Cypher Mastery: Using Actions, Intrusions, and Levels

In the Cypher System, the GM doesn’t roll dice, so what is the best way to resolve NPC actions when they are not directly contending against the Player Characters?

The first and main tool for this is GM Intrusions. Monte Cook writes:

The general idea in the Cypher System (the engine behind both Numenera and The Strange) is that if the GM wants to reflect an NPC doing something special, acting out of desperation, or just really giving it her all, the thing to do is to use a GM intrusion. With the intrusion, the NPC can do something that would normally break the rules–take an extra action, perform a (seemingly) impossible task, get really lucky, etc. That’s not the most exciting use of a GM intrusion, but it’s in the toolbox and should be used as needed. (Source)

The second tool is Levels. If you need to determine if something works, how well it works, or if it’s better than something (or someone) else, consult the Levels.

First and foremost, it’s important to remember that everything in the Cypher System has a level. Everything’s rated on a scale of 1-10. That’s how the game works, and that’s how information is coded into the mechanics. A level 5 door is sturdier than a level 4 door. Thus, if I have a cypher that cuts through matter, and want to know if I can cut through the door, I can just compare the level of the cypher to the level of the door, and if the cypher’s level is higher, the answer is yes, I can cut through the door. If an NPC’s got a cypher that I don’t want her to use (maybe it’s a weapon), I can use my cutting cypher to attack it. If I hit in combat, we compare cypher levels. If mine is higher than hers, I slice right through her cypher. (Source)

Example Rule:

Tier 2: Golem Grip (3 Might points). Your attack with your stone fists is modified by one step in your favor. If you hit, you can grab the target, preventing it from moving on its next turn. While you hold the target, its attacks or attempts to break free are modified by one step to its detriment. If the target attempts to break free instead of attacking, you must make a Might-based roll to maintain your grip. If the target fails to break free, you can continue to hold it each round as your subsequent actions, automatically inflicting 4 points of damage each round by squeezing. Enabler.

There are other options of handling NPC non-combat actions though. Let’s walk through a few examples.

Example 1: Area Disaster

The players create an avalanche of rocks which reigns down upon pursuing NPCs.

Do the PCs roll for each NPC to see if they evade the avalanche?

Using Attacks

1. Yes treat it as an individual or communal attack roll.

1. they roll to trap the NPC’s in the avalanche. They Succeed? Great! GMI, the leader drags himself from the rubble as you start to fade from sight, noting which direction you go so he can follow.

1. allow the PC’s to make a check against similar NPC’s as a gang, although the leader of the pack should be rolled against separately.

Using Levels

1. Roll once to determine which levels the PC beats. Any NPC of a higher level than that evades the avalanche.

#1 – Everything has a level. PCs would roll to see how good of an avalanche it was. That level would compare to each NPC to see if they had impact.

1) Before anything is decided, the GM and players figure out what the level of the landslide is going to be. The level of the landslide is compared to the level of the NPC’s. If the NPC level is equal to or below the landslide level, they are caught up in it. If the NPC level exceeds the landslide Level, they escape

Using Intrusions

#1 Intrusions are the most fun and often the most fair way to deal with this stuff. When does the NPC get loose from the trap? Well, it could be quite a while, but this GM Intrusion says it’s at the worst possible moment.

Example 2: Improvised Trap

A PC improvises a trap to ensnare opponents. The trap succeeds, and the opponents are ensnared. The next round, the opponents try to break free of the trap.

Does the PC roll to see if the trap continues to ensnare each NPC?

Using Attacks

Using Levels

Everything has a level. The PC would roll to see how well of a trap they made. That is the level of the trap. If it was higher then the NPC they are trapped and not coming out. Or a GM Intrusion can get them out.

Using Intrusions

Once ensnared, only GM intrusion can get them out.

Intrusions are the most fun and often the most fair way to deal with this stuff. When does the NPC get loose from the trap? Well, it could be quite a while, but this GM Intrusion says it’s at the worst possible moment.

Something Else

 2. Trap made by PC roll, Roll determines number of rounds NPC is trapped.

Use Action

Set a Difficulty based on rounds the snare will hold. PC rolls.


2) Before the snare is set, the GM and player decide a duration of the snare. This would figure into determining the Level of the snare, how difficult it is to set, and how difficult it is to avoid. Minor or Major effects on setting the snare could extend the time, or even make the trap cause damage.

Example 3: Morale Checks

In a mass battle, eventually most of the opponents are dead, and their morale starts to sag.

Who would roll to see how many of the opponents decide to run away?

Using Attacks

Using Levels

Using Intrusions

Intrusions.  I’d even do this with how many foes survive a massive battle: Offer 2 options- 1) GM group intrusion where many of the foes survive or 2) The group pays to ignore the group intrusion and there are about half as many survivors.

I’d decide ahead of time that when X foes are dead, the remainder flee.

Perfect GM Intrusion when the story says enough is enough and it’s time to move on.

Using Actions

Otherwise, leave it to the PCs to make some kind of intimidate check.

Final Thoughts: Cypher Storytelling

I like to think of games as stories with Cypher system. As GM I tell most of the story, deciding how the natural disaster affects the NPCs or whatever, but sometimes offering branching paths to the PCs. They can take the hard path and get XP for it or take the easier path and pay XP for it. XP is the currency of storytelling. Rolled intrusions and major/minor effects become random alterations to the story that keeps even the GM guessing. Everybody has fun.

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