Ever since I learned about The Strange RPG from Monte Cook Games, I have been so excited to see it in action. There are so many aspects about the Cypher System and the settings used within The Strange that intrigue me. And, supposedly, the system encourages more roleplaying than typical combat-oriented RPGs, like Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder.
Last night I was finally able to get a glimpse at The Strange in action by actually running a one-shot adventure called Eschatology Code. With a few friends to join me as the players, I was put to the test trying to run a new system that I’ve never experienced before. And here are some of my thoughts around the Cypher System, The Strange RPG, and our adventure.
First, let’s talk a bit about the Cypher System, because I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who don’t have much information about it, or that haven’t even heard of it until now.
The Cypher System is a rule set designed by Monte Cook Games for use with some of their RPGs. This system is used by both Numenera and The Strange. There’s also a standalone rulebook for the Cypher System, making it completely setting-agnostic, letting a GM implement the rule system with virtually any setting or adventure that they want. MCG has also been working on a new RPG called Invisible Sun, which will utilize some of the same aspects of the Cypher System within its own rules, but it won’t be directly compatible with the Cypher System. Needless to say, MCG really likes this system, and I’m starting to understand why. And both the Numenera and The Strange books are very well-written with beautiful artwork. (I have a couple of photos to show art examples below.)
The Cypher System is a d20-based system where the players make all of the rolls, and the GM basically doesn’t roll at all. The GM will set a difficulty level for a task (or enemies will have a level, which acts as their difficulty level) that ranges from 1-10, with 1 being really easy and 10 being nearly impossible. Take that number and multiply times 3 to get the target number the player needs to meet or beat to accomplish their task. As an example, lets say a player is attempting to pick a basic lock. The GM says this is a level 3 task, requiring a 9 or better on the die. If the player has training or tools to help them accomplish this, the difficulty can be reduced, lowering the target number.
That’s the core concept of the system. Set a difficulty, determine if the character has tools or training to assist them, and that sets the target number on the d20.
Movement is approximate. You rarely need to use maps, and there’s no real need for minis. For the most part, it’s all “theater of the mind”. Ranges are immediate (<10′), short (10′-50′), and long (50′-100′). Anything over that may be called out, like 500′ or 1 mile, etc. During combat, the only ones that really matter are immediate, short, and long. You can move an immediate distance and still perform an action. Otherwise, a short/long move takes up your full action and you’ll have to wait your turn again to do something after moving.
There are only three stats that characters have: Might, Speed, and Intellect. And each one has a pool of points associated with it. A character can spend points from one of these pools to apply effort to an appropriate task. Smashing something would use Might. Sprinting or dodging would use Speed. And lying, convincing, or learning would use Intellect. Of course, there are infinite amounts of examples for each, but these are just a few. In any case, these points can help you accomplish your task. However, as your pools are drained of their points, your character becomes hindered. With one pool at 0 points, tasks become one level more difficult. With two pools at 0, you are critically wounded and cannot take actions or more more than immediate distances (unless your Speed pool is 0, in which case you cannot move at all). And if all three pools are depleted, your character is dead. So, there’s a fine balance between applying effort and putting yourself in serious danger.
Lastly, damage is flat. There are no rolls for damage. Light weapons deal 2 damage, medium weapons 4 damage, and heavy weapons 6 damage. You can apply effort to deal additional damage or create some type of effect (like targeting a certain spot, or knocking someone back). Trading damage for effects is an interesting option during combat, and helps facilitate an interesting story.
Character development is centered around the phrase “I am an [adjective][noun] who [verbs].” These three items in brackets represent Descriptors, Character Types, and Foci.
To build a character, players will choose from one of three character types: Vector, Paradox, or Spinner. (These are types for The Strange, and are similar, but different within Numenera or the core Cypher System.) Vectors are physical characters, like athletes or soldiers. Paradoxes are intelligent, and tend to deal in mad science, technology, or magic. And Spinners socially engineer situations, depending on appearance, personality, and deception/persuasion to get the job done. Players can choose from new traits or benefits as their characters gain tiers (or levels).
Players then choose a descriptor for their character from a list that includes things like: Appealing, Brash, Fast, Sharp-Eyed, Stealthy, Tough, and so on. These provide additional skills and new aspects to your character to help define them.
Lastly, there’s the Focus. A focus will refine your character and make them more unique. There are certain Foci that are only available within certain worlds, but others can be used anywhere and are considered “draggable”. This is important within The Strange RPG, as players can translate between recursions (worlds), which not only changes their appearance to fit in with the new environment, but can change their focus if the one they have is not draggable between recursions. Various foci include Carries a Quiver, Conducts Weird Science, Works the System, Infiltrates, and so on. Your focus will once again provide certain benefits or traits for your character that advance as you gain tiers (levels).
There are plenty of other interesting tidbits about the system, like how armor reduces damage. Using Edge to make applying effort easier. Becoming trained or specialized in skills. And so on. I won’t go through them all here.
Interesting objects found within adventures will be Cyphers and Artifacts. These objects can appear as pills, electronic devices, weapons, or anything else. They’re composed of weird technology beyond our understanding, but they can be used to create an effect, cause damage, or aid in tasks. Cyphers are one-time-use objects, but you can find them fairly frequently. Artifacts are permanent and reusable, but can be depleted over time.
Overall, I found the system to be extremely flexible and adaptable. Its simplicity makes it very easy to run and play. And since the player says what they want to do, and a GM only has to set a target difficulty level, it’s possible to try just about anything without being constrained by the rules. Just like any system, there always seem to be plenty of rules when you first start learning it. But, once you get past the rules, the system really is pretty simple and elegant.
During play, my players enjoyed spending less time dealing with rules and more time thinking about roleplaying an strategy. And I, as the GM, spent less time looking up rules and more time interacting with the players and guiding them through the adventure. The system really does seem rules-light, and it will encourage more roleplaying and creativity, and I love it for that. I would highly-recommend the Cypher System to anyone that wants to focus on the roleplaying, adaptability, and creativity, rather than on rules. There are other systems out there, like Fate, that have a similar focus. If you’ve enjoyed those systems, take a look at the Cypher System. I think you’ll really like it.
Stay tuned for Part 2 to read my thoughts on The Strange, and the Eschatology Code adventure.