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Going Generic: The Cypher System!

Welcome to the second, and very overdue, game review of the Going Generic series of articles! The Cypher System Rulebook by Monte Cook Games is a titanic tome of an operation, clocking in at 444 beautifully illustrated and laid out pages, and now it’s time to see how it stacks up!

History

Monte Cook is a famous figure in tabletop RPG design space, with a long list of accolades and games under his belt. In 2012, he founded his own game company, Monte Cook Games; and released the critically acclaimed science-fantasy hit games Numenera and The Strange in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Then, in 2015, he released the distilled and codified first edition of the Cypher System Rulebook. In 2019, the second edition was released, and is the current supported edition.

What You Need to Play

The core book itself is absolutely necessary, as is a d20, d6, and a pair of d10 for percentile rolls. At the time of writing, the core book is $69.99 USD from the Monte Cook Games webshop, and the pdf is $29.99 USD. The free preview copy of the game is a dog’s breakfast though, literally hacked together from the core book with no editing for continuity or usability as an entry level product; it does have a decent character sheet with it though, and it’s worth the download for that. The older but still compatible Cypher System Rules Primer is useful though and will help get a game going faster.

Strengths of Play

The Cypher System is a descriptive system in many ways, undergirded by a fairly straightforward roll vs difficulty system. Players do all the rolling, and the risk management system in the mechanics is good for driving both dramatic tension and scene building. The game also provides a character creation worksheet and a character sheet, which is something I wish more games did. The game is easy to pick up, but has a lot of deep potential if you want to get into the weeds with it.

The game has strong science-fantasy roots, meaning it thrives, in my opinion, best in related genres to that; like science fiction, fantasy, superhero, urban fantasy, that sort of thing. Something supported by the official games using it, from Numenera to The Origin. It’s also fairly cinematic in nature, making it a system that doesn’t play well with low or gritty genre games outside the aesthetic.

Challenges of Play

To be completely honest, the only real challenge comes from the usual suspects in generic gaming; it’s a lot of heavy lifting for the GM. Creating monsters, opponents, and so on is mostly on them. On the player end, the system’s balance of simple conceptualization with supporting mechanics makes it easy to get into, so the challenge faced there is low as well. As long as you don’t try to push the system into regions and genres it’s not primed for, it’s a fairly smooth operation.

Can I Write My Own Stuff for Release

Yes, through multiple means. There is the Cypher System Open Licence and SRD, operating similarly to the OGL released by Wizards back in 2001. To work within the official material that has been released using this system, there’s the Cypher System Creator program on DriveThruRPG. There’s also a Limited Licence program that’s for small press and carries some heavy restrictions. So there’s a lot of ways to engage with the Cypher System as a creator; and no matter how you choose to do it, please ensure you read the guidelines and information before you release your works.

Cautions

As far as tabletop RPGs go, the Cypher System Rulebook is fairly inoffensive; it has diverse art and manages to avoid the bulk of pitfalls that catch games. Monte Cook Games have been called out in the past for the cultural appropriation of Native Americans, and for not handling the response well. There’s also some recurrent themes of “madness” and “insanity” that crop up in their other works, and those are always problematic in tabletop RPG context. The company appears to have evolved, embracing consent in gaming and matching donations to Black Lives Matter in 2020. My assessment I’d say that it’s a “mild caution” situation, at least with the Cypher System Rulebook; in that there may be some problematic material that hits harder with others than me, and that the creator/publisher has had some problematic behaviour in the past.

System Shock

Coming into the Cypher System from D&D will be a moderate shock. The mechanics will be familiar in terms of dice rolled, but how they work and the stacking modifiers, combined with a looser character creation system and powers systems may have some players needing more guidance at first. However, it’s also a shallow learning curve; so the process of acclimatization to the to ecosystem of the Cypher System won’t take too long.

Why Play Cypher System

You like an easy rolling game where the rolls matter for more than just success or failure, and you’re looking for a flexible system that will let you do things from cosmic horror to superheroes to sci-fi to fantasy and more without a lot of hassle. Cypher System gets a lot of love and attention for a reason; it’s an excellent game system. Just remember that like any other system, it works best within its parameters or close too them, and that pushing outside those areas gets very “your mileage may vary”.

Must Have Supplement

The must have supplement for the Cypher System Rulebook is the Expanded Worlds Book. This book gives a tonne of new character options, and then dives deep into some genre and subgenre specific world building assistance for the GM. It even gives guidance for how to bend the game to do gritty genre games (although they still feel cinematic to a degree in my opinion).

Scoring Matrix

So how well does the Cypher System hold up? The metrics are ranked S, A, B, C, D, E; with S rank being the best to achieve, and E rank the worst. Each metric has a descriptor to help interpret the result. The metrics used are Cost (base cost to enter the game), Difficulty ( how challenging are the rules and mechanics, and what’s the learning curve), GM Effort (how much lifting does the average GM need to do before a game), Community (how large and active is it, and its content), Flexibility (the game’s ability to handle different genres), and Publishing (how easy is it to create and release your own material for profit).

MetricRankDescriptor
COSTCModerate Expense
DIFFICULTYALow
GM EFFORTBLow to Moderate
COMMUNITYAEstablished and Growing
FLEXIBILITYAGood/Covers Many Genres
PUBLISHINGAGood/Lot of Options
Cypher System Metrics

Aggregate Ranking: At an aggregate of RANK A, Cypher System is a good game with a lot of excellent points in its favour. The creator toolset is great, the mechanics encourage and support multiple playstyles, and the game has become a cult hit for a reason. The price tag to get into it is steep though, and buying the hardcopy does not get you a free pdf, so factor that when you make your purchase.

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