Review in Summary
Created by Monte Cook, Bruce R. Coredell, and Sean K. Reynolds, and published by Monte Cook Games, Cypher System is a little different from other TTRPGs we normally review at RPGBOT. It isn’t a setting guide. It isn’t an adventure. Although the book describes using the Cypher System in many genres, the text itself is genre agnostic. What Cypher System is is best stated in the opening paragraphs:
“What you hold in your hands is a guidebook. A how-to. You can’t just sit down and start playing, because the Cypher System Rulebook is not meant to be used that way. You have to put something of your own into it first. There is no setting or world here. The system is designed to help you portray any world or setting you can dream up.
Think of this book as a chest of toys.”
Cypher’s chest of toys includes a descriptive character system which is robust enough to appeal to mechanics enthusiasts but accessible enough that anyone can build a character by picking options from a list. Characters use a class system which fits nearly any genre, and can be used as-is or customized to suit your story. Advancement uses an XP system largely driven by GM managed conflicts and setbacks called “GM Intrusions”, but you can also use XP to mitigate challenges in games, making it equal parts character advancement and exciting metacurrency.
Conflicts and dice rolls are handled on a simple numerical scale using a d20 against a target number, and difficulty can be modified by a system of free-form skills, items, and other situational effects. Cypher offers additional optional rules and lists of suggested skills to cater the system to your story, giving you additional rule structure to create games spanning several genres.
As someone who loves to write and create I was immediately inspired as I read the Cypher System Rulebook: I imagine creating a game telling the stories of two separate yet equally important groups in the criminal justice system. A beat cop, a detective, a prosecutor, and a forensics specialist all questioning everything to prevent innocent people from being convicted of crimes. I’m hoping this article inspires you to take a look at Cypher System. And that Cypher System inspires you to create something wondrous.
Unpacking a Bottomless Chest of Toys
In this review we’ll talk about what’s in that chest of toys and the implications for creators of the new Cypher System Open License and Cypher System Reference Document. Some of the best toys in our toy chest are:
- A character creation mechanism w/ great example classes appropriate for many genres
- Character Advancement Rules with an XP system largely driven by GM managed conflicts and setbacks called “GM Intrusions”
- A simple Conflict Resolution mechanism that leverages Skills and allows for spending resources to increase the likelihood of success
- Advice and suggestions for additional rule structure to enable creating games spanning several genres
Table of Contents
- Review in Summary
- Unpacking a Bottomless Chest of Toys
- Cypher System Open License and the Cypher System Reference Document
- I am am an Adjective Noun who Verbs
- Experience, Intrusions, and Character Advancement
- Conflict Resolution
- Combat Mechanics
- Creating a Game
- Closing Thoughts
Cypher System Open License and the Cypher System Reference Document
Let’s start with the Cypher System Open License (CSOL) and what it means for creators out there. I want to start here because as you read about the toys in our toy chest I hope you are thinking about the homebrew content you might create. With the CSOL if you were to build something beautiful, you would then be enabled to bring that content to the world. Long time followers of D&D and Pathfinder are familiar with the Open Gaming License (OGL). D&D 3.0 and 5e each provide a System Reference Document with a subset of rules, mechanics, and source material, such as character options and monsters that a 3rd-party publisher can build on top of to produce their own content.
Monte Cook Games has taken the idea of a system reference document to an extreme. The Cypher System Reference Document is practically the entire Cypher System Rulebook (CSR). With a few exceptions that I can’t actually find, if you read something you love in the CSR, then you are free to produce a commercial product on top of it within the rules outlined in the CSOL.
I am am an Adjective Noun who Verbs
“I am a Lucky Lawyer who Interprets the Law.”
Every character you create is described with such a sentence. As a descriptor, my character is “Lucky”. Your character’s descriptor may provide enhancements, hindrances, and role playing guidance. My Focus is Interpreting the Law. My Focus gives me a thematic set of abilities that make my character truly unique. The Cypher System Rulebook provides nearly one hundred example foci as well as guidance for creating custom foci suited to your setting.
My Type is Lawyer. The Lawyer is an example of the “Speaker” type. What many systems would call a class, the Cypher system breaks into four core “Types:” Warrior, Adept, Explorer, and Speaker. Within the descriptions of each type the Cypher System Rulebook provides example Types for genres such as fantasy, horror, or science fiction. You are encouraged to customize Types based on your setting.
The Warrior is the typical martial character. In fantasy games this might be a fighter or barbarian. In a modern setting this might be a small town sheriff, a soldier, or a mercenary.
The Adept is a master of some ability outside of the realm of understanding of most folks in the setting. In a fantasy setting this tends to mean caster types. In a modern setting maybe you’re a technology master, a hacker, or an engineer who can build complex creations to wondrous effect.
The Explorer is constantly peering into the unknown. This may mean exploring new continents or new worlds. Maybe you’re a detective peering into a futuristic city’s underbelly. Perhaps you’re a drifter, roaming from town to town in the ever expanding Western front.
The Speaker is the classic face. Cunning and oozing charisma, the speaker might be a bard or priest. In a modern setting you may be a diplomat preventing nations from heading to war. In my case, I’m a lawyer looking to prosecute criminals without putting the innocent in prison.
A Calm Lawyer who Picks Locks, or any other character for that matter, will have three defining characteristics as character stats:
- Might – How strong and durable are you?
- Speed – How fast and physically coordinated are you?
- Intellect – How smart, knowledgeable, and likable are you?
Pools and Edge
For each of these stats a character has a Pool. Most characters start with most Pools between 9 and 12. When a player character takes damage they take that damage from the Pool most aligned with the type of damage: Physical damage against their Might Pool, Mental damage against their Intellect Pool, and something that inhibits speed or coordination against their Speed Pool. If the appropriate Pool is empty when the character takes additional damage then the damage is applied to a different pool: first Might, then Speed, finally Intellect. As each Pool is emptied the Player Character suffers more extreme impacts. If all three pools are empty then the character is dead.
Your edge in a stat reduces the cost of spending from your pool. For instance, if your character has an Intellect Edge of 1 then skills that use spend points out of your Intellect Pool will be one point cheaper.
Experience, Intrusions, and Character Advancement
Character advancement in Cypher System means moving through the six Character Tiers. At each tier a character should gain access to additional abilities.To gain a tier a character must spend XP to buy each of four benefits that also improve the character in a few different ways. A simple mental model is as a sequence of minor advancements where every fourth minor advancement also provides some additional major benefits.
Each benefit costs 4 XP. Player characters earn XP primarily through GM Intrusions and by completing milestone events. As guidance the CSR says to give 2-4 XP per session plus an additional 2 XP between sessions for each player.
A GM Intrusion typically occurs when a player would be attempting something so mundane that it wouldn’t require a role. An example from the CSR is a well-trained character climbing a wall. The GM might announce “The wall begins to crumble; make a roll with difficulty 2.” The player potentially has two options: accept the intrusion, gain an XP, and give a second XP to another player. Alternatively, the player can spend an XP to avoid the intrusion.
Each task has a difficulty between 0 and 10 where 0 is so routine it requires no roll and a 10 being a task that is impossible, but doesn’t break the rules of physics of your setting. The Test Number for a given difficulty N is N * 3. So with no modifications a Difficulty 3 task would require a 9 or better on a d20 to accomplish.
The observant RPGBOT reader will notice that Difficulty 7 and greater are impossible as they would require a 21 or greater on a d20. The game allows for modifications to difficulty by applying skills, assets, and effort to decrease the difficulty. Certain characters may have hindrances that make certain tasks more difficult.
Cypher System gives an example set of skills, but GMs are encouraged to create a skill set that makes sense for their setting. When attempting a task, a player may argue that a skill applies to the task. If the player character is trained, they may ease the difficulty by one (equivalent to a +3 bonus in 5e). If the player character is an expert, they may reduce the difficulty by two (equivalent to a +6 bonus in 5e). Even if multiple skills apply, you may never reduce the difficulty using skills by more than two.
If the player were to roll a 1 on a d20 roll, the GM will introduce a GM Intrusion without granting the typical 2 XP to the players.
One way to reduce the difficulty of a task is to apply Effort. To apply Effort to a task, prior to rolling the die, the player declares that they want to apply Effort. They’ll remove three points from the corresponding Pool to reduce the difficulty by one. They may apply additional effort; each level of Effort beyond the first only costs two points from the corresponding Pool. Having Edge for a stat reduces the Pool cost for Effort. If a character has a Might Edge of three then they can apply one level of Effort in Might for free. But remember: these pools are also effectively your hit points, so you need to manage these resources carefully.
Each player makes a Speed roll. In the Cypher System this means making a d20 roll and potentially spending Effort from your “Speed Pool” to reduce the difficulty of the roll. The difficulty is a fixed number based on the difficulty of the opponents in combat, which is a number from 1 to 10 which is conceptually similar to Challenge Rating in D&D or Pathfinder. Optionally, the GM might choose to use side initiative: if any player beats the NPCs, then the party goes first. If no player beats the NPCs then the NPCs go first.
Attack Rolls and Damage
Attack rolls are still d20 rolls against the opponent’s target number with an opportunity to reduce the difficulty by spending Effort as well as circumstantial bonuses and penalties. Damage is usually fixed, but higher rolls on a d20 will allow some additional damage to be dealt:
- 17: +1 damage
- 18: +2 damage
- 19: +3 damage and a minor effect
- 20: +4 damage and a major or minor effect
It’s time to talk about the titular concept of the Cypher System: Cyphers. Cyphers come in two flavors: subtle cyphers manifest as moments of benefit to the player character to ease or inspire, manifest cyphers are physical objects that offer these moments of benefit.
Cyphers have levels that set the effectiveness of the cypher, usually expressed as a die roll. Certain Cyphers are designated as “Fantastic.” These may only make sense to include in a game where it is acceptable if occasionally the impossible becomes possible.
Cyphers are single-use, and you have a limit to how many Cyphers you may carry based on your character’s Type. If you find or are awarded an additional Cypher beyond your ability to carry Cyphers, then the character loses a Cypher at random. A player character may also opt to “lose” a Cypher to deterministically make room for a new Cypher. Characters may search for particular Cyphers at the GMs discretion, the GM may give out specific Cyphers to prepare for events to come, or Cypher type may be determined at random. Cyphers are meant to be consumed and discovered often, so GMs should push for their players to not hoard them.
Creating a Game
The greatest pain point a prospective GM may have is the necessity of creating a game. You need to select what skills will be available, and you might feel the need to customize Types and Foci to fit your game, effectively assembling your own rules from the toolset provided by Cypher.
The great news is you can try the Cypher System in Numenera, The Strange, and several other games that leverage the system. With the creation of the CSOL there are new campaigns and settings being released so keep an eye out for something that inspires you.
If you are ready to create your setting and campaign, the CSR has guidance for creating a game in several genres: fantasy, modern, science fiction, horror, romance, superheroes, post-apocalyptic, fairy tale, and historical. The sections give advice on additional rules such as sanity and madness in horror, or affection in romance. It also gives advice on driving the narrative as a GM. These tools and advice aren’t constrained to only be useful within Cypher System; I think these sections are likely good advice for any TTRPG content.
The contents of the Cypher System Rulebook gives the flexibility to build narrative, roleplay, and mechanics driven gameplay. For folks creating their own content the challenge will be building a game worth playing. The structure and abilities provided in the CSR will keep your game mechanically balanced; however, I do worry drifting outside of it will require playtesting to create balance. Given this I can imagine the average homebrewer wanting to stay close to published content while 3rd-party publishers will be willing to playtest and iterate to create the best experience for GMs and players of their games.