I like the Cypher System. I picked up most of my Numenera material when it appeared in the Bundle of Holding, and once I was familiar with the system, I was very excited for The Strange. I love the setting and the concept of that setting a great deal.
I liked all of that enough to back the Worlds of the Cypher System Kickstarter, and to pick up the core rulebook as well.
As much as I like the system and several of the settings, however, there are a few things that nag at the back of my brain. Some of these are due to the mechanics of the system, and some are due to presentation.
Normally, I wouldn’t spend too much time on the negative. It’s not a bad system. Its fans are justified in their love of it. Its flexible, and it does things in a way that is unique among RPGs. Occasionally, however, I see fans that really see it as the pinnacle of RPG design, or that are convinced it can handle all genres, all the time.
No system, be it d20, Savage Worlds, Fate, Genesys, or whatever else you can name, is 100% functional across all tones, genres, or game styles.
This isn’t so much a review on my part, as a little bit of analysis, culled from all the Cypher products I’ve managed to consume up to this point.
The game is extremely simple for a GM to run. If you can come up with a relative strength of the opposition, you can come up with stats. Level 3 thug? There are your stats. Need the thug to do something unpredictable or impressive? Wait for a 1, or offer the PCs XP for an intrusion.
The core concept of picking and choosing (adjective)(noun)(verb) for character creation is a strong hook. In fact, it’s so prevalent in all the Cypher System games, it’s odd to me that the games lean on cyphers being the unifying concept of the game and not the character creation.
Beyond the core concept of how to build a character, almost every game to start has a ton of options, because the number of character concepts is a permutation of how many of each of the three character elements are presented.
I really like basic action resolution, because it creates the opportunity to build story when a character makes their roll. Defining everything that might affect the difficulty of the roll before you roll, and talking out how those things modify the scene, is a great way to add story elements.
Setting wise, I love both The Strange and Predation, and I like a lot about Numenera.
With All of That Established
All the above form a very compelling center around which to hang a game system. Moving beyond that compelling center, here are the things that aren’t always my favorite elements of the Cypher System.
I like that the various elements that make up a character have potential background information and/or ties to other characters in the party, or to the starting adventure. Unfortunately, that also means that not only is there statistical information in multiple places in a rulebook, there is also background material in multiple places in the rulebook, as well.
In addition to this scattering of information, it becomes a bit more pronounced when you introduce the Worlds of the Cypher System books into the mix as well, which give you some replacement information on the main “types” in the game, but only detail about half of what you need in the setting book, referring you back to the main book for the other half of what you get from that type.
That’s a lot of flipping around to find exactly what you need to create a character to begin with, and it’s very easy for a player to not realize they are missing some aspect of their character until they see that another player managed to find some of the character creation material that they missed.
A lot of Cypher System games have strange naming conventions. It makes sense to use words that almost sound like something, but don’t quite have a traditional meaning, in a setting like Numenera. Its Earth, a million years in the future. But that kind of odd “you can’t figure it out from context” style of nomenclature has stuck with other Cypher System games as well.
Much of the recursion of Ardeyn, many of the concepts of Gods of the Fall, and even the character types from Predation feel just a little too alien to be comfortable. Gods of the Fall takes this to another level, not just using new terminology, as many fantasy settings do, but redefining words commonly used in a fantasy setting to use in a manner that isn’t really based on anything. Dragons are greedy sorcerers. Elves are fungal growths that make you hallucinate. It feels odd for the sake of being odd at times.
Many aspects of the Cypher System rules are great in how quick they are to establish and resolve. On the other hand, armor in Numenera and The Strange, and just about any version of the game explaining how stat pools interact with edge and effort show a few rough edges in the game.
It’s not that these rules don’t work, but there is a definite feeling that instead of being a game that was created from synthesizing independent games and going in a new, but similar, direction, that Cypher is a game that was built by reverse engineering much more simulationist, rules heavy games, to a point to where it felt more story based.
“Backing into” a more story based model is something of a double-edged sword, because it does feel distinct from other games that tend to be more narrative based, but the game retains a few steps that feel a little more complicated than they need to be to achieve that same end. For an example, look at the “second pass” on armor in they Cypher System core rulebook versus Numenera and The Strange.
Cyphers are one use, expendable powers. They are stated as being the unifying concept of the game. But they aren’t, really. The unifying concepts of the game are the three-part PC character creation and the difficulty system, along with GM intrusions.
Cyphers were a great inclusion in Numenera. It made perfect sense that people would find widgets of varying power from past ages, that could be used for one off powers, and not easily replicated. While most of the established settings have done a good job incorporating the concept, reading the core rules makes it feel as if that’s one special hurdle you need to jump if you are making your own setting.
I can envision having a whole campaign that utilizes most of the concepts of the Cypher System, except for Cyphers. In fact, my players in my play test of Predation completely forgot about them for the whole session, and so did I. While Predation has a neat explanation of what they are in that setting, saying that the core concept of the game centers around Cyphers is like saying you should plan around a D&D session having potions and scrolls being used every session.
But What Do I Really Think?
There are a lot of quirks that stick out to me whenever I engage a Cypher System rulebook. It’s not my favorite game system, but it’s far from my least favorite. The more I dig into the things that I may have done differently, however, the more I see that those items also serve to give Cypher a bit of a unique personality in an RPG space filled with a lot of “generic” game systems.