Running the Cypher System #

Setting Difficulty Ratings #

The GM’s most important overall tasks are setting the stage and guiding the story created by the group (not the one created by the GM ahead of time). But setting difficulty is the most important mechanical task the GM has in the game. Although there are suggestions throughout this chapter for various difficulty ratings for certain actions, there is no master list of the difficulty for every action a PC can take. Instead, the Cypher System is designed with the “teach a person to fish” style of good game mastering in mind. (If you don’t know what that means, it comes from the old adage “Give a person a fish and they’ll eat for a day. Teach a person to fish and they’ll eat for a lifetime.” The idea is not to give GMs a ton of rules to memorize or reference, but to teach them how to make their own logical judgment calls.) Of course, most of the time, it’s not a matter of exact precision. If you say the difficulty is 3 and it “should” have been 4, the world’s not over.

For the most part, it really is as simple as rating something on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being incredibly easy and 10 being basically impossible. The guidelines in the Task Difficulty table should help put you in the right frame of mind for assigning difficulty to a task.

For example, we make the distinction between something that most people can do and something that trained people can do. In this case, “normal” means someone with absolutely no training, talent, or experience—imagine your ne’er-do-well, slightly overweight uncle trying a task he’s never tried before. “Trained” means the person has some level of instruction or experience but is not necessarily a professional.

With that in mind, think about the act of balance. With enough focus, most people can walk across a narrow bridge (like a fallen tree trunk). That suggests it is difficulty 2. However, walking across a narrow plank that’s only 3 inches (8 cm) wide? That’s probably more like difficulty 3. Now consider walking across a tightrope. That’s probably difficulty 5—a normal person can manage that only with a great deal of luck. Someone with some training can give it a go, but it’s still hard. Of course, a professional acrobat can do it easily. Consider, however, that the professional acrobat is specialized in the task, making it difficulty 3 for them. They probably are using Effort as well during their performance.

Let’s try another task. This time, consider how hard it might be to remember the name of the previous leader of the village where the character lives. The difficulty might be 0 or 1, depending on how long ago they were the leader and how well known they were. Let’s say it was thirty years ago and they were only mildly memorable, so it’s difficulty 1. Most people remember them, and with a little bit of effort, anyone can come up with their name. Now let’s consider the name of the leader’s daughter. That’s much harder. Assuming the daughter wasn’t famous in her own right, it’s probably difficulty 4. Even people who know a little about local history (that is to say, people who are trained in the subject) might not be able to remember it. But what about the name of the pet dog owned by the daughter’s spouse? That’s probably impossible. Who’s going to remember the name of an obscure person’s pet from thirty years ago? Basically no one. However, it’s not forbidden knowledge or a well-guarded secret, so it sounds like difficulty 7. Difficulty 7 is the rating that means “No one can do this, yet some people still do.” It’s not the stuff of legend, but it’s something you would assume people can’t do. When you think there’s no way you can get tickets for a sold-out concert, but somehow your friend manages to score a couple anyway, that’s difficulty 7. (See the next section for more on difficulties 7, 8, 9, and 10.)

If you’re talking about a task, ideally the difficulty shouldn’t be based on the character performing the task. Things don’t get inherently easier or harder depending on who is doing them. However, the truth is, the character does play into it as a judgment call. If the task is breaking down a wooden door, an 8-foot-tall (2 m) automaton made of metal with nuclear-driven motors should be better at breaking it down than an average human would be, but the task rating should be the same for both. Let’s say that the automaton’s nature effectively gives it two levels of training in such tasks. Thus, if the door has a difficulty rating of 4, but the automaton is specialized and reduces the difficulty to 2, it has a target number of 6. The human has no such specialization, so the difficulty remains 4, and the person has a target number of 12. However, when you set the difficulty of breaking down the door, don’t try to take all those differences into account. The GM should consider only the human because the Task Difficulty table is based on the ideal of a “normal” person, a “trained” person, and so on. It’s humanocentric.

Most characters probably are willing to use one or two levels of Effort on a task, and they might have an appropriate skill or asset to decrease the difficulty by a step. That means that a difficulty 4 task will often be treated as difficulty 2 or even 1, and those are easy rolls to make. Don’t hesitate, then, to pull out higher-level difficulties. The PCs can rise to the challenge, especially if they are experienced.

The Impossible Difficulties #

Difficulties 7, 8, 9, and 10 are all technically impossible. Their target numbers are 21, 24, 27, and 30, and you can’t roll those numbers on a d20 no matter how many times you try. Consider, however, all the ways that a character can reduce difficulty. If someone spends a little Effort or has some skill or help, it brings difficulty 7 (target number 21) into the range of possibility—difficulty 6 (target number 18). Now consider that they have specialization, use a lot of Effort, and have help. That might bring the difficulty down to 1 or even 0 (reducing it by two steps from training and specialization, three or four steps from Effort, and one step from the asset of assistance). That practically impossible task just became routine. A fourth-tier character can and will do this—not every time, due to the cost, but perhaps once per game session. You have to be ready for that. A well-prepared, motivated sixth-tier character can do that even with a difficulty 10 task. Again, they won’t do it often (they’d have to apply six levels of Effort, and even with an Edge of 6 that would cost 7 points from their Pool, and that’s assuming they’re specialized and have two levels of assets), but it can happen if they’re really prepared for the task (being specialized and maxed out in asset opportunities reduces the difficulty by four more steps). That’s why sixth-tier characters are at the top of their field, so to speak.

False Precision #

One way to look at difficulty is that each step of difficulty is worth 3 on the die. That is to say, hinder the task by one step, and the target number rises by 3. Ease the task by one step, and the target number is lowered by 3. Those kinds of changes are big, meaty chunks. Difficulty, as a game mechanic, is not terribly precise. It’s measured in large portions. You never have a target number of 13 or 14, for example—it’s always 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, and so on. (Technically, this is not true. If a character adds 1 to a d20 roll for some reason, it changes a target number of 15 to 14. But this is not worth much discussion.)

Imprecision is good in this case. It would be false precision to say that one lock has a target number of 14 and another has a target number of 15. What false precision means in this context is that it would be a delusion to think we can be that exact. Can you really say that one lock is 5% easier to pick than another? And more important, even if you could, is the difference worth noting? It’s better to interact with the world in larger, more meaningful chunks than to try to parse things so carefully. If we tried to rate everything on a scale of 1 to 30 (using target numbers and not difficulty), we’d start to get lost in the proverbial weeds coming up with a meaningful distinction between something rated as an 8 and something rated as a 9 on that scale.

Routine Actions #

Don’t hesitate to make actions routine. Don’t call for die rolls when they’re not really needed. Sometimes GMs fall into the trap illustrated by this dialogue:

GM: What do you do?

Player: I _________.

GM: Okay, give me a roll.

That’s not a good instinct—at least, not for the Cypher System. Players should roll when it’s interesting or exciting. Otherwise, they should just do what they do. If the PCs tie a rope around something and use it to climb down into a pit, you could ask for tying rolls, climbing rolls, and so on, but why? Just to see if they roll terribly? So the rope can come undone at the wrong time, or a character’s hand can slip? Most of the time, that makes players feel inadequate and isn’t a lot of fun. A rope coming undone in the middle of an exciting chase scene or a battle can be a great complication (and that’s what GM intrusions are for). A rope coming undone in the middle of a simple “getting from point A to point B” scene only slows down gameplay. The real fun—the real story—is down in the pit. So get the PCs down there.

There are a million exceptions to this guideline, of course. If creatures are throwing poisoned darts at the PCs while they climb, that might make things more interesting and require a roll. If the pit is filled with acid and the PCs must climb halfway down, pull a lever, and come back up, that’s a situation where you should set difficulty and perhaps have a roll. If a PC is near death, carrying a fragile item of great importance, or something similar, climbing down the rope is tense, and a roll might add to the excitement. The important difference is that these kinds of complications have real consequences.

On the flip side, don’t be afraid to use GM intrusion on routine actions if it makes things more interesting. Walking up to the king in his audience chamber in the middle of a ceremony only to trip on a rug? That could have huge ramifications for the character and the story.

Other Ways to Judge Difficulty #

Rating things on a scale of 1 to 10 is something that most people are very familiar with. You can also look at it as rating an object or creature on a similar scale, if that’s easier. In other words, if you don’t know how hard it would be to climb a particular cliff face, think of it as a creature the PCs have to fight. What level would the creature be? You could look in the Creatures chapter and say “I think this wall should be about as difficult to deal with as a demon. A demon is level 5, so the task of climbing the wall will be difficulty 5.” That’s a weird way to do it, perhaps, but it’s fairly straightforward. And if you’re the kind of GM who thinks in terms of “How tough will this fight be?” then maybe rating tasks as creatures or NPCs to fight isn’t so strange after all. It’s just another way to relate to them. The important thing is that they’re on the same scale. Similarly, if the PCs have to tackle a knowledge task—say, trying to determine if they know where a caravan is headed based on its tracks—you could rate the task in terms of an object. If you’re used to rating doors or other objects that the PCs have broken through recently, the knowledge task is just a different kind of barrier to bust through.

Everything in the Cypher System—characters, creatures, objects, tasks, and so on—has a level. It might be called a tier or a difficulty instead of a level, but ultimately it’s a numerical rating system used to compare things. Although you have to be careful about drawing too many correlations—a first-tier character isn’t easily compared to a difficulty 1 wall or a level 1 animal—the principle is the same. Everything can be rated and roughly compared to everything else in the world. (It works best to take PCs out of this equation. For example, you shouldn’t try to compare a PC’s tier to a wall’s level. Character tiers are mentioned here only for completeness.)

Last, if your mind leans toward statistics, you can look at difficulty as a percentage chance. Every number on the d20 is a 5% increment. For example, you have a 5% chance of rolling a 1. You have a 10% chance of rolling a 1 or a 2. Thus, if you need to roll a 12 or higher, you have a 45% chance of success. (A d20 has nine numbers that are 12 or higher: 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, and 20. And 9 x 5 equals 45.)

For some people, it’s easier to think in terms of a percentage chance. A GM might think “She has about a 30% chance to know that fact about geography.” Each number on a d20 is a 5% increment, and it takes six increments to equal 30%, so there are six numbers that mean the PC succeeds: 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, and 20. Thus, since the player has to roll 15 or higher, that means the target number is 15. (And that means the task is level 5, but if you’ve already determined the target number, you likely don’t care about the level.)


  1. The GM makes measured adjustments in large, uniform steps. That makes things faster than if players had to do arithmetic using a range of all numbers from 1 to 20.
  2. You calculate a target number only once no matter how many times the PCs attempt the action. If you establish that the target number is 12, it’s 12 every time a PC tries that action. (On the other hand, if you had to add numbers to your die roll, you’d have to do it for every attempt.) Consider this fact in light of combat. Once a player knows that they need to roll a 12 or higher to hit a foe, combat moves very quickly.
  3. If a PC can reduce the difficulty of an action to 0, no roll is needed. This means that an Olympic gymnast doesn’t roll a die to walk across a balance beam, but the average person does. The task is initially rated the same for both, but the difficulty is reduced for the gymnast. There’s no chance of failure.
  4. This is how everything in the game works, whether it’s climbing a wall, sweet-talking a guard, or fighting a bioengineered horror.
  5. Perhaps most important, the system gives GMs the freedom to focus entirely on the flow of the game. The GM doesn’t use dice to determine what happens (unless you want to)—the players do. There aren’t a lot of different rules for different actions, so there is little to remember and very little to reference. The difficulty can be used as a narrative tool, with the challenges always meeting the expected logic of the game. All the GM’s mental space can be devoted to guiding the story.

GM Intrusion #

GM intrusion is the main mechanic that the GM uses to inject drama and additional excitement into the game. It’s also a handy tool for resolving issues that affect the PCs but do not involve them. GM intrusion is a way to facilitate what goes on in the world outside the characters. Can the minotaur track the PCs’ movements through the maze? Will the fraying rope hold?

Since the players roll all the dice, GM intrusion is used to determine if and when something happens. For example, if the PCs are fighting a noble’s guards, and you (the GM) know that there are more guards nearby, you don’t need to roll dice to determine if the other guards hear the scuffle and intervene (unless you want to). You just decide when it would be best for the story—which is probably when it would be worst for the characters. In a way, GM intrusion replaces the GM’s die rolling.

The mechanic is also one of the main ways that GMs award experience points to the PCs. This means that you use experience points as a narrative tool. Whenever it seems appropriate, you can introduce complications into the game that affect a specific player, but when you do so, you give that player 1 XP. The player can refuse the intrusion, but doing so costs them 1 XP. So by refusing an intrusion, the player does not get the experience point that the GM is offering, and they lose one that they already have. (This kind of refusal is likely to happen very rarely in your game, if ever. And, obviously, a player can’t refuse an intrusion if they have no XP to spend.)

Here’s how a GM intrusion might work in play. Say the PCs find a hidden console with some buttons. They learn the right order in which to press the buttons, and a section of the floor disappears. As the GM, you don’t ask the players specifically where their characters are standing. Instead, you give a player 1 XP and say “Unfortunately, you’re standing directly over this new hole in the floor.” If the player wanted, they could refuse the XP, spend one of their own, and say “I leap aside to safety.” Most likely, though, they’ll make the defense roll that you call for and let it play out.

There are two ways for the GM to handle this kind of intrusion. You could say “You’re standing in the wrong place, so make a roll.” (It’s a Speed defense roll, of course.) Alternatively, you could say “You’re standing in the wrong place. The floor opens under your feet, and you fall down into the darkness.” In the first example, the PC has a chance to save themselves. In the second example, they don’t. Both are viable options. The distinction is based on any number of factors, including the situation, the characters involved, and the needs of the story. This might seem arbitrary or even capricious, but you’re the master of what the intrusion can and can’t do. RPG mechanics need consistency so players can make intelligent decisions based on how they understand the world to work. But they’ll never base their decisions on GM intrusions. They don’t know when intrusions will happen or what form they will take. GM intrusions are the unpredictable and strange twists of fate that affect a person’s life every day.

When player modifications (such as skill, Effort, and so on) determine that success is automatic, the GM can use GM intrusion to negate the automatic success. The player must roll for the action at its original difficulty level or target number 20, whichever is lower.

Remember, any time you give a player 1 XP for a GM intrusion, you’re actually giving them 2— one to keep and one to give to another player.

Using GM Intrusion as a Narrative Tool #

A GM can use this narrative tool to steer things. That doesn’t mean railroad the players or direct the action of the game with a heavy hand. GM intrusion doesn’t enable you to say “You’re all captured, so here’s your 1 XP.” Instead, the GM can direct things more subtly—gently, almost imperceptibly influencing events rather than forcing them. GM intrusion represents things going wrong. The bad guys planning well. Fortune not favoring the characters.

Consider this scenario: the GM plants an interesting adventure seed in a small village, but the PCs don’t stay there long enough to find it. So just outside the village, the PCs run afoul of a vicious viper that bites one of them. The GM uses intrusion to say that the poison from the snake will make the character debilitated unless they get a large dose of a specific antitoxin, which the group doesn’t have. Of course, they aren’t required to go back to the village where the GM’s interesting adventure can start, but it’s likely that they will, looking for the antitoxin.

Some players might find intrusion heavy-handed, but the XP softens the blow. And remember, they can refuse these narrative nudges. Intrusion is not meant to be a railroading tool—just a bit of a rudder. Not an inescapable track, but a nudge here and there.

What’s more, the GM doesn’t need to have a deliberate goal in mind. The complication you introduce could simply make things more interesting. You might not know where it will take the story, just that it will make the story better.

This is wonderfully empowering to the GM—not in a “Ha ha, now I’ll trounce the PCs” way, but in an “I can control the narrative a little bit, steering it more toward the story I want to create rather than relying on the dice” sort of way. Consider that old classic plot development in which the PCs get captured and must escape from the bad guys. In heroic fiction, this is such a staple that it would almost seem strange if it didn’t happen. But in many roleplaying games, it’s a nearly impossible turn of events—the PCs usually have too many ways to get out of the bad guy’s clutches before they’re captured. The dice have to be wildly against them. It virtually never happens. With GM intrusion, it could happen (again, in the context of the larger encounter, not as a single intrusion that results in the entire group of PCs being captured with little explanation or chance to react).

For example, let’s say the PCs are surrounded by orcs. One character is badly injured—debilitated—and the rest are hurt. Some of the orcs produce a large weighted net. Rather than asking for a lot of rolls and figuring the mechanics for escape, you use intrusion and say that the net goes over the PCs who are still on their feet. The rest of the orcs point spears menacingly. This is a pretty strong cue to the players that surrender is a good (and possibly the only) option. Some players won’t take the hint, however, so another use of intrusion might allow the orcs to hit one of the trapped PCs on the head and render them unconscious while their friends struggle in the net. If the players still don’t surrender, it’s probably best to play out the rest of the encounter without more GM intrusions—using more would be heavy-handed by anyone’s measure—although it’s perfectly reasonable to rule that a character rendered debilitated is knocked unconscious, since the orcs are trying to take the PCs alive.

Remember that GM intrusions can occur at any time, not just during combat. Disrupting or changing a tense interaction with NPCs can have big repercussions.

Using GM Intrusion as a Resolution Mechanic #

This mechanic offers a way for the GM to determine how things happen in the game without leaving it all to random chance. Bad guys trying to smash down the door to the room where the PCs are holed up? You could roll a bunch of dice, compare the NPCs’ stats to the door’s stats, and so on, or you could wait until the most interesting time, have the bad guys break in, and award an experience point to the PC who tried their best to bar the door. The latter way is the Cypher System way. Intrusion is a task resolution tool for the GM. In other words, you don’t base things on stats but on narrative choice. (Frankly, a lot of great GMs over the years—even in the very early days of the hobby—have run their games this way. Sometimes they rolled dice or pretended to roll dice, but they were really manipulating things.) This method frees the GM from worrying about mechanics and looking up stats and allows them to focus on the story.

This isn’t cheating—it’s the rules of the game. This rule simply replaces traditional dice rolling with good game mastering, logic, and intelligent storytelling. When a PC is climbing a burning rope, and everyone knows that it will break at some point, the game has a mechanism to ensure that it breaks at just the right time.

Variant: If you want more randomness in your game, or if you want your game to seem like more of a simulation, assign a flat percentage chance for whatever you’re trying to resolve. For example, each round, the star troopers have a 20% chance to blast through the door—or, if you want the risk to escalate, a cumulative 20% chance to blast through the door. By not using GM intrusion, this method robs the PCs of a few XP, but when they see you rolling dice, it might help with their immersion. Alternatively, you can pretend to roll dice but really use GM intrusion, though this method seriously robs the characters of XP.

There’s a better way. Announce your intrusion, but say that there’s only a chance it will happen (state the percentage chance), and then roll the dice in plain view of everyone. If the intrusion occurs, award the XP as normal. This is likely the best of both worlds. However, it takes the narrative power out of your hands and gives it to the dice. Perhaps this method is best used only occasionally. If nothing else, it injects some variety and certainly some drama.

Using (and Not Abusing) GM Intrusion #

Too much of a good thing will make the game seem utterly unpredictable—even capricious. The ideal is to use about four GM intrusions per game session, depending on the length of the session, or about one intrusion per hour of game play. This is in addition to any intrusions that are triggered by players rolling a 1.

Intrusion Through Player Rolls #

When a PC rolls a 1, handle the GM intrusion the same way that you’d handle an intrusion you initiated. The intrusion could mean the PC fumbles or botches whatever they were trying to do, but it could mean something else. Consider these alternatives:

  • In combat, the PC’s foe is not as hurt as they thought. Give the foe 5 extra points of health.
  • In combat, the PC drops their guard, and the foe gets a free attack.
  • In combat, reinforcements for the PC’s foes show up.
  • In combat (or any stressful situation), an ally decides to flee.
  • In combat (or any stressful situation), an ally doesn’t like the PCs as much as they thought. The ally steals from them or betrays them.
  • Out of combat, the PC’s pack falls open, or the sole of their shoe tears open.
  • Out of combat, it begins to rain heavily.
  • Out of combat, a surprise foe appears, and the scene turns into a combat.
  • In an interaction, the GM introduces a surprising motive for the NPC. For example, the PCs are trying to bribe an official for information, and the official reveals that what they really want isn’t money but for someone to rescue their kidnapped son.
This might not be true of your players, but many players rarely, if ever, spend XP to refuse an intrusion from the GM, though they regularly use XP to avoid an intrusion that comes from a bad roll. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Some GMs might want to forbid using an XP to reroll a 1, but there’s really no point—if you’ve got an idea for a good intrusion, you don’t need to wait until a player rolls a 1 to use it.

GM Intrusion That Affects the Group #

The core of the idea behind GM intrusion is that the player being adversely affected gains an experience point. But what if the intrusion affects the whole group equally? What if the GM uses it to have an unstable device overload and explode, harming all the characters? In this case, if no PC is involved more than the others (for example, no single PC was frantically attempting to repair the device), you should give 1 XP to each character but not give any of them an extra XP to hand out to someone else.

However, this kind of group intrusion should be an exception, not the rule. GM intrusions are much more effective if they are more personal.

Example GM Intrusions #

It’s not a good idea to use the same events as GM intrusions over and over (“Dolmar dropped his sword again?”). Below are a number of different intrusions you can use.

Bad Luck #

Through no fault of the characters, something happens that is bad or at least complicating. For example:

  • The floorboard beneath the PC gives way.
  • The boat lists to starboard at just the wrong moment.
  • A gust of wind blows the papers out of the character’s hand.
  • The buckle of the PC’s pack snaps at an inopportune time.
  • The NPC that the characters need to speak with is home sick today.
  • A device (cypher or artifact) malfunctions or gives the user a jolt.

An Unknown Complication Emerges #

The situation was more complex (and therefore more interesting) than the PCs knew—perhaps even more than the GM knew, at least at the start. For example:

  • A poisonous snake darts out from the tall grass and attacks.
  • The box that holds the plans is trapped with a poison needle.
  • The NPC that the PCs need to befriend doesn’t speak their language.
  • The NPC that the PCs try to bribe is allergic to the bottle of alcohol they offer.
  • The PCs find the book they need, but the pages are so brittle that if they open it, it might crumble.

An Impending Complication Emerges #

GMs can use this type of intrusion as a resolution mechanic to determine NPC success or failure. Rather than rolling dice to see how long it takes an NPC to rewire a damaged force field generator, it happens at a time of the GM’s choosing—ideally when it would be most interesting. For example:

  • The goblin reinforcements finally get through the locked door.
  • The ropes of the old rope bridge finally snap.
  • The city guards show up.
  • The unstable ceiling collapses.
  • The NPC who holds a dagger to a character’s throat and says “Don’t move” cuts the PC when they do, in fact, move, putting them immediately at debilitated on the damage track.

Opponent Luck Or Skill #

The PCs aren’t the only ones with surprising tricks up their sleeves. For example:

  • The PC’s opponent uses a lightning-fast maneuver to dodge all attacks.
  • The PC’s opponent sees an opening and makes an additional, immediate attack.
  • The NPC commander rallies their troops, who all deal 2 additional points of damage for one round.
  • The PC’s opponent uses a cypher or similar device that produces just the right effect for the situation.
  • A bit of the wall collapses in the middle of the fight, preventing the characters from chasing the fleeing NPC.

Fumbles #

Although you might not want every player roll of 1 to be a fumble, sometimes it could be just that. Alternatively, the GM could simply declare that a fumble has occurred. In either case, consider the following examples:

  • In combat, the PC drops their weapon.
  • In combat, the PC misses and strikes the wall, breaking or damaging their weapon.
  • In combat, the NPC hits the PC harder than usual, inflicting 2 additional points of damage.
  • In combat, the PC hits an ally by accident and inflicts regular damage.
  • Out of combat, the PC drops or mishandles an important object or piece of equipment.
  • In an interaction, the PC inadvertently or unknowingly says something offensive.

Partial Success #

GM intrusion doesn’t have to mean that a PC has failed. For example:

  • The PC disables the explosive device before it goes off, but if someone doesn’t remain and hold the detonator, it will still explode.
  • The PC creates the antidote, but it will turn the imbiber’s flesh blue for the next few weeks.
  • The PC jumps across the pit but accidentally knocks loose some stones from the edge, making the jump harder for their friend right behind them.

Player Intrusions #

Player intrusions give the players a small bit of narrative control over the world. However, the world still remains in the GM’s purview. You can always overrule a player intrusion, or suggest a way to massage it so that it fits better into the setting. Still, because it is indeed narrative control, a player intrusion should always involve a small aspect of the world beyond the character. “I punch my foe really hard” is an expression of Effort or perhaps character ability. “My foe slips and falls backward off the ledge” is a player intrusion.

Player intrusions should never be as big as GM intrusions. They should not end an encounter, only (perhaps) provide the PC with the means to more easily end an encounter. They should not have a wide-reaching or even necessarily a long-term effect on the setting. A way to consider this might be that player intrusions can affect a single object (a floorboard snaps), feature (there’s a hidden shallow spot in the stream to ford), or NPC (the vendor is an old friend). But not more than that. A player intrusion can’t affect a whole village or even a whole tavern in that village. A rock can come loose, but a player intrusion can’t create a landslide.

Tying Actions to Stats #

Although the decision is open to your discretion, when a PC takes an action, it should be fairly obvious which stat is tied to that action. Physical actions that involve brute force or endurance use Might. Physical actions that involve quickness, coordination, or agility use Speed. Actions that involve intelligence, education, insight, willpower, or charm use Intellect.

In rare instances, you could allow a PC to use a different stat for a task. For example, a character might try to break down a door by examining it closely for flaws and thus use Intellect rather than Might. This kind of change is a good thing because it encourages player creativity. Just don’t let it be abused by an exuberant or too-clever player. It’s well within your purview to decide that the door has no flaws, or to rule that the character’s attempt will take half an hour rather than one round. In other words, using a stat that is not the obvious choice should be the exception, not the rule.

Cyphers #

You should think of cyphers as character abilities, whether they’re subtle cyphers or manifest cyphers. This means that it is incumbent upon you to make sure that players always have plenty of cyphers to use. In the course of their travels, the PCs should find that cyphers are extremely common. And since the PCs are limited in the number of cyphers they can carry, they will use them liberally.

Manifest cyphers can be found by scavenging through old ruins. They can be found in the corpses of magical or technological foes. They can be found among the possessions of intelligent fallen opponents or the lairs of unintelligent creatures, either amid the bones of former meals or as shiny decorations in a nest. They can be found in villages, in the back of a merchant’s cart that sells junk and scavenged parts. They are offered as rewards by people who are grateful for the PCs’ help.

Some adventures will offer more cyphers than others. Still, as a rule of thumb, in any given adventure, a character should use at least as many cyphers as they can carry. This means they should find that number of cyphers in that same amount of time (give or take). Thus, you can simply add up the number of cyphers the PCs can carry, and on average, they should find at least that many cyphers in a given adventure.

If your players are typical, they will use combat-related cyphers liberally but hold onto their utility cyphers. A ray emitter or defensive shield will be used, but a suspensor belt or phasing module will linger longer on their character sheets.

As with everything else in the game, it’s intentionally very easy for the GM to create new cyphers. Just think of the effect and how to express it as a game advantage. Two kinds of cyphers exist when it comes to effect: those that allow the user to do something better, and those that allow the user to do something they couldn’t do otherwise.

The first group includes everything that reduces the difficulty of a task (including defense tasks). The second group includes things that grant new abilities, such as flight, a new means of attack, the ability to see into the past, or any number of other powers.

A few more important notes about devising new cyphers:

  • Cyphers should be single-use items. The PCs use them up and find new ones.
  • Cyphers should be potent. A minor ability isn’t worth the trouble. If an attack cypher isn’t as good as a regular weapon, why bother with it?
  • Cyphers shouldn’t have drawbacks.
  • Cyphers should be temporary. Typically, a power is used once. Abilities or advantages that have a duration last from ten minutes to twenty-four hours (at most).
  • Manifest cyphers can take any form. Just make them appropriate to the genre.
Cyphers teach GMs to design different kinds of scenarios—ones in which the whole adventure isn’t wrecked if a player has something that can solve a single problem (defeat a foe, read a mind, bypass a barrier, or whatever). There should always be more to the adventure than one linchpin encounter, obstacle, foe, or secret.
It’s all right if players think of cyphers (especially manifest cyphers) as equipment or treasure. You should choose points in the course of the story that are appropriate for awarding subtle cyphers, especially if the PCs aren’t at their full capacity.

Artifacts #

In terms of the narrative, artifacts are a lot like cyphers, except that most are not one-use items. Mechanically, they serve a very different purpose. It’s assumed that characters are exploring with some cyphers at their disposal. Artifacts, however, are added abilities that make characters broader, deeper, and often more powerful. They aren’t assumed—they’re extra.

The powers granted by artifacts are more like the abilities gained from a character’s type or focus in that they change the way the PC is played overall. The difference between an artifact and a type or focus ability is that almost all artifacts are temporary. They last longer than cyphers do, but because they have a depletion roll, any use could be their last.

Like cyphers, then, artifacts are a way for the GM to play a role in the development of the characters. Although armor, weapons, and the like are fine, special capabilities—such as long-range communication or travel—can really change the way the PCs interact with the world and how they deal with challenges. Some of these abilities enable the actions you want the PCs to take. For example, if you want them to have an underwater adventure, provide them with artifacts (or cyphers) that allow them to breathe underwater.

Also like cyphers, artifacts are simple for the GM to create. The only difference with artifacts is that you give them a depletion roll, using any numbers on 1d6, 1d10, 1d20, or 1d100. If you want the artifact to be used only a few times, give it a depletion roll of 1 in 1d6, 1 or 2 in 1d10, or even 1 or 2 in 1d6. If you want the PCs to use it over and over, a depletion roll of 1 in 1d100 more or less means that they can use it freely without worrying too much.

For examples of artifacts, see the Genres chapter.

You may wish to forbid the use of XP to reroll artifact depletion rolls. That’s pretty reasonable.

Fantasy Artifacts #

If cyphers are the expendable magic that is ever-present in fantasy, artifacts are the more durable magic items that can be used over and over again—swords, armor, tomes of weird magic, cloaks of invisibility, and so on. Unlike cyphers, there is no limit to how many artifacts a character can bear; an entire campaign might stem from an ongoing quest to collect all of the legendary items carried by a famous hero.

Example Fantasy Artifacts #

The rest of this chapter is examples of artifacts suitable for a fantasy game. The artifacts are divided into two tables—one for minor items (artifacts that don’t have particularly flashy or world-affecting abilities) and one for major items (artifacts that do). A GM running a campaign where magic is subtle, weak, or otherwise limited can use the minor items table, and a GM of a campaign where some magic can do powerful or even impossible things can roll on either table.

Minor Fantasy Artifacts Table #

d100 Artifact
01-02 Adamantine rope
03-06 Alchemist bag
07-09 Armored cloth
10-15 Belt of strength
16-18 Bounding boots
19-21 Cat’s eye spectacles
22-24 Cloak of elfkind
25-26 Coil of endless rope
27-28 Crown of the mind
34 Crystal ball
35-37 Deflecting shield
38-40 Elfblade
41-43 Enchanted armor
44-49 Exploding arrow
50-55 Gloves of agility
56-58 Gruelmake
59-60 Helm of water breathing
61-66 Mastercraft armor
67-72 Mastercraft weapon
73-75 Mindshield helment
76-77 Pack of storage
78-79 Poisoner’s touch
80-85 Protection amulet
86-87 Shield of two skies
88-92 Skill ring
93 Soulflaying weapon*
94-96 Sovereign key
97-98 Tunneling gauntlets
99 Vorpal sword
00 Whisperer in the ether

Major Fantasy Artifacts Table #

d100 Artifact
01-03 Angelic ward*
04 Book of all spells
05 Cloak of Balakar
06-07 Crown of eyes
08 Death’s scythe
09-10 Demonflesh
11 Demonic rune blade
12-15 Dragontongue weapon
16-18 Dragontooth soldiers
19-20 Explorer’s gloves
21-23 Falcon cloak
24-25 Flying carpet
26-27 Ghostly armor
28-30 Guardian idol
31-33 Hand of glory
34-36 Horn of thunder
37-39 Instant ladder
40-43 Lightening hammer
44-47 Necromantic wand
48-50 Ring of dragon’s flight*
51-53 Ring of fall flourishing
54-56 Ring of invisibility
57 Ring of wishes
58-60 Smooth stepping boots
61-62 Soul-stealing knife
63-65 Spellbook of elemental summoning
66 Spellbook of the amber mage*
67-69 Staff of black iron
70-74 Staff of healing
75-77 Staff of the prophet
78-79 Storm shack
80-83 Trap runestone
84-88 Wand of firebolts*
89-93 Wand of spider’s webbing
94-97 Witch’s broom
98-00 Roll twice on the Minor Fantasy Artifacts table

* Artifact found in the Fantasy Artifacts section of the Cypher System

Adamantine Rope #

Level: 1d6 + 4

Form: A 50-foot (15 m) length of black rope

Effect: This length of rope has the flexibility of ordinary rope but a hardness greater than steel. It is impervious to damage (including attempts to cut it) from anything less than the artifact’s level.


Alchemist Bag #

Level: 1d6

Form: Embroidered velvet bag

Effect: This bag can contain up to one cypher per artifact level, as long as each is no larger than a typical potion bottle or scroll case. These cyphers do not count against a character’s cypher limit.

Depletion: 1 in 1d20 (check each time a cypher is added to the bag)

Armored Cloth #

Level: 1d6

Form: Suit of typical clothing (robe, dress, jerkin and breeches, and so on)

Effect: This clothing is soft and flexible, as expected, except when it is struck or crushed with force, at which point it hardens, providing +1 to Armor. It then immediately returns to its normal state (which is in no way encumbering). This clothing cannot be worn with armor of any kind.


Belt Of Strength #

Level: 1d6

Form: Thick leather belt with a metal buckle and rivets

Effect: The belt enhances the strength and endurance of the wearer. This increases the wearer’s maximum Might Pool by 5 (or by 7 if the artifact is level 6 or higher). If the wearer removes the belt, any excess Might points above their normal maximum Might Pool are lost; if they wear the belt again, the points do not automatically return (they must be restored with recovery rolls, healing magic, or similar effects).


Book Of All Spells #

Level: 1d6 + 2

Form: Weighty tome filled with pages of spell runes

Effect: This mysterious spellbook is said to contain knowledge of hundreds of spells—perhaps even all spells. Each set of facing pages includes the magical runes for one spell and a description of the spell and how to use it.

When a character first opens the book, the GM randomly determines what type of spell is shown by rolling on the following table, then rolling on the indicated table in the Cypher System Reference Document:

d6 Cypher Type
1–2 Roll on the Manifest Cypher table
3-5 Roll on the Fantastic Cypher table
6 Roll on the Subtle Cypher table

The bearer can cast the spell on the page as if it were a cypher with a level equal to the book’s level. This doesn’t remove the spell from the page (it can be cast again and again), but it does require a depletion roll.

As part of another action, the bearer can turn the page to find a new spell, but only forward, never backward. It is said that turning to the last page makes the book vanish and appear somewhere else in the world.

The artifact always remembers the last page it was turned to. Opening the book always presents that page. Attempting to copy, remove, or destroy a page only makes the book turn to a later page on its own.

Depletion: 1 in 1d100 (Check each time the book is used or the bearer turns a page. The chance of depletion increases by 1 each time it is used [1 in 1d100, 2 in 1d100, 3 in 1d100, and so on]. Instead of depleting, the book might turn to a later page, or disappear and reappear somewhere else in the world.)

Bounding Boots #

Level: 1d6 + 1

Form: Sturdy but flexible boots

Effect: The boots assist the wearer’s every step to make jumping and running easier. The boots are an asset for jumping and running (easing one of these skills by two steps if the artifact is level 6 or higher).


Cat’s Eye Spectacles #

Level: 1d6

Form: Pair of dark crystalline spectacles in a dull wooden frame

Effect: Outside, the wearer can see at night as if it were daylight. Inside, the wearer can see in pitch darkness up to short range (or to long range if the artifact is level 5 or higher).


Cloak Of Balakar #

Level: 1d6 + 3

Form: Blue cloak with elaborate designs suggesting blowing wind

Effect: The wearer can calm winds of the artifact’s level or lower in a radius of 1 mile (1.5 km). Up to once a day, the wearer can create a destructive windstorm up to that size, lasting one minute; this storm’s level is equal to half the artifact’s level.

Depletion: 1 in 1d6 (on depletion, cloak disappears and reappears somewhere else in the world)

Cloak Of Elfkind #

Level: 1d6 + 2

Form: Thin greyish-green cloak with a cowl and clasp

Effect: When activated (by drawing the hood over the wearer’s head), the cloak takes on the colors and textures of everything around the wearer for ten minutes (or one hour if the artifact is level 8 or higher). This eases hiding and sneaking tasks by two steps. While the cloak is activated, the wearer can also see in the dark.

Depletion: 1 in 1d100

Cloak Of Finery #

Level: 1d6 + 1

Form: Multilayered cloak of glittering material

Effect: This cloak is woven of beautiful fibers and set with dazzling gems. It automatically fits itself to its wearer in the most flattering way. When activated, it enhances the wearer’s appearance, voice, tone, and even their grammar, granting an asset to all interaction tasks for the next minute.

Depletion: 1 in 1d20

Coil Of Endless Rope #

Level: 1d6

Form: Coil of rope

Effect: The coil of rope can be let out at a rate of 50 feet (15 m) per round; however, no end to the rope can be found no matter how long the user uncoils it. The rope retains its incredible length until recoiled or until it becomes depleted. If cut, any length beyond the coil’s initial 50 feet crumbles into powder after a round or two.

Depletion: 1 in 1d20 (check each use that extends it beyond 50 feet)

Crown Of Eyes #

Level: 1d6

Form: Metallic circlet set with several crystal spheres

Effect: It takes one round to activate the crown. When activated, the crystal spheres separate from the crown and fly around the wearer at immediate range for an hour. The wearer can see anything the crystal spheres can see. This allows the wearer to peek around corners without being exposed to danger. This gives the wearer an asset in initiative and all perception tasks.

Depletion: 1 in 1d100

Crown Of The Mind #

Level: 1d6

Form: Crown, circlet, headband, diadem, or amulet

Effect: The crown augments the mind and thoughts of the wearer. This increases the wearer’s maximum Intellect Pool by 5 (or by 7 if the artifact is level 6 or higher). If the wearer removes the crown, any excess Intellect points above their normal maximum Intellect Pool are lost; if they wear the crown again, the points do not automatically return (they must be restored with recovery rolls, healing magic, or similar effects).


Crystal Ball #

Level: 1d6 + 3

Form: Melon-sized crystalline or glass orb, with or without a support stand

Effect: This allows the user to scry (view) remote locations and creatures. The user must make a difficulty 2 Intellect task to activate the crystal ball, then use an action trying to make it show a person or location they know. The user must succeed at an Intellect task against the level of the target; otherwise, the crystal shows only indistinct or misleading images. The task roll is modified by how familiar the target is to the user, how available they are to be viewed, and how far away they are.

Only have name or description Hindered
Target has been visited Eased
Target is well known to the user Eased
Target is willing Eased
Target is unwilling Hindered
More than 1 mile Hindered
More than 10 miles Hindered
More than 100 miles Hindered

These modifiers are cumulative, so trying to view a level 4 target who the user knows only by name (+1 step), is unwilling (+1 step), and is 20 miles away (+2 steps) is a difficulty 8 task.

The crystal shows the creature or area for one minute before the image becomes muddled and the artifact must be activated again.

In addition to the normal options for using Effort, the user can choose to apply a level of Effort to open two-way communication with the viewed area. All creatures in the area can sense the user’s presence and hear their voice, and the creatures can speak to and be heard by the user.

Depletion: 1 in 1d20

An unwilling creature’s defenses against magic and Intellect attacks should hinder scrying attempts just as they would against a directly harmful mental spell.

Death’s Scythe #

Level: 1d6 + 4

Form: Double-handed scythe

Effect: This scythe functions as a heavy weapon. In addition, it instantly kills level 1 or level 2 creatures it hits. In addition to the normal options for using Effort, the user can choose to use a level of Effort to affect a higher-level target; each level of Effort applied increases the level of creature that can be instantly killed by the scythe. Thus, to instantly kill a level 5 target (three levels above the normal limit), the wielder must apply three levels of Effort.

Depletion: 1 in 1d20 (check per killing effect; upon depletion, a manifestation of Death appears to reclaim its blade)

Death manifestation: level 7

Demonflesh #

Level: 1d6 + 1

Form: Ball of black leather with vein-like red streaks

Effect: When activated, the ball liquefies and coats the body of the user for one hour, appearing to be a form-fitting leather suit veined with pathways of dully glowing blood. As an action, the wearer can become invisible. While invisible, they are specialized in stealth and Speed defense tasks. This effect ends if they do something to reveal their presence or position—attacking, casting a spell, using an ability, moving a large object, and so on. If this occurs, they can regain the remaining invisibility effect by taking an action to focus on hiding their position. The wearer can inflict 3 points of damage with a touch by releasing a dark crackle of demonic power. This attack ignores most Armor, but Armor made to ward against evil or demonic attacks should work against it.

Depletion: 1 in 1d20

To randomly determine what kind of dragontongue weapon is found, see Chapter 4: Medieval Fantasy Equipment, page 34.

Demonic Rune Blade #

Level: 1d6 + 4

Form: Sword inscribed with demonic runes

Effect: This longsword functions as a medium weapon, but it is actually a powerful demon transformed into the shape of a sword. The demon cannot speak directly to the wielder, but it can make its desires known by emitting bass rumbles and dirgelike melodies, and by pulling in the direction of its desire. The sword eases all attacks made with it by one step, and it inflicts 4 additional points of damage (for a total of 8 points).

If the wielder kills a creature with the sword, the sword eats the creature’s spirit and transfers some of its energy to the wielder, adding 5 points to their Might Pool and increasing their Might Edge by 1. This lasts for an hour and allows the wielder to exceed their normal Might Pool and Might Edge stats.

If the wielder misses with an attack, the blade sometimes hits an ally of the wielder instead (this always happens on an attack roll of 1).

Depletion: 1 in 1d10 (check each time a killed creature’s life force is absorbed; if depleted, the sword’s magical abilities can be recharged if it kills an “innocent” creature)

Dragontongue Weapon #

Level: 1d6 + 2

Form: Weapon that roars with red flame when activated, trailing a stream of black smoke

Effect: This weapon functions as a normal weapon of its type. If the wielder uses it to attack a foe, upon a successful hit, the wielder decides whether to activate the flame. Upon activation, the weapon lashes the target with fire, inflicting additional points of damage equal to the artifact level. The effect lasts for one minute after each activation.

Depletion: 1 in 1d100

Dragontooth Soldiers #

Level: 1d6 + 1

Form: Burlap bag containing a handful of large reptilian teeth

Effect: If a tooth is drawn from the bag and cast upon the earth, a dragontooth warrior appears, ready to fight for the user for up to ten minutes before going their own way. The user can draw several teeth at once from the bag, but each tooth drawn requires a separate depletion roll.

Depletion: 1 in 1d10

Dragontooth warrior: level equal to the artifact level, Speed defense as artifact level + 1 due to shield; Armor 1; spear attack (melee or short range) inflicts damage and impedes movement of victim to immediate range for one round

Elfblade #

Level: 1d6 + 3

Form: Medium sword

Effect: This sword can be used as a normal medium sword that deals 2 additional points of damage (for a total of 6 points). The short sword can cut through any material of its level or lower with ease, owing to its exceptional sharpness. The blade sheds a blue light as bright as a candle to warn when goblins, orcs, trolls, or similar creatures are within 300 feet (90 m). Depletion: —

Enchanted Armor L #

evel: 1d6 + 3

Form: Full suit of light, medium, or heavy armor

Effect: This armor is carefully crafted and reinforced with magic to be stronger and more protective than typical armor. It is armor according to its type (light, medium, or heavy), but it grants an additional +1 Armor (or +2 if the artifact is level 7 or higher) beyond what it would normally provide. For example, chainmail is medium armor (2 Armor), so enchanted chainmail provides a total of 3 Armor (for artifact level 6 or lower) or 4 Armor (for artifact level 7 or higher).

The additional Armor provided by the magic also applies to damage that often isn’t reduced by typical armor, such as heat or cold damage (but not Intellect damage).


Exploding Arrow #

Level: 1d6

Form: Arrow with runes carved on the shaft and head

Effect: The arrow explodes when it strikes something, inflicting its level in damage to all within immediate range. Roll d100 to determine the type of damage.

d100 Damage Type
01-20 Acid
21-40 Electricity
41-60 Cold
61-90 Fire
91-00 Necromantic (harms only flesh)

Depletion: Automatic

One advantage of an exploding arrow over a detonation cypher is that the arrow doesn’t count toward your cypher limit.

An exploding arrow can instead be a crossbow bolt, sling stone, or other thrown weapon or projectile.

Explorer’s Gloves #

Level: 1d6

Form: Thick but flexible-fingered leather gloves

Effect: The wearer can cling to or climb any surface for up to one hour. Even level 10 climbing tasks become routine while the gloves are activated, but taking any other action while climbing requires a new activation.

Depletion: 1 in 1d20

Falcon Cloak #

Level: 1d6

Form: Cloak made of feathers

Effect: For ten hours, the wearer becomes a falcon whose level is equal to the artifact level. The falcon can fly a long distance each round, or up to 60 miles (97 km) per hour when traveling overland.

Depletion: 1 in 1d100

Most magic items that turn a character into a different creature make it difficult to use any of the character’s special abilities (other than skills) in that form.

Flying Carpet #

Level: 1d6 + 1

Form: Silken rug with repeating designs bordered with a pattern that suggests scudding clouds

Effect: The carpet flies a long distance each round, carrying up to five passengers. It flies for up to ten hours per activation. When traveling overland, the artifact can achieve a flying speed of 60 miles (97 km) per hour.

Depletion: 1 in 1d20

Ghostly Armor #

Level: 1d6 + 3

Form: Full suit of light, medium, or heavy armor

Effect: This armor is carefully crafted and reinforced with magic to be stronger and more protective than typical armor. It is armor according to its type (light, medium, or heavy), but it grants an additional +1 Armor beyond what it would normally provide. For example, chainmail is medium armor (2 Armor), so ghostly chainmail provides 3 Armor.

When activated, the armor randomly makes the wearer ghostly and immaterial for ten minutes (or for one hour if the artifact is level 9 or higher), which hinders attacks on the wearer by two steps without hindering any of the character’s abilities. Special multidimensional weapons or attacks (such as abilities meant to harm ghosts) ignore this defense.

Depletion: 1 in 1d10 (for the ghostly defense ability, but after depletion, the suit still functions as normal armor and provides its full Armor value)

To randomly determine what kind of ghostly armor is found, see Chapter 4: Medieval Fantasy Equipment, page 34.

Gloves Of Agility #

Level: 1d6

Form: Supple leather or cloth gloves

Effect: The gloves enhance the dexterity and reflexes of the wearer. This increases the wearer’s maximum Speed Pool by 5 (or by 7 if the artifact is level 6 or higher). If the wearer removes the gloves, any excess Speed points above their normal maximum Speed Pool are lost; if they wear the gloves again, the points do not automatically return (they must be restored with recovery rolls, healing magic, or similar effects).


Gruelmaker #

Level: 1d6

Form: Clay bowl stamped with symbols of fish and birds

Effect: The bowl fills itself to the brim with a bland-tasting tan porridge that provides enough nutrition for one person for one day (or two people if the artifact is level 5 or higher).

Depletion: 1 in 1d10

Guardian Idol #

Level: 1d6 + 3

Form: Demonic idol on top of a thin metal leg that is 1 foot (30 cm) tall

Effect: It takes two rounds to balance this artifact on its metal leg, and then it requires an action to activate. When activated, the idol stares at the activating character and nearby creatures for five rounds, memorizing their faces and shapes. After that, if anything the idol doesn’t recognize (and is larger than a mouse) comes within long range, it spits a small ball of fire at the target. The fire inflicts damage equal to the artifact level. The idol can attack up to ten times per round, but it never attacks the same target more than once per round. It remains on watch for twenty-four hours or until it has made one hundred attacks, whichever comes first. Depletion: Automatic

Hand Of Glory #

Level: 1d6 + 3

Form: Dried humanoid hand with candle-tip fingers

Effect: A hand of glory has several potential uses, including the following. In all cases, the candles making up the hand must be lit and burning to produce an effect. Insensibility: A target within short range is held motionless and unable to take actions as long as the lit hand remains within range (or until the target is attacked or otherwise snapped out of the trance). Invisibility: User is invisible for up to one minute while holding the hand. While invisible, the user is specialized in stealth and Speed defense tasks. Thief ’s Passage: A locked or barred door or a container whose level is less than or equal to the hand’s level becomes unlocked when touched by the hand.

Depletion: 1 in 1d20

Helm Of Water Breathing #

Level: 1d6

Form: Green metal helm with a scaly or fishy motif Effect: The wearer’s head is enveloped in a tight bubble of air that constantly renews itself, allowing them to breathe underwater indefinitely, speak normally, and so on.

Depletion: 1–2 in 1d100 (check each day)

Horn Of Thunder #

Level: 1d6 + 4

Form: Large signal horn banded with metal and carved with runes

Effect: This massive instrument can barely be held or carried by a single person. When activated, it emits a 50-foot (15 m) wide cone of pure sonic force out to long range. Any creature in that area is knocked prone and stunned for one round, losing its action. Unfixed items the size of a human or smaller are toppled and/or moved at least 5 feet (1.5 m). Larger objects might also be toppled.

Depletion: 1 in 1d10

Instant Ladder #

Level: 1d6

Form: Small lightweight metal rod with gem buttons

Effect: When activated, the rod extends and produces rungs so that it can be used as a ladder up to 28 feet (9 m) long. The ladder can be transformed back into its rod form from either end.

Depletion: 1 in 1d100

A creature unfamiliar with the buttons on an instant ladder needs to spend several rounds figuring out the proper sequence to expand or collapse it.

Lightning Hammer #

Level: 1d6 + 2

Form: Massive silver hammer that crackles with electricity

Effect: This hammer functions as a normal heavy weapon. However, if the wielder uses an action to activate it, the weapon radiates electricity for one round. If used to attack on the next round, the hammer inflicts an additional 10 points of electricity damage. The user can choose to strike the ground instead, sending shockwaves of electricity outward that deal 5 points of damage to everyone within short range.

Depletion: 1 in 1d6 (still usable as a normal heavy weapon after depletion)

Mastercraft Armor #

Level: 1d6

Form: Armor of exceptional quality

Effect: This armor grants its wearer an asset for Speed defense rolls.


Mastercraft Weapon #

Level: 1d6

Form: Weapon of exceptional quality

Effect: This weapon grants its wielder an asset for attack rolls made with it.


Depending on the game world, mastercraft armor and weapons might be magical, mundanely crafted with exceptional quality, or both. To randomly determine what kind of mastercraft armor or weapon is found, see Chapter 4: Medieval Fantasy Equipment, page 34.

Mindshield Helmet #

Level: 1d6 + 2

Form: Lightweight cloth, leather, or metal helmet

Effect: The wearer gains 3 Armor that protects against Intellect damage only. Further, attempts to affect the wearer’s mind are hindered (or hindered by two steps if the artifact is level 7 or higher).


Necromantic Wand #

Level: 1d6 + 4

Form: Bone wand carved with runes

Effect: This wand emits a faint short-range beam of sickly violet light that affects only organic creatures and materials. Living targets hit by the beam move one step down the damage track. Nonliving organic targets are likely destroyed.

This device is a rapid-fire weapon and thus can be used with the Spray or Arc Spray abilities that some characters have, but each “round of ammo” used or each additional target selected requires an additional depletion roll.

Depletion: 1 in 1d10

Pack Of Storage #

Level: 1d6 + 1

Form: Leather backpack or haversack with multiple pockets

Effect: This pack’s mouth can be loosened to open as wide as 6 feet (2 m) in diameter. It is larger on the inside than on the outside, and can carry up to 500 pounds (226 kg) or 10 cubic feet (.3 cubic m). The pack weighs about one-tenth as much as it is holding.

Depletion: 1 in 1d100 (check each time something is added to the pack; on depletion, all objects are expelled from the pack)

Poisoner’s Touch #

Level: 1d6 + 1

Form: Very thin transparent glove with faint markings

Effect: When the wearer activates the glove (which might require speaking a command word or tracing a specific pattern on its surface), it secretes a small amount of poison. The next creature the wearer touches with the glove takes Speed damage equal to the artifact level (ignores Armor) and must make a new Might defense roll each round or suffer the damage again until either they succeed at the defense roll or five rounds pass, whichever comes first.

Depletion: 1 in 1d10

Protection Amulet #

Level: 1d6

Form: Stylized amulet worn on a chain

Effect: The amulet reduces one type of damage by an amount equal to the artifact level. Roll a d20 to determine the kind of damage the amulet protects against.

d20 Damage Kind
1-4 Acid
5-8 Cold
9-12 Electricity
13-16 Fire
17-20 Poison

Depletion: 1 in 1d6 (check each time the amulet reduces damage)

Ring Of Fall Flourishing #

Level: 1d6

Form: Gold band inscribed with feather wreath

Effect: The wearer of the ring can fall any distance safely, landing easily and upright.

Depletion: 1 in 1d100

Ring Of Invisibility #

Level: 1d6

Form: Gold band inscribed with characters that are revealed only if ring is heated

Effect: The wearer of the ring becomes invisible for one minute. While invisible, the wearer is specialized in stealth and Speed defense tasks. The effect ends if they attack or spend points from a Pool for any reason.

Depletion: 1 in 1d20

Ring Of Wishes #

Level: 1d6 + 4

Form: Plain gold band

Effect: The user makes a wish, and it is granted, within limits. The level of the effect granted is no greater than the level of the artifact, as determined by the GM, who can modify the effect accordingly. (The larger the wish, the more likely the GM will limit its effect.)

Depletion: 1–3 in 1d6

Shield Of Two Skies #

Level: 1d6 + 2

Form: Small hexagonal amulet

Effect: Upon activation, the amulet creates a faint glow around the wearer that provides +2 to Armor against heat and cold (or +3 for artifact level 6 and higher). The effect lasts for ten minutes.

Depletion: 1 in 1d100

Skill Ring #

Level: 1d6

Form: Ring carved with sigils appropriate to its granted skill

Effect: This ring grants its wearer knowledge of a specific skill, such as climbing, jumping, history, or persuasion. This grants the wearer training in that skill (or in two skills if the artifact is level 5 or higher).


Smooth-Stepping Boots #

Level: 1d6 + 1

Form: Pair of boots

Effect: When the boots are activated, for the next hour the wearer can move across rough or difficult terrain at normal speed, walk up walls, and even walk across liquids. In areas of low or no gravity, the wearer can walk along hard surfaces (even vertically or upside down) as if under normal gravity.

Depletion: 1 in 1d100

Soul-Stealing Knife #

Level: 1d6

Form: Night-black blade in which distant stars are sometimes visible

Effect: This knife functions as a normal light weapon. However, if the wielder wishes, on a successful attack, it inflicts additional damage (ignores Armor) equal to the artifact’s level. If damage from the dagger reduces a target to 0 health, the target’s soul is drawn into the blade. The soul remains trapped there for up to three days, after which time it is consumed. (Alternatively, the wielder can release the soul to whatever its fate would otherwise be.)

As a separate activation, the wielder can ask three questions of a creature whose soul is trapped in the blade and not yet consumed. After answering the third question, the soul is consumed.

Depletion: 1 in 1d20 (check each activation)

Sovereign Key #

Level: 1d6 + 2

Form: Slender golden key

Effect: When touched to a lock or the surface of a sealed object (such as a chest, envelope, or urn), the key briefly glows and attempts to open the target. Sealed objects fall open like peeled fruits if their level is equal to or less than the artifact level, and locks open easily if their level is equal to or less than the artifact level.

Depletion: 1 in 1d10

Spellbook Of Elemental Summoning #

Level: 1d6 + 1

Form: Weighty tome filled with pages of spell runes

Effect: When the user incants from the spellbook and succeeds at a level 3 Intellect task, they can summon an elemental of one specific kind described in the book (earth, fire, thorn, or some other type). The elemental appears and does the summoner’s bidding for up to one hour, unless it somehow breaks the geas created by the book.

Depletion: 1–3 in 1d20

Staff Of Black Iron #

Level: 1d6 + 2

Form: Staff of black iron set with an eye-shaped crystal headpiece

Effect: The wielder can use an action to gain one of the following effects.

  • Influence: The wielder makes a mental attack on a creature within immediate range by providing a suggestion. An affected target follows any suggestion during its next turn that doesn’t cause direct harm to itself or its allies.
  • Lightning: The wielder discharges a bolt of lightning that attacks all targets along a straight line out to long range, inflicting damage equal to the artifact level.
  • Shield: For one hour, the wielder gains the protective effect of using a normal shield (an asset on their Speed defense rolls). This effect is invisible and doesn’t require them to hold a shield; merely touching the staff is sufficient.

The staff can have more than one effect ongoing at a time (such as using the shield ability and blasting someone with lightning), but each requires a separate activation and depletion roll.

Depletion: 1 in 1d100

Staff Of Healing #

Level: 1d6 + 4

Form: Wooden staff capped with a golden icon

Effect: The staff emits a short-range beam of silvery light that affects only living creatures. A living creature hit by the beam moves up one step on the damage track. A target that is not down on the damage track can immediately make a free recovery roll (or, for NPCs, regain a number of points of health equal to three times their level).

Depletion: 1 in 1d10

Staff Of The Prophet #

Level: 1d6 + 2

Form: Short wooden staff

Effect: The staff has three abilities, each of which requires an action to activate.

Sea Passage. Creates a dry route through a body of water. The route is approximately 20 feet (6 m) wide, up to 1,000 feet (300 m) deep, and as long as the body of water is wide. The path remains open for up to four hours, or the wielder can collapse it as an action.

Snake Form. Staff transforms into a venomous snake whose level is equal to the artifact level. The snake has a bite attack that inflicts 6 points of damage, plus 3 additional points of Speed damage (ignores Armor) for three rounds on a failed Might defense roll. The snake obeys the wielder’s verbal commands, but it can’t do anything a regular snake couldn’t do. Water From Stone. Produces approximately 10 gallons (38 liters) of pure water within immediate range, as if from a natural spring in the ground.

Depletion: 1 in 1d20

Storm Shack #

Level: 1d6 + 3

Form: Miniature model of a simple wooden shack

Effect: Activating the artifact transforms it over the next few rounds into a simple wooden shack that is 10 feet by 10 feet (3 m by 3 m) with a thin door. Everything inside the area of the full-size shack is protected from most forms of inclement weather for one hour (or ten hours for artifact level 6 and higher). Leaving or entering the shack before the duration is up makes it harmlessly collapse upon itself unless the character succeeds on a Speed roll against the artifact’s level. If collapsed early or the duration runs out, the shack collapses into sticks, dust, and the miniature model, which can be taken and reused.

Depletion: 1 in 1d100

Trap Runestone #

Level: 1d6

Form: Pouch with chalk, sealing wax, and an engraved runestone

Effect: A simple cypher (such as a potion or scroll) can be modified with this set of implements to turn it into a trap. First, the cypher is attached to a surface with the sealing wax, then the user must make a difficulty 4 Intellect task to draw the runestone symbols around the edge of the cypher with the chalk and place the runestone in the correct position. When the trap is triggered, the cypher is activated, so people often use straightforward cyphers such as an explosive spell scroll, a poisonous potion, and so on.

The trigger can react to a specified movement within 3 feet (1 m)—a door opening, a creature or object moving past the runestone, and so on. The higher the level of the artifact, the more sophisticated the trigger. For example, a level 4 artifact’s trigger might be based on a creature’s size or weight, a level 5 artifact can trigger based on a specific type of creature, and a level 6 artifact can trigger based on recognizing an individual creature.

Depletion: Automatic

Tunneling Gauntlets #

Level: 1d6 + 1

Form: Oversized pair of metallic gauntlets with broad nails

Effect: When activated, for one hour the gauntlets let the wearer burrow up to an immediate distance each round. They can burrow through most soils and even some stone, but only through material whose level is lower than the artifact level. Burrowing leaves behind a tunnel with a diameter of 5 feet (1.5 m) that remains stable for several hours. After that, the tunnel is subject to collapse.

Depletion: 1 in 1d20

Vorpal Sword #

Level: 1d6 + 3

Form: Long sword that sometimes whispers and snickers aloud

Effect: The vorpal sword cuts through any material of a level lower than its own. It is a medium weapon that ignores Armor of a level lower than its own. On a natural attack roll of 19 or 20, the suggested minor or major effect is decapitation if the artifact is higher level than the foe (use this only if the foe has a head; otherwise, choose a different effect).

Depletion: 1–2 in 1d100 (check each decapitation and specific attempt to cut through solid material)

Wand Of Spider’s Webbing #

Level: 1d6 + 1

Form: White oak wand

Effect: This wand produces a long-range stream of grey spider’s webbing that entangles a target and holds it stuck to nearby surfaces. Entangled victims can’t move or take actions that require movement. Targets whose level is higher than the wand’s level can usually break free within one or two rounds. The entangling web is highly flammable, and if ignited it burns away over the course of one round, but the intense heat inflicts damage equal to the artifact level on whatever was caught within it.

Depletion: 1 in 1d20

Whisperer In The Ether #

Level: 1d6 + 1

Form: Small crystal

Effect: The bearer of this crystal can telepathically communicate with an immortal being whose location is unknown (probably another dimension or a godly or infernal realm). The user can converse with the intelligence on an ongoing basis, but in general, the whisperer can share a useful bit of information, insight, or advice about once every day. Sometimes, this translates into an asset on one of the user’s actions. For example, the intelligence can suggest the right phrase to make friends with a shopkeeper to get a good deal, the right tools to use while trying to break open a door, or the right place to put a shield to deflect an incoming attack. Sometimes the information is more broad, such as the right road to take to reach the next town or why a group of monsters is attacking the caravan the bearer is guarding.

The whisperer’s willingness and ability to converse varies considerably. Sometimes it is quite chatty and offers advice. Other times, it must be convinced, cajoled, or tricked into giving information. And sometimes, it is entirely absent for reasons it will not explain. The whisperer’s knowledge base is broad but not omniscient. It cannot see the future, but it can often predict outcomes based on logic.

Depletion: 1 in 1d20 (check each day)

Witch’s Broom #

Level: 1d6 + 2

Form: A 6-foot (2 m) long wooden broom

Effect: As a vehicle, the broom can be ridden a long distance each round. On extended trips, it can move up to 100 miles (160 km) per hour.

The bearer can call upon the broom to grant them a powerful hallucinogenic state that lasts for four hours, during which time all tasks are hindered. After the hallucinations end, the bearer’s Intellect tasks are eased for the next ten minutes.

Depletion: 1 in 1d20

Skills and Other Abilities #

Sometimes, the rules speak directly to character creativity. For example, players can make up their own skills. It’s possible to have a skill called “tightrope walking” that grants a character a better chance to walk across a tightrope, and another skill called “balance” that gives a character a better chance to walk across a tightrope and perform other balance actions as well. This might seem unequal at first, but the point is to let players create precisely the characters they want. Should you let a character create a skill called “doing things” that makes them better at everything? Of course not. The GM is the final arbiter not only of logic but also of the spirit of the rules, and having one or two single skills that cover every contingency is clearly not in the spirit.

It’s important that players play the character they want. This concept is supported not only with the open-ended skill system but also with the ability to get an experience point advance to tailor a character further. Likewise, the GM should be open to allowing a player to make small modifications to refine their character. In many cases, particularly ones that don’t involve stat Pools, Armor, damage inflicted, or the costs of Effort or special abilities, the answer from the GM should probably be “Sure, why not?” If a PC ends up being really good at a particular skill—better than they “should” be—what’s the harm? If Dave can swim incredibly well, how does that hurt the game in terms of the play experience or the story that develops? It doesn’t. If Helen can pick practically any mundane lock she finds, why is that a bad thing? In fact, it’s probably good for the game—there’s likely something interesting on the other sides of those doors.

In a way, this is no different than adjudicating a not-so-straightforward solution to a challenge. Sometimes you have to say “No, that’s not possible.” But sometimes, if it makes sense, open yourself up to the possibility.

NPCs and Death #

As explained in the Rules of the Game chapter, NPCs have a health score rather than three stat Pools. When an NPC reaches 0 health, they are down. Whether that means dead, unconscious, or incapacitated depends on the circumstances as dictated by you and the players. Much of this can be based on logic. If the NPC is cut in half with a giant axe, they’re probably dead. If they’re mentally assaulted with a telepathic attack, they might be insane instead. If they’re hit over the head with a club, well, that’s your call.

It depends on the intentions of those who are fighting the NPC, too. PCs who want to knock out a foe rather than kill them can simply state that as their intention and describe their actions differently—using the flat of the blade, so to speak.

Creatures #

Whenever possible, creatures should be handled like other NPCs. They don’t follow the same rules as the player characters. If anything, they should have greater latitude in doing things that don’t fit the normal mold. A many-armed beast should be able to attack multiple foes. A charging rhino-like animal ought to be able to move a considerable distance and attack as part of a single action.

Consider creature size very carefully. For those that are quick and hard to hit, hinder attacks against them. Large, strong creatures should be easier to hit, so ease attacks against them. However, you should freely give the stagger ability to anything twice as large as a human. This means that if the creature strikes a foe, the target must make an immediate Might defense roll or lose its next turn.

A creature’s level is a general indicator of its toughness, combining aspects of power, defense, intelligence, speed, and more into one rating. In theory, a small creature with amazing powers or extremely deadly venom could be high level, and a huge beast that isn’t very bright and isn’t much of a fighter could be low level. But these examples go against type. Generally, smaller creatures have less health and are less terrifying in combat than larger ones.

The Cypher System has no system for building creatures. There is no rule that says a creature with a certain ability should be a given level, and there is no rule dictating how many abilities a creature of a given level should have. But keep the spirit of the system in mind. Lower-level creatures are less dangerous. A level 1 creature could be poisonous, but its venom should inflict a few points of damage at most. The venom of a level 6 creature, however, might knock a PC down a step on the damage track or put them into a coma if they fail a Might defense roll. A low-level creature might be able to fly, phase through objects, or teleport because these abilities make it more interesting but not necessarily more dangerous. The value of such abilities depends on the creature that uses them. In other words, a phasing rodent is not overly dangerous, but a phasing battle juggernaut is terrifying. Basic elements such as health, damage, and offensive or defensive powers (such as poison, paralysis, disintegration, immunity to attacks, and so on) need to be tied directly to level—higher-level creatures get better abilities and more of them.

Balancing Encounters #

In the Cypher System, there is no concept of a “balanced encounter.” There is no system for matching creatures of a particular level or tasks of a particular difficulty to characters of a particular tier. To some people, that might seem like a bad thing. But matching character builds to exacting challenges is not part of this game. It’s about story. So whatever you want to happen next in the story is a fine encounter as long as it’s fun. You’re not denying the characters XP if you make things too easy or too difficult, because that’s not how XP are earned. If things are too difficult for the PCs, they’ll have to flee, come up with a new strategy, or try something else entirely. The only thing you have to do to maintain “balance” is set difficulty within that encounter accurately and consistently.

In a game like the Cypher System, if everyone’s having fun, the game is balanced. Two things will unbalance the game in this context.

  • One or more PCs are far more interesting than the others. Note that it says “more interesting,” not “more powerful.” If my character can do all kinds of cool things but can’t destroy robots as efficiently as yours does, I still might have a whole lot of fun.
  • The challenges the PCs face are routinely too easy or too difficult.

The first issue should be handled by the character creation rules. If there’s a problem, it might be that poor choices were made or a player isn’t taking full advantage of their options. If someone really doesn’t enjoy playing their character, allow them to alter the PC or—perhaps better—create a new one.

The second issue is trickier. As previously stated, there is no formula that states that N number of level X NPCs are a good match for tier Y characters. However, when the game has four or five beginning characters, the following guidelines are generally true.

  • Level 1 opponents will be nothing but a nuisance, even in sizable numbers (twelve to sixteen).
  • Level 2 opponents will not be a challenge unless in numbers of twelve or more.
  • Level 3 opponents will be an interesting challenge in numbers of four to eight.
  • Level 4 opponents will be an interesting challenge in numbers of two or three.
  • A single level 5 opponent might be an interesting challenge.
  • A single level 6 opponent will be a serious challenge.
  • A single level 7 or 8 opponent will likely win in a fight.
  • A single level 9 or 10 opponent will win in a fight without breaking a sweat.

But it depends on the situation at hand. If the PCs are already worn down from prior encounters, or if they have the right cyphers, any of the expectations listed above can change. That’s why there is no system for balancing encounters. Just keep in mind that beginning characters are pretty hardy and probably have some interesting resources, so you aren’t likely to wipe out the group by accident. Character death is unlikely unless the PCs have already been through a number of other encounters and are worn down.

Cypher Shorts #

Cypher Shorts are what we call quick and easy adventures for use with the Cypher System. The idea here is an adventure with very quick character creation and minimal GM prep, designed for a one-shot game that can be finished in a single session of three to four hours. If a typical campaign is an ongoing television series, think of a Cypher Short as a movie.

Cypher Shorts is a supplement for the Cypher System. You need the Cypher System Rulebook to play.

There are some key concepts to a Cypher Short that you’ll want to keep in mind if you’re playing, running, or creating one for yourself. They include:

  • Very simple characters that are immediately involved in the situation. No long expository lead-ins, no “meet in a tavern” scenes.
  • Characters have clear objectives, and there’s no thought to character advancement. This is a one-shot game, and we aren’t concerned about what came before or what comes after.
  • There is less of a plot than there is a situation. Plot implies a linear direction: “This happens, then this, then this.” Cypher Shorts are meant to be framed more like: “You’re involved in this situation, so what do you do?”
  • Just as players should use improvisation to react to and deal with situations they didn’t know were coming, the GM should be ready to do the same.

Character Creation #

Cypher Shorts use an abbreviated character creation system, even simpler than the standard Cypher System. This is to help players move quickly, without spending a lot of time deciding between this focus and that one.

The following character creation guidelines are very broad, designed to work with any genre or situation. In a specific Cypher Short, it’s likely that only the type choices will be detailed, using the information here as a starting point. Descriptors and foci are general enough that they’ll work with almost any scenario. Sometimes, though, a Cypher Short might require adjustments to suit the situation.

Just like in the standard system, characters end up with a sentence to describe themselves: “I am a [blank] [blank] who [blanks].” All players start with a score of 9 in their stat Pools, with 6 points to divide among them as they wish. They have an Edge of 1 in a stat of their choosing. Recovery rolls are 1d6 + 1, and characters have an Effort of 1. (Otherwise, don’t worry about tier.)

All characters start with 1 XP.

Descriptors #

A descriptor quickly and easily distinguishes the character from the others. Ideally, no two players have the same descriptor.

Tough: Add +3 to Might Pool. You are trained in Might defense rolls.

Quick: Add +3 to Speed Pool. You are trained in Speed defense rolls.

Smart: Add +3 to Intellect Pool. You are trained in Intellect defense rolls.

Skilled: Add +1 to Intellect Pool and choose three skills in which you are trained. These skills cannot be related to combat or interaction.

Charming: Add +2 to Intellect Pool. You are trained in persuasion and deception.

Types #

This is the role the character will have in the story. Types will likely change from genre

to genre, particularly the type names. So in this section, we’ll talk about them in terms of the general role the character will have in the story, not what players will write on their character sheet (although a few example suggestions are provided).

Performing Physical Actions #

This character might be called a Warrior, a Soldier, a Jock, or a Construction Worker (just to name a few), depending on the situation. Choose two of the following abilities:

  • Use any weapon without penalty
  • Wear armor without penalty
  • Stun an enemy as part of your attack, forcing them to lose their next action (costs 1 Might point)
  • Trained in two of the following: climbing, jumping, running, swimming
  • Add +2 to recovery rolls
Sneaking #

This character might be called a Thief, a Scout, a Street Rat, or a Slacker (just to name a few), depending on the situation. Choose two of the following abilities:

  • Trained in stealth and disguise
  • Trained in perception and deception
  • Trained in lockpicking and disabling alarms, traps, and other security devices
  • Add +2 to recovery rolls
Searching And Discovering #

This character might be called an Explorer, a Detective, a Scientist, or a Middle Manager (just to name a few), depending on the situation. Choose two of the following abilities:

  • Trained in perception and Intellect defense rolls
  • Trained in Might and Speed defense rolls
  • Trained in two of the following: climbing, jumping, running, swimming
  • Trained in knowledge-based skills (history, biology, geography, and so on) * Add +2 to recovery rolls
Talking #

This character might be called a Diplomat, a Priest, a Con Artist, or a Salesperson (just to name a few), depending on the situation. Choose two of the following abilities:

  • Trained in perception and deception
  • Trained in intimidation and interaction
  • Distract someone, preventing them from acting for as long as you focus on them (costs 1 Intellect point)
  • Add +2 to recovery rolls
Wielding Supernatural Powers #

This type isn’t suited to all scenarios, obviously—it depends on the genre. This character might be called a Psychic, a Wizard, a Superhero, or a Mutant (just to name a few), depending on the situation. The player and GM will have to briefly work out the specifics together. Choose two of the following abilities:

  • Possess one offensive power (mental attacks, ray blasts, starting things on fire, and so on) that affects foes up to long range and either deals up to 4 points of damage or causes them to lose their next action. Costs 3 stat points (probably Intellect).
  • Possess one defensive power (force field, metal skin, super speed, and so on) that either grants you +3 Armor or eases defensive tasks.
  • Possess one miscellaneous power (moving things with your mind, flight, creating a duplicate of yourself, and so on). Costs 3 stat points (probably Intellect). You’ll have to come up with some reasonable parameters. You can choose this option twice.
  • Have two power shifts.
  • Have another power shift.

Focus #

A focus determines the actions a character might often take in the story.

Fights: You’re a fighter. All of your attacks are eased, and you add +1 to your damage.

Plans: You think things through. You are trained in defense rolls, and you can choose two other noncombat skills in which you are trained.

Helps: You help other characters. You can use an action to ease everyone else’s action if they’re within short range (costs 2 Intellect points). This can represent comforting, giving advice, or physically enabling them, depending on the character and the situation. You’re trained in first aid.

Provides Information: You’re very knowledgeable. You are trained in three knowledge-based skills (history, biology, geography, and so on). You can ask the GM a question that has a pretty simple answer and get that answer (costs 3 Intellect points).

Provides Comedy Relief: You’re funny. You can use an action to allow everyone to recover 2 points to their Pools in between each recovery action you take. You’re also trained in Speed defense and stealth.

Works With Tools (or Machines): You’re trained in the use of two different skills involving tools and machines. You can modify an existing machine or device to do something other than its original function (costs 2 Intellect points).

Uses Powers: This focus won’t fit every genre. You can choose one of the abilities listed under the Wielding Supernatural Powers type. (Note: if that is already your type, you can’t select an ability you’ve already chosen, with the exception of miscellaneous powers.)

The Scenario #

When thinking about a Cypher Short scenario, think in terms of what you would expect to see in a movie. And not just any movie, but one where the action mostly takes place in one (probably large, hopefully interesting and dynamic) location

Setup #

This section of a Cypher Short is a brief overview of the setting and the premise of the situation. The basic statement of the genre and setting should be given to the players before they make characters.

Possible Encounters #

This section is a list of possible encounters that might happen in the scenario, depending on what the characters do, where they go, and so on. Cypher Shorts don’t rely on a keyed map or a detailed outline of a plot. Think of these as the possible scenes of your movie. More than likely, the group will have time for only five or six encounters in one session, so feel free to pick and choose the ones that best fit the way the game seems to be going.

Each encounter is presented with a trigger, meaning that it is triggered by some action of the characters.

Each encounter comes with the relevant game stats:** the challenges for common tasks the PCs might attempt, the levels of NPCs involved, and other information not related to game stats, such as the answers to the questions the PCs might ask, the personality of any relevant NPC, and so on.

GM Intrusions #

Each Cypher Short comes with a brief list of GM intrusion suggestions that are specific to that scenario.

Remember that GM intrusions are the only way for players to earn XP in the scenario, so they’re really important. At the same time, they will probably spend any XP they get. So there might be more calls for rerolls using XP in a Cypher Short adventure than you’re used to in a standard Cypher System game.

The Conclusion #

Ideally, as with a movie, the end of a Cypher Short session comes to a nice story conclusion (though not every ending needs to be a happy one). Hopefully, the main situation has been resolved one way or another, and the implications of what probably happens next for the characters and the setting are self-evident. But with a Cypher Short, we don’t worry too much about what happens next. It’s a one-shot scenario.

Trapped In Flames #

The Premise: The characters work in a tall skyscraper. Suddenly, there’s an explosion, and the fire alarms start ringing!

Character Creation #

The characters should be relatively mundane people. No supernatural powers. Cypher Short character suggestions include:

Office Worker: This is probably someone with the Sneaking type. The player should figure out the character’s name, a very short personality brief, what company they work for, and what their job is: data entry, customer service, accounts manager, and so on.

Middle Manager: This is probably someone with the Searching and Discovering type. The player should figure out the character’s name, a very short personality brief, and what company they work for.

Salesperson: The Talking type would work well for this character. The player should figure out the character’s name, a very short personality brief, and what company they work for.

Custodial Worker: This could be a Performing Physical Actions character, or possibly a Searching and Discovering character. The player should figure out the character’s name and a very short personality brief. They have keys to most of the doors of the building and know the layout well. They might also have something like a mop and wheeled bucket, or a cart with various cleaning supplies, if the player wishes.

Security Guard: This is probably someone with the Performing Physical Actions type. The player should figure out the character’s name and a very short personality brief. They have a weapon (a nightstick, a taser, or perhaps a handgun), and keys to most of the doors in the building. They know the layout well.

No one has any special equipment other than the typical: a cell phone, car keys, a half-drunk coffee, and maybe a briefcase with papers and pens or a tablet computer.

All random people in the building are level 2 or 3 NPCs.

The Setup #

The characters all work in a tall skyscraper that houses many different businesses in a large city. They don’t necessarily work together or even know each other. But they’re all in a large lobby on the twenty-fifth floor, in front of a bank of four elevators, waiting for one to arrive. (A custodial worker probably is cleaning nearby rather than waiting for the elevator.) Suddenly, they hear an explosion, and the floor shudders and shakes. The fire alarms start ringing, and the power goes out, followed quickly by emergency lighting switching on, giving the area dim light.

Obviously, the goal for the characters here is to get to safety. A safety-conscious person (like a security guard) would know that the safest thing to do is stay put, at least until the location of

the fire is known (going down into smoke and flames is how many people die in high-rise fires).

What the PCs don’t know (yet) is that a terrorist has planted a number of bombs in the building. One of them went off prematurely on the tenth floor. There are more bombs, designed to bring the entire structure down. And because the bomb exploded early, the bomber is still in the building.

Other facts:

  • The floor the PCs are on has only a few other people on it currently.
  • It will take about ten minutes for first responders to arrive. They will take positions around the base of the building, and, after determining that the fire is on floor 10, will evacuate floors below that and set up on floor 8. This will likely take ten to fifteen minutes. During this time, authorities will attempt to contact anyone on floors above 10 and tell them to stay put, so office phones and some cell phones will start ringing. It’s very likely that more bombs will go off at this time, with rescue workers recalled for safety.
  • Emergency services will be jammed with calls.
  • The elevator cabs all descend to the ground floor and no longer function.
  • Whenever the fire spreads to a new floor, the sprinklers will go off. This is enough to keep the fire from spreading too much or too quickly, but the incendiary bombs make it impossible for the sprinklers alone to put the fire out.

Possible Encounters #

Staying Put: People from higher floors start coming down, alone or in small groups. Some of them claim to have information. Some of it is true and some isn’t. Things they might try to say include:

  • A gas main broke, and not only is there a fire danger, but the building is also filling with gas. (This is false.)
  • This is a terror attack! We have to get out of here at any cost! (This is true, although this NPC has no evidence or details, and the hysterical panic they feel probably doesn’t help.)
  • Something crashed into the building! (This is false.)
  • Terrorists are in the building, killing and kidnapping people. (This is false, for the most part. There’s just one bomber, and he’s trying to sneak out.)
  • Rescue teams are on their way up. (This is false.)
  • Rescue teams are landing evacuation helicopters on the roof. (This is false. It might be a tactic they try eventually, but it’s not happening yet.)

Most of the NPCs coming down from above continue down the stairs to lower floors, with or without the PCs.

Checking cell phones: PCs can reach their loved ones at first, although this provides no real information. If they’re able to get through to emergency services, they are told that emergency responders are on their way and to stay put. It’s too soon to get much information from the internet, although a few minutes after it happens, there are reports of an explosion in the building on either floor 10 or floor 12. Building Wi-Fi is down. Data and phone usage becomes spotty about five minutes after the explosion and can’t be relied upon.

Going Up a Stairwell to the Roof: There is a pregnant person on the stairway who can’t be moved. Helping them deliver the baby safely is a difficulty 3 Intellect-based task and will take about twenty minutes.

Reaching the Roof: There are a few other people on the roof, but no rescue workers. Eventually, a small helicopter flies overhead, and if the bomber is not visibly present, it will circle but not land. This is the terrorist’s accomplice in a small two-person helicopter. The pilot is level 3 and has body armor (+2 Armor), a handgun, and a knife. If the bomber is present, the helicopter will land very briefly to try to rescue him.

Going Down a Stairwell: The PCs hear cries for help as they pass by a floor. If they investigate, they find an office close to the stairs where someone is trapped underneath a very heavy shelving unit. It is a difficulty 4 task to rescue them. They are level 2 and their leg is quite injured.

Going Further Down the Stairwell: Three people stand in the stairwell and tell the PCs to go back up. They say it’s not safe to try to evacuate, and the PCs should go back up to higher floors. They won’t take no for an answer. They will argue with the characters, and trying to win that argument is a difficulty 7 task. They will use force to back up their point—they won’t try to harm the PCs, but they will try to physically block the characters. Getting past them is a difficulty 5 task. Individually, they are each level 3.

Going Even Further Down the Stairwell: Smoke! The stairwell is quickly becoming a chimney, even before the PCs get close to the tenth floor. Visibility is almost nil (treat as complete darkness) and characters must succeed at Might defense rolls each round or suffer 2 points of damage and lose their next action. The difficulty level starts at 2 but increases by 1 every other round.

Fire! If the PCs descend to the eleventh floor, they find fire rages there (and it extends down to the ninth). The explosive(s) are incendiary and designed to start hot fires that can eventually bring the building down. Characters on thesefloors must make Speed defense rolls each round or suffer 6 points of damage. Even characters who succeed at their rolls suffer 3 points of damage from the heat, flames, smoke, and lack of oxygen.

Firefighters to the Rescue: Eventually, the firefighters make a clear and relatively safe path out of the building through one of the stairwells, and they work to get everyone out. This is a great time for one last GM intrusion, or for the PCs who have seen the bomber to spot him trying to sneak out posing as a victim—perhaps as they exit the building.

GM Intrusions #

Explosion: First and foremost, the GM’s best tools in this scenario are the subsequent explosions from more bombs. The bomber has planted many bombs throughout the building, and they can go off any time, any place. This isn’t just one GM intrusion, but several, and they come in two varieties:

Close explosion: One or more PCs are threatened by falling debris (difficulty 5). Speed defense rolls are required; otherwise, victims suffer 6 points of damage and are trapped and need to work to get free.

Very close explosion: All PCs must succeed at Speed defense rolls or suffer damage as mentioned above. Even those who succeed suffer 3 points of damage. Plus, there are smoke and fire dangers in the immediate area, as described in the “Going Even Further Down the Stairwell” encounter. Wherever the PCs are currently, that place is not safe. More debris will fall, floors will collapse, and fire and smoke will spread. If the PCs are on the roof, this might mean there’s a risk of being blown off!

The Terrorist: The PCs spot the bomber setting another bomb. He is a level 5 NPC with body armor (+2 Armor), a handgun, and a knife. He’ll fight, but mostly he just wants to get away. A GM intrusion allowing him to get away from aggressive PCs means they can encounter him again somewhere else. Eventually, he tries to get to the roof and signal his ally in the helicopter to pick him up. Failing that, he ditches his gear and tries to get out with the rest of the victims when the firefighters arrive.

The Conclusion #

Ultimately, the PCs very likely just want to get to safety. When they do, the scenario is pretty much over. They’re wrapped in blankets by firefighters and loaded into ambulances. If they stopped or apprehended the bomber, the authorities will want to talk to them, and they will be hailed as heroes in the press.

It’s not hard to imagine how you could modify this scenario slightly for the science fiction genre using a space station rather than a skyscraper. You could also have one of the PCs be an undercover FBI agent on the lookout for the terrorist, or even an undercover foreign agent working for the terrorist