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Why 5e Dungeons and Dragons is More Magical With Numenera’s Cyphers

Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition has a bevy of official and unofficial magical items but in practice very few magical items tend to be handed out. This occurs as the base characters classes are powerful and adding more items increases the power level – which makes a Dungeon Masters task of providing challenging and rewarding experiences more difficult for players.

One shot magical items provide a way of adding more varied magic to the game on a temporary basis . The official rules provides for only two types of one-shot magical items: potions and scrolls.

  • Potions are perfect magical items to add a limited sprinkle of magic as they one use items. They are also drunk which limits the thematic variety you can create – it would  not make sense for a potion to create a one use item.
  • Scrolls are also one use items but my experience is that when Player Characters are presented with a scroll the Wizard transcribes it to their spell book the scroll’s magic is unused and the spell becomes a permanent addition to your game.

This limited pool of what a one-shot magical is thematically inspired MonteeCook Games to develop Cyphers. These are a core resource found within the campaign world of Numenera (you may wish to read our 5e review of this setting – Arcana of the Ancients).

In the Numerera setting a Cypher is:

“a leftover device of vanished civilizations so advanced that even their cast-off technology provides amazing effects. The use a PC finds for the cypher is probably not the use originally intended. Cyphers are not magical, though their effects may seem so.

Open your eyes to one-shot magic that is a Cypher

Cyphers have different forms based on three parameters: internal, wearable, and usable.
Internal cyphers are things you ingest or inject. Wearable cyphers are articles of
clothing, jewellery, or other things you wear on your physical body. Usable cyphers are
basically anything else.”

Now you might be thinking great now the Player Characters may end up 50 cyphers, well MonteeCook Games thought about that too and imposed soft / hard limits on the number of cyphers a character may carry. You see cyphers are a little unstable due to their age. Carry too many (more than 3) and there is a a risk of  a negative consequence – including the PC being lost forever. In any event a negative event includes the destruction of all cyphers carried!

The fact that Players can only carry so many cyphers means that if cyphers are fairly commonly found a Player will rue any lost opportunity to use them if they have to make a decision on which to keep and which to leave behind when they find more. Of course if they are in a gambling mood they can carry more, but if one or more cypher is powerful the risk of negative consequences increases proportionally.

In practice Players learn to use cyphers regularly. This allows Dungeon Masters to feed more and interesting cypher magic into the game on a regular basis while the Player has the opportunity to apply more magic variety into the game – a win/win situation for your table and play experience.

For the Forgotten Realms it is very plausible that the long-fallen Netheril Empire would be a major source of cypher-like objects combining traditional magic with technologies now lost to the Realms. For inspiration as to what these objects may appear like I suggest that you consider adopting from the steampunk aesthetic, and exploring Arcana of the Ancients and Numenera. Happy gaming!

Steampunk Jewels made perfect Cypher Vessels