Monte Cook is a very accomplished games designer who is known for his work on the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons (yay!), his unique one-off take on the World of Darkness (boo!) and his own game, Numenara. This was the first game to use his Cypher system and it was pretty well received. Numenara has a wonderful setting and I really love when the populace’s understanding of technology is presented as having fallen so far as to render it akin to magic from their perspective.
The system itself is generally seen as being rules-light with similarities to 3E D&D (D20 system) and Evil Hat’s FATE system. Generally seen as crunchier than FATE, it lets the players focus on the dice whilst the GM focuses on the narrative. I welcome this approach.
After Numenara, Monte Cook released another Cypher game, The Strange. I really like the core concept of the setting, in that there isn’t really a single setting, but rather lots of little ones. It’s easier if I share the blurb from Monte Cook Games:
Oz. Barsoom. Asgard. The Dreamlands. The Victorian London of Sherlock Holmes. The setting of your favorite novel or movie. Worlds even more exotic or bizarre, driven by laws of magic, psionics, or weird science. A few people—a very few people—have discovered how to travel to other places. They call them recursions, and they’re like limited pocket dimensions with their own laws of reality, connected to Earth via a dark energy network beneath the normal matter of the universe. A dangerous, chaotic network they call the Strange.
When you visit these worlds, you adapt to them, taking on some of the physical aspects and knowledge of the natives. You become, in part at least, a different version of yourself.
What will you find when you venture into Earth’s shoals? And what will find you, as you travel into. . . The Strange.
I see a lot of potential in following the example set in the above blurb and using novels and stories to inspire pocket dimensions. Books like Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey of Nursery Crime series would be really ideal here, as would the works of Lewis Carroll or something even more surreal, such as Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Flatland. There’s a wealth of possibilities out there.
If you’d like to travel into The Strange, now’s a pretty perfect time to do so, with a new Cypher System/The Strange Humble Bundle having been released. This is a huge bundle with 33 individual items across three tiers.
Let’s jump into the first tier, which is priced at only £1:
Unusually for these bundles, the core books are not in the first tier. Instead they are in the third tier. I get that these are the biggest, priciest PDFs in the bundle, but I do feel that at the core book for The Strange should be in the first tier. That aside, there’s still plenty to enjoy in this tier.
My first highlight is Worlds Numberless and Strange. The recursions (or pocket dimensions) at the core of The Strange is a really interesting concept. This 224-page tome contains dozen of new recursions along with new creatures and advice on using some of your favourite stories and worlds into The Strange. I have a handful of stories I’d love to use, so I’m hoping that this advice proves useful.
This advice to preparing settings for your games is continued in Expanded Worlds, a setting advice book for the generic Cypher System. It promises advice for GMs wanting to run games in post-apocalyptic, mythological, fairy tale, childhood adventure, historical, crime and espionage, and hard science fiction settings. It also includes lots more content, including new Foci, creatures, and NPCs.
For those wanting an off-the-shelf campaign setting, Unmasked looks like a lot of fun. Set firmly in the mid-80s, I really like the core concept. The players are drawn to create a mask from specific items which then gives them unique powers. Over time, however, the wearer’s sense of self is subsumed by the mask… Yeah, this really appeals to me. For shorter, non-campaign games there is also Strange Revelations, a compilation of 10 adventure modules.
In addition to the bigger PDFs, there are also a number of smaller, 20-45 page supplements and adventures. These aren’t the main attraction of the tier, but they do add value and some more content. It does, again, highlight the really poor sequencing of content in this bundle. It gives you the After the Nightfall adventure for the Gods of the Fall campaign setting. This setting is not present in this tier. This frustrates me way more than it should.
The second tier costs £6. When you buy it, you get everything from the first tier and a further 11 items:
Still no core books, but there is the Player’s Guide for The Strange. This 96-page package contains the basic rules, an overview of the setting with a focus on a couple of specific recursions, some pre-generated characters and other odd and ends. This means that the second tier of the bundle is the first that actually contains a playable game.
Like the previous tier, this one also contains a number of smaller adventures. I like that it includes an adventure for the Unmasked setting from the previous tier. This is good sequencing within the bundle and is more content for a setting that sounds really cool.
The first of my real highlights for this tier is the Bestiary book for The Strange. There are some (read: more than 150!) truly bizarre creatures in this setting and, looking at the art samples on Monte Cook’s website, there are a ton of really cool illustrations in here. I love bestiaries and, really, every RPG system should have a solid book of monsters and antagonists.
My remaining two highlights are a couple of campaign settings. The first of these is Predation. This is a wonderfully weird setting where time-travelers have gone to primordial Earth and have become trapped, building a society in the jungles. This is full of modern and sci-fi gear, brutal dinosaurs, genetically modified dinos, cool new factions and loads more. I love the art previews for this, as they really help to set the scene and establish a tone.
The other campaign setting is Gods of the Fall. This is a fantasy setting wherein the Gods of old are gone, but their works and minions live. Dark things long-imprisoned have escaped and torment the world Now, heroes rise with the potential to become the new pantheon of Gods with you, the player, among them. Fight back the darkness and claim your place among your fellow Gods. This is, again, a very interesting setting. I think Predation sounds more fun, but I think that this setting has loads of potential for a kind of classical fantasy.
The third tier of this bundle is actually priced very reasonably. You get everything from the last two tiers and another 10 items. Among these items are the core books for The Strange and the Cypher System:
Finally! Core books! I get that they are expensive and big and that you want to incentivise people to buy the whole bundle, but come on! This bundle is so backward.
Both core books are big, weighty tomes. If it were an either-or scenario, you’d be facing a choice between picking up the book that is specifically geared for the varied and broad setting of The Strange, or the more generic setting-agnostic Cypher System core book. Thankfully, you get both! No need to make that difficult decision.
There’s another campaign setting in this tier in the form of The Stars are Fire. I actually misread this at first as “The Stars are Fine”. You know, they’re okay. They could be better, but not too bad, all things considered… The Stars are Fire is, clearly, another sci-fi setting. The setup is delightfully weird:
A starship of unknown provenance, adrift and powerless, falls into a nearby orbit. An alien disease causes people to slowly lose interest in life—then take root like a plant. An envoy from another dimension brings warning of a pending catastrophe—but what if its solutions are the real threat?
In addition to the whole campaign setting, there’s also a full adventure and two shorter ones in the book. This tome also introduces space combat into the Cypher System. It seems like a good, solid sci-fi setting with a nice little twist.
Finally, there are two more books for The Strange. The Dark Spiral is a multi-part adventure where players are tasked with tracking down the source of a mysterious and dangerous new drug. The other of these books is the Encyclopedia of Impossible Things. This is just a book full of stuff. Lots of stuff. Loads of stuff! The book contains over 400 new cyphers and more than 250 new artifacts. This is basically an equipment book. I’m not generally a huge fan of these books, but they can be really useful, especially when – as with this book – it includes structures and advice for player-created content.
So, all in all, what do I think of this bundle?
Well, it’s really scattered and badly sequenced in terms of how the tiers are organised. That said, just buy the whole thing. The price is really fantastic and represents amazing value for money. Don’t overlook this bundle.
If you’re interested in looking over the bundle and possibly picking it up, you can click here to visit the bundle page.