Horror on the Cypher System Express

I’ve always enjoyed a great eldritch horror game: Call of Cthulhu or more recently, Trail of Cthulhu. And I really enjoy the Cypher System, the core rules used in Numenera and The Strange. Now, with the publication of the Cypher System Rulebook, I can mix my shuggoths and my GM Intrusions.

CSR-Cover-Free-Preview-386x500So, how does horror work in the Cypher System? First, I should explain a little about how the Cypher System Rulebook works. It’s a menu of rules a GM (and players) can chose from to create their own game. Besides horror, there are rules for science fiction, fantasy, modern, and superheros. Within each genre, you get more choices. Lots of optional rules to tailor the game to just the right kind of horror.

The rulebook has a big bestiary of creatures to choose from and the horror section lists the ones that best fit a horror campaign, including Deep Ones and Mi-Go. It also includes 3 horror artifacts, so if you want more, you’re going to have to make some yourself.

Art by Doug Scott
Art by Doug Scott

The horror rules are all optional rules. Madness will be familiar to Cthulhu players. Cypher System madness grew out of the madness rules found in In Strange Aeons: Lovecraftian Numenera. In this case madness puts a hurt on your Intellect pool and can even change your descriptor. I do something similar in The Sun Below: Sleeping Lady, which has a seriously eldrtich horror vibe.

Shock is another optional rule, more for short term effects like losing control of your character and running away or sitting down to sob rather than fight. Trail of Cthulhu players will find it very similar to Stability losses. Different mechanics, but going for the same effect.

Combine both Madness and Shock if you want a game like Trail of Cthulhu, or just Madness if you want a Call of Cthulhuish experience.

I’ve saved the most interesting for last. Horror Mode. Horror mode is a great way to ramp up tension, as the range for a GM Intrusion (the dice fail kind, not the 2xp kind) goes up to a 1-2 on a d20 roll. Then 1-3. And so on. You can get to 1-10 fairly quickly. Each GM Intrusion brings new horror AND widens the GM Intrusion range by one.

After the horror mode is over, you reset the GM Intrusion range to 1. Until the next time…

Which has me thinking of a Cypher Cthulhu adventure. I’m sure my players would love it!

2 thoughts on “Horror on the Cypher System Express

  1. Interesting article although I feel it failed to include what Monte Cook describe as the core mechanic of the Cypher system: the cyphers.
    I don’t own the Cypher System book. Perhaps it is addressed in the book.

    I believe horror relies on setting an atmosphere of hopelessness in the PCs. Cyphers provide pcs with an arsenal of abilities.
    GM: You hear a scratching sound against the wall coming from the room beyond the door. What do you do?
    Player: I use my spy-bug cypher and send it through the crack and report back to me.
    End of danger and suspense.
    Are there rules for making cyphers malfunction for instance?

    This may be my only grief about the Cypher system. Maybe I dont want the pcs in my campaign to have access to random magic item. Perhaps it doesn’t fit the tone I’m going after. Perhaps I just hate generating where treasures are found, how much there is and what’s in it. Is a Cypher game without cypher like watching a blockbuster movie on your smartphone?


  2. For horror, you would use “Subtle Cyphers.” These cyphers are for games like horror w/o any “powered stuff,” like potions or high tech spy-bugs. They are more like inspiration and good fortune you can use to boost Edge, recover points from pools, come up with ideas, and so on.


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