Numenera: Using the Rules

This is just about the first part of the GMing section, using the rules. I hit the 2500 word mark by the end of this section, which is only a third of the chapter, and determined there was no way in hell this would all fit in one post.

So, the GMing chapter of Numenera opens with this:

Unlike in the rest of this book, I’m going to write this section from me to you. I’m addressing you, the game master (or potential game master), directly because you are vital to turning a halfway-decent game into an amazing game. In uninformed hands, even the greatest rules and the greatest setting will make, at best, a mediocre game. You are the key in this process

I will say this now, up front, and I will say it often: the rules are your tools to tell a story, to portray a character, and to simulate the science fantasy world. The rules are not the final word—you are. You are not subservient to the rules. But you do have a master. That master is fun gameplay mixed with exciting story.

This is going to sound pretty standard to a lot of folks, but if you’re very invested in particular views regarding the role of the GM and the role of rules, this is a pretty clear statement about how Numenera is expected to work. This is without question a Rule Zero game.[1]

It’s followed by an explanation of why Numenera considers itself a story focused game, despite there being very few rules which might be considered story focused. The argument is that the rules are light and simple enough to allow a focus on what’s going on in the game (the “story”, as it were) and that the light rules allow for quick and easy rules exceptions to make story elements feel more concrete and interesting.

I’m not looking to debate this position, but it’s nice to have it asserted, if only to make intent clear, because if it’s not your bag, then it’s better to see that up front.

With the high level view stuff out of the way, we start into the practical stuff with setting difficulty ratings and…find ourselves back in a bit of theory. There’s a master table of task difficulties, but it’s fairly abstracted. The guidelines are rough, and it seems that the general idea is that difficulties are something you get a feel for. There’s a reiteration that difficulties are absolute (rather than based on character level, as is the case in – say, 4e) and more discussion of impossible difficulties, but I admit that it still feels kind of thin.

Specifically, I did not finish reading it and have any real sense of what levels of difficulty mean in any real context. Even a more robust set of examples would have been helpful in this regard[2] because if I’m going to intuit this, then I need something to get a grip on. This is not helped by calling out that consistency is the most important thing in setting difficulties, because that totally helps my wing it.[3] There’s advice on using creatures as a yardstick, but I don’t really know what levels mean there either, so it’s not a huge help.

This is annoying, but it’s not quite as big a structural problem as it could be for a reason called out in the text – this is an intentionally imprecise system. Having each tier of difficulty represent a difficulty increase of 3 means that any estimated difficulty is going to be a ballpark guess at best, and it will explicitly not support super-fine gradations. This is presented as an explanation of why the system works as it does, and as the basis for the statement that consistency is more important than precision in Numenera, but I admit that I had to make the connection to “so don’t worry about it too much” because the text doesn’t.

Failure is given a sidebar, and that hurts. The emphasis is that players need to feel that there are real stakes and that consequences of failure are both real and perceived. That’s pretty much it.

Now, I don’t really agree with this model (I’m very big on the importance of failure bing interesting and still moving play forward) but I can accept it. But given that, I find it frustrating that that is all that there is to say on the topic.

Related to this is the question of when not to roll, and there’s a section on routine actions which states outright that rolls should not be called for “just because”. The text is that rolls should only be called for when its interesting or exciting, but the subtext seems to be pretty clear that interesting or exciting equals situations when failure has consequences[4]. Though there is a very reasonable callout that GM Intrusion is probably the better tool in many circumstances where a petty roll might normally be used.

The section on GM intrusion sums up the idea behind it most eloquently as follows.

In a way, GM intrusion replaces the GM’s die rolling.

Though, huh, interestingly, something is elaborated in the example which differentiates GMI from more narrative tools that work similarly, and that is that the case of refusal, the GM’s fictional declaration still stands, and the player is merely paying to avoid the consequence. The example given is a hole opening in the floor, and the player paying to jump aside and not fall through it – even though the player has paid, the hole is still there.

This has some huge implications that are also double edged dependign upon your priorities. For player who really don’t like the whole idea of giving players narrative authority this is welcome news, as it pretty clearly removes any altering of the narrative. However, I think it also makes adjudicating refusals much more complicated – if the GMI is that the guards burst in, what does it mean if I refuse it? They’re not going to un-bust-in apparently, so what am I gaining by refusal? I genuinely am not certain how to handle things like this without narrative tricks.

The section touches on something else that’s very interesting about GMIs, and that is the question of whether or not the player can react. That is, if I GMI that a pit opens under you feet, does that mean:

  • That you must make a speed defense roll to jump clear unless you refuse or
  • That you fall through the hole unless you refuse or
  • That you fall through the hole unless you refuse, in which case you may make a speed defense roll to jump clear

So far as I can tell, there’s no right answer to this (though I think #3 might be closest to wrong) and that is a little bit worrisome. As it gets into talking about the role of GMI in the narrative, then we encounter some limits (you apparently can’t use GMI to frame a scene – that is – you’re all in trouble, here’s some XP) that are not fully articulated.

The good news is that unlike difficulties, there are numerous examples, so that it becomes possible to at least sketch out a sense of how GMI is intended to be used, and there’s even some nice clarity about one issue that was worrying me – how to handle GMI when it effects the whole group (everyone gets 1xp, no handoff)[5].

It is totally possible that I’m oversensitive to the range of potential issues that might arrange with GMIs (for reasons related to my own history) and it is from that perspective that I really feel that a bit more clarity would have been useful. That said, the hand-wavey nature of it might be considered a benefit, especially for players who are approaching it as a limit on more traditional GM omnipotence, but I think even those players would benefit more from a bit more structure.

From this point forward we pass the specific mechanics and into the the fuzzier realm of how the game should be run. There’s a recurring theme of the GM having an intuitive sense of the rules (sometimes expressed as the logic of the game) and that the purpose of the lighter rules system is to make that intuition possible and practical. A lot of things that might be handled by rules are explicitly offloaded onto this GM sensibility, and the GM is pretty much explicitly the arbiter of the rules.

Again, this is one of those things that will make some gamers crazy, but it wears it on its sleeve. The argument is simple – fewer rules and more adjudication means more focus on actual play and story. And by extension, lighter faster rules mean that if something’s not great, at least your past it quickly[6]

I was intrigued by the presence of a section on the flow of information. It’s a good section, largely tuned to handle perception and it’s got a nice call out to not letting a failed perception grind play to a halt, though the handling of it is still focused on consequences

There’s also a little section on Graduated success. I’m of two minds about it. Part of it is super strong, since it basically introduces the idea of partial successes when a player rolls ok, but doesn’t succeed. This is a welcome addition. However, the other part – adding extra difficulty levels for more sophisticated rolls – worries me. Going straight success/failure may lack nuance, but it’s high trust and transparent. This is super important when dealing with a system where you can spend resources on a roll. I can make reasonable decisions, but if I know that the GM might (or might not!) have secret difficulties, then I’m totally shooting in the dark. I know that the intent is to just make GM reading of successes more flexible (which is admirable) but I think it undercuts the rest of the system pretty profoundly.

And then comes the crazy bit and interesting bit – the assertion that the true key to the game is not classes or levels, but cyphers.[7] The reasoning is interesting in that it’s basically an assertion that cyphers let you stop being burdened by things like balance and limitations in favor of really allowing anything into your game, since the intrinsic one-use limit on cyphers means that you can’t ever break anything too badly. I love this summary:

To put it another way (and to continue the ever- more-absurd examples), PCs who can solve every mystery and blow up every city probably end up making the game a pushover (and thus dull), but PCs who can solve one mystery or blow up one city won’t ruin the campaign.

This is a really strong assertion, and it gets a lot of words thrown at it, including another discussion of the nature of cyphers. I genuinely am not sure of what I think of it. I love the idea behind it, but find cyphers a weird expression of it (though it absolutely gives me flashbacks to the most recent edition of Gamma World). I am not 100% sure how this dovetails with the idea of Numenera as an game of exploration and discovery (beyond the obvious “discovering” of loot) but I’m willing to try playing with this focus and see what it looks like. But… I dunno. it seems to demand more and weirder cyphers than the examples indicate.

NPC guidance is pretty normal, though I continued to be frustrated by the lack of sense of what a level means. This got magnified by this:

There are no hard-and-fast rules for creating an NPC who can be matched perfectly against the PCs in combat—it’s not that kind of game, and that’s not the purpose of NPCs.

I get the intent here – it’s basically saying there will be no challenge ratings or dungeon levels, and that’s great. But that doesn’t mean I might not appreciate some soft-and-slow guidelines so that I don’t accidentally murder my characters with vorpal bunnies.

Other random stuff

  • Guidelines on when to roll and which stat to use are there, but I admit they didn’t’ jump out at me for good or ill.
  • I have learned to loathe the phrase “Of course not” because it’s basically the flag for “the rules as written suggest that you can do this thing, but the GM will obviously swat that down”
  • The justification for why there’s no skill list is presented (basically, so players can make the “character they want”) but given the discrete list of actual tasks, it is largely just a case of the work getting offloaded to the GM.
  • Making languages a fairly inexpensive XP purchase is actually a kind of nice touch to allow for flexibility regarding how much one wants language variation to matter. If you don’t want it, then everyone just speaks common (er, “truth”) but if you do, it’s easy peasy.
  • Unsurprisingly, the rules for social interactions are pretty much not rules at all. Roll some dice to just play it out, or maybe do both.

To Sum Up

If it’s not obvious, I’m still frustrated by the lack of guidance on difficulties and levels, but beyond that, this is a decent chapter. Most objections to it will be philosophical – if you do not think loose rules and heavy GM interpretation is a good approach, then this is going to be a giant bucket of crap. But it’s definitely not trying to trick you into anything, so make of that what you will.

  1. If you’re unfamiliar, rule zero is a sometimes controversial idea that any written rules are subsidiary to the experience of play at the table (put more simply – if you don’t like a rule, change it). For some gamers this seems self evident, but for others it reflects an escape hatch for lazy design.  ↩
  2. This one is not Numenera’s fault, because virtually every game (including my own) falls into this trap, but it’s bugged me ever since I realized it. Doors are basically the single worst thing to use as an example to clarify your system because they’re the easiest thing to write, but the least informative. This is because doors are so self contained, so binary and so variable that as an example, they are barely removed from “doing stuff”. More arbitrary examples (with the implicit limitations that come with them) would be far more useful in giving players a sense of how things should work.  ↩
  3. There is a section on handling mistakes, but it’s kind of mixed. It’s final sentiment (don’t worry about it too much, even though I just told you how important consistency is) is fine, but you get to it after a “hey, just spackle it with bullshit, no one will know!” which is…not what I want to hear. Now, admittedly, spackling with bullshit is totally how I will probably cover up my (many, many) mistakes, but since right now I feel like I’m guaranteed to make mistakes because I’m going to be totally faking difficulties, the advice seems disingenuous.  ↩
  4. I’m mentally putting a pin in this, because I think it’s an important subtext, but it may just be unique to this section.  ↩
  5. Thought the advice -that this should be super rare – is at odds with the large number of group-impacting examples,  ↩
  6. Which is to say, it seeks to avoid the “20 minutes of fun in 4 hours of play” problem that some encounter.  ↩
  7. Yeah, that totally threw me for a loop. If pressed I would have said it was Foci.  ↩

3 thoughts on “Numenera: Using the Rules

  1. Tim R.

    I’m really enjoying your analysis series. Among other things it makes me want to read the book myself (after not having been a backer). In addition, I think it’s great learning-fodder for those (me) who are in the midst of writing and want to best communicate _how to play._ A+++ would read again.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      It’s been fun, if totally unplanned. The reality is that it’s much easier to do it this way then try to digest the whole book at once anyway.

  2. Dan H

    So far as I can tell, there’s no right answer to this (though I think #3 might be closest to wrong) and that is a little bit worrisome

    I’m fairly sure all three of those are *explicitly* supported by the rules. The example at the bottom of p235 makes it fairly clear that an Intrusion can be used to either make a PC fall into a pit and that it is up to the GM whether refusing means “you jump aside” or “you get to roll to see if you jump aside”.

    I think this is one of those bug/feature things. Part of me respects the fact that it is up to the GM to decide what the limits on GM intrusions are, part of me says that this makes GM intrusions basically useless as a GM tool, since they don’t seem to allow you to do anything that GM fiat doesn’t already allow you to do *and* you have to use GM fiat in order to determine how they work anyway.


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