Cypher System Rulebook Review – The GM’s Toybox

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Designed by Monte Cook Games. Published by Monte Cook Games. PDF released July 2015. Physical book releases August 2015. Pre-release copy provided for review by publisher.

The Cypher System started as Monte Cook’s new RPG ruleset, appearing in the critically acclaimed Numenera and The Strange. While both games were great fun in their own right, the Cypher System itself was the real joy, taking the emergent gameplay of mechanically complex RPGs and blending them with the narrative flow of new-school games. Now the Cypher System Rulebook has refined and expanded the concept, letting you run games in any setting you can imagine – from default fantasy, to superheroes, to large-scale spaceship battles.


The goal behind Cypher System is to offer rich mechanics that everyone can understand – players should never fuss with complex math while making dice rolls, and double-checking the book for necessary rules should be rare. Many systems make this claim, but few pull it off as effortlessly as Monte Cook Games has with the Cypher System. Take character creation. In the Cypher System, players don’t roll for attributes, tally up skill points, calculate defenses, or feel obligated to develop certain abilities over others. Let me sum up the entire character creation process for you:

Fill in the blanks. “I am a _______ _______ who _______s.”

Seriously. That’s it. You’ve pretty much made your character. Those three blanks come from lists of descriptors, character types, and focuses, which the GM prepares to reflect your setting. So instead of crunching statistics and trying to design the “right” character for a game, you can just string together traits that interest you. Want a “Graceful Psychic who Hunts Nonhumans”? Go for it. How about a “Clumsy Explorer who is Idolized by Millions”? Sounds good to me. “Mystic Bard who Builds Robots”? All yours.

Each trait within your phrase comes with various abilities that you mark on your character sheet – such as which weapons you can use, supernatural abilities you have, even interpersonal relationships with the rest of your party. There’s even room to customize types – Cypher‘s answer to classes – with “flavors” that grant new abilities. If you think the Adept could use more combat abilities, or want to design a custom class for a particular setting, flavors will let you do that.

In other words, you can have a huge range of unique characters and parties with minimal fussing over stats and mechanics. What’s more, character types are robust enough to be mechanically unique, but general enough to fit into any setting. Warriors work equally well as chivalrous knights or battle-hardened space troopers. Adept powers can come from magical sources or latent psychic abilities. Flavors just let you customize abilities a little further without unbalancing your character – all while helping them reflect your chosen setting.

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The Cypher System gets even easier when you’re attempting actions. Every time the group encounters a challenge, be it an enemy, a trap, or a 20-foot-high wall, the GM assigns a difficulty rating from 1-10. If the player attempting the action has relevant assets or skills, they reduce the difficulty rating. If the difficulty reaches zero, the player automatically succeeds. If the difficulty is one or higher, then the player rolls a d20 and attempts to hit that rating’s target number or higher – which is always the rating multiplied by three.

Reducing the difficulty rather than adding modifiers feels backwards if you were raised on modern D&D, but in practice the Cypher System is impressively simple. Keeping the focus on difficulty ratings means you’re not stressed about skill points, enemy defenses, or stats on your sheet, just the overall difficulty and your dice. Eventually you stop thinking in numbers altogether – you either have a skill, or you don’t. This keeps the focus on actions over calculations, which is a satisfying approach overall.

That’s great from the player’s perspective, but it’s a dream for the GM. Let’s say your players attack an NPC who you didn’t expect would get a combat encounter, so you don’t have any attack, defense, or damage stats. No problem – just say she’s a Level 3 NPC. That means her target number to attack and dodge is 9. It also gives her 9 hit points, and unless she has a special weapon, her damage can be the rating of 3. And you’re done! But if you decide this NPC can shapeshift into a Level 6 dragon? Apply the same x3 multiplier: 18 to hit, 18 to dodge, 18 health points, deals 6 damage. Even if you decide to give her armor or some other special ability, the creation process is surprisingly fluid.

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Almost anything you imagine can receive basic game mechanics in seconds, letting you pick interesting set pieces, tweak them, and assemble them for play. I completely rewrote my first Cypher System adventure the afternoon before playing it, and it was still a robust game which challenged and engaged my players. If flipping through the GM section of a roleplaying book ever felt daunting, the Cypher System Rulebook is a good place to start.

Now relying on the same mechanic repeatedly can be draining at times, especially if the adventure is filled with lengthy combats. The Cypher System Rulebook tries to counter that by awarding XP for discovery, not fighting, but unless you’re befriending every creature and NPC you meet, combat will be a big part of any setting. Ideally, this system works best when GMs can design imaginative encounters, which is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, all you need is an interesting idea and some target numbers and you’re ready to go. But if the GM isn’t feeling creative that night, players will probably notice right away.

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The Cypher System Rulebook doesn’t have its own setting to work with, like Numenera and The Strange do. What it does have are genres, along with optional rules and NPCs that can inspire GMs while creating a setting. Over half the book is dedicated to this, and there are lots of resources to work with – you can make fantasy-based dungeon crawls, space-faring science fiction romps, or modern day adventures in versions of our own world. There’s even room for Lovecraftian horror and over-the-top superheroics, aided by optional rules like madness or increased power shifts. In many ways, the Cypher System Rulebook isn’t an RPG toolbox, it’s a toybox that lets you pick and choose which game elements work for you.

But even with the best toyboxes at your disposal, the GMs still needs creativity when designing adventures, let alone entire game worlds. Outside of some general advice about story and pacing, GMs are almost entirely on their own, and might have trouble narrowing exactly what they want to play. The NPCs and creatures are exciting – from robots, to dragons, to Deep Ones – but they’re basically a list of encounters without a shared context. A few sample adventures, or a chapter of campaign spines would have been useful, even just to show how optional rules combine to create varied worlds.

Once you have a setting, it’s onto one of the Cypher System‘s most unique features: Cyphers themselves. These are collectible, one-use powers anyone can find while exploring, whether GMs predetermine them or randomly generate them along the way. Cyphers add a great deal of unpredictability into each game, but keeps the action in player’s hands to use as they see fit. You might find cyphers that let you disguise your appearance, teleport vast distances, summon creatures, and more. Hell, there’s even a cypher which lets characters literally sweat valuable liquids for an hour. Cyphers make every adventure a completely different experience, both for players and the GM alike.

Cyphers do run the risk of unbalancing the game. Our final boss was defeated by a cypher-planted explosive in their brain, set to activate if they made an attack. But at the same time, that cypher was memorable, completely unexpected, and just plain awesome. They’re a wonderful example of emergent gameplay, giving every player a chance to shine in ways their chosen abilities might not allow for.

Bottom Line: The Cypher System Rulebook is that elusive creature which can be fully understood in one playthrough, yet still allows for complex and emergent gameplay. It’s a completely setting-free book, so lots of GM assembly is required before playing. Thankfully Cypher‘s target numbers do most of the heavy lifting for you, letting you focus on interesting stories instead of monotonous number crunching.

Recommendation: Looking for a rules-light game with enough random elements to keep players entertained? Or are you seeking extra content for Numenera and The Strange campaigns? Either way, the Cypher System Rulebook is worth picking up.


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