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!

Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom #4. TPK Anyone?

tpkThis month’s musical question is:

There is a wide spectrum of lethality in RPGs, and there are GMs who fall on every possible point within it. These range from GMs who run campaigns where PCs can never die to the other extreme—GMs who delight in killing PCs. Where do you fall on this spectrum? How lethal are your games and why? How do you handle PC death if and when it happens?

As fun as it is to kill PCs, I don’t do it often. A few deaths a campaign, and that’s gritty for me. I don’t kill them enough. I used to kill them too much. Now it’s rare. And that really bothers me.

So I maim them.

Of course, every system is different. In Call of Cthulhu or Dark Heresy players expect very bad things to happen. I maim them a lot. In one Dark Heresy game I had a group of killers break into the PCs bedrooms and burn the characters with plasma rifles. The PCs woke up screaming and melting.

But no deaths. Eyeballs melted out of skulls? Check. Limbs exploded in fatty flames? Check. Players freaking out? Check.

I miss that game.

Warhammer_fantasy_roleplay_coverI really miss Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay v2, now out of print. Those crit tables were to a maimer’s dream come true. Luckily you can see the same kind of terrible effects in FFG’s 40k books. Limbs gone, faces burned off, eyes melted (didn’t I mention that already?), and more.

Besides maiming, one-shotting NPCs allies helps create a sense of threat. The players know they are tougher than an NPC, but when they see their ally transformed into a stain on the floor in the blink of an eye, it does set the mood. And when you get to the maiming, the player doesn’t feel so bad.

A Song of Ice and Fire RPG is another maimer’s playground. When my character (see, I don’t always GM!) wouldn’t yield, and my captors held my hand down on a stump, you can’t say I didn’t know what was coming. Jamie isn’t the only lackhand in Westeros.

In games like Numenera, it’s more about exploring a weird and dangerous world, and the system gives the PCs control over how they manage that danger. I knock them down and they find a way to get back up. Somebody always pulls out just the right cypher.

The Numenera core book includes a rule for maiming instead of death: Lasting or Permanent Damage as a Death Replacement. In place of a good maiming I often mutate the PCs. Love those mutants. And those knights who like to hunt them down!

D&D and similar games have mechanics to always keep the players ahead of the monsters. Even a hard fight doesn’t have a significant chance of death if you follow the guidelines. These games are about heroes, and maiming them doesn’t stick in a high magic story. I at least want the replacement bits to look alien and frightful. Kind of takes the fun out it when some cleric chants and the hand grows back, no scars or nothing!

If you want gritty stories, then exceed the safety limits. Use threats of a higher level than normal.

I appreciate 13th Age’s battle building advice: “We’ve provided balanced monsters so that you can choose interesting ways to make most all battles unfair…” Then it goes on to list entertaining ways to make things unfair to the players, and encourages you to use them in every single battle. You’ve got to cheat a bit to maim and kill.

a-diceI also like something else from 13th Age: the Meaningful Death Rule (stolen from 7th Sea): Bad dice can’t kill you, only named villains can fully slay a PC. Nameless monsters can only put you in a coma, carry you back to their master, who is of course a named villain, and prepare you for sacrifice. Scary stuff, but this provides plenty of opportunity for daring rescues.

Hillfolk and other story heavy games might have very little or no violence. Player death might only happen if everyone at the table agrees it makes a better story.

Of course, Fiasco can be a bloodbath, but people expect that. Fiasco is also always a one shot, not a campaign, and players are more accepting of death when they know their is no next game to worry about.

For me, it comes down to the story we’re collectively telling at the table. Ask your players, what kind of story do they want?

And check out this post on Run Away or Always Win.


The Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom is a meeting of the minds of tabletop RPG bloggers and GMs. We endeavor to transcend a particular system or game and discuss topics that are relevant to GMs and players of all roleplaying games.

If you’d like to submit a topic for our future discussions, or if you’re a blogger who’d like to participate in the Game Master’s Roundtable of Doom, send an email to Lex Starwalker at gamemastersjourney@gmail.com.

This month’s topic comes to us courtesy of Lex Starwalker.

The rest of the Roundtable has great things to say about player death. Read on!

Marc Plourde – The Mortality of the Situation at http://inspstrikes.blogspot.com/2015/04/nuts-bolts-27-game-masters-roundtable.html

James August Walls – Dead and Loving It – My Evening as a DCC Player at http://ilive4crits.blogspot.com/

Scott Robinson – Lethality and the RPG as a Relativistic Game at http://strangeenc.blogspot.com/2015/04/lethality-and-rpg-as-game.html

Lex Starwalker – How Lethal Are Your Campaigns? at http://www.starwalkerstudios.com/blog/2015/4/6/game-masters-roundtable-of-doom-4-how-lethal-are-your-campaigns

John Clayton Fatality! at http://blog.filesandrecords.com/2015/04/fatality/

Peter Smits – PCs and the killing thereof at http://planeataryexpress.blogspot.com/2015/04/pcs-and-killing-there-of.html

Arnold K. at http://goblinpunch.blogspot.com/

Evan Franke – To be or not to be . . . a Killer GM at http://asageamonghisbooks.blogspot.com/2015/04/game-masters-roundtable-of-doom-4-to-be.html

Ringing Out the GM Changes

Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom #3

This month’s topic comes to us courtesy of Scott Robinson, who asks, “How has your gaming and/or GMing changed over time?”

So many things have changed. We’re more diverse, we play different kinds of games, and we’re older if not wiser. I’ll focus on how my GMing has changed.

175px-D&d_Box1st (1)To start with, I was a simulationst GM. What I was trying to simulate was an epic fantasy or sf novel. Without the character development. I threw in some jokes, used random die rolls to create encounters, and killed a bunch of PCs. White box D&D to 2nd Edition and a little Traveller. Good times.

Slowly I started to bring in the bare bones of plot into my games. Now there was a reason my players were clearing out a dungeon. Not much, maybe they were geased to do so, but it was something.

CoC 1st edI got into goal based, rather than encounter based, gaming starting with Call of Cthulhu. Story based gaming had arrived, and I was hooked. Wild adventures with characters who had professions, not classes. Simple, not complex, rules. I will never forget running Masks of Nyarlathotep or Horror on the Orient Express.

I played a lot of systems since then, but the idea the game was about a goal, rather than a series of encounters, really struck home with me. I enjoy both kinds of games, but when I first tried a goal based game, it was like a breath of fresh air. Walt Ciechanowski did a nice post about the differences over in Gnome Stew.

13thFor a while, I equated games with story to goal based games, but games like 13th Age have changed my mind. 13th Age is a wonderful mix of storytelling and encounter based fun.

numeneraSetting has become more important to me. I used to hand-wave setting in my early D&D games. “It’s like Tolkien, Leiber, and Moorcock I’d tell my players, and then run fairly unconnected adventures. These days, a great setting really makes me want to play in that world. I had more fun than the law will allow with Rogue Trader, just because of the setting. Numenera‘s setting is so awesome I want to play it all the time.

robins lawsI got another eye opener when I read Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering. Shockingly enough, not everyone played rpgs for the reasons I played them! Who knew? I started to pay more attention to everybody’s fun. Instead of the game mechanics creating all the fun, I worked on giving players spotlights and letting them take control of the narrative.

Which reminds me, at some point I started to read books, blogs (like Gnome Stew), and the like about how to be a better games master. I watched my friends GM and copied the things that worked for me. Before, I just focused on the rules, now I’m more focused on the table.

These days, I’m much more comfortable improv. When I pick up a published adventure to save time, I still do a lot of improvisation. Even when I’m not playing an indie improv game like Fiasco, I’m always twisting and turning the game based on what the others at the table are saying. And my players do the same.

Now that I’m designing adventures for publication, I try to think more about how others who aren’t me would run my adventure. And how players who aren’t my players would play it. Playtester feedback can be real humbling when something that was effortless at my table becomes a confusing stumbling block at theirs.

It’s been a fun ride. I can’t wait to find out what happens next!


More on this topic:

Delta GM by Marc Plourde

Plans that Come to Naught by John Clayton

The Evolution of My GM-Style by Scott Robinson

My Evolution as a GM by Lex Starwalker

Home Grown Gaming by James Walls

Evolution of GMing Style by by Peter Smits


The Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom is a meeting of the minds of tabletop RPG bloggers and GMs. Every GM has his or her favorite system, but in these articles we endeavor to transcend a particular system or game and discuss topics that are relevant to GMs and players of all roleplaying games.

If you are a blogger, and you’d like to participate in the Game Master’s Roundtable of Doom, or if you have a suggestion for a topic, send an email to Lex Starwalker at gamemastersjourney@gmail.com.