The Cypher Conundrum

In Episode 41 of Lex Starwalker's GM Intrusions podcast (which everyone should check out because it is awesome BTW), Lex talks about what he calls "The Cypher Conundrum". In a nutshell, a GM can spend lots of time coming up with cool cyphers for the PCs to find, figuring out which ones make sense given where the PCs are finding them, and coming up with cool descriptions of how they work and how they look. Due to the cypher limit and the situational nature of many cyphers, however, lots of cyphers will be discarded or traded away as new ones show up. So even though finding cool cyphers is a huge part of the game, a lot of prep effort on the GM's part can be wasted because cyphers are meant to be disposable.

I was recently reading through the new Sir Arthour's Guide and in the margin callouts it describes how different cyphers can be combined to make other cyphers and it occurred to me that this could be a good solution to The Cypher Conundrum. Rather than discard or trade away cyphers, players could have the option to combine them into new cyphers or use them to enhance other cyphers. I tried this out in a game recently and my players really liked it. One player combined a gravity trap cypher with an ice detonation cypher to make a trap that would pull enemies toward it and then damage them with a burst of ice. Another player used a pair of gloves that generate a protective field to create a heat shield around a beam emitter cypher, allowing the power output to be increased without burning the user's hands, increasing the damage that the beam emitter caused. So I wanted to see what people thought of this idea:

- Which cyphers should be combinable? I was thinking maybe not pills or other ingestables, but pretty much everything else seems fair game.

- What should be the level of difficulty to combine cyphers? I was thinking the highest level of the cyphers being combined + 1. The difficulties in Sir Arthour's Guide range from 5 to 7, but maybe lower difficulties might be better to encourage more creative cypher combining?

- What should happen if the PC fails to combine two cyphers? Should one or both be destroyed? I would think this would be a great opportunity for GM intrusions


Thanks for any input



  • I'd say average the cyphers levels as the difficulty task level. Elsewise you might be getting numbers above the impossible level. Which while appropriate for certain cyphers wouldn’t be particularly fun.

    Although you might want to adjust that task difficulty if one or both of the cyphers are occultic.

    Also consider that once you have combined cyphers, they may exceed your characters number of cyphers that can be held safely. Hence it would have to be used soon or risk catastrophic meltdown.

    If they fail the task, have them roll on the Cypher Danger table to see what happens.

    You could combine injestables and injections with other internal cyphers with a bit of thought.
  • I was thinking about something along these lines and trying to reconcile the explanation for why characters can only carry so many cyphers at once.  To be honest, the explanation in the game is pretty lame.  It's sort of a paper-thin justification for a mechanic that has to exist so characters don't get too powerful.  I was happier to see that The Strange had an easier to swallow reason for the cypher limit than Numenera.

    So after mulling through all this I realized that the key to cyphers is in the identification of them.  Cyphers probably don't work in the way they're consumed by characters right off the bat.  There's a fair amount of text describing the numenera being mostly jury-rigged together with duct tape, chicken wire, and plutonium.  So rather than there being a limit to the number of cyphers a character can carry, rather there's a limit to the number of cyphers they can figure out how to keep working well enough to make them useful.  That's an explanation I find easier to suspend my disbelief for.

    So from a game perspective, a player might have any number of "numenera devices" or "unidentified tech" written on the character sheet they've scavenged/earned/etc.  But they only have (up to their cypher limit) a limited number of them they've managed to get working/figure out what they do/cobble together.  This means that all the cyphers you design they can still carry around in a sack, but they remain inert and (probably) harmless.  That is to say, not usable, until they take the time (and an Intellect roll) to fiddle with them and get them active.  If they want to activate more than their cypher limit then they take their chances something can go wrong as usual, but anything they don't activate just sits on the character sheet waiting.

    If you like you can limit the number of unidentified numenera widgets they can carry if that bothers you, but in my mind it makes a lot more sense for player characters to carry around a lot of scrap that they occasionally are able to craft a cypher out of than them having to constantly leave a trail of discarded cyphers behind.
  • Neither I nor my players was particularly happy with the way Cypher creation and particularly the crafting Focus work As Written. The look-and-feel of the game is that Cyphers and Artifacts are distinctly Weird, Rare, and Life-Altering. While that's true for NPCs and I continue to play it that way, for players (especially if you're using any of the book adventures) the Cyphers and Artifacts stack up really fast and they start to feel commonplace. Given that I've mostly waived the time and XP cost for crafting provided the components are existing Numenera of an arbitrary amount and complexity, and thematically similar.

    One of my players is a Thaemic Jack who Fuses Mind and Machine, and his overall shtick is that he's an artificer and tinkerer, and almost everything they come across is fair game to be experimented on. At the campaign outset he followed an ancient guidebook and implanted a minor AI into his head, which has started to give him plenty of additional 'upgrade' suggestions, for himself and the party, and also things that look cool.

    I've got a list of items in my notes and any time the tables come up with something (or when I'm designing a stash, or whenever something shows up in the book adventure), I look at whether it might be repurposed into something the PC is interested in.

    If the PC is interested in spending XP (2 if the output is one or more cyphers, 3 if the output is an artifact), I eliminate the need for rolls; I might intrude, however. The story and coolness of the outcome is such that I don't want to tie it to randomness. On the other hand, if it's a jury-rigged job happening mid adventure, then I'll usually make the roll equal to the highest leveled item in the mix (input or output).

    More specifically, from out campaign a couple come to mind immediately:
    Metal Death (Cypher) + Synth Mace = Shattering Mace (good for armor and particularly thick doors, now that it's depleted there's been talk about trying to create a full on 'proc' weapon out of it using a detonator and some built in directional shielding)
    Int Edge Orb (from DS) + Radiation Detonator = Brain Bud (think beneficial comic book superhero radiation)
    Slugspitter + Analytic Shield + Fuses M&M Character = Smartlink

    Incidentally I love the 'unidentified tech' concept. I can hand the party a pile of scrap that's either stuff in my notes or (more likely, since I'm becoming fond of having fewer specific notes that aren't story related) subject to some random rolls once the party actually gets around to examining them. Our party composition may still end up with them turning on everything ASAP but it's pretty cool nonetheless.
  • Way I saw Cypher limit was that the less a character knew about the numenera the less likely they are to know just how dangerous and unstable their cyphers are, and how to properly transport active cyphers without incident.

    Having a bunch of volatile, radiation spewing, quantum entangled, datasphere connected, nanotech infested scrap banging around in a big scratchy sack doesn’t sound good for the characters continued health and wellbeing.

    Although whether a tier 1 character would KNOW what their cypher limit is, could be debatable. Fun to find out though, as long as the cypher danger doesn’t blow your limbs off. (although to be fair, most of the cypher danger table rolls are 'nothing' or 'stops working' it only starts to get murderous once you have 3 more than your limit)

    You might want to consider somthing of a devolution path:


    Where when one thing is depleted or stops working, instead of throwing it away you can break it down to the next level of item. Then a Crafts PC can build items back up the same path. (that or keep a Rides the Lighting character about to recharge your artifacts)
    • Example
    Artifact: Chiurgeon Sphere

    Cyphers: Stim / Rejuvenator / Chemical Factory

    Oddities: Sphere that produces vigorous bubbles when placed in water / Tiny awl that inflicts no pain when it pierces flesh / Metallic jar that maintains the temperature of liquid inside indefinitely

    Shins: 1d10+10

    Or somthing similar, breaking down to shins might be irrelivant in the long run, as oddities are already treated like gems money wise anyway.
  • Great feedback all. I like the idea of the cypher limit as the number of usable cyphers that can be held, along with a bunch of scrap and pieces that could potentially be made into other cyphers when a slot opens up. This would allow the players to simply dismantle cyphers for parts rather than discarding them. I also like the idea of artifacts breaking down to cyphers breaking down to oddities, etc. I think both of these ideas really drive home the image of the cobbled-together, barely-understood, scavenged tech that I love about Numenera.

    I've continued to allow my players to combine/modify/dismantle cyphers using an average of the cypher levels (minimum level 3 difficulty) in my game and they love it. They're coming up with some really creative stuff and I'm having fun throwing in some GM intrusions when the new/modified devices don't always work the way they were intended
  • Brief addendum to the breakdown-buildup idea. You could also work levels into the overall idea. Either:

    The number of items you get out of artifacts or cyphers when breaking down equals their level, and equals the number of items you need to build an item of that level.


    The level of the item you break down can be divided into either the number or level of the items you get out of it, visa versa for building back up again.

    In other words, a level 5 artifact could give you either 5 random level cyphers OR one level 3 cypher and two level 1 cyphers.

    The first is a more high powered varient rule, as you could end up with super powered cyphers out of a relitivly mundane artifact. Second is more balanced overall, as it keeps the cypher level within the tolerances of the artifact they came from. Although it mainly applys to cyphers and artifacts, as the oddities have no level (or are all level 1) the first rule better applys to them.
Sign In or Register to comment.