Roleplaying Games

Adaptation Quest #4: Metal Gear Cypher

Michael A Gold
Feb 22 · 14 min read

“Adaptation Quest” is an ongoing series of game design experiments about what certain tabletop adaptations would look like. Inspired by countless discussions in Dungeons & Dragons Facebook groups about how to adapt this or that property to the world’s most famous TTRPG, I hope to actually break down what a tabletop adaptation might be like, without having to write a 100-page document or playtest the thing. In this edition, we’re translating Metal Gear Solid using the Cypher, or should I say Cipher, system.

Over the last two months, I’ve finally been catching up with the Metal Gear series. I never got into them as a kid, and by the time I was curious, the whole thing seemed too big and dense to get into. You need to play or at least have knowledge of each entry in the series to understand the next, and the previous games weren’t easily available to me. So I waited until Metal Gear and the first two Metal Gear Solid games appeared on GOG and I dove in. It was a perfect distraction from the beginning of 2021 and a helpful pop culture lens through which to view what was going on.

I thought it might be fun to adapt the series using Monte Cook’s excellent and extremely flexible Cypher System. By the end of this article, your gaming group will be using a d20 to sneak, shoot, and monologue your way through a game full of Tactical Espionage Action.

What is Metal Gear?

Metal Gear is a series of video games directed by Hideo Kojima from 1987 to 2015. It had humble beginnings on the MGX computer system as an early stealth game, but is best known for the entries that came out starting in 1998 with the name Metal Gear Solid. There are two Metal Gear games, five numbered Metal Gear Solid games, two portable Metal Gear Solid entries, and one spin-off in what may yet be a series called Metal Gear Rising. So in all, that’s about ten games telling a story of war, espionage, and intrigue that spans from 1963 to the then-near future of 2018.

I won’t spoil anything major in this piece, but it can be hard to sum up the series without some spoilers, so be warned. The games generally follow two connected storylines. The main one, starting in the first Metal Gear and wrapping up in 2009’s Metal Gear Solid IV: The Guns of the Patriots, is the story of a soldier named Solid Snake and his discovery of and subsequent efforts to thwart a group called the Patriots. The Patriots control the world by carefully controlling a militarized economy.

Snake also wrestles with a variety of antagonists that have some connection to a mysterious figure called “Big Boss,” who is Snake’s father, and who (in theory) died in Metal Gear 2. The second narrative thread, beginning in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, and continuing through the portable games before coming to an end in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, is about Big Boss and how he went from super-spy to mercenary leader to apparent master villain.

The Metal Gears themselves are bipedal mechs that appear in just about every game. They have a lot of weapons for local combat and usually have the ability to fire nuclear weapons. They are wildly impractical but mechanically, make for exciting fights near the end of each game. Narratively they are a physical representation of the apparatus of war.

The series is known for its tight stealth action gameplay, over the top character design, and surprisingly emotional plotlines. It features a breadth of knowledge about modern warfare and late 20th century history that would be hard to find outside of a Paradox game.

Metal Gear deals with the futility of war, the fragility of nationalism, and the malleability of morality in politics, while invoking deterrence theory, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the War Economy, the child soldier phenomenon, information control, and genetic determinism. It also includes a scene where President Lyndon Johnson pins a medal to a man’s chest and says “You are above even The Boss. I hereby award you the title of Big Boss.”

The whole thing is perhaps best epitomized in the first Metal Gear Solid, wherein Solid Snake must sneak into an arctic base, fight various enemies with names like Psycho Mantis and Sniper Wolf, and eventually fist fight his clone twin on top of a broken down Metal Gear before the US carpet bombs the whole facility.

In other words, it feels ripe for an evening of atmospheric, exciting roleplaying.

What is the Cypher System?

Legendary RPG designer Monte Cook designed the Cypher System for Numenera. Numenera is known for its incredible setting, featuring Earth one billion years into the future, but I loved it for its streamlined gameplay. Cook later generalized this system and used it to make other games and the gaming world is all the richer for it. The Cypher System is easy to learn, easy to GM, and features a fun system whereby players can award each other XP. The addition of Cyphers add a fun wrinkle as well. Let’s get to some highlights of this system.

The Cypher System utilizes a d20 for all challenges. Challenges are given a difficulty rating from 1–10, and then that number is tripled to reach a target number. Various factors, including the use of a Stat Pool, can lower or raise the difficulty of a task. The player then rolls a d20, and if it is equal to or higher than the target number, it succeeds! Rolling a 1 is a failure and allows the GM to make an Intrusion. Rolling a 17 or 18 in combat grants bonus damage, and rolling a 19 or 20 grants a minor or major effect, respectively.

The GM can intrude in various ways to make players fail or to make their lives harder, but must award XP for doing so. In addition, each player gets one XP at the start of a session to grant to another player when they see fit.

Combat is easy. All weapons have a range of Immediate, Short, Medium, Far, or Very Far. These weapons are either light, meaning they do 2 damage, medium, meaning they do 4 damage, or heavy, meaning they do 6 damage. When characters take damage, they subtract from their stat pools. When all are at zero, they are dead. There’s standard turn taking and initiative.

Aside from weapons there are Cyphers, which are single use items that can be used in or out of combat. They usually have some wild effect like making you invisible or opening up a wormhole, but they can only be used once and you can’t carry too many with you.

Players make all the rolls. Enemies are assigned a level from 1–10, and the difficulty to hit them or avoid a hit from them is established by multiplying their level by three.

The stats themselves are also simple. You have Speed, Might, and Intellect. Speed is for anything requiring speed or dexterity, Might for anything involving strength, and Intellect for anything requiring the brain. Most characters have between 9 and 12 points in their stat pools to start, prioritizing the stat that is best for their character concept. They can also have Edge, which reduces the cost of spending from the pool to lower difficulty.

My favorite thing about this system is how character creation utilizes a concept. All characters can break down to “I am an [adjective] [noun] who [verbs].” The adjective is a descriptor, the noun is a class depending on the setting, and the verb is a Focus, or a unique ability held by that character alone.

If you want to know more, montecookgames.com has a helpful and free rules primer available.

Why it might work

I think it might work because of the variety of characters in the Metal Gear series. The characters can be broadly whittled down to archetypes, but each is so unique that the Focus element of the character concept is really attractive to me. I also appreciate that combat and challenges are quick and easy, meaning that you can have a mission that still involves quite a few encounters and tricky obstacles while moving things at a brisk pace.

The cyphers provide a fun bonus, with spy tech that must be used at the exact right time. The XP system also works well. The GM can use intrusion to create new challenges that the players couldn’t have anticipated, like a sudden turncoat, or an unexpected ambush, or a part of the plan not working as expected. This mirrors the twisty and turny nature of the games. Players can also give XP based on certain cool moves or novel solutions, but I would ask them to save it for when a character makes a long speech describing their philosophy or tragic backstory.

Why it might flop

The only thing that might not work perfectly is the group aspect of the game. In most of the video game entries, they make a big deal of Snake’s skill with solo missions. He always has intel support, and there are usually allies elsewhere in the field, but he’s rarely traveling in a squad with others. This system will have to make use of a squad or strike team model, thus making it feel not quite like the games, while also giving characters who aren’t physically present plenty to do. If someone wants a role similar to the Colonel in the first game, they won’t be on the mission, so the GM will have to carefully consider how they can still be fully involved.

The biggest enemy of this game might be a fear of railroading. In my opinion, the GM should give players an initial goal, “infiltrate this place and do this thing” and should leave any twists and complications up to the fiction. If players are sneaking in to a base and stealing data for a super weapon, the arrival of a group of mercenary supersoldiers who are also there to steal the data is interesting, but these encounters should be in response to what players do. This means some of the twists may not make total sense or might need some massaging, but hey! That’s Metal Gear for you!

How it works

I think the best place to start is by using the character concepts. Let’s start with nouns. The easiest way to create classes for characters is to create one broad class that grants Edge to a stat pool for each stat. That gives us three classes. For Speed, let’s call them Infiltrators. We’ll call the ones with an Edge to Might Soldiers. Finally, it’s Intel Agents who have an Edge in Intellect.

Infiltrators are skilled in Sneaking, Climbing, and Close Combat. They also have a special ability that allows them to knock out rather than kill guards they get the drop on. Soldiers are trained in Medium and Heavy Weapons, and in Vehicles. They have a special ability that allows them to identify the nature of any weapon they see. Intel Agents are trained in Language (two of their choice), Technology, and Tactics. They have a special ability that allows them to identify any additional routes to an objective.

The adjective would come next. I think that it would mostly be one’s nationality, which would give them an additional language or two. An additional possibility would be that it could be “Cyborg,” allowing you some extra abilities along with some downsides. A character with the “Cyborg” descriptor could gain an Edge in each stat but lose it if they come into contact with a powerful electrical field, for example. If players would prefer a physical attribute they could do that as well. Descriptors like “scarred,” “voluptuous,” or “jumpy” would be setting appropriate and have possible mechanical impact.

The broadest thing is the focus. To be honest, I think that Foci should largely be up to a discussion between player and GM. The variety of character abilities in the Metal Gear series is too wide to properly sum up in a piece like this. From Volgin’s electrical abilities to Ocelot’s pistol skill to Quiet’s ability to turn invisible, it really feels like it would be too limiting to make a list here. GMs should allow themselves to ban or modify abilities like those displayed by Fortune or Vamp, but otherwise let players see what they can come up with.

Players should also choose a codename, usually including the name of an animal. Silent Raven, Arrogant Gorilla, Iron Wasp, something that sounds good and maybe gives the barest hint of insight into your character.

With this in place, some popular characters from the series might be described as “I am a Soviet Soldier who commands electricity” or “I am a Silent Infiltrator who can hit any target” or “I am a Nerdy Intel Agent who can invent new weapons.”

Weapons can be easily sorted into categories. Pistols are Light weapons with short range. Shotguns are Medium weapons with short range. Assault Rifles are Medium Weapons with medium range. Machine Guns are Heavy Weapons with Medium Range. Rocket Launchers are Heavy Weapons with Long Range. Sniper Rifles are Heavy Weapons with Very Long Range. Knives, to really sell their deadliness, are Medium weapons with Immediate range.

Players and GMs can deal with variations within this. For example certain scopes may make long range shots easier, or suppressors may be used with some weapons. Infiltrators can use their weapons to knock out rather than kill unaware enemies. Rather than making them worry over ammo types, we can just assume that they have a tranquilizer pistol with them.

A one shot in the Metal Gear Cypher game might feel like one of the lengthier missions in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, for example “Where Do The Bees Sleep?” which features multiple checkpoints to sneak past, a large area to infiltrate, a prisoner to rescue, and finally a challenging combat encounter to finish. A multi-session adventure might be more the length of something like one of the first three Metal Gear Solid games. The action takes place in one large location over about 24 hours and features a variety of combat and infiltration encounters. Over multiple sessions there can be setbacks, new reveals, fights against interesting enemies, and a general push and pull of forces in response to the way the players behave. A longer campaign may or may not be advisable depending on the skill of the GM to weave a vast conspiracy that the players can unpack through multiple adventures. On the other hand, jumping between timelines like the games do might provide opportunities for players to try playing as new characters in new adventures while still working on the same campaign.

So using the suggestion from above, let’s say that your party consists of Flaming Octopus (A Greek Soldier who is a master of explosives), Iron Wasp (A Cyborg Infiltrator who can sting from up close) and Argus (A scarred Intel Agent who can get into anything). Flaming Octopus and Iron Wasp are in the field itself, Argus is near the field, but is providing remote support.

The goal is to sneak into a secret base in the Pacific Ocean where a super weapon is being developed by an unknown nation. The goal is to steal the data related to the weapon and to uncover who the base belongs to. Flaming Octopus is supposed to use explosives to destroy the weapon if it is deemed to be a threat. His ability to use explosives means he can get them to behave how he needs them to, placing them in the perfect places and in the perfect amounts to achieve the results he needs. Iron Wasp is the chief infiltrator, and in close combat, especially with her knife, can ignore armor. Argus is a skilled hacker, and so can help divert cameras or otherwise interfere with the base’s security systems.

Part way through the mission, a group of mercenaries arrive to steal the weapon. This adds increased urgency to stealing the data and destroying the weapon and adds new combat encounters in places the players may have visited already. We can get some weird enemies, like say a ninja who can rapidly rust metal, or a big soldier with a gun that can freeze what it shoots.

What do these mercenaries want? What is the weapon? Who does the base belong to? These are all twists that can come about in play. Maybe these are members of a group that Flaming Octopus used to belong to, but he thought he left them for dead (remember that a particularly good reveal monologue can be cause for a player to award another player XP). Maybe the base belongs to the US, but it belongs to the secretive military program that turned Iron Wasp into a cyborg in the first place. Maybe the weapon is something that Argus worked on, and thought he’d destroyed all evidence of it long ago. Twists can pile up. Maybe the group attacking the base also sent someone to the boat that Argus is operating out of, forcing him to go offline and fight the assassin himself.

There are lots of options for a Metal Gear themed story that fits comfortably into the timeline established by the games. The next adventure could expand on the discoveries made in the first, or it could be a flashback that explains how the agency that operates the base came to exist in the first place. The sky’s the limit.

Would I play it?

Well, right now I’m trying to keep myself from taking a break to go replay missions in MGSV, but in short: ABSOLUTELY. Either as a fun little one shot, a multi-session adventure, or a campaign that goes on and off for a while, I think this game seems really fun. The Cypher System is one of my favorite generic systems, and it gives a decent amount of flexibility here while also giving the rigidity needed to bring this setting to life. The idea of playing the same campaign in different parts of a shared timeline is really attractive to me. There’s a lot of freedom in the kinds of really off the wall characters you can make and this game provides a weird canvas for any little trivia tidbit you want to include. The main games themselves reference not only various historical events, but also linguistics, literature, food trivia, etc. It’s really a dork’s paradise. I want to play right now!

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Would you play Metal Gear Cypher? Is there a better system for this, or something else you think the Cypher System would fit?

There Will Be Games

Games are interesting. If you don’t agree, you‘re wrong.

Michael A Gold

Written by

Michael writes about video games, RPGs, history, and a little bit of everything else. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and Netflix account.

There Will Be Games

Board games, game design, roleplaying games, and other analog pursuits.

Michael A Gold

Written by

Michael writes about video games, RPGs, history, and a little bit of everything else. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and Netflix account.

There Will Be Games

Board games, game design, roleplaying games, and other analog pursuits.

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