Trekking Out Cypher System
Converting Star Trek for play using the Cypher System Rulebook isn’t quite as easy as it might seem at first. While the system provides scifi as a standard genre for play, Cyphers themselves need a little work and some of the Types do as well. Plus we’ll want to add some system for species.
I’ve written this as a bit of an example guide to converting franchise into Cypher System. I feel like most of us are nerdy enough to know Star Trek and it’s unique enough to cause problems. This is basically a look at a worst case scenario for conversion, but actually it’s not too bad. This would actually be a great way to play out Star Trek games. So, let’s dig in.
Types in Trek
For reference, I’m using the Star Trek RPGs published by Last Unicorn Games back in about 2002. Coincidentally a few of the folks at Monte Cook Games, such as Charles Ryan, seem to have had a hand in those books. The books use a template system for character creation, which is similar to Cypher’s sentence system. Each character has a job template that represents their area within Starfleet, along the lines of the shirt colors: command/piloting, operations/engineering, security, medical, science, and ship’s counselor (remember this was based primarily on TNG). The DS9 book has some additional options, which help us flesh out non-Starfleet characters: colonist, diplomat/politician, maquis/rebel, merchant, mystic, pirate, spy, warrior. Ok, that’s a lot of basic character types. Let’s narrow it down.
You’ll note that I’m removing most armor abilities and many of the melee combat moves. We’ll be making phasers bypass physical armor, which largely negates the need for those things and helps us keep the setting intact.
LEADER. Command / Diplomat / Counselor. We can obviously start with the Speaker type for those slotted for command and diplomacy positions, but since Starfleet likes those people to have piloting and operations experience, let’s give them skill options using the Skills and Knowledge flavor:
· 1st Tier: Swap out Terrifying Presence for Travel Skills.
· 2nd Tier: Swap out Practiced in Armor for Tool Mastery.
· 3rd Tier: Swap out Mind Reading for Flex Skill.
· 4th Tier: Swap out Psychosis and Feint for Quick Wits and Specialization.
· 5th Tier: Swap out Experienced with Armor for Multiple Skills.
· 6th Tier: Swap out Shatter Mind and True Senses for Skill With Attacks and Skill with Defense.
TECHNICIAN. Operations / Engineering. These are our technical specialists and advanced computer users, essentially. We can use the fairly all-purpose Explorer as a base. They’re scrappy and know how to get out of trouble, so that works pretty well. We’ll want to heavily modify them with the Technology flavor:
· 1st Tier: Swap out Block, Endurance, Muscles of Iron, Physical Skills, Practiced in Armor, and Practiced with All Weapons for all of the Tier 1 Technology abilities.
· 2nd Tier: Swap out Escape, Quick Recovery, and Wreck for Machine Efficiency, Overload Machine, and Tool Mastery.
· 3rd Tier: Swap out Experienced with Armor, Ignore the Pain, and Run and Fight for Mechanical Telepathy, Ship Footing, and Shipspeak.
· 4th Tier: Swap out Runner and Tough as Nails for Machine Bond and Robot Fighter.
· 5th Tier: Swap out Jump Attack, Parry, and Physically Gifted for Control Machine, Jury-Rig, and Machine Companion.
· 6th Tier: Swap out Spin Attack and Wild Vitality for Information Gathering and Master Machine.
SCIENTIST. Science / Medical. These blue shirts work best as Adepts, but we’ll probably need to impose some requirements. This is a heavily technological setting and the Adept’s somewhat magical powers will only make sense through that lens. So, they’re going to need to use technology and pseudo-scientific explanations for every effect they create. I’m planning on doing something similar for Cyphers in this setting, so let’s find a way to make these guys masters of Cyphers.
· Rule: A Scientist must always use tricorders, computer systems, and other tech to accomplish their type abilities. The higher level the special ability, the more equipment that’s needed.
· Rule: A scientist may purchase the capacity to hold one additional Cypher as a type ability called: Brilliance. Brilliance may be purchased any number of times, each time adding to their Cypher capacity.
SECURITY. Security / Warrior / Tactical Officer. These are the combat specialists, so we’ll go with the Warrior type. Unlike the other types, we probably won’t be pulling out all the melee abilities for them in order to keep with the space age style. They still get that kind of up close combat training. We’ll use the type as-is, even though that leaves in armor training. Starfleet characters won’t have much access to armor, but if they did find themselves on a planet with some kind of medieval development-level society they’d be able to gear up.
CIVILIAN. Colonist / Rebel / Merchant / Mystic / Spy. This is the catch all, especially for non-Starfleet characters. Let’s use the Explorer type as-is for this. They might even have access to armors, who knows with these guys.
The foci list for scifi on page 252 of the CSR looks good. I might allow almost any focus in my games if the character has strong justification for it and we don’t have too many crazy supernatural abilities. Star Trek is more about thinking your way out of problems, learning to get along with people different than you, and holding to your code than it is about flashy powers. But the more supernatural seeming foci could work as psychic powers or the abilities of unusual humanoids.
I happened to have written 5 foci awhile back for The Strange games set in scifi universes. They’re pretty much directly from Star Trek in terms of theme:
· Dies (this one’s rather infamous)
· Explores New Worlds
· Fires All Weapons
· Pilots Starships
· Reroutes Power
*ADVERTIZEMENT* You can pick those up in The Translation Codex, here.
The various humanoid species in Star Trek are generally pretty similar to human. It doesn’t seem right to make them into full-blown Descriptors. Rather, let’s just flavor them up and give them different options for power choices. Maybe a suggestion for Major Effects. Obviously the setting is lousy with species options, but here are a few of the more prominent ones to get us started:
Bajoran. The bajorans are a highly religious people, recently hardened by cardassian occupation of their home world. All bajoran characters may purchase Tier 1 Combat flavor or Stealth flavor abilities.
Betazoid. Betazoid possess telepathic and empathic abilities naturally. All betazoid characters may purchase Tier 1 Magic flavor abilities. As a Major Effect on a roll, they may access a Tier 1 Magic Flavor ability of their choice for ten minutes.
Cardassian. Cardassians are a brutal and cunning species with a fanatically state-focused expansionist culture. All cardassian characters may purchase Tier 1 Combat flavor or Stealth flavor abilities.
Ferengi. Ferengi are raised to be crafty merchants and shrewd negotiators. All ferengi characters may purchase Tier 1 Speaker special abilities. As a Major Effect on a roll, they may access a Tier 1 Speaker ability of their choice for ten minutes.
Human. Humans are driven to explore and learn. All human characters may purchase Tier 1 Explorer special abilities. As a Major Effect on a roll, they may access a Tier 1 Explorer ability of their choice for ten minutes.
Klingon. Klingons have a warrior culture and redundant organs to keep them healthy. All klingon characters may purchase Tier 1 Warrior special abilities. As a Major Effect on a roll, they may access a Tier 1 Warrior ability of their choice for ten minutes.
Romulan. Romulans have a culture which emphasizes cunning and deception. All romulan characters may purchase Tier 1 Stealth flavor abilities. As a Major Effect on a roll, they may access a Tier 1 Stealth flavor ability of their choice for ten minutes.
Trill. Trill are an academically-minded species, some of whom possess symbiots with vast stores of knowledge. All trill characters may purchase Tier 1 Skills and Knowledge flavor abilities. As a Major Effect on a roll, they may access a Tier 1 Skills and Knowledge flavor ability of their choice for ten minutes.
Vulcan. The vulcans are a species renowned for self-discipline, strong bodies, and excellent reflexes. All vulcan characters may purchase a Defense skill as a type ability at any Tier. As a Major Effect on a roll, they find a subtle Cypher.
Star Trek is all about innovative solutions to problems. So are Cyphers. Let’s leverage the dynamic fun of Cyphers as solutions to build a Trek experience that simulates the fun of the show.
Firstly, let’s go with subtle Cyphers for most of this. It might be possible for characters to patch together manifest Cyphers here and there, but that’s more of an engineering task specific to the situation. In fact, let’s just build a couple subtle Cyphers for that scenario.
These subtle Cyphers are intended to supplement the existing list from the CSR. They’re more in keeping with the Star Trek flavor of tech and science pushed to dangerous limits. You’ll note that they have a “Minor” effect, and a much more powerful “Major” one that often comes with a cost: an Intrusion that provides no XP. Players employing a Cypher must choose which they want to go with: Minor or Major. Characters are given the tools to accomplish nearly anything they need to, BUT AT WHAT COST?
Alternative Use. Level 1d6 + 4 Occultic. Minor: You add a random additional function to a technology; roll on the manifest Cypher table for effect/inspiration. Major: You add a function of your choice to a technology, the effect chosen from the manifest Cypher table; trigger a personal Intrusion. In the case of both Minor and Major, the additional effect lasts a number of minutes equal to the Cypher Level.
Bravado. Level 1d6 + 1 Anoetic. Minor: Through hutzpah you increase your range for rolling a Major Effect to 19-20 (no chance for a Minor Effect) for ten minutes. Major: You increase your Major Effect range to 17-20 (again, no Minor Effects), and rolled Intrusion range to 1-4 for 30 minutes.
Deflector Array Shenanigans. Level 1d6 + 4 Occultic. Requires access to a starship or starbase’s systems. Minor: You solve a scientific or technical problem of Difficulty 5 or lower. Major: You amplify an existing technology/Cypher through the entire ship, essentially bumping it up to ship scale for a number of rounds equal to the Cypher Level; trigger a group Intrusion.
Incredible Insight. Level 1d6 + 1 Anoetic. Minor: You discover one major fact concerning a technical or scientific mystery you are dealing with. Major: You discover a number of major facts about the mystery equal to the Cypher Level; trigger a personal Intrusion.
One-Use Device. Level 1d6 + 3 Anoetic. Minor: You craft a randomly selected manifest Cypher using available parts. Major: You craft a manifest Cypher of your choice; trigger a personal Intrusion.
Overload. Level 1d6 + 1 Anoetic. Minor: You disable a technology you have access to for a number of rounds equal to the Cypher Level. Major: You completely disable a technology you have access to; trigger a group Intrusion.
Peaceful Gesture. Level 1d6 + 1 Anoetic. Minor: You stop combat for one round, letting everyone talk for a moment. Major: You stop combat entirely; trigger a personal Intrusion.
Reroute Power. Level 1d6 + 2 Anoetic. Minor: You allow a disabled technology to continue functioning for a number of additional rounds equal to the Cypher Level. Major: You completely repair a disabled technology; trigger a group Intrusion. Example: You find a way to keep life support from failing, but an Intrusion occurs, requiring you to shut down artificial gravity in order to accomplish your fix.
Reverse Polarity. Level 1d6 + 1 Anoetic. Minor: You cause a technology to do the opposite of what it normally does for a number of rounds equal to the Cypher Level. Major: You cause a technology to do the opposite of what it normally does for a number of minutes equal to the Cypher Level; trigger a personal Intrusion. Examples: a phaser is made to heal, cool, or regenerate shields. A tricorder sends out misinformation to other nearby sensors.
Technical Sacrifice. Level 1d6 + 1 Anoetic. Minor: You heal a technology for a number of Health equal to the Cypher Level, dealing the same amount of damage to another device you’re working on. Major: You completely heal all damage to a technology, but completely destroy another device you’re working on.
The Science Fiction section of the CSR is pretty good on equipment you’ll need. Once in a while you’ll want to consult the tables on other genres, depending on the technology level of the world that’s visited. As I mentioned before my suggestion is to have phasers and other beam weapons be so powerful they bypass all Armor ratings except for that of energy shields. Make hand phasers be light weapons, hand disruptors medium weapons, and phaser/disruptor rifles heavy weapons.
You might remind players that the Federation is beyond material concerns. Characters are generally too enlightened to care about acquiring more stuff to feel good about themselves. The irony being that this flies in the face of most gaming, but it suits Cypher System pretty well. You’re rewarded with Discovery XP for what you see and accomplish. That should be enough most of the time.
There’s a starship vehicles table on page 255 of the CSR. Importantly, it has Levels and a column called Weapon Systems, indicating the number of different target the ship can attack at once. Looking at the starships in the Star Trek game by Last Unicorn ships happen to be on a size scale from 1 to 10, ranging from shuttlepod at 1 to Romulan Warbirds at 10. This would seem to be a perfect way to convert: Size = Level. Rather than going all the way up to 36 Weapon Systems as the CSR does, let’s just go with Level +1 for ships above Level 3.
Ship Level Weapon Systems Health Damage
Romulan Warbird 10 11 30 10
Federation Galaxy class 8 9 24 8
Klingon Negh’Var class 8 9 24 8
Ferengi D’Kora Maurader 7 8 21 7
Cardassian Galor class 6 7 18 6
Romulan Scout 3 1 9 3
Shuttlecraft 2 1 6 2
Shuttlepod 1 0 3 0
Plot and Intrusions
The core of Star Trek is dealing with challenges in inventive ways and exploring your own nature through difficult choices. This is why the Cyphers provided are designed as choices as to the stakes a character is willing to pony up. It’s important to customize Intrusions to the flavor of Trek. Here are a few ideas for how to do that:
· The character is taken prisoner or otherwise separated from their crew or away team.
· The atmosphere or planet surface is inhibiting a major technology (phasers, transporters, etc.).
· The character leaves something important behind.
· The character is infected with the thing that this episode is about (a gene stealing virus, radiation anomaly, sentient nano terraformers, whatever).
· The character becomes the focus of the attentions of an enemy. Now it’s personal.
· The group is somehow stranded.
· The ship stops being able to go at warp.
· A ship system being used by the character begins to malfunction.
Though the above list mostly just looks like one big joke about Star Trek plots, the similarities between episodes are a useful tool in constructing episode-like adventure sessions. The plot should revolve around a scientific mystery of some kind, often involving some technology or phenomenon pushed to the extreme. Superfluids are in the news today? What if they were sentient or reacted to thoughts? What if they took over a planet and nobody noticed?
The characters are confronted by the effects of the mystery long before they learn the true nature. When possible, throw in a twist and add interesting motivations, especially if the players figure out the solution early on. The sentient terraformer nanites just want to have fun, or just want to protect a little girl, or just want to be left alone.
In this way the story unfolds in a few parts:
- problem found
- possible cause found
- possible solution found
- complication found
- problem escalates to dangerous levels
- solution implemented by getting creative/bold with it.
In order to get this to work you’ll need to parcel out the information, by carefully escalating the danger. They don’t know that the nanites just want to protect the subterranean race because at first their scanners don’t pick up the subterraneans’ existence. They learn, once a crewman is found killed after exploring a cave entrance.
This plot arc is fairly straight forward so it's useful to have a subplot going on as well. If at all possible, a single PC on the crew should be the center of emotional attention and growth for the episode. Find a way to let the conundrum represent some trouble they're having in their daily life, or remind them of a dysfunctional relationship they have with a relative. The subplot / personal story serves to keep things from being just about the mystery itself. The mystery is just a reflection of the characters, allowing them to see their problems from a different perspective and resolve them.
You can push the story forward with group Intrusions, or even personal ones, as characters are more and more affected by the core mystery or threat. You might even just wait for rolled Intrusions and those caused by the use of Cyphers, especially when you’re near the end of the session. When rolled Intrusions up the stakes it can make games feel more organic and real.
Don’t be afraid to use the classic plot tricks to heighten suspense, such as ticking time bombs, MacGuffin items, and hostages. Most mysteries will have a chance to potentially destroy all life on a planet or destroy the ship. That’s just Star Trek. Live it up. Let them find creative uses for their skills and Cyphers and save the day. They'll feel a stronger sense of relief at the end of the session if you really cranked up the suspense and stakes.
Image Credit: Surian Soosay on Flickr via CC2