I've read through the
Cypher System Corebook
, or the book setting-agnostic, system-only version of
Monte Cook's Numenera
, and in lieu of a full page-by-page review I'm just going to talk about it here because you really don't want or need me to go through this whole 400 page thing just to make a point.
The core mechanic:
1. The GM sets a number from 1 to 10 to represent the difficulty of a task
2. A player's Skills can reduce the difficulty number by 1 or 2
3. A player's Assets, which is a more generic term for a circumstantial bonus, can further reduce the difficulty number by 1 or 2
4. A player can spend Effort, which costs points out of their stat pool, in order to further reduce the difficulty number yet again
5. A player's Edge can reduce the cost of the Effort so that you don't need to spend as many points from your stat pool just to get the same difficulty reduction
6. If at any point between 2 to 5 the difficulty is reduced to 0, then the player succeeds automatically
7. If the difficulty is still at least a 1, multiply it by three to get a target number, and then the player rolls a d20, and they succeed if they get higher than the target number
It should be fairly obvious what the problem with all this is: despite being marketed as such, it's not actually a rules-light game. I got about 50 pages into character creation before I realized that keeping track of your skills, your stat pool, your Edge, your activated special abilities and your situational modifiers is going to be an awful lot of book-keeping even when you're comparing it to something like D&D 3.5, because at least there "make a Climb check" means looking up a single pre-calculated number and adding it to your d20.
A real rules-light game like say Lasers and Feelings gets by with something like "throw one die baseline, add another if your class/skill applies, add another if you have a situational bonus" and then you look for a number of successes. John Harper's Blades in the Dark ups the ante a bit by also including "throw one die at the cost of some effort" and you're starting to get something that more closely resembles Cypher's core mechanic, but they're doing it by adding whole dice as a broad, quick-to-remember guideline rather than having you muck around with integer math.
And I get that no writer is ever going to really disparage their own work inside their own book, but it really sounded obnoxious to me how in both the GM section and in the introductory section Cook just goes on and on about how this system is such a better way of doing things, primarily because the target number is supposed to be based on the task itself, irrespective of the "power level" of the characters. That is, if they're trying to cross a particularly deadly bridge, you assign a certain difficulty to it, and that's supposed to be the target number of that task forever. Whereas in any other game you might "adjust the difficulty" if the players try it again 2 levels later, the players instead are going to have a better set of Skills, Assets, Pools and Edges to deal with it, so that maybe where they could only lower the bridge's difficulty from 4 to 2 before, they can reduce it from 4 to 1 now. Or they reduce it to 0 and succeed automatically!
I don't really agree with this approach though because by implication it means Monte Cook is still designing a simulationist game at heart. Of course you're supposed to adjust the difficulty of certain tasks - because you only want to focus on the things that are exciting or produce tension! If the party is making their way through an abandoned installation with a bunch of closed doors, you don't need to make them roll against opening every single door up until you get to the one that they need to open to escape the Big Bad in a hurry.
When do you roll?
Any time your character attempts a task, the GM assigns a difficulty to that task, and you roll a d20 against the associated target number.
When you jump from a burning vehicle, swing an axe at a mutant beast, swim across a raging river, identify a strange device, convince a merchant to give you a lower price, craft an object, use a power to control a foe’s mind, or use a blaster rifle to carve a hole in a wall, you make a d20 roll. However, if you attempt something that has a difficulty of 0, no roll is needed—you automatically succeed. Many actions have a difficulty of 0. Examples include walking across the room and opening a door, using a special ability to negate gravity so you can fly, using an ability to protect your friend from radiation, or activating a device (that you already understand) to erect a force field. These are all routine actions and don’t require rolls.
Using skill, assets, and Effort, you can decrease the difficulty of potentially any task to 0 and thus negate the need for a roll. Walking across a narrow wooden beam is tricky for most people, but for an experienced gymnast, it’s routine. You can even decrease the difficulty of an attack on a foe to 0 and succeed without rolling.
For example, we make the distinction between something that most people can do and something that trained people can do. In this case, “normal” means someone with absolutely no training, talent, or experience. Imagine your ne’er-do-well, slightly overweight uncle trying a task he’s never tried before. “Trained” means the person has some level of instruction or experience but is not necessarily a professional.
Skill: You’re trained in all interactions involving lies or trickery.
Skill: You’re trained in defense rolls to resist mental effects.
Skill: You’re trained in all tasks involving identifying or assessing danger, lies, quality, importance, function, or power.
Skill: You’re trained in all tasks involving balance and careful movement.
Skill: You’re trained in all tasks involving physical performing arts.
Skill: You’re trained in all Speed defense tasks.
Control the Field (1 Might point): This melee attack inflicts 1 less point of damage than normal, but regardless of whether you hit the target, you maneuver it into a position you desire within immediate range. Action.
Overwatch (1 Intellect point): You use a ranged weapon to target a limited area (such as a doorway, a hallway, or the eastern side of the clearing) and make an attack against the next viable target to enter that area. This works like a wait action, but you also negate any benefit the target would have from cover, position, surprise, range, illumination, or visibility. Further, you inflict 1 additional point of damage with the attack. You can remain on overwatch as long as you wish, within reason. Action.
Bears a Halo of Fire
Additional Equipment: You have an artifact—a device that sprays inanimate objects to make them fire-resistant. All your starting gear has already been treated unless you don’t want it to be.
Fire Abilities: If you perform special abilities, those that would normally use force or other energy (such as electricity) instead use fire. For example, force blasts are blasts of flame. These alterations change nothing except the type of damage and the fact that it might start fires. As another example, a wall of energy instead creates a wall of roaring flames. In this case, the alteration changes the ability so that the barrier is not solid but instead inflicts 1 point of damage to anything that touches it and 4 points of damage to anyone who passes through it.
Tier 1: Shroud of Flame (1 Intellect point). At your command, your entire body becomes shrouded in flames that last up to ten minutes. The fire doesn’t burn you, but it automatically inflicts 2 points of damage to anyone who tries to touch you or strike you with a melee attack. Flames from another source can still hurt you. While the shroud is active, you gain +2 to Armor only against damage from fire from another source. Enabler.
Carries a Quiver
Additional Equipment: You start with a well-made bow and two dozen arrows.
Tier 1: Archer. To be truly deadly with a bow, you must know where to aim. You can spend points from either your Speed Pool or your Intellect Pool to apply levels of Effort to increase your bow damage. As usual, each level of Effort adds 3 points of damage to a successful attack. Enabler.
Fletcher. You are trained in making arrows. Enabler.
A beginning character is fighting a giant rat. She stabs her spear at the rat, which is a level 2 creature and thus has a target number of 6. The character stands atop a boulder and strikes downward at the beast, and the GM rules that this helpful tactic is an asset that decreases the difficulty by one step (to difficulty 1). That lowers the target number to 3. Attacking with a spear is a Might action; the character has a Might Pool of 11 and a Might Edge of 0. Before making the roll, she decides to apply a level of Effort to decrease the difficulty of the attack. That costs 3 points from her Might Pool, reducing the Pool to 8. But they appear to be points well spent. Applying the Effort lowers the difficulty from 1 to 0, so no roll is needed—the attack automatically succeeds.
Distortion (2 Intellect points): You modify how a willing creature within short range reflects light for one minute. The target rapidly shifts between its normal appearance and a blot of darkness. The target has an asset on Speed defense rolls until the effect wears off. Action to initiate.
Rarely, an ability or piece of equipment does not decrease a task’s difficulty but instead adds a bonus to the die roll. Bonuses always add together, so if you get a +1 bonus from two different sources, you have a +2 bonus. If you get enough bonuses to add up to a +3 bonus for a task, treat it as an asset: instead of adding the bonus to your roll, decrease the difficulty by one step. Therefore, you never add more than +1 or +2 to a die roll.
It actually sounds like he made a deliberate sop to people who believed that "When high-level characters cross bridges, it's magically harder to cross them!" canard about D&D 4th edition.
If you’re talking about a task, ideally the difficulty shouldn’t be based on the character performing the task. Things don’t get inherently easier or harder depending on who is doing them. However, the truth is, the character does play into it as a judgment call. If the task is breaking down a wooden door, an 8-foot-tall (2 m) automaton made of metal with nuclear-driven motors should be better at breaking it down than an average human would be, but the task rating should be the same for both. Let’s say that the automaton’s nature effectively gives it two levels of training for such tasks. Thus, if the door has a difficulty rating of 4, but the automaton is specialized and reduces the difficulty to 2, it has a target number of 6. The human has no such specialization, so the difficulty remains 4, and he has to reach a target number of 12. However, when you set the difficulty of breaking down the door, don’t try to take all those differences into account. The GM should consider only the human because the Task Difficulty table is based on the ideal of a “normal” person, a “trained” person, and so on. It’s humanocentric.
Far more important than that level of precision is consistency. If the PCs need to activate a device that opens a spatial displacement portal, and the GM rules that it is a difficulty 6 task to get the antimatter rods spinning at the proper rates to achieve a specific harmonic frequency, then it needs to be a difficulty 6 task when they come back the next day to do it again (or there needs to be an understandable reason why it’s not). The same is true for simpler tasks like walking across a narrow ledge or jumping up onto a platform. Consistency is key. The reason is that players need to be able to make informed decisions. If they remember how hard it was to open that portal yesterday, but it’s inexplicably harder to open it today, they’ll get frustrated because they tried to apply their experience to their decision-making process, and it failed them. If there’s no way to make an informed decision, then all decisions are arbitrary.
Think about it in terms of real life. You need to cross the street, but a car is approaching. You’ve crossed the street thousands of times before, so you can look at the car and pretty easily judge whether you can cross safely or whether you have to wait for it to pass first. If the real world had no consistency, you couldn’t make that decision. Every time you stepped into the street, you might get hit by a car. You’d never cross the street.
Players need that kind of consistency, too. So when you assign a difficulty to a task, note that number and try to keep it consistent the next time the PCs try the same task. “Same” is the key word. Deciphering one code isn’t necessarily like deciphering another. Climbing one wall isn’t the same as climbing another.
You’ll make mistakes while doing this, so just accept that fact now. Excuse any mistakes with quick explanations about “a quirk of fate” or something along the lines of a surprisingly strong wind that wasn’t blowing the last time.
Defeating opponents in battle is the core way you earn XP in many games. But not in the Cypher System. The game is based on the premise of awarding players experience points for the thing you expect them to do in the game.
Experience points are the reward pellets they get for pushing the button—oh, wait, no, that’s for rats in a lab. Well, same principle: give the players XP for doing a thing, and that thing is what they’ll do.
In the Cypher System, that thing is discovery.
The core of gameplay in the Cypher System—the answer to the question “What do characters do in this game?”—is “Discover new things.” Discovery makes characters more powerful because it almost certainly grants new capabilities or options, but it’s also a reward unto itself and results in a gain of XP.
Sometimes, a group will have an adventure that doesn’t deal primarily with discovery or finding things. In this case, it’s a good idea for the GM to award XP for accomplishing other tasks. A goal or a mission is worth 1 to 4 XP for each PC involved, depending on the difficulty and length of the work. As a general rule, a mission should be worth at least 1 XP per game session involved in accomplishing it. For example, saving a family on an isolated farm beset by raiding cultists might be worth 1 XP for each character. Of course, saving the family doesn’t always mean killing the bad guys; it might mean relocating them, parlaying with the cultists, or chasing off the raiders.
Players can create their own missions by setting goals for their characters. If they succeed, they earn XP just as if they were sent on the mission by an NPC. For example, if the characters decide on their own to help find a lost caravan in the mountains, that’s a goal and a mission. Sometimes character goals are more personal. If a PC vows to avenge the death of her brother, that’s still a mission. These kinds of goals that are important to a character’s background should be set at or near the outset of the game. When completed, a character goal should be worth at least 1 XP (and perhaps as much as 4 XP). This encourages players to develop their characters’ backgrounds and to build in opportunities for action in the future. Doing so makes the background more than just backstory or flavor—it becomes something that can propel the campaign forward.
She spends 2 XP and says that she has a great deal of experience in using these. As a result, she is trained in operating (and breaking into) these computers. This is just like being trained in computer use or hacking, but it applies only to computers found in that particular location. The skill is extremely useful in the facility, but nowhere else.
Medium-term benefits are usually story based. For example, a character can spend 2 XP while climbing through mountains and say that she has experience with climbing in regions like these, or perhaps she spends the XP after she’s been in the mountains for a while and says that she’s picked up the feel for climbing there. Either way, from now on, she is trained in climbing in those mountains. This helps her now and any time she returns to the area, but she’s not trained in climbing everywhere.
In many ways, the long-term benefits a PC can gain by spending XP are a means of integrating the mechanics of the game with the story. Players can codify things that happen to their characters by talking to the GM and spending 3 XP. For example, a character named Jessica spends a long time working in a kitchen in a restaurant that she believes is owned by a man who works for shapechanging spies from another planet. During that time, she becomes familiar with cooking. Jessica’s player talks with the GM and says that she would like the experience to have a lasting effect on her character. She spends 3 XP and gains familiarity with cooking.