From the Introduction to the Cypher System Rulebook:
“A cypher is a secret. It’s something that not everyone understands. It holds potential. Promise.
The Cypher System Rulebook came about because we published a game called Numenera, and then another called The Strange. These were quite popular, both for their settings and for their rules. They shared the same basic game engine: the Cypher System. So it occurred to us, what if gamers want to use the system for fantasy, horror, or something else? Wouldn’t it be nice if they could have the system material from Numenera and The Strange with all the setting-specific material stripped out?
And doing that would be easy, right? We’d just need to grab stuff from both games, already finished, and cram it all into one book. No problem.”
When I’m playing an RPG, any RPG, I sometimes wonder what it would be like to run that game in a totally different setting and genre. Thus was born the Cypher System Rulebook. I LOVE this concept: an RPG without theme or genre, or more accurately with any theme or genre. If I want to play a Western-themed RPG, I can. Superheroes? Not a problem. Lovecraft Horror? Go nuts! While there are other system-agnostic games out there, very few of them have the scope of the Cypher System
The basics of the Cypher System are as equally brilliant as they are simple. The GM and the Players are working together to create a story, not just to hack and slash their way through a scenario. You don’t actually get experience from killing things, but from exploration, discovery, and GM interaction.
When you play in the Cypher System there is a simple formula that you use for your basic play, and after that just about anything is up for grabs.
1. A Player tells the GM what their character wants to do.
2. The GM decides if a die roll is required.
3. The GM and the Player decide if there’s anything that modifies the die roll, like equipment, abilities, or various other circumstances.
4. The GM decides what the target roll will be (not necessarily telling the Player), and the Player rolls a d20, to hit that target or higher in order to succeed.
That’s it. If you know that formula, a Player could skip the remaining 400+ pages and pick up playing right there.
Character creation, while never an EASY process in an RPG, is fairly streamlined in the Cypher System. Rather than a large number of different stats to “roll up” for every little detail of your character, there are 3. Might, Speed, and Intellect are the only stats you will be using for your character and they are based on the type of character you decide you want to play. Once you have in your mind what your character will be like you will create a simple statement that describes them. “I am a [adjective] [noun] who [verb]s” for example “I am a Rugged Warrior who Controls Beasts.” The descriptor you create for your character will define your character, and define how they interact with the world around them. There are descriptions of various adjectives and verbs, and how they might be applied to the game, but like most things in this book they are easy suggestions, not hard and fast rules.
Likewise, there are rules and suggestions on your noun. This is your character type, and you have four overreaching types: Warrior, Adept, Explorer, and Speaker. Of course what you actually call your character type will vary by the genre you are using. A Warrior might be a knight, a police officer, a merc, or a hero. An Adept may be a magician, a scientist, a telepath, or a mutant. Again, these are just suggestions, but the four generic types are your base.
The book lists a number of abilities (which, like everything, may be tweaked to fit the setting) for each level, or Tier, you character achieves. Unlike some games where you gain levels relatively quickly and a PC can become extremely powerful, The Cypher System slows the process down, and gives you only six tiers of advancement, keeping things grounded and plausible, even in outrageous settings. A normal man will not eventually gain god-like strength just because he killed lots of kobolds, but he will become more effective and efficient at killing kobolds.
While the Cypher System can be used for virtually ANY genre, the rulebook includes more detailed tips for six major genres: Fantasy, Modern, Science Fiction, Horror, and Superheroes, with ideas on how to tailor characters and settings to best fit the flavour of game you and your players want to experience. Those six genres, or mixtures of them, will likely cover almost any game setting.
One of the nice features found in the layout of this rulebook was the use of repetition. Many of the important concepts aren’t just listed in one tiny chapter of the book, they appear whenever and where ever they may be applicable. While this makes the book artificially larger, and thus more daunting to a casual player, the end result is a much simpler to understand book. You may still have to do a small amount of skipping around to find what you want, but odds are good that you won’t be doing it much.
The guts of the Cypher System was created when Monte Cooke Games first released Numenera. With that game continuing to grow it was followed shortly by The Strange, which built on the rules system created for Numenera. With both of those games having huge success, MCG took the rules from both, and mixed, and tweaked, until they came up with a version of the rules that anyone can build on at home. In fact, they love when people build things at home. Their website has a great Fan Support section, with a very clear Fan Usage policy, so they don’t have to slap hands. They also have a great Creator Program for people that might want to distribute their creations.
Summer of 2019 will bring with it a new Revised Edition of the Cypher System Core Rulebook. It’s not planned to be a completely rebuilt Second Edition as none of the rules will be changing, but it will tighten up the presentation, expand on some of the suggested settings and genres, and generally make the rulebook even more user-friendly.