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Save vs Interview: Broken Meme on Cipher

I like conspiracies, psychic powers gone wild, impending doom, and player characters on the run from the law. I got a chance to speak with the team of Broken Meme Studios; designers of Cipher, a game that contains all these things. Broken Meme is a group of independent game designers, and Cipher a game of rogue psychics on the run trying to stop an apocalypse is thier first release, now available as PDF wherever fine PDFs can be downloaded.


Hey there guys, could you please introduce yourselves and what you did on Cipher?

Paul Holmes: I was the Lead Developer for Cipher as well as the primary writer for the game.

Jason Baker: [I was a] Developer. mainly focusing on combat, equipment and weapons.

Ben Collins: I did layout, helped with playtesting (as did we all), and provided general smart-a**ery.


How did you guys get into the hobby?

PH: I've been playing since about 1980 when I got the original Basic D&D Red Box for Christmas. I was instantly hooked.

JB: Since about 93, I started on 2nd ed.

BC: Like Paul, I started with the Red Box. It was probably around '85 or so.


How did you get into designing games?

PH: I've wanted to design a game for a long time now, but about three years ago I finally sat down and started sketching out ideas for a setting.

JB: Paul pitched the idea and I have a thing for problem solving, Those two things led us to creating Cipher.

BC: Cipher was also my first taste of game design. I'd been gaming with Paul for close to 10 years by that point so was happy to help out where I could. Plus, the amazing amounts of cash and drugs and girls that Paul promised.


What was the impetus for Cipher?

PH: Honestly? While mental powers have been a trope of RPGs for a long time now, I've never been personally satisfied with how it's been handled. Psychic abilities are normally slapped onto an existing game as an afterthought or in a supplement. More often than not, they break the game in one way or another. Either the character is nigh-useless in any kind of dust-up, or he’s so "uber" that the rest of the party can just sit back and take notes.

I wanted to see if I could build something that was approaching the mythical "balance" for psychic characters. The best way to do that seemed to be to focus on them as the primary character type.

JB: I have to agree with Paul on this point.

BC: Yup, Paul's fault.


What do you consider to be your influences on the game?

PH:Wow. There's the obvious films like Scanners and Firestarter. In fact, we’ve had similarities drawn between the movie Push and our game, but it was honestly a case of parallel development. We had been working on Cipher for more than a year before the film came out. As far as game influences go, White Wolf is an influence that I think would be hard to deny considering the final product. Not that I'm comparing us to them at all, but the impact of the World of Darkness is clearly there.


Sell me (and the readers) on your game.

JB: Who hasn't wanted psychic powers? The ability to read minds, see the future and create fire with thought? As one of the few games out there that focuses entirely on mental abilities I think we do it justice and then some.


Could you please describe your game's mechanics?

PH: Cipher uses our own in-house rules set, the Vector System. In a nutshell, you detemine what the most appropriate Attribute + Skill combo is for the action you're attempting. The sum of these (plus any bonus for applicable skill focuses) gives you a target number, or Mark. Roll 2d10. If the total of the roll is equal or less than your Mark, you've succeeded.

There's also a bit involving doubles. If the dice both come up with the same number, the result of the action is out of the norm in some way. For a double that falls within your success range, it's a critical with appropriate bonuses (extra damage, etc). If the double falls above your Mark, then it’s a fumble and catastrophe awaits. Double 1's is the best possible result with Double 0's (20) being a fumble of epic proportions.


Any time someone wants anything weird or anachronistic in a twentieth century setting they tend to use Nikola Tesla as the vehicle for that element. What do you think is the appeal about the man, and what role he plays in your game?

PH: For me, Tesla has always been terribly fascinating. Brilliant by anyone’s standards, he has been largely under-appreciated. The man was not afraid to think big. From the teleforce weapon (Death Ray) to wireless energy transfer and motor-less flying crafts, he had an imagination that I find inspiring. I imagine that a lot of writers and game designers find that fascinating and something they can relate to.

BC: I think it's the story that's built up around him. From his obvious brilliance, to his just bug-crazy claims. Death rays, a small machine that can vibrate a building apart . . . just fertile ground for great stories. I think it was also his timing. He came at the cusp, to me anyway, of when science went from fantastical to, well . . . science. He still has that "magic of science" feel to him.


Could you describe the setting’s factions? Do you have any favourites?

PH: Cipher has what are called Doctrines, which are more important to the story rather than the rules. Rather than acting like a traditional class or faction, the Doctrines don't provide any system-based perks or drawbacks. There are five primary Doctrines for rogue ciphers: Harbingers, who view ciphers as having a leg up over humanity. They’re fairly arrogant in their belief that they are the next phase in evolution and tend to view normal humans as lesser beings. The Monitors are mainly interested in using their talents to pull the strings on the rest of the world. Ostensibly, this is to do what they can to keep ciphers safe, but they occasionally cross the line and dive into manipulating corporate figures and politicians for personal gain. Samaritans are of a mindset that ciphers should use their talents to help people. Be they cipher or normal human, Samaritans believe that it’s wrong to sit on the sidelines when they have the ability to be of assistance. Partisans are the more militant faction of rogue ciphers. A lot of them are escapees from DAEMON bases and spend a majority of their time and energy trying to find ways to prevent DAEMON from attaining their goal of controlling all ciphers. Finally, the Oracles are very ties into a key feature of the setting of Cipher: the Three Tomorrows. Oracles follow the teachings of a historical figure from the 50s & 60s known as the Prophet who declared he had seen only three possible futures for humanity and their cipher cousins. Oracles use their talents to locate key moments in time called Cruxes and manipulate them so that the best of the Three Tomorrows come to pass.


What is your favourite power?

Jason: I am a fan of the biokinetic line. The idea of being faster and tougher than your opponent

Ben: I must say I enjoy the psychokinesis line. Fire, Ice, Computers... what's not to love?


Do you have any advice for would-be game designers?

JB: Argument brings insight. Always discuss your system and setting with the team. Be honest and don't be afraid to cuss and get passionate. But at the end of the day remember it's a game so don't kill anyone over it.

BC: Don't be afraid to try it. The people who are brilliant from the start are few and far between. For the rest of us schlubs it takes practice. And don't be afraid to ask questions of people in "the business." So far most everyone we've spoken with have been really nice and willing to help.


What do you see in the future for Broken Meme Studios?

BC: I think we've some pretty awesome games coming. We have at least three projects we've talked about, but I’ll leave it to Paul to tease out any specifics. We've also talked about hitting some of the conventions this coming year.


Because this a website focused on video game RPGs do you guys have any favourites?

JB: Wow . . . I would have to say my first and likely my favorite is 8 bit NES - Dragon Warrior. But I really enjoyed the Never Winter Nights series.

BC: I will always have fond memories of playing Pool of Radiance on the Commodore. As for modern games, not sure if it qualifies, but we’ve played a LOT of City of Heroes, and we've built some really in-depth stories for our toons. So at least within our little group, we treat it as an RPG. I also have a love/hate thing going on with Eve Online.



We here at RPGamer would like to thank Broken Meme for taking the time to answer our questions. If you're intereseted in the game you can find it on thier website.



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