Notes on a Cypher System Session

I’ve been running my current Numenera campaign now for quite a long time. It might be useful to some GMs running Cypher System games to take a look at some facets of this game from the point of view of an actual session.

Preparation

My preparation consists of me jotting down a few basic ideas in a notebook (or sometimes a file on my laptop). It’s not an outline, just ideas to insert into the game. It might look something like this:

  • Gestalt entity needs more minds to continue
  • Organized bandit fort in a ravine with broken hounds
  • Metal helmet with eyes on the outside
  • Creature like a T-Rex but with a mass of tentacles, mouths, and eyes rather than a head or arms
  • Fountain where the water is information (GM Intrusion: information overload?)
  • Bat-like ornithopter

I might add to this a couple of cyphers and/or creatures already designed that I’m itching to introduce into the game. This takes me about 5-20 minutes at most. Of course, all the time between sessions, I’m thinking about this stuff, getting inspired by things I see or read or encounter. So when it comes time to scribble some notes, the ideas are already there.

Then I just have this list of ideas, along with a general notion of where things will start up again from last session, and kick things in motion. The players decide what to do and where to go, and I use my list of ideas as interjections. In other words, things start out with the PCs talking to a gestalt machine entity that they discovered last session, and they learn it needs more minds added to it. From there, the PCs can go anywhere. If they help the entity, they have to go find a bandit camp with broken hounds as guard animals. But if they go in a completely different direction, maybe they’ll meet someone who wears a helmet with functioning organic eyes on the outside of it. Maybe they’ll find the fountain or run afoul of the creature, or both. Or maybe something else will happen and none of my ideas will come into play–I can still save them for next time. The point is, I’m never railroading the players because I’m ready with ideas for wherever they happen to go. It’s all fluid and open-ended.

Sometimes I’ll lay out a lot more details about a place they go or a person they talk to (or at least, I’ll have a lot more specific details in my head and the notes are just prompts to get me to remember), but sometimes that list of weird ideas is all I’ll have.

At the Table

I talk in the GMing chapters of Numenera and The Strange about the importance of timing and pacing. You don’t want to rush through the important parts, but you don’t want things to drag. Just as importantly, you want the game session to end at a good spot–for example, one that provides closure, a cliffhanger, or just a very interesting revelation. Anything to make the players eager for next session.

How does a session actually flow? Well, take a recent session, for example. At the beginning of the session, following up on events that had happened previously, the PCs learned that an automaton that had been sent out into the world from a cloistered gestalt entity had been waylaid by bandits. For complicated reasons, the PCs were motivated to help get it back–or more appropriately, get it back on its mission.

The session began, then, with the PCs asking around at the nearby village to learn if anyone knew anything about these bandits and where their camp might be. There were a lot of in-game exchanges and a few interaction die rolls. In all, this probably took about two hours of the four-hour session. This was important story and character building time, so it wasn’t rushed.

Next, the PCs used the information they had to find the bandits. They traveled to and scouted out the location. Once they had even more information, they made a plan. Again, this wasn’t rushed. In-character, the players discussed a lot of different options, and for the most part that impatient, “let’s just attack” mentality that players can fall into was suppressed. Which was a good thing.

Because next the PCs put their plan into action. Thanks to some clever use of cyphers and other abilities, the PCs took on a huge group of foes and dealt with them quite easily. Remarkably easy, in fact. In the words of the Numenera corebook, that’s not cheating, it’s awesome. It wasn’t the die rolls or the PC’s stats that achieved the victory–it was their smart plan. Even the inevitable surprises that arose were dealt with fairly easily.

There’s a tendency on some people’s part to think that if the PCs don’t walk away from an encounter bloody and barely alive, that it wasn’t a good encounter. This isn’t necessarily true of any game, but it’s certainly not true in a Cypher System game. The actual combat itself wasn’t the point. It was the experience, and striving for the goal. If the experience is that the players had a good plan and executed it well, then that’s cool. The actual confrontation only took about a half hour or so.

The remaining half hour was finding and freeing the captive automaton, scavenging for new cyphers, finding some other, unexpected prisoners, and other “wrapping up” bits.

I use that session as an example, because I felt at the end that things had gone pretty much perfectly. Not because the PCs did what I expected (they didn’t), but because everyone had fun, and everyone was rewarded for the time they invested in their actions. And that’s the point. I like to center my game sessions on cool ideas, fun experiences, and real choices that lead to real success or failure.

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.