From the mind of legendary gamesman Monte J. Cook, the Cypher System is the humming core of a small set of fantastic tabletop roleplaying games. The system is notable for its elegance, dynamic table play, and emphasis on adventure through player creativity.
So What Even Is a Cypher?
The Cypher System is set of rules that emphasize speedy, interesting moments over getting bogged down getting the nitty gritty simulated to perfection. Each roll has a decent chance of a “special effect” ranging from an intruding plot twist to a moment when the player gets to decide what cool stunt they’re able to pull, or what coincidence falls in their favor.
GMs are given the tools to gently guide the plot by paying players in XP when they want something bad to happen. Players, in turn, have the chance to refuse that XP and pay a little back if they’d like to keep things from going too wrong. It’s a fascinatingly simple mechanic for narrative sharing that really works at the table.
But what really makes the system special is the Cyphers. Cyphers are one-time-use powers in the form of cobbled together gadgets, magical artifacts, or inspiration from beyond. They allow the GM to hand a player an incredibly powerful effect without giving it to them for the rest of time on their character sheet. And since you can only carry a few of them, players are under pressure to find creative uses for them throughout the game session.
In practice, Cyphers change the nature of action-packed roleplaying by offering more interesting options. Instead of whacking away at a bad guy for rounds and rounds on end, you’re working together to maneuver that guy near the ledge so that you can use a Cypher to push him off. Instead of relying on your own power list to sneak in and out of the castle, you’re using a one-use device to teleport in and then just hoping you’ll find a way out. Cyphers empower, but only to a point, and that’s the fun. Creative use can be critical and they keep characters from getting boring by changing up their play style every session.
Monte Cook Games has even allowed for 3rd party content publishing on their Cypher System Creator Program over on DriveThruRPG, which means there’s always a lot of support from the community even if you’re creating your own little world to play in. Before you head over to check out all the user generated content, take a peek at the amazing worlds that have already been published.
The first of the Cypher System games, Numenera is a world cast one billion years in the earth’s future. The pseudo-medieval peoples of that distant world carve out lives amidst the towering structures and invisible nanotechnologies of the galaxy-spanning empires that came before them.
This is the game that pushes the limits of the science-so-advanced-it’s-magic concept. Numenera was the first game designed to fit the bones of the Cypher System, and it shows. The core “cypher” concept fits the hardscrabble scavenging lifestyle of this science-fantasy setting perfectly.
Oh, and Numenera has an extremely active community on Google+ that’s worth joining up with.
The brainchild of fellow Wizards of the Coast alum Bruce Cordell, The Strange is our modern world surrounded by bubbles of pocket realities created by the “fictional bleed” of the world’s ideas, dreams, and fantasies.
It’s a world threatened by planet-consuming alien forms of life, intent on chowing down on us all. It’s a globe and reality hopping intrigue and conspiracy game that can take you to any of your favorite books, comics, and movie settings at the drop of a hat.
Cypher System Core
Following the success of the first two lines, Monte Cook Games released the system itself as a single book, ready to be turned into anything you’re looking to run. Based on this framework, they launched a Kickstarter to publish three totally new settings.
The first of which, Gods of the Fall, is a spectacular game of young gods working through their early years as they struggle to form a pantheon in what can only be described as a fantasy post-apocalypse world. If you’ve ever wanted to design and then play your own god from the ground up, this is your vehicle for divinity.
So take a look at these incredible worlds, built on a system which balances fun powers with narrative excitement with incentives to get inventive. If you’ve got kids, check out the Cypher System inspired No Thank You, Evil! and if you’re looking for something a little more surreal and cerebral, check out Monte Cook Games’ new Kickstarter, Invisible Sun which I’ve written about here. Let us know what you think.
Image Credits: Monte Cook Games