Numenera, the Cypher System, and Beyond

In the world of d20 RPGs, Monte Cook is a name to conjure by. He’s the author of D&D 3.0’s DMG, as well as the Book of Vile Darkness, the Book of Eldritch Might, Arcana Unearthed, the massive Ptolus, and was part of the team who designed the latest version of D&D (if only briefly).

So when Monte Cook writes an RPG that doesn’t use the d20 system, people take notice. Shortly after leaving the D&D Next team, Mr. Cook began work on a new game in a unique setting using a brand new system.

The game is Numenera. The setting is our world billions of years in the future. It’s a well-used world, scattered with the detritus of eight previous ages (called “worlds” by the locals), some of which were dominated by very not-human civilizations. Eight times, civilizations were built atop the ruins of the previous, achieved godlike wonders, reached for (and in some cases, conquered) the stars, and then ended (either collapsing or passing-on or…). It’s a little bit Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories, a bit Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, and more than a little Thundarr the Barbarian and He-man and the Masters of the Universe.

The engine of the game is the Cypher System. If you’re used to the d20 system, you’ll find the Cypher System to be lighter on the rules. Character creation is fun, but it’s not the mini-game that you can spend hours on like it is in 3.x D&D or Pathfinder. The Numenera Players’ Guide boils down everything you need to create a character and play the game to 60 pages. The core mechanic, however, looks a lot like the d20 system: roll a twenty-sided die and try to beat a target number.

That, however, is where the similarities largely end. Your stats in Numenera (of which there are three: Might, Intellect, and Speed) do not passively affect your rolls. Instead, they act as pools you can draw from to lower your target numbers. However, these pools also act as your hit points. Get into a tough, ongoing challenge and you can easily find your character in a nasty death spiral.

What’s an adventure-loving hero to do? In Numenera, the way to avoid the death spiral is by using cyphers.

Cyphers are one-shot bits of techno-magic (a la Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law). Like potions in D&D, they can be whipped out for a quick boost, or a new (often temporary) power, but once used, they are gone.

Unlike potions, cyphers cover a huge range of potency and effects, from simple healing to the manipulation of time. Cyphers are alien and often work by incomprehensible means. Because of this, players are encouraged to seek novel and creative uses for their cyphers.

They’re also encouraged not to horde them. Cyphers, being odd bits of alien doohickery, interact poorly with each other. Keep too many of them too close to each other and bad things happen. These bad things can range from unpleasant smells to the creation of a “tiny singularity… consuming the character and all their equipment.”

On the other side of the table, however, GMs are encouraged to be very generous with the cyphers. Mr. Cook writes: “In the course of their travels, the PCs should find that cyphers are extremely common.” So, cyphers are easy to find, but dangerous to horde. The obvious solution is to use them up, as there will always be more.

At least, so long as the PCs go where cyphers can be found. And here we find the benevolent reinforcing cycle of the Cypher System: PCs get into trouble, PCs use cyphers to get out of trouble, PCs look for more cyphers, PCs get into trouble…

Monte Cook calls Numenera a game about exploration. Cypher-churn keeps it so. It’s simple, elegant, and effective, encouraging the players to explore the Ninth World and embrace the challenges GMs toss in their path.

If you’re looking for just a taste of Numenera and its Cypher System, there’s a starter box available. If you like what you find, you might also enjoy The Strange, a game of reality-hopping heroes that also uses the Cypher System. If you want something a bit more traditional fantasy, Gods of the Fall might be more to your liking. Or you can get the stand-alone Cypher System Rulebook and tailor the rules to your own original setting. No matter your pleasure, the experienced crew at Monte Cook Games has something for you today.