The Strange Core Rulebook (The Cypher System)
Publisher: Monte Cook Games
Cost $19.99 (PDF)/$59.99 (Physical)
Page Count: 418
Release Date: 08/15/2014
Get it Here: DriveThruRPG.com>
Back in August of this year, I reviewed The Strange Player’s Guide. I gave it a positive review, which is no surprise considering I liked Numenera so much. At the end of the review, I said I’d have a review of the Core Rulebook up by the end of the month. Nearly three months later I’m finally getting to post my review of the book. What happened? Well, time mainly. I’ve written forty-eight articles since the Player’s Guide review, so The Strange just got bumped because I had already done the PHB. In my mind, I wanted to spread my time amongst some small releases that might otherwise not get attention. It also didn’t help that D&D 5e, Warhammer: The End Times, Robotech RPG Tactics and the digital version of Horror on the Orient Express came out in that time period. So something had to give, and unfortunately, it was that review. Still, I feel a little better noticing most reviews for this game didn’t come out until late October, but I know I’m generally super timely with my reviews so I wanted to explain why this is so late compared to everything else I’ve done over the past few years.
The Strange is a massive tome compared to a lot of core rulebooks these days. Weighing in at 418 pages with eight parts, twenty-three chapters, two appendices and more, it will take you a long time to really go through this book and learn the system. The good news is that if you already have either Numenera or The Strange, Player’s Guide, you’ll be familiar with a lot of the mechanics and/or concepts in the game. In fact, The Player’s Guide is the first seven chapters of the Core Rulebook, so I suggest reading my review of that to prevent covering already trod ground. Besides, it’s been three months. Even if you’ve read that review, you’ve probably forgotten it. In a nutshell, Character Creation in The Strange is almost identical to that in Numenera. There are a few term changes, like Nano/Jack/Glaive becoming Paradox/Spinner/Vector and that your character Foci will change based on which of the three core realities you are currently in. Essentially, creating a character in The Strange is almost the same as in Numenera, but as I mentioned in my review, there are a lot less Foci available in The Strange, so it’s a little more limiting in that respect. Otherwise, it’s a fantastic character creation system. Heck, I have the Numenera app and sometimes just piddle away creating random characters when bored or waiting in a line. It’s a lot of fun, and the same is true with The Strange. Again, read the Player’s Guide review for an in-depth look at these first two parts/eight chapters of the Core Rulebook. Now let’s tackle the rest.
Part 3 is “Playing the Game” and consists of two chapters. These are “Rules of the Game” and “Rules of Translation.” “Rules of the Game” lays out the mechanics of The Strange, which are about 99.99% the same as those in Numenera. Both use the same Cypher System after all. When you roll, the difficulty of the task is rate from 0-10. Each step higher on the difficulty ladder adds another 3 points to the target number you are trying to roll. So a Level 1 Task need a 3 on a d20 to be successful, a level 6 Task requires an 18 and a Level 10 requires a roll of 30 or higher. So you’ve probably noticed that levels 7-10 can’t actually be accomplished with a d20, as it only goes so high. Well, this is where the stats that came about in character creation come into play. If you are trained in a skill, you can lower a task’s difficulty level by one. If you are specialized in a skill, you can lower it by two steps. So if I’m trying to climb the Murderhorn, which is a Level 10 difficulty task, but I’m specialized in mountain climbing, that task is lowered to a level 8 difficulty. As well, if I have an asset, which in this case could be exceptional climbing gear or maybe something that negates my weight so I am lighter and bouncier, the task can drop another level. Now this Level 10 task has dropped to level 7. Finally, I can apply points from my Effort pool (see character creation; again, read the Player’s Guide review). Let’s say I spend 5 points of effort to lower this task two steps. Now all of a sudden, because I am well prepared and spent effort, this impossible level 10 task which needed a 30 on a d20 is now a level 5, and all I need is a 15 or higher to succeed. Sure, the odds are still against me, but at least it’s now in the realm of possibility!
Other notes worth mention is that the GM never rolls; only the player. This is a subtle but neat aspect, because it means the GM is pure storyteller and arbitrator. He’s not hiding his rolls behind some screen and fudging the dice in one way or another. There’s also the return of GM Intrusion, where the GM can handout two experience points to throw a monkey wrench into the story. This could be anything from a weapon breaking in a fight to coughing during a moment where stealth is key. The player can either accept the change and keep the experience points (giving one to another player), or they can reject the intrusion by giving up the experience points bribe and spending one of their own accumulated XP to boot. In this respect, the players and the GM are coming together to tell a story. There’s no GM vs players. It’s simply everyone is involved and invested in telling a good story. It’s just the GM writes most of it and plays the NPCs. It’s a wonderful experience for everyone involved, and it prevents players from feeling picked on or like the GM is trying to kill their characters 70s style. The rest of the chapter discusses basic rules, how to get experience points and character advancement. Standard stuff, but well written, easy to follow (especially for Numenera fans), and it’s a lot of fun to read.
“Rules of Translation” talks about what happens when a character travels between recursions. Recursions are the different planes of reality in the game. Some might be a pocket dimension 100 square feet in size, while others might dwarf reality as we know it. It all depends. “Rules of Translation” gives us the mechanics behind transferring your character’s conscious mind from a body in its core reality to a newly made one in the recursion it is entering. This process is called translation, as reality tries to make you fit into it. Here you’ll see how long a translation takes, what one has to do in order to make it successful, and how player characters can make the process easier and faster by working together. It’s a pretty short chapter, but it’s full of both substance and mechanics, so you get a very good idea of how translation works. Since this is a huge part of The Strange, make sure you re-read this chapter enough times that you know the basics by heart.
Part 4 is “The Setting.” It consists of six chapters and is by far the longest part of the book. It is mostly background information as well as a detailed history on recursions and the core three worlds of The Strange: Earth, Ardeyn and Ruk. In fact, each of these four concepts gets their own chapter devoted to it and by the time you are done, you’ll be full of ideas for adventures, characters and what you want to see in your own Strange campaign.
Chapter Ten is “Recursions” and it gives you a basic overview of the concept in addition to teaching you how to craft your own demi-plane (Of Dread?). It’s exceptionally detailed and offers some good advice and an incredible amount of options, so anyone who plans to GM The Strange will be spending a lot of time in this chapter. Chapter Eleven is “Earth” and this might seem like a self-explanatory chapter. At this point in your life, you should be very familiar with Earth after all. What you might not know about are organizations like The Estate which police the planet from The Strange and recursions filled with hostile life forms. “Earth” is all about the Estate and other groups like it. You learn about its objections, sample missions, the type of people it recruits and so on. Most of the other groups only get half a page to a page of detail, where the Estate gets the bulk of the chapter. However, if you want to run a campaign where the PCs are Butterfly Objectors or Recursion Miners, you can! It’s your game after all.
Chapter Twelve is “Ardyen” and it is the base fantasy style world in The Strange. It has dragons and wizards and contains many fantasy tropes you love and/or hate. Ardyen was made by humans and is based off of a (in-game) MMORPG. Although it is relatively recent in terms of coming into existence, the world has thousands of years of history so you can create rich back stories for NPCs and even characters that come from this world. This chapter is exceptionally detailed with maps and in depth looks at locations (both building, region and geographical). There are even several pages of magic items. Hurrah!
Chapter Thirteen is “Ruk,” which is a dark dystopian world filled with mad science. Think Terminator meets Shadowrun for a quick mental image. This chapter is just as detailed as “Ardyen,” but it’s not human-made. Rather some other reality spawned this plane of existence. Perhaps one of the previous worlds if you are using The Strange in the same continuity as Numenera. Perhaps they are aliens from the same universe who had nowhere else to turn but in creating a recursion. Whatever the reason you choose, Ruk is a dark mirror of humanity and its residents don’t care much for us. It’s a much smaller world compared to Earth, but here there is technology and cyberorganisms far different than you would find on our own world. It’s an extremely alien world, but one worth reading about because there is a lot of story potential for adventures and/or campaigns in it. Heck, maybe a player will want their character to be from Ruk.
Chapter Fourteen is “The Strange,” and it gives more of an overview of what is called “The Strange” in-game. It’s not just the name of the franchise after all. In-game, The Strange is dark energy and matter that intersects with our own universe and causes things like recursions. The Strange is also know as the Chaosphere which was constructed billions of years ago by highly advanced aliens to help them in intergalactic travels. Something went wrong though and the Strange became what it is in modern times. Unfortunately, much, if not all, knowledge about these Precursors is lost, so you can’t really ask them. Again, this background information works as a great link to Numenera if you are familiar with that game. In this chapter, you will learn about how the Strange works and can be accessed by those aware of it. There are a whole host of locations to visit listed in this chapter along with some idea of what happens if you spend too much time in The Strange. Exploration has its dark side.
Finally we end Part 4 with Chapter Fifteen, “Other Recursions.” This is exactly what you think – a whole list of several other recursions to explore or perhaps even generate characters from, coupled with some artifacts that can be found there. I was quite amused that one of the recursions is called Innsmouth. Monte Cooke Games really does love to put Lovecraftian references in their games.
Part 5 is “Characters and Creatures.” It consists of two very cut and dry chapters. Chapter Sixteen is “Creatures” and Chapter Seventeen is “Non Player Characters.” You get nearly fifty pages of creatures, many of which are completely unique to this game like Cypher Eaters and Gnathostones, but you also get pretty standard creatures like Dragons and Giants. There are also some takes that straddle both extremes. The Hydra here uses the classic fantasy name but oh man, is it far more horrifying than the kind Hercules fought in Grecian lore. “Non Player Characters” is a similar chapter. You get a whole host of characters from different recursions and our own reality to throw into a game instead of making your own. It’s a much smaller chapter, consisting of only seven pages, but it contains everything from guards and generic Recursors to Professor Moriarity. Very cool.
Part 6 is “Running the Game” and this is where the GM of your group will spend the bulk of his time planning and reading. Chapter Eighteen is “Strange Cyphers” and it is roughly two dozen pages of cyphers (the equivalent of magic or special items in the Cypher System games), along with an explanation of what cyphers are, how they work and how to use them in your game. Chapter Nineteen is “Using the Rules.” Here you’ll find some dos and don’t for how to run a Strange campaign successfully. Right off the bat you are hit with a reminder that story is the most important part and that the rules are there to help you tell the story. They are guidelines, not set in stone facts. So neither The Strange nor Numenera are for ruleslawyers, thank Cthulhu. You’ll also find a discussion on setting task difficulty levels, how to be consistent, what to do when you’ve made a mistake and ways to use GM Intrusions without abusing it. The whole chapter is a great read, even if you are a veteran GM, and it’s worth reading for the advice on damage, mechanics and storytelling in general.
Chapter Twenty is “Building a Story” and it focuses primarily on creative a quality narrative, be it a one shot adventure or throughout a long running campaign. Within these pages you’ll learn about teaching the game to others and helping them through their first few gaming sessions as well as StrangeDungeons & Dragons to GUMSHOE. From the play example to a discussion on how to advice on preparing for an upcoming gaming session, this is actually my favorite chapter in the book
The final chapter of Part 6 is “Running a Strange Game.” Chapter Twenty-One continues the same line of thinking and advice as we have seen in the previous ones. The chapter begins with advice on an intro adventure for new PCs and how to ensure that The Strange lives up to its name. This brief chapter is primarily odds and ends that they threw together to finish Part 6. There is a talk about creating new recursions, which was covered earlier in the book, and adventure outline, which better off in Part 7. Things like that. It’s a very disjointed chapter and the weakest in the book to the utter lack of cohesion. Still, there’s stuff in the chapter GMs will want to read.
Part 7 is “Adventures.” Here you get a short thirteen page adventure called “The Curious Case of Tom Mallard” and the next chapter consists of two pages of story hooks and adventure seeds. I won’t spoil the adventure at all, but it is a decent one, especially for an intro adventure. Likewise there isn’t much in Chapter Twenty-Three, but it’s nice to see a bit of story threads for GMs that aren’t ready to homebrew their own adventures yet.
We come to the final part of the book with Part 8, aka “Back Matter.” Here are the odds and ends that don’t belong anywhere else in the book. Appendix A: Resources gives you a list of books, films and TV shows that inspired the creation of The Strange. Appendix B is a six page list of Kickstarter backers. The Glossary and Index are exactly what you suppose they are. The book then ends with a Character Creation Walkthrough and some character sheets. Both of these sections can be found in the Player’s Guide I keep mentioning and as such there is no need to talk about these for a second time. Suffice to say the character creation walkthrough is well done though and will really help out newcomers.
All in all, The Strange is another fantastic release from Monte Cook Games. I’ll admit I prefer Numenera‘s setting but that is 100% subjective. The Strange really is a fantastic game that came out in this summer of consistent top notch products. As such, I’m glad I’m covering it a little later than I normally do, because otherwise it might have been lost in the shuffle of all the big releases that came out around the same time. So if you missed the game in August when it first came out, here’s your chance to add it to your winter holiday of choice wish list and hopefully receive a copy of it in December. In many ways, The Strange reminds me of the old game Lords of Creation mixed with Numenera rules and trust me when I say, that’s a pretty big compliment.