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


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CharlesRyan

Adventurer
Hey, all. This is an interesting thread, full of insightful thoughts and opinions. I want to challenge a couple of assumptions, though, that seem to have been taken as given in this conversation.

1. That people house-rule XP into two pools, for game-use and advancement.
2. That XP is commonly used by malicious GMs to screw the players.

Do these things happen? Sure. But reading this thread you'd think they were common; even pervasive. They are not—in my experience they're really rare. (In the second case, I'll point out that players can spend an XP to counter a GM intrusion; in ten years of playing hundreds of sessions, I've only ever seen it happen twice. Not the rate I'd expect if receiving intrusions was commonly seen as being screwed by the GM.)

Also a word on the cypher limit. Cyphers are really a meta element, treated as an in-game item in some settings (like Numenera) but as purely a metagame mechanic that enhances player agency in many others. (They're termed "subtle cyphers" when used that way.) You get an arbitrary boost you can use at your discretion, but you can only have a couple of them available to you at any given time. The fact that this boost is skinned as an object in a game like Numenera is just color. Maybe that makes it easier to accept the concept?

(That said, I have to wonder if those who dislike cypher limits are actual Cypher System players with substantial experience of the system, or people who haven't played much and just dislike the limit in principle. Because I haven't really seen it be an obstacle in play.)

A caveat: I work at MCG, and I've played many, many games alongside Monte and the other designers. But I'm also active in the 4500+ member Cypher Unlimited discord, and play frequently at cons and public events (at Gamehole Con last weekend, for example, I was in five different games with over two-dozen new-to-me Cypher System players), so hopefully I'm pretty looped into how the game is played outside our virtual walls as well as inside.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
Hey, all. This is an interesting thread, full of insightful thoughts and opinions. I want to challenge a couple of assumptions, though, that seem to have been taken as given in this conversation.

1. That people house-rule XP into two pools, for game-use and advancement.
2. That XP is commonly used by malicious GMs to screw the players.

Do these things happen? Sure. But reading this thread you'd think they were common; even pervasive. They are not—in my experience they're really rare. (In the second case, I'll point out that players can spend an XP to counter a GM intrusion; in ten years of playing hundreds of sessions, I've only ever seen it happen twice. Not the rate I'd expect if receiving intrusions was commonly seen as being screwed by the GM.)
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I'd suggest the only reason for the first to be rare is that people prone to doing it will just walk away from the game instead.

Also a word on the cypher limit. Cyphers are really a meta element, treated as an in-game item in some settings (like Numenera) but as purely a metagame mechanic that enhances player agency in many others. (They're termed "subtle cyphers" when used that way.) You get an arbitrary boost you can use at your discretion, but you can only have a couple of them available to you at any given time. The fact that this boost is skinned as an object in a game like Numenera is just color. Maybe that makes it easier to accept the concept?

I don't particular find "the GM decides what flavor of specialized metacurrancy you get" all that much more appealing.

(That said, I have to wonder if those who dislike cypher limits are actual Cypher System players with substantial experience of the system, or people who haven't played much and just dislike the limit in principle. Because I haven't really seen it be an obstacle in play.)

Similar to my first point, if you do object to the whole idea, why would playing the game seem appealing (and in my case, its hardly the only thing I dislike about the system).
 

Aldarc

Legend
Hey, all. This is an interesting thread, full of insightful thoughts and opinions. I want to challenge a couple of assumptions, though, that seem to have been taken as given in this conversation.

1. That people house-rule XP into two pools, for game-use and advancement.
In the first case, it's pretty common IME to see this as a suggested house rule. Obviously you have greater experience with the fan community and engagement, but I'm not going to pretend like this hasn't been a common houserule discussed in the community since Numenera. A simple search on Cypher Unlimited's Discord channel (to which I am also a member) for "XP advancment" or "XP split" reveals a fair number of people splitting XP between two tracks: PC advancement and beannies/plot/etc.

I'd suggest the only reason for the first to be rare is that people prone to doing it will just walk away from the game instead.
This feels less like a grounded hypothesis and more like your own negative opinions likely leading you to this conclusion.
 

I have run a couple of Numenera campaigns, and pretty recently finished playing in a Ptolus campaign using the Cypher system. It's not my favorite system or my go-to for any particular genre, but I've had generally good experiences with it, so I'll chip in on some topics:

XP into two pools, for game-use and advancement
Having played in multiple old-school Deadlands campaign where this is an even worse issue, I really dislike systems which expect you to spend XP for in-game use. The in-game use is typically fun and interesting, so dis-incentivizing it is just a terrible game design decision. It is by far my least liked aspect of the Cypher system. I didn't use any house rules to overcome it, I just made sure my players knew that if they spent on fun things, I'd "intrude lightly" and ensure they had a good chance to get the XP back.

Limited Cyphers
Players reluctant to use consumables has been a problem for all time. It's not even unique to TTRPGS -- it's a rare video RPG where I don't end with a metric ton of healing and buff potions I never used "just in case". Limited Cyphers are one way to help with this -- knowing there is a limit means players are incentivized to find fun uses; so, when it works, this is a good feature. If you are near the cypher limit, then you are looking for a way to negate gravity or use your fun cypher. However, this all falls down if the GM is stingy with cyphers -- as a GM you have to keep the flow going so when a ne cypher is found, players view it as an opportunity.
My last GM (for Ptolus) had a nice idea -- you had a grace period of a day before cypher overload effects were felt, and a solid market for cyphers in the city. So when we found new cyphers it was always good -- we'd be excited by cyphers better than the old ones, and any that we'd otherwise lose became cash.

Spending your Health
This is something that traditional D&D-style players get very concerned about as it is a very different way of playing. It's not that common in modern games either, but it seems to worry the old-school gamers more than people who play Fate, PbtA or similar. One of our Ptolus gamers hated spending. He would prefer to miss with his attack and defend checks and take damage rather than spend to avoid damage, very consistently. And this does make the game less fun as your cool stuff doesn't happen. However the healing system in Numenera is very good at mitigating this. Like every RPG, it's a resource management system. You spend your pools to power up effects, and then spend the limited healing resources to recover. I like the risk-reward trade-off ("I've used up my quick heals -- if I spend for powers now I'll be down until we get a solid hour's rest") and find it a more fun management system than the traditional Vancian style (you get X uses and DONE) or the AEDU system, but I can see why people prefer to keep two different resource management pools, one for health and one for powers. As an aside, I agree with previous posters that death spirals are simply not a concern. My biggest concern is actually that characters that can grant a lot of healing are extremely powerful; at high levels I had a character who could keep people able to spend 5+ on pretty much every roll under normal circumstances. That made me do a lot of re-scaling fights!

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Overall, I like the Cypher system for Numenera. I think that genre is well-served by the Cypher ruleset -- the way you get XP for discovery and exploration, and not for killings things; the way that cyphers can be devastatingly effective; the highly differentiated characters -- they work very well for this genre. For Ptolus I was actually surprised it worked as well as it did. It was a much more narrative and free-wheeling campaign than it would have been if we'd played in 5E, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. However, I think if I'd played it in 13th Age, it would have been equally as good an experience, so it's not supplanting 13A for general fantasy for me. I've played some one-shots of The Strange and maybe one other setting, and for me the system wasn't as strong -- Fate, Everway or Night's Black Agents seemed like it would have been better. But it's hard to judge without at least a mini-campaign.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
This feels less like a grounded hypothesis and more like your own negative opinions likely leading you to this conclusion.

I'm basing it on the way I've seen people react to other games with similar mechanics (as noted, conflating metacurrency and advancement currency is not new) where its very often been a dealbreaker, and that when people talk about that one its usually not the only issue they have with Cypher. I can't prove it, of course, but it doesn't seem unfounded from parallelism with what I've seen in other game systems and the tendency for it not to be a standalone objection.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
Just to make a side comment--though I'm not a fan of the resource for getting things done and the resource for you staying functional being the same one, you can make an argument that almost all metacurrencies do this to some degree, and I don't intrinsically object to those. I think there's some important matters of degree though; it should be noted that games that seriously need metacurrencies to just get things done on a regular basis and/or where buffering damage with metacurrencies is regularly needed (as compared to an occasional emergency use) I often do have the same issues with.
 

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