A cult hit TTRPG gets an open license for creators

Two characters study an ancient and mysterious object.

Picture: Monte Cook Games

Designers of independent board role-playing games (TTRPG) will soon have some new rules to play with. Monte Cook Games announced last week that its core set of board role-playing rules, known as the Cypher System, switches to an open license that allows anyone to design and sell content using the rules. The gaming system’s community of dedicated fans and indie game designers has seized the opportunity.

Although the company is not the first to do so (Wizards of the Coast has long distributed Dungeons and dragons content under a similar open license) this is the first for the Monte Cook Games, which became prominent in 2013 with Numenera when Monte Cook, industry veteran and co-designer of the third edition of D&Dlaunched the company after a record-breaking Kickstarter.

The Cypher system is quite different from the usual Dungeons and dragons format; the game focuses more on narrative concepts than mechanical frameworks. In other words, language and thematic ideas are more central than specific classes and party functions that are played out over match rounds. The Cypher set of rules originally premiered in the 2013 publication of Numeneraand reappeared in the company’s follow-up game That weird before getting your own genre- and setting-neutral release like Cypher System Rulebook in 2015. A revision from 2019 implemented some small adjustments.

Today, the Cypher System enjoys a passionate and dedicated community full of enthusiasm over its alternative variants of the TTRPG formula. Twitch channels such as Cypher Unlimited have thriving communities on Discord and Facebook, and several other community members have published their own material via the previously established (and more limited) Cypher Creator System. In a short comment to KotakuCypher Unlimited host Anthony (known as Spiggs18), described Cypher Systems’ new open licensing agreement as a “game changer” for the community. (Full disclosure: I composed the opening music for Cypher Unlimited’s streams.)

One of the first products to be released under the open license comes from Cypher Unlimited itself, a very fast-paced game with the title GM roulette. Each player gets a chance to reframe the story and switch as GM. I’ve had the chance to play an early version of this game on one of their streams, and it’s really fun to watch a game take unexpected turns when the role of Game Master is sent around in a single game. It’s also the kind of rule-breaking playfulness that I think comes very organically out of community space.

Included Cypher Unlimited and GM roulette in this round of early CSOL (Cypher System Open License) games are the work of other community members and independent publishers Marlowe House and Ganza Gaming.

An illustration of a woman dressed in cyberpunk attire holding a machine gun on the front of one of the Blood & Chrome add-on books.

Marlowe House has released a number of cyberpunk grants under the older Cypher Creator System license.
Picture: Marlowe House

Andrew Marlowe of Marlowe House described that the freedom to secure funding for Cypher System products is of particular importance for the future of its content. “I’m a new publisher,” Marlowe said Kotaku, “and I’m limited in what I can afford to pay freelancers, artists, editors, layouts, etc.” Having a legal license to crowdfund his game with an open license dramatically changes the scope of what he is capable of producing. His forthcoming book, Blood and chromium, a cyberpunk setting and sourcebook, was originally intended to come out under the older Cypher Creator System license, which would have come with several restrictions on funding options and limit where it could be sold. He also stated that he is excited to see “the kind of things that can be weird and experimental from society.”

Christopher Robin Negelein from Ganza Gaming also told Kotaku that CSOL has given him the freedom to work on a “licensed property such as Mystery Flesh Pit National Park“and that he hopes the upcoming” expanded Cypher ecosystem “will tell people that there are other games as well D&D out there, especially when indie products that apply these rules now want the freedom to crowdfund and use print-on-demand services. Part-time indie designers, Negelein said, “must choose what we can achieve with the limited time we have,” and so having more freedom through an open license means these choices can be more effective.

Charles Ryan, CFO of the Monte Cook Games, told Kotaku that people familiar with the open game license of Wizards of the Coasts should expect very familiar material here, although he emphasizes that designers are waiting for the finished license and source material before making any final product decisions.

Monte Cook Games first thought about switching to an open license quite early on, but wanted to have time to set expectations and standards around Cypher System products first, as well as how Dungeons and dragons established its own brand long before Wizards of the Coast launched its open gaming license with the rules for the third edition in 2000.

An ancient monolith hovers over a lake.

The core rules that drove Numenera will soon be available for anyone to build and sell original worlds with.
Picture: Monte Cook Games

Ryan said that with so many great creators producing solid material for the Cypher System Creator program, and with so many different settings and rules released by Monte Cook Games over the last 10 years, it’s time to let community and indie designers help. with expanding the Cypher System world, and his company looks forward to seeing what exciting products, both home-brewed and commercial, will result.

Follows the management of the official Dungeons and dragons “Systems Reference Document” (SRD), Monte Cook Games promises to release a new Cypher System Reference Document this summer. This reference will contain the core rules for free copying and general use, but several intellectual properties from Monte Cook Games, such as Numenera setting, remain under copyright.

Open licenses in TTRPGs are a lot like when a video game developer builds in official mod support, only with additional options to transform them into salable products with a clear legal framework to avoid intellectual property issues. A similar comparison could be the use of the Unreal and Unity engines by indie developers. D&D and others have enjoyed this flexibility across both commercial and home-brewed projects for years. Now the Cypher System community will get the chance.