Beyond the Book: Asset Limits

Beyond the Book is a regular column discussing ways to use the Cypher System to run a great game.

In the Cypher System, the GM sets the difficulty of an action. The player uses skill and Effort to reduce that difficulty. A skill can reduce the difficulty by either 1 or 2 steps. Effort can reduce it by 1 to 6 steps, depending on the character and the amount of points spent.

There is another tool at a player’s disposal, however, and that’s an asset. An asset is everything else. An asset can be the right tool, a clever idea that the player comes up with, a cypher ability, and so on. Now, page 16 of the Numenera corebook says, “Assets can never decrease a task’s difficulty by more than two steps.” (You can find this rule in The Strange and the Cypher System Rulebook as well.) This is just to keep things in check, to maintain a level of balance. Players and GMs know, then, that you’re never going to reduce the difficulty more than 2 steps with a skill, and 2 steps with assets. The rest has got to come from Effort.


Most of the time, that’s all well and good, but what if the GM decides that conditions beyond the player’s control also modify things. It’s raining, so that makes climbing the wall harder. Or perhaps more pertinent to this discussion, it’s raining, and that makes sneaking into the house easier. Does that reduction in difficulty count toward the asset limit? Can the GM only modify the difficulty by 2 steps, because assets are limited to 2 steps?

No. Because an underpinning idea of the Cypher System is that the rules put boundaries on the players, but not on the GM. As page 331 of Numenera states, “The Numenera rules are written with the assumption that the GM does not need to fall back on rules for everything, either for her own sake or as a defense against the players.” The GM isn’t bound by the rules. As that whole section of the book says, the GM is bound by logic and good storytelling. So there are no rules limiting the GM. That would be against the spirit of the game.

This same thinking applies to many attack modifiers (surprise, position, cover, and so on); these are elements the GM (or the rules) bring to the table, as opposed to assets the players bring.

To look at it another way, the GM sets the difficulty of a task. She can set it to be whatever she thinks is logical and right. If she states that it’s a 7, but that the rain reduces it by a step, that’s just another way of saying that it’s a 6. She’s not limited by how she comes up with that number. She just sets it correctly. Thus, unlike assets that the players bring to bear, modifiers set by the GM aren’t assets and don’t count against the 2-step limit.

Charles Ryan
Charles Ryan

Charles M. Ryan has written or contributed to titles in nearly every class of tabletop game—board games, card games, trading card games, miniature games, and roleplaying games—over a 25-year career in the game industry. He has also served as the global brand manager for Dungeons & Dragons and headed up the marketing department at the UK’s Esdevium Games, one of the world’s largest game distributors. He is the Chief Operating Officer at Monte Cook Games.