This is a mirror of this Twitter thread, which was written in real time as I read Cypher System. It hasn’t been edited in any way. You can pick up Cypher System from DriveThruRPG. You can also leave a tip at Ko-Fi if you like this kind of content and want to see more of it. I post these tweet mirrors to Detritus at least a week before they go live on Loot The Room. This post isn’t affiliated with or sponsored by the publishers of Cypher System in any way, though the DTRPG link above does use an affiliate code. Thanks for reading.
Okay then. It’s midday on Saturday. It’s time to take a look at Cypher System.
Some caveats etc up front, for those who don’t know the deal by now.
This isn’t a review. This is just me reading through the book and talking aloud about my thoughts about it. I’m not pretending to be any kind of expert about…anything. I might get things wrong. I might be confused about things that are cleared up later.
If I don’t like something you like etc, don’t be a dick about it.
Here’s what I know about Cypher System before I crack the spine and dig into it.
I know Monte Cook’s work from Planescape back in the TSR days, and from 3e. I think he wrote the 3e DMG? And that’s a good book. I know Bruce Cordell’s work from lots of Forgotten Realms modules and the Return To The Tomb of Horrors boxed set and Die Vecna Die!, which is a firm favourite of mine. I think he was on Sunless Citadel as well? Sean K. Reynolds is one of those names I know but can’t think of anything that he worked on. Maybe the 3e Monster Manual? I’m actually not sure. So there’s a good pedigree on this thing. I’m expecting it to be pretty trad, but we’ll see.
I know it has something to do with Numenera, but I don’t actually know what that is. And the reason I picked it up is because I started designing something with fluid, changeable stats, and somebody told me it reminded them of Cypher System. So I’m expecting that. And that’s… honestly everything I know about this game.
Time to dig in. This is a cracking bit of art to put on the endpapers.
I’m always interested in what we can learn from a table of contents.
That we have a whole chapter on Genres tells me this is a generic system. Historically I’m not a huge fan of systems that try to do everything. That’s just personal preference.
We’ve got creatures in the book, though. Which is interesting when you’re trying to cover 9 different genres. I’m very curious about what’s in those 60 pages, but there’s a long way to go before we get there. Monte Cook starts off by telling us that, “It’s my goal to give you the tools to have your best game ever.”
That’s a lofty goal
“What you’re choosing here is the experience you want to have – and that you want the players to have. This is such a fundamental decision that perhaps the whole group should be in on it.”
Perhaps? PERHAPS? The book opens by basically saying, “You, the GM, are going to have to do a lot of work before you’re ready to play this game.”
That’s one of the things I dislike about generic systems. Having to flesh out a setting beforehand so that you can know which character options to include is something that probably means I wouldn’t run this.
The book does say, “hey, we publish complete settings too” but that’s back to the problem of needing more than one book to play.
Obviously if you’re the kind of GM who builds big, sprawling, detailed worlds for fun even when you’re not playing in them, this is probably perfect for you. You can take the system and drop it into a setting you’ve already developed.
That’s not for me, though. “because… the Cypher System are so simple, tweaking things here and there is a breeze. This is not the kind of game nowhere changing one thing creates a domino effect that has a lot of unintended consequences.”
That’s an interesting statement at the front of a 450 page book. Looking back at the contents, the rules themselves only take up about 30 pages. The bulk of the book is character options – specifically, abilities.
This is the kind of thing where if it were a small indie game I’d maybe expect it to be split across zines? A 30 page rules zine, and supplementary Genre/Setting zines where you get the abilities, setting elements, etc for a genre and you can just pick up what you want. I’m thinking explicitly of 2400 right now. But obviously we’re in trad game land here, so we get 450 pages and the option to buy more big hardbacks to expand on what’s here.
Anyway. Let’s continue. (just taking a second to say, again, that this is all informed by my own personal preferences. I’m not saying anything is good or bad and it’s fine for me to like or not like something that you do or don’t like.
Okay. Moving on.)
I want to take a second to call out something I do really like so far, and that’s the layout. It’s super clear, the art is nice, and I really like the sidebar running through the entire book that acts as an in-situ index. That’s really nice.
The system itself seems very straightforward.
To do things the GM sets a difficulty of 1-10. The roll target is always 3x the difficulty, and characters use their training, gear, and fictional positioning to reduce that target number before rolling. Nice and easy. It also mentions easing the difficulty of a task by applayong Effort and, while that isn’t explained yet, I think that that’s the dice pool system with the stats that people were telling me about last week. We shall see. “
If you can ease a task so its difficulty is reduced to 0, you automatically succeed and don’t need to make a roll.” Yes, please. More of this.
The GM doesn’t roll in this game, which is…fine? I have no preference either way on that matter tbh. I think I marginally prefer games where the GM also rolls but it’s not something I lose sleep over. I’m not about to get into the eternal “what should Armour do in a game” debate.
In this one, Armour reduces damage, and weapon damage is always a fixed value. Personally I don’t like fixed damage purely because I like rolling dice and I like swinginess in games, but I think the combination of fixed damage, GM doesn’t roll, and Armour as damage reduction is a good one. What that’s saying is that it’s the player characters who are important here. Everything that happens mechanically relates back to the characters and what they’re capable of.
I may not like some of the individual elements but I like that consistency and clarity of theme. We’re onto weapon types. Most weapons are Medium and deal 4 damage. Heavy weapons are 2 handed and do 6 damage, and Light weapons deal 2 damage and ease attack rolls (so you’re more likely to hit). I wonder how important a weapon being 2 handed is? Is there any reason not to always use a Heavy weapon?
I’ve talked in the past about equipment in games and how I don’t like it when there’s an Obvious Best Choice so I’m interested to see what we learn later. I always laugh a little at passages like this tbh.
The way you sequence your rules text says a lot about what you think is important in the game, and combat rules are front and centre here. So it seems silly to equivocate and say, “you don’t have to play a combat game”.
Again, this is something I see in generic systems (or in systems that aren’t generic but want to pretend they can be, like 5e). I much prefer a game to say, “this is what I’m about”.
Imagine Blades saying, “heists will be important for some people, but they don’t have to be”. We’re on to Special Rolls.
We have additional effects on a natural 19 or 20, and in combat – and only in combat, and only when attacking – on a natural 17 or 18.
Interestingly, we’re told that Special rolls inflict more damage but aren’t told what happens if you’re defending. I assume you could choose to take less damage? There’s that index coming to the rescue. There’s probably an answer to my question there, but we’ll find out later.
We’re onto range and speed and honestly I’m still chuckling over “this game doesn’t have to be about combat, honest” when all the examples to illustrate the rules so far are explicitly about fighting people. The XP system is interesting. XP is rewarded for GM “intrusions” – which I guess tend to be complications. And when you receive XP you also have to immediately give some to another player, which I expect is there to stop one player hogging all the spotlight and getting all the XP
You can also reject an intrusion, but that costs you XP and if you don’t have the XP to spend you can’t do it.
I’m unsure about that because that had the potential to interact with safety tools in a weird way. If I X card an intrusion but don’t have XP to spend, is it okay for the GM to just go ahead and do it anyway?
Obviously this is one of those “play with people you trust and who respect you” things, but if I were playing a pick-up game at a con I’d be wary of that. Being able to spend XP for rerolls is cool. I don’t really have much more to say on that. It’s a cool mechanic. And now we find out why it’s called the Cypher System.
Single use abilities that function as treasure is really fun. I do wonder if games suffer from players hoarding them for “the right time” and never using them, but in theory I like that players always have new toys to use. Obviously I’ll have to wait and see what these Cyphers actually look like to know whether I like how it’s implemented – and I worry that the GM is going to be forced to keep inventing new powers – but we’ll get there when we get there. Time for character creation.
Every single generic system I’ve fooled around with has lost me at character creation, because you need a solid idea for what kind of game it’s going to be. I’m going to read this with the assumption that I’m playing Generic Dungeon Fantasy. Character creation on the surface sounds simple enough. Give three stays values, and choose three aspects that determine your character’s capabilities.
I’m sure there’s actually more to it than that but we’ll see. We’ve got three stats. Might covers all the physical stuff including your health. Speed is basically dexterity and agility. Intellect also covers stuff like charisma, charm, wit, etc. Intellect seems a weird name for that one tbh, but whatever. Okay, so we’re onto the part where people were telling me I was designing something similar and I do see where they were coming from (though it’s not the same).
Your stats have two components: Pool and Edge. If I’m understanding this right, Pool is the value of your stat and can be reduced either by taking damage to it or by you choosing to spend points from it to apply Effort to ease a roll. Edge is something that reduces the cost of spending points from a Pool. This is something I’ll need to see in use to know how I feel about it tbh. Any time you apply Effort to ease a roll (at first) you have to spend 3 points from the appropriate stat Pool to ease it by one step (i.e. reduce the DC by 1).
Your Edge reduces this cost. So in theory, a low Intellect character with a higher Intellect Edge might actually be better at performing Intellect actions than a character with a high Intellect Pool but an Edge of 0. It’s really funny to me that when I was designing my fluid stats thing I simultaneously had people saying “this is far too complicated” while others were saying “this is Cypher System”.
This is definitely more complex than what I built. Oh god it gets more complex still!
You also have an Effort score, which tells you how many times you can apply Effort to a roll. Beginning characters have an Effort of 1, and I guess you can use XP to increase this. Character advancement reminds me a lot of PbtA stuff where you’re choosing playbook advancements (you spend 4XP to gain a character benefit), but it’s also got a very trad-influenced leveling system in the form of Character Tiers.
Once you’re purchased 4 benefits you gain a tier
We start building our character by playing madlibs.
“I am a [adjective] [noun] who [verbs].”
It goes on to say that the Noun is your Character Type – effectively your class – and that there are 4 in the book. Those 4 types are Warrior, Adept, Explorer, and Speaker.
Two observations here.
Firstly, it’s not clear to me at this point whether you have to choose one of these four types or whether you could pick a different Noun. Secondly, for a game that has made a point of saying “this doesn’t have to be a combat game”, it’s certainly a decision to lead that list with Warrior rather than alphabetising it.
I’m going to come back to this combat thing a lot tbh. Reading further:
We can choose from 4 character types.
Our adjective (‘descriptor’) has to come from a list in Chapter 7.
We choose our verb (‘focus’) from Chapter 8.
This feels like a bait and switch in the space of a column of text. It starts out by saying “describe your character using an adjective, a noun, and a verb” and gives the impression that you can be anything. And that’s reinforced by Chapter 2 being titled “Anything Goes”.
But you can’t. You’re picking from lists. And that’s not in itself a problem, because that’s how games work, but it’s not how it was sold to me 200 words ago.
I’d much rather it just said “pick a Descriptor, a Type, and a Focus” instead of fucking around with the madlibs. Special Abilities generally cost points from your Ability Pool and can be affected with Effort and Edge. We’re really leaning into the idea of Stats As Currency, which is cool. There’s no definitive list of skills, though we get a suggested list that looks a lot like 3.5 and d20 Modern stapled together. This character creation chapter is sort of all over the place tbh. I feel like I’m still being introduced to key parts of the system rather than being shown how to make a character. I’m 6 pages into it and I still don’t actually know how to generate my stat Pools. Oh. We’ve finished the character creation chapter and are into Types (classes).
And I…haven’t actually started making a character yet? The first example given for the Warrior Type in modern games is Cop.
Fuck off. Laughing at “they’re more likely to overcome a challenge using force than by other means” though because yeah, that does sound like a cop. I’m so confused as to why we’re just now learning about Player Intrusions from a sidebar in the Type chapter. Huh, okay. Player Intrusions use the same language as GM Intrusions but they’re not the same thing really. They’re abilities that cost 1XP to use. Players can invent their own, but the GM gets to refuse them. It’s interesting that it costs players XP to reject a GM intrusion, but the GM can outright say no to Player Intrusions with no cost.
On the one hand we’re handing over some narrative control to players. On the other hand we’re reinforcing a very trad “GM as God” paradigm. We’re also told in a sidebar that “player Intrusions should be limited to no more than one per player per session” and my question is, why?
They cost XP to use. Let players use them. That’s fun. We’re finally learning how to allocate points to Stat Pools and they’re just…based on the Type you choose. And then you get 6 additional points to divide among your Pools however you wish. Tap tap tap.
Types also tell us how many Cyphers we can carry at once, which answers my questions about hoarding them. You want to use them so that you can find new ones. That’s cool. The Warrior only gets to carry 2, so either they’re not as common as we’re led to believe or you’re expected to use them regularly. Hard to tell really. I’m going to show you the Special Abilities available to the first class listed in this book and I want you to tell me what kind of game you think this is.
(For people who don’t know me: I like games about combat. I don’t have a problem with them, and I don’t think it’s bad that this is a game about combat. I’m not complaining. I just find it amusing when combat games say “we promise we’re not about combat”.)
I do like the examples of creating each kind of character. They do a lot to show how you can build out a concept from these very generic bases, and they also do a good job of illustrating how the decisions the GM has made about the setting influence your decisions. I like the Flavor section, too. Replacing the generic abilities for each Type with more varied and specific ones is a nice way of customising things and makes it feel less like you’re just picking from one of 4 classes. You can basically build your own class, which is cool. I feel like the Types are there just because the designers have that trad/d20 background, the game is aimed at those kinds of players, and they decided against going fully class-less.
Personal I think I’d prefer to just drop the Types and let players build their own thing. The Types could instead function as examples of “here’s how you can build a Fantasy Warrior” or whatever.
But anyway. That’s not how it was written and saying “I would have done it differently” isn’t useful for anybody. Descriptors basically function the way Backgrounds do in 5e. They tell you a bit about your character’s personality and outlook, they tie you to the world, and they give you a minor change to your stats.
Nothing revolutionary, but there’s a lot of them and they’re fairly varied. So far this is my favourite thing in the book
We have a little note about Species that basically says, “it’s cosmetic, and the differences between Mysterious and Virtuous are more important than Elf or Dwarf”.
Fair play. Another observation: when we looked at Advancement the game went to great pains to tell us that Character Tier isn’t really about mechanics, it’s about narrative progression, but now we’re looking at Foci and you absolutely get new abilities as you increase in levels. Some of these Foci are really cool and – to be fair, because I’m often hard on generic systems – I can see how they’d apply to multiple genres. Abides In Stone, for example, is rad and has just as much place in a fantasy game as supers or sci-fi. We’re on to the hundreds of pages of abilities now and I’m not about to read them all because my eyes will just glaze over. Just flicking through, though, there’s some fun stfft in here. I’m going to pause this thread here because my body is screaming at me to put food in it after that 10k this morning and also my house needs cleaning. I’ll pick this back up this evening. Initial thoughts, though:
There’s some things I like in here, but I’m not sure it’s something I’d run. I can absolutely see why the people who love it love it but I think, ultimately, it’s not really offering me personally anything I can’t get elsewhere. The main question I want to answer for myself when I come back is, how does this game play? What does a session look like? What happens during a turn? When do your Stat Pools replenish?
I’ll be back later. I’ve returned after an extended break to…have a Saturday?
Anyway it’s time to look at the Equipment section and the next 250 pages of Cypher System. I suspect that most of what this chapter is going to say is “the genre chapters will have more specifics dependant on the setting” tbh, and I’m not sure I’m expecting to find much of interest in here. Immediately a little baffled by this sidebar because I don’t think equipment levels have been mentioned anywhere else, and this is just sort of floating here without any context.
Artifacts seem cool. I like the idea of an item having a Depletion number that you roll against rather than a number of charges. That retains some mystery around powerful items and not knowing exactly when they’ll stop working. The level of an artifact is explicitly called out as being what you’d use to set the difficulty of identifying it so I guess that’s why equipment might need levels as well? I still feel like I’ve missed something tbh, but whatever. I’m not going to get too hung up on it.
After all of that, we’re on to Chapter 11 and the Rules Of The Game. Now I’m going to get an idea of how this all functions at the table. Honestly, when you break it down like this? It’s What’s So Cool About Outer Space but trad and with some additional moving parts like Pools and Effort.
It’s sort of bugging me that we have this core mechanic of modifying the difficulty of a task, but also that we have +1 and +2 modifiers to rolls. I feel like we should just pick one form of modifier and stick to it? Maybe that’s just me. I’m now learning that a natural 1 is a free GM intrusion that doesn’t get an XP award. I’m pretty sure this is the first time this has been mentioned – which is fine, really – but it reinforces my belief that players should be allowed more than 1 Intrusion per session. GMs are going to get a free Intrusion 5% of the time on top of all their other Intrusions.
Let players spend XP to Intrude whenever they want. Okay cool – the suggested Minor Effects for natural 19s make use of item levels. That makes more sense now. I think if I were to run this, that would be a house rule straight out of the gate.
Players can intrude as often as they want assuming they’ve got the XP, and players also get to choose a free Intrusion on a nat 20 as one of their possible Major Effects. There’s rules here about some tasks having an Initial Cost that comes out of your stat Pool before you even attempt the task and I hate this with the fury of a dying sun. It’s arbitrary, there’s no real guidance for when GMs should use it, and I just feel like it’s giving dickhead GMs an excuse to discourage players trying cool stuff. The Timekeeping section and the distance section both bug me for the same reasons. They give specific times and distances but then say “don’t worry about specifics, it’s not important”.
If that’s the case then just don’t use them in the rules?
It’s a very trad game thing to have specific distances and rules and to expect that people are going to want to argue about those specifics, and it’s really shit to put them next to passages that say, “but don’t sweat the details”.
You can’t have both, I’m afraid. Okay, so during the introduction I got the impression that your Might Pool also doubles as your health. That’s not quite the case. You also have a Damage track.
When your Might Pool hits 0, you move down the Damage track and Effort costs more. Any future Damage comes off Speed. When your Speed Pool hits 0 you move down again and basically can’t do anything. Future damage goes on to Intellect, and once that hits 0 you die.
Again I’m thinking about all the people telling me I was designing a game with too many variables to track and laughing. Resting to recover your Stat Pools is interesting and I’m not sure how I feel about it.
You roll 1d6, add your tier, and divide that many points between your Pools. You can do this as an Action on your turn.
You can basically only rest like this 3 times a day. There’s a delicate action economy going on here, because you need to use your Stats to do things and you’re taking damage to them. And I’m not sure if an average of 3.5+Tier points recovered each time you rest is enough?
Obviously that’s hard to tell without playing. I do like that you can spend an Action to recover, though, even though you can only do it once. (The second recovery of the day takes 10 minutes, the third an hour, and the fourth takes 10 hours). Okay, there’s a Healing action that it looks like everyone can take and with the addition of that I feel like the recovery d6 roll is probably fine?
Back to distance for a second.
The fact that we’re told not to worry about exact distance but then also told that if we’re using minis without a grid we should cut lengths of string for each distance range and measure – like in wargaming – is absolutely hilarious to me.
Again, this is a case of the game not knowing exactly what it wants to be. It wants to do everything and be everything for everyone, and that’s just not possible.
Design with intent and you’ll write better games, I promise. (That’s not to say that Cypher System is a bad game. I’m just saying it feels like it could be more intentional in what it says and does.)
On to the XP chapter, and a section about Intrusions that advises the GM should intrude at least once per session but no more than once or twice per character. This guidance would have been more helpful earlier tbh. It’s informed a lot of my response to the parts about Player Intrusions.
That said, I still think players should be able to do it as often as they like.
Why is this the first time we’re learning about Character Arcs and how they’re tied to XP? If this is something you should be choosing at character creation then why wasn’t it in the character creation chapter?
Anyway, we’re moving on to genres. I probably won’t read all of these – I’ll check out Fantasy and maybe Horror. I’m also curious to see if Fairy Tale swings more Disney or Grimm. Games talking about fantasy in the 21st century reference modern fantasy books challenge 2021
It bugs me that Tolkien, Leiber, and Moorcock are still the touchstones tbh. And mentioning Piers Anthony and Xanth is…honestly a weird choice. Honestly I don’t have much to say about the Fantasy genre section. It does basically what I expected it to do and shows you how to skin Cypher System into something that resembles D&D. I do like the “spend 3XP to learn a spell no matter who your character is” thing. “Any setting can be horrific. Horror is more of a style. An approach. A mood.”
Even Cypher System knows that systems can’t create horror on their own. I quite like the Horror section tbh. It could do with a more robust discussion of safety – especially as this book is from 2019 – but it does an ok job of covering consent and setting boundaries, and some of the advice for running horror games is decent. Mechanically I particularly like the Horror Mode optional rule, where GM Intrusions happen on a natural 1 or 2 and then it escalates, rising to 3 and 4 &c
Loss of character agency is a big part of horror and this does a good job of making things feel out of the PC’s control. I’m glad the book has a bestiary. It covers a lot of ground because it has to, and it’s definitely wide rather than deep. The creatures are all pretty standard fare because it’s a generic system and they have to be.
They’re easy to read, though, and seem simple enough to use. I particularly like the inclusion of a GM Intrusion to go with each creature. That’s a nice touch.
Yeah I completely rescind that comment. Some of the monsters hidden in here are awesome. The final chapter of the book is basically a condensed Game Master’s Guide. It’s tips and guidelines for running the game, including stuff about how to run the first few sessions, how to pace adventures, adjudicating rules, and building encounters. It seems solid. I don’t have much to say about it really. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, but it’s good to have it here and it sits nicely alongside a decent example of play to close out the book. And that’s it. That’s Cypher System.
I’m not sure how to describe how I feel about it, tbh. I don’t dislike it but I can’t see myself running it, if I’m being realistic. I guess I’m underwhelmed, given how often I hear people talk about it. Maybe I’d have got on with it better if I’d read it in the context of Numenera or one of the other Cypher-based games, rather than as a generic system trying to be and do everything? Who knows.
There’s definitely more that I like than that I don’t like, but it hasn’t grabbed me in the same way as Pathfinder 2 or 13th Age. And maybe that’s just because I’ve been a D&D player for 27 years and they both feel like D&D, whereas this doesn’t? Anyway, thanks for sticking with me as I went through this!
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