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Heroes of the Cypher System: An Interview With Monte Cook

With their latest Kickstarter, Monte Cook Games brings superheroes to the gaming table through the Heroes of the Cypher System. Seeing this system powering a new world brought some questions about their new sourcebooks and how they’d work with the Cypher System, so I reached out to ask. Imagine how excited I was when one of the greatest designers in gaming, Monte Cook, offered to provide these answers.

Heroes of the Cypher System 03.jpg

EGG EMBRY (EGG): I appreciate you taking the time to answer these questions. Monte Cook Games is running a new Kickstarter, what can you share about this new project?
MONTE COOK (MONTE)
: It’s called Heroes of the Cypher System and it is focused on two books, Claim the Sky, a superhero genre book, and First Responders, covering heroes that deal with real world crises like wildfires or hurricanes. Thanks to stretch goals, we’ve added a lot to the campaign already, including another book—a sort of dark, more grounded look at people with powers called The Origin.

EGG: The Cypher System and Numenera have won awards, which is, in part, a reflection on its versatility. How has the system been adapted for the world of superheroes?
MONTE
: My main concern was creating a way to make characters that were truly “super” but not a lot more complicated. In the Cypher System we have something called Power Shifts that do this very nicely. A strong CS character can break down a door with effort and a decent roll. A super strong CS character (with a Strength Power Shift) can do it without even needing to roll, and with effort and a good roll can smash through a brick wall. And two shifts allow them to probably do even that without a roll. Similarly, we have some new kinds of (non-object based) cyphers that give your character one-shot boosts or tricks with your powers, which we see in superhero stories all the time—where a character really focuses and uses their power to go beyond what it can normally do.

EGG: For those that haven’t played the Cypher System before, what is the core mechanic? What makes it, and the games it powers, award-winning products?
MONTE
: The core task mechanic is that the GM sets a difficulty for any task, rated 1-10, and the player rolls, but first can modify that difficulty down using skills, circumstances, or even just effort, which is a limited resource allowing players to focus on the tasks that matter the most. I think that’s what people like about it the most—that as a player, you’re given additional agency over your own character, allowing them to choose which tasks matter the most. I think the fact that it’s very easy to GM this game is also a draw. Everything is designed so that the GM can be thinking about the story, not the mechanics.

Heroes of the Cypher System 02.jpg

EGG: At the time we’re discussing this, the campaign is generating three new books with more that may be unlocked. Lets discuss The Origin. This book changes up the central conceit of most superhero universes by making “a world where superheroes are not a fact of life.” Why shake up the status quo and set this RPG at the debut of superheroes?
MONTE
: Superheroes is actually pretty broad genre at this point. On one end of the spectrum, you’ve got Marvel and DC comics, where everyone knows all about superpowers, aliens, and monsters. On the other, you’ve got something like the TV show Heroes from a few years ago or more recent stories like Chronicle, Project Power, or even something like Watchmen or the Umbrella Academy. The Origin embraces that larger category. What would happen if tomorrow, a few people started developing superpowers? What would they do, and how would those in power react?

EGG: What does Claim the Sky give players?
MONTE
: It’s a broad look at playing and running superhero games. Perhaps first and foremost, it makes creating the hero you want with the powers you want really quick and easy. It provides options for running games with a real superhero feel. And it provides a complete, ready-to-use superhero setting called Boundless, with characters, stories, and locations all aching to be used in your campaign.

EGG: First Responders offers a unique set of options for a superhero universe. What can you share about this book and why you choose to do a grounded real world option with this book?
MONTE
: It’s actually not specifically designed for a superhero universe, although I was just chatting with someone last night about how that would be a really cool campaign, where you play superheroes one week and then real world people dealing with the same event the next week. First Responders is a general book that you can use in any genre that shows how to run a whole adventure based on a crisis like a tornado or a hurricane and how it can be just as interesting and involved as a more typical RPG adventure.

EGG: That is a cool adventure idea! You have a special $10 backer level for “first responders, emergency workers, firefighters, and other real-world heroes.” First, thank you for recognizing this under appreciated segment of our society. Second, what drove the decision to offer this reward?
MONTE
: This year in particular, but really every year, we have people out there putting themselves on the line for us. We just wanted to recognize that.

Heroes of the Cypher System 05.jpg

EGG: Not all of the campaign’s stretch goals have been revealed, but one that has yet to be unlocked is the Cypher System Bestiary. Will these beasts be specific to Heroes of the Cypher System or will this book be more generalized for the engine as a whole?
MONTE
: It will be a general book for every genre, but where possible, we’ll actually try to present each creature with different contexts, showing how it could be used in a sci-fi setting, a fantasy setting, etc.

EGG: Beyond Heroes of the Cypher System, what else is coming soon from Monte Cook Games?
MONTE
: Right now, our fantasy genre book, Godforsaken, is going up for sale. And while we’ve got more Numenera and Cypher products coming soon, our next really big release is something we Kickstarted earlier this year, and that’s two different conversions of a setting I created a while back called Ptolus. Ptolus will be available for either the 5e rules or the Cypher System. It’s a mammoth book and a lot of game history.

EGG: Thank you for sharing your time with us. Where can fans keep up with Monte Cook Games?
MONTE
: We’re on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and so on, but probably the best place is [our website]. If you’re really interested in us, sign up to get the Cypher Chronicles delivered to your inbox every Friday. It’s got MCG news as well as recommendations for shows, games, Kickstarters, and anything else that is entertaining or intriguing our team.


UPDATE: The day our interview went live, Monte Cook Games announced that Teri Litorco joined MCG as Managing Editor.


Heroes of the Cypher System from Monte Cook Games
  • End Date: Fri, December 11 2020 8:00 PM EST.
  • “When disaster strikes or menace looms, the best among us don’t run from danger—they run toward it! Heroic books for the Cypher System.”
Egg Embry participates in the OneBookShelf Affiliate Program and is an Amazon Associate. These programs provide advertising fees by linking to DriveThruRPG and Amazon.
 

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Egg Embry

Egg Embry

Lord Mhoram

Adventurer
Cypher has recently become my favorite system. Supers if my favorite genre, so this was an instant full level backing for me. The level of quality in writing, editing and production for all the other Cypher related books I've seen (the other 4 sourcebooks, Core Rulebook Revised, and the newer pair of Numenera rules is amazing. This is something I am really looking forward to.
 

Dragonsbane

Proud Grognard
Same here, I switched from 5E to Cypher. It is so much easier to run as a DM, especially prep. You can focus on story, and the possibility of player min/max is greatly reduced. Effort is an amazing mechanic, as is the GM intrusion system. Using pools instead of hit points really does it for me as well. Our Cypher Fantasy game had a crazy climax adventure last night, the players were on the edge of their seat. I cannot recommend this system enough, especially DMs tired of crazy prep time with stat blocks or rules lawyers and optimizers trashing their plans with cheese. Our next adventure is super heroes in sci-fi 2099, same system oh yeah!
 

Aldarc

Legend
Effort is an amazing mechanic,
Side-Tangent: In my years of running the Cypher System, Effort is probably one of the hardest mechanics to sell to my players when it comes to the Cypher System. Though I understand the idea of expending effort on a task regardless of whether you know the outcome or not, you lose those points regardless of whether you fail or succeed. And you may succeed so well on the swingyness of a d20 that you may not have needed to spend Effort at all. So psychologically, IME, it does not feel rewarding for players to spend Effort when they succeed beyond the necessary requirement.

My other issue with the Cypher System has more to do with XP as a currency for character progression and everything else (e.g., re-rolls, short/medium/long-term benefits). I think that Monte likely saw a problem with this as well, hence why this changes in Invisible Sun, but I think he also realized that he can't change how XP works without doing a more extensive Cypher System revision.
 

imagineGod

Legend
Same here, I switched from 5E to Cypher. It is so much easier to run as a DM, especially prep. You can focus on story, and the possibility of player min/max is greatly reduced. Effort is an amazing mechanic, as is the GM intrusion system. Using pools instead of hit points really does it for me as well. Our Cypher Fantasy game had a crazy climax adventure last night, the players were on the edge of their seat. I cannot recommend this system enough, especially DMs tired of crazy prep time with stat blocks or rules lawyers and optimizers trashing their plans with cheese. Our next adventure is super heroes in sci-fi 2099, same system oh yeah!
So are you in the Ptolus for Cypher camp? I actually abandoned Cypher for D&D 5th when I noticed Monte Cook was willing to port so much of his cool stuff to 5th, why bother with Cypher.
 

imagineGod

Legend
Also, not really a fan of superhero RPGs, they never seem to match expectations from fiction. But Monte's explanation of "power shifts" seems intriguing enough. Thanks for the interview.

With regards to Ptolus 5e vs Cypher, I wonder if after public launch, a significant number of D&D Players try the Cypher version or instead D&D peels away more Cypher Players?
 

Lord Mhoram

Adventurer
My other issue with the Cypher System has more to do with XP as a currency for character progression and everything else (e.g., re-rolls, short/medium/long-term benefits). I think that Monte likely saw a problem with this as well, hence why this changes in Invisible Sun, but I think he also realized that he can't change how XP works without doing a more extensive Cypher System revision.

I just started splitting XP - half goes to currency half to character progression. That seems to be working.
 

Aldarc

Legend
With regards to Ptolus 5e vs Cypher, I wonder if after public launch, a significant number of D&D Players try the Cypher version or instead D&D peels away more Cypher Players?
Though there are many people who play D&D (5e) to the exclusion of all else the inverse is not always true. Outside of D&D's big bubble, many people play other games alongside D&D so it is not an either/or in many cases.

I just started splitting XP - half goes to currency half to character progression. That seems to be working.
This is the common rule that works, but I think that the underlying problem still exists.
 

Dragonsbane

Proud Grognard
So are you in the Ptolus for Cypher camp? I actually abandoned Cypher for D&D 5th when I noticed Monte Cook was willing to port so much of his cool stuff to 5th, why bother with Cypher.
I will check it out, certainly. For me it is more about ruleset rather than setting, especially since you can play some many settings/genre in Cypher.

Also, we use milestone leveling for PC advancement, and then normal XP / intrusion stuff for rerolls and the other stuff, long term benefits, etc. Works great for the XP issue mentioned.
 

Dragonsbane

Proud Grognard
Also, not really a fan of superhero RPGs, they never seem to match expectations from fiction. But Monte's explanation of "power shifts" seems intriguing enough. Thanks for the interview.

With regards to Ptolus 5e vs Cypher, I wonder if after public launch, a significant number of D&D Players try the Cypher version or instead D&D peels away more Cypher Players?
I think it really depends on if you are more into narrative/RP or optimizing/crunch. I don't think any optimizers will switch over TBH. Part of the appeal for me is there is less powergaming stuff than 5E by far. Nothing wrong with PGing but after 30 years as a DM, I am just not into it at all.
 


Tyr Na Nog

Villager
With their latest Kickstarter, Monte Cook Games brings superheroes to the gaming table through the Heroes of the Cypher System. Seeing this system powering a new world brought some questions about their new sourcebooks and how they’d work with the Cypher System, so I reached out to ask. Imagine how excited I was when one of the greatest designers in gaming, Monte Cook, offered to provide these answers.


EGG EMBRY (EGG): I appreciate you taking the time to answer these questions. Monte Cook Games is running a new Kickstarter, what can you share about this new project?
MONTE COOK (MONTE)
: It’s called Heroes of the Cypher System and it is focused on two books, Claim the Sky, a superhero genre book, and First Responders, covering heroes that deal with real world crises like wildfires or hurricanes. Thanks to stretch goals, we’ve added a lot to the campaign already, including another book—a sort of dark, more grounded look at people with powers called The Origin.

EGG: The Cypher System and Numenera have won awards, which is, in part, a reflection on its versatility. How has the system been adapted for the world of superheroes?
MONTE
: My main concern was creating a way to make characters that were truly “super” but not a lot more complicated. In the Cypher System we have something called Power Shifts that do this very nicely. A strong CS character can break down a door with effort and a decent roll. A super strong CS character (with a Strength Power Shift) can do it without even needing to roll, and with effort and a good roll can smash through a brick wall. And two shifts allow them to probably do even that without a roll. Similarly, we have some new kinds of (non-object based) cyphers that give your character one-shot boosts or tricks with your powers, which we see in superhero stories all the time—where a character really focuses and uses their power to go beyond what it can normally do.

EGG: For those that haven’t played the Cypher System before, what is the core mechanic? What makes it, and the games it powers, award-winning products?
MONTE
: The core task mechanic is that the GM sets a difficulty for any task, rated 1-10, and the player rolls, but first can modify that difficulty down using skills, circumstances, or even just effort, which is a limited resource allowing players to focus on the tasks that matter the most. I think that’s what people like about it the most—that as a player, you’re given additional agency over your own character, allowing them to choose which tasks matter the most. I think the fact that it’s very easy to GM this game is also a draw. Everything is designed so that the GM can be thinking about the story, not the mechanics.


EGG: At the time we’re discussing this, the campaign is generating three new books with more that may be unlocked. Lets discuss The Origin. This book changes up the central conceit of most superhero universes by making “a world where superheroes are not a fact of life.” Why shake up the status quo and set this RPG at the debut of superheroes?
MONTE
: Superheroes is actually pretty broad genre at this point. On one end of the spectrum, you’ve got Marvel and DC comics, where everyone knows all about superpowers, aliens, and monsters. On the other, you’ve got something like the TV show Heroes from a few years ago or more recent stories like Chronicle, Project Power, or even something like Watchmen or the Umbrella Academy. The Origin embraces that larger category. What would happen if tomorrow, a few people started developing superpowers? What would they do, and how would those in power react?

EGG: What does Claim the Sky give players?
MONTE
: It’s a broad look at playing and running superhero games. Perhaps first and foremost, it makes creating the hero you want with the powers you want really quick and easy. It provides options for running games with a real superhero feel. And it provides a complete, ready-to-use superhero setting called Boundless, with characters, stories, and locations all aching to be used in your campaign.

EGG: First Responders offers a unique set of options for a superhero universe. What can you share about this book and why you choose to do a grounded real world option with this book?
MONTE
: It’s actually not specifically designed for a superhero universe, although I was just chatting with someone last night about how that would be a really cool campaign, where you play superheroes one week and then real world people dealing with the same event the next week. First Responders is a general book that you can use in any genre that shows how to run a whole adventure based on a crisis like a tornado or a hurricane and how it can be just as interesting and involved as a more typical RPG adventure.

EGG: That is a cool adventure idea! You have a special $10 backer level for “first responders, emergency workers, firefighters, and other real-world heroes.” First, thank you for recognizing this under appreciated segment of our society. Second, what drove the decision to offer this reward?
MONTE
: This year in particular, but really every year, we have people out there putting themselves on the line for us. We just wanted to recognize that.


EGG: Not all of the campaign’s stretch goals have been revealed, but one that has yet to be unlocked is the Cypher System Bestiary. Will these beasts be specific to Heroes of the Cypher System or will this book be more generalized for the engine as a whole?
MONTE
: It will be a general book for every genre, but where possible, we’ll actually try to present each creature with different contexts, showing how it could be used in a sci-fi setting, a fantasy setting, etc.

EGG: Beyond Heroes of the Cypher System, what else is coming soon from Monte Cook Games?
MONTE
: Right now, our fantasy genre book, Godforsaken, is going up for sale. And while we’ve got more Numenera and Cypher products coming soon, our next really big release is something we Kickstarted earlier this year, and that’s two different conversions of a setting I created a while back called Ptolus. Ptolus will be available for either the 5e rules or the Cypher System. It’s a mammoth book and a lot of game history.

EGG: Thank you for sharing your time with us. Where can fans keep up with Monte Cook Games?
MONTE
: We’re on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and so on, but probably the best place is [our website]. If you’re really interested in us, sign up to get the Cypher Chronicles delivered to your inbox every Friday. It’s got MCG news as well as recommendations for shows, games, Kickstarters, and anything else that is entertaining or intriguing our team.


UPDATE: The day our interview went live, Monte Cook Games announced that Teri Litorco joined MCG as Managing Editor.


Heroes of the Cypher System from Monte Cook Games
  • End Date: Fri, December 11 2020 8:00 PM EST.
  • “When disaster strikes or menace looms, the best among us don’t run from danger—they run toward it! Heroic books for the Cypher System.”
Egg Embry participates in the OneBookShelf Affiliate Program and is an Amazon Associate. These programs provide advertising fees by linking to DriveThruRPG and Amazon.
Great interview and topic.
 

Ghost2020

Adventurer
I've had some players, with the few sessions we had, say that there isn't enough danger of their character dying.

Yes, it's not a most lethal system, but things can go sideways quickly down the damage track, also it lets players try bold things without being so cautious.

This looks like a good KS, but I'm torn on it. I'm not terribly interested in the First Responders book.
Then again, having First Responders work as a sub story to heroes, rescuing people amid the carnage of a hero brawl.
 

Dragonsbane

Proud Grognard
I've had some players, with the few sessions we had, say that there isn't enough danger of their character dying.

Yes, it's not a most lethal system, but things can go sideways quickly down the damage track, also it lets players try bold things without being so cautious.

This looks like a good KS, but I'm torn on it. I'm not terribly interested in the First Responders book.
Then again, having First Responders work as a sub story to heroes, rescuing people amid the carnage of a hero brawl.
You can move them down the track as you said, as well as making them need Effort more often before battles. I also don't let normal healing bring you back up from debilitated, you need a Repair Flesh spell or power or days of rest. More realistic.
 

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