A Players’ Primary Responsibility in a Cypher System Game

The Cypher System, like other RPGs is collaborative storytelling. It just tries to help players and GMs by getting out of the way of those stories…

This blog has talked a lot so far about things to help a GM run better games in the Cypher System and how to start shifting your thought process to that paradigm.  We’re going to continue to do so.  But for today’s post, I wanted to discuss a little bit about how being a player can differ from games in other systems.

As background to this thought process, the reader should keep in mind the idea of Balance as discussed in our previous post, Why Game Balance Doesn’t Matter in the Cypher System.  Precisely because the Cypher System is not designed to be a tactically balanced game (though it can approximate such), it naturally shifts towards the narrative aspects of role-playing.  This is a feature of the system – a design goal.  There are, however, some consequences of this that require some consideration in both prep for the GM and play for the Player Characters.

The biggest of these is adventure design.  Because there is less focus on “balanced” encounters, either combat or otherwise, there is a greater freedom for them to be more free-flowing without a strictly negative consequence to the players.  In other words, the players are more free to be able to tackle an encounter or problem using varied methods both because the system offers so many and because it is so easily adaptable to fine tune them on the fly.  Where many systems offer a pattern of adventure design that suggests that a GM should attempt to anticipate several possible outcomes and hinge the adventure on these, Cypher embraces, by design, a much more sandbox approach.  Using tools like decks and others, a GM can manage player ingenuity with much more confidence.

Accordingly, the Players in a Cypher System game, aside from simply being the only ones to roll dice, should embrace driving the narrative forward.  This is their primary responsibility. The Cypher System and its related games, more than in other games that I’ve both seen and played, ask the players to immerse themselves deeper in their characters, understand what motivates those characters beyond the random, and then to construct plans to go after those goals.  With ideas like Character Arcs and Bonds as game-mechanic methods for distributing experience, the GM is able to reward players who weave stories around their characters by taking that initiative in ways that make sense with the narrative rather than simply random encounters in a dungeon. They are not simply reactions to a pre-set storyline, but agents of change, masters of their own fates.

In my experience, no game does this better than Invisible Sun, a Cypher-adjacent game.  The entire process of character creation sets this up in a way better than any I’ve ever seen.  By the time you are done, Satyrene, the player characters’ hometown, feels very personal and very lifelike, with NPCs that are tied to you, locations that are tied to you, ties between you and other players, and an initial story-based goal that is personally important to your character.  Such details make it much easier to submerse your mind into that of your vislae character, and the choices you make as part of the story feel both more relevant and more personal.

In order for this to work as intended, it is crucial that players look at their characters as living beings, not just numbers on a page.  The Cypher System rules are not designed for a player to look at strictly statistically.  While, yes, it is not fun to have a character that has a difficult time in every situation, and every player deserves a chance to shine, the broad strokes Monte Cook has used to outline the system’s rules in were also not designed to be rife with exploitative min-maxing as if they were the same as some of the tactical games he has worked on in the past.  Take, for example, the feeling behind this quote from the rulebook:

“For example, a player might try to use the Energy Protection ability to protect against kinetic energy and then claim that he is immune to all attacks. He’ll see this as a hole that he was smart enough to exploit, and he’ll hold up the rules and say “Show me where I’m wrong!”  When a player does that, point him here:

“‘You’re wrong.’

“He’s wrong because the Cypher System isn’t a board game where the rules are like a puzzle to be solved or beaten.”

Revised Cypher System Rulebook, page 433

Does that sound like someone who wants to encourage players to care about how to get that extra +1 on a d20 roll by taking some ability that needs to be shoehorned into a narrative or character concept to you?  Please do not misunderstand.  I am not, by any means, trying to tell you how or how not to play or run your game.  I am simply offering a glimpse into the paradigm of the system’s design as I understand it.  The Cypher System invites GM and Players to abandon the idea that the game is a tactical puzzle, that a character is to somehow be “maximized”, and thus free themselves to dive so deeply into the story that they almost forget numbers on the page.  The system itself encourages players to drive difficulties down to where there is no roll for something – that success is assured on something that would be otherwise uncertain.  Why would that be a part of the system if the numbers and the dice were important in and of themselves?

These things exist, I would contend, ONLY to create tension in the story.  If it can be done narratively, then they are not needed.  I have personally gone entire sessions without rolling a single die with players both hanging on every word I spoke and leaving me breathless as they tell their stories.  The potential for ebb and flow in give and take between the players and the GM in a Cypher System game by design, is greater than any other game I’ve ever seen.  Not that it can’t or doesn’t happen in those games, but in my experience, it does so most of the time in spite of the rules, not because of them.

Obviously, helping to manage and encourage involvement is partly the GM’s job as well, from learning player personality types to offering custom-tailored opportunities for everyone to be in the spotlight.  But the Cypher System, with its open-ended rule set offers an endless supply of opportunities for the players themselves to craft new and unique narratives and participate in stories in fun and exciting ways.  From an open skill list (with only examples listed in the book, not required skills), to vast narrative latitudes in special abilities of both character type and focus, players are armed with less-restrictive tools to interact with each other and the world around their characters than many other systems I’ve used.

In summary, the biggest shift I see between Cypher and other games for players is similar to the one I would suggest it is for GMs: a shift to the narrative from the mechanical.  The more you give yourself over to the idea that the Cypher System is specifically built around telling a good story and sacrifices everything to that end, the faster you will understand it and discover the best ways to have fun with it.  Happy gaming!

  • Josh Walles

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