GM Intrustion, Compels and Aspects

So, there has been some mixed response to GM Intrusion in Numenera, and I want to speak to that a little. I genuinely think it’s a great mechanic flawed largely by a terrible name that might benefit from a little tweaking[1].

If you missed the bigger posts, the GM Intrusion (GMI) is basically this – the GM can declare something to go wrong and the player has two options. First, he can spend 1 XP to refuse it. Alternately, he can go with it, and receive 2 XP, one of which he hands to another player.

Fate players will see the immediate comparison to compels, and there are other games out there with similar mechanics, so when I look at this, I do so with an eye on lessons learned from similar mechanics, but obviously, I’m going to lean most heavily on lessons learned from compels.

I actually really dig this topic, because it does a fantastic job of illustrating what aspects do and don’t do, because here’s a dangerous idea: Aspects are not strictly necessary. It is entirely possible to play a sort of “Zen Fate” where aspects are simply inferred from what has been described in the fiction so far. The net result (for compels) would look very similar to GMI, and this is one of the reasons that I think that GMI is a very powerful technique. Zen Fate is not something I would recommend that anyone try until they’ve reached a point where they have internalized the ideas behind aspects so thoroughly that play would unfold the same way it would if there were aspects.

The problem is that it is not trivial to get to that level of intuition, partly because it’s about practice, but also because it’s about communication. It depends on a shared understanding of the situation and, perhaps more importantly, of the characters. That kind of sharing requires communication. Now, that communication can take many forms – a table that has played together for a long time has almost certainly developed lots of tools for this communication that feel utterly instinctive, but that is hard to replicate and becomes a problem when the situation changes.

With that problem in mind, it becomes clear that the hidden purpose of aspects it to serve as a device for communicating these ideas. Learning the idea behind a compel is easy, but the presence of aspects provides guidance as to where compels can be applied to greatest effect. Put another way, things will always go wrong in play, but not everything that goes wrong is equally compelling. If my character is a fast talking but ugly charlatan, if I’m refused an audience with the queen, then it’s much cooler if it’s because I’m hideous than because her schedule is full. It feels like my story.

This, in turn, hopefully illustrates the strength and weakness of GMIs. By jumping right to the technique while forgoing communication of sweet spots, you can end up in a situation where the tool might be used to full effectiveness (if the GM has the right skills, ability to read the table and luck with her players) but there’s very little to help insure that this happens. Worse, it means the examples in the book are going to be fairly bland; not because the writing is bad but because they must address generic situations, and generic leads to blandness.

So, that’s a problem, but it’s also an opportunity. The technique is a powerful one, and if it opens the door to conversations about how to make better GMIs, then it could be quite fruitful. And when I look at the GMI rule, I see this potential, and I find it very exciting.

  1. So, I hate spending XP to refuse a GMI, just take that as a given. The other oddity is that as much as I like giving the extra XP to another player, it can create weird disconnects in what it means to be giving that XP. Lots of ways to solve that problem, but it’s a shame that none of them are int he book.  ↩

5 thoughts on “GM Intrustion, Compels and Aspects

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Absolutely, though I’m also totally ok with that with regular Fate too when the situation calls for it.

  1. Justin D. Jacobson

    Good points. Numenera is fascinating as a product of literally unique design factors. You have an unquestionably brilliant designer, as experienced as anyone in the industry, who never designed a game from the ground up before. It makes for some interesting design choices. If I permit myself some speculation, I expect Monte thinks he can mitigate the concern you raise by writing a solid GM advice chapter.

    And the setting is just killer. I agree with your sentiment you tweeted out yesterday: It’s going to make an awesome movie/book/comic property.

  2. Lisa Padol

    So, I just read this aloud to Josh, with him occasionally interrupting to make a point. And this happened:

    Josh: It depends on a shared understanding.

    Me: Shall I read you the next sentence? ” It depends on a shared understanding of the situation and, perhaps more importantly, of the characters.”

    (Josh does the smug cat dance.)


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