Cypher System: Logic as the Core Mechanic

This is the first in a series of articles by Monte about designing, running, and playing the Cypher System.

If we’re going to look at the Cypher System, we’ve got to start with the idea that underpinned the design of the entire game. That idea is this: it is the GM, using logic, and the players, using imagination, that drives the game, rather than an exhaustive rules set. The freedom of the GM using logic rather than rules shaped every game design decision. Thus, the game empowers the GM to make rulings and focus on the needs of the story rather than spend a lot of time looking up (or memorizing) rules.


The number one strength of a tabletop RPG is the fact that there’s a living, breathing person sitting at the table next to you that can arbitrate the rules. The GM’s presence means that the player can do whatever he wants–whatever he can think of. In a computer game the player is limited to actions that the designers anticipated. Tabletop rules systems that try to cover every contingency can end up putting similar restrictions on players. This can lead to clarity, but sometimes at the expense of ingenuity. A great game can be designed to embrace the GM and his or her logic and reasoning—that’s the way virtually all tabletop games were designed for decades. That’s not sloppy game design (making the GM do all the work), it’s a design paradigm that can shape a game designer’s choices.

But what about the players in all this? If we put more authority into the hands of the GM, aren’t we taking it away from the players? I don’t believe so. In fact, I think the opposite is true. By giving GMs the ability to interpret the actions in the game world using logic and reason, it gives players the authority to come up with creative responses to game situations rather than simply relying on what the game’s designer thought they should (or were most likely to) do. In a rules-tight game, a player’s options are spelled out for him. In a GM-logic game, the player can come up with any action she wishes, knowing that the GM can arbitrate it. In other words, if your character is on fire, the player doesn’t have to look up “fire” in the rulebook’s index to learn what can put it out. She can figure out how to put that fire out using real world sensibilities. (Stop, drop, and roll!) Logic becomes the underpinning of the rules. The core mechanic, if you will.

To put it another way, at any RPG table, there are three forces at work: the GM, the players, and the rules. A game that focuses on the rules puts the rules in charge—the GM and the players are subservient to the rulebook. To not look up the way a skill works or what the modifier for a situation should be is breaking the rules, and risks unbalancing the game. The Cypher System is designed to put the power in the hands of GM and the players (probably in that order). The rules exist to help, not dictate. That doesn’t just mean that the rules are meant to be ignored, however. That means that the rules were designed to make way for GM logic. There aren’t a lot of fiddly rules or things that require rulebook lookups. It’s designed so that once you understand the basics, you can take it from there. Everything has a difficulty or level rated on an intuitive scale of 1 to 10. It’s literally a system designed around logical rulings and adjudication.

Look for additional thoughts on the Cypher System over the weeks to come! The Cypher System Rulebook hits stores in early August, but is available for pre-order now!

Read the whole series here:

1: Logic as the Core Mechanic

2: Player Authority

3: Player Authority and the GM

4: Playing the Character You Want to Play, Part 1

5: Playing the Character You Want to Play, Part 2

6: Easy on the GM, Part 1

7: Easy on the GM, Part 2


Monte Cook
Monte Cook

Monte Cook has written hundreds of roleplaying game products, along with numerous short stories, novels, nonfiction titles, and comic books. He is probably best known for his work on such notable titles as Planescape, Ptolus, the 3rd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons (which he codesigned with Jonathan Tweet and Skip Williams), Arcana Evolved, and of course Numenera and the Cypher System. He is a cofounder of Monte Cook Games, and is our lead designer.