What I'm Backing on Kickstarter:

What I'm Backing on Kickstarter:
After Winter Dark Campaign Setting

Monday, September 7, 2015

Weekend R&R: Cypher System Rulebook

It has been a HOT weekend here in Montreal and unseasonably so considering we find ourselves during the Labor Day Weekend.  It doesn't feel like a sunny day in September but a sunny day at the peak of summer!  It's been too hot to do any serious writing or painting for the better part of the long weekend but, nonetheless, I'm taking the time to put down my thoughts on the Cypher System Rulebook I picked up at GenCon just over a month ago.  The book is quite the brick.

Now, I have never played Numenara or The Strange but I haven't been living under a rock -- I know that there is a great following for both of these games.  I'd only looked at bits of pieces of the game in the past and it looked very promising.  When I found out that Monte Cook was putting out a universal system book for the Cypher Sytem which is what makes both these RPGs work, I was immediately interested.  Besides, I do like some on Cook's work so anything he puts out is worth a look in my opinion.

Of course, not everything is perfect.  At $60 USD, I had to think twice because I live in Canada.  There was a pre-order for the book and your $60 got you the book, the PDF, and I signed bookplate if I remember correctly.  Factoring shipping to Canada looked to be an extra $40.  A hundred dollars!?  And that's before the exchange rate and the Canadian dollar hasn't been doing so well the past couple of months.  It would about to about $130 in Canadian funds and let's face it... at that price, it isn't an 'impulse buy' by any means.  At the $100 mark, it becomes an 'investment'.

Naturally, fans will go on to say that it's a beautiful, full-color, 416-page hardcover so the price tag is warranted.  Perhaps it is but it doesn't change the fact that unless you are already invested in the system (thanks to Numenara or The Strange), new comers are just not likely to pick up the book out of the blue.  The entry price is just a bit too daunting for the person who is curious but otherwise has had no prior experience with it.  This is perhaps my biggest criticism about the book in general.  Thankfully, the price for the PDF is very reasonable and will only set you back $20.

For a 'generic system book' that page count does sound like a lot and... it is.  The system and workings itself is actually very well covered in a mere six pages with helps to ease the reader into the wealth of information that follows.  The rules are greatly detailed and expanded up later in the book once the character creation material is largely dealt with.  As the reader presses on, they will likely be struck at how simple the system is built up.  In short, the Cypher system is a rules-light game which places story about rules but manages to do so without sacrificing character detail.

In fact, just flipping through the book might prompt some to think of FATE as far as game philosophy is concerned.  Difficulties are determined on a scale from 1 to 10 for instance and characters are defined by a descriptor, type, and focus.  This might end up looking a 'Doomed Barbarian who Hunts Outcasts".  The character is basically built up from there.

The character type is basically the archetype... this could be a Warrior of some sort (anything from a knight, police officer, or a merc for example) and will also go to serve to define the base abilities (there are three: Might, Speed, and Intellect) and detail the different tiers (or levels) of that character type.  Along with the type, you have the descriptor that helps define the character further and provides mechanical aspects for the game (be it bonuses to abilities, skills, etc).  And then, you have the focus which serves to flesh out the character even further but is also broken up into various tiers.

Aside from a chapter that explains the stats and how they work (the three stats each have a pool and an edge) and another on equipment, the majority of this section of the book is devoted to character type, descriptor, and focus to end up being over 170 pages of the rulebook before you come to the second part of the book.

The next section of the book simply details the rules a lot more concisely, provides examples, and offers a host of optional rules as well.  While the rulebook briefly explains the central mechanic that the game works on, the expanded section don't make things anymore complicated.  Basically, the player wants to do an action with his character and the GM determines a difficulty on a scale of 1-10 (easiest to basically impossible).  Character skills may reduce this number (up to a max of 2 steps) and other factors called assets (like someone helping or some special equipment) can further reduce this number.  Lastly, the character can expend effort to further reduce the difficulty.  Effort expended is taken from the related ability's pool.  If between these three things, the difficulty is reduced to 0, then the task is automatically succeeded.  Otherwise, the remaining difficulty is multiplied by three and pass or fail is determined by the roll of a d20.

Combat is equally simple.  The level of the opponent becomes that base difficulty number. A character will have to attack or defend against that difficulty.  On a hit, damage is actually fixed based on the weapon's rating -- nothing is rolled.  Armor will simply reduce damage as well as opposed to making someone harder to hit.  Depending on the nature of  the attack, a character inflicts (or takes if they are defending) damage which is applied to one of the three ability pools.

Of course, the GM is at liberty to throw in what is called an intrusion to the game.  Basically, this is a complication for the character but to do so, XP is awarded to the characters.  However, a player can spend XP to cancel that complication.  Intrusions is one way to gain XP which is used for to gain character benefits in-game or possible advancement as long as it fits in with the story.  Aside from that, the GM may award XP for the completion of a special goal or a discovery made.  No XP for monsters.

At this point, I admit I was really intrigued and actually excited about how this game works.

Part III of the books is all about genres.  It is a generic book and the book certainly does a good job at covering all the bases.  Specifically, it covers Fantasy, Modern, Science Fiction, Horror, and Superheroes.  However, it is relatively 'basic' with the actual content in each respective genre.  They make for a great building block but are, by no means, pre-made settings.  These are great for one-shorts or short stints in a genre; sort of a break away from the regular gaming routine.  None of these exceed eight pages but, most of the relevant info is elsewhere in the book.  These summarize and suggest what you should be using to fit the genre in question.

Part IV is the last significant section of the book and it intended for the GM.  You have creatures and NPCs and, more importantly, the thing that the game derives its name from: Cyphers.  Cyphers are basically one-use items that happen to be some sort of 'game-changer'.  These could be potions or alien technology and meant to be frequently discovered and used.  They aren't meant to be like 'treasure' and hoarded as a result and characters can only have a maximum number that they can have in their possession at any one time.  The purpose of these items is to provide and ever changing set of variables so that the game never feels dull and predictable.  Why are these important?  Well, given that a characters abilities, skills, and powers are pretty much set once they have been created, the regular use of different cyphers from game to game will actually help with the overall game experience for the players and the evolution of the story told by the GM.  These Cyphers are like temporary abilities they wouldn't normally have access to.  Admittedly, this is also something that some people who have played in other games might have problems adjusting to this at first but the concept makes sense.

The book finishes off with an index, and campaign planning sheet, and a character sheet.  Needless to say it is an impressive book.

There is a LOT to like in the book and there are a LOT of pages to go through.  And yet... the book and content seems simple enough.  It almost seems like the book SHOULD be smaller given the rules-light feel to it and there is a part of me that wishes it was smaller.  Smaller might mean more economical but, at the same time, I'm not certain what could be cut in order to do this.  It is a beautiful tome but at $60 USD, it might be difficult for some people to drop the cash on the book.  However, there is some fantastic potential with it and, thankfully they have built up a base of support due to the success of their previous Cypher games.  Ultimately, the book is a giant toolkit but one which is very approachable.  People with a clear story they want to tell and run as a campaign may find exactly what they need with this game if they are ready to break away from their comfort zones to try something a bit different.

If you want to save a bit of money and get the PDF version of the book, you can find a copy HERE (on RPGNow which is part of OBS).


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