Making Sense of Subtle Cyphers

8 minutes

Maybe I’m just an idiot, but I feel like I’m probably not the only person who has a hard time conceptualising subtle cyphers in the Cypher System. The dichotomy of cyphers as random items you collect and use, and narrative ‘twists’ invoked by subtle cyphers seem impossible to resolve with some of the other game mechanics at first, but after some thinking and re-reading of the Cypher System corebook, I think I finally have a model that helps me make sense of things.

What Exactly Are Subtle Cyphers?

Subtle Cyphers, to paraphrase the Cypher System corebook are defined thusly:

Subtle cyphers are a way to introduce cyphers into a game without overt "powered stuff"...


Subtle cyphers are more like the inherent abilities PCs have...

These cyphers don’t exist as physical items to be collected and used, like normal cyphers in games like Numenera or The Strange. Instead, they are abstract concepts that exist in the mind - things that just happen when you want them to, and then disappear.

For me, I find it quite hard to conceptualise a character ‘using’ abstract concepts to do things, when you’re trying to obey the mechanical rules of the system. Coming from Numenera, cyphers are engrained into your head as eminently usable, real items that have tangible effects on the game world. Subtle cyphers lack that, so how do they work? How do they even make sense? After all, in Numenera scavenging for cyphers is a natural, physical activity that makes intuitive sense - how do you search for abstract concepts? How do you identify them?

A Model for Conceptualising Subtle Cyphers

I propose there are a number of rules clarifications and ways of thinking that can make subtle cyphers intuitive and obvious. They might not work for every possible scenario, but I think this method is compelling enough to share.

1) Cyphers Do Not Exist in the Game World

The first thing to do is to decouple yourself as a player, from yourself as a character. This flies in the face of what some people might consider immersion, but consider this - you are playing a game with other people, you need to consider their needs as players in order to be able to have fun with each other, even if your character’s personalities don’t support cooperation.

Treating your character as separate from yourself as a player allows you to then make the following step: treating cyphers as tools for the player - not for the character. This is the most fundamental departure from cyphers in games like Numenera, where they are most definitely a core part of the in-game world. For subtle cyphers though, you need to change your way of seeing things.

As a player, you use cyphers to enact changes on the narrative of the game world in much the same way as a character uses cyphers to enact changes on the representation of the game world. As abstract items, it makes sense to use them on abstractions in much the same way as concrete cypher act on concrete reality.

2) Subtle Cyphers are Tropes

If subtle cyphers are abstract things for affecting narrative changes, then it is only natural to look at the tools of narrative to see what things exist there that could serve as a cypher. The most obvious conclusion is the trope.

To quote TV Tropes,

Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clichés. The word clichéd means "stereotyped and trite." In other words, dull and uninteresting. We are not looking for dull and uninteresting entries. We are here to recognise tropes and play with them, not to make fun of them.

Tropes, in our case, are specifically tools used by the players to affect the narrative. In order to ‘search’ for our theoretical cypher-tropes, you examine the situation. Situations are definied by the GM, but they should only ever be times in the plot of conflict or rich narrative. A player shouldn’t be able to search the situation of ‘talking privately in a bar’ for cyphers any more than a character in Numenera should be able to look in their shoes expecting to find new cyphers. However, situations can change and when a situation becomes ‘dramatically appropriate’ as decided by the GM, the players - not the characters can attempt to get cyphers they can use. In this case, this is nothing like scavenging - the cyphers are there for the taking. However, like cyphers, they need to be identified, but this time by the players.

Using a subtle cypher without knowing what it does can inject a lot more chaos into the narrative - perhaps your cypher causes a new person to enter the scene - a long lost friend or companion. Knowing this beforehand, you can plan to use it to your advantage, causing your friend to interrupt an awkward social encounter, giving you a way out. Using it randomly though, you might find your friend turns up in the middle of a bar brawl - possibly helpful, but just as likely to create another problem to solve!

However, identifying cyphers is an action in the game world - it takes time away from the characters, so how do you justify this when it’s ostensibly a player action which stands outside of the game world? My answer is: reflection.

Before we move onto that though, lets first look at some example tropes.

  • Challenge Seeker - this trope is about seeking out greater and greater challenges. Perhaps this cypher could grant an asset on any task that you are not trained in or would otherwise find difficult

  • Fell Off the Back of a Truck - this trope is about explaining away illicitly obtained items. Perhaps this cypher grants an asset to lying tasks.

  • Underdogs Never Lose - this trope is about how those on the losing side often inexplicably come out on top at the last moment. Perhaps this cypher can be used to restore your pools after failing a task.

  • Red Shirt - this trope is about the nameless mooks on the side of the good guys that get sacrificed for the plot. This cypher could sacrifice a minor ally to grant you an asset, some points to your pools or something else.

It’s worth bearing in mind that using these tropes, especially things like Red Shirt, it is you as the player making these decisions about the narrative, not the character. The character isn’t aware of, or able to, decide the life and death of others at a whim, it’s you as a player taking temporary, limited narrative control over the shared story you are creating with the other players.

3) Identifying (and Using) Subtle Cyphers is an Act of Reflection

Because using and identifying cyphers is an action which has a mechanical, in-world game effect on your character (i.e. it takes in-game time to perform), there needs to be some kind of justification for that. Mine is reflection.

Reflection, in this case, is the character looking back on their life and past experiences and drawing strength from it. The cyphers are the strengths that are available in this given situation, the identification and use of them is the reflection that makes them possible. This reflection might take place as a memory, a flashback or just a brief reminder, something the character does in order to find the strength to carry on or the edge to help them avoid defeat.

As an act of reflection, you get an interesting dynamic pop up depending on how you create your subtle cyphers. If you roll them randomly from a table, you are randomly defining for that character that moments in their pasts exist that satisfy those requirements. Identifying and using cyphers becomes more than just a device to affect change in the present narrative, but it also effects backstory and character development too. If you pre-roll cyphers or specifically craft them, doing so is a bit more difficult as you need to find appropriate backstory elements for the situations you’ll be providing them in. This isn’t too hard, but is a bit more work than just making up appropriate cyphers for the place they are being looted from, like it is for manifest cyphers.


In short, thinking about subtle cyphers as tropes players use to affect the narrative about their characters makes a lot of sense and fits in mechanically with the rest of the game system. This isn’t really news - it’s basically what the book already says, but this lays it out with a bit more detail.

I’ve said it before, but in many ways the Cypher System borrows some of the ideas you can find in other games such as Fate. It is easy to compare the use of subtle cyphers to Fate’s “Create Advantage” action - where you define or discover a new aspect and use it to gain an advantage. Like aspects, subtle cyphers find their origins in tropes and stereotypes defined not only be the situation, but by the characters as well.

Thinking about subtle cyphers this way really helped me conceptualise how they work and how to use them effectively. I hope you’ve found it as useful as I have!

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