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How To Play the Cypher System: What the Heck is a Cypher?

By Jason Campbell

Cyphers are the core of the Cypher System, hence the name. Sort of. But what are they? Lots of things, really. The Cypher System is a genre agnostic TTRPG. The rules were the heart of the first game published by Monte Cook Games, Numenera. Soon afterwards the rules were extracted to create the Cypher System rulebook. Numenera is a sci-fantasy game which takes place on a planet which has seen 8 previous civilizations rise and fall over 1 billion years. In this setting cyphers are objects the characters find from previous technology that have mystical and interesting effects. The cypher system describes two types of cyphers; manifest and subtle. Manifest cyphers are objects with powers, while subtle cyphers are powers that are non-physical. 

cypher systems

Players coming from “the world’s first role playing game” are often told to think of cyphers as single use magic items, such as potions or scrolls. This is not accurate and tends to be limiting since cyphers can be much more. In Cypher System games PCs are limited in the number of cyphers they can carry. This is a purely game mechanic to encourage players to use them as soon as possible instead of hoarding them. Players coming from other TTRPG systems tend to rail against this, as in most games the common philosophy is “don’t use a magic item until you absolutely need it”. In a Cypher System game players need to adopt the attitude that they should use cyphers as soon as they possibly can. This is because GMs are encouraged to constantly have the PCs find new cyphers. Why?

I finally understood the philosophy behind cyphers when Monte Cook described their use in an ask me anything” session on the Cypher Unlimited discord server. Monte described cyphers not as single use magic items, but rotating powers for the PCs. This is the beauty of the Cypher System, each PC has several skills and abilities, but cyphers give them a few extra powers and as you use them and find new ones, your available powers change. Monte mentioned that this way if you’re playing the same character for a long time you don’t get bored with their abilities. I’m sure anyone who’s played a warlock in a 5e game understands this (“I’ll cast eldritch blast. Again.” - amiright?)

In a fantasy cypher campaign you may still run into a lot of cyphers that have the form of potions or scrolls, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The game takes on a whole new aspect when you use the attitude that cyphers are rotating abilities. 

What do you think? Do you love cyphers? Have you had difficulties with them? Let us know in the comments.