Using the Cypher System to Assist in Writing Fiction

I mean… we use a word processor, and light, but I suppose a typewriter works too.

I’m sure by now that most of you have noticed: Josh and I like to write. We like to write a lot. I’ve written a number of fiction stories, some of them fanfictions that are based on worlds created by others and some original. Some are random things I’ve made up in my mind. Others, like the first part of the upcoming story that will post this Wednesday, is based on a writing prompt given from Reddit that Josh and I wrote together (one of the other things we enjoy – pair writing). This blog post is going to talk about how we use the Cypher System to help our fiction writing. For this topic, all you are going to need is the Revised Cypher System Rulebook, though some of the new toolbox books like The Stars are Fire, Stay Alive!, We Are All Mad Here, and the forthcoming Godforsaken may help depending on what you choose to write about.

First, let’s talk about setting. Setting can make or break a good story because it creates the world we immerse ourselves in. From video games, to written fiction, TV shows and movies, comic books and manga they all have a need, and that need is attention. Attention means people purchasing it, not just the items themselves, but the merchandise that goes with it. For example, Kingdom Hearts (Disney and Square Enix) not only has a video game, but also a great deal of merchandise that people spend money on to buy. The only reason that people do so is that they feel a connection with that space, they were given a great story, great characters, in short, an expansive world to immerse themselves in. Halo and Final Fantasy are other examples that have games, movies and merchandise. Good Omens, Dresden Files, Game of Thrones, Sherlock Holmes are all books that got made into movies and TV shows in an attempt to immerse others into that world using a different medium.

So, how do you use the Cypher System to create that setting? Well, Josh and I keep talking about how the Cypher System is a tool box. So, when you pull out the Revised Cypher System Rulebook, starting Chapter 13 page 251 you find the Genres. The first thing to do is to decide, where and when do you want this story to be. This will lead you to pick your genre.

Let’s say you want to write a science fiction romance. On page 272, there is a list of different people or creatures your Main Character (or MC) could encounter, then equipment. Simply ignore the prices. If you want your MC to have an expensive shiny toy in your written story, then go for it. It is, after all, your story and it does NOT need to “play out” exactly like a tabletop Cypher System game. If you keep moving on, you find a section called Hard Science. This also gives you some science insights as to how the physics of some things work for you, as well as a list of dangers your science fiction MC could face (There is more on this in Bruce Cordell’s supplement, The Stars are Fire, if you have it). But, you also want a splash of romance: perhaps a long lost love, or a new relationship on the cusp of blooming into a roaring inferno, unfairly quenched before it could even ignite. For that, you want to head over to the Romance section (page 286) and read up on the different types, and how to add them to your setting.

Next, let’s discuss characters. Every good story has a character, or several who are well known, and often thought of long after the story is set aside and you’ve moved on. A well written character has us hurt with them, smile with them, weep for them and cheer in encouragement as they overcome obstacles. Others, they’re memorable not for their ‘amazing’ but for their ordinary. Their ‘I could be that person,’ that tugs at our strings. But how do you create such a character, not just for roleplaying, but for story?

When you open the Revised Cypher System Rulebook you’ll notice that, like most RPG books, it’s been broken down into categories. Unlike others that I’ve found, you create a sentence. “I am an adjective, noun who verbs,” (or if you prefer, “I am a descriptor, type who focus“). Now, here’s where things become unique. When you go to the section on descriptors, along with the math of pool adjustment and training or inability in skills, you also get little blurbs of text. For example, the Graceful Descriptor has this:

You have a perfect sense of balance, moving and speaking with grace and beauty. You’re quick, lithe, flexible, and dexterous. Your body is perfectly suited to dance, and you use that advantage in combat to dodge blows. You might wear garments that enhance your agile movement and sense of style.

Revised Cypher System Rulebook, page 46

So this gives us an idea as to how the MC’s body looks and moves. Moving on to Character Type, and sticking with the Science Fiction with Romance, let’s have a look at the different types available under the Science Fiction section. Let’s make the MC a Doctor (Speaker with Skills and Knowledge Flavor). However, they need a romantic partner, so we’re not done yet. On page 288 are two types of romance levels, one is platonic, something like friendship, or kinship. (Think Worf and Picard.) On the other side you have romantic love. (Think Robin Hood and Maid Marian)

Now I’m sure you’re going to expect me to tell you that their romantic partner has to be someone that is their equal in some way. They don’t. That’s right I’m going against all convention and telling you that they don’t have to be equal. Because if you’re writing a story that involves two different people, they’re not going to be equal. I’ll give you a living example. Josh and I are NOT equal. We are similar, have similar tastes and desires for life, and our future, but we are not equal. He is far superior to me in intellectual subjects like Math and Science and Grammar, where as I get the feelings, the humanity of people much more easily than he does and am more talented in what are referred to as “soft skills”. The most important part of being romantic partners, is the willingness to work together towards your future together.

So, what kind of character would go best with your MC as a partner? That’s up to you, however I would pick someone that’s in a different field to remove competition. In this case, let’s make him a pilot. But not just any pilot (Explorer with Skills and Knowledge Flavoring), we’ll say he’s an EMT pilot that flies patients to the hospital she works at. Let’s make him a former soldier, perhaps where he learned to fly, so maybe he’s Guarded:

You conceal your true nature behind a mask and are loath to let anyone see who you really are. Protecting yourself, physically and emotionally, is what you care about most, and you prefer to keep everyone else at a safe distance. You may be suspicious of everyone you meet, expecting the worst from people so you won’t be surprised when they prove you right. Or you might just be a bit reserved, careful about letting people through your gruff exterior to the person you really are. No one can be as reserved as you are and make many friends. Most likely, you have an abrasive personality and tend to be pessimistic in your outlook. You probably nurse an old hurt and find that the only way you can cope is to keep it and your personality locked down.

Revised Cypher System Rulebook, page 47

That gives us our slight conflict in building the relationship. He’s wary to let her in, but finds himself falling in love with her anyway.

Ignoring Foci for the ‘abilities’ when you explore the foci list, you also get other descriptions, things that will bring your character out more and make them feel more alive.  While you do not necessarily have to ignore the “abilities” on a Focus (it can, after all, give some exciting flavor to the things that character can do), they are not always appropriate to the setting even if the descriptor text for a particular focus is.

So, we’ve covered how to create your setting, how to create your MC and their love interest. Now you’re probably wondering, how do I put it all together? Well, just like when you’re GMing a game, you set the stage, then write how the story unfolds. If you read the Game Mastering section of the Revised CSR it gives you ideas on how to help the story unfold in a tabletop session, from complications, to resolutions. The only difference here is that it’s all in your hands. For us, it’s a matter of, much like Stephen King describes in his book “On Writing“, placing the characters in a situation and recording what they do. Of course, because I love you guys so much, here’s an excerpt of a story I wrote with Josh Walles that had exactly this type of style:

Reyna counted cadence as the three of them walked down the hallway, the two former military having chosen her class.  “Fighting soldiers from the Sky,” she barked.

“Fearless men who jump and die.” Came back from the two, keeping count as they walked.

“Men who mean just what they say!”

“The brave men of the Blue Beret!”

“Sound off!”

“One, Two.”

“Sound off!”

“Three, four.”

“Sound off, all together!”

“One, two, three, four.”

“Come on men, you’re not giving in now are you? Twenty more steps and we’ll see some sunshine!” Reyna encouraged. Her voice was encouraging, but had the undertone of command.

“Gods above, you’re worse than Gunney Harnet, woman!” one of them spat as he fought to make his body move.

“Who do you think trained me?” She gave a beaming, wide, grin. “He was my CO for three years.”

“That son of a bitch…,” the man grumbled then, blushing, looked up.  “Sorry, ma’am.  Excuse my language.”

“No worries, James. I’ve heard worse, I’m sure I’ve said worse about him,” Reyna laughed and stepped back, “Come on men, sunshine is a calling, it’s a beautiful day outside. I can even arrange to let you, James, have a small bowl of ice cream, or sorbet for you David, after dinner.”

The two of them growled and kept moving forward towards Reyna, “Everywhere I go. There’s a drill sergeant there,” she chanted.

They growled back,  “Everywhere I go.”

As they walked, following her down one side of the hallway, a team of doctors raced towards the door at the far end, back where they had come.  They stopped and turned their heads to watch them go by, before continuing to walk.  Only short minutes later, the same doctors were speed-walking back with a gurney, two individuals in different clothing that wasn’t a white lab coat talking in a stream of medical terminology that neither of the men really understood.  Finally one more person walked by, in similar colored clothing to the other two, but the jacket he wore was leather.  He stopped almost to where they were and stretched his back.  “Gods I need coffee,” he grumbled to himself before continuing to walk down the hall.

The man did a double take as he walked by Reyna, flashing her a grin and a brief nod of his head before continuing down the corridor.  “You’ll want to ask one of the nurses for a dip in their lounge, the stuff in the commissary will be sludge at this point, it’s about forty-five before the next brew,” she called after him helpfully, then focused on her men again, “Come on then, you even got a breather!  Hup to! Fifteen more steps and you’ll be outside in the sunshine!” She clapped her hands.

The man’s head whipped around and he called, “Yes, ma’am!” snapping off a salute and grinning as he began to look around for the nearest nurses’ station to do as she had recommended.

“Third hallway to the left!” She snapped the salute back, with a wry grin, “Come on James and David! You can do it! Sound off! One, two, three, four!”

James looked back at David, “Fucking hell!” he growled as they worked to bend their knees in time with the prosthetics.  Sheens of sweat poured down their faces already and their shirts were both sweaty as, like the soldiers they were, they powered through the pain they were both obviously in.

She pushed the door open behind them, it had actually been only five more feet, but she wanted them to have the sense of accomplishment, “SUNSHINE!” She bellowed as it beamed in, filled with the scent of blooming flowers, the chirping sound of bugs in the distance and the twittering of birds. “And, because you did so well. You’re just in time for the surprise.” She led them outside to a bench. Then went around the corner, a few moments later a massive creature that looked like an earth dog, but was easily as tall as she was. “Meet Duke!” She stated as he walked over and flopped down in front of the men. The rear leg was a prosthetic replacement. “He lost his leg saving a kid from an avalanche.”

The pair hobbled over to the dog and began petting it and scratching behind its ears.  Obviously enjoying the attention, it stood there, happy to let them pet and scratch all they wanted.  “Big’un.  Yours?” David asked.

“My brother’s. He runs S&E over on Alapan Mountain, Duke is one of five.” She said, then tossed Duke a treat, who greedily swallowed it whole. “He sent him to me for you guys to meet and spend time with, he’s here for six months.” She beamed evilly at them, “So every day you two get to come out here to help exercise him.”

The two of them looked at her, then back at each other.  “Sneaky,” they said in unison, before smiling down at the dog once more.

James continued, “What do you say, boy?  You want to hang out with a couple of old has-been’s for a little bit each day?”  The dog barked once, a reverberating, low sound, before licking James’ hand.

“I think that’s a yes, you old has-been,” David grinned at him.

Reyna beamed at them, “Excellent,” she cackled and rubbed her hands together, “Duke, let’s take them for a walk.” Fluffy moved forward and crouched down, providing them each a place to hang onto his harness, then started belly crawling forward slowly, forcing the men to move with him, but providing support at the same time.

Nearly a half an hour later, she had seen David and James back to their nursing team and was walking back down the hallway when the man in the jacket came around the corner once more, holding a plastic cup that was steaming out the top opening.  His eyes widened as he saw her and he smiled.  “Oh good.  Thank you so much.  Thank the Gods for you.  This,” he held up the cup in an almost salute, “is just what I needed.”

“You’re welcome,” she gave him a slight smile. “Happy to be of assistance.”

“I don’t recall seeing you around on any of my other runs here,” he said by way of opening.  “I’m Gary.  Gary Janisek.  EMT VTOL Pilot for LifeLink.”  He switched the cup of coffee to his other hand and stuck out his right to greet her.

She took his hand, shaking it firmly, “Reyna Albano. I’m a recent transfer from the Orbital, they needed a new PT and I was tapped for the job.”

“Orbital to the Capitol, eh?” he smiled, noting her firm grip with approval.  “How are you liking it?”

“It’s a nice change of pace, and the landscape around here is beautiful. I took a tour shuttle last weekend and got some beautiful shots of the Landsing Waterfall.” She smiled brightly, “Of course, you know, the food down here is far better, anything beats that weird glop they try to call porridge.”

He laughed, a jolly, warm one, before asking, “I don’t suppose you served on one of the fleet ships?  It’s even worse than that…”  He trailed off, making a face that told her he knew exactly what he was talking about.

“Ah no, luckily, or unluckily I was part of ground patrol, the food was… edible.” Her nose wrinkled, “Sadly, I missed it on the Orbital, because at least then I could replace… I mean supplement with what I could hunt.” She tilted her head, “Would you like to walk with me, I was about to head for the commissary, we’re having mystery meatloaf, or pizza.”

Gary looked at his watch and shrugged.  “I’ve got about twenty, maybe thirty before I need to take off with my EMT’s again.  Pizza sounds great.”

I hope this article, and the brief snippet of a story help you explore more of the Cypher System. Not just from a game mechanic point of view, but from the story telling. Not just as a cooperative, tabletop effort, but as something you can use on your own. And in case you were wondering, yes the snippet was from a story set on a planet that you’ll be seeing as part of a future product produced by Angel’s Citadel for the Hope’s Horizon line over the next year or two. Happy gaming writing!

  • Joann 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 “Using the Cypher System to Assist in Writing Fiction

  1. Interesting take on how to whip up a story a little easier than just with pure elbow grease.

    I am not a role player but a fantasy fiction adventure writer and I can easily see how the cypher system can be used to create characters (especially the secondary and tertiary which sends my imagination into serious hibernation mode).

    Awesome post and love your pacey dialogue in your story snippet!

    Liked by 1 person

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