Fantasy. Ever since I was a boy and I first ran across some neighbors of mine sitting in the back of a pop-up camper one summer with a curious red box with a dragon on the front of it, I have bathed in classic Fantasy. From C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, Weis & Hickman’s Dragonlance, David Eddings’ Belgariad and Mallorean, and the Forgotten Realms novels (particularly R.A. Salvatore) to Dungeons & Dragons, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (and all its subsequent variations), Palladium, Pathfinder, and yes, even Cypher System, so much of my gaming history has been steeped in it, so much of how I look at roleplaying games has been shaped by it. It was and will always be the foundation by which I evaluate my roleplaying efforts.
Completing the offerings from Monte Cook’s Kickstarter Your Best Game Ever, the last setting book, Godforsaken, released on November 25, 2020, covers that staple of the tabletop roleplaying game industry: Fantasy. This book, like the other three that have come before it (the Stars are Fire, Stay Alive, and We Are All Mad Here) takes the section on Fantasy games in the Revised Cypher System Rulebook, Chapter 13 (page 252) and expands it from 9 pages to 224 pages. With the quality manufacturing and art design directed by Bear Weiter that we have come to expect (and even demand) from Monte Cook Games, this book will be a welcome addition to most gamers’ shelves.
As with the rest of the toolboxes that Monte Cook Games has released, this one starts out with a broad stroke view of the Fantasy roleplaying game, from pre-published settings to considerations in building your own. As one might expect, there is a preoccupation with the subject of magic that is pervasive throughout the book, and with good reason. Magic and it’s “systems” are second only to Combat in both page count and in-game preoccupation in every single game system and game table I have ever either run or been a part of in a fantasy game. In addition to that, the first chapter discusses some fantasy paradigms and other considerations to take into account when putting together a fantasy setting so that everyone at the table understands what kind of game is being played.
The next chapter is a brief discussion of Fantasy plots with some examples and seed ideas for a GM starting a campaign. Following this is a chapter discussing how one might go about building common fantasy character types in the Cypher System. While it does not go into detail other than to point out some potential Foci and sometimes Character Types with potential flavoring, there is an excellent product that already does some of the work for you which we have already reviewed here at Angel’s Citadel called Mortal Fantasy by Christopher Negelein of Ganza Gaming. Coincidentally, Christopher is currently working on another Fantasy property using the Cypher System for Here Be Dragons Games (and in conjunction with Monte Cook Games) – a release of Monte Cook’s Diamond Throne that was successfully funded in 2020. In this chapter, we also get four new Foci, advice on how to flavor existing Foci for a fantasy game, and 26 new abilities to add to the base Foci and abilities in the Revised Cypher System Rulebook.
In what is arguably the most useful chapter in the whole book for a GM looking to establish their own Fantasy game, the next chapter does the work of breaking down equipment into discrete purchased values. Much of Fantasy involves questing for riches and experience through combat, and that style of adventuring does not lend itself as well (in our opinion) to broad-spectrum price categories as presented in the Revised Cypher System Rulebook. I understand the need to do so to allow for cross-genre compatibility, but this chapter is a welcome addition. After that is a short chapter giving some sources of inspiration for different sub-genres of Fantasy, both other roleplaying games, novels, graphic novels, and film (small- and large-screen).
The next two chapters are the “toolbox” portion of the book. The first deals with magic and some of the “modules” you may or may not use in your setting. Several of these are not particularly helpful, amounting to little more than, “As a GM, you’ll probably have to make a ruling here,” or “be careful about taking the fun away from players there,” (mind control and charmed characters). Others, like crafting magic items (cyphers/artifacts) or ritual magic, are extremely helpful, both in their explanation as well as the giving of mechanics to help a GM understand how to do such things with the Cypher System. It is worth noting here that the crafting rules given here are generic enough as to lend themselves to use in other genres (science fiction comes to mind rather rapidly). The second deals with more mundane “modules” including an extensive section on traps. While I am not personally a fan or a big user of traps, it is a staple of the genre and is covered quite well in this book.
Following that is a chapter on Fantasy species, with five new ones being added to those already existing in the Revised Cypher System Rulebook (pages 258 – 259), along with options on using two descriptors (with one being the species). Then 3, 2-page Cypher Shorts (for more information on this style of adventure/scenario, see the free supplement Cypher Shorts in the Monte Cook Games store) that are ready to drop into your Fantasy campaign, including one where the PCs play the monsters. This is followed by an excellent bestiary of creatures and NPCs for use in your games, and then a chapter each on Fantasy-themed Cyphers and Artifacts.
Following this is a new setting, similar to the Revel, Masters of the Night, and the Heartwood in the other toolbox books, called the Godforsaken Lands. Comprising the next six chapters, it covers the setting in 5 and character creation in 1 (though there are some species descriptors in some of the setting chapters). Following that are two adventures set in this campaign: Secret of the Soulsmith and Within the Monstrous that a GM can use to begin playing in this setting right away.
Writing a critique for this book is difficult. I think that partly this is because it feels like I’m criticizing my childhood, and partly because for the most part, I have literally enjoyed every single product Monte Cook Games has put out (with only one exception). But I guess my critique of this book is: I suppose I expected… more. Please don’t misunderstand. There is a lot of good in this book, especially for people who have not been gaming as long as I have in the Fantasy genre. But I struggle with feeling like this book didn’t really offer anything new. Perhaps it was the fact that Stay Alive (a horror toolbox that details a genre I am likely to never run outright) and We Are All Mad Here (a genre that I still struggle wrapping my head around) were so masterful in their presentation of useful material and building blocks for their subject matter. Perhaps it is because after years of experience with Monte Cook and Sean K. Reynolds (Planescape, Ghostwalk, Numenera, Invisible Sun, and others), I just expected too much? Something that made my head explode with awesome? And this… didn’t. Do I recommend that those who want to run a Cypher Fantasy game buy this supplement? Absolutely. But was it what I was hoping for? Sadly, no. That does not make it a bad book by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just not what I personally was expecting.
The fourth and last genre book from the Your Best Game Ever Kickstarter brings Fantasy its own treatment. While it’s not quite what we at Angel’s Citadel were hoping for, it is still a good book, with useful ideas and things to add to your Cypher System toolbox. The idea of providing supplements that are genre-based with both general genre and specific Cypher System advice is an incredibly astute marketing direction for Monte Cook Games to take. These books would even be welcome and useful (at least partially) in other game systems in the genre. For example, using Stay Alive with Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu, or the Stars Are Fire with Mongoose Games’ Traveller or Sine Nomine Publishing’s Stars Without Number, or even this book with Dungeons & Dragons or perhaps even Evil Hat’s FATE Core System. As we talked about in a previous article, a good GM uses systems and concepts like Legos. And Monte Cook Games toolbox books concept (that they have expanded on with their latest Kickstarter, Heroes of the Cypher System) is an excellent example of doing so. Happy gaming!
- Josh Walles