How do you know what a Cypher does if it can only be used once?

This is something that's been confusing me about Numenera since I first read the Corebook. How do you know what a Cypher does if it can only be used once?

The reasonable answer I come up with is, you or someone else found more than one in the same place or that looked the same and they did the same thing, so people have learned 'this thing does that' and you happen to recognize it. But the players are expected to use and find more Cyphers all the time, like it's raining skittles or something.

If you're in a weird place, and you beat up a weird creature and harvest cyphers from its body, what are the odds that the cyphers you find are something familiar? Odds are they're completely alien to modern humans, right?

Game mechanically, identifying a cypher is an intellect task with a level of 1 or 2, according to the core book. For someone with one or two ranks in the numenera knowledge skill, it's an automatic success. How does this make any sense?

You just pulled a cybernetic kidney out of a mecha gorilla and know that it can fire a deadly ray out of a nodule if they squeeze it right, even though nobody has ever encountered this variety of mecha gorilla before?

I can understand if the players figure out what Cyphers do by testing them, but then how would you know which bits to test and whatnot? And if they're always single use, how do you test them without using them up?

I just can't wrap my head around it. Can someone give me a good explanation for it?
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Comments

  • No I can't, however I'll say - just don't bother to try. Go with it.
    If they make the roll; they figure what it does. If they don't, then they can use it without knowing the effects.
    Players like to have kick-ass abilities; but often this can be a Game-breaker. Cyphers allow that user to shine - once. So they destroy the fortress guarding the pass? Fine. They can't do it again (because it's used up). Work the fortress destruction into your story.

    Also; your note about modern humans. They aren't. They are so far ahead of us that it's inconceiveable what they are like and know. So, don't worry about how they know what the cypher is or how it works. They do; end of. Get on with the Game and have fun.
  • Here is a neat article about identifying numenera... http://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/34985/roleplaying-games/thought-of-the-day-numenera-identifying-items

    "Game mechanically, identifying a cypher is an intellect task with a level of 1 or 2, according to the core book. For someone with one or two ranks in the numenera knowledge skill, it's an automatic success. How does this make any sense?"

    I do feel like it should be a bit harder to identify numenera. However, numenera is literally everywhere you turn in the Ninth World-- so common that shiny bits of old high-tech gizmos that are not otherwise useful as cyphers etc are used as money. The people of that world are very familiar with how numenera can be used, just not how to make new numenera (newmenera?). Kind of like how many modern humans know how to use a smart phone, but almost no single individual knows how to build a new one from scratch, and very few know how to repair a broken phone.

    I am a big fan of using in-game books as the default explanation. Every nano character comes with a book on the numenera. Even if the nano does not choose to use their book as an asset for the identification roll (since this adds to the time it takes to attempt the identification), you as GM can always say, "you remember a drawing in your dog-eared copy of The Numenericon that resembles the device... if the big red button is pushed, it explodes after a few seconds."
  • I am also a fan of implying a device may have more than one possible use, but the PCs can only figure out one of its functions. For example, characters with the focus "Who Leads" come with an artifact that can track up to seven individuals (or something like that). In one campaign I am running, I described the artifact as an iPad-like device with various "apps" which all display characters in an unknown language, but the PC has figured out one of the apps, and that is the tracking program.
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