As discussed in a previous post, I am a huge fan of the Cypher System, but I think one of the potentially trickier things is coming up with a solid reason for cyphers/artifacts to exist within any particular setting. Here are some ideas I’ve had on specific implementations.
Aimed at: Modern day fantasy or superheroes.
Premise: The universe is a tapestry (string theorists are onto something) and those who can sense the weave, can manipulate it slightly to perform superhuman feats or cause supernatural effects.
Cyphers (threads): The PCs and others “in the know” can sense loose threads in the tapestry and pull them out for later use. They can then be woven back into the tapestry to produce a specific effect, depending on the size and nature of the thread.
Artifacts (patterns): Patterns are constructs left over from the original weaving. They appear as ordinary objects, but when activated, they weave a specific effect into the tapestry.
Too many cyphers: When a character exceeds the number of cyphers they can safely carry, the threads risk getting tangled with each other. The random effect table should be loaded with results that affect two or more threads simultaneously, causing them to disappear or explode, etc…
Aimed at: Sci-fi, whether earth-based or space-based.
Premise: In the future, all technology is made by a single super-corporation; knowledge of how the technology works and how to repair it is very closely guarded.
Cyphers (bodges): When something breaks down, it is generally prohibitively expensive to get it repaired by an expert, so instead people break it apart and bodge it together into little one shot items.
Artifacts (devices): Artifacts are functioning items produced by the super-corporation. What separates them from regular equipment is generally that they are prototypes or items simply too expensive to be purchased by anyone at the PCs’ level. [Special rule: Once a device depletes, it can generally be broken down into one or two appropriate bodges.]
Too many cyphers: As the bodges are jury-rigged items, they tend to leak radiation or short-circuit on a regular basis. When a character has too many, the results table from Numenera is probably a good starting point for effects.
Aimed at: Cthulhu mythos or fantasy horror
Premise: The world is filled with supernatural powers that lurk in the shadows and many objects have small amounts of power invested in them. Items of potential power all look like normal objects, so it is purely an individual’s knowledge that lets them separate genuine items from plain junk.
Cyphers (trinkets): These are minor pieces of arcana; the knucklebones of a saint, a death tarot card from a fortune teller who died mid-reading, that sort of thing.
Artifacts (relics): These are significant pieces of magic; they should always have a story and always have a downside… the examples in the core rules are pretty solid.
Too many cyphers: Characters only roll each night when they go to sleep with too many cyphers. [Note: This is actually a rule I implemented in Numenera, just for convenience.] The effects of too many cyphers should be based around bad dreams giving sanity loss or fatigue the next day, that sort of thing. It would also be fun to slip in a couple of slightly positive results (e.g. prophetic dreams), so that a legitimate, but risky tactic, is for a character to load up on cyphers deliberately, in the hope of gaining some obscure arcane knowledge.
Aimed at: Fantasy, either sword and sorcery or more modern.
Premise: Long ago, the mortal races warred with the gods and defeated them. Although the gods are now gone, their power was dispersed, rather than destroyed, and those who know what to look for can find the remains of it scattered throughout the world.
Cyphers (splinters): A splinter is a tiny speck of power from one of the defeated gods; a character can absorb it and then use it to create a single effect at a later time.
Artifacts (Shards): Shards are essentially just more substantial and stable splinters that can be used multiple times before they deplete.
Too many cyphers: A mortal character can only carry so much divine power before they start to feel the effects. The results table for carrying too many cyphers should concentrate on personal effects, either mentally or physically damaging the character with too much power.
As a final note, coming up with these ideas actually triggered some thoughts on how to expand them into unique campaign settings. A GM looking to create their own setting using the Cypher System might well find that a good technique to stir their creativity is to come up with an idea for the cyphers and go from there.