With this installment, I’ve finished reading the Cypher System book. It’s taken me about a month to complete. Given that the claim of the system is to take a lot of work off the plate of the GM, I was initially concerned with the size of the book (416 pages). I feel I can now adequately speak to those concerns: Everything in the book is worth reading, even the parts you won’t use for your game. But, if you’re interested primarily in pushing through and getting started running a game, there’s a lot of material you can safely skip. As a game master, you can safely skim most of the character creation section (140 pages) rather than read it in depth. There are a lot of cool options in there, but NPCs and monsters are more of a simple black box than player builds so you won’t be skimming through the player section looking for the perfect ability for your next NPC and if you don’t want to be bothered pre-vetting anything, you can really get away with just reading the Descriptors and Focuses your players want to use to make sure no one’s building a cyborg for your medieval romance campaign (and really, if that’s your problem you probably haven’t communicated your premise quite right). If you have a little experience under your belt or are comfortable winging things, you can also skim chapter 9: rules (36 pages) and skip chapter 10: optional rules (11 pages). If you’ve got the basics down you can run a game right away. You probably want to go over these more when you have time, they have a lot of extra information and cool options, but they’re non essential if you positively MUST game tomorrow night. You really only need to read the section of the genre chapter for the genre you want to run (8 pages or so) and can skip the rest (~30 pages). In the GM section you can safely skim the Creature, NPC, and Cypher sections, mostly for ideas (93 pages) but I would highly recommend you read the final chapter: Running the Cypher System (43 pages). That cuts down the recommended reading to only about 65 pages with plenty of extra material to skim/flip through/read at your leisure. That’s still hefty for a simple rules lite system, but it’s not unreasonable and this system is frankly better thought out and more resistant to rules-lite issues than your standard 8 page free PDF so an extra evening or two of reading seems like a good trade to me.
We left off last time at the end of chapter 10: optional rules. The rest of the book is primarily a GM’s section.
There are five chapters on genre, one each for fantasy, modern, sci-fi, horror, and supers. Each of these is about eight pages. These chapters each contain a mix of genre specific information: world building tips, game mastering advice, equipment lists, suggested Type/Flavor mixes, Foci, adversaries, sample Artifacts, and even optional rules. These chapters are densely packed with useful information.
Next is the game master section. There is a chapter each for creatures, NPCs and cyphers (one use magical items). The creatures section has a variety of opponents from across all of the genres and across all levels (though mostly focused on level 3-7) Each is about a page. These are good defaults for your game but their real value is in examples to help you design your own. At heart each creature is really just a single number to keep them simple, but the system makes it easy to differentiate them. Here’s an example monster of my own design to show how simple it is:
Poultry Geist (Ghostly Chicken Swarm) Level 5 (target # 15)
Farmers who are cruel and mistreat their livestock sometimes accidentally give birth to the dreaded Poultry Geist, a ghostly flock of angry chickens. These strange beings harass farmers mercilessly until they mend their cruel ways.
Motive: to scare farmers straight
Health: 15 points
Damage inflicted: 5 points
Movement: Short, can move through solid objects of level 5 or lower.
Modification: Stealth as level 3, despite being only partially visible (large and clucks a lot), Resists Holy attacks at level 3
Combat: Like other ghosts, immune to mundane attacks, takes half damage from spells and energy, and full from psychic attacks, attacks designed to affect spirits, etc…
A Poultry Geist primarily attacks by swarming and attacking with ghostly pecks, spurs and wing buffets. These attacks do cold damage but are affected by armor at double normal effectiveness. Heavy clothing even counts as a single point of armor against this attack.
Poultry Geists can also throw zombie eggs at those they wish to attack. These do no damage, but can inflict an impair effect (difficulty of all tasks increased by one) as the rotten goop clings to and nauseates its target.
Poultry Geists can also manipulate objects to throw, smash, drop them, etc… Treat these as a level 1-5 physical attack depending on the object in question.
Interaction: Poultry Geists are stupider than normal chickens, which is to say: exceptionally stupid. Thus they have nothing to say. They will largely leave anyone alone who is not attacking other animals. However, their definition of attack is from the perspective of a chicken, so they might think a vet is hurting an animal they’re actually helping, etc..
Use: A Poultry Geist is making life miserable for a local farmer. Unbeknownst to him, his child has been tormenting the animals at night and needs to be convinced to stop.
Loot: When a Poultry Geist is slain, it disappears in a rain of desiccated chicken corpses and feathers and will probably quickly re-form. If it is instead appeased it fades away leaving a single golden egg.
For the most part, all of the above is just fluff or common sense. The only number bits are derived directly from it’s level, and there’s only one rule keyword (impair). What is or is not a holy attack, for example is left to the discretion of the GM. In truth, if you were comfortable winging things, all you’d really need would be the level and a general idea of the creature.
The NPC section is very much like the creature section. It has a collection of generic NPCs that will be useful in your game but is also a set of excellent examples for how you might make your own. Like creatures, level is the all important stat, but they can be adjusted in a number of ways.
Cyphers are one use magical items. Think scrolls, potions, antidotes, stim packs, or hand grenades. The chapter on them starts with some advice on how to adjudicate them and how many to give out per adventure, then lists about 180 different possibilities along with a pair of tables for choosing them randomly. The advice section is interesting and includes some insight into the design process and there is a large selection of Cyphers. I’m not crazy about the random table for choosing them for two reasons: first it seems like some personal oversight into handing out Cyphers would make sense (though if you want the ease of randomness with a personal touch, try randomly selecting more than you need and choosing from there.) In addition there are lots of duplicates (13 detonations(grenades), 7 ray emitters, etc…) and while variety is fine, that gives those types of items a heavier weight on the random table. Contrast to the Gas Bomb item, of which there are 11 types, but which are split up in the item entry itself as opposed to on the table. This may be intentional, but given there are plenty of design notes through the book, the lack of one makes it seem unintentional. Elsewhere in the book however, references are made about being able to buy Cyphers. This means that if your players have Cyphers none of them have a use for or just really want more grenades to go up against the big boss, they can trade for them if they want.
The final chapter in the book is on running the system. It’s 43 pages and it covers a lot of ground in those pages. It covers mundane stuff like “How do I choose Difficulties” and “How much XP do I give out?” but it also gets into more meta stuff like “Why did we choose a 3 step target number system?” or “What is the high-level practical effect of Cyphers?”. It has a large section on GM intrusion, (a cool sub-system where GMs introduce complications and force rolls in exchange for XP or because of poor player rolls) with examples on how to use it and how to “nudge” the direction the session is taking with it. It also gets into the story vs rules debate (and comes firmly down on the side of story, which is to be expected from a lite system) and goes into story creation, pacing, (both within stories and within campaigns) and other story concerns. The chapter also goes into basic GMing techniques, session prep, etc… This section is a gold mine of valuable advice even if it really just scratches the surface on a lot of topics. In my mind this also makes the Cypher System a good choice for new GMs because Monte Cook Games has devoted 10% of their book to how to run a game well.
Final thoughts: Don’t be afraid of the size of the book. Don’t worry that it’s a rules lite system, it’s side-stepped a lot of the common problems with those systems. There are a lot of options for player and GM alike, and the book makes an effort to lend a helping hand for running a good game. The game delivers on it’s promise of making the system simple enough to get out of the way too.
End of day 31: Ready to start gaming!
For next time I’m going to start setting up a campaign (I’m thinking fantasy investigative horror, something like Ravenloft with all the serial numbers filed off) and write up some sample adventures to see how well it all works in practice. After that, playtests!