The Cypher System

Investing In: the Cypher System

A realm of possibility exists around you. There are worlds of failed dynasties and lost fortune, of desert vistas dotted with lost tombs. Some have urban monoliths reclaimed by nature. Ancient castles and dungeons may tease dragons, vampires, and the debauchery of uncaring fey. Alien magic and mysterious technology circle the globe, lay hidden beneath the hills, and are cobbled together for small use in your hometown.

There are a great many rule systems that could support these fantastic lands and ideas, but the Cypher System has provided a simplistic blueprint for GMs and players to build upon. The diverse qualifiers, types, and abilities presented in this ruleset give still greater opportunity for other games like the reality-hopping world of The Strange. With it can you and your friends explore your imagination and perhaps find broader inspiration.

The Cypher System

The “game engine” as it’s referred to upon the Cypher System site is meant to be loosely structured, flexible, and abstract enough to work for any world and campaign. It’s owned by Monte Cook Games, created by him and Bruce Cordell back nearly five years ago now. At its basic premise you have actions with difficulties, skills with some or heavy training, and characters that can be nearly anything. Your character is defined by one phrase: I am an (adjective) (noun) who [verb]. Strong warrior who wields an axe? You’re probably incredibly strong, trained in combat, and have special axe-wielding abilities. Perhaps instead you’re a mysterious sorcerer who experiments with technology. Ah that’s different isn’t it? Now you have strange abilities, mess with magical studies (that maybe just seem like magic) and you like to play with the lost technology of the ancients. A lot depends on the world your characters live within.

If there’s a challenge to roll, the GM will assign a difficulty. You roll a d20 and if you meet or beat the difficulty, you succeed. Your character might be good at climbing or technology. If it’s something you’re trained in, add 3. Specialized? Add 3 more. Various items or other abilities may assist you, especially in the land of Numenera where numerous civilizations of magic and technology have risen and fallen over the years. Some of that technology or magic may be a single use cypher, but others may be artifacts with a chance to endure though like not forever.

Over time you’ll get experience you can use for rerolls or to raise the tier of your character, giving them new abilities and further training in various skills. There’s also the three stat Pools (Might, Speed, and Intellect), Edge, and Effort. Your Pools are each like an ability score though you can take damage to them as if they were hit points. You’ll expend from them to activity abilities and powers too. Your Edge is how talented you are with that Pool and reduces the cost of spending from it, say to activate abilities. Finally your Effort let’s you expend from your Pools to push to higher levels of success, especially important for those risky and dangerous challenges so you can ensure at least some hope for success.



I actually first played Numenera using the Cypher System years ago when one friend offered to run a game easier to manage but still rather inventive. It’s not just the 10 Candles system that got me thinking of it as my friends had been discussing new games, other rule sets, and forthcoming adventures recently. What I liked most was the ability to try and do nearly anything, but finding the right tool or enablement to achieve it. Inventiveness was key and the drive to explore sent us into numerous scenes of wonder, curiosity, and danger.

My character Scorpio had an odd scorpion tattoo on his back, didn’t quite understand his past, and was somehow tied to the ancient data network that criss-crossed the world and beyond. He saw strange things, called on miraculous powers of time and healing, and mostly relied on a crossbow in battle. He was quick over strong, but very intelligent even if he didn’t quite understand what he was doing. It was extremely fun putting him together as I got to match odd abilities to suit my exact idea and let the rules support my imagination rather than feel forced to build into a preset structure.

The Strange

A year or so after that game ended one of the players started the Strange, which also uses the Cypher System. Now we were people in the real world, living in Seattle, but who’d come to find they could access the powers of the Strange by whatever odd experience had clued us into this other-ness of the world. We can transport to other realities – other recursions – and our very souls would echo with the nature of the world.

When changing recursions our power set would change, the verb component of: I am an (adjective) (noun) who (verb). My character could go from a hacker to a master of soul magic or to a powerful robotics engineer. You play as part of the Estate, an organization in the real world who has learned of these other realities and the visitors who sometimes come from them. There’s still plenty of oddities to find and tinker with, a mix of technological, biological, and magical cyphers.

the strange

New Inspiration

It’s also from this game one of the players Mike (actually the original GM of the Numenera game) who took inspiration to create his character for my World of Darkness Mage: the Awakening game. His Estate character learned a greater truth and as his soul Awakened to the full power of magic so too did he translate into something more. I built on top of that creativity to use the small reality of Crow Hollow from the Strange and make it a part of the Hedge of Changeling’s Arcadia. What could be more fey than a large forest, a single mile high tree, and crow people selling things for a bit of your soul and well-being?

It’s why I find playing these different games not only rewarding for growing your skills like Improv or creative writing, but also inspiring to bring new dimension to other games or provide opportunity with other rule sets. I also borrow from the Cypher System an idea of GM Intrusion where the GM might make something more difficult for you, but should you accept it you get some XP. This gives a structured way to push your players but also rewards them when you want to make things even more challenging.

Investing In:

If you’re interested in purchasing the Cypher System, Numenera, or the Strange you can buy them at the Monte Cook Store. Dare to explore a world of lost civilization, the strange multiverse, or whatever exists within your wildest imagination!  Seek our other systems for chances to flex your improv skill, learn new rules, and get inspired for bizarre world, intriguing characters, and possibly even other games you will create!

And I also want to hear what you’re Investing In! Leave me a comment below about what games, modules, systems, products, people, live streams, etc you enjoy! You can also hit me up on social media as silentinfinity. I want to hear what excites you and what you’re passionate about. There’s so much wonderful content, people, groups (I could go on) in this community of ours that the more we invest in and share, the better it becomes!

About Investing In

I wasn’t quite sure what to name my article series when I first started but the idea of showcasing or discussing things that make me excited, that I find new and interesting, or maybe I’m otherwise passionate about seemed to fit with the idea of Investing In something like the Pathfinder 2E mechanic. To use some magic items you have to give that little bit of yourself, which helps make these things even better. I like the metaphor of the community growing and being strengthened in the same way!


Banner – The Cypher System, Monte Cook Games,

  1. Numenera Discovery and Destiny, Monte Cook Games
  2. The Strange Kickstarter, Monte Cook Games

Rob Pontious

You may know Rob Pontious from Order of the Amber Die or Gehenna Gaming's first series of Monster Hearts 2. He currently writes Know Direction's Investing In blog as well as a player for the Valiant podcast and Roll for Combat's Three Ring Adventure. He's been a lover of TTRPGs for over three decades, as a gamer, and a GAYMER. You can find him on social media as @silentinfinity.