So, if I review something that just arrived from a Kickstarter that I backed, that counts as lowering my RPG backlog, even if its brand new, right? I mean, that's like part of the virtual backlog that exists in superposition to my theoretical quantum gaming library, right?
What could I be babbling about this time? I'm glad that theoretically someone asked, because I'm going to give you the answer! I finished up my cover to cover read through of Expanded Worlds, a sourcebook for the Cypher System RPG, made some notes, and now it’s time to beat those notes into a review of sorts.
How Does It Look?
A lot of my modern gaming library is composed of PDFs these days, and even when I eventually get a physical copy of a book, I often jump on reviews when I only have the PDF. In this case, I received the PDF just a few days before the physical book arrived at my door, so I could review both the physical copy and the PDF at the same time.
The book is 160 pages, and if you are familiar with any Cypher System game (Numenera, The Strange, Gods of the Fall, Cypher System Core), you will recognize the formatting. It's very clean and easily readable, and has the same sidebar references and definitions that other books in the line have. For those that haven't seen a Cypher System book before, it's very professionally laid out and attractive, but doesn't have some of the stylistic flourish (parchment pages, background images, unique style format based on setting, etc.) that some RPG lines have.
The artwork is attractive, and much of it is brand new, highlighting the new genres, characters types, and creatures introduced in the book. Overall, it is a very readable and very attractive book that maintains the standards other books have set in the line.
Part 1: Characters
Part one is split into two chapters, one for character Descriptors, and another for character Focus. If you aren't familiar with Cypher Systems games, these are two parts of the "sentence" that makes up your character's base mechanics, i.e. you are a [Descriptor][Type] who [Focus]. If you want a loose analogy, Type is somewhat analogous to character classes in other games, and Descriptor and Focus are elements that modify that "class" with background information and additional choices. Descriptors include a section for how your character became involved in their first adventure, while Focus includes a section for how you are connected to other PCs in the group.
Many of both the Descriptors and Foci could be used in a wide variety of games, but if you peak ahead to the genres covered in this book, you can see why many of them were included. There are a lot of interesting rules interactions that I don't recall from other Cypher System books (although I could have easily have forgotten).
I like how some of the Descriptors play with GM Intrusions (like Chaotic or Heroic) to achieve a consistent theme. For example, Chaotic characters might get to reroll some results, but it will cost them a GM intrusion, and Heroic characters tend to have very big effects on intrusions, but those big effects tend to point them in the right direction of even more epic events yet to come. Another interesting element in the Foci section includes an ability that allows a PC to spend points from a pool AND XP to find an artifact. It's a powerful ability, so the XP cost is warranted, but I can't recall seeing that in other Foci up to this point.
Many of the Foci also include "Level X" allies or servants, and it’s almost a deceptively simple rule to introduce. Level doesn't matter when the PC rolls for their ally NPC, so it only comes up to determine how much punishment they can take, most of the time, and almost seems like a waste to assign them a level at all.
Both chapters are similar in structure, although the Character Focus chapter includes a chart showing the recommended genre to which the individual Foci might be grouped.
I don't have too much negative to say about these chapters, other than that some of the "higher concept" Foci seem stranger in less metaphysical games. I'm not talking about Foci that represent hunting the supernatural in a game with nothing supernatural--that's just a matter of not using that Foci in a genre that it doesn't work in. I'm thinking more along the lines of Finds the Flaw in All Things or Likes to Break Things, because while they seem straightforward, it’s easier to see breaking people's will and items as the same concept in a Mythological game more than in a real-world game. Not a major sticking point, just conceptually a bit of a stretch.
Part 2: Fantastical Genres
This section contains chapters on Post Apocalyptic, Mythological, Fairy Tale, and Childhood Adventure genre games. Each chapter has some discussion of the genre and what is common to the genre, as well as some tools to help tell stories in that genre.
The Post Apocalyptic genre introduces the Morlock and Roach Descriptors. The Mythological genre introduces Hellborn and Giant Descriptors, the Fairy Tale section introduces the Changeling Descriptor, and the Childhood Adventure section includes rules for applying modifiers to characters to represent different ages, if players don't all want to use the Young Descriptor in the first section.
Even if you are well acquainted with these genres, each section does a good job of calling out influences (some recent), defining the biggest tropes, and giving advice as to how often to introduce some story elements, what to have happen very rarely for effect, and what to completely avoid.
Straight out of the gate you could probably randomly generate Childhood Adventure or Post Apocalyptic adventures before you even did much in the way of defining a setting, if you assumed that your Childhood Adventure world has the supernatural as an element, and your Post Apocalyptic setting will look a bit like Fallout.
The weakest of all the genres presented, to my taste, is probably the Mythological genre, just because there is a little less advice on structure, what to include, and what not to include, and more about using power shifts and "going big." Even then, it offers some interesting tools, such as the new Descriptors.
Part 3: Gritty Genres
For my money, this is probably the weakest part of the book. It’s still a fun read, and there is some worthwhile information included, but the "genres" it tries to define are way too broad to do much with the amount of space the alloted for them.
The individual chapters are Historical, Crime and Espionage, and Hard Science Fiction. None of these have specific Descriptors in them, although Crime and Espionage and Hard Science Fiction have random tables of events that might occur in stories.
The Historical chapter has some interesting sections on time periods that make for good campaigns, many of which have been highlighted as much in the past. Despite having some good suggestions, they don't give a lot of detail. There are also suggested name lists that are very short, and I feel that space might have been better utilized providing some references to more detailed treatments on the historical period being referenced.
Crime and Espionage does a slightly better job of defining some tropes and giving some structure and practical campaign ideas, but the ideas feel very scattered, since the chapter wanders from telling police procedural stories, Bond movies, Bourne movies, and maybe playing criminals.
The best chapter in this section for me was the Hard Science Fiction chapter. While it’s a very broad topic, they do a much better job of identifying tropes and story structure, and giving some rules suggestions to reinforce the feel of hard sci-fi stories. In fact, the more narrative elements, like distances not being precisely measured, helps, because instead of having people argue about exact distances ballistics would be affected by gravity, for example, you are focusing on the fact that it would, in fact, be reduced. Additionally, I love the modified version of the Horror rules from the core rulebook applying to long space journeys to represent the time, distance, and lack of support a crew has on trips.
This section was enjoyable to read, and has a lot of good ideas, but overall, it just feels like practical application at the table is lacking, compared to the previous section.
Part 4: Gamemaster Section
This section is split up into Creatures and NPCs. I always find these sections interesting in Cypher System books, because at their base, you can essentially define an NPC or creature very quickly just by assigning a level, which means in some ways the books have to "work for it" to justify a full entry on a creature, providing roleplaying hooks, tactics, tailored intrusions, and new ways to use the rules.
Some of the rules interactions that set these creatures apart this time around include attacks that move characters down their vitality tracts regardless of the number of points in their pools, attacks that target multiple targets, and the special damage rules for creatures like the hydra and how it plays out in the game.
There is a good thematic range for the creatures, covering the genres detailed in the book well. Some of my favorites are the Crucible (out of control bio computer), Erlking (exiled fey creature trapped in a plant body), Cryptic Moth (creepy sapient super moth), and the Shoe Thief (I'm not going to explain, just read it).
NPCs are less exciting, but practical and useful for the genres mentioned. They don't have as many twists on the rules as the creatures, but there is some solid advice as to where and when to use them in the game and how they tie into the genres covered.
The Upside Down
The biggest downside is that the genre chapter attempts to bite off huge chunks of content with defining Historical and Crime and Espionage as genres, and getting a bit lost in providing guidance to running those gigantic "meta-genres."
Police procedurals alone could have taken up a chapter the size allocated to the Crime and Espionage sections, and the chapter barely touches on the difference between a Bond style spy adventure and a Bourne style adventure. For a game that has often mentioned that discovery and exploration should be at least as important as combat, they fail to give much in the way of guidelines for espionage stories where gathering information and staying under the radar are way more important than ever getting into a gun fight.
The new Descriptors and Foci are widely useful for a variety of games using the system, especially the core Cypher System and The Strange. Several of the genre chapters have enough tools to just randomly generate some sessions if you aren't too worried about deep stories. The book even touches on genres that have only been lightly treated in The Strange, meaning that you virtually have a few new recursions to work with from this book by slapping a name on the world using the rules presented here.
Surviving the Demogorgon
Despite being a bit too ambitious with some of the genres presented in the "gritty" chapter, Expanded Worlds is a solid toolbox of material for the Cypher System RPG. Not only is it going to be something beneficial to just about any Cypher System game, it's going to be a solid resource for The Strange as well, and to a lesser extent for both Numenera and Gods of the Fall. It’s an entertaining read, provides definite value for people playing or running the game, and it puts new twists on the rules in several places. Recommended for anyone even generally interested in Cypher System games.
**** (out of five)