One-Hour Library Review: The Cypher System Rulebook

CSR - Cover

The Library

CSR - CoverIf you’ve been to the site in the past, you know that we (especially Colin) have been following the proliferation of Cypher products from Monte Cook Games. Both The Strange and Numenera have been reviewed in our One-Hour format, and we’ve also had a setting follow-up for the former and two follow-ups for the latter. In short, we like it. As a result, Monte Cook Games has provided us with an advanced copy of the Cypher System Rulebook to solicit a review.

This rulebook, due out in August (or mid-July if you get in on the pre-orders), is a version of the rules engine behind MCG’s two major games without settings behind them. Supposedly, you can use this book to create characters and campaigns in whatever genre you can imagine using the same mechanics as the Ninth World and the bizarre recursions of the Strange. Successful? Well, we’ll see as Colin dives in for his first hour with the book.


I’ve mentioned it in previous reviews, but I’m a huge fan of Monte Cook personally. He’s an excellent game designer (I’m not the only one who thinks so) and he will always be enshrined in my heart as the creator of my first D&D setting, Planescape. I also have really enjoyed his companies’ other games: not just the Cypher games from Monte Cook Games but the older Malhavoc Press which gave us the city of Ptolus, the world of the Diamond Throne, and Beyond Countless Doorways. Good stuff.

That being said, getting solicited for a review is a weird thing. I want to be objective and critical but obviously I like these products or I wouldn’t have written those other reviews. So what do I expect from this book? I have some predictions about what might be inside, some good and some bad, and I’ll be looking for these in particular. Hopefully it has all of the good, none of the bad, and more but writing a system for any type of game is a daunting prospect and even Monte Cook makes missteps. (May the Lady of Pain understand and not strike down my blasphemous heart).

The Hopes

Some things I’m looking forward to the Cypher System Rulebook delivering on are:

  • Ready-to-play genres. It’s great to have a book that covers a lot of ground but ideally I’ll be able to make use of a good number of genres right off the page with an hour or two of planning.
  • Excellent use of the adjective-noun-verb character paradigm. This method of character creation was interesting in Numenera but especially well done in The Strange. Hopefully it will be used in new and improved ways in the CSR‘s pages.
  • Clear shifts in feeling between genres. It’s exciting to have “one system to rule them all” but I also want to have different feels between genres. My gothic-punk vampire game and my high-concept space opera game should be different in more than what names I give the characters.

CSR - Sci-Fi

The Worries

Some potential mistakes that I hope the crew at MCG avoid for the Cypher System Rulebook are:

  • An over-reliance on lists of character options. I don’t need a book to tell me that I can change Wields Two Weapons to Wields Twin Lightsabers or that cyphers from the Ninth World can also be magic items in a fantasy setting. I want some new ideas.
  • Too much repetition from Numenera and The Strange. I realize this is a stand-alone book so they need to go over the basics again but if that is a significant fraction of the CSR then I’ll be disappointed.
  • No guidelines for homebrewing. A counterpoint to the “ready-to-play genres” from the other list, I don’t want to get to the end of this book and think “well, now I can play in the X genres they’ve outlined here.” I should be able to get through this book and have some pretty useful guides for how to make pretty much whatever I want; I’m talking concrete and straightforward.

Alright, with those out of the way, let’s get into this thing!

The Cypher System

CSR - SuperheroesThe book starts off with a short section on the system itself, which lays out the philosophy of the book. In a sidebar it describes what makes the system interesting: “In the Cypher System, the story is king, and thus you can’t really get the rules wrong. If it works for your game, then it works!” Something I can really get behind, but I do hope there are some concrete rules still.

The system is gone over in broad strokes from pages 7-12, which is a nice and short summary. I’m going to skim on to newer sections but it seems fairly complete in terms of a primer and it takes up less than 1% of the pagecount. Well done, MCG.

Part 1: Characters

Well, maybe I spoke too soon. Pages 14-21 also cover the basics of the system in terms of what makes up your character. This is not exactly repeat, though, as it talks about characters without the trappings of either Numenera‘s setting or the worlds of The Strange. The sidebar on Skills, for instance, discusses the various types of skill areas that might be appropriate for a given campaign. Since there’s no set skill list for the Cypher System, this is a useful discussion that even veterans can benefit from.

Chapter 5: Type

On the other hand, I want new stuff! We start off with Character Type which is about as new as you can get: the nano/glaive/jack set of types from Numenera and the vector/paradox/spinner from The Strange are endemic to those systems and won’t translate to other worlds easily. Instead here we have many more types: the warrior, the adept, the explorer, and the speaker.

Under each type is a list of what it might look like in various genres. A warrior in a fantasy setting, for example, might be a swordsman or barbarian while in a modern setting it might be a soldier or brawler. The mystical adept, on the other hand, could be a mage or fey-touched in a fantasy setting, a psychic or occultist in a modern setting, or a sorcerer or telepath ina  superhero setting. The explorer is sort of like Numenera‘s jack and could be an adventurer in a fantasy setting, a detective in a modern setting, and a crimefighter as a superhero. Lastly, the speaker is like a spinner from The Strange and could be anything from a skald to a minister to a mesmerist.

That should cover a wide variety of roles for each setting but what happens when you have a superhero setting where everyone wants to play warrior heavy-hitters? That’s where this next section comes in: flavors. This are packets of abilities that can be traded in for the standard abilities you get from your type. This is similar to character themes from D&D 4e, allowing you to customize, and I think it’s a great idea. In this book there are stealth, technology, magic, and skills and knowledge.

CSR - Wild WestIt’s not hard to imagine coming up with more of these yourself. I’ve been looking at ways to incorporate different races without sacrificing your descriptor and this is a great way to handle that. Have an “elf” flavor and players can choose whether to have that be background fluff or to sub in some of the elf abilities for their type’s standard abilities. Check plus, guys.

Alright, moving on there is an “advanced section” which details what aspects of the types can be easily modified and what break things. I think this could allow you to make some cool changes like a standard “fighter-mage” type alongside your warrior and adept if that’s a big part of your setting.

Chapter 6: Character Descriptor

Alright, there’s a big long list of descriptors to get people started here from appealing to clumsy to jovial to tongue-tied to weird. These are just like the descriptors in the other games and I think if I had all three books (plus the Character Guides) I would probably see more than a little overlap. Could do a little more with it, but a sidebar saying that racial descriptors in the genre chapters are coming up makes me think this isn’t the last we’ve heard of character descriptors.

Chapter 7: Character Focus

Right off the bat there’s an interesting option with the “Customizing Foci” section. Life the flavors in the Character Type chapter, these are a bunch of different “generic” powers (like gaining more points in your Pools or adding more weapons training) that can be picked at a given tier instead of your chosen focus. As the book notes, these are options for adjusting foci so that they fit a bit better or creating your own foci from scratch. Looks really useful.

There’s a big chart of foci appropriate for different genres and there are a lot of familiar names here: Abides in Stone, Works the Back Alleys, Needs No Weapon, etc. That’s all well and good but hopefully there’s more about foci in later chapters like there are with descriptors.

CSR - PortalChapter 8: Equipment

This last, small chapter goes over some of the same rules as in other Cypher products (light armor, melee weapons, etc) and gives us a generic name for numenera (artifacts), but the real content of interest is the advice on not killing yourself on figuring out equipment. This chapter might also be called “Don’t Sweat It” as it is light on content and big on advice. I wish there was a little more content (maybe later?) but the advice I really appreciate.

Part 2: Rules

Alright, this section is sure to have a lot of repeat stuff so I’ll move quickly. Especially since I’m down to the last twenty minutes of flipping through. Determining task stats, setting difficulties, GM intrusions, rounds, actions, modifiers, advancement, etc. A lot of old stuff but it can’t exactly be helped. Thirty six pages that you already have if you have Numenera and The Strange.

There’s another chapter here of Optional Rules that add some more complexity to the system if that’s what you want. Trading damage for knockback or called shots, modifying weapons, using minatures, skills from backgrounds, all a lot of interesting stuff and reminiscent of the “modules” in the D&D Next Dungeon Master’s Guide. Unlike the new DMG, though, these are not presented as ways to modify the feel of the system or game, which I think is a missed opportunity. I was expecting this chapter to be full of bits like “for a grittier game” or “to make things feel more epic” but there’s none of that from what I see. This makes it a little less adaptable, which is a shame, but let’s see what’s ahead.

Part 3: GenresCSR - High Fantasy

The first genre introduced is fantasy. They start with some advice on writing and running a fantasy setting, although they could also make that “see Kobold Guide to Campaign Writing” in my opinion, and there’s a nice little table listing “fantasy roles” (i.e. D&D classes) and the type/flavor that it maps to in CSR. There are suggested foci for a fantasy setting (didn’t we already have that?) and a list of creatures appropriate for the setting (apparently there’s a monster section coming up) as well as some specific write-ups here in this chapter.

Some equipment is listed (again in the “this means this” vein) and then a bunch of fantasy artifacts including an angel ward, the spellbook of the Amber Mage, and a wand of firebolts. I suppose it wouldn’t be too hard to make something quickly based on D&D or Pathfinder so this is a good start. There are racial descriptors next, though just elf and dwarf. A good start but really just a start.

Next we have the modern setting (that’s a setting) with the same sorts of opening acts: creating and running the setting, modern character roles, appropriate foci, and good creatures. It says that artifacts aren’t really fitting with a modern setting, then has a paragraph on combining modern and fantasy, then… that’s it. Six pages, mostly tables. Blink and you’ll miss it.

The science fiction section has the now-familiar treatment: creating, roles, foci, creatures, artifacts. The “Science Fiction and Modern” section is cool, creating an X-Files style game, but the best part is the racial descriptors. There’s an Artificially Intelligent and Quintar (tall, thin, and blue-skinned alien option), plus you can include the xeno racial descriptors from Numenera and Numenera Character Options. Now we’re talking an amount of material that you could really work with.

CSR - Lovecraftian Mountains of MadnessThe horror section is getting more into the territory that I expected. It benefits from being able to put “see Modern chapter” for its foci, roles, etc. and concentrate on the creatures and artifacts that make the genre horrific. Beyond that, though, there are three optional rules just for this genre: shock, horror mode, and madness. Shock is something to mess up players on an encounter level whereas madness is long-term issues from coming up against horrible things (sort of temporary and permanent insanities in Call of Cthulhu). Horror mode is a little weirder where the GM keeps ramping things up like a Wes Craven film. Every time the situation gets distinctly more serious, the range for GM intrusion increases by one. Evil.

The opening to the superhero chapter rightly points out that “with foci like Bears a Halo of Fire and Wears a Sheen of Ice, the Cypher System makes all genres a little bit ‘superhero-ish.’” Too true, but that’s just the “everything’s the same” problem from the other direction. Can this actually feel different than a horror or sci-fi game? Well, there are some suggestions of what optional rules to make use of and what to concentrate on (why doesn’t every genre chapter have this?), all of which will help the case. An optional rule called Power Shifts goes much farther by increasing a superhero character’s ability to do amazing stuff and lifting the normal rules limits for “normals.”

CSR - Gothic Ghost StoryParts 4 & 5: Gamemaster Section and Back Matter

The section for the GM starts with a long section of different sorts of creatures. Like a lot of the book, they have to cover a lot of ground here which means it’s a bit of a mishmash. Everything from chimeras to deinonychus to kaijus to aliens. One of the most interesting sections is the “supervillains” entry which has a few example villains for a supers setting.

On the other hand, more than a few of these are repeats. I’ve seen the ravage bear and mokuren before in Numenera and the CRAZR and fallen angel are from The Strange. Of course, these are scattered throughout the different sourcebooks, but none of these are essential parts of a genre (unlike goblins, orcs, greys, etc) so it’s a little disappointing that they were recycled. Would it kill them to make new creatures?

The NPCs section has a number of different characters to pit against your PCs. Assassins, secret agents, and mighty wizards. With reskinning, this can certainly get you started no matter the genre you pick.

The next section on cyphers I wish I had more time to look through in detail. It’s a list of cyphers, though, like you might find in Numenera or The Strange but adaptable to different genres. After that is 39 pages of material on running the Cypher system which one already has from those other games.

CSR - LovecraftianConclusions

At the end of the day, this book has some things that I really like and some things I feel could be done better. There is a lot here that makes it easy to build settings for Cypher games and create the world you want to be playing in. On the other hand, there is material that could be a lot more useful to people already playing Cypher games to expand the system in new directions. I’ll look at my expectations to give some sort of coherence to my conclusions.

  • Ready-to-play genres. Yes and no. In my opinion, the horror and superhero genres I think I could play tomorrow. The fantasy, modern, and science fiction genres (arguably the “foundational” genres) I would want to put some time into before they are ready to go. Nothing is unplayable, of course, just some genres are more usable than others.
  • Excellent use of the adjective-noun-verb character paradigm. The flavors are a good addition to the system and the rules on customizing foci, types, and descriptors help a lot. I don’t see anything to compare to The Strange‘s use of foci as a reflection of the setting or the regional descriptors found in Numenera Character Options. Missed opportunity.
  • Clear shifts in feeling between genres. Again, sometimes yes and sometimes no. There are setting particulars for horror and superhero games that make the feel different but the other genres are limited to what foci to use and what equipment is available. A good start, but I’d want to add more before I felt like they were different.
  • An over-reliance on lists of character options. There are lots of new optional rules to shake things up but this book is still pretty focused on lists of stuff. The new types are great but I would want to give some serious thought to setting-specific rules before charging in.
  • Too much repetition from Numenera and The Strange. This is one that I can be a little more quantitative about. Out of the book’s 400+ pages there are four chapters that I consider mostly repeating information from other Cypher games: Chapter 3 (6 pages), Chapter 4 (7 pages), Chapter 9 (36 pages), and Chapter 19 (39 pages). This is a total of 88 pages of repeat (not including repeated descriptors, foci, cyphers, and creatures, of course) which is 21% of the book. I still consider this a great percentage, like I said they had to have a lot of systems description in here by the very nature of the book and the vast majority is still new, useful stuff.CSR - Covert Ops
  • Guidelines for homebrewing. There are some clear guidelines for homebrewing character options, cyphers, settings, and artifacts. I feel pretty confident about being able to do this and I think this bulletpoint was handled well.

Bottom line, this book is an excellent resource for people who want an adaptable, innovative system that works for a variety of settings. It is not a collection of different ready-to-go settings and it isn’t going to revolutionize your games of Numenera or The Strange. This is a solid book, though, and a really great starting point for GMs who want to use the Cypher system for their games.