Cypher: The Ease of Creation

Today I’ll be making a pass-through with the Cypher System to show exactly how simply you can go from a vague concept to a ready-to-play setting; while practice with any system can make it easy enough for a GM to generate a setting on the fly, this particular set of rules makes it exceptionally simple. If you have ideas for a world (and who in this hobby doesn’t?) you can make a setting here in under an hour.

Step One: The Concept

My wife and I have just recently started playing Rift, so it’s fresh and appealing in mind and I’ll be using the roughest concepts of it for this worldbuilding demonstration. At the most basic level, it’s the story of a fantasy world with techno-magic and divine forces, under siege from beyond the veil of the normal worlds. We’ll use that, setting aside the specific aspects of the MMO’s world.

Then to tweak it and make it more comfortable and less instantly recognizable to any palyers who are familiar with the originating seed, I’ll say the invading forces are not just elemental, but also infernal, celestial, and completely alien. The elemental forces will be Earth, Air, Fire, and Water; the infernal forces are the Devils (who come to claim souls) and Ruin (which just wants to wreck everything); the celestial forces are the Archons (who are sick of mortals screwing everything up) and Light (which is the kind of invasive Good that doesn’t understand free will, choice, or boundaries); and the alien forces don’t have distinctions that mortals can understand, even though sometimes the groups fight one another. We’ll call the alien forces Nightmares, and give them a nice dose of tentacles and fungus for their looks.

Step Two: The Focus

Now we have a rough shape for the world; it’s a battleground for extradimensional forces at war with one another, with the mortals being unfortunate enough to be in the way. Now we need to draw out the specific details that’ll fill out the campaign itself, and to give the players the room they need to make their characters and integrate themselves into the world and the plot.

I’ve already decided to keep the technomagic element of the seed; I’ll build on it for this stage. Let’s say that the technomagic is a relatively recent development; prior to the invasions, it was mostly just priests and wizards wielding obscure powers, but the discovery that mystical power could be drawn into crystalline batteries and used to power devices has given rise to an entire group of engineers who develop machines that, just before the invasions began, were set to completely permeate society.

The batteries are powered by the essence of other planes, which naturally manifest in the world as magic; long ago, some wizards who were tired of having to go to great lengths to obtain power acquired some artifacts from the various other realms and used them to create conduits to siphon planar energy into the world. They didn’t realize this tethered the mortal realm to each of these other worlds and that, in time, the rising levels of each essence would thin the walls of reality and permit incursions.

So now we also have the catch: in order to fight the incursions, the world needs stored power from the planes; but storing power from the planes and discharging it in the world thins the barriers of reality further, making the next incursion even more likely and larger. Let it go too far, draw too much energy into the mortal world, and the barriers will fall apart completely, merging the planes together.

Step Three: The Characters

Happily, for this step we already have a handy tool from Monte Cook Games – a character and campaign sheet PDF. The main thing here is to eliminate options, rather than selecting them; the Cypher System thrives on variety, and so we should really only cut what we absolutely need to keep out of the game. As the setting is fantasy with anachronistic magitech, the options will be a bit wider than they would be for straight-up fantasy.

The Descriptors aren’t a problem; they rarely will be, unless you want to encourage a certain slant in character concepts for your players. The only ones you’ll want to look at in most cases are the Mechanical and Mystical ones, as they have a clear bias toward science and magic, respectively; with the setting so far, we don’t need to worry about either one being a problem.

Foci can be a bigger issue, since some are simply incompatible with certain setting styles. It wouldn’t make sense to have someone who Pilots Starcraft in a game about fighting the orcish hordes, or someone who Casts Spells in a reasonably hard sci-fi game. Even here, though, if you want to take the time, you can reflavor some of the Foci to make them fit better. I won’t be doing that here, as I’m planning to keep this design short and fast.

So, looking at the Foci list, here are the ones I’m knocking out as playable options:

  • Battles Robots
  • Builds Robots
  • Doesn’t Do Much (Ordinarily, I’d leave it in, but this is intended to be an energetic and high-action setting.)
  • Explores Deep Waters
  • Is Idolized By Millions (The apocalypse is coming and those fans would be busy keeping things together.)
  • Pilots Starcraft
  • Talks to Machines
  • Travels Through Time

And that’s it, really. Some that seem like they’d be out of place at first glance (Would Rather Be Reading) fit just fine after a deeper look, so there’s no need to do more than trim a few Foci away. Fuses Mind and Machine doesn’t even take any effort to declare as a magitech focus, integrating planar-powered machinery into one’s body.

Step Four: The Plot

And here’s the last part – you need to take what you’ve got and come up with a set of possible plots to dangle in front of the players to pique their interest and get them to agree to play in your brand-new world. Ideally, you should bias the list toward the people you play with.

For this setting, looking at what I’ve spun out so far, I can see a world where we have large stretches of normal civilization, embattled areas that routinely see incursions, and a few places which have fallen completely where planar forces have established a permanent presence (unless brave champions go drive them out, of course.) There are no true borders; anywhere with a flux of planar energy can become unstable and have an incursion happen, so civilization tends to be fortified cities and the surrounding lands that support them, with roving forces that hunt for unstable areas and try to balance and stabilize them.

So, for plots, off the top of my head I can come up with:

  • At least one member of the group is a magitech engineer, and they’re a crew that hunts down unstable areas, roots out any planar infestations, and then stabilizes the area.
  • Given the need for planar power to fuel the magitech, the characters are planar bounty hunters; they each have a device that can siphon the essence of planar creatures into a battery, and so they go hunting incursions and nests of planar creatures to collect power to sell.
  • Quizlings among the natives of the world mean that there can be people actively trying to destabilize the environment of major cities to provoke an incursion. The players are effectively the secret police, hunting these quizlings and any planar creatures disguised as mortals to keep their home safe. Nightmare planars in particular are effective choices for this, as their utterly alien nature makes them a difficult foe to get ahead of, and their ‘fungus’ vibe may mean they can infect and take over victims.
  • The players are planars, but they’re ones certain that their plane merging with the mortal world would be a fantastic thing for the mortals, not some kind of apocalypse. As such, they go about trying to impress the mortals with their abilities, fight off incursions of other planars, and try to tilt the world’s energy balance in their favor.
  • The biggest problem, it turns out, is those artifacts the ancient mages used to forge conduits. If those are returned to their native planes, the border of worlds will heal itself much more easily and be able to vent excess planar energy back into the void. Time for a Grand Quest to claim the artifacts and exile them to their home planes! Unfortunately, the best way to exile them is to chuck them into an open gateway at one of the long-term incursion points.
  • As nasty as most of the planars can be, even the forces of Ruin get creeped out by the Nightmare incursions. The players need to organize an alliance to drive those alien horrors from the world forever – and, perhaps, in doing so they can plant the seeds for a world where the planars are just allies and trade partners, not mortal foes.
  • On the other hand, those Ruin types just want to wreck everything, and most of the time the Nightmare forces seem to be content to just hang out in a single village of ex-human types. Better organize an alliance to drive out the forces of Ruin and their quizling who just want to watch the world burn.

And that’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure other plots will suggest themselves to you – and you’re perfectly welcome to play in this world!

On the other hand, if you want to explore Rift, drop me a comment and I’ll be happy to send you an invite link so you can get some bonus rewards for joining. It’s a beautiful game with plenty to do, and I may return to it for more details on lesson that can be drawn from games or to show how to convert elements of it to tabletop use.

Cypher: The Ease of Creation

Player-Crafted Cyphers

In the Cypher System, there are one-shot items that can provide any number of magnificent effects; these are the cyphers for which the system is named. Players can only carry a limited number of them at any given time, and GMs are encouraged to provide a steady supply of them so that players don’t feel that they need to cling to them in case they really need them.

Typically they’re the sort of thing you scavenge as treasure or get as a reward for a task, but today I’m going to look at the option of allowing crafting-minded players create cyphers of their own. There are two primary ways to do this – the first, most in keeping with the rules, is for the player to declare that they’re going to make a cypher using a particular skill, and then you generate the cypher within the constraints of what they’ve done; the other is to allow them to specific what they’re crafting and the potency they’re going for, and then see how well their attempt goes.

Method One – Generating A Cypher On Demand

This is the method best used for settings where the players are dealing with technologies and powers they don’t really understand; if I were allowing someone to craft a cypher in Numenera, this would be the method I’d choose, as they’re effectively hooking random bits of ancient technology together to see if they can get something to happen. I wouldn’t use it for most sci-fi, modern, or fantasy games, however.

The randomness can certainly be part of the fun, but it also takes away some of the player’s agency. If they’re skilled in creating the kind of item they’d like to make, it doesn’t make much sense for them to risk creating something completely different. A person skilled in brewing potions isn’t going to accidentally cook up a dimensional rift bomb when they were going for a healing potion unless something went seriously awry (as in a GM Intrusion). On the other hand, a person whose skill is in improvising or jury-rigging devices can and should have this method used.

Method Two – Constructing A Cypher To Order

This method is a good one for players whose characters are skilled in crafting a particular kind of item. Someone with a good deal of skill and knowledge of how something works should have little trouble cobbling together simple cyphers with a little time and funding; an example would be a character skilled in crafting potions in a fantasy setting, or one skilled in chemistry making explosives in a modern one. The advantage here is that the player can specify what effect they’re going for, and aim for a particular level of effect. ‘White willow bark tea’ is a lower level painkiller than synthesizing acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin), which is in turn a lower level than, say, morphine.

On the other hand, this often can diminish the variety of cyphers the characters have and the ingenuity they need to put into using them, making it less exciting and less of a thrill to overcome challenges with those creative uses. While this certainly benefits the kind of players who appreciate the ability to get what they need to make their plans work and provides an extra dose of personal agency to the players, it can leave the more spontaneous type of player feeling a bit less enthusiastic.

In Between – A Mix Of Methods

The Cypher System being what it is, there’s nothing to stop a GM from mixing and matching aspects of the two methods I’ve described; this is the way I’m mostly like to run with the idea of player-created cyphers, in fact.

In this, while the player can specify the effect they’re going for and the rough power they want for it, if they fail they don’t simply fail; they produce something unexpected, a cypher of unknown power and strength. This is where a potion-maker brewing a healing draught might unexpectedly discover themselves with a Draught of Brute Strength that gives them an asset on all Might checks for an hour, or where the chemist might accidentally synthesize an acid that eats metal but not organics when aiming to make an explosive.

The biggest advantage here is that it encourages players to let go of the fear of failure that other games have trained into them, as well as helping the GM think outside of succeed/fail options. Failure in the Cypher System should always continue to make things interesting and exciting, and this is a perfect opportunity to showcase that feature. It may cause some player bickering – one person wanting a reroll to get the planned-for item, another wanting to see what weird and exotic item is produced instead – but overall it’s a way to have the best of both worlds.

So, to recap:

Method One

Always randomly generate the cypher within the confines of the skill being used.

-Pros-

  • The randomness can be exciting for players.
  • The variety of available cyphers will be increased by the random factor.
  • A wide range of cyphers encourages players to come up with creative uses for the cyphers available to them.
  • Thematically appropriate for Numenera, certain recursions of The Strange, and characters with a skill that amounts to jury-rigging devices from random parts.

-Cons-

  • This method removes some agency from the player using the skill, by essentially turning them into randomized device generators.
  • Players with a tendency toward planning and scheming will find it less appealing, because they’ll need to build their plans around what they end up with, rather than getting what their ideal plan calls for.
  • The randomness may discourage players from trying to generate cyphers at all, essentially rendering those skill investments worthless.

Method Two

Allowing the player to create what they’re going for, with the GM determining the specific cypher and level range that results.

-Pros-

  • Players who choose to craft cyphers have additional control and agency, making them feel more powerful and central to the story being told.
  • It encourages the kind of players who enjoy coming up with plans and plots, letting them ask for cyphers made to order for their schemes.
  • It encourages the more enthusiastic kind of player that enjoys pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, letting them see what kind of exotic cyphers they can think up and create.

-Cons-

  • This method will tend to produce less variety of cyphers, as people will go for things that work most effectively for their plans.
  • Discourages the inventive methods of using cyphers in unusual ways, since players can get ones to order for what they expect to meet.
  • Can diminish the enthusiasm of the players that are more spontaneous, relying on being able to concoct unusual ways of using cyphers to get them in and out of trouble.

Hybrid Method

Players can define what kind of cypher they’re aiming for; the GM determines the specific cypher, level range, and if the player fails their check the GM can produce a randomized cypher instead of what they expected.

-Pros-

  • Failure on the crafting check is still an exciting outcome, as the players still get a cypher despite it not being what they were hoping for.
  • Retains a level of variety by way of those failed creation checks
  • Encourages players not to fear failure, since failure adds to their options rather than being a roadblock.
  • Encourages risk-taking; the players can aim for a more powerful cypher, knowing that they’ll still get a useful result even if they don’t get what they want.

-Cons-

  • This method can end up completely supplanting cyphers that originate as loot, somewhat undermining the free flow of cyphers during gameplay.
  • If your group contains both a Mastermind and a Freeform player, they may end up bickering over whether or not to reroll the creation checks.
  • Requires a greater deal of investment by the GM and the players, but if that’s a problem the Cypher System may not be right for you.

 

All in all? I plan to use the hybrid method in my Cypher Fantasy game tomorrow, where one player will be a Mad Explorer who Crafts Unique Objects; her training in crafting potions should leave the players reasonably ready for whatever challenges they face.

See you next time!

Player-Crafted Cyphers