This month, Monte Cook Games is running a Kickstarter for new Cypher System game products. So some of you out there might be wondering, is the Cypher System for you? Worry not, friendly reader, Forgot My Dice is here for you with a review of The Cypher System Rulebook! This is not, strictly speaking, a playtest review. However, I have played the Cypher System in the form of the excellent RPG The Strange, and we did use this book quite a bit in that game.
The Cypher System Rulebook is a generic system, and it presents options for running Modern, Horror, Superheroic, Sci-Fi and Fantasy games. It gives you four basic classes: Warrior, Adept, Speaker, and Explorer. In D&D terms, they’re roughly Fighter, Wizard, Bard, and Rogue, though the distinctions between them are a little more fuzzy. These character classes present fairly competent, almost super-heroic characters. Everybody has a power or ability that borders on the super heroic available at the get-go, and at the highest tier, the powers are in the realm of the super human. This is one of the strengths of the game, since a lot of generic games systems don’t deal well with higher power characters. But it does mean that if you want a gritty, reality-grounded game, then this may not be the system for you. By the way, when I say the powers feel supernatural, it doesn’t mean the source of those powers have to be explained supernaturally. The system easily allows for your own fluff to explain these powers.
Cypher System uses three stats: Might, Speed, and Intellect. The innovation is that your stats are a resource pool for abilities as well as your hit points. Managing your pools throughout the session is a challenge, though half the fun is hanging on by a thread when your points are running low. My biggest worry had been that players would suffer from analysis paralysis, but it turned out not to be much of a problem.
The system itself is based on rolling a d20 and trying to beat a target difficulty number. Difficulty numbers can range from 3 (level 1, or super easy) to 30 (level 10, or extremely hard). However, players have a lot of ways to alter a target number, by spending points from their pools, or with class abilities, or both. The system is a little fiddly, however, because there are both positive modifiers to your d20 rolls and negative modifiers to the target difficulty number. Though it is, by far, not the most fiddly system I have ever played and enjoyed (I’m looking at you, Iron Kingdoms Unleashed!), and after playing it a bit, it got fairly easy to figure out. It was especially helpful when we printed up a chart with the difficulty levels on it.
By far, the most interesting thing about the system is that the Game Master never rolls dice. If a Player wants to attack a monster, the player rolls an attack roll. If a monster attacks a player, the player rolls a defense roll. Both times, it’s the Player that decides whether or not to spend any points. They can spend points to raise the odds they will hit a beast, or to raise the odds they will dodge an attack. I actually played in this game instead of running it, so my perspective on this game is mostly as a player. It can be aggravating to spend resources to lower a difficulty roll only to have bad dice-luck foil your efforts. But then, that’s what happens in every game, so what can you really do about it?
The beauty of this system is that a GM can generate stats for NPCs on the fly. All the GM has to do is decide what “level” to make an NPC from 1 to 10, and then multiply that by 3. That number then becomes the target difficulty of all skills involving that NPC or Monster. That is especially helpful for when the players decide to interact with a NPC in a way you did not anticipate, for example if a player decides to start a fight with a random guy in a bar. However, most of the ready-made monsters in the book have stats that have a little more variety. For example, a Deinonychus is a level 3 beast, so for most tests you need to roll a 9 or higher on a d20. But if you attack using your speed based abilities, the difficulty goes up to level 4 (a difficulty of 12), because they are quick. If you want to add similar variety to your NPC or monster, you can do it rather easily. For instance, I decide that since that guy at the bar was described as looking like he can handle himself in a fight, so while he is a level 2 NPC, his attacks using Strength are level 3 to dodge.
The system has several genre chapters to help a Game Master fire up a campaign and get the rules right. This is the weakest section of the book in my opinion, as they give you a taste without painting the whole picture for you. Each genre chapter could have easily added 10 to 20 pages of material to flesh out the basics. Genres presented are: Horror, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Modern, and Superheroic. One part that I like is that each of the genre chapters has a small section on how to mash two of them together, which creates a lot of fun ideas. But, I would have liked to see more from these chapters.
Overall I really like the game and playing it has been a lot of fun. All of the rules can be used in Numenera or The Strange settings with a minimal amount of conversion. In The Strange, all the genre mashups come in handy as the game itself is a genre mash up. Whichever setting that you choose, just be prepared to deal with super heroic characters, and also play in a game where “all the dice are played on the table” (meaning, no hidden dice rolls for the GM). If you’re looking for a generic gaming system with a fair amount of depth but with a simple character creation system, I suggest giving the Cypher System a try.