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Decrypting the Cypher System Part 5 (Prep and Run)

Cover-Mockup-2015-04-08-Opt2c-389x500 [1]When we last left off, I had prepped for a fantasy horror campaign with the cypher system rules. This time around, I prepped a session, invited over a group of friends with a variety of levels of experience with RPGs, made characters and ran a game.

Session prep took the form of loose half page descriptions of four locations that were likely to be important to the session as well as names and descriptions of characters likely found in those locations, a few miscellaneous notes, and stats for two new opponents. All together, the prep took around two hours, most of which was spent hemming and hawing over if the scenario prior to the characters’ arrival made any sense (and fixing it when it didn’t), randomly generating names*, and researching were-hyenas. The cypher system easily delivers on it’s promise to just get out of the way and let you run your game. Most mechanical issues (skill challenges, many NPCs, mook level adversaries) are expressed as just a single number. More important elements can be expressed as a single number as well, but can also be expanded as much or as little as you choose. Here are some examples from my notes:

-With some calming, someone remembers everyone on the ranch has been on edge but doesn’t know why (int 3)

-With some healing skill, the symptoms are indicative of great trauma in the chest cavity. (His heart and lungs have been torn to shreds) (int 3)

Hyena                       Level 2(target # 6)

6 hps. does 2hp damage


Were-Hyena (Chiemeka Dalitso)                Level 5 (target # 15)

Health: 15 points

Damage inflicted: 5 points

Movement: Short

Modification: Attacks and defends as level 6, senses as level 7

Combat: most attacks have half effect. Following has full: magic, silver, attacks coated in disbous (an orange wolfsbane like flower) or wolfsbane

Were Hyenas are distracted by burnt offerings

Were Hyenas have a gaze attack that mesmerizes


Before the session I printed out a few pages from the rule book on each Type that players might choose, and a listing of Descriptors and Foci. There are too many descriptors and foci to print all of them, so we just pulled up the ones that looked interesting then printed the ones they chose. Character creation didn’t take a lot of time, but I’m not sure sheets were all filled out perfectly. If we have another session, I’ll have to go back over everyone’s sheet and check that everything is in order. This was due to the fact that none of us had used the system before more than any issue with the system. We ended up with a well rounded group with a mix of Types and with a wide variety of Descriptors and Foci. We had:

Running the session was a simple affair. I had prepped the right material, but more importantly, unanticipated actions and questions were easy to resolve. For example, with the elements I had put into place, I had anticipated the most likely outcome was a pitched battle with the were-hyena and his minions, but the PCs instead figured out his human identity and negotiated peace with him. This was simple to adjudicate, as the default difficulty for unspecified actions is simply equal to the target’s level. I had some problems with setting difficulties and with knowing what was a reasonable challenge for the PCs and how many challenges made a good session, but those are the kind of things that you hone with practice with a system and there is some advice on the topic in the GMing chapter of the book. I also feel like I need to re-read some of the optional rules I used just to make sure I had them correct.

I do however, feel that character creation would have gone much more smoothly with a utility to choose Descriptors, Types, and Foci, that a lot of shuffling of papers would have been eliminated with ability cards (This may impact the above concerns as well. Players may use a lot more points from their pool when finding their abilities isn’t as difficult.), that genre flavored cypher cards would have been useful, and an official GM’s screen would have been preferable to my homemade version. All of these are things I could make myself, though not without a considerable outlay of time and not with professional quality. These extras aren’t essential, but they will certainly be welcome at my table when they arrive, either from Monte Cook Games, or from the fan base.

So, in the end, would I say this game lives up to it’s promises and would I recommend it to others? Yes on both counts. The game is simple and easy to run while being mechanically sturdy, the prep times involved are low, and there are myriad options available. While I feel the system will truly come into it’s own once all the extras are in place, I doubt it will take long for them to be put into place. The fan base has already made similar resources for prior games that use the cypher system, and they seem like too valuable add-on products for Monte Cook Games to not make them.


* Since we’re touching on randomly generating names: I love the random name generator at behindthename.com [2], but hate the fact that it can only generate one at a time. Anyone have a suggestion of a generator that’s as or more robust, but allows generation of lists of names?

5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "Decrypting the Cypher System Part 5 (Prep and Run)"

#1 Comment By John Fredericks On September 2, 2015 @ 3:19 am

Matt, thanks for an overview of the system. Great how you included a lot of examples of how it worked during the sessions.

Though I probably won’t run Cypher anytime soon, I can still steal a bit of the interaction session design ideas that you discussed. I’d love to get my players more involved and it has been a while since I asked for input.

#2 Comment By oliver@ojogames On September 2, 2015 @ 12:28 pm

Matt, I have enjoyed your coverage of this system over the last few months, and as a fan of Numenera I am looking forward to giving this a whirl.

One of my original impressions of Numenera (shortly after realizing it was a work of genius), was that I sincerely wished the game system would handle varying genres. This desire is what ultimately led me to begin developing my own game (Fantasy Chimera), inspired by the mechanically simple yet robust rules you described.

I really loved the fact that the PCs failing to get into a pitched battle didn’t derail you. The fact that you adjusted and were fine with a diplomatic solution speaks volumes about you personally as a GM. I myself think it is misguided to think of GMing as an effort to guide the PCs to some pre-imagined goal. I think of it more as the habit of reacting to the protagonists in a believable and compelling way that supports THEIR sense of what the story is about, not mine.

I enjoyed your description and analysis of your prep, but I have a question:

How did the players themselves react to the system? Did the rules set inherently provide some kind of improvement to the culture of the gaming group? Did it serve up some kind of novel experience in and of itself, or inspire new ways of engaging the narrative?

#3 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On September 4, 2015 @ 9:18 am

Those are tough questions to address. Since this was a new group for me, I’m going to have to reserve judgement. I can say that aside from one player who was almost completely new to RPGs and need a little coaching, the rest of the players picked everything up fairly quickly and enjoyed interacting and making backstories more than absolutely necessary, but there are too many unknowns there to say it was definately the cypher system at work.

#4 Comment By Todd Landrum On September 3, 2015 @ 8:27 am

On Random Names, the RandomTableWiki.com let’s you generate up to 100 names at a time. It doesn’t have all the ethnicities that behindthename does, but it’s a wiki so hopefully it will grow!

On the .com page, you can enter these requests to get various name types:


English M/F: [Character/ModernFirstNames_WestMaleNames] [Character/ModernSurnames_WestSurnames] / [Character/ModernFirstNames_WestFemaleNames] [Character/ModernSurnames_WestSurnames]

Spanish M/F: [Character/ModernFirstNames_SpanishMaleNames] [Character/ModernSurnames_SpanishSurnames] [Character/ModernSurnames_SpanishSurnames] / [Character/ModernFirstNames_SpanishFemaleNames] [Character/ModernSurnames_SpanishSurnames] [Character/ModernSurnames_SpanishSurnames]

French M/F: [Character/ModernFirstNames_FrenchMaleNames] [Character/ModernSurnames_FrenchSurnames] / [Character/ModernFirstNames_FrenchFemaleNames] [Character/ModernSurnames_FrenchSurnames]

Japanese M/F: [Character/ModernSurnames_JapanSurnames] [Character/ModernFirstNames_JapanMaleNames]/ [Character/ModernSurnames_JapanSurnames] [Character/ModernFirstNames_JapanFemaleNames]

Chinese M/F: [Character/ModernSurnames_ChinaSurnames] [Character/ModernFirstNames_ChinaMaleNames] / [Character/ModernSurnames_ChinaSurnames] [Character/ModernFirstNames_ChinaFemaleNames]

You can also bookmark any of those so you can roll one quickly in your browser whenever you want. The link for a fantasy name, as an example, looks like this:


#5 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On September 4, 2015 @ 9:18 am

Thanks! I’ll have to check it out!