This was one of those games I could not figure out. I put this on a shelf, boxed it up twice, and gave up on it as too obscure and abstract.
For one, I could not get character creation through my brain. It was a descriptive sentence, but none of the translations between the words and the numbers made any sense.
Pools? Effort? Edge? Hindering? Assets? And the difficulty and target number system?
There are no hit dice? Any challenge is the same? Intrusions? Where are all the combat rules? What can this do that B/X can't do with an AC and a bag of hit points?
|AI Art by @nightcafestudio
Then, I played a post-apocalyptic 'Road Warrior' style game with the system. Car combat rules? There is no need for Car Wars and counters; I made them up on the spot. And they worked. And they worked incredibly well. Cars had levels. Size and level differences were assets or hindrances on attacks and defenses. The size was not everything, as a junky, large delivery van with lousy weapons may be an attack at level 2, defend on level 3, and have level 5 (15) hits. Weapons? Light, medium, and heavy, just like characters. That isn't in the official rules, but it worked for me - otherwise, enemy cars, damage equals level.
The car fights - in the narrative - were better than anything I had ever 'theater of the mind played' in 30 years of knowing Car Wars, Twilight: 2000, or Aftermath.
Traffic in a packed border outpost town? Give it a level. Try to get delivery missions done while your junk delivery van breaks down, overheats, and nearly gets hit by idiot drivers. Need more narrative spice? Don't 'say something happens - offer a GM intrusion. Are you bored playing solo? That is your fault; trip a GM intrusion and make something happen - this is your game! Want to push back as the character? Spend an XP for a player intrusion. Tell the GM what happens as the character. Create an NPC, or put a dungeon on the map and say you are going there.
You are not reading through 40-year-old D&D modules missing critical parts of the room descriptions and giving up because they are too wordy. You are not a bag of hit points with an AC and daily spell slots. I realized that the Cypher system was born out of decades of frustration with D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder 1e.
This is when it all clicked.
The entire game is the d20 DC system built into a game, with narrative pools and spent effort controlling player agency. Every other part of 3.5e is tossed out, but that DC system remains and is the game's core. There is a crunchy framework for characters and powers, so you get more than a typical rules-light game. This isn't the FATE system. It is not so abstract; the world becomes a blur of conditional words and sentences, and relative difficulties are adjusted by rolls.
There are numbers here. These root the game in math. There is a crunch to the characters. The game rewards balancing your abilities, and one-trick pony characters will be boring and one note in parts of the game. A made a bard who could not fight, and it showed. I rebuilt the bard into a stealth fighter with a few bard abilities, and the character could contribute in many situations.
Rules-light games suffer from characters being too abstract, where you could justify using a vague 'panache' bard ability as an attack roll. I have seen games like that become one note, with players only using one ability score to do everything - from forcing open doors to attacking targets at range.
One of the worst parts of Cypher is realizing you want to play another game and realizing the other game is missing huge parts of the rules - or those parts suck in the other game - and realizing the Cypher System could just do it in a roll plus difficulty. Shadowrun, with its mixed magic and hacking, is perfect for the Cypher System, and I can't imagine playing it with any version of the official Shadowrun rules without my brain melting.
First, answer the question: What are you trying to do?
Hacking? Set a difficulty.
Magic? Set a difficulty.
Exploring cyberspace? What are you doing there? Set a difficulty (if you even need to).
Using a heavy weapon to attack a flying car? Set a difficulty.
Car combat? Do what I did in Road War. It is easy. It works.
Down the line, click, click, click - it all works.
Do I want drow and tieflings in Shadowrun? Uh-oh, I need to hack them in or buy a book with them! Cypher System? I have them; I can build them in a second. What are you talking about? Why spend more money or hop between games with different feature sets?
Some of the rules I have are missing entire parts of these rules. Or the spells boil down into the overused B/X magic. I want to be a fantastic street mage! Magic missile! What? Can we wait for my fireball spell to be in a couple of levels? Give me a few weeks of play here to be excellent. Let's start at a higher level! Please? D&D progression is becoming a joke; the spells are a half-century old, and it isn't the be-all and end-all of roleplaying.
But to enjoy Cypher, you need to be more on the narrative side of the game than the rules. If you enjoy the rules of a system - fine - that is your thing. Me? I pick up classic Traveller, get excited, and then realize it is missing vehicle combat rules. Are we having an air raft chase? Um, some skill rolls? Is the referee's hand waving damage?
Cypher? Level 3 vehicle, hand weapon attacks against it are hindered by 2 levels to a difficulty 5. Vehicle weapons target it on a 3. Asset and hinder as usual. How many hits? Level 3 times 3 is nine.
Done. Now play. It will work. If not, adjust a little. Want the character's air raft to crash land somewhere interesting? Use a GM Intrusion. I am way further in this adventure than I would be simulating this with the classic Traveller rules. I would not even be on the planet yet.
If you like the Traveller rules and enjoy rolling 2d6, play that!
For me, especially playing solo, I don't care about the rules that much. The story interests me a lot more. The crunch is in the characters, not the setting rules. I am not looking up rules. Do I need hacking rules in my Traveller game? The same way I handled hacking in my Shadowrun game still works. In Shadowrun, you use a 3d avatar to fly around a virtual network. In Traveller, you search a text prompt for the library, volume, and index of a magnetic data tape the size of a loaf of bread you need to find in a storage room and insert it into a data reading terminal.
It is all flavor, as the Cypher System people love to say.
But flavor matters! That flavor will influence Player and GM Intrusions. GM Intrusion? The magnetic tape may be damaged, and the data needs to be recovered. The 3d virtual environment may have a glitch. Player Intrusion? The magnetic tape has extra deleted data on it, and when recovered, it is also very useful. You meet someone beneficial in the virtual environment.
Flavor matters for narrative, not mechanics. A key point here.
Keep the original book near you for inspiration, but ignore the rules. The Cypher System puts you in "the story of" faster than any of these games. Some people can't handle that, and that is okay too. I can abstract things down to the narrative pieces and ignore the rest. I can crunch in Cypher System if I want details, like tracking ammo down to the bullet. Or not. Some games don't even give you the choice.
One of the best parts about the Cypher System is that it plays solo amazingly well, and I don't need to buy shelves full of books to tell stories in infinite worlds - or read thousands of pages of rules for 90% of situations, spells, and options I will never use.