Tell Me About the Cypher System

How do you feel about the Cypher game system, by Monte Cook Games?

  • I love it.

    Votes: 9 11.0%
  • It's pretty good.

    Votes: 13 15.9%
  • Meh, it's okay.

    Votes: 14 17.1%
  • It's pretty bad.

    Votes: 17 20.7%
  • I hate it.

    Votes: 1 1.2%
  • I've never played it.

    Votes: 27 32.9%
  • What's Cypher?

    Votes: 1 1.2%

CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
Have you used the Cypher system? What did you think of it?

I recently acquired my copy of The Old Gods of Appalachia RPG from Monte Cook Games, from their million-dollar Kickstarter last year. This game uses a different game system: the Cypher system. (This game system is also used by Numinera, and will be used for the upcoming The Magnus Archives RPG.) This 'new kid on the block' looks like it'll be sticking around for a while.

Now the D20 System is the undeniable favorite for tabletop RPGs, and it's probably the one that most of us are familiar with thanks to D&D, so I don't see Cypher replacing it anytime soon (or ever, really. I don't think that was ever their intention.) It looks like a pretty good system, just looking at it objectively, and I do mean "just looking at it" because I've only read about it. I haven't had a chance to play it yet.

So! If you've used the Cypher system, please let us know what you think of it, what you love or hate about it, and the kinds of games you run with it. And if you've never played it, what's keeping you from giving it a spin? Inquiring moogles want to know!



SUMMARY FROM COMMENTS
Last updated: 9/16/2023

Pros:

The rules are flexible when they need to be.
The bestiaries are very useful.
Excellent choice for running horror-themed games
Exceptional choice for settings
Easy-to-use charts for setting difficulties

Mids:
Pool system is counter-intuitive; some folks like it and others don't
Cyphers themselves (consumable magical abilities) are either fantastic or terrible, depending on who you ask.
Trading XP for narrative setbacks makes XP a type of currency. Folks either love it or hate it.
There are only 3 attributes.

Cons:
The Intrusion mechanic: DM can just declare bad results whenever
Bad experience: DM choice ended up hamstringing a character's abilities
Bad experience: character couldn't bypass any target DCs, ended in a TPK
System feels "clunky," too much Effort attrition
Some Foci are obviously superior to others (balance issue?)
Too much emphasis on resource management
Damage and Effort are coupled together
Roll-then-negotiate mechanic break the rhythm of the game
Class names (in Numinera) are silly
Attributes are all pooled together, exacerbating a "death spiral"

Grade: C
Nearly all voters have heard of it (99%), 65% have played it.
Of those who have played it: 17% love it, 23% like it, 25% are lukewarm, 33% dislike it, and 2% hate it.
The "grade" is calculated as follows:
  • Votes from people who have not played will not affect the grade.
  • "Love" votes are worth 4 points. The highest score, comparable to an "A" vote.
  • "Like" votes are worth 3 points. The equivalent of a "B" vote.
  • "Meh" votes are worth 2 points. This is your basic "C" vote.
  • "Dislike" votes are worth 1 point. This is considered a "D" vote.
  • "Hate" votes are worth 0 points. The lowest score, considered an "F" vote.

The grading formula:
GPA = Σ(PiVi)

where:
GPA = "grade-point average," the grading score used in the Key below.​
Vi = percentage of votes in each category (Love, Like, Meh, Dislike, or Hate)​
Pi = corresponding score for that category (4, 3, 2, 1, or 0)​

Key
Over 3.75 = A+
3.51 to 3.75 = A
3.26 to 3.50 = A-
3.01 to 3.25 = B+
2.76 to 3.00 = B
2.51 to 2.75 = B-
2.01 to 2.50 = C+
1.76 to 2.00 = C
1.51 to 1.75 = C-
1.26 to 1.50 = D+
1.01 to 1.25 = D
0.75 to 1.00 = D-
Under 0.75 = F
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Last edited:

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prabe

Tension, apprension, and dissension have begun
Supporter
I've been running a homebrew Cypher game set in "the real world + Weird" for a while, and that seems to be well within the game's wheelhouse. I know myself well enough at this point to know I'm not going to use Intrusions (because I'd detest them as a player) so I hacked the XP system to allow for that. And, I run some other things not entirely per-the-rules. My point is, there's some flexion available, if something seems bad or unworkable.
 

CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
I've been running a homebrew Cypher game set in "the real world + Weird" for a while, and that seems to be well within the game's wheelhouse. I know myself well enough at this point to know I'm not going to use Intrusions (because I'd detest them as a player) so I hacked the XP system to allow for that. And, I run some other things not entirely per-the-rules. My point is, there's some flexion available, if something seems bad or unworkable.
Pardon my ignorance, but what are "Intrusions"? They sound rather...intrusive.
csi miami GIF
 

prabe

Tension, apprension, and dissension have begun
Supporter
Pardon my ignorance, but what are "Intrusions"? They sound rather...intrusive.
csi miami GIF
It's possible that the Old Gods of Appalachia TRPG doesn't use them ... but it'd be a surprise if they didn't. Basically, the GM can just declare something bad happens, which can include negating a roll, and gives the affected player an XP (and another XP for that player to give someone else). That gives me hives in ways that Compels in Fate eventually did, so I hacked some stuff.
 

Retreater

Legend
I've had a couple bad experiences with the system. Granted, they may not be universal, but it's what I experienced.

First Experience: Home Game
My friend ran several sessions of Numenera. Traditionally, he is more comfortable with Indie RPGs and more narrative systems (like FATE and Genesys - Fantasy Flight Star Wars, to be specific).
I'm likely going to get the terminology wrong, but let's just go with it. I was a "magic-user" with two spells. One was an interesting divination spell that could identify Numenera and strange creatures, pointing out special abilities and weaknesses. The other was sort of a feeble magic missile. The GM ruled that he'd just tell us when we found Numenera or creatures (because he doesn't think he should be withholding information). So the literal only thing I could do is cast a magic missile. That magic missile could be cast basically At-Will, but it was too weak to get past the DR of the monsters. Or I could cast it a little more powerfully and cause damage to myself - and have a little bit better chance to cause a minimal amount of damage against the creatures. I felt pretty worthless. And even if I was able to identify stuff, I'd still feel ineffective in combat situations.

Second Experience: Con Game, run by the Monte Cook Games Staff
I had a character with a dagger. He couldn't get past the DR of any creatures, only doing a minimal amount of damage if any at all. We had a TPK, at a Con game designed to "sell us on the system." I felt worthless.
 

Tales and Chronicles

Jewel of the North, formerly know as vincegetorix
I've always felt the game quite clunky.

The fact that you need to spend Effort on many roll to be efficient, draining your Stats make it so its pretty easy to become quite fragile after using the skills you are supposed to be good at.

Imagine D&D where you did not have HP but instead the enemies damaged your stats directly. But you also have to spend points from the same stat pool to use your features.

I dunno, we did not play it for long, but it always felt like you're on a weird death spiral.

Oh, and some Foci are just clearly better than others.
 

prabe

Tension, apprension, and dissension have begun
Supporter
I've always felt the game quite clunky.

The fact that you need to spend Effort on many roll to be efficient, draining your Stats make it so its pretty easy to become quite fragile after using the skills you are supposed to be good at.

Imagine D&D where you did not have HP but instead the enemies damaged your stats directly. But you also have to spend points from the same stat pool to use your features.

I dunno, we did not play it for long, but it always felt like you're on a weird death spiral.

Oh, and some Foci are just clearly better than others.
That gets better as you move to higher Tiers. First, your Pools get larger; second, you (at least can) have a higher edge, as well as plausibly assets and such. The Corebook says--and this seems possible to me, having run the game to I think like Tier 5--that high-Tier characters can ease a Difficulty 10 task to the point where they don't have to roll. It ain't perfect, and there are some Foci that at least seem better than others, though that might vary based on how the game you run rolls (and some of the Foci in the Cypher Corebook clearly are for like Supers, which ... why would you use/allow them in any other sort of game?).
 

Tales and Chronicles

Jewel of the North, formerly know as vincegetorix
That gets better as you move to higher Tiers. First, your Pools get larger; second, you (at least can) have a higher edge, as well as plausibly assets and such. The Corebook says--and this seems possible to me, having run the game to I think like Tier 5--that high-Tier characters can ease a Difficulty 10 task to the point where they don't have to roll. It ain't perfect, and there are some Foci that at least seem better than others, though that might vary based on how the game you run rolls (and some of the Foci in the Cypher Corebook clearly are for like Supers, which ... why would you use them in any other sort of game?).
We played Numenera. I remember we had like one Nano who created artifacts, one Glaive who kills monsters, another Glaive (cant remember her focus).

And me, a Jack who explores the depths. Yup, an exploration-based guy who specialization was diving good!

And the second glaive decided to steal my rebreather allowing me to dive for more than a minute! (Not that this is any fault of the system. Dumb player will do dumb s**t).
 

prabe

Tension, apprension, and dissension have begun
Supporter
We played Numenera. I remember we had like one Nano who created artifacts, one Glaive who kills monsters, another Glaive (cant remember her focus).

And me, a Jack who explores the depths. Yup, an exploration-based guy who specialization was diving good!

And the second glaive decided to steal my rebreather allowing me to dive for more than a minute! (Not that this is any fault of the system. Dumb player will do dumb s**t).
Fair enough. I have mostly just been using the Corebook, but I've found the various bestiaries useful, and the Horror Sourcebook (Stay Alive!) I found to be exceptionally good--which means I expect them to have a pretty good handle on how to make more explicitly horror games.
 

I find Numenera (especially) and The Strange to be amazing ideas for campaign settings. In Cypher the GM doesn't roll dice which is a deal breaker for me. The difficulty setting rules are easy though.

The idea of trading XP for narrative setbacks is interesting (the afore mentioned Intrusions) but in Numenera, a game explicitly about exploration and discovery, XP should be awarded for the game's core activities.

The idea of Cypher's themselves, consumable special abilities/super science/magic items etc is fantastic and can allow players some creative freedom. The flipside is it's another level of resource management in a game that is heavy on the resource management. Do I have a Cypher that can work here? Can I make one of my Cyphers work for us here? Did I use that Cypher already? Etc.

The pool management that drives player abilities feels counter-intuitive. Some people love it. Other people bounce off it. Hard. As I recall there's a curious situation where as you use the resource pool for one of your abilities it also makes you easier to kill.

TLDR: Fantastic settings. Rules that don't work for me. If you like Sly Flourish he ran a Numenera game last year I think, (maybe earlier this year) and he did his weekly GM prep on it for the course of the campaign. You could probably glean something from it.
 

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