"Universal" or "generic" role-playing game systems are perfect examples of this. Telling the same comic book super hero tale in GURPS, Basic Roleplaying, or Savage Worlds will result in three very different sagas. While we tend to chose "standard" RPGs by their genre and setting as much as mechanics, the choice of a generic rules set is always based on one question; how does the system itself shape the story we want to tell?
Monte Cook's Cypher System came into existence as the engine driving Numenera, and in the beginning of that book Cook was very clear on his vision of the system;
(I wanted)...a roleplaying game system where players got to decide how much effort they wanted to put into any given action, and that decision would help determine whether their action would succeed or fail. This would be a simple but elegant system where sustained damage and physical exertion drew from the same resource (so as you became wounded, you could do less, and as you became exhausted, you were easier to take down). Where your willpower and your mental “power points” were the same thing, and as you drew on your mental resources, your ability to stave off mental attacks waned. And where it was all so integrated into the character that it was easy to process and keep track of. But most of all, I dreamed of a game system that was designed from the ground up to be played the way people actually played games, and to be run the way that game masters really ran them...
Now, all of this--and in particular the last few lines--might come off a bit grandiose, but when dealing with a game designer as accomplished as Cook it's never a bad idea to cut him a little slack. Rather than cover his resume again, I direct the gentle reader to my Numenera review. Suffice it to say, whether or not you end up agreeing the Cypher System captures the way people "actually play games" and game masters "run them," Cook is as qualified as any to try and design a system that fulfils that criteria. For my part, I think he succeeded.
So let's get down to the crucial question. How exactly does the Cypher System serve the stories you might want to tell?
Creating an Experience
Cook has something interesting to say very early on in the Cypher System Rulebook. He is addressing, specifically, recreating the feel of "genres" when he states the following;
...I say “experience” because in many ways, that’s what a genre is. If you want to capture the experience of being terrified by zombies swarming around a character’s home, you want horror. If you want to convey the experience of being extremely powerful and using those powers to protect the world from aliens, you want superheroes (maybe with a dash of science fiction). So really, 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. Ask the other players what genre they like and what kinds of experiences they want to have...
This is a fair description of the Cypher System itself. While Cypher, like any RPG, mixes all three elements of the "Gamist-Narrativist-Simulationist" theory, it leans a bit harder towards the N-S side of the equation. If you are looking for a mathematical model of real-world physics, or a game who's goal is to maximise "winning" traits and minimise extraneous ones, this may not be for you. If you want to capture the "feel" of being a superhero, a fantasy warrior, or a 31st century android, it might be what you are looking for. "In the Cypher System," Cook writes, "the story is king, and thus you can’t really get the rules wrong. If it works for your game, then it works."
Having said this, the game is called the "cypher" system for reasons that will colour your play experience with it. Chapter One kicks off by telling us "...A cypher is a secret. It's something that not everyone understands. It holds potential. Promise." This is a system that leans towards discovery rather than combat. It is a game more about getting to the bottom of the mystery, unravelling the evil mastermind's plan, or rediscovery relics of a lost and wondrous age than pitting your strength against adversaries. Nowhere is this made more clear in the experience system, where you are rewarded for discoveries instead of collecting XP over the bodies of fallen foes. This doesn't mean you can't run Howard's Hyborian World with it...it just means doing so might shift the focus from slaying hordes of Picts to finding out what the Pictish shaman lord's scheme is.
Two things to take away from this then; Cypher is about discovery and creating a collaborative experience.
The Core Mechanic
The core mechanic is a simple one. All situations that challenge a player character or test his or her abilities are rated on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being simple and 10 impossible. This difficulty, multiplied by 3, yields the number the player must roll equal to or higher on a d20. So, if you need to pick a difficulty 4 lock, you need to roll 12 or higher.
Unlike the previous d20 system Cook helped design, character skills and attributes do NOT add to the die roll. Instead, characters will use their assets to lower the initial difficulty, making it easier to beat. For example, skills come in two levels, "Trained" and Specialised." If you are Trained in a skill, it lowers difficulties one step. If you are Specialised, it lowers them by two. Getting back to our lock, if Player A was Trained in Lockpicking he would need to roll a 9 or higher (difficulty 4 stepped down by 1), while Player B who Specialised in Lockpicking would need only a 6 or better.
Skills are not the only assets that lower difficulties. Equipment, environmental factors, character abilities, and--as Cook made clear in the paragraph above--effort all conspire to lower difficulties as well. More on this shortly.
Before we move on, a roll of 19 on the die triggers a "minor effect." While this has concrete mechanics in combat or in the use of special powers, in general a minor effect means you pulled off the task with panache, grace, and style. A roll of 20 triggers a "major effect," a remarkable performance that yields far better than expected results.
A roll of 1 however allows the game master to introduce a free intrusion (more on this below), a complication or twist that makes the player character's life more "interesting."
On the Character Side of Things
At their heart, player characters are defined by three stats; Might, Speed, and Intellect. Each of these comes with a Pool and an Edge. Might is the measure of physical strength and endurance, Speed measures reaction time and agility, and Intellect measures intelligence, charisma, and willpower. The Pool rating is a general measure of potential in that area. Edge measures refinement of that potential.
A starting fantasy warrior, for example, could have a Might Pool of 14, a Speed of 12, and an Intellect of 8, with a Might Edge of 1 and 0 in the other two.
All of this relates to Effort. Remember that Cook wanted effort to be a key factor in success. Each level of Effort a character "spends" lowers a difficulty by one step. It costs 3 points for the first level, and 2 additional points each level after that.
Example: Our fantasy warrior from above is fighting an ogre. He needs to roll a 9 (difficulty 3) or better to hit. Using his battle axe is a Might task, so he could spend Effort from his Might Pool to lower the difficulty. Spending three points would step it down to a difficulty 2 (a roll of 6 or better).
But wait; Edge reduces the cost of all Effort expenditures. This means that our warrior, with a Might Edge of 1, would pay only 2 points from his Pool rather than 3. If he had an Edge of 3 in Might, all Might challenges would automatically step down one level for him, as in effect he is getting a free level of Effort all the time.
Example 2: A more powerful and experienced fantasy warrior with a Might Pool of 20 and a Might Edge of 4 is fighting the same ogre. Without spending any points, hitting the ogre steps down from difficulty 3 to difficulty 2, and by spending just one point it would step down to difficulty 1 (3+2 Might points for two levels of Effort, minus 4 for the Edge).
One way to visualise this is that a character with, for example, a Might Pool of 20 and a Might Edge of 0 would have greater mass and potential strength, but a wiry martial artist with a Might Pool of 12 and an Edge of 3 would probably get the better of him because the martial artist has honed his strength and uses it better.
Pools are not only for Effort...they are also your "hit points." In general, you take damage to you Might Pool first, followed by Speed and Intellect. Hitting zero in a Pool signifies significant injury and comes with consequential impairment. Some attacks, like magic or poisons, can attack the Speed and Intellect Pools directly.
And yes, Pools recharge. Each "recharge" takes a certain amount of rest and restores 1d6 + your Tier (think "level") points. The first recharge just takes a single action to get some of your wind back. The second takes 10 minutes, the third takes an hour, and the fourth requires 10 hours of rest. There are optional rules for more lasting states of damage.
I am an (Adjective) (Noun) that (Verbs)
Creating a character in Cypher involves the selection of three core elements; your Descriptor, your Type, and your Focus. These are essentially packaged adjectives, nouns, and verbs that provide abilities and weaknesses to help you build your character.
The core choice is your Type, which is the closest thing Cypher offers to a character class. Both Numenera and The Strange offered three character types, a fighter, a magician, and a rogue. Cypher adds a fourth type and names the Types Warrior, Adept, Explorer, and Speaker.
Broadly speaking, the Warrior excels at combat, the Adept at knowledge, and the Speaker at interacting with people. The Explorer is a Jack-of-all-Trades with a bit of all the above. These are broad categories and it is fully expected the game master will rename and tinker with them for his or her setting. In a fantasy setting a Warrior might be a Barbarian, Paladin, or Gladiator. In a Modern or Horror setting he might be a Police Officer or Soldier.
Each Type is rated in six Tiers, the equivalent of levels. Cypher differs from many class and level games in that you do not build up experience points to reach a level and then access its abilities; instead, you purchase a number of advancements as you go and when you have acquired them all you enter that Tier. This then unlocks special abilities associated with that Tier.
Each Type has certain powers associated with it, which become accessible as you go up the Tiers. These look quite a bit like "feats" in the d20 System. Warrior abilities look like combat manoeuvres, while Adept abilities look like arcane powers (magical, psionic, technical etc depending on the setting). Explorer abilities focus largely on survival, discovery, and travel, with a dash of abilities borrowed from other Types. Speaker abilities deal with persuading and manipulating people. Usually, these require the expenditure of a Might, Speed, or Intellect point to activate. Once again, though, Edge reduces the cost of these. So if you have an Edge of 1 in Speed, any Speed ability that costs 1 point to activate is usable for free.
It should also be mentioned that first Tier characters are limited in how much Edge and Effort they have (1 and 1 each). As you increase Tiers, you can spend more levels of Effort on a task, and have greater and greater Edge scores to reduce the costs.
In addition to these Types, Cypher adds a new wrinkle not previously seen in Numenera or The Strange. These are the Flavors. Flavors are basically "semi-Types," or packages of abilities meant to be combined with one of the core four Types. The Flavors are Stealth, Technology, Magic, and Combat. What a Flavor does is allow you to colour a Type, customising it to a degree for your setting.
Consider the traditional fantasy game Cleric and Druid. In Cypher, the first might be a Speaker Type Flavored with Magic. The second would be an Explorer Flavored with Magic. Something like a Thief might be an Explorer Flavored with Stealth. This is a great addition to the system, that helps GMs and players sculpt the Types more into what they want.
Descriptors, the "adjectives," are words like "Wealthy," "Tough," or "Skeptical," and provide skills, abilities, and story-links. The final component, the Focus or "Verb," is what makes the character special. While a group can have multiple members of the same Type, and characters may share the same Descriptor, only one player character in the group can have any given Focus. They shape what your character does, what drives him, and grant him special abilities.
Foci like Howls at the Moon or Bears a Halo of Fire provide a suite of supernatural powers. Others like Defends the Weak or Calculates the Incalculable provide more subtle--though no less useful, abilities. Each provides a talent that unlocks every new Tier. Commands Mental Powers, for example, provides "Telepathic" at the first Tier, "Mind Reading" at the second, "Psychic Burst" at the third, "Uses Senses of Others" at fourth, "Mind Control" at Fifth, and "Telepathic Network" at sixth. Most of these abilities cost an increasing number of pool points to activate.
For the GM
While Cypher treats player characters as their three core Stats, augmented by a suite of skills, abilities, and characteristics provided by Descriptor, Type, and Focus, things are considerably simpler on the GM's side of the screen. Cook understands that players like "bits;" they want lists of things they can acquire for their characters. This, after all, is their role in the game...to lavish attention on their single character. When you are in the position of having to run everyone else in the world, you need a more zen tool kit.
The first thing to mention is that the GM never rolls a die (well, almost never). The entire Cypher System is player facing...they make the rolls to attack and dodge, to persuade or resist persuasion, etc.
The second thing is that creatures and NPCs in Cypher are handled in the exact same way as all challenges. The GM assigns them a level between 1 and 10. In some cases, that is all that they need. As a sort of combat shorthand, the level x 3 tells us how hard they are to hit and what the player needs to roll to avoid getting hit by them, how many hit points they have, and (level x 1) how much damage they do. The level can also be used to tell us how "skilled" they are.
If extra detail or realism is required, the GM can add it. Say an NPC is a brilliant nuclear physicist but also an ailing old man. The character can then be represented as Dr. Robert Weiss (Level 1, Nuclear Physics 8). His level is used for most things, but his Nuclear Physics value is used when trying to unravel the biology of that radiation-fueled kaiju. The GM determines how much detail the NPC needs to have.
"Intrusions" and "Cyphers" (see below) are to my mind the two stand-out characteristics of the game system. Intrusions allow the GM to add elements to the game that complicate, hinder, or further challenge players. They replace the need for dice rolling and give the GM more control over the story.
They work like this; when the GM wants to intrude, he informs the targeted player. The player may then accept the Intrusion, and be rewarded with 2 experience points, or refuse the Intrusion and pay an experience point back to the GM. Interestingly, the player keeps only one of the experience points he is rewarded with, immediately handing the second point to one of the other players in the party as a reward for good play, clever ideas, witty banter, etc. Since Intrusions are a major source of experience, this has the effect of letting the group reward its own members with experience rather than GM fiat alone.
Example: Fighting a zombie horde with an Uzi, the GM suddenly informs his player that the submachine gun jams. The player can accept this, and 2 XP, or refuse and pay 1 XP to the GM.
As mentioned above, a roll of 1 on the die allows the GM to intrude on players without paying experience.
Running Numenera, I have used Intrusions for all sorts of things, such as adding bits of backstory to character history, having NPCs take an instant dislike to a character, the sudden appearance of "wandering monsters," etc. This mechanic, along with the ease of crafting NPCs and challenges, and the fact the GM doesn't need to roll dice, has made it a lot easier to concentrate on keeping the game interesting. But these are things more "gamist" players may bristle at.
A Word on Combat
Combat works like anything else in the Cypher System. Players will make the appropriate Might, Speed, or Intellect roll depending on the nature of their weapons (strength-based, agility-based, or magical, psionic, etc). The target number to hit is (generally) the NPC's level x 3. This is also the target number to avoid getting hit by an NPC.
Weapons are rated as Light, Medium, and Heavy. Light weapons do a base of two points of damage, but using them "steps down" the difficulty because they are light and easy to use. Medium weapons do a base of 4 points of damage, and Heavy weapons do a base of 6 points (they have the disadvantage of requiring both hands to use). These rules are universal for ranged and melee weapons alike.
I said "base damage." Rolling a 17, 18, 19, or 20 on a successful attack adds +1, +2, +3, or +4 to the damage roll (19 and 20 can unlock additional bonuses as well). Effort can also be spent to increase the damage done.
Armor comes in the three same categories and absorbs a like amount of damage (1, 2, and 3). But heavier armour comes with Might Pool costs per hour and Speed reductions. Some characters will have access to talents and abilities that alleviate or reduce these costs.
Cyphers in the Cypher System
Numenera established three types of "treasure" that Cypher has inherited. There are the Artefacts, powerful devices or tools that are useful and reusable (a magic sword in a fantasy RPG). There are Oddities, reusable devices that aren't really terribly useful (a holocrystal in a space opera game that shows the image of a long-dead, beautiful woman), and Cyphers, one-use items that are useful (old school D&D potions and scrolls spring to mind). Cyphers are at the heart of the game; players can carry a limited number of them, and are expected to constantly come across more of them in play. This creates a steady and ever-changing stream of cool things players can do in a game in addition to their own innate powers and abilities.
But in the Ninth World setting of Numenera, Cyphers make sense. This is a billion-year-old world littered with the detritus on long-dead, ridiculously advanced civilisations. Potent little gadgets can be found everywhere. Likewise, in a fantasy RPG, Cypher-like items are a long-standing tradition, easy to work into a magic-rich world. But what about games that are not heavy on science fiction wonders or ancient magics?
Cypher introduces two categories of Cyphers...those that are Manifest and those that are Subtle. A Manifest Cypher could be a potion, a rune, a drug, or some gadget. A Subtle Cypher works a bit like the old drama deck in TORG or its Savage Worlds "Adventure Deck" descendent. It's a lucky break, a plot twist, a handy bit of karma or deus ex machina that PCs earn and can use or discard in favour of another. A Subtle Cypher might turn an NPC into a romantic interest, act as an Asset for a daring escape, give a bonus to damage, etc. It allows the Cypher mechanic to be ported easily into virtually any game, regardless of genre.
And Speaking of Genres...
The Cypher System breaks things down into five broad genres; Fantasy, Science Fiction, Modern, Horror, and Superheroes. It dedicates a chapter to each of these, giving guidelines on modifying character Types to fit the setting, listing Foci that are appropriate to the genre, adding additional optional rules, customising equipment, etc.
Another example is in Horror. While rules mimicking Call of Cthulhu's "Sanity" are introduced, another scary mechanic is "Horror Mode." When this is activated (the PCs enter the haunted house, are lost in the black bayou, etc), the GM's ability to inflict experience point free Intrusions on a roll of 1 jumps up to a roll of 1 or 2. As the tension and horror increases, it continues to step up, increasing the chances of the GM inflicting dreadful woe on characters.
There are tons of other options as well. Starship combat rules, creating aliens and fantasy races, and anything else you might imagine for a multi-genre game. Weighing in at 418 pages, the Cypher System is a rules-light game at its core packed with options to suit various tastes.
So does the Cypher System actually reflect how players "really play" games and game masters "really run" them? Yes and no. Obviously, no game system can satisfy the needs of every group. Were that the case, we would likely still all be playing old school D&D. It does reflect how I have tended to run games the last thirty-odd years; as a constant GM I have always tried to take short cuts to minimise my book-keeping, while keeping loads of options on the table for players. I strongly suspect many if not most GMs do the same. The levels of detail a player wants to bring his character to life are not equally suitable to NPC stat blocks, and Cypher embraces this concept and executes it brilliantly.
Cook makes it clear that the story comes first in Cypher, and if you are the type of player who feels that way, you will like the system. While there are enough options in the game to make it more tactical and gamist, it is unlikely someone looking for those things would make a game like this their first choice. The system is, after all, about creating an experience, not necessarily about strategy, gaming the rules, and playing to win.
While it shows Cook's long association with Dungeons & Dragons in the use of a d20, the classes, and the levels, the truth is that the designer has managed to make each of those elements distinct from their inspiration. Types and Tiers feel almost invisible in the game, more a general guide than actual mechanics, and it in no way breaks the rules to modify, remove, or tinker with any of them. Cypher is constantly and consistently reminded you to do just that if it suits the game you want to run.
While multi-genre, Cypher sits alongside games like TORG, MasterBook, Savage Worlds, or Feng Shui in feeling far more cinematic than simulationist or literary. Indeed, it has a great deal in common with Savage Worlds, but its mechanics are far less visible in play. Don't get me wrong, I love Savage Worlds, but with all its various bells and whistles while playing it you are always reminded you are playing Savage Worlds. Cook's system fades far more readily into the background. Something to keep in mind if you are looking for that sort of thing.
Play Cypher System if you are a game master looking to run compelling sessions without a great deal of prep. Play if you are a player who likes general archetypes to help you build a character, but wants a wide range of options so that you aren't straight-jacketed into them. Play if you value discovery over combat. Play if you are looking for a cinematic experience. Play if you like the idea of resource management over die rolls. These things are not how every group plays, but if they are how yours does, get this game.