I recently wrote a short text about Numenera, and how one central notion of the game is the use of cyphers: one-time-use powerful devices. This is reflected in the name of the system Numenera uses: the Cypher System.

A friend commented that it struck him how cyphers were a central element of the system and not of the setting. I replied that, in my opinion -and guessing- you could remove them from the game and still play, but the game would be boring. Cyphers are a constant source of novelty in the game.

However, I'd like to know if anyone has given this serious thought. What effect does removing cyphers have on the game, if you've done it?


2 Answers 2


The cypher system is extremely simple, which is one of it's great strengths, and I think the system by itself can stand up just fine without cyphers. After all, ultimately they are just items, and there is an upper limit on how many you can carry anyway, so they aren't required to be able to play a normal game.

However, virtually any of the existing written adventures would be very dfficult without them, nor would the setting really feel the same. All the existing content is written with the assumption that you are obtaining and using cyphers. With cyphers being so wildly powerful (if only for a limited time) this makes it a safe assumption that players can handle situations that would normally be beyond their capabilities, making for fun, tense encounters that are saved by an interesting or novel use of a cypher. Without them, you are either sending players into a meat grinder or you need to scale things back.

So to answer your question, I feel that yes, you can use the Cypher system without cyphers, but you can't use any of the existing content without modifying it. I've observed this effect directly in my own groups, where the players, being new to Numenera, are treating cyphers very much like D&D magical weapons and hoarding them rather than using them as disposable items. Because they are hoarding them, they are effectively out of play and it's changed the game's balance considerably, making encounters as written in adventures such as "The Seed Ship" much, much more difficult for them. I would have lost at least 2 players in their second session had they not decided to start using their cyphers at the last minute.

Without cyphers, the game plays a lot like any other rules light, narrative focused game, such as FATE for example. What cyphers provide beyond their actual abilities is an injection of weird for the players and the GM to react to. They are more than just items of power, they establish and reinforce the tone of the narrative and it's focus on weirdness. This isn't to say that you can't bring that in by other means, but without cyphers that requires more conscious effort on the part of the GM rather than relying on the randomness of player choice.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think this needs to be stressed: the whole balancing between difficulties, skills, abilities etc. assumes that you use Cyphers (heavily). Not only become some things impossible without, the game is also bland: they only get away with as few skills and abilities (per character) as they do because you are supposed to have a half dozen cool abilities in your backpack. \$\endgroup\$
    – Raphael
    Commented Aug 17, 2014 at 14:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ Indeed. Pretty much all of the existing content in terms of abilities, foci, etc are all written around the core conceit of cyphers being readily available. While the core mechanics of the Cypher system are reusable without cyphers, running Numenera or The Strange game as the books present them without cyphers will be quite difficult indeed and probably not very fun. \$\endgroup\$
    – darkliquid
    Commented Sep 19, 2014 at 16:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1. Can you? Of course. Easily, IMO. Should you? Well, that's up to you, but you're taking away one of the central means of keeping the game balanced and interesting, so you need to put something back. Specifically in Numenera, the game is all about finding these bits of the past. \$\endgroup\$
    – Longspeak
    Commented Apr 6, 2016 at 17:39

In games other than Numenera and The Strange, cyphers may not even be physical things. They might be moments of inspiration or surges of unusual potential, glitches in super abilities, stim patches, cybernetics, supernatural intervention, and so forth. However they manifest, cyphers provide the Cypher System with a unique way to make the game constantly changing, fresh and fun.

A Cypher game without the cyphers would be a game of stasis and minimal change. The existence of cyphers adds a spark and fluidity to the potential of characters that would otherwise be missing. Yes, acquiring experience and with that new Tiers will eventually bring some change, but such will be infrequent and slow.

The Cypher System Rulebook - release next month - goes to some effort to discuss the value of cyphers in any iteration of the system. They represent both:

  • treasure - which is an aspect of many games and gives players the opportunity to customise their characters in a fun and interesting way - and,
  • a means for the GM to facilitate challenges and new adventures - as a few carefully considered and selected cyphers can be scattered amongst the random ones as ways and means to ease progress through an adventure / situation.
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    \$\begingroup\$ Your last paragraph is very insightful and might be better place at the start of the answer. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 24, 2015 at 9:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ How do you know the content of the to-be-released core book? <envy> \$\endgroup\$
    – gomad
    Commented Jun 24, 2015 at 13:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've read it - and posted a pretty substantial review at Geek Native \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 24, 2015 at 13:28

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