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:
Always randomly generate the cypher within the confines of the skill being used.
- 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.
- 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.
Allowing the player to create what they’re going for, with the GM determining the specific cypher and level range that results.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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!