What Does This Thing Do?

Published March 17, 2014 by in For Gamemasters, For Players, Mechanics

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Premise:  Numenera PC’s don’t know much about prior world technologies and can’t identify Cyphers.  Hilarity ensues (and people probably die).

Ok, here’s the idea- let’s strip off all the identifying characteristics from Cyphers and make them really just a shot in the dark. Sure it sounds crazy, but here’s the catch: when you activate a Cypher, its power becomes a bit more obvious and you get a chance to change your mind about how you’re using it.  Sound fun?  Well, let’s at least talk about it before you totally write it off, sheesh…random cypher


First things first, let’s throw out the usual identification skill roll.  It’s too high tech, and our characters are basically superstitious medieval warriors.  They have no clue.

Whenever a Type or Descriptor would give the Identification skill, give that character a new skill, called Fast Hands.  Fast Hands is a panic skill used when you realize that Cypher doesn’t do anything like what you thought it did.  Details to follow below.


Ok, so how should the GM hand out Cyphers if they can’t tell the players what they do?  Simple, use number codes.  The easy way is to roll a percentile and write that number on a card.  The percentile can be looked up on the core book Cypher table, or the one in the Cypher Collection Glimmer if you have it (you can even switch back and forth, so as to throw off the PC’s, just in case the’ve memorized some of the numbers).

Add a description that doesn’t relate to the purpose too much and you’re good to go.  I tend to use note cards for my Cyphers so this system is perfect.  You could also go for postit notes.

Use It!

So, when the player’s up against the wall and decides to try out one of these Cypher doohickies, they hand you the card, describe what they’re doing, and you (the GM) look up the Cypher and you begin to describe the effect.  This is when you can roll the item’s level by the way.  At this point the character begins to get an inkling of what they’ve done.

It’s imperative that the PC describe their action before they find out what the Cypher does.  Are they pointing it at someone?  Some thing?  Are they ingesting it or putting it on their skin?  This is important because once the player finds out what it does their target will be the target of the effect.

No, Wait!

So once they’ve pushed the red button and aimed it at their annoying friend, they realize what the Cypher will actually do.  If they wish, the PC can change their mind as to the target.  This is where the Fast Hands skill comes in:  the character must succeed in a Speed task against a difficulty equal to the level of the Cypher to change the target.  Fast Hands is the relevant skill.  This roll takes no time.

Why Would Anybody Want to Do This?

Oh I dunno, FUN MAYBE?  Add a little excitement and danger to the game?  Add a little spice, as well as grittiness?  Or maybe just add some comedy?

There are a lot of reasons to slide the realism and danger scales around in Numenera and it’s pretty easy to do.  Some groups want Cyphers and Artifacts to work like magic items in a fantasy dungeon crawler, and that’s cool.  I’ve been there.  But sometimes it can be fun to see just how dangerous the world can be and just how resourceful you’re players can get when the pressure is on.


One thought on “What Does This Thing Do?

  1. Brass Jester says:

    I like this idea and I’ll try it out on the next Wayfarer’s session for anything they find.

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