Cypher System by Monte Cook Games: what do you think about it?

aramis erak

Legend
I look at Numenera, and don't feel I got shorted, despite a gut feeling that I wouldn't enjoy it as written.

The setting bits are interesting.

Someone, back on page 2, asked why all rolls player facing might be a benefit...

Given that I love a few others that do that (BTVS/Angel, Army of Darkness, DragonLance Fifth Age, Talisman Adventures)...

In BTVS/Angel/Army of Darkness, it allows me to reduce my players down time...
Peter, the Fyarl is biting you, 17.
Kenarik, the other fyarl is throwing a beaker at you , looks like a 14
Steve, The angry summoner is drawing and letting loose with his .45, dodge a 14... wait -2, so 12...
Peter, result?

three degrees.
OK, missed you! Kenarik?
Made it by 0. plot point?
Yep. The minimum +1 means you make it...
Steve?

I chose to shoot back, instead. 20.
Ok, you both hit each other... No roll means you took a 6, and your dodge is 3, fail by 3 levels... OUCH.
You also hit by 7.


I'm pushing off the math portion and rolling times, so I can have all those rolls done near-simultaneously, and then give the desriptions in pass two.. I'm also offloading a lot of the math. Further, it's keeping them engaged with the mechanics.

DL5A isn't quite as forgiving on that score; several overlapping players and it never got to the ability to move on, since access to the deck was an issue.
In Talisman, the GM does roll damages... but unless the NPCs outnumber PCs, never actually gets a turn of their own. Attacking an NPC forces them to take their turn. THe GM also rolls the random encounters.

So, for me, it isn't a good nor bad thing, but the implementation can be.

Also, with entirely player facing rolls, the mindset for solo play is easier. Still not easy for me.
 

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Henry L.

Villager
I love this system. Everything about it. We made it more crunchy though for combat. I converted all the 5E spells and most 5E magical items, standardized skills, added some PF/3.5 AoO and movement, made some custom classes with some old 3.5 and 5E abilities, and man it BLOWS 5E away for my group and I. More narrative but plenty of stuff for combat. And wooooow does having players do all the rolls free up time for thinking and DMing!
Hi Dragonbane.
Thank you for the links to your files in DriveThruRPG. By any chance, are you looking to update the documents soon?
Tks
 
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I've been hooked on Cypher System for about 5 years now, after I finally took the time to really try and figure it out. For the longest time I had the game in my collection but found its core conceits just too weird and different for me. When I finally "got it," and started trying the game, I rapidly realized it was a really new and interesting way to approach RPGs that was just close enough to what I likes in terms of style for me to slid in to without getting too overwhelmed....but I also had to learn not to run it like every other RPG I was used to, especially D&D.

Things I learned in running Cypher System that I found really important to grasp its unique style:

It's Not Like Traditional RPGs in pace: It's important to not run it like D&D. By this I mean, a lot of stuff which D&D is good at such as tactical combat and procedural "go here, encounter monster, fight, loot, move to next event, etc." just defeats the whole point of Cypher System. I would equate it to this: a movie which I think reflects a really interesting Cypher game is Star Trek: The Motion Picture. That movie has a plot and theme which would be utterly pointless in a D&D game, but Cypher would handle a plot like encountering and solving the mystery of V'Ger exceedingly well.

Player's Need to Adapt to the Idea of the Risk Pool: Player characters do not have the same sort of stats that other RPGs have. Having a large Might pool might suggest you are more endurable, but its really having training in strength-based tasks that suggest your stronger than average, and Edges are really what you should pay attention to when determining whether or not your PC looks strong or not.

Even more important, you have to think of the risk pool differently than you do with the more passive stat modifiers of other RPGs. For example: if you can determine that an attack of X level, if you spend from your pool costs more to reduce difficulty than the damage of the attack or effect, then it may not be worth spending any points to reduce the difficulty level.

The Risk Pool is also not your hit points. Even though it is reduced by damage, and frankly works a lot like Traveller, it's part of the balancing act of Cypher that the same pool you can use to modify difficulty through expenditures is also your health pool, because taking injury effectively also reduces your ability to spend from the pool. This is on purpose....and players who complain that health needs to be separate from the might/speed/intellect pool are not realizing this is by design. In fact, they may not realize it, but by changing that component you dramatically improve the character's "spend" ability, which is effectively a significant power increase. My experience with Cypher on the GM's side is that this can have serious consequences in terms of adapting to player capability over the course of a session. The recovery option is also impacted if health were to be separated from the ability pools. Bottom line: stop thinking of health like its a D&D static ability, in Cypher its all linked together.

Descriptor/Type/Focus is not like alignment/race/class: Your descriptors are just a way of setting up your character's thematic intent, but are not hard restrictions. You may get what is called an inability (increased cost) in certain actions to reflect that your character's proclivities are of a certain personality by default, but it doesn't mean you don't have a wide range of personality. In Cypher your Descriptor is sort of like your alignment and race in D&D, but also not really....it's the initial framework for your vision of who and what your character is.

Your Type is your class, that is pretty well a given, but you can modify your Type through Flavors and reskinning to your heart's content. Your Focus is the thing which defines your subclass, maybe, but it better thought of as "the stuff which make you stand out from every other equivalent type." Within the scope of design you can make a bewilderingly weird array of PCs. In D&D this tends to be the subclass (eldritch knight or assassin, for example). In Cypher System your descriptor layers on to what your type sets up. It's actually one of the more familiar concepts in Cypher that it shares with other RPGs in design.

Combat is Best Thought of as a Puzzle or Event: In D&D combat is a thing you do periodically to move the story forward, gain XP, or just have fun because a lot of D&D abilities are aimed at doing stuff to make someone else's hit points reach zero. In Cypher System combat is exactly the same in framework as any other puzzle, conundrum, or issue with only a couple extra rules to adjudicate what it means for positioning, initiative and damage. I had some unhappy games of Cypher early on when I tried running combat in the game like D&D. You can do it, sure, but its really not the point of Cypher....monsters have very basic stats, and you then modify with different perks and limiters to giv ethe monster some distinct flavor. Those modification are exactly equivalent to evaluating a trap, social situation, exploration event, discovery event or detective event.....they are just target numbers and special circumstances to make the story more interesting. Once I realized this, I rapidly shifted my focus to using Cypher System specifically and exclusively for campaign and scenario concepts in which combat was not the end goal, or even a side goal, but merely a form of encounter that required the same level of thought as, say, a puzzle or plot piece.

For example, in my current Cypher campaign, which is a far-future SF exploration game with Star Trek like elements, the group has had exactly three combat encounters, one per session so far: the first involved a derelict crashed starship and an alien beast hunting the PCs. They had to use the ship's debris to gain a competitive advantage on the beast, and then work to determine its weakness. The second involved an immense alien hydra-like monster threatening a city, and the group was in their shuttle working to target the creature's weaknesses (its many necks) without shooting off a head to risk it being revealed as an actual hydra. In the course of this scenario GM intrusions led to the ship almost scuttling when knocked into the bay, the gunnery mount being bitten off and the PC having to escape the maw of one of the creature's heads, and the group discovering that the thing was weak to sonic attacks. The third combat involved three aliens pretending to be gods and using a host of slaved drones....take out the drone operator and the drones are also taken out. Each of the foes had very effective shields, but the shields could be defeated by applying slow pressure (think the shields from Dune). Defeat the right person and the other two may surrender, as they were enslaved mentally to the Big Bad.

The point being.....if you are going to have combat in Cypher, do not do it just because your RPG instincts suggest combat is now needed to fill the gap. Figure out why, in the story, you would want a combat, and what about this combat will be a real challenge to the PCs. Better one memorable fight every couple of sessions than six to eight unmemorable fights.

GM and Player Intrusions Are Crucial: As some has said elsewhere, Cypher is a system with some give and take. You do indeed have plot tokens, so to speak, and players can evoke one for 1 XP, and GM's can offer XP to introduce one. This seems like a counter-intuitive concept to gamers used to prepublished scenarios in which all variables are laid out, but old school GMs should be familiar with the concept of innovating on simple things (hexcrawl gaming, for example, provides a skeleton on which you drape all sorts of unknown variables). Likewise, GMs who like improv are well aware of the appeal of being able to throw interesting things into the mix on the fly.

The point of a GM Intrusion is to make life more interesting for the players. The way I describe it to the players is like this: if I offer you a GM intrusion it may, indeed, pose a risk for your PC, but the odds are also much greater you'll encounter a reward. Likewise, if the PC wants to engage in a player intrusion it can justify their pulling off something which would otherwise not be supported by their range of stats. Two example of a player intrusion that worked great in the combat encounters included the guy with no flying skill spending an XP to gain control of the shuttle when the pilot was incapacited and keep it level (did not crash); the second is when one of the PCs, sniping at the monster from a harness, watched their less careful fellow PC fall out of the open shuttle door they spent an XP to suggest the poor soul instead got tangled in the sniper's harness and did not, in fact, plunge into the bay's waters below. Meanwhile, a GM intrusion I played (as a result of them rolling a crit fail on a 1 for a free GM intrusion) was for the monster to rip the entire gunnery compartment off the underside of the shuttle and swallow it, with the PC, whole....this gave the PC a change to deal with a harrowing escape from the gullet of the beast, and in the process he dropped a bandolier of grenades down its throat, which meant the adversity of the intrusion allowed for a greater story moment and compelling combat opportunity.

But....that's how Cypher rolls. You have to look at it as an engine for creating verisimilitude in stories, and not procedurals for a more conventional style of game play. If I want to play conventional D&D I will just play D&D; but if I run something with Cypher its going to require strange worlds and exotic situations from which PCs must consider many other approaches than "kill it and take it's stuff."
 

Bit surprised to see any action on this post four and a half months later, but hey, that's the internet for you. More importantly: again, why call them XP? At that point you are just straight-up admitting that "bennie" points and "advancement" points are just two totally distinct things, they just happen to go by the same name. It just seems silly to do that when...you could call a spade a spade.


...yes. That first sentence is exactly my point. You have to punish players for not playing the "intended" way, rather than actually making it so playing the intended way makes sense all on its own. That is exactly my issue.


I don't really need to, I've played some via TTON. Admittedly live play is better than CRPG play and I recognize that that is a limitation. But I've seen it in action and I really don't like it. Like at all. It drives me crazy.


....your words are not even remotely encouraging here and do not actually give me any reason to want to play. "You can fix this problem you dislike by investing into this OTHER problem you dislike, or by taking advantage of a third design choice you dislike!" That's anti-persuasive.
I felt exactly as you did, once. But these days its the only system I tend to really enjoy anymore, so things did change. YMMV of course!
 

Okay but like...why keep calling them the same thing if you're gonna do that? At heart that's tacitly admitting "okay, yeah, having one resource for both temporary and permanent effects is bad," but with a thin veneer of pretending they're still one thing. You'd have to track them separately regardless, and that switches the whole mechanic from "XP is also bennies" to "XP, and separate bennies."

Both the XP thing and the cypher limit seem to be examples of "you must punish your players for not innately going along with the intent of the rules," which is just really awkward and questionable game design. Not saying that no amount of "stick" design is necessary, of course. These just read like bad structures pursuing reasonable ends.
The game inherently supports both approaches (its codified within the Revised rulebook, in fact). The main reason to split XP into two resources is primarily to disabuse players of the notion that the only purpose of XP is to exclusively level up. Once players get into the idea that there are a range of rewards that have both temporary and long term effects they can spend on, and the idea sets in, then it becomes less necessary (ime, ymmv) to try and enforce that.

All that said, it's a different approach to RPGs. It's not something you have to like, but I am an advocate for it now that I got over the learning hump and have found that my average level of enjoyment goes up dramatically when I use Cypher over something more conventional these days. My goal here is not to convince you that it's something you will like; that is up to you. It is to convince you that I, and other people, do like and enjoy the Cypher approach and that's okay. It's a divisive system, but I became a convert a while ago and now it's hard to look back on the bad old days of limiting my thought to just one approach to gaming. When I run D&D 5E or Traveller these days after running Cypher I tend to immediately start missing Cypher's many unique elements in play simply because they provide an inherently codified structure to encouraging more interesting and often unexpected gameplay that still meshes well narratively.
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
I felt exactly as you did, once. But these days its the only system I tend to really enjoy anymore, so things did change. YMMV of course!
Okay. I'd like to dig into that, if you don't mind. Because this sounds at least vaguely like what happened to me with 4e, except there I was able to "get it" from reading and that didn't happen with Cypher.

Note, I know nothing of the specific differences between "original" and Revised, other than that some exist, because the original was such a turn-off I never saw a reason to look into it any further (and only semi-recently learned that Revised even exists.) So if I say something that sounds blatantly incorrect, if possible contrast it against the un-Revised version as well.

The main reason to split XP into two resources is primarily to disabuse players of the notion that the only purpose of XP is to exclusively level up. Once players get into the idea that there are a range of rewards that have both temporary and long term effects they can spend on, and the idea sets in, then it becomes less necessary (ime, ymmv) to try and enforce that.
Officially supporting it is of course wise, but I don't see how the incentive doesn't immediately swoop right back in the moment you return to one currency that has both temporary and permanent options. A player who invests 100% of their XP into permanent advancement is getting more out of their XP than one who doesn't. Period. Yes, temporary benefits are fun and cool, and I support games encouraging players to embrace stuff like that. Making a single resource that can be frittered away on stuff that won't matter next week also be the resource that gives you your versatile, universal, week-after-week problem-solving tools is not a good choice for rationally encouraging players to embrace the weird and temporary and context-limited. Cutting rewards in half so that players are forced to do the thing you want, rather than creating a system where the rational choice is to spend about half your resources on temporary effects, is IMO inferior design. Whenever possible, the game should reward players for choosing to play the game as intended; punishments for, and restrictions against, playing it in unintended ways should be used sparingly, only where it is impractical or impossible to use positive reinforcement.

Or, in brief, the rules themselves should make the player excited to play the game as intended, not annoyed that they have to play the game as intended Or Else.

It is to convince you that I, and other people, do like and enjoy the Cypher approach and that's okay. It's a divisive system, but I became a convert a while ago and now it's hard to look back on the bad old days of limiting my thought to just one approach to gaming. When I run D&D 5E or Traveller these days after running Cypher I tend to immediately start missing Cypher's many unique elements in play simply because they provide an inherently codified structure to encouraging more interesting and often unexpected gameplay that still meshes well narratively.
Well, I cannot deny its divisiveness! But I can empathize with the "I miss X" stuff. Are those things like the stuff mentioned? The "casting from HP," the (IMO draconian) Cypher limit, the "XP can be invested in permanent gains or spent on tasty candy"? I fully expect DM Intrusions to be one of those things, but please correct me if that's not the case. Likewise I assume your list of liked/loved items does not include the controversial pre-Revised comment that the GM should change the world to ensure the players never truly solve any mysteries of the setting's past.

I ask this because I assume there is more to Cypher than just the controversial bits.

It's Not Like Traditional RPGs in pace: It's important to not run it like D&D. By this I mean, a lot of stuff which D&D is good at such as tactical combat and procedural "go here, encounter monster, fight, loot, move to next event, etc." just defeats the whole point of Cypher System. I would equate it to this: a movie which I think reflects a really interesting Cypher game is Star Trek: The Motion Picture. That movie has a plot and theme which would be utterly pointless in a D&D game, but Cypher would handle a plot like encountering and solving the mystery of V'Ger exceedingly well.
I find this interesting, as it leans toward things I also like. What makes this difference? Why is it a "mysteries" system?

Player's Need to Adapt to the Idea of the Risk Pool:
Gonna be honest, I genuinely don't grok what you're saying here.

Even more important, you have to think of the risk pool differently than you do with the more passive stat modifiers of other RPGs.
This one is slightly more transparent because of my experience with TTON, but not a lot. Does this mean (essentially) that it's a cost-risk-benefit analysis on whether to burn risk pool in order to succeed?

The Risk Pool is also not your hit points. Even though it is reduced by damage, and frankly works a lot like Traveller, it's part of the balancing act of Cypher that the same pool you can use to modify difficulty through expenditures is also your health pool, because taking injury effectively also reduces your ability to spend from the pool. This is on purpose....and players who complain that health needs to be separate from the might/speed/intellect pool are not realizing this is by design.
I'm very confused here. First you say, in no uncertain terms, "the Risk Pool is also not your hit points." Yet then you say "the same pool you can use to modify difficulty through expenditures is also your health pool...." So...is the pool totally not hit points or is it truly actually hit points? This also doesn't seem to address any of the concerns regarding death spirals, as others have noted.

Descriptor/Type/Focus is not like alignment/race/class:
Frankly, this is the one part of the design I find almost entirely unproblematic (on a conceptual level, at least.) Before Revised, I was given to understand that there were some poor showings in actually supporting the different Types (that is, Nanos were at very least overtuned, Glaives were pigeonholed, and Jacks were weird and had no personal niche), but at least the concept of the thing made sense. I am also given to understand that much effort was put into addressing the weaknesses of the Type part of this equation.

Combat is Best Thought of as a Puzzle or Event:
Perhaps this is my 4e flag showing, but I've always wanted combat to be this way. That's why 4e specialized in set-piece combats. Trash fights aren't interesting enough on their own; model logistical problems at the level of skills, SCs, and narrative, not as combats.

GM and Player Intrusions Are Crucial: <snip> Likewise, GMs who like improv are well aware of the appeal of being able to throw interesting things into the mix on the fly.
Would you be willing to elaborate here? What things I have read do not present this in a light that was favorable to my tastes, so to speak. Even from people trying to praise it.

The point of a GM Intrusion is to make life more interesting for the players.
Perhaps I am just jaded. They come across to me as like the not-actually-Chinese curse, "may you live in interesting times." That is, it is (or seems to be) a rules-sanctioned "screw over the player" mechanic, with an added guilt trip of "if you reject it, you're spending permanent XP for a temporary benefit AND not letting another player gain XP as well."

The analysis and descriptions of Intrusions in general just...don't give me that "this is an opportunity to take a risk and be MORE AWESOME" feeling. Instead it feels like a great way for a DM to yank my chain. If it looks like a duck, waddles like a duck, quacks like a duck...

But....that's how Cypher rolls. You have to look at it as an engine for creating verisimilitude in stories, and not procedurals for a more conventional style of game play.
I'm not sure I follow that, given the Intrusion mechanic by definition is anti-verisimilitudinous. Could you say more on this?
 
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Aldarc

Legend
Officially supporting it is of course wise, but I don't see how the incentive doesn't immediately swoop right back in the moment you return to one currency that has both temporary and permanent options. A player who invests 100% of their XP into permanent advancement is getting more out of their XP than one who doesn't. Period. Yes, temporary benefits are fun and cool, and I support games encouraging players to embrace stuff like that. Making a single resource that can be frittered away on stuff that won't matter next week also be the resource that gives you your versatile, universal, week-after-week problem-solving tools is not a good choice for rationally encouraging players to embrace the weird and temporary and context-limited. Cutting rewards in half so that players are forced to do the thing you want, rather than creating a system where the rational choice is to spend about half your resources on temporary effects, is IMO inferior design. Whenever possible, the game should reward players for choosing to play the game as intended; punishments for, and restrictions against, playing it in unintended ways should be used sparingly, only where it is impractical or impossible to use positive reinforcement.

Or, in brief, the rules themselves should make the player excited to play the game as intended, not annoyed that they have to play the game as intended Or Else.
I feel like most who people who defend XP in the Cypher System seem to invariably commit the Oberoni Fallacy. They claim that it's not broken and/or there is nothing wrong with it, BUT it's almost always houseruled. Or dig a bit and you find that people suggest splitting XP up into two separate pools. I was there when Numenera came out in 2013. The conversations about how to fix XP now are the same ones that people had then.

Perhaps I am just jaded. They come across to me as like the not-actually-Chinese curse, "may you live in interesting times." That is, it is (or seems to be) a rules-sanctioned "screw over the player" mechanic, with an added guilt trip of "if you reject it, you're spending permanent XP for a temporary benefit AND not letting another player gain XP as well."

The analysis and descriptions of Intrusions in general just...don't give me that "this is an opportunity to take a risk and be MORE AWESOME" feeling. Instead it feels like a great way for a DM to yank my chain. If it looks like a duck, waddles like a duck, quacks like a duck...

I'm not sure I follow that, given the Intrusion mechanic by definition is anti-verisimilitudinous. Could you say more on this?
I'm not sure if I would say in good faith that the GM Intrusion is designed to "screw over the player," as I believe that Cook does see this mechanic as a genuine way to add a dramatic twist or complication that makes play interesting for the players. "Screw over the player," IMO, implies more malice than I think is present. IMHO, however, GM Intrusions fill a void left by the fact that the GM doesn't roll: i.e., fudging. GM Intrusions does amount to GM Force, with the check on that Force being XP. But I would mainly apply this critique to the GM Intrusions that do not happen on a player roll of a Natural 1.

I would add here that I think that GM Intrusions is also trying to be vaguely Fate-like in terms of gaining Fate points via character complications, but I think that Monte Cook may have skipped a beat here. In Fate, these complications are invoked against a character's Trouble (or other relevant Aspects). These Aspects are character-facing, serving as player-selected lightning rods for character complications. Troubles highlight the sort of complications that the player wants their character to experience in gameplay. This component is absent in the Cypher System, though sometimes Descriptors, Types, and Foci provide suggested GM Intrusions, but this is not the same as player-selected Troubles. Moreover, Fate points are not doing double-duty as a character progression meta-currency.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
I feel like most who people who defend XP in the Cypher System seem to invariably commit the Oberoni Fallacy. They claim that it's not broken and/or there is nothing wrong with it, BUT it's almost always houseruled. Or dig a bit and you find that people suggest splitting XP up into two separate pools. I was there when Numenera came out in 2013. The conversations about how to fix XP now are the same ones that people had then.

Well, its not like this was a new problem when Numenera came out. The D6 System, Masterbook/TORG, the original DC Heroes game and others I'm probably forgetting took the approach of admixing experience and metacurrency, and the problems with it showed up in all of them. Cypher just does a more nuanced version of this, but that doesn't make the problems any less true for many people.

I'm not sure if I would say in good faith that the GM Intrusion is designed to "screw over the player," as I believe that Cook does see this mechanic as a genuine way to add a dramatic twist or complication that makes play interesting for the players. "Screw over the player," IMO, implies more malice than I think is present. IMHO, however, GM Intrusions fill a void left by the fact that the GM doesn't roll: i.e., fudging. GM Intrusions does amount to GM Force, with the check on that Force being XP. But I would mainly apply this critique to the GM Intrusions that do not happen on a player roll of a Natural 1.

I suspect Ezekial is observing that there's a pretty obvious failure state there, and one that many GMs falling into it will not think is them making a malign decision, but where many players will see it very much that way. Some potentially useful tools are simply fraught.

I would add here that I think that GM Intrusions is also trying to be vaguely Fate-like in terms of gaining Fate points via character complications, but I think that Monte Cook may have skipped a beat here. In Fate, these complications are invoked against a character's Trouble (or other relevant Aspects). These Aspects are character-facing, serving as player-selected lightning rods for character complications. Troubles highlight the sort of complications that the player wants their character to experience in gameplay. This component is absent in the Cypher System, though sometimes Descriptors, Types, and Foci provide suggested GM Intrusions, but this is not the same as player-selected Troubles. Moreover, Fate points are not doing double-duty as a character progression meta-currency.

Yeah, there's a psychologically important difference between things like negative Aspects (and these exist well outside the Fate sphere) chosen by the player, and ones that the GM simply imposes, even if the latter may sometimes (possibly even usually) done with benign reasons.
 

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