The Cypher System – initial thoughts

I picked up a copy of the Cypher System recently and, while I haven’t had chance to use it in anger, I thought I’d present a few initial thoughts…

I’m writing this from the point of view of someone already familiar with Numenera, so I’m not going to concentrate too much on the core mechanics, which haven’t significantly changed. If you want to know my thoughts on the mechanics, check out my previous Numenera posts.
I am going to cover two main topics in this post… firstly, a quick run through a few of the differences and new additions; secondly, a few notes on GM involvement and the system’s use as a toolkit. So, some differences first…

Types – These have been expanded from three types, to four, giving us a new social type. This is a useful addition to the game; some campaigns might not feel its absence, but anything involving a lot of NPC interaction (of the non-violent variety) will benefit from having it as a player option.
They have also been given more flexibility than the equivalent types in Numenera. The warrior type gets four fighting moves at tier one, compared to the two that a Numenera glaive gets. However, the Cypher System warrior, does not automatically start with skills or armour proficiency; by taking those, he essentially aligns himself with the glaive, but he also has the option to forego armour proficiency in favour of something more appropriate to his concept. Overall, the types feel familiar, but more open to customisation, which is what the system aims for.

Flavours – These allow you to customise the core types further, by adding a minor element of something else. A ninja might be a warrior with the stealth flavour; a tech priest might be an adept with the mechanical flavour. These are great for further customising a character to try and fit a particular concept, so I heartily approve.
I am also very pleased that the way they have been implemented does not in any way penalise a character that doesn’t have a flavour. They replace options, rather than add them, so players will never feel that they need a flavour, in order to “keep up”.

Foci – The Cypher System pulls in foci from both the existing games and adds a large number of its own. At this point, most common fictional concepts are pretty well covered, and a lot of more unusual ones could be easily achieved with a bit of refluffing. It’s a big list and players might be somewhat overwhelmed, but not all foci are appropriate for all campaigns, so the GM is encouraged to trim the list as appropriate… more on that shortly.

Genres – The system includes a chapter on adapting the core mechanics to different genres; this includes suggested mechanics, example artifacts and such like. Some GMs will instinctively ignore this section, as they have their own ideas for their own campaign, but I found it a very useful read. Their idea for buffing superheroes was not one that I would have considered, for example, and it perfectly suited the genre.

Cyphers/Artifacts – I’m just going to mention these as I feel this is one point where the Cypher System is potentially let down. The idea of abundant one-shot items that can’t be hoarded was a unique selling point for Numenera – it effectively gave every character an ever changing power list, on top of the static powers from their character. However, in the more generic Cypher system, while the idea of cyphers and artifacts has been carried over, I have a hard time imagining them in a lot of campaigns. Anything modern, for example, simply has no real-world parallel for such things, so they must either be shoe-horned in or dropped. It’s a minor point, but given that the Cypher System is named for the cyphers, it seems a shame that they are the one thing that will be dropped the fastest from a lot of campaigns.

With all of that out of the way, I’m just going to pen a few general thoughts on how the system would actually be used to run a game. It is crucial to note that the Cypher System is not really a game in itself; unlike Numenera, there is no setting information beyond the few general comments in the genres chapter and a selection of example creatures/NPCs. If you attempted to run a “Cypher System” campaign, it would be a very generic and bland one; what GMs will likely to run is a “D&D/Deadlands/homebrew” campaign that uses the Cypher System. This may seem obvious, but it brings me on to my main point, which is that the GM needs to be a lot more involved in character creation and setting up the details of the campaign than might be typical in D&D, for example.

In a D&D game, the DM might have a few ground rules (e.g. core races only), but then the player can basically turn up to the first session with a character in hand. Using the Cypher System, a player might have some strong ideas about their character, but the GM will need to agree that their focus is appropriate for the campaign, that the flavour they’ve applied to their type is acceptable, which powers have been traded in and out, etc…
I do not see this as a problem, in fact I heartily approve; I always consider it beneficial for players and GMs to have a discussion about characters before play begins, rather than just turning up with something that may or may not be appropriate. However, it does place an additional burden on the GM, not only to prep the campaign itself, but also to go through the PC chapters and present a kind of “campaign subset” of the player material.

I just mentioned prep for the campaign, which has its own increased workload, compared to a published setting.. Cyphers and artifacts must be tailored to the system, as must any enemies – the examples in the book won’t go far in a long campaign. Some GMs will absolutely revel in this (I had a wonderfully enjoyable discussion with one of my friends on how we would run Deadlands in the Cypher System), but for a GM without a lot of time to prepare, this might be additional work that they don’t want, when an established setting, like D&D, has masses of material to just pull off the shelf.

In conclusion (insofar as I have one), I really like this system – I like what they taken from Numenera and The Strange, and I like the additional material and the increased flexibility. For players, the Cypher System is elegant in how it creates characters and very easy to master the mechanics of play. For GMs, they just need to be aware that, as a toolkit, rather than a full setting, there is perhaps a bit more prep work to use it. However, GMs are also freed from the constraints of an established setting, to create any campaign they wish. It may be a little more work, but the potential pay off is there, so I recommend giving it a try.

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One Response to The Cypher System – initial thoughts

  1. Pingback: Cypher system – Ideas for cyphers in different settings | Notes on a Giant Man

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