"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

CTHULHU SHRUGGED: A Review of Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition

THROUGH THIRTY-FOUR YEARS and six editions, Call of Cthulhu remained one of the most celebrated, influential, and imitated RPGs of all time.  While other popular game systems went through violent and dramatic transformations--yes World of Darkness and D&D, looking at you--Cthulhu remained by and large unchanged.  Instead of adapting itself to shifting industry tastes, it spawned imitators to do all that for it...a GURPS conversion, a pair of d20 conversions, a Savage Worlds conversion, a futuristic cyberpunk version and Ken Hite's brilliant Gumshoe adaptation (among many others).  Like its titular alien horror, Call of Cthulhu was a relic of an earlier age that reached out to touch the mind of dreamers and artists, compelling them to spawn new board games, RPGs, card games, video games, and (Elder Gods help us) plush toys in its honor.  All the while it remained "serene and primal," untouched by such petty concerns as change.

Until now.  Sort of.  

With the seventh edition, Call of Cthulhu has given us it's first major overhaul in decades but really, in the end, has changed very little.  Cosmetically, it's never looked better, divided into two gorgeous, full color tomes, the Keeper Rulebook and Investigator Handbook.  Only the Keeper Rulebook is needed to play; the Investigator Handbook simply goes into greater detail on running and playing characters while omitting all the monsters and setting secrets.  

The game system, meanwhile has been tweaked with a few new dice mechanics and by incorporating a lot of options from Chaosium's universal Basic Roleplaying (essentially the same engine that drives Cthulhu). But the good news and bad news of this is that if you liked Cthulhu before, you will probably play this and see little difference.  If you are one of those who disliked the game system, and preferred Savage Worlds or Gumshoe instead, nothing here will really change your mind. 


A Very Brief and Obligatory Interlude for the Gentle Reader who Stumbled into this Review with no Idea what Call of Cthulhu is

First published in 1981, Call of Cthulhu was the first explicitly "horror" roleplaying game.  Based on the writings of celebrated American author Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937), Cthulhu depicts a incomprehensibly vast cosmos occupied by utterly alien, often god-like beings, in which mankind and its concerns are insignificant.  There are no beneficent deities, humanity wasn't created in anyone's image, and there are no universal standards of good and evil. It is a brutal, uncaring universe where men struggle mainly to prevent the more powerful alien occupants from wiping out the human race too soon.  It's charm was in inverting most other RPG tropes.  You didn't create a first level character and watch him ascend to greatness...you created a capable professional and watched him slowly descend into madness.  You didn't boast about your character's heroic exploits...you bragged about the horrific way in which she met her untimely end.  It was a scary game, and a blackly humorous game.  And it became an instant classic.

As a final note, it was also a very flexible game.  Generally played in one of three time periods (1890s, 1920s, modern era) it could easily be adapted to more.  Probably the best adaptation was Delta Green, which introduced X-Files elements of modern conspiracy.  And for those who thought Lovecraft's cosmos was too bleak, Call of Cthulhu could also handle standard tales of ghosts and ghouls, vampires and werewolves.

What has been Changed

Call of Cthulhu has always been about Investigators, normal men and women who get drawn into the mysteries of the Cthulhu Mythos and attempt to contain, banish, or destroy its horrors.  The usual course of a game is to find clues and determine a way to deal with the threat.  This seldom involves combat.  Indeed, more crucial to a character than Hit Points are Sanity Points, a trait rated on a scale of 0 to 00 with higher being better.  As you encounter the horrors of the Mythos, you are at risk of losing Sanity.  Lose enough, you go temporarily insane.  Lose it all, and your character is mad forever.

The system used to work like this; your Investigator had nine characteristics, each determined by a 3d6 roll or some variant.  These also determined Hit Points and Magic Points and a trait called Sanity.  These were your innate attributes.  In addition to them you had learned skills, rated on scales of 0 to 100%.  To use these skills you rolled against them on a d00.  A result of 96-00 was a Fumble, a catastrophic failure.  A roll above your skill percentage was a regular failure.  A roll below your percentage was a success, and a roll of 01-05 was a critical success.  Sometimes, rolling below 1/5th your percentage was a significant success as well.  It was all fairly simple, and rolling against characteristics was done by multiplying them by 5%.  

Detractors have long complained about the d00 roll.  Compared to something like the Cypher System, it's pretty stark.  In Cypher (which I use as an example solely because I just reviewed it), if the GM wants to see if players can spot a clue he assigns finding it a difficulty, and the players can lower that difficulty by spending certain character points if they like.  But in Cthulhu, you rolled those percentile dice against your "Spot Hidden" percentage and that was that.  This works, I think, perfectly for a game set in a cold, uncaring universe where human action is ultimately insignificant.  But gamers like to win.  Hence the complaining.

This isn't to say some f the complaints aren't valid; Ken Hite's Trail of Cthulhu is in part an attempt to address the issue.  But people who have run Cthulhu for decades usually just house ruled things when necessary, or for really vital clues made sure the player's found them.  It was never that big of a deal.

7th Edition seems to be an attempt to address the "problem" as well.  The first fix lies in "pushing."  Now if you fail a roll, you are able to try again, but this time failure brings with it a significant risk of something dreadful happening.  The second lies in modifier dice, a concept which feels straight out of Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition.  For certain rolls now you get positive or negative modifier dice; these are additional "tens" digits.  For a positive modifier, you roll and take the lowest tens digit.  For a negative, you take the highest.  Neither of these are bad ideas, but they feel like house rules that could have just been implemented into your Sixth Edition game.

A bigger change perhaps is that Characteristics, like Skills, are now all rated on a scale of 0 to 100.  I'm not entirely sure what this was meant to "fix."  Yes, it does save you the trouble of multiplying your POW x 5 to determine Sanity...but now your Hit Points have to be figured by adding SIZ and CON together and dividing by ten.  Nothing seems to really be gained by the changes.

In another change, Skills and Characteristics all have several ratings on the sheet now.  There is the full percentile, then half that, then 1/5 of the original.  So if a skill is 50%, it is also written 25% and 10%.  The Keeper now calls for rolls based on their difficulty (regular, hard, and extreme).  It also allows the quality of successes to be rated.  This matters mainly in the exorcism of the old Resistance Table, which has now been replaced with straight forward opposed rolls.  If two characters arm wrestle, and one gets an extreme success, he beats his opponent who only scored a hard success.

Again, these are not bad mechanics, but it is hard to see what they really change.  

The Rest

As I have said, the game is still Call of Cthulhu.  It keeps the same tone, lists the same spells and creatures, and most of it works the same way.  There are all sorts of new essays and ideas to help Keepers (the GM) run the game, and the Investigator Handbook is essentially the old with edition 1920s Investigator's Companion, with expanded character creation options and details on life in the 20s.  The latter volume also includes the story "The Dunwich Horror," replacing "The Call of Cthulhu" as a sample piece of Lovecraft fiction (a good choice, "Dunwich" reads and feels far more like a typical Call of Cthulhu adventure).  The Keeper Rulebook contains character creation in brief as well in addition to all the rules, monsters, and spells in the game and a new (lengthy) chapters on Chases.  

So what to make of the 7th edition?  The bottom line is there is nothing here to persuade fans of 6th Edition to trade up, but nothing to deter them either.  The rules changes are in essence on the level of house rules that could easily be implemented in previous incarnations.  Likewise, there is nothing here that will convince Trail of Cthulhu or Realms of Cthulhu fans to switch back.  In the end, the big, fresh, Kickstarted Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition is just the previous game with a fresh coat of paint, much like any of the other previous editions.  The only difference this time is that the shade is a bit different. 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

SAVAGE CYPHERS: Savage Worlds meets the Cypher System (Sort of)

One of the key features of the Cypher System is right there in the title; the cypher.  Cyphers are "...one-use abilities that characters gain over the course of play.  In the majority of games, these come in the form of items, like magic potions or alien technology..." (CSR, p. 340).  Cyphers are meant to be discovered and used frequently, giving players a steady stream of tricks up their sleeves in addition to more permanent abilities and talents.  They allow player characters to make that sudden escape, turn the tables on an adversary, or get that crucial edge in battle.  In this sense, they function exactly like Savage Worlds' "Adventure Deck," or its even earlier predecessor, the TORG "Drama Deck."  The key difference is that these cards existed outside the game as a player tool, while in most Cypher settings, they exist inworld for character use.

A portion of the old TORG drama deck.  One side
of the cards where used for initiative.  The opposite, 
with names like "Seize Initiative," "Action," and "Master Plan"
let players pull stunts and make changes to the game.

But nothing says they have to, and in some settings--where magic or super-science doesn't exist--they aren't appropriate.  This is where something like your Savage Worlds cards come in handy.

The principle is simple.  At the start of the game session deal out two Savage Worlds Adventure Cards to each player, or two TORG Drama Deck cards if you have them.  Alternatively, make your own (see below).  These can be played at any appropriate time.  They function like a guided Intrusion sans experience and generally in the player's favour.  The GM simply changes the plot to accommodate the card description.  Others might act as an asset for a combat or skill roll.  Once used they are spent and tossed away.

A sample of Savage Worlds Adventure Deck Cards

Players earn new a new card after major plot points or discoveries, or after rolling a 20.  The character type will determine how many cyphers the player can hold, and additional ones must be discarded without being played.

The Subtle Cyphers

If you want to make your own, start with the Subtle Cyphers from the core rules.  Grab a deck of playing cards and write the name of the cypher on them.  Feel free to add to these GM "Intrusion" cyphers like Love Interest, Escape, Second Chance, Ally, or whatever else you can come up with.  Your deck can grow over time. 


Monday, September 21, 2015


I myself have seen this woman draw the stars from the sky; she diverts the course of a fast-flowing river with her incantations; her voice makes the earth gape, it lures the spirits from the tombs, send the bones tumbling from the dying pyre. At her behest, the sad clouds scatter; at her behest, snow falls from a summer's sky.” 

― Catullus

Click to enlarge

Meet the Witches

The Ninth World of the "Numenera: Jihad" campaign is very definitely a quasi-medieval fantasy setting.  Sure, there are strong elements of post-apocalyptic survival, space opera, and weird horror, but medieval fantasy tropes are front and center.  The Order of Truth, for example, is a bit more religious than it might be in other campaigns, with a pseudo-deity and Aeon Priests that come off a tad "Bene Gesserit."  The Magisters of the Convergence are very "wizardly," with secret handshakes and Masonic rituals and a whiff of the Renaissance alchemist about them.  There are nobles and serfs, plagues and superstition, and in episodes three and four...the curtain draws back (at last) on witches.

When I decided to introduce witches to the Ninth World, I was determined that they wouldn't just come off as just female Magisters but as something unique.  The Sisterhood, as they came to be called, needed to be bound to the depths of the wood, to ancient prehuman gods, to secret yearnings of the heart and dancing under the moon. These drives formed the core of episode three, "When the Woods are Made to Whisper," and its sequel, "The Sisterhood of Wyr."

When the Woods are Made to Whisper (Episode Three)

During her strange reign, Queen Whenith Sarromere had become convinced that by using a variety of numenera secrets, she could harness the power of dreams to control the minds of all who might oppose her, inside and outside her borders. Eventually, she gave up on this scheme, but only because she began to believe that within dreams lay an entirely different realm that she could rule instead of the corporeal land of Iscobal...

Numenera, p. 158

Having killed the lady Anatrea, the characters find their welcome in Draolis worn out.  They are fleeing south into Iscobal across the Wyr River, with city guards from Qi and one of the biomechanical peace-keeping Zhev in hot pursuit.  They are mounted on Lopers (my warm climate cousin of the Snow Loper), in an overland chase through a blinding storm.

The nano Emerson uses a cypher to slow time, and with a lucky roll of 20 manages to take the Zhev out.  After a few of the other pursuers are shot down, they give up the chase, leaving the PCs to continue south towards Mulen, Iscobal's capital.

The storm all but forces them to shelter at an inn they come across, the Queen's Rest.  Once called the Green Ghi-Bird, it was renamed forty years ago, when the young Queen Sarromere made the journey north from Mulen specifically to stay there.  Or so the landlord would have it.  A truer version of the story emerges that she came to investigate the Whisper...a strange wood nearby.  Rumor has it that after she entered the Whisper, she emerged alone, her retinue vanished, and from that day forward the Queen had a mad obsession with dreams.

There are weirder stories about the wood, which the characters discover passing through the neighboring village of Obeth the next morning.  Sleeping on its borders is said to grant strange dreams; a youth might catch the image of his or her future betrothed, while an elder might see himself young and hale again.  Those who enter the wood return dazed, as if drugged.  Some never emerge at all.  And one girl in the village, Ara, started entering he Whisper after her fiancée tragically drown.  Four months ago her belly began to show she was with child...a child she swears was fathered by her lost love, who now lingers in the wood...

Their visit to Obeth comes with a plea for help.  A young peasant boy known for a dangerous and unhealthy attraction to children has vanished, along with a little girl.  A mixture of curiosity, greed (who knows what numenera the Whisper might hold?), and heroic instinct pushes the group to go in pursuit of them.

Before entering the Whisper they stop at Chapel Green, an Order of Truth chantry on the edge the wood.  There they consult Sister Anass, who tells them what she knows of the wood.  It is, apparently, a near perfect circle three kilometers in diameter.  Legend holds it sprang up rapidly after a star fell from the sky.  It is said no bird or beast will enter it, and that a shadowy coven of witches worships there.  Armed only with this, the characters enter.

At this point they are actually in the belly of the beast...

The Njarshan Vkshii                                        Level 7
aka "Witchwoods," "Wood Gods," "Old Ones"

Each of the Njarshan Vkshii appears to be a small, circular forest, 2 to 6 kilometers in diameter. Closer inspection of the various "trees" and "underbrush" (Level 2) makes it apparent they are all a single species, and digging around (Level 3) beneath the soil reveals the truth...they are all connected, the entire forest in fact a single organism.  

A race of ultraterrestrial, they arrive in the Ninth World when one of their seed ships crashes to the earth.  A single massive "tree" sprouts up from the seed ship overnight, and in the nights that follow thousands of smaller "trees" spring up in a circular forest around it.  According to the Sisterhood (see below), the Njarshan Vkshii once ruled one of the previous worlds, and today still cover the entire surface of the Moon (in my campaign the moon is green, in yours, the Vkshii might come from blue-green Mars instead or elsewhere).

The Vksii feed on psychic energy, preying on those who come under their boughs.  They are known to recruit the service of women--and only women--by "seeding" them.  The exact mechanics of this act are unclear (the Sisters will not discuss it), but it always results in the Sister becoming pregnant and giving birth to one of the monstrous human/Vkshii hybrids known as Green Men.  Ever after, the Sister is psychically bound to the Vkshi and her other Sisters.  They can communicate through images and sensations (not actual words) over any distance and telepathically when in line of sight. The Sisters are also able to peer into the minds of others and cause hallucinations, like the Vkshi itself.  The Sisters age very slowly, living centuries, growing more twisted and bark-like as the centuries pass.

Motive: Feed on psychic energy, retake the world someday.

Environment: 13 are known to lay scattered around the Steadfast and the Beyond.

Health: 120

Damage Inflicted: 3 Intellect points in the outer ring, 5 in the middle ring, 7 in the center (see below).

Armor:  4

Movement: None

Combat: A Njarshan Vkshi (Vkshii is plural) attacks only those who enter it, and only to feed.  Attacks come in the form of hallucinations that increase in strength and intensity the closer to the center you go.  In the outer rim these are only level 3 (9) attacks, increasing to 5 (15) in the middle ring and 7 (21) at the center.  The player rolls Intellect to resist.  Failure means losing 3, 5, or 7 Intellect points and suffering a hallucination.  As the Njarshan Vkshii are telepathic, the hallucinations are drawn from the victim's own secret desires or worst fears.  Attacking the Njarshan Vkshi means going to the center, and striking at the core "tree."  The difficulty to hit the creature is actually 0, as it doesn't move, but with 4 points of armor and 120 health it is hard to destroy...especially as it continues making level 7 attacks on your psyche each turn.

Interaction: The Vkshii do not speak save through their Sisters.  For centuries, they seemed quasi dormant, seeding women living near them and preying on stragglers.  But over the last century, the Order of Truth has launched a Shadow Inquisition against the Sisterhood (for the false heresy of worship and impure relations with the alien) and the Vkshii are fighting back, seeding women in positions of power (such as the Order or the nobility) in pursuit of an agenda no one can yet be certain about...

Loot: Any number of cyphers, oddities, or artifacts may lay under the leaves of these witchwoods, left by unwary victims.  If the creature is killed, it will wither to dust and exposing the seed ship.  At least four to six cyphers should be found within, as well as an artifact.   

Intrusion: No escape.  Using its powers of hallucination, the forest keeps turning the characters around so that they can't find their way back out.  It might even appear to blot the sun and stars from the sky, or make them stand still.

It doesn't take the player characters long to know something is very wrong in the forest.  They are attacked by guards from the city of Qi, and later by Lady Anatrea herself...the woman they killed and Beatrix's mother,mseemingly alive and well.  As they figure out the forest is causing them to hallucinate and try desperately to leave, it becomes clear the wood will not let them, so they press on to its center.  Along the way they manage to find the boy they were hunting and the child he took captive.

The Whisper eventually turns them against themselves, sending Lugar into a berserker rage and forcing Emerson to paralyze him with a mass increasing cypher.  Eventually they realize the only way out is to go in...and they make for the center.  Fighting the "core tree," Beatrix contemplates using his dagger...an artifact that kills whatever it wounds and transfers its DNA back into the killer, healing his wounds but also mutating him.  Not certain he wants to attempt it against so massive a being, Emerson takes the blade and does it for him...his player rolling another 20.  The entire forest convulses and withers into a yellowed tangle of husks...and Emerson collapses into a coma, green tendrils starting to writhe beneath his skin...

The Sisterhood of Wyr (Episode Four)

With Emerson in a coma, they decide to avoid the village and make for Mulen as quickly as possible.  

Arriving at Isobal's capital, they take a room in an inn and fall into an exhausted sleep.  They had been lost in the Whisper for days, and after struggling against its psychic predations, are damaged physically and mentally.  

But it isn't over yet.

The miracle-working charismatic Nano in the party (as of yet he has not revealed his name to his comrades) decides to bathe before bed, and Myrna decides to keep watch.  They are spared then when the attack comes...

The sleepers suffer the same dream.  Lying beneath the boughs of the Whisper, the green moonlight bleeding through the shadowy leaves, they are paralyzed by the incoherent chants, hisses, and screeches of unseen women...or what at least sound vaguely like women.  One voice starts whispering to them through the dark.  "You have taken from us.  Now we take from you.  You have wounded us.  Now we wound you.  You have torn the heart from our breast, no we come for yours..."

A female figure, all in black, with a pale face and obsidian eyes, a crescent shaped mark on her forehead and a mass of wild, tangled hair, crawls slowly over the sleeper's prone body like a lover.  She kneels on the sleeper's chest, making it hard to breathe, and gripping him by the face bends to kiss him.  A slimy tendril, rough and hard as bark, slides down the sleeper's throat, strangling him.

The sleepers turn blue and start convulsing.  Myrna and the Nano leap into action, trying to rouse their comrades from slumber.  The hardest to awaken is Beatrix, who is nearly killed.  Once all are revived, they understand they suffered the same identical dream.

They go to the Order for help, and are put in contact with the blind Aeon Priestess Sister Yaevadra.

Yaevadra knows what is happening to them; they have been marked for death by the Sisterhood of Wyr, the human women who made their pacts with the Njarshan Vkshi the party destroyed.  

Yaevadra knows the Sisterhood well, because she used to be one of them before repenting.

Emerson, meanwhile, has awoken, and everywhere he goes, a shadowy presence follows that only he can see.  She is the dark woman from the killing dream.  She whispers to him, and Yaevadra figures out the terrible truth.  The numenera he used to kill the Njarshan Vkshi has, by infecting him with its DNA, "seeded" him.  He is, for all intents and purposes, one of the Sisterhood now.  The only male in history.  Worse, he carries the nucleus of the witchwood in him.  If he returns and is planted in the ground, the Whisper will sprout up again.

The group explores several options.  Lugar suggests returning to his tribe and the Cloud Crystal Sky Fields, because there is a living god in the desert who might be able to purge this. The idea is rejected, and the only thing to be done, they determine, is to return to Obeth, hunt down the Sisterhood of Wyr, and eliminate them.  After that, they can concentrate on a way to extract the Njarshan Vkshi from him.

Yaevadra accompanies them to lend her expertise.

Along the way, she tells them all she knows.  

Iscobal is a land tearing itself apart from within. The palace intrigues start with the royal family led by King Noren tiKalloban. His father, Rabbar, seized the throne about forty years ago from Queen Whenith Sarromere whom most believed unfit to rule. She died in exile in the land of Ancuan.  Now her sons Bren and Kor want Iscobal back in the name of their house. They plot against the king both openly and in secret.

Numenera, p. 158

Queen Sarromere was not merely found unfit to rule.  When, as a young queen she went into the Whisper, she was Seeded, the beginning of her obsession with magic and dreams.  The Order of Truth supported tiKalloban against her; a witch could not sit upon the throne.  This is part of what they learn from Yaevadra.

They go first to the Chapel Green to speak with Yaevadra's fellow Aeon Priestess, Anass.  It is, of course, a trap.  Both Yaevadra and Anass are members of the coven, and they launch into an attack...

The Sisterhood

Sisterhood witches are levels 3 to 5.  Their main method of attack is the Hex; a psychic attack doing their own level in Intellect damage.  The victim suffers potent hallucinations, animating their darkest yearnings or most horrible fears.  It takes an Intellect roll to resist.

Thursday, September 17, 2015


WHEN YOU GET RIGHT DOWN TO IT, art is a delivery system for narrative.  Art allows you to take the images and feelings in your head and share them with people around you, turning idea into substance.  The choice of medium is always a crucial one, because it inevitably shapes the narrative and affects how others experience it.  The same story can be told in music, painting, poetry, prose, or song (something like Percival's quest for the Holy Grail has been told and retold in all of the above) and come out differently each time, altered by the idiosyncrasies and character of the individual delivery system.

"Universal" or "generic" role-playing game systems are perfect examples of this.  Telling the same comic book super hero tale in GURPS, Basic Roleplaying, or Savage Worlds will result in three very different sagas. While we tend to chose "standard" RPGs by their genre and setting as much as mechanics, the choice of a generic rules set is always based on one question; how does the system itself shape the story we want to tell?

Click me to enlarge

Monte Cook's Cypher System came into existence as the engine driving Numenera, and in the beginning of that book Cook was very clear on his vision of the system;

(I wanted)...a roleplaying game system where players got to decide how much effort they wanted to put into any given action, and that decision would help determine whether their action would succeed or fail. This would be a simple but elegant system where sustained damage and physical exertion drew from the same resource (so as you became wounded, you could do less, and as you became exhausted, you were easier to take down). Where your willpower and your mental “power points” were the same thing, and as you drew on your mental resources, your ability to stave off mental attacks waned. And where it was all so integrated into the character that it was easy to process and keep track of. But most of all, I dreamed of a game system that was designed from the ground up to be played the way people actually played games, and to be run the way that game masters really ran them...
Numenera, p. 4

Now, all of this--and in particular the last few lines--might come off a bit grandiose, but when dealing with a game designer as accomplished as Cook it's never a bad idea to cut him a little slack.  Rather than cover his resume again, I direct the gentle reader to my Numenera review.  Suffice it to say, whether or not you end up agreeing the Cypher System captures the way people "actually play games" and game masters "run them," Cook is as qualified as any to try and design a system that fulfils that criteria.  For my part, I think he succeeded.

So let's get down to the crucial question.  How exactly does the Cypher System serve the stories you might want to tell?

Creating an Experience

Cook has something interesting to say very early on in the Cypher System Rulebook.  He is addressing, specifically, recreating the feel of "genres" when he states the following;

...I say “experience” because in many ways, that’s what a genre is. If you want to capture the experience of being terrified by zombies swarming around a character’s home, you want horror. If you want to convey the experience of being extremely powerful and using those powers to protect the world from aliens, you want superheroes (maybe with a dash of science fiction). So really, what you’re choosing here is the experience you want to have—and that you want the players to have. This is such a fundamental decision that perhaps the whole group should be in on it. Ask the other players what genre they like and what kinds of experiences they want to have...

This is a fair description of the Cypher System itself.  While Cypher, like any RPG, mixes all three elements of the "Gamist-Narrativist-Simulationist" theory, it leans a bit harder towards the N-S side of the equation.  If you are looking for a mathematical model of real-world physics, or a game who's goal is to maximise "winning" traits and minimise extraneous ones, this may not be for you.  If you want to capture the "feel" of being a superhero, a fantasy warrior, or a 31st century android, it might be what you are looking for.  "In the Cypher System," Cook writes, "the story is king, and thus you can’t really get the rules wrong. If it works for your game, then it works."

Having said this, the game is called the "cypher" system for reasons that will colour your play experience with it.  Chapter One kicks off by telling us "...A cypher is a secret.  It's something that not everyone understands.  It holds potential.  Promise."  This is a system that leans towards discovery rather than combat.  It is a game more about getting to the bottom of the mystery, unravelling the evil mastermind's plan, or rediscovery relics of a lost and wondrous age than pitting your strength against adversaries.  Nowhere is this made more clear in the experience system, where you are rewarded for discoveries instead of collecting XP over the bodies of fallen foes.  This doesn't mean you can't run Howard's Hyborian World with it...it just means doing so might shift the focus from slaying hordes of Picts to finding out what the Pictish shaman lord's scheme is.

Two things to take away from this then; Cypher is about discovery and creating a collaborative experience.

The Core Mechanic

The core mechanic is a simple one.  All situations that challenge a player character or test his or her abilities are rated on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being simple and 10 impossible.  This difficulty, multiplied by 3, yields the number the player must roll equal to or higher on a d20.  So, if you need to pick a difficulty 4 lock, you need to roll 12 or higher. 

Unlike the previous d20 system Cook helped design, character skills and attributes do NOT add to the die roll.  Instead, characters will use their assets to lower the initial difficulty, making it easier to beat.  For example, skills come in two levels, "Trained" and Specialised."  If you are Trained in a skill, it lowers difficulties one step.  If you are Specialised, it lowers them by two.  Getting back to our lock, if Player A was Trained in Lockpicking he would need to roll a 9 or higher (difficulty 4 stepped down by 1), while Player B who Specialised in Lockpicking would need only a 6 or better.

Skills are not the only assets that lower difficulties.  Equipment, environmental factors, character abilities, and--as Cook made clear in the paragraph above--effort all conspire to lower difficulties as well.  More on this shortly.

Before we move on, a roll of 19 on the die triggers a "minor effect."  While this has concrete mechanics in combat or in the use of special powers, in general a minor effect means you pulled off the task with panache, grace, and style.  A roll of 20 triggers a "major effect," a remarkable performance that yields far better than expected results.  

A roll of 1 however allows the game master to introduce a free intrusion (more on this below), a complication or twist that makes the player character's life more "interesting."

On the Character Side of Things

At their heart, player characters are defined by three stats; Might, Speed, and Intellect.  Each of these comes with a Pool and an Edge.  Might is the measure of physical strength and endurance, Speed measures reaction time and agility, and Intellect measures intelligence, charisma, and willpower.  The Pool rating is a general measure of potential in that area.  Edge measures refinement of that potential.    

A starting fantasy warrior, for example, could have a Might  Pool of 14, a Speed of 12, and an Intellect of 8, with a Might Edge of 1 and 0 in the other two.

All of this relates to Effort.  Remember that Cook wanted effort to be a key factor in success.  Each level of Effort a character "spends" lowers a difficulty by one step.  It costs 3 points for the first level, and 2 additional points each level after that.

Example: Our fantasy warrior from above is fighting an ogre.  He needs to roll a 9 (difficulty 3) or better to hit.  Using his battle axe is a Might task, so he could spend Effort from his Might Pool to lower the difficulty.  Spending three points would step it down to a difficulty 2 (a roll of 6 or better).

But wait; Edge reduces the cost of all Effort expenditures.  This means that our warrior, with a Might Edge of 1, would pay only 2 points from his Pool rather than 3.  If he had an Edge of 3 in Might, all Might challenges would automatically step down one level for him, as in effect he is getting a free level of Effort all the time.  

Example 2: A more powerful and experienced fantasy warrior with a Might Pool of 20 and a Might Edge of 4 is fighting the same ogre.  Without spending any points, hitting the ogre steps down from difficulty 3 to difficulty 2, and by spending just one point it would step down to difficulty 1 (3+2 Might points for two levels of Effort, minus 4 for the Edge).

One way to visualise this is that a character with, for example, a Might Pool of 20 and a Might Edge of 0 would have greater mass and potential strength, but a wiry martial artist with a Might Pool of 12 and an Edge of 3 would probably get the better of him because the martial artist has honed his strength and uses it better.

Pools are not only for Effort...they are also your "hit points."  In general, you take damage to you Might Pool first, followed by Speed and Intellect.  Hitting zero in a Pool signifies significant injury and comes with consequential impairment. Some attacks, like magic or poisons, can attack the Speed and Intellect Pools directly.

And yes, Pools recharge.  Each "recharge" takes a certain amount of rest and restores 1d6 + your Tier (think "level") points.  The first recharge just takes a single action to get some of your wind back.  The second takes 10 minutes, the third takes an hour, and the fourth requires 10 hours of rest.  There are optional rules for more lasting states of damage.

I am an (Adjective) (Noun) that (Verbs)

Creating a character in Cypher involves the selection of three core elements; your Descriptor, your Type, and your Focus.  These are essentially packaged adjectives, nouns, and verbs that provide abilities and weaknesses to help you build your character.

The core choice is your Type, which is the closest thing Cypher offers to a character class.  Both Numenera and The Strange offered three character types, a fighter, a magician, and a rogue.  Cypher adds a fourth type and names the Types Warrior, Adept, Explorer, and Speaker.  

Broadly speaking, the Warrior excels at combat, the Adept at knowledge, and the Speaker at interacting with people.  The Explorer is a Jack-of-all-Trades with a bit of all the above.  These are broad categories and it is fully expected the game master will rename and tinker with them for his or her setting.  In a fantasy setting a Warrior might be a Barbarian, Paladin, or Gladiator.  In a Modern or Horror setting he might be a Police Officer or Soldier.  

Each Type is rated in six Tiers, the equivalent of levels.  Cypher differs from many class and level games in that you do not build up experience points to reach a level and then access its abilities; instead, you purchase a number of advancements as you go and when you have acquired them all you enter that Tier.  This then unlocks special abilities associated with that Tier.

Each Type has certain powers associated with it, which become accessible as you go up the Tiers.  These look quite a bit like "feats" in the d20 System.  Warrior abilities look like combat manoeuvres, while Adept abilities look like arcane powers (magical, psionic, technical etc depending on the setting).  Explorer abilities focus largely on survival, discovery, and travel, with a dash of abilities borrowed from other Types.  Speaker abilities deal with persuading and manipulating people.  Usually, these require the expenditure of a Might, Speed, or Intellect point to activate.  Once again, though, Edge reduces the cost of these.  So if you have an Edge of 1 in Speed, any Speed ability that costs 1 point to activate is usable for free.  

It should also be mentioned that first Tier characters are limited in how much Edge and Effort they have (1 and 1 each).  As you increase Tiers, you can spend more levels of Effort on a task, and have greater and greater Edge scores to reduce the costs.

In addition to these Types, Cypher adds a new wrinkle not previously seen in Numenera or The Strange.  These are the Flavors.  Flavors are basically "semi-Types," or packages of abilities meant to be combined with one of the core four Types.  The Flavors are Stealth, Technology, Magic, and Combat.  What a Flavor does is allow you to colour a Type, customising it to a degree for your setting.

Consider the traditional fantasy game Cleric and Druid.  In Cypher, the first might be a Speaker Type Flavored with Magic.  The second would be an Explorer Flavored with Magic.  Something like a Thief might be an Explorer Flavored with Stealth.  This is a great addition to the system, that helps GMs and players sculpt the Types more into what they want.

Descriptors, the "adjectives," are words like "Wealthy," "Tough," or "Skeptical," and provide skills, abilities, and story-links.  The final component, the Focus or "Verb," is what makes the character special.  While a group can have multiple members of the same Type, and characters may share the same Descriptor, only one player character in the group can have any given Focus.  They shape what your character does, what drives him, and grant him special abilities.

Foci like Howls at the Moon or Bears a Halo of Fire provide a suite of supernatural powers.  Others like Defends the Weak or Calculates the Incalculable provide more subtle--though no less useful, abilities.  Each provides a talent that unlocks every new Tier.  Commands Mental Powers, for example, provides "Telepathic" at the first Tier, "Mind Reading" at the second, "Psychic Burst" at the third, "Uses Senses of Others" at fourth, "Mind Control" at Fifth, and "Telepathic Network" at sixth.  Most of these abilities cost an increasing number of pool points to activate.

For the GM

While Cypher treats player characters as their three core Stats, augmented by a suite of skills, abilities, and characteristics provided by Descriptor, Type, and Focus, things are considerably simpler on the GM's side of the screen.  Cook understands that players like "bits;" they want lists of things they can acquire for their characters.  This, after all, is their role in the game...to lavish attention on their single character.  When you are in the position of having to run everyone else in the world, you need a more zen tool kit.

The first thing to mention is that the GM never rolls a die (well, almost never).  The entire Cypher System is player facing...they make the rolls to attack and dodge, to persuade or resist persuasion, etc.

The second thing is that creatures and NPCs in Cypher are handled in the exact same way as all challenges.  The GM assigns them a level between 1 and 10.  In some cases, that is all that they need.  As a sort of combat shorthand, the level x 3 tells us how hard they are to hit and what the player needs to roll to avoid getting hit by them, how many hit points they have, and (level x 1) how much damage they do.  The level can also be used to tell us how "skilled" they are.  

If extra detail or realism is required, the GM can add it.  Say an NPC is a brilliant nuclear physicist but also an ailing old man.  The character can then be represented as Dr. Robert Weiss (Level 1, Nuclear Physics 8).  His level is used for most things, but his Nuclear Physics value is used when trying to unravel the biology of that radiation-fueled kaiju.  The GM determines how much detail the NPC needs to have.


"Intrusions" and "Cyphers" (see below) are to my mind the two stand-out characteristics of the game system.  Intrusions allow the GM to add elements to the game that complicate, hinder, or further challenge players.  They replace the need for dice rolling and give the GM more control over the story.  

They work like this; when the GM wants to intrude, he informs the targeted player.  The player may then accept the Intrusion, and be rewarded with 2 experience points, or refuse the Intrusion and pay an experience point back to the GM.  Interestingly, the player keeps only one of the experience points he is rewarded with, immediately handing the second point to one of the other players in the party as a reward for good play, clever ideas, witty banter, etc.  Since Intrusions are a major source of experience, this has the effect of letting the group reward its own members with experience rather than GM fiat alone.

Example: Fighting a zombie horde with an Uzi, the GM suddenly informs his player that the submachine gun jams.  The player can accept this, and 2 XP, or refuse and pay 1 XP to the GM.

As mentioned above, a roll of 1 on the die allows the GM to intrude on players without paying experience.

Running Numenera, I have used Intrusions for all sorts of things, such as adding bits of backstory to character history, having NPCs take an instant dislike to a character, the sudden appearance of "wandering monsters," etc.  This mechanic, along with the ease of crafting NPCs and challenges, and the fact the GM doesn't need to roll dice, has made it a lot easier to concentrate on keeping the game interesting.  But these are things more "gamist" players may bristle at.

A Word on Combat

Combat works like anything else in the Cypher System.  Players will make the appropriate Might, Speed, or Intellect roll depending on the nature of their weapons (strength-based, agility-based, or magical, psionic, etc).  The target number to hit is (generally) the NPC's level x 3.  This is also the target number to avoid getting hit by an NPC.

Weapons are rated as Light, Medium, and Heavy.  Light weapons do a base of two points of damage, but using them "steps down" the difficulty because they are light and easy to use.  Medium weapons do a base of 4 points of damage, and Heavy weapons do a base of 6 points (they have the disadvantage of requiring both hands to use).  These rules are universal for ranged and melee weapons alike.

I said "base damage."  Rolling a 17, 18, 19, or 20 on a successful attack adds +1, +2, +3, or +4 to the damage roll (19 and 20 can unlock additional bonuses as well).  Effort can also be spent to increase the damage done.

Armor comes in the three same categories and absorbs a like amount of damage (1, 2, and 3).  But heavier armour comes with Might Pool costs per hour and Speed reductions.  Some characters will have access to talents and abilities that alleviate or reduce these costs.    

Cyphers in the Cypher System

Numenera established three types of "treasure" that Cypher has inherited.  There are the Artefacts, powerful devices or tools that are useful and reusable (a magic sword in a fantasy RPG).  There are Oddities, reusable devices that aren't really terribly useful (a holocrystal in a space opera game that shows the image of a long-dead, beautiful woman), and Cyphers, one-use items that are useful (old school D&D potions and scrolls spring to mind).  Cyphers are at the heart of the game; players can carry a limited number of them, and are expected to constantly come across more of them in play.  This creates a steady and ever-changing stream of cool things players can do in a game in addition to their own innate powers and abilities.  

But in the Ninth World setting of Numenera, Cyphers make sense.  This is a billion-year-old world littered with the detritus on long-dead, ridiculously advanced civilisations.  Potent little gadgets can be found everywhere.  Likewise, in a fantasy RPG, Cypher-like items are a long-standing tradition, easy to work into a magic-rich world.  But what about games that are not heavy on science fiction wonders or ancient magics?

Cypher introduces two categories of Cyphers...those that are Manifest and those that are Subtle.  A Manifest Cypher could be a potion, a rune, a drug, or some gadget.  A Subtle Cypher works a bit like the old drama deck in TORG or its Savage Worlds "Adventure Deck" descendent.  It's a lucky break, a plot twist, a handy bit of karma or deus ex machina that PCs earn and can use or discard in favour of another.  A Subtle Cypher might turn an NPC into a romantic interest, act as an Asset for a daring escape, give a bonus to damage, etc.  It allows the Cypher mechanic to be ported easily into virtually any game, regardless of genre.

And Speaking of Genres...

The Cypher System breaks things down into five broad genres; Fantasy, Science Fiction, Modern, Horror, and Superheroes.  It dedicates a chapter to each of these, giving guidelines on modifying character Types to fit the setting, listing Foci that are appropriate to the genre, adding additional optional rules, customising equipment, etc.  

Fantasy Game Type Suggestions

Foci for a Modern Game

For example, an optional mechanic for the Superhero genre allows players to designate "power shifts" to certain abilities.  A super-humanly strong character might assign 5 of these to all his Might-based lifting, throwing, and smashing rolls.  A singularly gifted detective might add 3 to his deduction-based activities.  What this does is immediately step down all difficulties in that area for the character.  An object that is a Difficulty 7 challenge to lift for other characters becomes Difficultly 2 for our strongman.  Likewise, the book advocates scaling Superhero games on a scale of 1 to 15 rather than 1 to 10, as the genre frequently has characters do things "beyond the impossible."

Another example is in Horror.  While rules mimicking Call of Cthulhu's "Sanity" are introduced, another scary mechanic is "Horror Mode."  When this is activated (the PCs enter the haunted house, are lost in the black bayou, etc), the GM's ability to inflict experience point free Intrusions on a roll of 1 jumps up to a roll of 1 or 2.  As the tension and horror increases, it continues to step up, increasing the chances of the GM inflicting dreadful woe on characters.  

There are tons of other options as well.  Starship combat rules, creating aliens and fantasy races, and anything else you might imagine for a multi-genre game.  Weighing in at 418 pages, the Cypher System is a rules-light game at its core packed with options to suit various tastes.


So does the Cypher System actually reflect how players "really play" games and game masters "really run" them?  Yes and no.  Obviously, no game system can satisfy the needs of every group.  Were that the case, we would likely still all be playing old school D&D.  It does reflect how I have tended to run games the last thirty-odd years; as a constant GM I have always tried to take short cuts to minimise my book-keeping, while keeping loads of options on the table for players.  I strongly suspect many if not most GMs do the same.  The levels of detail a player wants to bring his character to life are not equally suitable to NPC stat blocks, and Cypher embraces this concept and executes it brilliantly.

Cook makes it clear that the story comes first in Cypher, and if you are the type of player who feels that way, you will like the system.  While there are enough options in the game to make it more tactical and gamist, it is unlikely someone looking for those things would make a game like this their first choice.  The system is, after all, about creating an experience, not necessarily about strategy, gaming the rules, and playing to win.  

While it shows Cook's long association with Dungeons & Dragons in the use of a d20, the classes, and the levels, the truth is that the designer has managed to make each of those elements distinct from their inspiration.  Types and Tiers feel almost invisible in the game, more a general guide than actual mechanics, and it in no way breaks the rules to modify, remove, or tinker with any of them.  Cypher is constantly and consistently reminded you to do just that if it suits the game you want to run.

While multi-genre, Cypher sits alongside games like TORG, MasterBook, Savage Worlds, or Feng Shui in feeling far more cinematic than simulationist or literary.  Indeed, it has a great deal in common with Savage Worlds, but its mechanics are far less visible in play.  Don't get me wrong, I love Savage Worlds, but with all its various bells and whistles while playing it you are always reminded you are playing Savage Worlds.  Cook's system fades far more readily into the background.  Something to keep in mind if you are looking for that sort of thing.

Play Cypher System if you are a game master looking to run compelling sessions without a great deal of prep.  Play if you are a player who likes general archetypes to help you build a character, but wants a wide range of options so that you aren't straight-jacketed into them.  Play if you value discovery over combat.  Play if you are looking for a cinematic experience.  Play if you like the idea of resource management over die rolls.  These things are not how every group plays, but if they are how yours does, get this game.