- Awesome world
- Cool real-world applications
- Prompts deep thought
- A bit complex for some players
- Some design flaws
Cyrptomancer is a fantasy RPG system and setting made for hackers by hackers. Or so it says on the game’s homepage. It’s a great description of this game, and a good hook. It’s a theme that runs throughout the book, with chapter and section headings using various actual coding patterns. I love this. Seeing console commands and SQL queries used for flavor is really cool. Don’t worry if you don’t know coding. One of the greatest things about Cryptomancer is that it doesn’t take any knowledge of computer systems, programming languages, or any other technical skills to enjoy it.
So what is Cryptomancer?
Cryptomancer is a fantasy role-playing game that does a fantastic job of incorporating the ideas of data and operational security. You get to interact with Elves, Orcs, Dwarves, Dragons, and all the other staples of the fantasy genre. You might ask what’s different then? The short answer: Shards. Shards allow people to communicate over long distances instantly. The discovery of shards changed the world. It changed how the different species interacted with one another and spawned a nefarious organization. The Risk Eaters are the shadowy, near-mythical foe against whom the player characters fight. Risk Eaters aren’t your primary foe, they’re the monsters that go bump in the night. Most of the time you’ll be facing Orcs or Gnoll, or other mundane terrors.
Of course, by its very design, Cryptomancer is meant to discourage fighting. After all, getting poked with a sword or pincushioned by arrows isn’t fun. You might die, in fact. As a result, fighting often takes a back seat to negotiation, infiltration, or blackmail. Those methods are far safer, after all. Especially if you practice solid OpSec (Operational Security).
Speaking of which, one of the most unusual things about Cryptomancer is that it includes mechanisms that track the group’s progress in the world. The group sheet includes a bank of Strategic Asset points that are spent to upgrade the team’s safe house, or to fund specialized cells, or for a number of other purposes. It also tracks just how much attention the group has attracted by practicing poor OpSec. Risk is very bad. When you accumulate enough, Risk Eaters have found you and assassins come for you. If you somehow manage to survive the attack you’ve escaped for now, but the Risk Eaters consider you an even greater threat. Next time they catch up with you, you won’t be so lucky.
Cryptomancer’s Best Points
My favorite thing about this game is undeniably the way it teaches you about cryptography and security. It really gets you thinking about how secure your information is in the real world rather than only in the game. Basic security protocols explained clearly and simply, alluding to the more complex applications, but not expecting the reader to comprehend them. That, I think, is Cryptomancer’s greatest strength. You learn and enjoy implementing more and more complex systems of security in-game and that mindset is able to translate directly into real world ideas.
The next best thing about Cryptomancer are the group sheets. Keeping track of a group’s progress, as opposed to only a single player’s progress ensures that the group works together. The mechanisms of Risk and Strategic Assets reward good role-playing and planning and punish rash plans and simple bash-em-up tactics. It gives players the option to use whatever strategies are best, but encourages them to think about what is actually best for a given situation.
The world-building in Cryptomancer is solid. The authors took the basic tropes of Tolkein-esque fantasy and looked at how instantaneous communication would impact the culture, economy, and political systems of each of the species. The Risk Eaters make good villains. They’re scary, tough, and give just enough threat to keep the group on its toes. I love that the book gives great details on a lot of valuable information, but still leaves a lot up to interpretation. Far too often an RPG setting will either define everything or nothing. This book meets the perfect balance.
Rolling dice in Cryptomancer isn’t really too innovative, though the approach it takes to skilled versus unskilled test is solid. No matter what skill level a character has in a given skill, that player rolls five dice. For each skill point the player has in that given attribute, they roll a d10. The difference between the attribute and 5 is the number of d6s rolled. The results of each die are compared against the difficulty of the task, granting a number of successes and botches. More successes is better, obviously. Cryptomancer leverages a great system of ensuring that the results of a roll are always relevant. A task can fail or succeed spectacularly. More often, however, the character will fail at a task and have some unforeseen benefit result from the attempt. Alternatively, the character could succeed at the task, but that success may have an unforeseen negative consequence.
Cryptomancer also deserves honorable mention for having some expansion-style content. Most of the content was collected from the community and compiled in the “Code and Dagger” supplements that come bundled with the PDF version of the book on DriveThruRPG.
Cryptomancer’s Worst Points
Cryptomancer has relatively few failings. Most of those failings have to do with formatting and accessibility of content. The art-style in Cryptomancer is basic, though consistent and enjoyable. The artwork that precedes each chapter is used in the side-bars that help define text areas in the book. This generally works well, except for in the character creation section. The character creation section uses images of the character and group sheets as opening artwork, and then proceeds to use the same images on the side-bars. It’s confusing and looks cluttered.
Additionally, Cryptomancer incorporates tables and lists right into the bulk of the chapters. While this is sometimes fine, it’s only fine if those resources are accessible elsewhere. Having quick-reference sheets and printable resources would make all the difference, especially when you consider all the safe-house upgrades and cells that a group can purchase with Strategic Assets.
Nerd Made Resources
Because Cryptomancer really ignited my imagination, I just had to make some resources for my group to use. I’m passing them along to you. I hope you like them.
First on the list of offerings are Custom Group & Safe-House Sheets. The first page is a map of the world as I imagined it, along with a Risk and Strategic Asset tracker, as well as a reference for outcomes. Pages two through six contain safe-house sheets for various locations in the world as I imagined it.
I’m still working on a Campaign Outline, but I hope what I have now will help you get started on enjoying this one-of-a-kind RPG.
You can buy Cryptomancer in PDF format from DriveThruRPG.
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