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From 21 reviews

Cypher System

Second Edition


Publisher Description

Any character, any campaign. If you can imagine it, the Cypher System makes it easy!

The Cypher System is the critically acclaimed game engine that powers any campaign in any genre. You may have heard of it as the system that drives the award-winning Numenera roleplaying game. Lauded for its elegance, ease of use, flexibility, and narrative focus, the Cypher System unleashes the creativity of GMs and players with intuitive character creation, fast-paced gameplay, and a uniquely GM-friendly design.


A Newer Generic System From Monte Cook [ edit ]

Many gamers will already be familiar with the name Monte Cook, whether from his numerous 2nd edition Dungeons & Dragons Planescape supplements, his contributions to the core rulebooks (and other books)  for 3rd edition D&D, his work on D&D Next (ie. fifth edition), or his work on other systems like Penumbra, Invisible Sun, or Numenera.  In short, Cook is a titan in the RPG industry.

It's that last game though, Numenera, that's particularly relevant here, because Cook took the core rules of that game (and another of his lesser known games, The Strange) and used them as the basis for a new generic RPG system, which he dubbed the Cypher System.

Cypher System takes a unique approach, relative to most other generic systems at least, but it's hard to pin down exactly how it's different.  In some ways it's a lighter rules system, and it's certainly lighter than Savage Worlds or GURPS. At the same time though it's also not "rules-lite" the way FATE is either.  And while many would describe the system as good for storytelling, it isn't truly a "narrative-focused" one either.

In short, Cypher System tries to be lighter than traditional RPG systems in some ways, while still having a much more solid and detailed rules system than any traditional "rules-lite" RPG ... all while providing a rule set that can work for any genre imaginable.  Let's take a look at how that works.

Cypher System, Second Edition - Rules SummaryCollapse

Character Creation [ edit ]

Character creation in Cypher System starts with a sentence in the form "an adjective noun who verb phrases".  For example, a character might be a Rugged Warrior who Stands Like a Bastion or A Guarded Adept who Keeps a Magic Ally.

Each part of this sentence determines the character's stats.  For instance, a character with an adjective of Impulsive would gain +2 to their starting "Speed Pool", +2 to Speed-based defense actions, and an Initiative bonus ... but they would also be easily distracted, getting negative modifiers to any tasks involving attention, willpower, or impulse control.

After choosing a sentence the player must pick a "type" (ie. class) for their character.  Cypher has four such types: Adept (someone with extraordinary powers, eg. wizards), Warrior, Speaker (a social-focused character), and Explorer (a catch-all for characters that don't fit the first three, such as a journalist).

Instead of attributes (or hit points) Cypher uses "Pools", with three separate pools for Might (ie. Strength/Constitution in Dungeons and Dragons terms), Speed (ie. Dexterity), and Intellect (ie. Intelligence/Wisdom).  These pools are partly determined by the character type, and also partly by the player, and they can be used during play both to succeed at actions and to "take damage".

Characters also gain skills based on their background.  All skills start out at a "trained" level, and if the character acquires that same skill again they instead get it at a "specialized" level (there is no third level).  Because of its generic nature Cypher System doesn't have a fixed skill list, but the core book comes with a list of commonly-used skills.

Speaking of levels", Cypher uses a Tier (ie. level) system for advancement, with six tiers.  When a character gains enough experience (which is gained through discovery and "intrusions", not through killing monsters or acquiring treasure) to raise their tier they can then spend those points to improve their characters.

Core Mechanics [ edit ]

All actions in Cypher System are assigned a difficulty of 1 to 10 by the GM (unless they are so trivial they don't require a roll).  To succeed at that action, the player must roll higher than three times that number on a d20.  For instance, to succeed at a difficulty 5 task would require a roll of 15 or higher.

Players can lower the difficulty of the task ("ease" it) by having a relevant skill for it, having the appropriate gear, or getting assistance from another character.  Players can also ease a task by "applying effort" (ie. spending their Pool), which lowers the task's difficulty by one for  the first three Pool spent, and one more for each two spent after that.  If a task's difficulty is reduced below 1, it succeeds automatically.

If the player rolls a 1, the GM can introduce an "intrusion", ie. a complication for the character.  For instance, a character failing a climbing check might find themselves hanging from a cliff ... but if they roll a 1 they drop a critical item they are carrying.  GMs can also introduce optional intrusions: if the player accepts them their character (and one other) gains an experience point.

Finally, if the die rolls a 19 a "minor effect" occurs, and if it rolls a 20 a "major effect" occurs instead.  A minor effect adds a small enhancement, eg. the character completes the task faster, or does three extra points of damage on an attack.  A major effect is similar, but more pronounced: the action is completed in half the time, or an attack adds four points of damage.

Combat [ edit ]

Combat is divided into rounds in Cypher, but a round can be anywhere from 5-10 seconds, at the GM's discretion.  To determine who goes first all of the players make an Initiative check, but NPCs do not; instead they have a fixed initiative of 3x their level (incidentally this is the same difficulty number used for any check against an NPC).

If a player beats the initiative of an NPC they go before them,  However, the players are otherwise free to go in whatever order they want.  Also GMs may opt to have all NPCs act at once, using the highest initiative (ie. highest level) NPC.

Each round a character can take a single action, eg. attack,  move, or put away a weapon (although they can draw their weapon and attack as a single action).  A character can also move an "immediate distance" (ie. up to 10 feet or 3 meters) before or after their action, but not both.

Note that in Cypher system the GM doesn't worry about PCs and NPCs exact distance from each other: instead everyone is either an "immediate" (ie. close) distance, or a "short" or "long" distance.  All melee combatants are generally considered to be in immediate range of each other, and so a GM (who doesn't want to play with a battle mat) doesn't have to keep track of exactly where everyone is.

If a character devotes an entire action to moving they can instead close a "short" distance (ie. move 50 feet or 15 meters), or ... with a Speed check difficulty 4 ... they can close a "long" distance (100 feet/30 meters).

To attack, a player makes roll equal to or higher than their opponent's target number (ie. 3x their level).  Melee attacks are either Might or Speed-based (player's choice), ranged are Speed-based, and special (eg. magic) attacks are generally Intellect-based.

If the attack hits a player, it deals damage to either the player's Might (normal attacks) or Intellect (mental attacks), but if it hits an NPC it instead deals damage to their "health pool" (which, by default, is also 3x their level).  Damage is based on the weapon used, but a player can add 3 extra damage by applying effort to the attack roll.

Does it Succeed at its Goal? [ edit ]

Given its creator's background, and the Cypher systems' lofty goal of being a system that can handle any genre or setting, it's to be expected that many fans had high hopes for the system.  But were their expectations met?  Let's look at the reviews.

The Reviews

First off, it's worth noting the lack of reviews: RPG Geek only has 11 for Cypher System, and even Drive Thru RPG only has 15.  Amazon and Good Reads have a few more (80/64), but still those are relatively low numbers which show that Cypher system hasn't exactly penetrated the gaming hive mind to the extent of (say) Savage Worlds (which has over 400 reviews on RPG Geek).

However, not having as many players as other systems hasn't stopped those who play Cypher from loving it: the game's lowest score on any site was a 8.55/10 (ie. 4.3/5) on RPG Geek.  The system ranked even higher on other sites (4.4 on Drive Thru RPG, 4.7 on Amazon, and 4.41 on Good reads) ... a very solid set of reviews for any RPG.

Of course, the Cypher System's unique take on generic RPGs isn't for everyone, with some fans find it too simple compared to traditional RPGs, and others finding it too heavy compared to "rules-lite" games like FATE.  But for the most part fans found that it struck the perfect combination between the two, offering fast-paced rules that let a GM can easily "wing it" as necessary, while still keeping enough rules to make the game feel like a "real" RPG.


Whether you're a fan of Monte Cook's past work, or you're just looking for a new generic system, Cypher System aims to strike a balance between a satisfying amount of detail, and quick -playing, narrative-supporting rules.  If GURPS and Savage Worlds seem too heavy, but Genesys and FATE seem too light, Cypher System might be the perfect "Goldilocks" system for you.