Review of the Revised Cypher System Rulebook

A while ago Monte Cook Games came out with a revised version of the Cypher System Rulebook and I’ve been taking my time going through it. As always it’s a beautiful product, but does it actual improve the game! The answer is a qualified yes, but read on to see for yourself.

Descriptors

The book contains five new Descriptors for making your character. Beneficent characters excel at helping others’ actions, Intuitive characters have an ability to act out of order when needed, Risk-Taking characters can trade GM intrusions for success on difficult tasks, and Vicious characters deal extra damage with attacks. All of these appear in Numenera Destiny too, though Benificent is only slightly similar.

The fifth descriptor, Chaotic, is a descriptor that I frankly don’t really understand. It first appeared in Expanded Worlds and probably should have stayed there. You get a whopping +4 to Speed (I guess because you’re manic?) and then you can reroll your recovery roll once after a ten-hour rest. It’s flavored to be about pushing your luck but that’s already covered by Risk-Taking above. Honestly it seems like the descriptor is “Act weird and annoy the rest of the group, but also sleep really well.” Not a great addition in my opinion.

Image © Monte Cook Games

The majority of the descriptors are repeats from the first edition of this book, with maybe a few tweaks here and there. Appealing, Brash, Calm, Charming, Clever, Clumsy, Craven, Creative, Cruel, Dishonorable, Doomed, Empathetic, Exiled, Fast, Foolish, Graceful, Guarded, Hardy, Hideous, Honorable, Impulsive, Inquisitive, Intelligent, Jovial, Kind, Learned, Lucky, Mad, Mechanical, Mysterious, Mystical, Naive, Perceptive, Resilient, Rugged, Sharp-Eyed, Skeptical, Stealthy, Strong, Strong-Willed, Swift, Tongue-Tied, Tough, Virtuous, and Weird are all back for a second round.

Lastly, the descriptors of Driven, Spiritual, Vengeful, and Wealthy are missing. I can see why Driven and Spiritual might have some overlap with Strong-Willed and Virtuous respectively, and how Wealthy might be a weird narrative choice. I think honestly, though, that these might have been the least popular options in MCG’s eyes and they wanted to make room for new descriptors.

Types

For the most part, the Types in the revised rulebook are the same as the original (warrior, adept, explorer, and speaker) with a few improvements. One that affects all the types is the player intrusion options (discussed below) and the same standardizing of abilities seen in the descriptors. This makes the type descriptions much more compact, typically taking up around three pages instead of seven. The lists of abilities aren’t always the same but the general nature is still the same. Second-tier warriors might have a new ability called Hemorrhage which costs 2 Might and deals continuous damage, something they didn’t have at all in the first edition of the game. It’s not like that dramatically changes the feel and role of the warrior, though.

There are similar customization options for adjusting the types but Flavor now has its own chapter which I’d hoped meant some expanded support here. Still the same list of five flavors, though (stealth, technology, magic, combat, and skills and knowledge) with the same general abilities. Improved layout and options to be sure but more of a slight refinement than an overhaul.

Focuses

The character Foci have a few change to them which are interesting. The most obvious of which is the Connections which are nw generalized into a list of fifty options that cover all the different foci. I understand why they did this, each focus now takes a quarter of a column instead of a whole page (or more), but it does mean that the connections just don’t have as much story to them anymore. Ten of the foci are new to the generic Cypher System Rulebook but can be found in Numenera Destiny: Absorbs Energy, Brandishes an Exotic Shield, Dances With Dark Matter, Defends the Gate, Descends from Nobility, Emerged From the Obelisk, Keeps a Magic Ally, Learns Quickly, Shepherds the Community, and Thunders. These are slightly different but generally resemble their earlier versions.

Image © Monte Cook Games

Two foci, Flies Faster Than a Bullet and Masters Spells, are brand new and I’ve never seen them before in a Cypher product. Eleven others haven’t been seen since Expanded Worlds: Drives Like a Maniac, Helps Their Friends, Is Wanted by the Law, Loves the Void, Plays Too Many Games, Runs Away, Sailed Beneath the Jolly Roger, Scavenges, Was Foretold, Wears Power Armor, and Works for a Living. Keeps a Magic Ally is technically a repeat from back in In Translation but that’s a while ago so you might consider that brand new too.

Of course, the majority of focuses here are repeats from the first version of the book. This includes Abides in Stone, Awakens Dreams, Battles Robots, Bears a Halo of Fire, Blazes with Radiance, Builds Robots, Calculates the Incalculable, Channels Divine Blessings, Commands Mental Powers, Conducts Weird Science, Consorts with the Dead, Controls Beasts, Controls Gravity, Crafts Illusions, Crafts Unique Objects, Defends the Weak, Doesn’t Do Much, Employs Magnetism, Entertains, Exists in Two Places at Once, Exists Partially Out of Phase, Explores Dark Places, Fights Dirty, Fights With Panache, Focuses Mind Over Matter, Fuses Flesh and Steel, Fuses Mind and Machine, Grows to Towering Heights, Howls at the Moon, Hunts (similar enough to Hunts Nonhumans), Infiltrates, Interprets the Law, Is Idolized by Millions, Is Licensed to Carry, Leads, Lives in the Wilderness, Looks for Trouble, Masters Defense, Masters the Swarm, Masters Weaponry, Metes Out Justice, Moves Like a Cat, Moves Like the Wind, Murders, Needs No Weapon, Never Says Die, Operates Undercover, Performs Feats of Strength, Pilots Starcraft, Rages, Rides the Lightning, Sees Beyond, Separates Mind From Body, Shepherds Spirits, Shreds the Walls of the World, Siphons Power, Slays Monsters, Solves Mysteries, Speaks for the Land, Stands Like a Bastion, Talks to Machines, Throws With Deadly Accuracy, Travels Through Time, Wears a Sheen of Ice, Wields Two Weapons at Once, Works Miracles, Works the Back Alleys, Works the System, and Would Rather be Reading.

Two focuses are missing because they’re pretty niche (Carries a Quiver and Explores Deep Waters) and one, I think, because it’s too general (Casts Spells) and is replaced by Masters Spells.

Image © Monte Cook Games

Genres

There are nine Genres in the revised Cypher System Rulebook, five of which are in the first version. The suggestions for fantasy, modern, science fiction, horror, and superheroes are all similar, though they all have updated suggestions based on the new options in this book. They’re also expanded slightly with more options to make use of. The fantasy genre has half-giants and helborn in their racial descriptors, plus some extra options for spellcasting. The modern genre brings up childhood adventure as well as crime and espionage as a modern subgenre with notes on making these stories. Both of these were seen in Expanded Worlds but it’s nice to see them in the core rulebook now.

The science-fiction genre features notes on hard sci-fi (also seen in Expanded Worlds) and a (short) new section on mixing modern and sci-fi to create something like the X-Files. The horror genre includes a much-needed section on consent and all the optional rules from the first book. The superheroes genre is largely unchanged except for a few new pieces of artwork.

Some of the new genres are also seen in Expanded Worlds but have some new items as well. The post-apocalyptic genre includes a few more threat ideas and a little more detail about creating such a setting, and I’m sure everyone will be relieved that the roach species is still around. The historical genre actually has less information than it did in Expanded Worlds as the period suggestions are missing. It’s actually a bit thin generally, but I guess people have lots of external info for historical settings. The fairy tale genre also appeared in Expanded Worlds and is also thinner since it’s missing the changeling racial descriptor. This one I’m a little less jazzed about, especially because there were some great foci in Expanded Worlds for fairy tale characters that aren’t repeated in this book.

The brand new genre is romance and it has a few interesting mechanics. This is more of a mood than setting (like horror) and can cover anything from tales of chivalry to romcoms. An optional rule called Infatuation introduces Intellect defense rolls to keep from putting your foot in your mouth around your crush, while Relationship Levels (both romantic and platonic) show the growing bond between two people and might be just as useful in a wartime game or even a journey through the Ninth World.

Image © Monte Cook Games

Player Options

There are three big new options for players in the revised Cypher system. The first is a small change that makes a lot of sense: players can spend 3 Intellect to gain insight into mysteries. This is a succinct way for GMs to help players feeling “stuck” and to give players a say in the pace of the story, rather than just waiting for clues to be placed in their path. This may seem transactional, and it is, but I’ve seen this work really well for years with the Gumshoe system and I’m happy to see it enter Cypher as well.

The second new option is the flipside of GM intrusions, the complications that GMs give players when they roll a 1 or at dramatic times in exchange for an XP reward. Instead of paying 1 XP to avoid a bad complication, though, players can use a player intrusion to spend 1 XP and create something good. Each character type comes with three suggested player intrusions and there are a few guidelines provided for coming up with your own. This is a natural evolution of GM intrusions and I think it works really well, just wish there were more ready-to-go options.

The third inclusion is my favorite: character arcs. This is seen in other RPGs as well, from Odyssey of the Dragon Lords to the Autonomic RPG yet to be released, but I really like it’s implementation here. You pick a character arc varying from the direct, like Train a Creature or Join an Organization, to the philosophical, like Birth (you become a parent) or Undo a Wrong. Each goal (which takes up about a quarter page) provides an opening, steps to progress through the character arc, a dramatic climax, and a resolution. Good games have storybuilding on both sides of the screen and this system formalizes it so that the GM can keep everyone’s wishes straight. It also helps players to think of their arcs: you might feel inspired with an arc for your character (and you could easily write your own) but this list of thirty-seven prewritten options will keep this from becoming arduous homework.

Conclusion

There’s no denying that this book is an improved version of the Cypher System Rulebook. It’s got lots of good options and if you play Cypher then you definitely should consider upgrading to this version of the rules. Even if you are happy with the previous rulebook, this one’s got all that the first edition had and more. It’s also completely compatible with all previous Cypher products and it can improve your setting-specific games like Numenera, Predation, Unmasked, or Shotguns & Sorcery.

The only people I don’t recommend this book for would be those those with a huge range of Cypher products and not a lot of funds for RPG products. This is a better version of the Cypher System Rulebook but a lot of the material can be found in the original book, Numenera Destiny, Expanded Worlds, and assorted other books and you could cobble together player intrusions and character arcs on your own. Still, it’s great having things all in one place and the improvements on gameplay inspired by things like Your Best Game Ever are a definite refinement of the first Cypher rulebook. If you can afford to upgrade I say go for it, otherwise put it on your wishlist but put it near the top!

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