This is one of those reviews where my original write-up got erased when my computer unexpectedly updated and the autosaved version was from the draft of my previous book review, so I’d really like to just type “I WROTE IT ALREADY” with a bunch of crying/angry/head explodey emojis and move on.
However, this doesn’t really feel like it should count as a review, so here goes nothing. (I just feel like I’m forgetting so much of what I originally wanted to say arghhhhhh.)
Preamble (this became longer than intended; skip this paragraph to get to the review):
Alright. I’ve been playing rpgs (role playing games) since around 2017. I’d been into the idea since high school, but always had trouble finding someone who would GM (game master – the person who leads the game, sets the scenes, and directs players’ die rolls). It wasn’t until a very close friend, who’d been meeting with some people via the Meetup app for a couple of years, told me there was an opening in his group that I finally got to experience the world of role-playing. There were a couple of creative GMs in this group, and we played all sorts of systems. The traditional Dungeons and Dragons/Pathfinder campaigns that use six different types of dice (with “d” indicating the number of sides on each die, this would be a d3, d6, d8, d10, d12, and the iconic d20). Games using the Fate Core rules and specially marked six-sided dice called “fudge dice“. Star Trek rpgs with fun damage dice. Card-based rpgs. Kickstarted rpgs. It was a really great group. We’d get each other Christmas presents, and meet up for movies and board games. We even kept meeting during the pandemic, until my friend passed away unexpectedly, and the group fell apart. Our weekly meetings were just one more thing about him that I missed horribly, but I also got heart palpitations whenever I thought about gaming again and not seeing him there. I really didn’t intend to write this all down here – it’s not relevant to the review at all. It just felt really important to mention. Because even though, six months later, a couple of the old members asked if I wanted to join in with a new game they had been playing, using an entirely new system (to me), and I said yes, and I’ve been enjoying it a lot, and I don’t talk about him every time I open my mouth anymore, I still think about this friend every day, and every time I take out the dice.
I’ve actually read a few RPG reference books despite never GMing a game in my life, because I am an obsessive completionist who, when skimming the opening chapters to create a character for a new game, figures she might as well just read the rest of the thing no matter how much of the thing is tables, charts, and dense technical information that is utterly irrelevant to me. I started thing, I’m damn-well going to finish the thing. So I can tell you that, compared to others of its kind, the Cypher System Rulebook is an easy to read, easy to understand overview of a type of gaming many rpgers might not be familiar with. Most gaming systems are very combat-oriented, with XP (experience points, which help a character grow more competent or “level up”) given for overcoming challenges. Many gaming systems are very dice- and number-oriented, too, with multiple calculations and rolls required to work out how attacks and defences are played out and how they affect the NPC (non-playable characters, which are basically temporary characters played by the GM, as opposed to the main character PCs, played by the gamers). No so Cypher. The basic goal of gaming within Cypher’s framework is discovery (as Monte Cook says about 16,000 times in the text), not combat, with XP given for finding new information, and game play more focused on story than technique.
Now, I like me some crazy detail work and was never consciously bothered by all the math required by games such as Pathfinder, but I do tend to get shy and self-conscious about forgetting rules and making mistakes, and thus forget to focus on the role-playing part of role-playing games. So I’ve found the Cypher System a great way to combat that tendency.
Cypher System Rulebook gives you the basic rules, the character types and abilities, some example NPCs, objects, and creatures, examples of ways to customize the above for different kinds of genres, and that’s it. It’s designed kind of as a one-size-fits-all book, so while you can buy the Numenera Game Book if you’re hoping to run a science fantasy campaign, or The Strange if you want to take on modern/horror, there’s no need – unless you want more preset settings, characters, and items, and less work for a GM. This is an incredibly flexible gaming system, which can be freeing or overwhelming depending on your personality type and experience with gaming.
It’s not as amusingly written as Fate’s Core Rulebook, which I recall finding thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining in and of itself. It’s also not as self-serious and intense as the Pathfinder rule book. The art is okay, but it’s not as lovely and impressive as what you’ll find in more long-standing and established systems like Pathfiner (that Bestiary!) or D&D, it doesn’t always have much to do with what’s actually written on the corresponding page, and there are quite a few re-uses of the same artwork a few pages apart. Newer systems, like Cypher and Fate, make an effort to include female pronouns when talking about players and GMs and I really appreciate that. The chapters on character types, descriptions, and focuses are the best – once you get into the detailed game rules, there’s a lot of repetition (duplicates of charts, repetitive info) that probably could have used another edit or two, especially since much of it didn’t really add to the overview given in the first chapter, which would have helped shorten it from over 400 pages.
And here I was thinking a rulebook would help me pad my book total, rather than put me two books behind.
As a rule book: Recommend! It is clear, simple, and has everything you need to start playing, either as a gamer or a GM.
As a gaming system: Recommend! Definitely give this a try, especially if you like the role-playing aspect of rpgs and feel bogged down by the technical minutiae inherent in other systems.
My character, Iphion, is a mysterious adept from Byton who exists partially out of phase. She is a descendant of Aether, the god of upper air, light, atmosphere, space, and heaven. Before discovering her ancestry, she was a historian and naturalist who spent most of her time in libraries or forests. Now she periodically wanders into whatever messes her friends have gotten into and tries to figure out what’s going on, after Donna has finished work on a Wednesday and can join in mid-session.
Sometimes, it’s 4 in the morning and you have a vision of red hair that needs to be drawn but NOW, and then you think actually, it would suit your PC in that new gaming group you joined, but you had wanted to draw her holding a book, and now you need a reference picture for hand placement, and all of a sudden it’s 8am and probably looked better before you finished colouring it, but at least you’re tired enough to sleep now. Adulting!