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Decrypting the Cypher System Part 4 (Setup)

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Since the last part of this series I’ve been doing prep work for running a game. On the one hand, the pitch for the Cypher System is that it’s easy for GMs with minimal work. On the other, the front end prep the book recommends for a game seems pretty heavy, so I was curious how things would shake out.

Let’s start with the Campaign Design Worksheet. This sheet is included at the end of the rulebook and it has places for most of the notes you’ll need for your game. It starts off with the basics: Campaign name, Genre, GM name (as an aside: seriously why the heck is GM name on every worksheet since Red Box DnD? Does anyone out there routinely find sheaves of old campaign notes in their house and say to themselves “Hmm… Looks familiar…. Wonder who GMed this? Oh! Looks like it was me!”) and then moves into options specific to the Cypher System. Custom Types (the noun in “I am an adjective noun who verbs”), available Descriptors (the adjective), available Foci (the verb) and other notes. This worksheet is a great checklist for the major things that need (ought? could?) be done before your game. However at least in my case I found it to be constrained by size. There’s only just so much information you can cram into an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper, even with a tiny font and there’s a lot of information that could be put on this worksheet.

For starters, it has four slots for custom Types to supplement the base four (Adept, Explorer, Speaker, and Warrior) and three half lines for notes about each. The book doesn’t give much in the way of guidelines about how many custom types to build so since I was making a fantasy game I started with the “Suggested Types for a Fantasy Game” table from the fantasy chapter and chose to make custom types for the Barbarian (Explorer with Combat flavor), Cleric (Speaker/Magic), Druid (Explorer/Magic), and Thief (Explorer/Stealth). Creating the custom Types is as easy as excising abilities from the base Type and subbing in abilities from the Flavor but again there’s not a lot of guidance on how many abilities to swap so I just read through the Types and Flavors and swapped abilities when I found a Flavor ability with a better fit than a basic Type ability. For example, for the Thief Type I removed the ability Muscles of Iron which granted bonuses to Might rolls and instead added Stealth Skills. The process is straightforward, though different combinations of Type and Flavor required more tweaking than others. For example for my custom barbarian Type, I swapped only seven abilities, whereas for my custom thief Type, I swapped twenty-two. This process seems like it would be time consuming but it’s actually fairly quick once you get a bit of practice under your belt. For me the process took only a few hours spread over several days. However, the three half lines on the design worksheet was woefully inadequate for even the simplest of custom Types I made. Maybe the intent was only to swap a few abilities. It also seems like the exercise of flipping between the base Type ability list, the flavor ability list and a list of abilities from each list that were removed or added would be unwieldy for players. I would like to see an online utility which allows you to choose a Type and Flavor, mix and match abilities from the two, change the name, tweak the flavor text and save or print a copy to give out to players in one cohesive document. I may end up using an image editor to copy-paste documents together for my custom Types, but I hope a better tool is available soon.

Descriptors and Foci are both presented as lists with checkboxes next to them so that those available for your campaign can be selected. The book doesn’t make any suggestions about modifying the list of available Descriptors, so I gave them a quick skim and then moved on. Foci, on the other hand, the book encourages you to carefully select for your game so I went through and read all the descriptions and made notes on the worksheet. Ultimately I rejected only a few Foci as unsuitable for my game. Several others were re-named to better fit a fantasy theme. For example, Builds Robots became Imbues Homunculi. The rest I sorted into three lists depending on some game considerations. I felt that there were a good number of Foci that would have been appropriate for any genre of game if they had been given an appropriate rename. If every Foci had been given a few names from a variety of genres there wouldn’t have had to be a suggested list of Foci for each genre. In addition a few tags (included on listings of foci) would have helped sort things out. For example just like Cyphers (magic items) are rated as either material or subtle to denote which ones are obviously magical, alien tech, etc… and which can go largely unnoticed, in the guise of inspirations or grit, rating Foci as conspicuous or subtle would allow a quick filter. Again this is an excellent place for a utility allowing for selection of Descriptors and Foci along with renaming and tweaking before printing or saving the end product. The process of vetting Descriptors and Foci also took me only a few hours over a couple days.

Of course since there are chapters for genres with customs rules and an entire chapter of optional rules, I also went through these and chose optional rules to use. I decided on Lasting and Permanent Damage, modified Madness rules, Shock (think insanity rules from Call of Cthulhu), and Horror Mode (a really fantastic rules system for escalating tension in horror situations). This took very little time even though I selected several optional rules.

Something that was conspicuously absent that added several hours to my prep time was a rules cheat sheet or summary or a compiled tables section in the back of the book. A lot of games have had these since almost the beginning of the hobby and instead I found myself sifting back through the book and copy-pasting material to put into my customizable GM screen. This isn’t a reason to not buy the system but I’m hoping that MCG will quickly release screen inserts like they did for Numenera and The Strange (or the fan base will create these things like they have for the other games).

All of the prep of creating custom types, vetting Descriptors and Foci, selecting optional rules, and compiling a GM’s screen and player aids could be done over a weekend. It’s several hours of work you wouldn’t have to do with a canned ham system, but it’s still a lot less work than many other generic systems that you have to tweak to your setting and less than making similar modifications in many systems. My only complaint is that the entire process would be faster and the end results more useful with some tools. However I suspect that even if Monte Cook Games doesn’t provide those tools the player base will do so in short order. I think the Cypher System does deliver on its promise to make less work for the GM (despite the fact that parts of it sound scary) and once extras are available, the process will be further streamlined and simplified.

4 Comments (Open | Close)

4 Comments To "Decrypting the Cypher System Part 4 (Setup)"

#1 Comment By Scott Martin On August 5, 2015 @ 10:06 am

That does sound interesting, and not as tedious as I find most “build a specific instance of a generic system” to be.

It’ll be interesting to see if the tools come into being quickly, or if they roll out slowly as purpose built for handling the most repetitive tasks first. Does MCG have an SRD (or its equivalent) to cut and paste from for builders?

#2 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On August 5, 2015 @ 7:54 pm

To my knowledge there isn’t an SRD, although the PDF of the book is text, not images so you can copy paste from there. I’ve been taking screenshots to use because I like the nice formatting, but that’s just preference.

I think if you don’t mind going with a low rent option, a lot of the Numenera or The Strange tools (rules summary, GM screens, etc…) can likely be repurposed. Maybe not character builders and the like, but a start anyway.

#3 Comment By Roxysteve On August 7, 2015 @ 2:25 pm

Building a GM screen is just about the best way of learning how to GM any game I reckon, but some game systems I’ve come across make doing that harder than just reading the rulebook a couple of times from cover to cover over the course of a few months. 8o)

#4 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On August 8, 2015 @ 7:57 pm

I agree. I even wrote an article about how helpful it is a while back. In some cases, the book is almost set up so that printing out a few pages does 90% of the work for you. Such is not the case with the Cypher system. It took a few hours but I did manage to condense all of the main rules plus the few optional rules I wanted to use into 3 pages. From there I trimmed down even further to make a player cheat sheet since none of my players have played this or the prior similar games.