Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Review - 1 year on, Numenera & the Cypher System


I've been meaning to write something like this for a while. It may seem odd to review a game that came out over a year ago, but I believe that it's truly difficult, if not impossible, to fully review something like a game, especially and RPG, until you spend some real time with it.  That's not to say you can't give a review, but time will show you what things you thought might not be good are OK, and what you thought might be good but aren't and the like.  Hindsight is 20/20 as they say, which is really just saying that experience allows for a fuller view.

So here we are sixteen months since Numenera and the Cypher System were released. Fourteen months (give or take a week) since I started my own game running my group of first two and then three players through the Ninth World.  A mere four months since my first, second, and third opportunities to experience the Cypher System from the other side of the table, at GenCon 2014 (one Numenera session, and two of the then brand new The Strange).

The Good

There's a lot to love within Numenera, from the high production values of the book, to the quality of a system designed for ease and simplicity that doesn't give up on satisfying levels of choice and complexity in play. The setting is a blend of science fiction, fantasy, post apocalypse, and pulp adventure. There are strange new things on every page to inspire players and GMs alike, and the nearly one hundred pages of setting in the core book hits a perfect level of detail and mystery.  This setting isn't for those who need highly detailed write ups of every last building and bookcase in a given city.  Instead it strives to give the potential GM enough to work with before stepping out of the way.

Mechanically the Cypher System does a lot of things differently. A year ago I don't know how I would have answered if asked my opinion on the fact that the GM never needs to roll dice (ok, never is slightly inaccurate, but I often farm out what little rolling I would need to do anyways). I'd like to hope that I could speak as well about it then as I can now, but honestly I'm not sure when it clicked with me how much I would come to love the freedom that it allowed me.  Freedom enough that I wrote an entire separate article about it for this blog.

Is it perfect? No, but I would wager that a person could play and GM every system ever created in the forty odd year history of the hobby and never find a "perfect" system.  There will always be differences in taste, different play feel, and even the occasional edge case where good systems break down into something wonky.  Does the system work?  Heck yes. For my style of GMing, and for my group, this system runs rings around a lot of other games that we have played over the years. It's simple enough that most things resolve quickly, flexible enough that I almost never need to refer to the book during play, and solid enough that I can run players & characters through the ringer as I need to for the story without running into rules issues. Is it perfect? No, but that doesn't matter, because it's good.

But what about the other side of the table? Well as a player I can say that I enjoy Cypher System as much as I do as GM. I have options when I need them, I can try things even if I'm not suited to the role (or, as I discussed prior, it has a permissive open skill system). Characters have character right out of the gate, and advance in interesting steps rather than logic defying leaps.  There's a great deal of variety to be found for players, and character styles can vary widely from very pigeon holed murder machines to exceptionally capably jack of all trade types. Granted there are some things I don't like. Some character options really only work for certain types of characters, and some of the character options result in strange cases of bookkeeping or complexity.

The Bad

So what's bad? Certain things are weirdly difficult to locate. I literally cannot ever find the table for jumping when I need it. It's a minor issue to be sure, but its not a point of favor. There's some text errors that ninja'd past editing and make the mutant characters a headache to figure out. There have been enough questions online that it is clear at least a couple of play examples probably should have been included for the major rules of Effort and Edge.

I'm really picking at nits here though.  I struggle to find a genuine bad thing about this book.  It's clear that there was a lot of love poured into the game from day one, and the end result shows it.

The Ugly

The Ugly? The ugly is where I point at stuff I don't like, but that isn't bad as such. For instance I don't like the Vancian magic of Dungeons and Dragons but clearly a lot of people do and it works, so its hard to call it "bad", but I don't like it either way.  So is there anything I don't like in Numenera?  No, nothing I can really put my finger on, aside from that damned jumping table, which I literally cannot put my finger on because I cannot find it. Sure some of the art isn't my cup of tea, but art is so subjective and there is so much that is blow-my-mind good that the stuff I don't like barely registers.

The Final Cut

So after a year, after running it and playing it I can honestly say that Cypher System is one of my top RPG systems currently and probably of all time.  It hits all the notes I need from simplicity and fast play to balance and fun.  That it has been coupled to a setting that really fires my brain on all cylinders with ideas is certainly a bonus. I love that this game changed my outlook as GM, changed the way I prep (or don't prep) for sessions, and brought me back to writing creatively for the first time in a long time.

I like that I can create an NPC on the fly with as little as a name and a single number, and that creatures are barely more effort than that. I love that there's a mechanic for me to steer play where I need it while giving players something they want and need as a balance, and I love that the game is OK to throw balance out the window with single serving mayhem in the form of cyphers. Why give players a grenade when you can give them a nuke? Sure you might regret it once, but the self regulating nature of the single use cypher means you won't regret it again afterwards.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that I feel like a better and more confident GM with this system as well. I don't sweat the small stuff, I role play better, and I don't have the fear of an encounter going to pot because of my poor dice rolling.  I also spend less time on the crunchy bits and more time on the fun stuff; it's easier to create a fun and engaging story when I don't have to stop to answer my own questions or the players' and its better than simply hand waving and resolving to look it up next time. Are these boons and benefits exclusive to Numenera? No, but Numenera made these things click for me the way others games hadn't before.

Basically I love this game.  That's probably not a surprise to my readers, but I hope that my reasons for that are clear, and that my measured complaints are likewise understood. I'm a fan, but I try not to be a fan-boy, and the praise I give is earned.