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A Black woman opens portals to other dimensions in key art for Monte Cook Games’ Numera, the first expression of the Cypher System. Image: Mirco Paganessi/Monte Cook Games

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The versatile Cypher System powers tabletop adventures across genres

From zombie horror RPG settings to Terry Pratchett-style fantasy and everything in between

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When an internal document from Wizards of the Coast outlining proposed changes to Dungeons & Dragons’ Open Gaming License leaked in January, fan uproar led to record sales of rival tabletop role-playing games. One of the winners was the Cypher System from Monte Cook Games, which earned about three years’ worth of sales in just a few weeks, according to Monte Cook chief operating officer Charles Ryan.

“We saw thousands and thousands of new gamers investigating the Cypher System,” he said. “Now, some of those people made a rage purchase and then they’re just going to go back to their D&D campaign, but others are going to explore. There’s people that weren’t really paying attention to what else was out there, and now they’ve seen that there are other things and they’ll give them a try. In the months to come, we will be paying a lot of attention to how we can get those people that made a purchase to then move on to actually playing a game, because we’re pretty confident once they play that game, they won’t go back.”

What is the Cypher System?

A party of adventurers make their way down a narrow stairway. The heads of reptiles adorn the walls. Image: Raph Herrera Lomotan/Monte Cook Games

The Cypher System was introduced in 2012 with the record-breaking crowdfunding campaign for Numenera, Monte Cook’s science fantasy tabletop role-playing game set billions of years in the future. The game’s success inspired the formation of Monte Cook Games in order to use the mechanics of Numenera in other settings. Its second outing was The Strange, a Quantum Leap-like game where characters hop between dimensions that represent different genres.

“Once we did that, we were like, Well, this system works for everything,” Ryan said.

A woman with long black hair and a flowing cape is backlit. A crowd with phones and cameras stands before her. Here eyes are glowing. Image: Angelo Peluso/Monte Cook Games
Surrounded by vampires, a man in a suit screams. Image: Martin de Diego/Monte Cook Games
A giant stares up at the crew of a ship from the bottom of the sea. Image: Katerina Ladon/Monte Cook Games
A group of skiers, huddled over the body of a companion, cheers the arrival of an orange rescue helicopter. Image: Federico Musetti/Monte Cook Games

The Cypher System Rulebook provides guidance for running games and creating characters for settings ranging from post-apocalypses to fairy tales to superheroes. The key to the game’s versatility comes from how characters are made — by putting together a descriptor, type, and focus — for a huge amount of variability in concepts and plenty of options for reflavoring.

For instance, you might build a Graceful Warrior Who Fights With Panache to be a swashbuckling pirate, a Rugged Explorer Who Drives Like a Maniac for a Mad Max-inspired game, or a Clever Adept Who Employs Magnetism to play a character like Magneto. Each of these choices gives you access to its own group of skills and powers.

“I think a great Descriptor gives you a great role-playing hook,” Ryan said. “It says something about your character right there in the name, and then it’s got some mechanics that back that up.”

A Black woman in flowing robes hovers in the air. Her eyes are gold, and a giant halo with gaslit flames float around her.
A diesel-powered automaton carrying a rifle.
A man with glowing blue eyes, shirtless, is on all fours. A shadowy, spectral image of himself rises from his back.
A humanoid fox with a gold chain and a dashing fur-lined coat.

You can also use a flavor system to swap around special abilities for even more flexibility. For instance, a Speaker might get the magic flavor, indicating their ability to sway others comes from enchantment spells and that they can also use their power to shield their own mind from attack, while a Warrior could get knowledge flavor if they’re an assassin trained in subterfuge and lock-picking.

Using your stats

Cypher characters have three broad statistics: Might, Speed, and Intellect. These represent both a character’s maximum values in these areas but also how many points they have to spend on challenges relating to them. For instance, if you want to make an effort to dodge an attack rather than just relying on your base score, it requires spending points from your Speed pool. When attacking a tough foe with a sword, you may want to use points from your Might pool to make it easier. Take damage from an attack, whether physical or psychic, and you’ll lose points out of a relevant pool. This results in some tough trade-offs between offense and defense that can get even more dramatic based on the genre.

“For a zombie apocalypse game I ran, the players can’t get bitten,” Ryan said. “If you go into combat against the zombies, it’s game over if you take any damage from a zombie bite. Because the Cypher System has a mechanic where you apply effort when you’re really trying hard to make something succeed and the cost of that effort comes out of the same pools that damage comes from, we would get to the end of a combat and nobody would’ve been bit, but they’re just as depleted as they would be if they’re taking damage.”

Pools are refreshed by taking 10 hours of rest, but even a good night’s sleep just gives you the opportunity for a recovery roll. That means you always need to be aware of your resources. One of a character’s most powerful abilities is an edge, which reduces the number of points needed to spend effort in one of their attributes, allowing them to push themselves more frequently.

Constant progress

As players earn experience points, they can spend them to improve their characters by boosting stats, edges, the amount of points they can expend when applying effort, or training in a new skill. Once they’ve purchased each of those benefits once, they gain a new tier that grants them additional abilities based on their character descriptor, type, and focus.

Players will typically earn enough XP for an advancement each session, though XP can also be spent on a reroll. It’s a trade-off that Ryan said can keep the dice from getting in the way of a good story.

A wizard stands inside a phylactory, many tomes and artifacts around him. A small dragon looks on as he casts a lightning spell with a staff. Image: Milivoj Ćeran/Monte Cook Games

“I ran a game of Numenera at a convention once, and at the end of the whole adventure there was an angry mob of villagers that was going to come because of what the players had done,” Ryan said. “The player of the Speaker character stood up and gave this rousing speech and then they picked up their d20 and rolled a four. But instantly that player said, ‘I spend an XP and reroll,’ and then he rolled an 8. Then somebody else had XP and said, ‘I’ll throw an XP in for that person,’ and then he rolled a 20. The adventure had this rousing conclusion that was super memorable.”

What is a cypher?

The Cypher System takes its name from cyphers, items first imagined as bits of lost technology found in Numenera that have since been reflavored to anything with limited uses, from a magic potion to a bomb to the blessing of a nature spirit. Players can only carry a few cyphers on them at any given time, and you’re likely to gain new ones by exploring or defeating foes, meaning you need to use the ones you have or lose out.

“You’ve always got the standard character abilities that you’ve picked for your character, and then you’ve got a couple slots where ability is always changing,” Ryan said. “That encourages creativity.”

Two Black children creep around an old victorian house with flashlights. Image: Jacob Atienza/Monte Cook Games

The one-use nature of cyphers also allows them to be less balanced than equipment that will stick around.

“Who cares if it has a big effect or a small one?” Ryan said. “If it has a huge effect on that one adventure, it doesn’t throw the whole game out of balance. It just created a really cool dramatic moment. If it has a small effect, that’s fine too, because they’ll just use it and they’ll replenish it.”

What do you need to play Cypher?

All you need to play Cypher is the Cypher System Rulebook and a set of dice, though depending on the setting or genre you’re interested in you might want to check out some other books. Numenera remains the most popular Cypher setting, but other options include Stay Alive! for horror, Claim the Sky for superheroes, and The Stars Are Fire for science fiction. Because the system is the same across books, you can freely mix and match if you want to have space horror or superheroes fighting an alien invasion.

“They really go in-depth,” Ryan said. “The Godforsaken fantasy book talks about whether you want to run Terry Pratchett-style humorous fantasy or classic high fantasy or gritty stuff and every sort of element of the genre you would want to explore.”

A lithe spacefighter alights on a floating platform. A dog waits inside a protective dome as its owner departs the ship and checks a panel. Image: Eren Arik/Monte Cook Games

Late backers are still being accepted for the highly successful BackerKit campaign for Adventures in the Cypher System, which includes a deluxe version of the core rulebook plus a bestiary, adventure book, and new post-apocalyptic and fantasy setting books. Every pledge includes a PDF of the Cypher System Rulebook so you can start reading up before everything else is released early next year.

If you need advice or are looking to join a game, you can join the highly active Cypher Unlimited Discord server. Streamers such as Mr. Tarrasque, who once specialized in D&D, have been making content for Cypher along with other games since the proposed OGL revisions. Cypher added its own open gaming license last year, so expect the number of books using the system to continue to grow alongside Monte Cook’s upcoming releases, which include adaptations of the horror podcasts Old Gods of Appalachia and The Magnus Archives.

“I think seeing the Cypher engine drive different games will expose it to different audiences who will really enjoy it,” Ryan said. “There’s nothing more gratifying for somebody who’s involved in the creation of games than to see people playing and enjoying their games.”

Cypher System Rulebook 2e

  • $70

Prices taken at time of publishing.

  • $70 at Monte Cook Games (physical)
  • $23 at Monte Cook Games (digital)
  • $70 at Amazon (physical)

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