By Christopher Robin Negelein
We’re still using the Cypher RPG quite a bit here at Ganza Gaming/ Nerdstravaganza and we occasionally get questions about how the game works. Today, I’m tackling the signature aspect of the game, cyphers.
If you tell someone who’s been a D&D player that Cyphers are simply reskinned potions and scrolls, you’re vastly underselling them — unless your DM is letting you use Fireball scrolls at 1st level. If that comparison seems odd to you, ir’s because the Cyphers serve two different functions in the Cypher RPG as compared to what potions and scroll do in other games.
The first function is usually to give a sense of wonder or awe to the game world. My crew loves to randomly roll for their cyphers and see what sort of craziness they get. And then they immediately try to puzzle out how they’ll get to use such a thing. (In D&D this function is usually done with exotic and painfully rare magic items.)
One of the best we had was the Reality Spike, which my team called “Nature Fridge Magnet.” You stick it on anything, even thin air, and it would sit there defying gravity until you went into a lot of trouble to finally pull it down.
I only regret that I had but one Reality Spike (p. 359 CSR) to give.
The players spent hours (at and away from the table) fantasizing about how they were going to finally use the item. Eventually, it was used as a security bollard vs a speeding truck.
And that covers the second function, the inherent challenge of puzzling out what to do with such outrageous items, which feeds into one of the allures of tabletop RPGs. That liberating feeling of having a whole open sandbox to use when sorting out the challenges before you (as compared to video games that often give you more limited set of options.)
But with the Cypher System Rulebook/Gods of the Fall out for a couple of months now, cyphers have changed even more. With the collected wisdom of two previous games (Numenera and The Strange), cyphers are now more like a dial to tweak your game.
So let’s check out some of those dial settings. (It almost goes without saying any cyphers a GM uses should be reskinned to fit the genre of their game; ammo clips for a modern game, unguents for historical fantasy or alien tech for an SF game.)
The lowest setting is to have few if no cyphers in your game by new PCs trading out a cypher slot for a skill (p. 63 CSR). This is probably the closest to playing the Cypher game as a traditional RPG. Your game will still be fairly cinematic and high powered as compared to most other RPGs while Artifacts will come into play more often as dependable magic/genre items.
The default is to have cypher randomly rolled up when discovered, which is my players’ favorite method (and it feels wickedly old school to do). But a GM can also curate their selections or out and out choose which ones to be found (p. 340 CSR).
This allows for the GM to tailor the mood or focus of the game. They can choose cyphers that are more utilitarian or more combative if that’s where they want their game to go. And some cyphers maybe just too bizarre for the suspension of disbelief.
Subtle and Power Boost cyphers
The options for these two type of cyphers are covered pretty well in their own sections and sidebars in the CSR (but keep reading and you’ll see my spin on them a little further below.) They are the ways to use the cypher mechanic in genre games that lean more toward inherent powers as compared to Mad Science and Occult widgets.
Power Boots themselves are straight up a helping hand for Supers games while Subtle can be for those Psi Corps or Exorcist settings.
Even more cyphers
While the CSR puts a hard cap on cyphers (p. 341), the Gods of the Fall bend that rule … for a price. I don’t want to spoil it for you but it’s a cool idea and proves that the Cypher System is a robust engine that can take your house rules in stride letting you customize your game to your vision.
Off the books
The above options are only the “official” options for cyphers. As GotF shows, you can tweak cyphers and their limits as much as you imagination lets you.
For example, when it comes to Subtle and Power Boots, instead of giving them an in-game world justification for these toys, embrace the meta. Relabel them as character and plot tropes that empower and change the story. If you’ve played in games that offer Drama points, you’re familiar with the concept.
I know other GMs who just let cyphers stay around instead of “burning out” after one use. There’s precedence with this already with two CSR foci that let players tweak and recreate artifacts and cyphers (Conducts Weird Science and Crafts Unique Objects.)
Honestly, the only wrong way to play Cypher is the one that makes you feel like the game isn’t working for you. So I hope you’ve found some new options and get inspired to pick or craft whichever ones which gives you the best feel of the campaign that you’re shooting for.
If you like how we think, check out what we’ve built for the Cypher System over at DriveThruRPG.com.