“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.”Romeo & Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2
Joann and I were part of a conversation a little while ago where someone we know on our Discord Server was asking about Cyphers in the Cypher System and if you had to have them to play it. It’s in the name of the book, so it must be important, right? I mean, the great Monte Cook wouldn’t have called it the Cypher System if Cyphers weren’t supposed to be central to it, right? He even says it right in the book:
“But here’s the real secret, just between you and me: it’s not tiers, types, or any of that stuff that is the key to really understanding the system.Revised Cypher System Rulebook, page 418
It’s the cyphers.
The cyphers are the key to making the game work differently than other games. The Cypher System isn’t about playing for years before a character is allowed to teleport, travel to other dimensions, lay waste to a dozen enemies at once, or create a mechanical automaton to do their bidding. They can do it right out of the gate if they have the right cypher.”
After playing and running the Cypher System for a while now, I am going to add my own $0.02 to this conversation and be a little controversial. My answer to the question of “Does the Cypher System need Cyphers?” is: No, but if you don’t have them, you’re missing an opportunity. Mechanically, I would argue that you lose nothing by removing them completely. In fact, Subtle Cyphers, kind of feel like this. They’re most often used when dropping in one-time use physical items feels kind of weird in the fiction. So you get the power or cool ability still, but you don’t have to try and explain away the “mystical” or “advanced technology” doodad that helps you do the thing.
Could the Cypher System run without that? Yes. Yes it could. I have gone sessions without my players getting cyphers. Sometimes it’s because they don’t look for them. Sometimes it’s because I forget to emphasize it. It does not prevent my characters from solving problems or overcoming challenges. I have not had any complaints of being “stingy” or “miserly” because of it.
So why do Cyphers matter?
Monte’s statement answers the question, but perhaps it needs to be explained in a different way to be better understood. Elsewhere in the Core Rulebook, the Cypher System is described as one that rewards discovery over combat. Unlike games like Dungeons & Dragons where advancement (either through experience or gold) is given through combat and “dungeon delving”), experience in the Cypher System is given for discovery. This could be in meeting challenges in creative ways, or learning new information, or finding a new place to explore, or any one of dozens of interpretations. But the exchange is not defeating X monster through combat yields Y experience points. It is more narrative than transactional.
What does that mean for Cyphers then? Cyphers, by their nature in the game, are random. While you can plan out cyphers for every single encounter (and I do for artifacts sometimes), it is tedious to do so and Cypher emphasizes flexibility and ease of GMing. So, keeping it random, there are a whole bunch of Cyphers that do not directly seem to go with every type of challenge. That is OK. In fact, I would argue that it is an inherent design brilliance of the system.
Because the Cyphers are so varied, it induces creativity in dealing with challenges in the Cypher System. No longer is it a straight-up question of “Do we stab the thing or talk to the thing”. Cyphers, by their very nature, promote non-linear solutions to challenges, particularly, ones that the GM hasn’t already thought of. That’s their JOB. They can be powerful, yes. But they only work once. So as a GM, lean into that variability. It is one of the things that will make your stories more memorable.
On the side of the GM, Cypher-based solutions to problems you present in your games can induce unexpected narrative twists that can prompt GM Intrusions. This, in turn, gets experience flowing to the players that allow them to do more “cool stuff” that makes your story even more interesting. If you let it, it can become a self-feeding spiral of creativity leading to emergent storytelling. So in answer to the question, no, the Cypher System doesn’t need Cyphers. Not using them won’t affect what one would traditionally think of as “game balance”. But you’re missing out on some incredible storytelling if you choose not to use them. Happy gaming!
- Josh Wallles
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