The Cypher System Rulebook is a guide to running generic RPGs using the role-playing system that underpins the other recent Monte Cook games Numenera (I'm a big fan) and The Strange (the setting just didn't grab me although the "recursions of reality" concept was really groovy).
For owners of either Numenera, The Strange or (like me) both.
- Fourth character type "speaker"
- Character type modifier "flavours"
- Not enough guidance on genre Cyphers. Bizarrely, despite stating on numerous occasions that Cyphers are a core feature of the Cypher System, the genre sections only list "artefacts" which are a kind of multi-use Cypher. What looks actually wanted was a raft of examples of single use Cyphers in the genre sections rather than the few examples that are distributed elsewhere in the book.
- Strange inconsistencies around classic character types, especially the "adept". At the beginning of the "adept" character type section it is suggested as the Base type for all magic users such as Druids and Clerics. However, in the Fantasy genre section is it suggested these types should be a "speaker" flavoured with magic and an "explorer" flavoured with magic respectively.
- The genre sections are a bit thin. Is there enough guidance here to convert your favourite genre setting to the Cypher System? Yes. Is there enough material here to run anything except the most vanilla version of a particular genre? Probably not.
Overall this was a worthwhile purchase for me, but it doesn't quite achieve what it sets out to do - which is to eliminate the endless setting books that usually accompany any generic RPG system. I expect that those will follow in due course due to consumer demand for reasons that I hope I’ve made clear.
Any truly hardcore RPG enthusiast could probably have taken the structure of the Cypher system from, say, Numenera and used it in a completely different setting already. The Cypher System Rule Book makes an arduous a task into an easy one and adds some useful additional material, but inevitably there's considerable overlap between this and the other rulebooks. Whilst up until now I'd have been wary of using the Cypher System outside of Numenera, this book has delivered the confidence to use it in any genre.
For those unfamiliar with the Cypher System
The Cypher System itself is a brilliantly and gorgeously streamlined RPG system that has strongly narrative roots with just enough crunch to keep it real. Mr Cook makes a strong case that a lot of “fine grained” systems don’t really achieve detail, they just slow the gameplay down. I have to agree. Therefore, one of it’s main features is a suitably course-grained system.
- Tasks are given a difficulty number that differentiates them in 15% chunks.
- Damage is a flat number (2 for light weapons, 4 for medium and 6 for heavy).
- NPCs and monsters can be defined with as little as a single number.
- Best of all - only the players ever roll dice.
The section on GM advice is worth its weight in mithril/ gold/ silver bullets/ transuranics/ adamantium (and although it's very similar to the sections in Number and The Strange, such solid advice bears regular rereading).
Here’s an attempt to describe the system in a nut shell:
A character is initially defined by a descriptive sentence in the form "... is an [adjective] [noun] who [verbs]". Each of these partially defines a set of present benefits and the options for advancement. The noun ("type") is essentially a character class, of which there are four (essentially fighter, magic-user, rogue and bard - "warrior", "adept", "explorer" and "speaker") which can be further "flavoured" with stealth, technology, magic, combat, or skills and knowledge, allowing further character advancement options to be swapped in to the basic types (effectively giving 20 basic character classes). The adjective ("descriptor") is the most subtle, adding "colour" to the character by giving a slant to their motivations and actions, whilst the verb "focus" describes the thing they do best.
Beyond this, characters have three base stats (basically ST, DX and IQ - "might", "speed" and "intellect") that start between 7 and 18 (by point allocation). However, these are pools which are depleted both as damage and by "effort", which reduces the difficulty of a task. Each stat has an associated "edge" rating that reduces the cost of effort, but there is also an “effort” rating that limits the amount of effort available for a single task. Characters also have skills which are either “trained” or “expert” which reduces the difficulty rating by one or two points respectively. Finally a character has a Cypher rating that limits the number of Cyphers that can be carried simultaneously.
Tasks are rated on a 0 - 10 difficulty scale. The target number on a d20 is three times the difficulty. It should be obvious that tasks of difficulty 7 or above are impossible. However, you can reduce the difficulty through Effort (the number of levels limited by the character's Effort Rating), skills (a maximum of 2 levels) and any other assets such as equipment and other people helping (a maximum of a further 2 levels). In combat whether a character hits (attack roll) or is hit (defence roll) is resolved in exactly the same way. A roll of 1 allows the GM to introduce a complication ("GM intrusion") and a roll of 19 or 20 gives bonus effects. If a character can reduce the difficulty to 0 then success is automatic and there is no roll - solving the "5% chance of a fatal accident tying your shoelaces" problem.
XP are awarded by the GM either as an enticement to accept a (non-rolled) "GM intrusion" or as the result of making a significant discovery that progresses the story. In the former instance they are awarded in pairs. The second XP is given to another player at the awarded player's discretion. 1XP can be spent to refuse a "GM intrusion" or re-roll any die. 4XP can be spent to train a new skill (or become expert in a trained skill), or distribute 4 extra points to the stat pools, or increase the effort rating or the edge in one stat of the character, by one. Once all of these have been done (once, but the player decides the order), the character advances to the next "tier" (there are 6 in all). At this point they also gain new tier abilities.
A clever mechanism that allows the GM just enough narrative control without the players feeling rail-roaded. Essentially the GM offers 2XP to a player (one for them, one to give to another player) to introduce a complication. The player can refuse by spending 1XP if they have one, but in a narrative game the upside is almost certainly going to outweigh the downside (if there really is any - usually more complications that serve the direction the GM intends the story to go = more fun in the end).
The Eponymous Cyphers
These are one-use abilities and represent the core of the Cypher System. The advantage is that characters can do extraordinary and powerful things but just once, largely preventing game-balance issues.They translate easily in a fantasy game into scrolls or potions, but are trickier in grittier modern or post apoc settings. However, even as I whinge, I keep getting ideas on how these might appear in different settings, so perhaps my concerns at their absence from the rulebook is less problematic than I imagine. However, I still maintain that despite it all there will be a place for genre books in the same vogue as GURPS, collecting all the genre advice in one place.