Originally published at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2013/12/04/tabletop-review-cypher-collection-i-numenera/
Sometimes a review practically writes itself, like when you cover a set of random tables, a name generator or a supplemental full of some specific type of equipment like guns or cyberware. Such is the case with this latest supplement from Monte Cook Games for its hit Numenera setting. Within this digital only release, you’ll find seven pages dedicated to fifty different ciphers of all shapes, size and powers. The other three pages that make up Cypher Collection I are a cover, interior page and of course, a random cipher list.
If you’re new to Numenera, know that ciphers are one-shot items that may do just about anything. They could turn someone into a kitten, heal a PC, or shoot monkey shaped confetti into the air. You won’t know until you find and experiment with them based on your GM’s description of the item. Numenera is a game of exploration and discovery first and foremost seeing that a billion years of technology litter the world the PCs reside. So if the GM gives you a cipher that looks like a hypodermic needle except it glows in the dark and occasionally vibrates when held up to a black light every Tuesday, it’s up to you who or what you want to inject with it. It’s worth noting Cypher Collection I reminds gamers that there are two general types of Cyphers. An Anoetic Cypher is a simple tool – something you press a button on, chew up and swallow or flip a switch on to activate. An Occultic Cypher is more complex but generally also has a more impressive effect. Note that impressive doesn’t necessarily mean helpful.
Oddly enough, for a game whose core rulebook embraced the idea of the weird and unusual, all of the ciphers in Cypher Collection 1 are pretty routine items. They are things you would find in any other RPG ranging from Dungeons & Dragons to Shadowrun. I was hoping this collection would really let Monte Cooke Games throw the mundane and obvious ideas out the window and give us a collection of some pretty strange items, like a cipher that causes any plant with 100 yards to excrete a viscous substance that if rubbed on your skin, allows you to perform repetitive actions such as climbing or sleeping without getting tired. Maybe a cipher that turns anything with a blade into Formica. Things that really promote the weirdness factor of the game and also make players wonder why some past civilization would invent something like a device that releases a sentient pile of earwax into the world. Something that replicates Tenser’s Floating Disc or that gives a character simulated X-Ray Vision isn’t all that unusual and when a character finds a pair of wearable wings, it’s obvious what the function will be.
That isn’t to say that Cypher Collection I is poorly written or not worth picking up. Far from it. It’s just the collection isn’t as imaginative or bizarre as I wanted it to be. This is similar to the people who were let down by The Devil’s Spine adventure collection by the fact it was pretty much standard dungeon crawl style adventures, which is what most people felt Numenera was going to try and avoid. What is in this collection are fifty straightforward and rather useful devices a less imaginative GM can let his players find to help them make it through adventures set in the Ninth World. It’s very reasonably priced at only $2.99 and it’s handy to have when you don’t have the time or desire to make up stats for a bomb like cipher or you feel that you can’t get your own idea for a cypher balanced.
My favorite ciphers in this collection include: the Helping Hand, which is basically a floating seven fingered hand that acts as a third appendage for a character, the Stealthy Serpent which gives you a two foot long metal snake as a sidekick and a set of metal discs that repel water. These are all pretty outside the box and will delight players as they try to figure out how to use them as well as debate upon their original reason for existing. As I’ve said the vast majority of these ciphers are for dungeon crawling, which means they are for offensive or defensive measures. This is fine and you’ll definitely be able to make use of them, be you player or GM. I am hoping that if there is a Cypher Collection II, Monte Cook Games really lets its imagination soar and give us some items that are no apparent usefulness or are so strange PCs can’t help put discuss them (in and out of character), thus making a regular item drop become something truly memorable. Again, what’s here is great if you’re looking for bombs, devices that give a character limited telepathy or that make holographic duplicates of the user. Everything is well designed, balanced and the overall piece is a great supplement to the core Numenera rulebook. If however, you’re looking for something canon that lets a PC communicate with cheese or allows a party to breathe lava, you won’t find it here.