Recently we at Gnome Stew were approached by Monte Cook Games, asking if we’d like a pre-release review copy of their soon to be available Cypher System. I won the ensuing caged gnome knife-fight and have spent several long nights hunched over the eldritch tome.
This is the system, by the way, from Monte Cook Games’ popular product lines Numenera and The Strange, and a simplified version is apparently used in their recently kickstarted project for younger players: No Thank You Evil.
Standard Boilerplate: Full disclosure- I got a free PDF in exchange for this (set of) article(s).
Here’s the (my, not their) problem though: Real life intruded and I haven’t spent every waking hour devouring the book. Gasp! What? An adult gamer with a job and a family can’t sit down and read a book from start to finish on a whim? Surely I must be telling tall tales!
But all is not lost! The truth is, the above problem is precisely why I wanted to write this article. Here’s a little behind the scenes secret of Gnome Stew: whenever we’re approached by a publisher who would like to trade us a free product for a review, Martin asks one question before he even entertains the offer and throws it into the bullpen for us to argue over. That question is:
“What does this product offer to GMs that’s unique?” The answer we got from Charles Ryan of Monte Cook Games was as follows:
“Fortunately, your question is super-easy, because the Cypher System is a pretty radical departure from most RPGs in the way it approaches GMing. Everything is built for the GM to do as little “work” as possible (number-crunching, die rolling, modifier tracking, and so on), so that he or she can focus almost exclusively on creative thinking about what’s going to happen next. Building adventures and encounters, and even running things on the fly, is all about coming up with great ideas–almost no time is spent building out stat blocks or working through numbers.”
To a GM like me, who is always pressed for time and who flits from shiny to shiny like a meth addicted hummingbird, the lure of a simple system that takes the work out of planning and running games is almost irresistible. As soon as I read Charles’ reply I knew that if I didn’t get the review copy I was going to preorder one. But, I was also inherently distrustful too. I’ve read a lot of systems that make similar claims and there are at least a few pitfalls that most of them fall into (which I will discuss in due time). In addition, there was at least one aspect of the Cypher System that puzzled me: Its page count. Clocking in at 416 pages, this is a weighty book. But for a simple system with no setting material? What exactly is in there? More importantly, even if the variable cost of setting up and running a session is low, is the fixed cost of reading and internalizing the book and system a barrier to entry?
Those thoughts were what prompted me to make Charles a counter offer. I’m not going to write a review. (Plus I don’t think I’m all that good at writing reviews. I do it from time to time but they never really feel right in the end.) Instead, I’m going to write a series of articles as I pore through the book and run a few playtests at the end to explore if these claims pan out. How long will that process take, what will the results be, and what is notable along the way?
Now that all that is out of the way, I’ve had the book for a grand total of 4 days now. How are things moving along? To be honest, I haven’t gotten far, about 20 pages. It’s been one of “Those Weeks” where everything goes wrong. But those first 20 pages cover the table of contents (so I can shed some light on what those 416 pages are all about), the base system, and part of the character creation section (at 174 pages, one of the longest sections of the book).
Here are some things I’m digging so far:
- The production values are fantastic. My copy is a pre-release copy, typos and all, but aside from the cover being missing, you wouldn’t know it. This isn’t really a surprise if you’ve looked at any of their other books but it bears mentioning. Of course I can’t speak to the quality of the physical components, but it seems unlikely that so much obvious care would go into the content and the components not be of at least similar quality.
- The XP system is interesting and different and promotes teamwork and balanced advancement. It’s very similar to Fate’s system of Compelling Aspects and when you get XP during play, you get to share another XP with another player.
- While the core mechanic is simple and nothing all that new, it avoids one of the worst pitfalls of “easy to set up and run” games. Like many simple systems there is only a small range of values that can be randomly generated, and a variety of bonuses that can be applied to those random values. However, care has been taken to ensure that a handful of small bonuses don’t quickly make that small random component irrelevant. First, the types and magnitude of bonuses that can be applied to your DC are specifically limited by the system. Second, one of the potentially largest sources of bonuses in later play (Effort) is paid for out of a pool.
- A lot of that large page count is made up of “laundry lists” that you can get away with skimming and definitely don’t have to memorize. For example, a lot of the word count of the character creation section is special abilities and backgrounds for specific Types (similar to classes in other games). Those are good things to have, but aren’t necessarily required reading.
- Most of the components of the game (I’ve seen so far) aren’t exactly new or groundbreaking (technically none of them are new, since they’ve been used in prior MCG games, but my point is they weren’t really new then either) but those components have been given a facelift, tweaked, used well, and sometimes in new interesting ways.
And here are some “other observations”
- I asked questions elsewhere about the “multiply by 3” aspect of the base system. Now that I’ve had a chance to read a full copy, here’s the skinny on it: there isn’t really a “multiply by three”. The system has a tiered set of 11 difficulties from Routine to Impossible (again, similar to Fate’s base system) but they are also given a number rating (apart from DC) from 0 to 10. 0 is automatically successful, 1 to 10 are not. This is useful because you can frame the question of DC as “On a scale of 1 to 10…” The DC associated with each category just happens to be it’s 0-10 category multiplied by 3. That’s where the appearance of a “multiply by 3” comes from.
On to the follow up question I had asked: “Why not use the 0-10 category as the DC and roll a D6 instead of a D20 to remove the multiply by 3 step?” Well, you can, and it appears that’s the path that was chosen with No Thank You Evil. The difference is that it changes category 1 to an automatic success category like category 0, and it removes the granularity of high rolls, several of which have different magnitudes of “critical results”. I suspect that once No Thank You Evil is released there will be plenty of forum threads and blog posts outlining the differences and analyzing probabilities.
- I have mixed feelings about the character advancement system. Mostly I like it, but it feels like it’s built around a fib. Here’s the beef: there are 4 types of advances you can buy for your xp. When you advance you can get any of the types. So far so good, classic purchase point stuff. Here’s the catch: Once you buy one type of advance, you have to buy one of each other type before you can buy that type again. That means that in reality you don’t have an open purchase point system. It’s designed to look like one but what you actually have is a level system. With each level you get 4 points in stats, 1 point of Edge, 1 point of Effort, and a skill or ability. This calls to mind common complaints from other leveling systems. What if I don’t want to buy stats? What if I want to buy a bunch of Edge? What if I want to buy a ton of skills and be only so-so at all of them?
I get why it was done the way it was. Another of the common pitfalls of this type of system is that It’s very easy to break the game or gimp yourself by over investing in one area over another. Using a level system prevents that problem. In addition, it’s nice to break up levels into “mini levels” with rewards along the way. That keeps advancement interesting instead of playing session after session saving up to finally get a level. Also there is plenty of customizability within the individual advancements, so just because we all get the same “levels” doesn’t mean characters even of the same type will be cookie cutter. So, TLDR: I actually like the advancement system and the benefits it brings, it just kind of feels like someone on the design team is hoping we won’t notice it’s actually a level system.
All in all, for having read 20 pages and skimmed a few more, I feel like given some pregens and an adventure outline I could probably run a session right now. In addition, there’s a lot to like so far and very little to complain about.
End of day 4: Optimistic.
About your last point: That’s an “incremental advancement” system. Sean K. Reynolds made one up for Pathfinder (unofficially), and the same thing appears (as an option) in 13th Age. It’s not about balancing out a point-buy system, but rather about evening out a level-based one. In a lot of systems, there is a huge difference in power between levels, which can hurt suspension of disbelief and make adventure design difficult. This is a way to address that.
Well, in this case I think the distinction between a level system with some extra flexibility vs a purchase point system with more structure or some third system that’s the same thing with a different name is mostly semantics.
My issue isn’t really with the system. I think it will work just fine, it’s just that the wording would have been much simpler if they had said “Each tier you get these 4 benefits. You can choose the order to acquire them within the tier.” than the paragraph they spent setting it up an open purchase point system, then tacking on a caveat that once you buy a particular advancement you can’t buy it again until you buy each of the others once.
And given that it seems much closer to a leveling system than a purchase point one, to set it up as a purchase point then sneak the leveling in as a note afterward without ever saying it outright…
So my complaint is one of principle, not performance, and it’s a complaint about a decision that may well have been accidental on their part so I’m not too riled up about it.
Thanks for the series of articles, Matt. Sounds like it will be a good way to look at this system, but also to consider mechanics in general.
I’d love to have a simpler system as a “go to” for other games than my usual D&D campaign. But it has to be easy for me as GM as well. Maybe Cypher is a good candidate.
And this was gold:
Gasp! What? An adult gamer with a job and a family canâ€™t sit down and read a book from start to finish on a whim? Surely I must be telling tall tales!”
I like the approach and look forward to seeing in the prepping advantages manifest. At the moment, I have plenty of systems that I want to see in play, but if this proves well supported and popular, I might meet my group halfway and bump this up the list.
Numenera is my only exposure to this system, and it has been a downhill slide for me.
Initially, I was captivated by every single aspect of it. The beautiful book, the wonderful setting, the new character build, the gm-side game mechanics, the damage scheme. All of it.
Then, over time, the chrome started to fall off. The setting was not at all worked out, and had logic holes in it so wide it simply wouldn’t “work” unless your players literally turned off their desire to explore and understand the world of the ninth age – a large part of the reason for the game coming into being, I thought.
The character generation was interesting, but the particulars seemed to be arbitrary, with little overall strategic vision I could see. It seemed to me that the character build system had failed to survive contact with the things demanded of it but was felt to be too nifty to be junked for something more flexible.
The writing was, in places, simply awful. The short story that illustrates the vision of the game-as-a-world was tooth-achingly bad, and should have been farmed out to a competent published fiction author. Rarely have I groaned so loudly while not reading a book published by a certain company based in the North of England, famed for its terrible writing.
The magic items system (cyphers), turned out to be completely arbitrary and nothing that could be built upon. You find stuff lying around and use it, at which point it is used up. D&D 4.0 I hear you whisper. I thought it more like the latest iteration of Gamma World’s Omega Tech.
And it turned out that the designer thought that the entire world should be like that, with absolutely no chance that the player characters could acquire a fraction of the lost wisdom and knowledge of the previous “ages”. Such a world is completely arbitrary; unknowable and therefore uninteresting. Things happen because they do.
The bestiary was published and I began to see that what I had here was essentially D&D, set in the dark ages, with a respray.
The only thing that remained was the innovative way that fatigue and wounds were drawn against the same inner reserve.
To be honest I think the setting could be salvaged with some untrivial but not hard extra material, but I’m unmotivated to do it. The game system no longer seems innovative (fate meets D&D to neither’s improvement) and I’d rather put that amount of effort into Tekumel. No-one around here wants to play Numenera anyway.
Disclosure: I don’t read the forums. If you see something in my post that echoes a discredited or unpopular argument on the web, rest assured I haven’t been involved. All these statements are covered by the “In My Opinion” blanket, and I genuinely hope that your mileage varies.
Well, the Cypher system is settingless (so parts of the book are about adapting it to the genre you want to run and your personal setting) so while you may have had some problems with Numenera’s setting, if you don’t like the Cypher System’s setting, that’s all on you. :p
Likewise I haven’t encountered any bad fiction in the Cypher System yet, but I still have a few hundred pages to go, so I’ll let you know if I do.
I have my suspicions about where permanent magic items come into the system, but I’ll keep them to myself until I’ve read a bit more. I suspect though that it will also apply to Numenera, etc…
Yeah, Numenera has so far failed to “wow” me, but The Strange, on the other hand… That’s something I really wouldn’t mind running. Aside from the fact that the setting seems more cohesive, and gives players a place to start (avoiding the Planescape “what the heck is going ON?!?” problem), it also somewhat addresses the “Shiny!” issue by allowing you to move between “recursions”. So, for example, if the GM gets a hankering for a Crimson Skies sky pirates game, or nostaglia for his old Forgotten Realms campaign, then BAM! recursions!
OK. Finished the book. No bad fiction. No fiction at all.
The system has two classes of items:
Cyphers, which are 1 use items. Think scrolls, grenades, etc…
Artifacts, which are multiple use with a depletion roll. Think guns with limited ammo, wands, monkey paws, etc…
If you wanted more permanent effects you could use artifacts with very unlikely depletion rolls, or if you wanted, for example, a magic sword +1 you could make it an artifact with no depletion or just an item with a level, and declare that items can be used as assets only against creatures/items/puzzles equal to or lower level than themselves.
So ultimately I think if you enjoyed the Cypher System as showcased in Numenera at all, designing your own campaign around it should suit you well. If you didn’t care for the system, I don’t think applying the same system to a different setting will help.
There was some interesting designer commentary in the “Running the game” section about why the design decisions that were made were made. Some of it I didn’t see as immediately obvious. Some of it I’m not sure I really agree with even after reading but it was a good read either way. Might be worth borrowing a copy and reading that section if you’re on the fence.