Converting to the Cypher System

“Push the button…”

Angel’s Citadel and Josh Walles wrote an article several months ago called ‘Adapt don’t Convert’. It was a discussion on how instead of trying to convert your favorite game to the Cypher System you should instead Adapt to the Cypher System. For this article, however, I’m going to try and present the other side of the coin. I’m going to talk to you about the basics of converting games to the Cypher System, or at least how I do them.

First, let me disabuse you of a potential thinking trap: THERE IS NO ONE TRUE WAY. How you convert a game to the Cypher System is not going to be the same way someone else converts to the Cypher System. Even this article, as long as I’ve been playing and running games, is not a bible for it. You will always have to find what works best for you and your table, just like with organized plans versus lists to prepare your sessions. I hope, however, that this article helps you and gives you a place to start with your endeavors.

One of the big points I’ve seen people having a problem with is mechanical recreation of their game. First, I’m going to state what I have found: most mechanics aren’t going to translate smoothly. You’ll have to house rule a lot if you want it closer to something like Dungeons and Dragons. If we’re honest, though, we already house rule a lot if we’re long time GMs because we found other things that work better for our table. (For example: At my table for Dungeons and Dragons, when you roll stats, it’s 4d6 drop lowest, but you always get a 15 and a 9. Not because I want people to fail, but because I want people to be on even footing with other players as much as I can and I believe that all characters have strengths and flaws).

Combat, social interaction, and most skill based checks can be translated fairly easily. For combat, it’s the NPC level times three to get the target number for a hit, then armor negates part or all of the damage (unless it’s a special ability that says it ignores armor). This mimics the real world a little closer. Wearing full plate armor won’t stop you from getting hit, but it can reduce the damage you take from the hit. Social interaction is similar, however, if the NPC has a special ability with interactions I raise the level of the NPC for that task by one or in special cases, two. For example, a social NPC in combat is a level three, that makes the hit target a nine. (3 x 3 = 9) However, they have a special ability in social interaction, so if the PC is trying to convince them, then I view their level as a four in that specific instance, which makes the target number a twelve. (4 x 3 = 12).

Skills are done the same. What is the difficulty level and their target number? For example, they are climbing a cliff, but you want to make it exciting because there are things going on in the world, such as it’s raining. Or they’re climbing a cliff to attack a castle so archers are shooting at them. Then you adjust it up or down by one. Of course, unless that rope climb is part of the excitement of the adventure, I usually skip the roll and simply narrate it.  The key here is to remember that the focus is on how difficult or easy a task is for a particular person, and that is what sets the difficulty level.  Study the chart on page 8 of the Revised Cypher System Rulebook, specifically the “Guidance” column.  That is your bible. But not everything needs a roll – only things that would be narratively interesting or exciting if the roll fails.

Most of what I talked about above was simple grunts, or mooks. Mechanically recreating a BBEG (“Big Bad Evil Guy (or Girl)”) takes a little more than multiplying the power by three. Instead you’re going to need to build that boss in the Cypher System. I’m not going to tell you it’s easy, or that it’s simple, because let’s be honest, we’re different people and what I find easy or simple isn’t going to be what you find easy or simple. So instead I’m going to give you an example, Strahd Von Zarovich or simply Strahd.

The reason I picked Strahd, is he’s been in a lot of discussions lately because of the recent release of the 5e premium edition. (Yes, I purchased it. Yes, it’s sexy. Yes, I’m probably going to run it at some point.) He’s a vampire, so let’s start there. Vampire as a base NPC or Creature can be found on page 362 of the Revised Cypher System Rulebook. But, Strahd has some special abilities, things that aren’t covered by the Vampire. First, he’s a spell caster, so you’re going to want to loot some of the Adept spells to match those abilities. Second, he can summon a swarm of bats or rats, and outside he can summon wolves. So, you want to look at grabbing a couple of the abilities from Controls the Swarm. Third, he can heal himself, even from 0 hit points, if he can get back to his coffin, so you’ll want to add something like regenerate from the RCSR. He also gets Legendary Actions, which are movement, unarmed strikes or bites. 

Now, playing Strahd is a different matter, but I would recommend keeping in mind that he’s old, he’s intelligent and he’s been doing this a long time. He’s not going to be an easy kill and if he gets wounded and can’t heal he’s going to flee by going Misty Escape, for this I would use Far Step on page 138 of the RCSR.

Last, let’s talk about mechanical encounter balance. I have found it both easier and harder to do in the Cypher System. It’s easier mathematically, but often harder logistically. How many goblins can you really fit in a corridor? Of course there are also times of ‘Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.’ Cypher System isn’t nearly as focused on balance as Dungeons and Dragons, and you don’t have handy generators like this one from Donjon. You have to be aware of your PCs and what abilities they have a bit more closely than Dungeons and Dragons, and you should play your NPCs smartly. If a group is getting whumped, unless they’re blood thirsty idiots, they’re going to run. I’m also not a fan of TPKs unless the characters are complete jerks. I am fond of the concept of karma, but I usually implement that through GM Intrusions, which are both XP for the players, and a ‘hey you have my attention.’ That being said, my GM Intrusions aren’t always bad. For example, Player A goes out of his way to help an NPC, one of the results is that NPC will be a little more friendly and helpful, or even give them a bit of advice later. At the same token, being a well, ‘asshole’ will result in a cold shoulder and a shut down from the NPC and possibly others in the city that are friendly with the NPC.

Now, I will admit that writing this was harder than I thought it would be. I personally have attempted to embrace Cypher fully and typically just Adapt things so that the “feel” of the original is retained, but it is “Cypherized”. However, I also know that it’s easier to shift mental focus if there is a path to follow and I hope this helps others find their way in transitioning to the Cypher System. As always, happy gaming!

  • 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.

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