Advancement in the Cypher System

“You don’t earn XP for killing foes or overcoming standard challenges
in the course of play.  Discovery is the soul of the Cypher System.”
(Revised Cypher System Rulebook, page 11)

Having cut my teeth on games such as Dungeons & Dragons, Top Secret, Shadowrun, and many, many other similar ones, I grew up playing in the backyard in places I lived with sticks.  To me, they were swords or guns (OK, sometimes the guns were taped together cardboard tubes from wrapping paper or toilet paper or paper towels too).  I have no idea how many imaginary goblins, or giants, or enemy spies, or AAA Megacorp goons I killed in those days.  In my mind, I suppose I was the world’s most proficient “Bad Guy Slayer” of all time.  I’d imagine if there had been a job posting for such a position, I probably would have applied.

Thirty years of playing those games trained me well.  I learned that when I kill the bad thing, I get the experience.  When I get the experience, I level up and get cooler stuff and cooler ways to kill the bad thing.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

When I discovered Numenera and the Cypher System, it took me some time to wrap my head around the ‘why’ behind the reason that the experience system was so different.  Monte Cook sums it up well in Your Best Game Ever:

Here’s a very simple truth: the players will ultimately do whatever they get rewarded for. If the game system rewards them for fighting (through treasure and/or points to advance their character), they’re going to fight things. If killing the people in the way is the easiest and most straightforward method to get what they want, they’re probably going to do that.  So if you want less combat, flip the script. Award the characters experience points or loot for doing other things.” 

Your Best Game Ever, page 148 (bold italics added for emphasis)

By design, Numenera, the Cypher System, and related games were set up to reward things other than combat.  Does that mean that there will be no combat?  Of course not.  Sometimes, people just need killin’.  There would also not be much point to having a section on “creatures” in the core Cypher Rulebook as well as one in Numenera with, not one, not two, but three Bestiaries. What it means, however, is that the intended focus was not on combat. In other words, this gives the GM an opportunity to design stories that surround other spaces, and in my mind, this is a really cool thing to do as a design goal.

While the main mechanics for giving out experience are GM Intrusions and story awards, both as part of a campaign and (if you use them and hopefully after reading about them you’re at least thinking about doing so) Character Arcs, there are some other options. One of the most common that we have seen used is a take on the concept of Milestone Advancement that was made popular with Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition. In this variant method, the 4XP advancement totals needed for each portion of the Tier advancement cycle are given at appropriate “story points” at the GM’s discretion. Any experience gained from GM Intrusions, finding artifacts, or any other methods is used toward Player Intrusions, immediate, short-term, and medium-term effects (see Revised Cypher System Rulebook, page 239).

Ultimately, this is just one aspect of what is, to me, a major paradigm shift in how a GM thinks about “adventure” construction, “campaign” construction, and table dynamic. This, along with a couple of other ideas that we’ll be discussing here are the biggest reasons that Joann and I more or less only work in games based on the Cypher System now. It’s just too powerful of a concept to ignore once you can give yourself over to it. It has made me a better player, a better GM, and I have a lot more fun telling stories with my friends this way.

  • Josh Walles

Now on DriveThruRPG, from Angel’s Citadel… A brand new, original setting for the Cypher System! The Hope’s Horizon Starter Kit requires the Revised Cypher System Rulebook from Monte Cook Games.

5 thoughts on “Advancement in the Cypher System

  1. I always liked the original D&D mechanic of xp for gold, because it rewarded gaining the loot rather than the killing for it. I’m not really sure why D&D ended up moving on to xp for kills. I’m not a big fan of pure milestone advancement because it sort of feels like it doesn’t matter what you do in the game, you’ll advance at a set pace. I’m also not a huge fan of quest reward exp because I feel like it forces me to ‘care’ about whatever meta the GM is throwing at me to advance in level.

    I’d prefer my players push towards discovery, making any sort of impact on the world(good, bad or personal) and finding wondrous items so I’d tend to give out xp for that. As for milestones, I think I wouldn’t mind that being a limiter. As in you’re only allow to tier up at specific milestones. This would enable me to throw xp at the players more frequently that they could spend on re-rolls, intrusions, crafting, etc and not feel like spending it would limit advancement. I’m not sure I’d choose ‘story points'(because I don’t want to worry about a story), rather so much a every X sessions or something so characters don’t tier up too quickly in the campaign. Perhaps other world milestones could be picked up and set up before hand: owning land, leading followers, felling a great beast, finding a lost treasure or city, completing a great task for your patron, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve actually seen it done (and played it) both ways (session and “story”). Neither feels particularly limiting, but it might depend on the group. The point, I guess, is there are multiple ways of looking at it that don’t fall back on “I kill the thing, I get the XP”, and that Cypher, as a whole, is designed for that. What works for your group needs to be, ultimately, what you do since the point is for all of you to have fun and tell a good story.

      Thanks so much for your comment! Great observations.

      – Josh Walles


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