When it comes to the Cypher System, a prevailing criticism I’ve read has been that you need to “shoehorn” cyphers into your campaign to make the system worth using. These comments make it sound like a chore, when in reality I have learned cyphers help to deepen your setting.
A cypher can be anything and the power level is not limited to what you find in the core books. What a cypher is, and how it interacts with the PCs or how the PCs interact with them, adds so many levels to your game. Never make your cyphers vanilla.
When designing cyphers for your campaign, setting, or adventure, keep these three things in mind:
- What are the cyphers? What is their theme?
- How do the players refill or find cyphers?
- Are the levels randomly determined or are they derived from elsewhere?
- How can each cypher’s potency increase with the level of the cypher?
Answering these will help you create memorable cyphers that add to your game. Instead of boring you with a section on each, I’ve instead included descriptions of different cyphers I’ve used in my games. Enjoy!
A friend of mine and I ran a Dark Sun game using Cypher. The first question we asked ourselves was “What are cyphers in Dark Sun?” We both agreed that wild talents (random psychic powers that manifest themselves in creatures across the desert world of Athas) could be modeled by gifting players new cyphers after every 10-hour recovery roll. Not one of these cyphers was from the rule book. We based each cypher on abilities in the Psionicist Handbook (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition) so players were assaulting enemies with psionic blasts, lighting people on fire with their minds, and melting into shadows and skulking around.
Divine Abilities & Blessings
In another project of mine, Pantheon, the players are avatars of the gods. Though the players have abilities granted to them by a “deity flavor” they also gain further powers from the ebb and flow of their god’s essence within them… represented as cyphers. For instance, even though an avatar of Thor may be able to shoot lightning at enemies, they may also gain a cypher awarding them the ability to call down the fury of a storm upon their foes, electrocuting all of them. On top of that, to change the feel of cyphers, the level of all cyphers is equal to the amount of divine energy currently coursing through their veins. This is measured in levels from 1-10.
Want to make cyphers fun to use? Name them each after cliche catch phrases. For example, what if you gave a player a cypher called “Say Hello to My Little Friend!” and it allows them to pull a large weapon seemingly out of nowhere and blast enemies with it for the duration of combat? Damage, of course, is equal to the cypher level.
Imagine a game where the players are secret agents chasing down nightmares manifesting and assaulting humanity. What if every cypher was a figment of a lucid daydream of a PC? The cyphers could change reality itself to resemble their most recent dreams, or maybe even manifest imaginary friends as allies armed with specialized abilities.
Are the players tinkerers or have access to such? Is this steampunk? Maybe they are spies with their own R&D department like James Bond and Q gives them what they need to succeed in their mission? Cyphers, in this case, can be fun gadgets to help them in their quests.
Cover image by Edgar Gomez