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Tabletop Game / Cypher System

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The Cypher System is a Universal System for Tabletop RPG games, originally created by Monte Cook for Numenera. The system is heavily story-based, and is built around the idea that the game master should not in general be rolling dice. The player rolls dice against a target based on the relative levels of their character and the obstacle, as adjusted for equipment and resources spent.

Instead of rolling dice, the GM can trigger an "intrusion" by handing two XP cards to a player; the player can either accept one card, give the second to another player, and deal with the intrusion, or return the two XP cards with a third one of their own and explain why the intrusion doesn't happen.


Another key element of the system is 'cyphers', single-use magic/technological items that are intended to be gained and lost easily. Each setting has a different explanation for the cyphers, in general.

Characters in Cypher System games are described by a short sentence that sums up their abilities: "I am an adjective noun who verbs." The noun is the character's type, effectively their class. While various settings have their own terms for the types, or even world-specific variations on them, the base rulebook calls them Warrior, Adept, Explorer, and Speaker. A type may optionally be given a 'flavor', such as stealth, knowledge, or magic, which affects the abilities it has access to.

The adjective is the character's descriptor, and gives the character some detail and some bonuses and penalties. Example descriptors include charming, kind, and rugged.


The verb is the character's focus, and gives the character special abilities. Foci can range from 'entertains' to 'flies faster than a bullet', with a wide range in between.

Statistics are managed in a Three-Stat System: Might, Speed, and Intellect, each of which has a pool size and an edge value; they are both resource pools and Multiple Life Bars.

Monte Cook Games publications using the Cypher System include:

Standalone games:
  • Numenera: Post-post-post-apocalyptic setting; the Ninth World has had eight prior civilizations rise and fall, leaving the entire world transformed by nanotechnology. The initial setting that the game system was written for.
  • The Strange: Multigenre dimension-traveling. An early setting, also before the creation of the generic Cypher System. Now discontinued and rolled into the Cypher System: in general, every product for The Strange can be taken from that context and used for any Cypher System campaign, and vice versa.

Setting books:

  • Gods of the Fall: Post-apocalyptic fantasy setting where the players are young gods attempting to form a new pantheon to replace the dead old gods.
  • Predation: Cretaceous era adventure with dinosaurs.
  • Unmasked: Teen superheroes in 1986 suburban America.
  • Ptolus: Monte Cook's setting that was originally used for playtesting Dungeons & Dragons third edition, updated to Cypher System (and D&D fifth edition).
  • The Origin: Superheroes are just starting to appear, making for a darker, grittier superhero setting.
  • Planebreaker: Exotic alternate planes, designed for both Dungeons & Dragons and Cypher System.

In addition, genre books have been published, each of which also comes packaged with a mini-setting:

  • The Stars Are Fire: The science-fiction book, with "The Revel" setting, in which the solar system has been colonized and was experimenting with interstellar travel when Earth was suddenly cut off from the rest of the system by an unknown force.
  • Stay Alive: The horror book, with the "Masters of the Night" setting, where vampires walk the world.
  • We Are All Mad Here: The fairy-tale book, with the "Lost in the Heartwood" setting where people touched by mental health disorders of various sorts fall into fairyland.
  • Godforsaken: The fantasy book, with the titular setting where characters from the Blessed Lands go into the Godforsaken Lands in search of wealth and magic.
  • Claim the Sky: The superhero book, with the "Boundless" setting, a world that has had superheroes since prehistoric times and yet is extremely similar to our own.
  • First Responders: A book about dealing with real-world disasters such as plane crashes, earthquakes, and pandemics.

Other games using the Cypher System include:

Tropes found in the Cypher System include:

  • Applied Phlebotinum: Cyphers tend to fall into this category, small devices that can cause a single important effect.
  • Beyond the Impossible: While difficulty in the real world normally maxes out at 10, this limit is raised to 15 with the power shift mechanic. Difficulty 11 is labelled impossible, but that label is for regular folks. For superpowered characters, impossible means something different, thanks to power shifts. Each difficulty above 10 is considered one more step beyond impossible. A normal person has no hope in hell of dealing with a threat of level 13, but this is completely possible for an augmech in Numenera, a god in Gods of the Fall, a prodigy in mask-form in Unmasked, a vampire in Stay Alive!, or a superhero in Claim the Sky and The Origin.
  • Cast from Experience Points: Players can sacrifice unspent experience points for short-term advantages.
  • Cast from Hit Points: Abilities are activated by spending points from a stat pool, which also absorbs damage. When one pool goes to zero, a character is impaired; when an impaired character has a pool go to zero, the character is debilitated. An impaired character who has a pool go to zero is dead.
  • Character Class System: Four classes (called types) in the basic game, although some worlds have variants. A character's overall class equivalent would also include their focus, which is a character's literal or figurative superpower. A focus can be used to double down on the theme of a type or to take it to a completely different place. This might mean a warrior dips into a social focus, for example, or speaker might opt for a combat focus.
    • Warrior: The fighter class, covering everything from Fragile Speedster to Mighty Glacier.
    • Adept: The mage class, covering magic, psionics, control of nanomachines, and more.
    • Explorer: The thief/rogue class, covering all sorts of delvers and investigators.
    • Speaker: The bard/leader class, covering diplomats, empaths, and puppet masters.
  • Critical Hit: On a twenty-sided die, any roll of 17 or higher can have special effects. As the GM never rolls dice, the players generally do not take critical hits except via GM intrusion.
  • Damage Reduction: How armor works; it directly subtracts from most Might-based damage.
  • The Klutz: Any character with the Clumsy descriptor. However, they have a certain lovable charm.
  • Limited-Use Magical Device: Cyphers are typically one-shot, character have a maximum number they can safely carry, and getting replacements is typically easy.
  • Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards: Present, but downplayed. Low-tier warriors can hack enemies apart up close or far away, while adepts have a number of useful-but-not-incredible support powers and some quasi-magical zaps. At high tiers, warriors are terrors in combat and useless everywhere else, while adepts gain fewer abilities but can literally move mountains with their minds. This is less of a problem than it sounds, however, as the Cypher System has a greatly decreased emphasis on game balance and the traditional combat-heavy style of D&D. It's often recommended that characters are built to be less “optimized” by the standards of a combat-heavy game so they can instead engage with more layers of the adventure, such as social encounters, exploration, or discovery. This would be hamstringing characters by the standards of other systems, but is considered an advantage for the narrative style typically encouraged by the Cypher System.
  • Luck Manipulation Mechanic: Characters can spend points from pools, along with unspent XP, to adjust their dice target numbers.
  • My Rules Are Not Your Rules: Player characters and all other characters are governed by different rules. The latter do not have stats or a damage track the way player characters do. Instead, their level controls almost everything about them - the difficulty to hit them or evade their attacks or affect them with powers, the damage they do with every weapon, how many hit points they have, etc... with certain exceptions (for example, an evasive monster might be level 4 but defend at level 5).
  • Three-Stat System: Might, Speed, and Intellect, which are simultaneously resource pools for three types of ability checks and the game's Multiple Life Bars.