninth World. But sooner or later, a GM intrusion will pop and lead you on the other side of the mirror.

I’m not saying that a Cypher game is zero-prep. It is not, I can assure you. I’m just saying that the system seems to have been built with player-driven campaigns in mind. Monte Cook Games propose several nifty PDF supplements for both games, full of ideas, directions, advices, even random tables. This material is invaluable to an enterprising GM. But I digress.

Go further

I feel that I have to play again and again, to subtly master the system, and to explore the settings. You should do the same. Numenera and The Strange both worth the investment, and the Cypher system has not stop surprising us.

This essay is the second installment of a series about RPG systems. The first was about the GUMSHOE system from Pelgrane Press. The next will examine the Archmage system also from Pelgrane Press.