It’s not a surprise that I am a fan of Monte Cook Games’ Cypher System. Having done two series of Let’s Study articles for both Numenera and The Strange, I was very interested to see what the upcoming Cypher System Rulebook had to offer.
Thanks to the generosity of Monte Cook Games, I was given an opportunity to take a peek at a pre-production copy of the CSR! Needless to say, I was pretty stoked about it, which explains this First Impressions review.
What is it, and what is it for?
The Cypher System is the name of the rules that power Numenera and The Strange. Designed to put story at the forefront of gameplay, it kills a few interesting sacred cows to promote a much more dynamic style of play.
This makes it a prime candidate to be the baseline for a generic rpg product that people can use to spin off their own games. And now, Monte Cook Games makes it possible with the Cypher System Rulebook.
The Basic Mechanics
I’ve gone over the basic mechanics before in my Let’s Study articles for Numenera and the Strange, but I’ll try to give a quick summary here.
Basic mechanic is a 1d20 roll against a set target difficulty that ranges from 3 to 30. This difficulty is set by the Level of the obstacle or opponent. This allows the game to function without the GM having to roll, resulting in a much faster game.
Other fiddly bits involve the expenditure of a finite pool of Effort to reduce the difficulty of the task, and the use of set damage to further streamline play.
Rolling a 1 is always bad, while rolling a 19 or 20 results in getting a minor or major effect that further improves your success.
I’ve gone and said it before, but it’s fast, elegant. Furthermore, the focus on speed and offloading rolls from the GM’s duties allows for a much more interesting game as the GM can focus on the story.
Previous games using the Cypher system featured three types with different names appropriate to their settings. The CSR gives them much more generic-sounding names for the sake of clarity: Warrior, Adept and Explorer.
However, the CSR also adds a fourth Type in the form of the Speaker. The Speaker fills the niche of the social character. While this has been folded into the other types in the previous games, I’m very happy to see them get their recognition with the CSR ruleset, as it is meant to cover more than the usual Action-Adventure genre, which is something we’ll come back to later.
The Types section also introduces Flavors, which are separate sub-packages of new abilities that can be traded into an existing type on a 1:1 basis. Meaning you can give up an ability pick from the Type in exchange for an ability from a Flavor. I’m all for customization, so I’m very happy to see this.
I’m glad to see that there’s a hefty serving of fifty different character descriptors in the CSR, all of which are geared towards being generic enough to fit any genre.
There’s something for everyone here, from Dishonorable to Perceptive, Vengeful to Noble. Negative-sounding Descriptors are particularly interesting as they give benefits while placing a great amount of personality to your character.
The third building block of characters is the Character Foci. Again, there’s a ton of different foci in the CSR, but what really stands out for me is the fact that they took the time to provide several tables of suggested Foci that work in the context of different genres. They have a list for fantasy, Modern / Horror, Sci-Fi and Superheroes.
Here’s probably the most exciting part for me. As a fan of the HERO system, I’m always delighted when I read through rules that twist an existing ruleset to work with a given genre.
As mentioned before, the CSR provides chapter for each of the following genres: Fantasy, Modern, Sci-Fi, Horror and Supers.
Each of the chapters goes into a quick summary of the genre, and how the GM can run it. To further assist, they include charts on which Types (and Flavors), Foci and even Creatures are appropriate for a game. In addition, genre-approriate equipment and artifacts are also covered here.
Some of the Genres also add further Racial Descriptors to denote non-human creatures. Further modifications for genres include special optional rules such as Shock for Horror, and my personal favorite: Power Shifts for Superheroes. I don’t want to spoil too much for this, but the rules for Power Shifts is a suprisingly elegant means to simulate the incredible ability superheroes without becoming needlessly complex.
Game Mastering Advice and Running the Game
The last section of the CSR is devoted to helping GMs run the game. From a collection of varied monsters that could fit various genres to the Cyphers that provide one-shot powers, the books gives all the toys that a GM would need, and the advice necessary to use them properly.
It’s not often that you get to say that a Generic Ruleset would be suited to a new GM, but the Cypher System Rulebook is definitely an exception. There’s enough here to give even fledgeling GMs the confidence to get started.
Overall, the Cypher System Rulebook is a master-class product that manages to become one of the most accessible generic rules I’ve had a chance to see. While I wish there was more pagecount dedicated to providing even more options for the various genres, I think that’s a holdover from my expectations as a HERO system GM.
As is it’s a brilliant product and one that is definitely worth having in your library.
The Cypher System Rulebook is now currently available for preorder in PDF format in the Monte Cook Games website: