The Saving Throw
Cipher 2010
How about the power to kill a yak from a thousand yards away with mind bullets! That's telekinesis Kyle! How about the power to move you.

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Overall Review
published by Broken Meme reviewed by Scott Wachter
220 pages, 2010, $34.99 (print or pdf)
Game Setting 4
Core Book 3
Art 3
Character Generation 2
Game Rules 2
Intelligibility 4
Review Scoring

Take World of Darkness, add some Carrie, Firestarter and X-Files, sprinkle in some impending doom and you have Cipher: a game of psychics on the run from the law and trying to fight fate. This is the first product from independent game design team Broken Meme Studios (remember, I interviewed those guys). It brings its great many influences into a complete package that manages to evoke each of them without feeling entirely of identical to all of them. While it may not have the most inspired game, mechanically, the setting is well thought out and explained, and welcome change of pace from the common action-adventure settings.

Character generation is simple: you buy ranks in 6 primary attributes then place points in your choice of 13 skills. You can then add focus points (i.e. narrowing science down to software engineer, or ranged weapons to shotguns) to any of those skills all at a one-to-one ratio. Attribute points are fixed at 35 at character generation, while skill and focus points are derived from your knowledge attribute, with a maximum possible attribute of 8 and a maximum skill of 6 and maximum focus of 5 at character creation (so a total of 19 in very specific circumstance, remember this for the next paragraph). There are also a number of derived statistics like reaction time which is based on your agility and wits. After that you add your character's psychic powers, which feels like a scaled-down version of the mundane abilities. You generate your character's psychic potential (between 1 and 8), then distribute a number points across psychic forms (like psychokinesis or telepathy). Then you focus those forms with points in talents (like boosting your senses or lighting things on fire). The interesting bit is that you can trade points back and forth between your overall potential and forms, meaning you can have a lot power and no focus or the other way around, which can make for an interesting dynamic during character creation.

Mechanics-wise, characters have what appears to be a fairly simple stat+skill+focus system. What separates it from the rest the is that instead of rolling those stats against a preset difficulty number, those numbers are your difficulty target that you must roll under on 2d10. 'Roll under' systems tend not to be well received by the gamersphere, because the math associated with them tends to make high level play something of a cakewalk for a specialized character. This seems to be the case for this game as well, take our earlier example of a software engineer with a mark of 19 (who probably can't so much as tie his shoes, falls over in a stiff breeze, and would die a slow agonizing death of of flu if sneezed upon, because he has few points in anything else). The probability curve on the dice tends towards a result of 9-11 and with the way characters are built means that character that is 'good' or better at a particular skill are fairly likely to succeed, while skills that a character ignores can still have marginal chance at success. Doubles play an interesting role in the game: double ones are an immediate success, double zeroes (which are considered tens, like 90% of games that use ten-siders. Why they can't just squeeze an extra 1 on the face of the die, I will never understand) are immediate failure and doubles of any number in your range for success grant you an appropriate bonus, like extra damage or finishing your task quickly. The game works as well as you can hope in a roll-under system, and the bit with the doubles is especially good game mechanic, anything that gives the rush of the critical more often is good for players.

Going over character creation and the rules there a few elements common to games that are conspicuous in their absence. In a game that echoes the tone of World of Darkness to a pitch perfect degree, there is no option for characters to take perks or flaws. Similarly, you won't find anything like feats or talents available to characters. This isn't so bad as I had initially thought, as the breadth of available powers are enough to keep track of on a character sheet, and the skill focus system covers what a lot feats would do anyhow. It's hard to criticize a game for things it did not include, but one that is sorely missing is a set of chase rules. A significant portion of the game revolves around being on the run from the law, I'd like more mechanic support for all that running.

Combat is where things get a touch more complicated. Initiative is an independent track that starts at ten and counts down, players may not act until the track reaches the result of their initiative roll. Furthermore, on each count of initiative any character can do a simple action (talking, moving short distances and other similar minor actions) but can also do a number of complex actions (attacking or using powers) based on his or her reaction stat. This a bit more taxing on gamemasters than the standard everybody takes their turn model, but is fairly rewarding, adding a much more frantic pace where who goes first in a given phase is usually the player who can yell loudest.

The first thing that really sells this game is the psychic powers. Everything you'd really want from this genre is represented (telepathy, pyrokinesis, the ever-controversial techno-empathy) without any that stretch the constraints of the genre or feel out of place the way some psychic power supplements for other games. But there are a pair of mechanics that make this more than your basic spend points to throw powers magic system. One is that you can take damage on your stun track for more power points the other is that there's a chance that your could backfire and call up a crazy ectoplasmic monster bent on eating your face or a doppelganger of the player with an agenda of its own. The first adds a way for players to take a risk for more power, the second will give players pause before they try and solve all their problems with mind bullets.

Cipher. The best aspect of the setting are the game's factions, although this section has some definite shades of White Wolf writing X-Men with a number of groups ringing true with ideals of various characters of the comic book franchise. You have Magneto style psionic-supremacists, but also more moderate types. The coolest group, however is a organization telepathically controlling important political and business figures in an attempt to bring psychics equality, a very neat take on ends justifying means. What reminds of White Wolf in this section is that each player is required to pick a group who's ideology is most aligned with their character, similar to Hunter: the Reckoning. The problem with that is that that doesnt totally fit with the types of stories the game wants you to tell, a lot of the session to session plot revolves around getting by without getting caught, ideological conflict doesn't come up that much when you’re ducking black helicopters. My personal favourite thing about the setting is the prophecy that all of the game's faction's agendas revolve around. A mysterious prophet foretold of three possible futures: two of which are very unpleasant for the psychics and one super happy best ending for everyone everywhere. Not only do I love prophecies of impending badness in my games, but the game actually supports play in those futures with added gear and powers to make it feel different from the main game, which is just great.

The text of the game does a good job of conveying the rules and the bits of fiction breaking up the chapters are a nice taste of setting, but both are marred with the occasional spelling or grammatical error. The art is good, nothing astounding, but it's well used and atmospheric. I re-iterate this is an indie product so I'm not too harsh on the art and content categories because of that. Also included is a short starter adventure that's as solid as the rest of the material in the book and a very comprehensive index of the book.

All in all, this is game with mechanics that are just barely average but with a great setting and an interesting power set that serves an underused genre. I'll recommend it for fans of the genre or any interest in looking into the work of an up and coming game design team.

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