Mischief and Mayhem: Making Creatures and NPCs your own

Creatures start on page 312 of the Revised Cypher System Rulebook (Red Cover Copyright 2019). There are additional books for other settings, Numenera has three bestiaries currently, The Strange has one, and Invisible Sun has one (Teratology), if you want to look at those. My focus with this blog post, though, is going to be on the core rule book. 

First, before you can make a creature your own, you need to understand what it is? What purpose does it serve? The Chapter on Creatures starts out with this paragraph:

This chapter describes many common and uncommon creatures that the characters might meet—and fight—in a Cypher System game and gives their stats. The variety of creatures that populate the possible settings and genres is so great that this chapter only scratches the surface. It does, however, provide examples of kinds of inhabitants—bestial and civilized, living and undead, organic and inorganic—so that you can easily extrapolate and create your own.

What that means, in my opinion, is that they don’t want you to just take these creatures as what you have and what you can work with, but they actually want you to create your own for your own use. Now, how do you do that? Well, first you start with your base creature. 

As an example: I’m going to use a ‘normal’ animal for my base. The ever present, rarely seen except in passing, Rat. In the Core book it’s listed as a level 1. But, I want to make this rat or these rats special. So let’s make it a Swarm of Rats, that jumps this group from a level 1 to a level 3 encounter. Finally, let’s add something special, maybe these rats explode on death, or have disease bites. So now, this creature that started as a level 1 is now a level 4 encounter.

Alternatively, I could have a swarm of Rats led by a giant rat, who when seeing the change of combat would flee the scene. The book by Keith Ammann: The Monsters Know What They’re Doing is a good book for helping you plot out your encounters, including for the Cypher System.

However, these changes, while interesting, are more to improve flavor of the encounter, not necessarily bog the group down with incessant combat rolls. Always, feel free to adapt this on the fly. Use decks, has Josh mentioned how much he loves decks?

Now, let’s say you want to make your own creature completely from scratch, first, where do they come from? What is their motivation? How intelligent are they? Now you need to decide level, stats, and flavor the creature to fit your genre. I wouldn’t suggest putting something like an abomination in a suburbia setting, unless you’re in a horror post-apocalyptic genre.  Then, conceptually look at either the difficulty level table, or the creatures already in the book (or both) and think about where the creature you have in your mind fits on that scale.  There’s your level.  All of the other base mechanical attributes of the creature are derived from that level.  Voila!  You have a creature.

That creature can be modified easily enough as well.  Give it armor to reduce the damage it takes, have it act as a different level for a specific skill (either as an advantage or a disadvantage), give it more (or less) health than it would have based on its level.  The possibilities are endless for you to customize that creature any way you want, to look like and act like anything you want.

Making NPCs your own is both a little harder and a little easier. In a previous post I talked about how it takes more than funny accents. This is true for NPC’s as well. I recommend making your NPCs location generic if possible.  The Cypher System, by design, caters to a more fluid game session.  If you keep your NPC’s location-independent, you are then free to drop them in wherever you need.  Do you need to give the PC’s a vital clue about a murder, but they don’t go to the barracks to talk to the captain of the guard?  No worries, he’s walking around on patrol by the marketplace where the PC’s are instead.  One of the things I try to do is to have no less than 3 interesting NPC’s thought out ahead of time.  I drop them in wherever needed.  If, one session, I don’t use them all, I simply recycle them. The Cypher System NPC Deck is great for this with suggestions not only on names but personality traits and description seeds.

If you really want your NPC to be memorable, however, then you need to ask the same questions about it that you would about your character. What does the NPC want? What does the NPC need? What lengths is the NPC willing to go to? Why is the NPC here? Of course, including funny accents and mannerisms will make the NPC more realistic, but don’t go overboard.

As Michael E. Shae wrote in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, “Prepare only what benefits your game”.  You have no idea ahead of time what the players are going to do, so don’t sink so much into an NPC that they might not even use.  If a player has the choice between talking to the super edge lord or the goblin, they’re going to pick the goblin 90 percent of the time, apparently to Matt Mercer’s eternal consternation.. 

GMSprinkles from the Cypher Unlimited Discord also created a video on Creating Great NPCs that can be seen here. It’s only 13 minutes, and well worth your time. Go check it out. Happy gaming!

  • Joann Walles

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