By Christopher Robin Negelein
Monte Cook Games recently released a revised edition of their Cypher System Rulebook, which was part of the Your Best Game Ever Kickstarter. And while YBGE was a solid project, my excitement was for the revised book. For the off chance you’re not familiar with the original game, which was a spinoff of Numenera and The Strange (more on that later), keeping reading the bolded mini-recap below.
If this all new to you
The Cypher system is a game that holds few sacred RPG cows dear. The main engine of the game rests on four main mechanics. Everything in the game is a Task Number from 0 to 10, a number the players can reduce via modifiers like Skills, Assets from the environment, and players spending Effort. Once the final Task Number is ascertained, it’s multiplied by 3 as target number that needs to be equaled or exceeded on a d20. And as a GM, those two numbers provide a baseline for any mental, social or physical encounters. The “Armor Class,” to hit attack numbers, skill checks and hit points are derived from those two numbers. All of this is done where the players make all the rolls. The GM makes no rolls
Remember when I mentioned Effort? Each Player Character is made from three attribute pool points which represent the wellspring their Might, Speed and Intellect. To make d20 rolls easier (Effort) or activate special abilities. The talent of Edge offers a discount when spending those attributes points.
Continuing the theme of being a resource management RPG, experience points in the game do more than advance PCs in levels called tiers. They can be used as fortune points, buy in-game rewards or extra skills/abilities, and even a narrative device called GM Intrusions where the GM offers up plot complications. Go with the flow, you and a friend get XP, refuse to play it safe and it costs you XP.
Last, but not least is the cypher/artifact mechanic that offers up supernatural effects based on the Task Number/Target Number structure as either as a one off (cyphers) or with an ammunition-style roll (artifacts.) Also the game puts different aspects of a character into categories that help build a sentence that creates the core concept, like A Quick Warrior who Ride the Lightning or The Mystic Speaker who Cast Spells.
The game is highly flexible and dead simple for GMs who like to improv. The main challenge to teaching the game is that Cypher offers several twists while other games usually offer only one.
This means that, oddly, more experienced gamers might be slower to pick up Cypher as compared to players who have fewer assumptions on “how” a RPG should be played.
A little bit of history
According to MCG’s articles on their website and kickstarters, the original concept for the Cypher System Rulebook was just a one-shot small softcover that collected the core concepts from Numenera (a science fantasy setting focusing on Clarke’s Third Law) and The Strange (interdimensional hopping/meta) and spin it into a multi-genre game. Even the game confounded expectations and became thick hardback. At first, MCG suggested that if customer wanted more content, look to The Strange product line. All that changed in 2016 when the Worlds of Cypher kickstarter supported a whole game line. Now, ironically, The Strange line has been folded into the Cypher system and Strange GMs are invited to use Cypher books for their games. So it might be inferred that either the Strange has waned or MCG doubling down, or that Cypher has continued to exceed expectations.
Revision is in the title of the book which fits the mechanical side of things. There are clarifications to various rules, powers and cyphers, making the game backwards compatible with all past adventures and the same level of cross compatibility between the different games. But even all the new powers are not the real goodies this time around.
There are also more genres covered with more genre rules to help you bring your next gaming world to life.
Organization is key.
It might sound strange to say that the layout and organization of the classified material is the most groundbreaking part. You see, it was inferred in the old edition that you can pretty much tear the whole character creation bit apart and then put it back together pretty much like a Lego bricks. Before some people get excited, the process is an art, not a math equation.
To be honest, it wasn’t even inferred, it was outright stated. For example there was a sidebar that gave a GM the steps to create their own Descriptors.
In the new book, now it screams “These are Legos, go build a new glorious world, GM!”
It goes beyond turning the Customize Descriptor sidebar into a straight up section in the book. Now every Type and Focus, which give you all the different special abilities in the game, are just lists of these abilities. You hunt the ability down in chapter dedicated to not only listing them but also categorizing their utility and their relative power level. If the first edition was written with the players in mind, this one is more focused on helping GMs put together more customized Types (classes) and Foci (character themes/power frameworks.)
And on that note, the PDF is a fricken masterpiece because EVERYTHING is hyperlinked. Which even makes getting the job done so such easier.
If you liked Cypher before, especially as a GM, you’ll love it now. GMs who like to fiddle with their game worlds and rules beforehand, but like to leave it all behind when they are running will be enticed as well. Though it does come at the cost of more page flipping for players when building their characters.
For the future, even more of a literal toolkit
At this point, the best improvement to the game would be a new level of technology where a GM could pull the different elements into a new document so players can read a custom campaign book with just tweaked Types, Descriptor, and Foci they need to know for that game. Sort of like a Scrivener for RPGs.
Go, Ganza! Go.
I'm open to bribes for more Cypher stuff! You can do a one-timer at https://ko-fi.com/ganzagaming , or regularly via this Patreon. Regardless, I'm still working on Solar Sails, a fantastical world of SPELLs that's JAMMERed with all sorts of the fantastical.
Check out my 5e stuff! https://www.dmsguild.com/browse.php?keywords=negelein&x=0&y=0&author=&artist=&pfrom=&pto=
Cypher PDFs! https://tinyurl.com/yxfj29by
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I’ve been writing 5-star, award nominated, and Electrum selling gaming stuff for both Cypher and 5e SciFi. You'll see how it's all done behind the scenes and get free stuff after clicking that pledge button.
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