Cyphers. They’re so fundamental to the Cypher System, it’s right there in the name!
A cypher is a one-use special ability. Maybe it’s something that lets a character shoot a blast of fire, or gives them added defense for an hour, or teleports them to a location they can see, or heals them, or adds damage to their attacks, or changes one roll to a natural 20.
In many genres, cyphers are physical items. A potion or scroll in a fantasy game, a prototype gizmo in a super-spies setting, or a barely understood bit of alien technology in a space opera campaign. In others settings, cyphers may be ephemeral, representing a bit of luck, a blessing from the gods, focused improbability, or simply a metagame benefit.
Either way, cyphers give the player a bit of narrative control—a “bonus” capability that lets them come at a challenge in a different way. Whatever the cypher does or whatever its form, it’s not part of a character’s normal repertoire of abilities. It’s a wildcard, both for the players and the GM—and that keeps the game fresh and fun for everyone. But how do you make the most of them?
The premise relies on three concepts: frequent discovery, limited capacity, and, as a result, frequent turnover. PCs need to encounter new cyphers often, and because most characters can only hold two or three cyphers at once, they’re encouraged to use rather than hoard them.
Here are some tips to make that happen:
- Be sure to give them out! It can be easy to forget. Shoot for the party to find, each game session, a number of cyphers roughly equal to double the number of PCs. Five characters? Aim for ten new cyphers per session.
- Keep them random. Use the tables in your corebook, or one of our many handy Cypher Decks. Avoid the temptation to pick the “right” cypher; unexpected effects create opportunities for creative use.
- (And remember: they aren’t “treasure,” so don’t think of them as a reward. They’re part of what makes the characters whole and the game fun!)
- Remind the players to use them. Particularly when they’re somewhat new to the Cypher System, players sometimes forget about their cyphers.
- Applaud their creative solutions! Cyphers can unlock surprising solutions to your challenges. Let them—that’s what they’re all about!
In a memorable Numenera game, our PCs were thwarted by a swarm of insects attracted to the device we wanted to steal. My character had a cypher that healed 1 point every time I took damage, and another cypher that inflicted 1 point of fire damage onto any creature that harmed me. I activated both cyphers and strode into the insect swarm. Although their attacks hurt, I instantly healed, and the bugs ended up burning themselves up as they attacked. Monte was surprised at how I got us past that obstacle—and maybe it was easier than he had envisioned. But the surprise solution made for a great encounter.
And importantly, Monte didn’t have to worry that we’d be using that tactic on similar encounters. I might never end up with either of those cyphers again—and almost certainly won’t ever see that combination. And that’s another great thing about cyphers: Their transient nature means even powerful effects don’t throw the game out of balance.
It’s fun for players to use a cypher to bypass an obstacle, or make an encounter easier, or get out of a bad situation. And it’s fun for the GM to see what unexpected and creative things players think to do with their cyphers. When used well, they really make the Cypher System sing!