Tuesday, 20 June 2017

The Gloranthan Cypher: The Fortress of Doors

So last week I ran a game of Monte Cook's Cypher. While I've actually played in a game of Numenera, this was my first time actually running the Cypher system. The objective of the exercise was to test drive the rules in a live scenario with my group and see if it stood up to their ever-vigilant scrutiny. I created some pre-gens from scratch using Cypher, which was extremely easy, and I mean extremely easy compared with so many RPGs. All you really need to do is match one of the adjectives that describes your character to his class (one of four in this version of the game) and an explanation of what he/she does, like Speaks For The Land for example.

This way, players end up with some well-rounded characters, with unique abilities and some background flavour, not to mention relationships with other characters. Somehow it all seems a lot more colourful, with more depth to the adventuring party, than a standard Dungeons and Dragons group of adventurers, all designated by class and class functions.

This version of Cypher is intended to be fairly generic. I tested its genericity by adapting an adventure from Glorantha, namely the Fortress of Doors from New Beginnings published by D101 Games. I wanted to see how it coped with churning out PCs which matched the Gloranthan flavour of the setting, which it did well. Adapting the adventure was also relatively easy.

Fortress of Doors is intended to be a scenario for newcomers to Glorantha and to the HeroQuest roleplaying system. The characters are members of the Hidden Gale, an Orlanthi barbarian resistance group fighting a guerrilla war against occupying forces from the Lunar Empire. They have been ambushed by Silver Shield troops from the Empire and are looking for somewhere to hide out, but stop by their home tula (village/clan territory) to see if they can kind find any survivors from the battle.

The adventure begins with a clan moot, where the members of the clan Ring debate what the clan should do about the Hidden Gale, and what its posture to the Lunars should be. This is really written as an opportunity to do some interaction with NPCs in a more peaceful setting, and maybe for the PCs to introduce themselves and try out some of their non-warlike skills. I re-designed this section to give the PCs an opportunity to sway some of the Ring members to their side. This part of the plot probably did not go as well for the party as they might have hoped, with their most charismatic member actually fluffing his attempt to charm a Ring member to the extent that he insulted him - and his family. This led to further complications later when one of the members of the Hidden Gale turned out to be his nephew!

The big question here is whether Cypher can manage complex personal interactions of the nature of this debate. I think it can. You don't need combat to produce an entertaining scene. Characters also turned out to have skills and abilities relevant to social situations, which I like. This was one of my gripes about 4e D&D and its insane focus on combat.

GM intrusions

Let's talk about complications / GM intrusions. These are a big part of the Cypher system, as they represent how characters earn XP. The GM can introduce complications which the players which they have the option of either accepting or rejecting. I'll give you an example - the party were given fetishes made of mouse droppings to help them to shrink down sufficiently to gain access to the Fortress of Doors via a mouse hole. One of the NPC warriors accompanying them - the nephew of the sheep herder insulted in the earlier debate - refused to take his and when ordered to, ended up choking on it. This is an intrusion - can the PCs save him, or will he choke to death, resulting in further problems with his family? As the PC he was speaking to accepted the intrusion, he received 2 XP, of which 1 XP is kept and another given to another player.

Running Cypher for the first time, I must say I was probably not introducing enough intrusions. I highly, HIGHLY recommend you get your hands on the decks of GM intrusions that Monte Cook games produces. I found these of enormous value in providing additional complications/GM intrusions. But intrusions can be used in a variety of ways - for example, one of the PCs enthralled my main villain in the scenario, the Lord of Sparrows, stopping him from summoning further support and doing other evil things to them. I eventually offered his possible escape, to regenerate as it turned out, as a complication to the player enthralling him. This was accepted. There was no need for the NPC villain to break out of his situation, it happened: call it a lapse of concentration from the player character. The player was rewarded with XP for waving this through. I like this.


Combat took longer than expected. I think I over-egged the main combat encounter a bit for first tier characters. In the interests of simplicity, I did not introduce the additional optional combat rules that Cypher has. I think if these are added, you will end up with a more well-rounded combat system. As a group we also like using miniatures. You can use miniatures with Cypher, although I'm not sure Monte himself is a fan. But for us it would probably have helped. My advice to GMs is also not to underestimate the power of even Level 1 or Level 2 critters in a fight. The undead Sparrow People I created for this encounter were more than tough enough, without their Lord summoning any more. Luckily he was not given that opportunity as the party nixed him with their Enthrall ability almost immediately.


Finally, the Cypher system is also all about cyphers. They are in the name of the game, after all. In Numenera they represent the lost technology of past civilizations. Unlike artefacts, they are limited or one use items. The fetishes the characters were given by a Mouse shaman prior to entering the Fortress of Doors were typical examples. Tier 1 characters will tend to be restricted to about two or three of these. GMs will need to work a bit to allow them to fit properly in the environment, and are also encouraged to be fairly generous with dishing them out. For example, looting the bodies of some dead Lunar priests in the Fortress provided the opportunity to pick up some more cyphers, like an ointment of fire resistance.

A campaign setting should provide scope for the players to find and use cyphers, regularly. A setting that does not include this opportunity, cannot rationalise their presence and their temporary nature, may prove harder to convert. For Glorantha, this was not a problem. Plus, I could see how cult membership and worship of Gloranthan deities can also provide a flow of both cyphers and XP to players. In the character backgrounds, I quickly saw there was an opportunity for them to have scope to earn XP in a session from emulating some aspect of their gods. This is very Gloranthan. I may well return to Glorantha with the Cypher system in the future, although it looks like we may be using it for an imminent Eberron campaign!


  1. I know the others will disagree, but I didn't have a problem with the lack of miniatures. Each to their own!

    I do think the minions were a bit too tough. I'd perhaps use more of them-- perhaps in two waves -- but make them easier to hit.

    It's an interesting system and I'm keen to play it again. I'd also like to visit Glorantha again!

  2. Yup. Playing this sold me on the system. Thanks. I needed to play it to confirm my thoughts etc.

    Looking forward to running it myself with Eberron! CypherHackEberron!