Decyphering Numenera & The Strange

There’s a lot I like about Monte Cook Games’ Numenera and The Strange RPGs: bizarre science-fantasy settings, evocative art, high-concept character construction, random tables with inspiring items and backgrounds, and rules to encourage continually cycling through shockingly powerful single-use items. It’s a combination that ensures plenty of surprises for everyone at the table, GM included, and the sessions I’ve run have been cited by my players as among my most memorable. Unfortunately, we really do not like the majority of the rules these games are built on. I am determined to make the use of all these Cypher System books I’ve bought over the years, though, so I’ve made an entire side-hobby out of writing up conversions to try in the future—one compatible with the rules as written, and one adapted from a super streamlined old school ruleset.

First up is Decyphered, a set of simplified Cypher System house rules. My goal was to do for Numenera and The Strange what The Black Hack does for Dungeons & Dragons: shuffle some numbers around and trim some details in order to reduce complexity and avoid common annoyances. For example….

  • The difficulty scale is target level + 10 (rather than target level × 3, so you don’t have to calculate adjustments in units of 3). 
  • Effort has no upper spend limit (rather than restrictive rules making many early-game challenges nigh impossible), applies a straight +1 per point spent (rather than +3 for the first step, +2 for each additional step), and is only spent if the roll it’s spent on succeeds (rather than damaging you every time you are forced to adjust a roll to have any chance of success), balancing out the raised difficulty of low-level challenges in this difficulty scale.
  • Edge can be added directly to your roll (rather than only applied to reduce effort costs), making it effectively usable as an ability score modifier.
  • Modifiers are added to and subtracted from rolls (rather than subtracting bonuses from target numbers before you multiply them). Assets and aid use “advantage” rules familiar to players of the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons.

… And more, with additional options for those who want to roll for damage or who want “partial success” options on challenge rolls. Be warned, though: I have yet to playtest these rules myself, so some tweaking may be necessary for the numbers to all work out.

In addition, because these rules aim to let you use the material directly from your Cypher System books, these rules don’t correct for common complaints like foci that sound cooler than they are. If you want your Swift Jack who Rides the Lightning to actually be able to ride lightning anytime in the first few months of play, you’ll need not just a rules conversion, but an overhaul. Realizing this is what led me to do this all over again with a different system entirely.

My second hack is Into the Ninth World, built on the famously simple Into the Odd rules. (Yeah, Into the Strange is a much better title, but I’m more likely to run Numenera again before I next run The Strange.)

The easiest approach to this mashup, of course, would be to run Into the Odd as written and simply declare that the setting is a billion years in the future, built on eight previous aeons of civilization. If you’d like to work in some of the simpler and more evocative concepts from the Numenera rules and character options, however, this document offers some options you could take in their entirety or pick and choose from. For instance….

  • Character types are rewritten to still offer some build options as you advance, but without requiring poring over a long list.
  • Character foci do exactly what they say on the tin from session 1—no more waiting to Ride the Lightning. Includes a d30 list with converted foci, which should all have at least something interesting to offer (even for the character who Entertains).
  • Esoteries (i.e., spells) offer an advancement option for players who rather like poring over longer lists. Includes 30 esoteries converted to work with Into the Odd rules, plus simple “take damage to cast” rules that let you get off some free casts just as you do in Numenera as written (thanks to Into the Odd‘s forgiving HP recovery rules).
  • Creature conversion notes to help quickly generate Into the Odd stats for entires in Cypher System bestiaries.

Once again, however, I must confess that I have yet to playtest much of this. The elements build directly on Into the Odd arcana rules and Numenera rules for one-use cyphers should all work fine, at least; if you’re nervous about taking on too much new material, consider starting with those, and/or offering random foci as options for players who get arcana in their starting gear package.

If any readers out there happen to run either of these, please get in touch and let me know how it goes! And if you have a favorite set of Cypher System house rules or a neat hack of your own to share, please do leave it in the comments. 

9 responses to “Decyphering Numenera & The Strange”

  1. Hey Decyphered is pretty neat.

    I think any good Cypher ruleset should cover the bit I struggle with the most in the base game – how to make and identify cyphers. I think that’d be your killer app.

  2. How to make cyphers as a player character, or as a GM?

    As for how to identify them, I find the game goes much more smoothly when you just tell the PCs what the cyphers they find do. If it helps it feel more realistic to you, recall that cyphers are just found objects being repurposed to do the first thing adventurers can figure out. The actual purpose of a given cypher might have once been “power source for a transdimensional drive,” but to a bunch of adventurers, it’s “a familiar design—some kind of explosive device that teleports anyone caught in the blast, as best as I can tell.”

  3. I made some edits to Decyphered, particularly in how experience was earned. It has sometimes bugged me that Numenera claims to grant XP for “exploration,” when it doesn’t directly encourage or reward that. I adapted Dungeon World’s end of session move to shoot for this.

    I also added a note about how to identify cyphers (automatic, in my book anyway, which is effectively how Numenera does it too since they recommend making it a level 1 task and nanos reduce that difficulty to 0 by default).

    As for how to create cyphers: PCs can do it with a specific focus, if I remember correctly; for GMs, I personally just use the Numenera/Strange lists, and would further recommend just about any random list of magic items you find online. Power level is kind of irrelevant when it’s all one-use-only. I like the idea of designing guidelines or a random mix-and-match effects table to help with that process, but if I’m going to go to that much effort, it’ll either be for my own game or because Monte Cook Games wants to pay me to. 🙂

    Thanks for the feedback, Aaron!

  4. One more hack, salvaged from G+ before they do whatever they’re gonna do to it….


    This isn’t a full game so much as a method for a rough conversion. Includes a suggested house rule for “disadvantages,” which can be bought off instead of adding new specials.


    “I’m an [adjective] [noun] who [verbs]”

    Descriptors (the adjective) may be advantageous in limited circumstances. Examples: Calm, Charming, Clever, Creative, Graceful, Honorable, Impulsive, Inquisitive, Intelligent, Jovial, Kind, Mechanical, Mysterious, Perceptive, Spiritual, Stealthy, Swift, Tough, Vengeful, Weird.

    Classes (the nouns) each have a list of specials to choose from, and some disadvantages they typically face. Whenever you have the option to choose a new special, you may instead cross off a disadvantage instead. Start with one special (or without one disadvantage) from your class. The classes are glaive (fighter), nano (magic-user), and jack (multiclass).

    Foci (the verbs) have a list of specials just like classes. Start the game with one.


    Glaive specials: weapons master, comfortable in armor, graceful when unarmored, no need for weapons, bash, pierce, lunge, trick shot, feint, snipe, spray, jump attack, parry, finishing blow*, spin attack*, carries an extra cypher (3), carries an extra cypher (4).

    Glaive drawbacks: inept with numenera

    Nano specials: skilled with numenera, energy onslaught, force push, hedge magic, scan, stasis, adaptation, flash, hover, mind reading, barrier, sensor, true senses, invisibility*, mind control*, reshape*, teleportation*, control weather*, carries an extra cypher (4), carries an extra cypher (5).

    Nano drawbacks: inept with all weapons, inept with heavy weapons (replace when crossed out with “inept with heavy weapons” and “clumsy in heavy armor,” which can’t be removed)

    Jack specials: skilled at [anything outside combat, can pick repeatedly], graceful without armor, bash, hedge magic, pierce, brute finesse, no need for weapons, force push, hover, energy onslaught, transdimensional weapon, feint, snipe, trick shot, true senses, invisibility*, mind control*, spin attack*, carries an extra cypher (3), carries an extra cypher (4).

    Jack drawbacks: inept with heavy weapons, clumsy in heavy armor

    Focus specials: Here’s the part where you need the Numenera rule book. Use the foci in there, with the special ability names shown as specials. Some may need to be rephrased to make any sense at all (like how I added “force” to “push” to narrow down what “push” does, above). Some are more obvious, like how the “bears a halo of fire” focus could have specials like “hurl fire,” “fiery hand of doom,” “fire blade,” and “flame servant.” Don’t worry about tier orders, but feel free to mark some with an asterisk (see below) if they sound pretty likely to get tiresome with repeated use, or would discourage players from using any other specials at all.

    * Specials marked with an asterisk are especially challenging. They are always performed at a disadvantage, or require taking 1 damage to use.


    Attributes include Might, Speed, and Intellect, ranging from 1 to 6. Roll a d6 for each, or assign 1, 3, and 5 as you please. Higher is better. Having a high or low attribute might grant advantage or disadvantage to rolls.

    Cyphers are single-use devices with seemingly magical effects. Glaives and jacks start able to carry 2 at once, and nanos start able to carry 3; add 1 every time you take the corresponding special.

    Health starts at 5 for nanos, 6 for jacks, 7 for glaives.

    Equipment includes one weapon the character is able to use (a light weapon for nanos and jacks, a light or heavy weapon for glaives), armor or clothing the character is able to use (clothing for nanos, light armor with 1 defense for jacks, light armor with 1 defense or heavy armor with 2 defense for glaives), and as many cyphers as the character can safely carry.

    Level starts at 1.


    Rolling: Roll two 6-sided dice to do something you might fail at; you succeed if either die shows a 5 or 6. Roll only one die if you’re at a disadvantage, or up to three if you’re at an advantage from attributes, descriptor, or any specials.

    Combat: Everyone takes turns describing what they do. When anyone attacks, they roll as indicated above. (Note: Your attribute only grants an advantage if it’s higher than an opponent’s attributes or difficulty level.) When an attack hits, it deals 1 damage by default for small, light weapons like daggers and slings, 2 damage for one-handed or medium-sized weapons like swords and bows, or 3 damage for two-handed, heavy weapons. If you roll multiple dice as part of your attack roll and you succeed with at least one die, you can use the result of one of the other dice for your damage instead of the weapon’s default damage if you want. In any case, subtract the target’s defense value from the damage dealt before subtracting whatever damage is left over from their health (0 without armor, 1 with light armor, 2 with heavy armor). At 0 health, a target is taken out.

    Healing: Regain 1 health by resting. Each time you rest, it takes longer than the last time: several seconds, several minutes, an hour, several hours, a day, several days.

    Advancement: Gain a level when the GM thinks it makes sense, probably after a major discovery or expedition. Gain a special from your class or focus when you gain a level.

    Enemies: Feel free to use creatures with levels as indicated in Numenera, or assigning them their own attributes using levels and description as a guideline. Enemies have as many health points as their level, and roll as many damage dice as their level, taking only the highest result (or just use the damage rules as written above).

    Conversion: If you use cyphers or artifacts directly from Numenera, try to approximate as best you can what they do. Anything that does damage should probably halve or quarter its damage value; anything that restores points to pools basically just restores health.

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