One of the main reasons I love GMing the Cypher System is the low prep time needed to create a memorable encounter. While preparation in most games focuses on stat blocks, Cypher System preparation focuses more on cool ideas, descriptive details, and player handouts and props. When it comes to Cypher System stat blocks, I can make a playable creature or an NPC in just a minute or two, but if I have more time I like to layer on additional details that make the creature or NPC more fun. Here’s what I do, based on how much time I have to devote to making up a creature or NPC:
2 minutes: Think of a cool concept and a brief description. Decide on the motivations and potential tactics of the creature or NPC. Assign it a level. Done and dusted: you have a fully playable creature or NPC!
4 minutes: Come up with a clever GM intrusion relating to the creature or NPC, to use when one of your players inevitably rolls a 1—or you need a twist. (You can speed this up with a little inspiration from the GM Intrusion Deck.)
6 minutes: Give the creature or NPC a signature tactic, and a special ability that reflects that tactic. While you’re at it, add one specific detail to the description. Look for something that conveys the essence of the creature’s or NPC’s purpose in your adventure—if it’s supposed to be creepy, detail exactly what form the creepiness takes, for instance.
10 minutes: I rarely spend this much time on a single creature or NPC unless it has a recurring role in my adventure. With this extra time, add a second special ability and more descriptive detail. Maybe even a third, but don’t go overboard. A creature or NPC probably won’t get a chance to use four or five different special abilities, so spending the extra time to pad the list may be time poorly spent.
If you have more time and the creature or NPC is likely to be faced in combat, here are some factors to keep in mind as you tinker with them further. These are rules of thumb, but are still really useful to keep in mind.
- A creature’s health dictates how long it will survive in combat. Against low-tier characters a creature will likely lose about 10 points of health per round. So I look for a basic encounter to have about 35 total points of health among all the creatures or NPCs—to have a three-to-four round encounter. (Mid-tier characters likely will dish out about 16 points of damage per round, so make that total 55 health. And for higher-tier characters, it’s likely 22 points per round, and 70 health works well.)
- Of course, Armor affects that equation. Giving a creature or NPC a point of armor is the equivalent of adding 6 or 7 points to its health. So if my adversaries have 1 point of Armor, maybe I only need 25 points of health. Two points of armor? Lower it to 20 points of health.
- Adjust the damage a creature deals upward for a higher-stakes fight, but never lower it—it’ll have the effect of just slowing the combat down. And make sure your low-level creatures deal at least 2 or 3 points of damage, or they might not be able to affect your characters at all. During a fight, you can expect a creature to deal about twice its damage—so a creature with damage 4 will probably dish out 8 or so points of damage in a combat.
- Of course, damage isn’t the only way a creature can affect your characters. Other combat effects—venom, entanglement, stun effects, mental control, and so on—are more interesting. But don’t overuse them.
And that’s it: two minutes to stat out a creature if you don’t have much time; ten minutes max if you want to go all out.