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Decrypting the Cypher System

Cover-Mockup-2015-04-08-Opt2c-389x500 [1]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 [2]. 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 [3] 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:

And here are some “other observations”

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.

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Decrypting the Cypher System"

#1 Comment By uriel222 On June 18, 2015 @ 4:15 am

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.

#2 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On June 21, 2015 @ 6:31 am

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.

#3 Comment By John Fredericks On June 18, 2015 @ 5:52 am

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.

#4 Comment By John Fredericks On June 18, 2015 @ 5:52 am

And this was gold:

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!”

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On June 18, 2015 @ 12:21 pm

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.

#6 Comment By Roxysteve On June 18, 2015 @ 2:02 pm

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.

#7 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On June 21, 2015 @ 6:38 am

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…

#8 Comment By uriel222 On June 21, 2015 @ 7:01 am

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!

#9 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On July 12, 2015 @ 12:11 pm

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.