What’s the Deal with Cypher Shorts?

So Monte Cook Games recently released a product called Cypher Shorts, a version of the Cypher System that means “You could be playing ten minutes from now!” as the tagline relentlessly says. The product is available for free so there isn’t really a question of whether you should get it, but really why would you want to consider Cypher Shorts?

The Differences

The Cypher System is already a pretty streamlined game with rolls always in the hands of the players and making challenges and NPCs on the fly is dirt-simple. It’s a system that really lends itself to innovation and improvisation, but ten minutes is a shockingly short prep time for a whole campaign. I’d feel rushed making an adventure in ten minutes so coming up with a whole campaign concept seems nuts. Let’s see how they manage it, then.

The character creation process is streamlined (obviously) but still retains the three portions of character creation that you’ll see in full Cypher products. Characters are made with a descriptor, type, and focus to create the sentence “I’m a blank blank who blanks” that serves as both the mechanical core of your character and their introduction in the narrative. In the Cypher System Rulebook (now in its second edition) each of these elements has a handful of mechanical effects and the type and focus have scaling abilities that you gain as you level up. The elements here have neither of those.

Image © Monte Cook Games

There are five descriptors in Cypher Shorts. Tough, Quick, and Smart each add +3 to a Pool (Might, Speed, and Intellect, respectively) and make you trained in associated defense rolls. Skilled adds +3 to Intellect and gives you training in any three skills and Charming adds the same bonus with training in persuasion and deception. There are some obvious missing links here (what if I want a pickpocket who’s fast and skilled? what if I want a martial artist who’s strong but defends with Speed?) but it’s also pretty simple to invent your own since it’s just two parts, even converting stuff from other books just to be ready.

For the character’s type, there are five options which mostly map to the four types in the Cypher System Rulebook with one of them split in half. They don’t have noun names, though, rather the roles they play in the narrative. The type of Performing Physical Actions is the warrior, the type for Talking is the speaker, the type for Wielding Supernatural Powers is the Adept, and the types for Sneaking and Searching and Discovering are jointly the Explorer. Each of these has list of training in a handful of skills, power shifts, etc. and you take two of them. This is the only decision making in the whole process and it’s quick to make so we’re probably still under ten minutes.

Lastly, the focus provides a static ability, training in some skills, or a simple action but there’s no decision to be made. Your options are Fights, Plans, Helps, Provides Information, Provides Comedy Relief, Works With Tools (or Machines), or Uses Powers. Those are all fairly self-explanatory and straightforward, except for the last one which lets you pick something from the ability list of the Wielding Supernatural Powers type. This might seem like a cop-out but actually it lets people in a fantasy, supers, or psionics setting have fancy powers without using their type on it.

Image © Monte Cook Games

Tools for Campaign-Building

Cypher Shorts comes with a short section on designing a campaign brief for this game. You list a Setup to set the stage plot-wise, and then some possible encounters and GM intrusions to get your imagination going. Finally, there’s a section for a Conclusion to show where the plot should be headed.

An example of a Cypher Short called “Trapped in Flames” is provided: the PCs are all workers in an office building that is rocked by an explosion. This is a pretty edgy scenario as a starter, particularly with the inclusion of a terrorist in the setup, and I’m not sure that I’d be comfortable running it. On the other hand, it does show what sort of scenario works with Cypher Shorts: quick scenes with dramatic starts and clear finishes. I predict a series of these coming down the pike from Monte Cook Games and I’m interested in what ideas they come up with… not to mention what the Cypher Community comes up with.

Why Play This?

An obvious connection to make here is with the Fate system. Fate Core has been around for some time and has a flexible, generic system which can cover a lot of different genres, just like Cypher. About five years ago Evil Hat came out with Fate Accelerated which is a streamlined version of the game for rapid play. It’s not explicitly for a faster set up but that’s part of the design for sure. The description even says “you can be playing in minutes,” which should sound familiar.

Image © Monte Cook Games

If you’re familiar with Fate Accelerated then you also know that it’s more than just a simplified version of Fate Core. “Fate Accelerated, or FAE, is a condensed version of the popular Fate Core system that brings all the flexibility and power of Fate in an easily digestible—and quickly read—package.” It’s faster, right, but with a lot of the strategy and dynamism of the original game. Cypher Shorts is the same: fewer options overall but there are still the core elements that make Cypher a great system.

I think the ideal use of Cypher Shorts is to try out ideas that you don’t want to run a full campaign for. I have lots of friends who want to try out one-shots for neat ideas they have, ones they don’t necessarily want a long story for. Maybe it’s even just a dramatic scene they want to play out! This system gives players the chance to test things out as well, taking just a few minutes to get characters together for a campaign that the GM has put together quickly as well. Sometimes these might blossom into larger campaigns but you’d have to recreate the characters (which should be easy since Cypher Shorts characters map easily to the standard format). In that way you could test out a campaign idea and see if the group is into it, then go at it in earnest if they are.

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