Improving Cypher and Numenera

Person standing on a concrete beam inside a ruined building, facing a mountain
Photo by Natalya Letunova on Unsplash

I like Numenera. The 2nd Edition (Discovery & Destiny) does some things that few other games even attempt to do regarding crafting and community building. While I feel like the setting has a bit too much canonical detail for my taste, nobody forces me to use the Steadfast and Beyond as written. The Ninth World is evocative and useful, but largely disconnected. This is a strength: we can pick and choose the bits we like and put them in our own games without feeling constrained. Most of all, I appreciate how the game focuses on exploration rather than combat. Unlike older editions of D&D, the exploration ostensibly serves the desire to rebuild the world rather than to enrich oneself and gain power.

However, the system (more properly, the Cypher system) has some weaknesses. Two stand out to me, and I’ve discussed them at length in various private groups and communities lately.

Before going into those details, I will clear one thing up. I love the Numenera group I play with, and I really like our GM’s style. She does a great job of ensuring we face different types of challenges as well as going off into her own worldbuilding, sometimes even anticipating elements that Monte Cook Games announces later. My group makes the game sessions fun, even when the system doesn’t. I hope every group can do that.

Combat

When it does happen, Cypher combat feels really slow and has many of the weaknesses of D&D-style combat. Every turn, each character chooses an action. Most of the time, the GM then sets the difficulty of the task, and the player then figures out what assets, skills, and other abilities to use in order to improve their odds. Generally, if the roll fails, nothing happens (with the exception of a natural 1). To its credit, unlike D&D the player doesn’t have to roll twice because damage is mostly static. A high roll can add to that damage, but that still only depends on the initial roll.

This leads to long turns while players figure out how best to optimize their action based on their character sheet, and occasionally the environment. It also creates narrative flatness when they miss. Once the dice hit the table, things should change somehow: “nothing happens” is boring. Because of the time each player takes, the other players have lengthy waits of not doing anything either. NPC attacks take more time as the player decides how to optimize their defense rolls. All rolls in Cypher take a while, but combat takes so many more rolls than other types of play that it slows down significantly.

For a game that intends to de-emphasize combat, it has significant dissonance in how much time it expects the group to spend doing that. There’s a separate argument about why a game that focuses on exploration has a type (class) all about fighting and so many foci also about combat, but some players really enjoy combat in RPGs. Whether Cypher best serves that play style is an open question.

World Interaction

Cypher also has various sorts of ways to interact with the world that come in the form of what D&D might call “perception” and “knowledge” checks. If you want to hear what’s on the other side of the door, you generally will have a Listen task of some level. Much like combat, if you fail, then nothing happens. The game as written explicitly contemplates that characters will fail to notice things and provides some advice (of varying quality) about what to do in that case.

Similarly, the game asks the GM to estimate the probability of a character knowing some fact when a player asks a question about the world that isn’t immediately obvious. That often feels bad in a game, when the character who likely knows a thing rolls poorly but another character with a low probability rolls well. And again, if nobody knows it, then the result becomes “nothing happens”.

Doing Better

Both of these problems can be handled to some degree by the GM coloring outside the lines. If you run a game with very little combat, then the game will naturally have more exploration. Make sure players know that in advance, though, because a Glaive (fighter type) with a focus that centers around combat might not shine in such a situation. I don’t think Cypher excels at combat, particularly given how much mental bookkeeping each task requires. Combat requires many more rolls than will exploration or other types of play, so why spend so much time on it?

Again, however, that really is a play style question, and everybody should get to have fun at the table. Some players really enjoy the fantasy of brandishing weapons at horrifying monsters; who am I to tell them they’re wrong? At most, I might say that other games would better suit that sort of diversion.

Similarly, change the stakes on perception-type rolls. Perhaps, on a failure, you still hear whatever’s on the other side, but it’s worse than the player thought, or it swings open and the creatures on the other side get the drop on you. This works for other types of rolls, too: you’re not making a check to see if you can pull your friend out of a pit, but to see if you can do that before the pit fills up with something terrible.

Knowledge-type rolls don’t add anything to a game: if a player can plausibly explain why their character knows a thing, then give it to them. Then they have to deal with the challenge based on something interesting, perhaps leading to a choice between two sub-optimal outcomes or even just opening up a new possibility. Then make a note of why they know it and use that later, such as involving an old mentor or threatening a beloved library. On the other hand, if a character doesn’t really know something, then just move on from it. (Don’t give them false information; that sets up an adversarial GM relationship that can poison your game over time.)

I’d like to see Cypher games focus more on these varied stakes and rewarding player creativity in the moment. Keep the players focused on interacting with the world, not their character sheet.

And Danielle, I meant it: you’re doing a great job and I enjoy our games!

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