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Still Not Reinventing the Wheel: A Review of ‘The Cypher System Rulebook’ from Monte Cook Games

Cypher System Rulebook (Monte Cook Games)Game Name: Cypher System Rulebook

Publisher: Monte Cook Games

Designer: Monte Cook

Year: 2015

Players: It’s an RPG, so two or more

Ages: 13+

Playing Time: Ongoing

Pages: 416 pages

Retail Price: $59.99 for the physical book, 19.99 for the PDF at DriveThruRPG

While Numerera was the big initial release for Monte Cook Games in 2013, and then The Strange followed in 2014, the big thing this year for the company is the Cypher System core book. Numera took players to a land which was a mash up of fantasy and SF and The Strange plopped gamers into a modern day setting where they could travel to pocket dimensions which could be anywhere from Barsoom, Oz, or even Sherlock Holmes’ London. Now MCG has stripped away much of the setting info from the previous games and is presenting the engine which drives their previous releases as a standalone product.

The Cypher System is a generic roleplaying rules set which expands upon what Cook has already firmly established the company bearing his name around. The first thing I’ll have to point out is that if you aren’t a fan of Numenera or The Strange you simply aren’t going to dig the base system either; these are the core concepts which drive the other titles so rules lawyers beware and those who discount story need to move along since there’s going to be nothing to see here.

You’re either a Monte Cook sort of GM or you’re not. There’s really no way of getting around it. I’ve always believed a good tale to be shared with your players is king and rules be damned; none of my players ever found themselves sitting through two hours of gameplay focused around one battle (hell, that’s what miniature rules are for) and if I had a great adventure to run my friends through, you could toss me a few coins for everyone to flip to provide random pass/fails and I’d be happy as a clam. In fact I passed the time on long walks with some high school friends, back in the day, doing exactly that same thing.

Cypher System Art #1 (Monte Cook Games)Upon taking a look inside the core book one is struck by another highly polished product from MCG. The writing is effective and gets the points across as the artwork, while covering a broad spectrum, is mainly top notch as well. It’s interesting I recently had a back and forth with an RPG publisher (over some beers) in Indianapolis with an already published game system to which I mentioned his decision to go with the graphic style of his books was a real detriment to his sales numbers. He told me artwork doesn’t sell books. I agreed to a point, since it isn’t as if we’re seeing a whole lot of art hitting gaming books of the same quality as the old D&D Larry Elmore work, but if a publisher can’t be bothered to spend money on artwork which is going to get my juices flowing then you have to rethink what you’re doing. Those sorts of publishers need to take a step back and understand everyone who picks up thier book isn’t familiar with the product so you best give them a little eye candy to incent them to make the purchase.

It turned out the guy I was talking to had provided all the artwork for his book so he didn’t take my comment very well. C’est la vie… Since I tell people all the time I don’t have a dog in the fight I can’t smack them in the head if they don’t understand people want to buy something which looks cool. It’s a good thing companies who use me as a Kickstarter consultant by into my key rules of being successful. Thankfully, Cook and his team have provided yeoman’s work once again and subscribe to my thought process as well..

Diving into the meat and potatoes of the book, you’ll be introduced to a high level overview of the system to get the proceedings off to a start. The Cypher System isn’t a rules heavy core set to start with so you’ll be treated to Cook’s thoughts on what makes for a good RPG game. Next up is a discussion of characters.

Cypher System Art #2 (Monte Cook Games)Rather than much of the in depth coverage of previous MCG titles, as it came to characters, this section approaches the subject with the understanding the GM could be using this book as the skeletal frame of any number of settings; you could be looking to run a historical Wild West setting, or noir detective sort of game, or space opera which would put Star Wars to shame. So once again this is more of a high level of the character types. I’ll be the first to say I’ve never been too keen on specific character types or classes since they tend to pigeonhole the thinking of the GM and players. For myself I’ve always felt Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying covered this pretty well as you’ll get a skill package for a sort of character – say the author character in Call of Cthulhu – but it isn’t as if you’re locked into one development path over the next twenty levels or so. The Cypher System skirts this a bit with what’s known as Descriptors, Focus, and Flavor which can make your characters more unique. Still there are only four character archetypes in the corebook: the Warrior (obviously geared towards combat), the Adept (could derive their powers from magic, bionics, what have you), the Explorer (sort of a jack of all trades focused on adventuring), and the Speaker (someone who is more aimed toward using brains and personality to achieve success) make up your selections.

Yeah… I’m with you if you feel underwhelmed as far as the character types included in what’s supposed to be a generic, cover all the bases system. Granted the inclusion of Flavors, Descriptors, and Focus give one an opportunity to custom craft the characters a bit more but you’re still looking at things along the line of “stealth” (considered a Flavor), “skeptical” (a Descriptor), and the strangely phrased as a verb “pilots starcraft” (Focus) to bring more personalization to your character; I really dislike the Focus presented as a verb as it comes across as kind of stupid. Okay, not stupid but sort of childish in my way of looking at it.

I can’t say the character creation is horrible since it toes the line of what many have become very familiar with to those who play Pathfinder or Dungeons & Dragons but this was a bit of a knock I had against Numenera in my previous review of that book. I understand putting characters together can be one of the most daunting tasks for gamers and designers alike; these are the personas gamers are going to traverse (hopefully) a Cypher System Art #3 (Monte Cook Games)bunch of adventures with and this can be a highly personal experience. It certainly isn’t the easiest aspect of an RPG design either as it’s imperative you seamlessly incorporate the alter egos into the gameplay. Giving gamers fewer choices means less fiddliness a designer has to deal with.

The base rules clock in at around thirty pages and if you’d like to get more into the meat and potatoes of the rules swing on over to my Numenera review as much of what you’ll be exposed to is the same as in that system. To my naked eye it looks as if there are a few minor tweaks but the skeleton hasn’t changed much. What you’ll find in this core book is the inclusion of various genres to utilize the core rules.

You’ll find about fifty pages devoted to five genres: Fantasy, SF, Modern, Horror, and Superheroes. Each of these genres receive optional rules aimed at running games entrenched in those subsets of RPGs. Personally, I think the Supers and Horror sections are a lot more useful than the other three but, once again, you aren’t reading about hard and fast rule options but more along the lines of recommendations for the GM about how best to bring these genres to the gaming table.

There are also sections tackling optional rules and equipment totally around fifty pages. As with any generic system they cover a wide gamut of various sorts of games so only a few pages will probably come into play depending on what genre the GM is choosing to run.

Finally we have a GM’s section which includes a hodge-podge bestiary as well as a Cypher section. The bestiary is a little all over the place (what do you expect from a core book looking to be a generic system?) and there’s carryover from earlier MCG titles. Cyphers came about in Numenera and represent one shot sort of items – in the aforementioned game these were normally ancient tech items players ran across – which give the players a power boost of some sort. Cyphers in reality are really just one time advantages a player can use regardless of the genre.

Cypher System Art #4 (Monte Cook Games)Where the Cypher System shines best is in the information being provided to the Game Master. While I know Monte Cooke believes he’s been busy reinventing the roleplaying landscape the last few years, he really isn’t. I’m not critiquing Cook by any stretch but I’m not a gamer who strolled into the hobby in the last few years; I’ve read through literally hundreds of RPG products over more than thirty years – anything from FGU to GDW to small publications along the lines of Human Occupied Landfill (Yes! I actually bought HOL! Not as if it’s a bright light in my RPG reading) so there isn’t much I come across which is flashingly original. The FATE system is nothing more than a prettier version of F.U.D.G.E., Savage Worlds utilizes a simplified Deadlands rule set, Pathfinder builds on D&D 3.5 put together by people who loved the game more than the folks at Wizard of the Coast did at the time…

There has to be a good thirty points in the Cypher core book which I could easily carry over to any gaming system I’d choose to take to my gaming table. I’m of the firm belief Cook released the core rules as a way to license out the game to those wishing to create setting books (ala the immensely popular Savage Worlds) so I understand the direction of this release. If you haven’t picked up Numenera or The Strange you owe it to yourself to snatch this up because it really is a good core book. This might not be the game to use with your group of players but there’s a lot here to make your games even better.

Don’t think for a moment that I don’t think MCG hasn’t put together a really nice product. There’s a lot in the book which I’m a firm believer of including in a good session of roleplaying. The writing is well done, there’s a lot to mull over as far as how you may have run an RPG in the past, and the skeleton of the system is solid as far as what most people these days expect from their roleplaying game.

Cypher System Art #5 (Monte Cook Games)If you already have the slew of Numenera products released in your collection I would probably steer you clear of picking this up since a lot of this will come across as old hat and there isn’t enough to demand a purchase. Plus, you’ve bought into the Numenera setting so there isn’t much you’re going to put into play as this focuses on those generic genres. If you have The Strange you have a tougher decision to make since there might be interest in those fifty pages or so of genre info. Still I’m guessing it’s close to a pass though since you still have a good amount of the included content.

For those who haven’t taken a chance on any of the titles coming out of Monte Cook Games, and believe what’s important about roleplaying isn’t all spending thirty minutes figuring out how one character is going to grapple an NPC but rather the story everyone around the table is having a blast getting into is, I highly recommend picking up the Cypher core book. Granted, this isn’t my perfect RPG rule set. Then again I haven’t run across anything perfect – as far as rules – since I got into the hobby in 1979 so I can’t bust anyone’s chops for not providing one now. Or in other words, there is no perfect roelplaying game anywhere but in the imagination of designers so we make do with the really good stuff we get to put in our hands.

I can’t see the Cypher system derailing the powerhouse which is Savage Worlds but there’s still a hell of a lot of great nuggets to mine from this rule set. For myself I’ll give the core book the same review score as I did Numerera since I think what you receive is just as solid as the 2013 release. There’s no reason to own both but any GM worth their salt owes it to him or herself to own one. You might think the overall score is higher than the review may lead you to believe but I compare the rule book to what’s on the market right now and it really is an excellent release.

TGG Score - 8.9


For myself I'll give the core book the same review score as I did Numerera since I think what you receive is just as solid as the 2013 release. There's no reason to own both but any GM worth their salt owes it to him or herself to own one.

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Jeff McAleer

Founder, editor-in-chief, and host of The Daily Dope and other TGG media. Jeff tackles any and all topics but his main gaming focus is war and strategy, RPGs, and miniatures. He's also a fan of independent and small press comics. Plus, Jeff is certainly never at a loss for an opinion...

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  1. Some one else who sullied their hands with a copy of HOL? I can’t even give my copy away. Maybe it should be consigned to recycling.

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