Numenera: More GM Stuff

Ok, getting into the rest of the GM section.

This chapter starts out strong. An overview on how to teach the rules followed by a breakdown on how to ease into the first few sessions is wonderfully practical and hands on. I wish the opener went on for an additional page or two.

But it’s necessary to make way for the next section, the one on running combat.While it would be easy to come up with some snarky observation about the pre-eminence of combat in roleplaying games[1] it’s pretty pragmatic to own up to importance of combat to most players, and it does so pretty well. I find it very hard not to smile at:

Numenera combats should be about something. 
There should be something interesting at stake. 
“Trying not to die” is an interesting stake, but 
it’s not the only one. 

It would probably take a whole blog post to explain why I find that hilarious (in a good way) but suffice it to say that what follows is a very well thought out and practical breakdown on the role of combat in Numenera, addressing key issues like how it intersects with the idea of discovery. It gets a little bit uneven when it starts talking about some pool specific stuff – not bad, but just lacking quite the clarity of intent that it opens with.

The next section is “Crafting Stories” and I admit I held my breath a little. A title like that promises a lot and can easily be a let down. Interestingly, the format ends up being a bullet pointed list of techniques and approaches, which works decently. It’s good advice overall. The very good (including issues like PC involvement in story and emotional engagement) are solid gold, and the worst are merely tepid. In all, it’s a fairly loose definition of “story” that includes plot, color, motivation and pretty much everything. That’s a lot of burden to put on the word, and it strains a little. It’s not a huge problem unless you’re really pedantic about the use of the term, but at the same time I feel like it might have benefitted from a little bit of the terminology of fiction[2] if only to make conversation easier.

So, you may have noticed that this chapter has been pretty much giving me warm fuzzies so far, so I was startled when it got even better with a whole section dedicated to pacing. Seriously. This is the one of the most important, least discussed GMing skills, and I am delighted to see it given prominence. And not just prominence, but solid consideration, discussing how it’s applicable up and down the scale from the encounter to the session to the story to the campaign. And the two key lessons called out in the text, “Skip the boring bits” and “Never lose track of time”? To hell with a “I’m a blank blank who blanks” shirt, I want those on a T shirt.

And to follow up this focus on things that actually matter in play the next section is on good descriptions, and once again it’s rock solid. General advice and guidelines for describing action are good, but where it’s most delightful is in Describing a Weird World, where the takeaway lines include “Although precision is a good thing, pedantic, exhaustive detail is not”. It even drills down into how specific word choice can support Numenera’s feel, with concrete examples.

And the hits keep coming, as the practical focus moves onto how to prepare for a game session, which focuses on the things you actually do that can help, from having prepared names, to sketching up an outline, to keeping seed ideas on hand, with a large section dedicated to handling players. It is largely focused on handling disruptive players (and it includes the books’ ultimate assertion of GM authority, for better or for worse) but it branches out a little, and it’s a useful touch.

There’s a section on handling mature themes, and while it’s probably a bit too brief, it is good that it is there.

And then, after all this, the promised section emerges – Designing Encounters. Am I finally going to get those tools for understanding levels and not killing off my party?

Well….no. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t good stuff.

First, in terms of balance, there are guidelines for how hard things should be for a group of 4 or 5 starting character, and that’s pretty much the beginning and end of it. Not super useful. Interestingly, there are a lot of guidelines for what to do if your players are rolling over everything, but not much for how to tone things back. This definitely suggests that the expectation is that player power is going to be high, so I’m very curious to see this in play – if the real challenge of balancing the game is just keeping the players form being too badass, that’s potentially a lot simpler to deal with. It’s something I’ll be curious to look at in play.

A brief unpleasant scent in the guidelines for handling higher tier characters threw me off as the specter of mandating how XP is spent looms once more. Seriously, I’m ok with mechanics that push character decisions, but pushing player decisions just bugs me. I’ll try to set it aside because this chapter has otherwise been awesome, but man…

Oh, though there is an interesting sidebar that reveals a curious bit of philosophy. The assertion is that the overall benefit of spending xp for temporary benefits (rerolls, in the case being discussed) is actually on par with, say, those 4 xp being used to increase a skill. I might buy that if skills were the only thing in play – you could really crunch the numbers on frequency of skill use vs numerical benefit of a reroll[3] and sort it out, but that’s a very incomplete picture. There are many more things to spend advancement on than skills, and some of them are pretty awesome. Plus, progress gets you closer to the next tier, which may have even more awesome things, while the 4 rerolls leave you no closer. I’ll keep an open mind when I play, but I’m not persuaded.

Fittingly, the last full section is on character death, which is really a section on how to bring in a new character. This could probably use a little fleshing out, but, again, it’s good that it’s here.

Then the whole thing is wrapped up with an example of play which warms my heart. it’s four pages long, and formatted for reading (the player’s names are color coded, which is an especially nice touch). It’s a good example, as evinced by the fact that it reveals a few things about play, including:

  • The very first roll in the example is a player spending effort on a roll where there is no chance of success. I got kind of pissed off just reading it.
  • The example uses cards for XP, which is nice. I love physical XP, so it’s good to see it get some love.
  • Weirdly, this is the one section of the book with no sidebars. it improves legibility, but I miss them. Specifically, the exampele is exactly when I want ot have page references to the rule being used.
  • Seems to clarify that the rules for demanding more effort on a reroll don’t apply to XP rerolls.
  • Reveals that the cadence for when you hand over the second XP for a GM intrusion is a little bit relaxed.
  • Wait, you spend effort before the roll to increase damage? SO ANGRY
  • I have no idea how Bruce hit the bandit when he rolled a 10 since it’s level 4 and requires a 12. Maybe he’s got some kind of unstated bonus? I could probably look it up, but that isa bit at odds with the point of an example.

I’m pretty happy with the example, Excepting Bruce’s 10, it’s pretty clear. The fact that it expresses the things that bug me about the effort system well enough to annoy me suggests that it does a very good job as an example.

The final chapter, Realizing the Ninth World, will actually take less to talk about than any other. It’s quite good, but beyond that, there’s not a lot to say about it. There are some interesting and specific points, like differentiating weird from surreal or keeping things open ended, but by and large this is really the purest communication of the vision of what Numenera is about, in all its facets. If I were looking to criticize, I might point out that this retreads some territory covered earlier, but it does so thoroughly and well enough that I do not begrudge it. A lot of space is given to how to think about and present technology (much of which reinforces the drumbeat of weirdness) and it’s flavorful and fun.

The most curious note, however, is in the explicitly identification of the different ways to use the Ninth World: Post Apocalyptic, Reskinned D&D (though they call it something else), Weird Horror, A Hopeful New World or All of the Above. it’s nice to see these called out, but I admit that I don’t really feel like the game supports these all equally. Reskinned D&D is, obviously, very well supported, and there’s enough weirdness that weird horror is pretty well in bounds. Hopeful new world (which is probably the mode I’d like best) is pretty much not supported. Post apocalyptic is…more complicated[4].

I admit, given how up and down I’ve been over the course of the book, this was a PHENEOMENAL close. I’m really happy with this section, and I expect that’s kind of obvious.

I won’t be writing up the adventures, for an array of probably pretty obvious reasons, so at this point, all that’s left to do is the big round up post. But not right now.

  1. With extra points if I manage to to work in something stupid like “It’s roleplaying, not ROLLplaying, hur hur hur”  ↩
  2. Specifically, there’s a suggestion to look to writing books for guidance on how to create stories, and I applaud that, but I wish some titles had been suggested. There are a LOT of writing books out there, and I’m super curious what they had in mind.  ↩
  3. And because I’m just that kind of nerd, I sat down and wondered how much better that reroll was than the 1/4th of the skill. Now, the math of rerolls is tricky because there’ issues of choice and difficulty which are hard to model, so I cheated a bit and ran two tests. One is “What if you rerolled everything that came up under 11?” and the second was “What if you kept the best of 2 dice?” Neither model is precisely accurate (due to circumstance) but the real answer should be somewhere between the two of them. The answer: Average roll when you reroll anything under 11: 13. Average roll when you keep the best of 2? 13.82. For ease of use, I am ok calling the final answer 13.5, which is important, because 10.5 is the average result of a single die roll. That is, a reroll is – effectively – a +3, which is to say, the same bonus you get for having a skill.
    Knowing that makes comparison pretty easy, and suggests that if you’re getting regular use out of a skill (specifically, using it more often than you gain XP), it’s probably a better deal. There are other factors of course – there’s no way to control for using a reroll that one time that it really really matters, and that can’t be ignored. But I’m definitely all the more skeptical of any assertion of the “value” of a reroll spend.
    One note: I am not any kind of mathematician, just a perl nerd. If I’ve missed some key math, I’ll be totally happy to have it pointeed out.  ↩
  4. If you really care, I’ll probably be getting into this in the wrap up, but the short of it is this – Ninth World has many trappings that feel post apocalyptic, but by virtue of setting things at such a remove from anything recognizable, there is really no sense that there has been an apocalypse that we’re coming back from. There’s just a vast accretion of weirdness. None of which is bad, but it’s the reason I ultimately don’t really feel like it slots well as post apocalyptic.  ↩

10 thoughts on “Numenera: More GM Stuff

  1. Arcane Springboard

    Given my experience with Torg, I doubt very much that the players would use their XP for re-rolls when the cost is character advancement. It was very, very, very rare for that to happen in Torg, which is very similar in that aspect.

  2. Jesse Pudewell

    The thing you spend for more narrative control (rerolls, pluses, etc) being the same thing that you spend for advancement is an inherently flawed idea. Unless what you can pay for at a single time is more or less, “I can say how this scene ends,” advancement is /almost always/ the correct choice and /even when it’s not/, it will encourage players to bank their control.

    I want to say that Old!Cortex had this problem. When I ran the Serenity RPG back in the day, that was one of the main things I changed. I divorced PP from XP.

  3. Jake Olbert

    I think an interesting variant of the ‘XP for re-rolls’ thing would be to count XP spent in that manner toward advancing that particular skill. You get the short-term benefit out of it while not losing the long-term one permanently, but the trade-off is that you lose the flexibility of just having the XP in your pool to use whenever you want. I haven’t read Numenera specifically, so I don’t know how viable it would be for that game, but it’s an interesting idea in general. There are games that do similar things (Mouse Guard, I think, gives advancement for skills based on how often you use them, and Dungeon World gives out XP for failure, I think), but I’ve never seen this particular wrinkle.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      I really dig that idea. Gives a little more structure than “You must use XP before you can spend it for advancement”. Trick will be how to handle the bookkeeping on it without it becoming too onerous. It may not align with the specifics of Numenera advancement, but it’s definitely a solid idea in general.

      1. Don Schlaich

        You could (and I haven’t see the character sheet, so I don’t know if there’s room) just drop a tic mark next to the skill’s name when you use XP on the roll.

        1. Rob Donoghue Post author

          The kicker is that skills really only have 2 levels, and are only a fraction of the things to spend xp on, so it pairs up less well than it might in, say, BRP.

  4. Jay Money

    Expending effort to increase damage is not explicitly spelled out anywhere in the text that I could find. It is mentioned twice as a concept, but the mechanics of the (hypothetical) rule are not made clear. It appears that the rule would be something like:

    “Players may expend a level of Effort to increase the damage of an attack or ability. The damage increase is equal to the number of points spent (prior to accounting for Edge.)”

    1. Tensen

      Might go back and take a better read…

      Effort & Damage: Pg 22
      “Instead of applying Effort to reduce the difficulty of your attack, you can apply Effort to increase the
      amount of damage you inflict with an attack. For each level of Effort you apply in this way, you inflict 3
      additional points of damage. This works for any kind of attack that inflicts damage, whether a sword, a
      crossbow, a mind blast, or something else.

      When using Effort to increase the damage of an area attack, such as the explosion created by a nano’s Flash ability, you inflict 2 additional points of damage instead of 3 points. However, the additional points are dealt to all targets in the area. Further, even if one or more of the targets in the area resist the attack, you still inflict 1 point of damage to them.”

      Damage: Pg 92
      “Often, there are ways for the attacker to increase the damage. For example, a PC can apply Effort to deal 3 additional points of damage, and rolling a natural 17 on the attack roll deals 1 additional point of damage.”

  5. Tensen

    The “Applying Effort before the roll for damage?” Is literally the second rule you’re given about how Effort works

    Effort: Pg. 21
    “You don’t have to apply Effort if you don’t want to. If you choose to apply Effort to a task, you must do it before you attempt the roll…”

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      I admit, I read that as applying to using effort to improving the roll, with effort to increase damage as a procedurally different step. If they *are* the same step, as you (and the example) suggest, that definitely highlights one of my concerns with the system – spending then whiffing is not fun. Thus – so angry.


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