Monte Cook’s Cypher System Core Book Review
Work has kept me pretty busy, so I haven’t had much of a chance to any RPG reviews as of late. When Mark Knights came to me with the chance to get my grubby little paws on a pre-release copy of the Cypher System Core Book, however, I couldn’t pass it up. I was a backer for the initial Numenera Kickstarter, which played a big part in the genesis of Monte Cook Games. And, as Jonathan Henry would say, “Buy me a beer sometime and I’ll tell you about it.”
I’ve been following the development of the Cypher system properties—namely Numenera and The Strange—since their inception. And, seeing this book come out makes me a bit giddy. One of the first things I said, even back during the time of the Numenera beta test, was how the system seems to run so smooth, I could see running just about any genre RPG with its sleek, simple rules. I guess I should say “rules elegant,” as Jerrod ‘Savage Daddy” Gunning coined some time ago. Crunchy is for cereal, not games, after all.
For those who have read my reviews before, you won’t be surprised that I tend to point out the good, the bad, and the ugly. People don’t pay me for my opinions. Oh, but if they did…
I decided with the Cypher System Core RPG, I’m going to dive right in at the deep end. Let me preface this by saying: I enjoyed the book and will most certainly be purchasing it down the road. I think it has some neat pieces that I really enjoy. Why haven’t I already purchased it? I mean, pre-order is a thing, right? There are a few reason and limited resources (i.e., funds) is chief among them. Shrug. I’m still recovering from the last few years, dealing with moving, family illness and tragedy. Amazing how bills can stack up when living relatively frugally. Beyond that, I’m not big on pre-orders. While MCG has done a great job on delivering as promised if not always on time (the publishing industry is Hell, especially when it comes to shipping), I’m a big believer in exchanging hard earned cash for products and services, not the promise of services and goods down the road. And, finally, most of the people I game with regularly do not enjoy the Cypher System. They have some excellent points. Their points are not invalid. I can see past their objections and still thoroughly enjoy the system.
That brings us to the first big negative of this review. If you have already tried your hand at Numenera or The Strange and have failed to enjoy it, this book probably isn’t for you. If your problem was the setting, then yes, you might very well enjoy this core book. If, like others, you don’t like the idea of rating things on a scale from 1 to 10, lowering difficulties based on skills, Effort, and assets, and then multiplying by 3 to figure out what you need to beat on a d20 roll, you might want to skip the rest of this review. It’s probably not for you. Nothing here changes the core mechanics of how the game works. In fact, this book essentially strips all the flavor and trappings off the rules, leaving them in their bare form, plain for all to see. Let’s run over some other complaints about the Cypher System I have heard people make:
- I don’t like that you spend XP to do things in the game—not only level your character, but avoid GM Intrusion.
- I don’t like that there is no set skill list.
- I don’t like the piece of GM advice that says to hide target numbers from your players.
The bad—and the good—news is that all of these things remain. I actually like most of these things that others don’t. I’m in good company, though, as there are LOTS of players and fans of the Monte Cook Games portfolio.
If you’re a fan, if you’ve never had a chance to try out the Cypher System (maybe The Strange or Numenera didn’t speak to you in the way of setting), or if you can see past the parts of the system others don’t like, I definitely recommend picking this book up. Why?
Cypher System Customization
As I mentioned earlier, I immediately recognized this system as one that I could use to play different kinds of games. It’s easy to pick up and fun to play. I’m one of those people, though, who likes to tinker, but is often afraid I am doing it wrong. I’m not a math guy. Even with my own half-finished creations, I rely on those infinitely more talented or educated in design theory and mathematics to help me get past these things. So, while Numenera and The Strange both seem to me like they should be easy to modify and customize, I often worry about “doing it right.”
In the introductory section, they make things clear. This is a game. Here is the framework for the rules. You should toy around and make it your own. They even go so far as to say not to worry about balance. Instead, worry about having fun. I know that made some designers and creators cringe, but there is a certain amount of truth to the statement.
The jump right in, giving you some new character types to play with including the adept and warrior, but also the techie and stealth-flavored heroes (or villains, as the case may be). Before they close out the section, the team provides guidance for modifying and even creating your own types. There we go! I love that. Here’s my rule book for breaking the rules. I don’t have to worry about whether I am “doing it right” anymore, because they just told me how.
They do the same with descriptors and foci. They even show how to use descriptors as race, for those who want to play their dwarven warrior who breathes fire. They mix things up a bit in layout, so guidance on customizing descriptors or making your own is actually in callouts throughout the chapter rather than being at the end like in the previous chapter—so, don’t just try to skip to the end of each chapter, thinking that’s where this info is.
With types, you get the idea for what type of genre game you’re playing—superheroes, fantasy, modern, sci-fi. Descriptors kind of fit into any or most genres, unless you’ve made them specific for your game. With foci, there’s a bit more focus on flavor, type, or genre of game. They have a section in the beginning of the chapter that kind of breaks these up—modern, fantasy, sci-fi, and then give some cool foci that you have a feeling they’ve either been using in their own home games or have been dying to put on paper and get out to the rest of us.
Many of the descriptors and foci are from previous games, but some look new. It’s either that or my memory is starting to fade.
How About that Equipment?
Let’s be honest. The MCG team is creating a book without a set campaign. They’re trying to give you the basis you need to play virtually any type of RPG—science fiction, supers, fantasy, modern horror, etc. They had two options. They could have made a HUGE equipment section of rather sparse. They stayed with rather sparse. This makes sense, equipment isn’t defined by reach or weight or a million other pieces of minutia that some power gamers can get lost in. Equipment all is relatively simple. You might add different flavor to different pieces of equipment, but they all serve some purpose. However you describe it, it’s basically the same thing, right? Well, yes. This, mind you, is coming from a guy who enjoys playing games where there is a definitive difference in how his characters use different types of swords and their effectiveness. In the Cypher System—you have a light sword, medium sword, and heavy sword. Beyond that, you’re dealing with a cypher or something else that is somehow unique.
We talked about these before. If you want to know the rules to the Cypher System Core Rulebook, pick up any other Cypher game. It’s the same. They’ve just stripped out some things here. One thing Monte Cook and his team will do is explain why rules work a certain way. They’ve done that here as well. They’ve also provided reasons and ways you might modify the existing rules. I’m not going to go over the rules here, because that’s what the book and associated players’ guides are for. Want to know how to play the game? Pick up the books or borrow from a friend. There’s lots of games going on as well. Check out Google Plus, The Ninth World Hub, local conventions, etc.
Some of these have been around since the first Numenera book. Others have cropped up over time. They’ve been discussed at length in forums and on blogs. There is also a few that I don’t remember seeing before. This is where you can get a better insight into how and why the rules work the way they do and consider how and why you might change them. There is also more discussions here on how you can customize characters to fit your setting and particular play style. So, if you really want to toy with the system and build your campaign from the ground up, you cannot afford to skip this section.
About half way through the book, we make it into the genres section. This is split up into fantasy, modern, science fiction, horror, and superheroes. Now, how much can we expect here, really? Entire tomes have been written on each of these genres and their sub-genres. For each of the genres, the creators start with a basic introduction into what the settings would typically include. But, come on, you should probably know this already. I’ve yet to meet someone play an RPG that isn’t already familiar with tropes and trappings of the genre of game, but maybe—like my mama told me—I am special. After the brief intro to the genre, the crew puts together suggestions for standard characters and what type they would fall under. Then, there are suggestions for foci that would potentially work well within the setting. They also provide a list of suggested creatures and equipment you would probably expect to see for these types of games. These aren’t D&D or Pathfinder pages long lists, like you get when you add in all the supplements, but they’re enough to get anyone started.
After these lists, they provide suggested cyphers and artifacts for the genre setting. The fantasy sci-fi settings even includes some sample racial descriptors. Horror includes option rules for shock, horror, and madness as well as further guidance on using GM Intrusion without ruining the atmosphere you’re trying to build.
I’m looking forward to the supers section. I enjoy supers. They refer to it during the beginning of the book as the genre that breaks all the rules. And, once I get into reading it, I see they meant it. There is advice on letting superheroes take a more diverse set of powers, more gear, and even a new rule—Power Shift. Again, I’m not going to give away the secret sauce, but let’s say Power Shift is a way your heroes can turn the dial up even further in terms of their capabilities. Heck, I see it. I read it. I think about it. I think of how I could very easily apply to other games where I want even more larger than life heroes kicking around in my campaign setting.
Now, by my count, the book is just over 400 pages long. The genre section is about 50 pages long, so about 12.5% of the book for a “setting-less” game is dedicated to genres. Some people might complain about this, but I think it’s fine. Again, do you know how much you could write about these genres? Why would you be interested in playing in a genre you have never watched or read? Eh, maybe that’s just my malfunction.
The GM Section
Again, you kind of need to get the book for this, but the GM section is filled with critters and NPCs. I’ve seen a number of them before. A number of them are pretty creative, but they’ve never been the biggest draw for me. I like taking stats and making my own critters. I just borrow liberally from what’s already available for the games I run. With the Cypher System, it’s even easier. But, if you’re stuck and looking for inspiration, this is a great place to turn. The same goes for NPCs.
Next up is Cyphers. This is where the game gets its name from. It’s a great section. Imagine a bunch of single-use “magic” items at your characters’ disposal. They’re supposed to cycle through them quickly rather than hanging on to them. I have my own problem with Cyphers. In Numenera, it’s this strange technology or magic. Plausibly, you’ve run across similar items in characters. Just as realistically, your characters haven’t come across these things. But, here you are, supposed to know what they do and how to use them. It makes more sense to me in a traditional fantasy, sci-fi, or even modern game where things are more commonly defined with points of reference. The idea of Cypher limitations is still there and it makes sense for game balance, but you’ll need to make your decision on how to limit them in your campaign world. This is one I struggle with sometimes, but is usually easy enough to hand-wave with players. It could be any myriad of things, like strange energies or frequencies interfering with one another, for example.
Finally, there’s the section on running the game. Some might call it GM advice. I know there are people who have problems with advice given here—like hiding the target numbers from players, but I enjoy and even agree with a number of things mentioned.
A few notes in closing. I’m working on a pre-release PDF draft. I don’t know how much compressing was done or how many file saves were made, but I am guessing (and hoping) that is why the images all seem a bit dull, muted, and even a bit blurry. I was sent some high res images and those are beautiful. If the quality of art remains in the final product, I can assure you it is gorgeous. I even shared some of the high-res images provided here (with permission, of course). The campaign worksheet is helpful and I’m looking forward to the fan derivatives of the same. The character sheet. Ah, the character sheet. It’ll be easy to modify and create fillable versions of. However, it is nowhere near as creative and gorgeous as the Numenera character sheet. Hell, if that’s my biggest beef, all the more reason to pick up the book, right? Let’s be honest, I normally have a lot more to complain about. I really didn’t with this book, so I noted the complaints I know others have had. If you’re looking forward to this book, I have a feeling you will not be disappointed.