Monthly Archives: August 2013

13th Age Chargen

Ok, now that we’re past the icons, we start getting into the actual rules of the game, starting with character creation. Once again, there are reassurances about what is familiar to d20 players. You get a quick breakdown of the steps of chargen (importantly, starting with GM input) and going through the usual stuff which looks very familiar at first (race, class, stats[1], derived bonuses, feats and such) but then we get Your one unique thing, Icon relationship and Backgrounds which provide a hint that some unexpected stuff is coming.

It is pretty clear that this is a player-focused chapter, since the elaboration on GM input is basically “Let your GM yammer on, and nod a lot. Listening will let you get away with more” and…well, I can’t really fault that.

This chapter is mostly a high level treatment rather than a drilldown. For example, the available races (basically the d20 greatest hits) are listed, and we’re given some general information about races (like the fact that your race selection is going to give you +2 to a stat). There’s a nice sidebar on custom-creating races which boils down to “Hack something up based on the existing ones”. This is one of the first real flags that there’s a strong hacker ethic in this game.

The class treatment is similar – a list of familiar classes (no Monk, though, despite there being a monk on the cover), a note that your class will give you another (different) +2 to a stat and a sidebar that multiclassing is not supported yet, but it will be in a forthcoming expansion (which should also have the monk). There is some light multiclassing available via feats, but that’s about it for now.

Stats follow a pretty predictable pattern. It’s the core 6 stars, and you can either get them via point buy or roll 4d6, drop 1, arrange as you see fit. If you’ve played D&D in any incarnation, you probably can think of piles of ways to distributed stats. Stat bonuses follow the 3e/4e model (so 12 is +1, 14 is +2, etc.). Normally I would think this goes without saying, but I’ve been playing enough 1e lately to stop taking it for granted.  Also, I hope you’ve already got some familiarity with d20, because the Stats themselves don’t get much in the way of actual explanation.

This section also reveals an interesting conceit in the writing. There are two primary authors on 13th Age – Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet – and they do not always agree. Their differences in opinion are explicitly called out in the text, usually in a “Rob handles it this way, Jonathan likes to do this” (in this case, Rob likes rolling stats, Jonathan likes to allow point buy). It’s a little odd, but since the overall tone of the text is fairly informal, it’s not terribly jarring, and it provides a very natural way to offer differing perspectives on often divisive issues.

Combat stats are derived from your other choices – hit points from class + CON and so on) and are both familiar and curious. Hit point amounts are fixed (based on class) and multiplied by 4 at 1st level. I liked this solution in 4e, since it removed the danger of a bag of cats from the game, so I’m happy seeing it in play here. It’s also interesting to note that the range of base hit points is much closer together than classic D&D. The base value for classes is 6, 7 or 8 which is a much tighter spread than the classic d4 to d12 distribution. Net result is that high CON impacts total HP more than class does, and we (hopefully) have no glass cannons.[2]

Initiative is initiative, so whatever. More interesting are defenses. There are 3 of them – Armor class, physical defense and Mental defense, which should look fairly familiar with the qualifier that reflex and Armor class have been mashed together. This is both very reasonable and very weird. Reasonable because dexterity has always been a function of AC anyway, but weird because it’s hard to reconcile lightning reflexes and plate mail working the same way.

However, there’s a complexity here which is not apparently unless you skip ahead to the class section. So, every class has base values for each of these defenses, which is then modified by a stat bonus[3] For physical (aka Fortitude) and mental (aka Will) defense, this is just a fixed value, but for armor class, it depends upon the armor being worn, but not in the way you might think. Basically, the kind of armor (light or heavy) is what matters in a class specific way. Thus, a fighter in heavy armor has a better AC than a barbarian in heavy armor, but not as good as a Paladin in heavy armor.

Yeah, it’s a little weird to think about. But we’ll get back to it when we hit the class section.

There are also recoveries, which I guess are kind of like healing surges, but I’m not sure from reading. Apparently it’s detailed later.

Still so far, this is mostly familiar territory, but that goes out the window with “your one unique thing”, shorthanded as a unique. It is very nearly what it says on the tin – some unique thing about your character. It’s intentionally VERY open ended, and examples range from the mundane (“I’m a former cultist”) to the wacky (“I’m a deathless pirate whose soul is trapped in a gem controlled by the Blue dragon”). There are some rough mechanical guidelines – no combat effects, minimal direct actual powers, but in terms of story significance, the sky is the limit.

Importantly, it only takes about a half a page to explain this idea, but there is then almost 4 pages of guidance on how to use it. if I was reading this with fresh eyes, it might feel like over-explaining, but previous drafts did not explain this idea enough, so I think they erred in the right direction.

In addition to specific advice for implementing uniques, they call out another important element – it opens the door to some very strong player authorship of setting. If a player’s unique thing is that they are the only honest cop in Axis, then they have effectively changed the setting to insure that the police of Axis are thoroughly corrupt.

While it’s obvious that this may require discussion in extreme cases, it’s equally obvious that the designers fully intend to allow players that kind of leeway. This is hinted at in the icon-focused, loosely sketched setting we’ve seen so far, and reinforced in the next section.

I want to plant a flag here in that this is one of the things people are going to be most excited (and sometimes confused) about in 13th Age.  It will seem counterintuitive to players who are used to open ended game systems where everything about a character is potentially “unique thing” – what’s the big deal? Is it just traditionalists getting drunk on a taste of freedom?

Well, there might be some of that, but there’s more to it.  Specifically, by making it a single unique thing, this basically makes it the point of the wedge – it’s implicitly signified importance.  For Fate players, consider it akin to having only one aspect – it might seem limited, but it would be incentive to make that one aspect a really awesome, play-driving one. Think of the unique like that.  Paired with the authority over setting this gives the player, it  makes for a great combination of interesting and fun while still being manageable – you have one of these per player, so it’s possible to keep them all in mind as you play (it also avoids the problem where a more expressive player ends up defining the setting by producing any more contributions than anyone else).

The only reason the uniques are not clearly the thing which stands out as the signature mechanic of 13th age is this next section –  Icon Relationships. Mechanically, this is super simple: You have 3 points, which you can invest in relationships with up to 3 icons (so 3 1 point relationships, 1 3 point or whatever). You designate the relationships as Positive, negative or conflicted. There are some rules that restrict positive relationships with villains or negative relationships with good guys, but they’re loose (and it’s explicitly called out that they should be inverted for a villainous game).

The points in a relationship turn into a number of d6 that you can roll in situations where that icon may be relevant. Every 6 is a benefit with no strings attached. Every 5 is a benefit with a complication. And that’s pretty much it.

If you followed the links to my previous writing about 13th age, you may have noticed that I wrote a LOT about the icons and the relationship mechanic, and if you only get this far, you’re may quite reasonably wonder what the big deal is. It’s an interesting mechanic, sure, but not really a big deal.

And just reading the book, I’d agree with you. Which makes me crazy, because I know it’s a HUGE deal. And, in fairness, there’s another two pages of talking about it, but it’s largely structural advice. I’m not sure anything in it really makes the idea explode off the page as it should.

But I just checked the table of contents, and there’s more to say about it later, so we’ll absolutely be back to this.  For now, as a player, the thing this should reveal to you is that you are closely tied to these powers of the setting, even if it’s not totally clear what the significance of that really is.

Next section is Backgrounds, but you would not be off base to think of it as skills. Basically, each character gets 8 background points to distribute among what are effectively freeform skills, with a cap of 5 on any single background. These points translate into your skill bonus, used in a Skill + Stat + Level + d20 roll method.

Freeform skills are always a bit of a double-edged sword, especially because there are always skills like ninja or knight which potential encompass such a wide range of activities as to effectively render them uber-skills. There’s no explicit check against that in this system, but there is an interesting implicit one.

Because these are backgrounds, not just skills, they also represent the character’s history (and also give another avenue for player impact on the setting, albeit to a lesser extent than uniques) so there is some implicit advantage in spreading around the points a little bit, as it can also represent contacts and knowledge. But that’s definitely a weak check, and I think a GM will have to take an active hand in discussing backgrounds (though I would suggest helping ‘bring up’ weaker backgrounds than cutting down more useful ones, unless they’re really egregious)

As an aside, backgrounds can also play into the very loose language system, but there’s an explicit callout that language should only matter in the game as much as everyone wants it too, which is nice.

In another structural oddity, we get a bit more detail on diced resolution in the chargen section, including rules for natural 20s and fumbles, and a whole section on failing forward (that is, not letting failed rolls stop the action). Now, it’s an idea I’m a big proponent of, but I genuinely have no idea what it’s doing – with extensive examples – in the chargen chapter.

Similarly jarring is the next section on feats. I expected a similar brief treatment, akin to class and race, but there is rather more detail, including all the generic feats and the master table of all the feats in the game. I guess most of the feats are class specific, and are thus under their respective class sections, so there’s no “feat chapter” to put this information in. I’m sympathetic to that, but at the same time, this feels out of place.

I’m more forgiving of the last section – Gear – having tons of tables. It opens with a treatment of weapons and armor which explicitly calls out the very rough granularity hinted at earlier. Armor comes in two categories – light and heavy, while weapons come in 6 melee categories and 7 ranged categories which are rather simpler than they sound . The significance of this is still unclear, and many readers will be wondering where the hell the damage table is. After all, there are extensive shopping list tables (which are, it turns out, totally optional), so why no damage? Well, this will get answered in the class writeups, but this is not super clear in the text.

The whole thing ends with two pieces of advice to players: create dramatic stories and telegraph your intent. The former is kind of squishy  and well intentioned as advice goes, but the latter is both concrete and useful.

And that’s chargen, or at least the bones of it. Races come next.

  1. The first thing that strikes me as odd is that race and class are selected before stats are generated. Lots of rulesets present this in the reverse, but I admit that this order is closer to reality as I know it, so that’s nice.  ↩
  2. As a GM, this also lets me normalize damage a bit. When fighters and wizards have drastically different hit points, it can get hard to figure out what the right damage output for a monster is. I would imagine this makes that math easier, and I look forward to getting to the monster section to see if I’m right.  ↩
  3. Curiously, rather than there being one stat tied to each defense, there are actually 3, and you use the middle one. The sound you hear is a thousand 20 dexterity rogues crying out in pain. And I’m ok with that.  ↩

Opening Up 13th Age

Edit: Was reminded on G+ that 13th Age was not actually kickstarted, just good old fashioned pre-ordered.  The first supplement was kickstarted, and that’s why I think of it as a kickstarter project. 

So, my physical copy of 13th Age arrived a few days ago, and I said some nice things about it on Twitter, which lead to some folks asking if I was going to give it the same treatment I’d given Numenera. I admit, I hadn’t planned on it – Numenera ended up being a lot more work than I’d planned – but the idea has grown on me.

But I do need to lay down a few caveats before I get started.

  • So it’s clear, I backed both of these kickstarters, and I’m very happy with the results of that backing. While it’s never entirely fair to compare any two RPGs, I admit that I absolutely have held Numenera and 13th Age up next to each other from time to time. They have enough similarities (Created by rockstar former D&D folks, successful kickstarters, big gorgeous books, each with a strong vein of striking out in its own direction from D&D) that it’s difficult not to. However, it is not going to be my intent to compare the two games directly, at least until I finish giving 13th Age a runthrough.
  • I am already largely familiar with the 13th Age rules, and in fact, I have already written about the icons system several times. I have even played it once. This is all possible because 13th Age had a very open playtest period, which has also meant that as I read the book, I can see evidence of how much feedback has improved it. But mostly, it means that I already have a certain amount of system understanding, and while I will try to read with fresh eyes, that will make it more difficult.
  • 13th Age is – systemwise – more to my taste than Numenera. This is by no means an assertion that 13th Age is better, rather that both games are developed by people who really understand games well and were looking to solve specific problems (that is, after all, one of the reasons you design a new game). The problems 13th Age solves are closer to the problems I’ve looked to solve than Numenera. The upshot is that I may view things in 13th Age more favorably.
  • However, just as I knew Numerera was not as much  to my tastes, and I actively sought to find the perspective that it served, I know 13th Age is to my tastes, so I’m probably going to be a little more critical than it deserves to balance that out.
  • Most people have been super cool about their responses to my Numenera posts, and I expect that to remain true with 13th Age. This has been a big relief, because there are absolutely corners of the internet where anything between glowing praise and flaming criticism is an invitation to trouble. I am glad my my experience has been very positive. That said, there are always a few folks who feel a misguided need to defend a system or designer they love from a perceived attack. I understand that. I really do. And to them I can only suggest that if I thought that poorly of the game, then I would have much, much better things to do with my time then write about it this much.

Ok, we good? Good.

I genuinely cannot tell if 13th Age starts brilliantly or disastrously.

So, there’s a 2 page spread of “what is this game” that is better than average. It’s a little “blah blah blah” which ends up underplaying its explanations of what Icons are. You get the sense that they’re powerful NPCs and that they drive play, but that seems pretty standard. Largely, the section feels focussed on reassuring players that it might seem weird, but really, this is just friendly old uncle d20 in a new hat with a shave, nothing too much to worry about.[1]

There’s also an explicit call out to 3e and 4e, which is entirely reasonable, as Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo were big figures behind those two games. That D&D genealogy is more or less the elephant in the room, and it’s good to hang a lantern on it. The summary boils down the conventional wisdom that 13th Age is built out of the best of both worlds, which is a pretty bold claim, but what else are they going to say?

And then…Icons. The book launches right into the writeups of the icons.

This is structurally weird enough that it’s hard to explain. The 13 “icons” of the setting are the most important NPCs in the game. Their names are iconic (natch) rather than personal – things like The Archmage or The Emperor. The kind of names where you can hear the Capital Letters. The first real chapter of the game is a brief summary of them all, then a 1 page writeup for each one (which includes a nice illustration).

On one hand, these are very good, very flavorful writeups. There is nary a mechanic in sight, and as befits these character’s iconic status, each can be easily grasped on its own and in relation to others. Their iconography (each icon has a symbol) is not always intuitive but I trust that gets picked up by osmosis.

I specifically want to call out that each icon has a one or two sentence entry on “The True Danger”, which is basically “Everything will be fine, unless X”. For example, the Dwarf King’s is “Everything will be all right provided the Dwarf King does not unseal the Hall of Vengeance and retrieve the legendary Axe of Seven Bloods.”.

This is great game writing. It tells us a lot in very little space, which is a good start, but by doing this with each icon the designers are tacitly saying “Need a campaign seed? Just flip this switch”. It’s really well done.


This is a really weird thing to open up with, and it would not be unreasonable for someone just picking up the book to roll their eyes and think that they’re looking at the dossiers of the Elminsters of the setting, and that these are the people who are doing the cool, interesting stuff that players get to watch. In that situation, hate would be a reasonable response.

Now, I can say with the hindsight of knowing the game that this is not the case, but the game takes a bit of a risk in presenting things this way. It’s definitely non-standard and off putting to see a bunch of NPCs in the place where I’m expecting the basics of the system, or at least some pretty bad fiction. But is does stand up and put a flag on the icons which basically says “THIS RIGHT HERE IS THE MOST IMPORTANT BIT”, which I think is true. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really communicate why they’re the most important bit

Mind you, I haven’t communicated that yet either, but I have a better excuse.

Anyway, the whole chapter wraps up with a chart that maps the icons on the standard D&D alignment grid, which is nerdy fun, but also communicates “Screw you, Chaotic Good”. I suspect that, like the d20 assurances, this is largely a bit of comfort – superimposing the new with the old (Since 13th Age does not actually use alignments).

So, that’s the opener. We start getting into the actual rules next time, because I guess this is going to be a thing.

  1. This is, of course, necessary because it is a dirty lie. 13th Age is structurally a d20 game, but it is so essentially different in so many ways that it would potentially be very jarring if things weren’t carefully rooted in familiar d20 patterns.  ↩

Not At Gencon. Not Bitter.

I am, I admit, pretty distracted by Gencon envy. My kid is almost old enough that I may yet be able to go to distant cons again someday, but for now, I’m pretty well stuck on the east coast. it could be worse – the holy trifecta of Dreamation, Dexcon and Metatopia is in driving distance, so I am not totally bereft.

Screen Shot 2013-08-15 at 9.43.29 AMAnyway, I am taking advantage of the relative lull to post something up in a google docs presentation (which is to say, powerpoint). I’ve toyed with this format before and I think it has a lot of promise for RPG publishing. Specifically, it is the easiest way to produce screen-readable texts which, if done right, casually work on screens of any size.

This does, I should add, demand a bit of a bastardization of the form. The goal is to walk a middle path between word processing (which would put too many words on the page) and presentation (which would put too few). By limiting things to a single idea per page, with no fear of white space or printing limitations, the potential to produce something very digestible is strong. While this example is GM advice, I think it can work just as well for rules or adventures (and, in fact, I think it may be a superior format for many adventures).

Anyway, I’ve allowed comments on the doc and will leave them open for as long as they don’t get hijacked by bots or the like. Feel free to comment, either here or directly in the doc.

Numenera Wrap Up

Well, ok, that was a hell of a trip (including this, it’s about 13k words). If anyone is really curious, the entirety of my run through Numenera can be found here:

At this point, I’m all ready to run a game and am mostly just waiting for my hard copy to arrive. I don’t think it will be too critical in play if I operate out of a PDF, but I definitely want a physical copy to pass around during chargen at the very least. So until then, I’m just going to chew on it and see what comes to mind. My final thoughts, in no particular order:

Setting Baseline

The choice to go SUPER far future is one that is full of subtle nuances which don’t become apparent until you start pondering other ways to run Numenera. The two big ones are that it pretty much removes any idea of divinity and it markedly curtails certain stylistic decision. The divinity thing is pretty straightforward – there’s a taste element to it[1], but it’s the single biggest thing that keeps this from feeling entirely like a D&D reskin – but the style limits are a bit more interesting.

To illustrate, let’s contrast this with the latest version of Gamma World. Content-wise, there is almost nothing that appears Numenera which would be out of place in Gamma World, but the reverse is not true. While Gamma World’s premise (that a whole much of realities just went “smoosh”) allows for virtually infinite diversity, it is still built upon the foundation of a recognizable world. The ability to draw upon familiar things pushed through a lens of change is something that makes that setting resonate. This is why things like Gamma World and planet of the Apes are not great touchpoints for Numenera.

But it goes farther than that. It’s not just a lack of immediately recognizable ideas (like McDonalds or The Statue of Libery) but even broadly recognizable ideas are kind of out of bounds. That means that some of the hyper-future touchpoints that people might think of, like Moorcock’s Hawkmoon or King’s Dark Tower aren’t really applicable.[2] Curiously, most of the fictional sources I would point to as useful for Numenera actually come out of video games. Make of that what you will.

Numenera: Schism

So, this is something I’m doing in my own game, and I heartily encourage anyone else looking to play to embrace it. It is core canon that the Ninth World is explicitly multidimensional, with connections and touchpoints to other worlds. So far as I’m concerned, every game of Numenera is in its own world, one of the infinite Ninth Worlds floating in the ether. They may well connect and touch (and sometimes multiple stories may be told in the same world, but that’s up to the GM).

This may seem like a strange declaration, but it’s a polite way to kill Elminster[3]. It is a declaration that you dig the game and it’s setting, and that the fact that you are making it your own is not a rejection of that core, just your own particular branch. So if, for example, you want some damn boats, your Numenera might have all the same parts with a larger, more active inner sea, and unknown lands out in the ocean. Because it’s a Ninth World, there’s no need to piss and moan over whether or not this “works” – you just do what you find cool.

Plus, it gets me airships if I want them.

Mechanical Bugbears

Yeah, by now it should be very clear that I’m uncomfortable with how XP is used and I’m skeptical of how the effort system will work in play. I’ll give both of these things some opportunity in play, but I’m pretty confident that they’ll demand some hacking. Effort is, I think, likely to just be a function of tweaking the economy a bit to improve the flow. XP, however, is going to be a total knife fight.

The One Awesome Thing

If I had to call out the single coolest thing in the game, it would probably be Foci. Not only are the mechanically fun, but they say HUGE AMOUNTs about a game. They are not just mechanics, they are setting design. If you want to do a custom game in your own setting, you will absolutely want to make distinctive Foci (as well as remove some). There’s some great overlap here with other setting technology (thinking of 13th Age’s Icons and the backgrounds from Neverwinter). And as a bonus, these are going to be a fantastic inroad for players to design new Foci.

Lost Opportunity

I genuinely wish the pages that were committed to Fasten (a small town) had gone to almost anything else. It’s not bad, but it’s dull. Worse, it’s dull in a space that’s surrounded by really interesting stuff – almost any of the surrounding ideas would have made a better (and by better I mean “more playable”) use of the space. I have similar feelings about Guran, but it’s got more playable hooks, so it’s a little more useful.

This may seem very picky, but it’s more of a testimony to the array of interesting stuff in the setting. To ignore them all in order to zoom in on a generic town feels like a wasted chance.

Bottom Line

  • I’m happy I backed it. It’s lovely, and was absolutely a value.
  • I do not recommend or un-reccommend it. I do not know you or your table, and it would be pure hubris for me to do so. I just hope I’ve given some information to help you make that decision yourself.
  • I look forward to running it.
  • It is not the second coming of gaming, but it’s neat.
  • How much it holds my interest beyond initial play is going to depend entirely upon my experience.
  • This is a charismatic game, not a doctrinal one. The rules are designed to give the GM and players greater creative leeway, not greater creative support. up tot you how that intersects with your tastes.
  • The terminology got less annoying with exposure, so that’s a plus, but it’s still a little wacky.

  1. This plus the single continent thing has lead to my shortest, most tongue in cheek review of Numenera: MONTE HATES GODS AND BOATS.  ↩
  2. The closest literary equivalent one might point to is The Dying Earth, and there is certainly some overlap in how far removed things are from anything known to mankind, but there is a huge tonal difference between Numenera and The Dying Earth, which make it tricky to apply directly (though Dying Earth makes a great past or future for Numenera, depending upon how you look at it)  ↩
  3. This gets its name from a tale told on the Sons of Kryos podcast, of a D&D game where the opening event is the murder of Elminster, the iconic NPC of the Forgotten Realms. This sort of action is a clear dramatic statement that the game is not going to be dictated by the official canon of the setting, and that the table owns the game.  ↩

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.  ↩

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.  ↩

Numenera Tech and Toys

I had, I admit, expected to kind of breeze past the the technology chapter of Numenera with little comment. It is, after all, effectively just the magic items of the setting, and while that’s interesting, it’s not usually informative.

I was wrong, at least to some extent. Someone (S. John Ross maybe) once wrote a great piece on how – if done right – all the crunchy bits are also worldbuilding. The tech chapter does not go quite that far, but it brushes up against it, enough so that i was engaged, if disappointed.

Specifically, the opener of the chapter talks about the role of technology in the world, and this is where I got excited. I mentioned before that the setting feels like it has no progress of its own, being based entirely around scavenging past wonders, but the tech chapter suggested that might not be the case, and that people are still creating Numenera, and that prospect intrigued me.

The payout was not quite what I hoped. There was a practical breakdown of the categories of tech from a gaming perspective (cyphers, artifacts, oddities and discoveries) as well as from an in-setting perspective (basically scavenged, cobbled together, artfully rebuilt or reincorporated, or actually built from scratch). The last category, fashioned, was the one I was most interested in, but it ended up feeling just like more scavenging – that sometimes an old method of creation might be recreated without actually changing anything.

Sidebar here: This is a complaint, not a criticism, and it’s important to distinguish those. This made me unhappy and was different than what I wanted, but it is not a failure on the designers part to construct things this way. it is to be taken as informative (of my tastes and how those are served or not served) for purposes of comparison, not as an assessment of the quality of the work.

Anyway, what follows is a run through of the categories. Cyphers (basically, one use devices) are the most common and important type of numenera, so they get the biggest focus. There’s a nice and clear acknowledgment that the reasons for limiting the number of cyphers a character can carry is basically a game one with some setting justification tapped on. Admirably, the reasoning behind this is not about “balance” but rather based on the assumption that it’s more fun to use cyphers than to hoard them. I can’t argue with that, but if you want to, there’s a nice random table of things that can go wrong if you do hoard cyphers, and that’s always fun.

And it’s good, because cyphers are kind of shamelessly game-y. They take a variety of forms (potions, pills, gadgets, clothing) which, means you are functionally getting potions without the limits imposed by the potion form. There are almost 100 cyphers, and they do the sort of things you’d expect. Blow up. Heal. Boost speed. Stuff like that. They’re fun, and even more varied because (like everything) they also have levels, so you don’t need a range of different potions for a given effect (like classic healing potions). There’s an exception to this for poisons, but they’re varied enough that it makes sense.

Structurally speaking, just as cyphers correspond to potions, artifacts correspond to more normal magic items. As with cyphers, there aren’t a lot of surprises here – the artifacts are clever and diverse, but they’re a baseline array, so there’s only so much diversity to be expected. Interestingly, most artifacts have a “depletion” score[1], a chance that after you use it, it runs out of juice. There are a few one off ways you might squeeze a little bit of use out of it, but really, that it.

This is an interesting decision. It’s not going to make players happy (we like our toys) and it introduces an extra bit of unnecessary complexity into play. Given that, it seems like a bad call, so why do it?

The answer is, I think, repeated throughout the text, and is called out explicitly in the crafting chapter in a highlighted passage: “The core of gameplay in Numenera is to discover new things or old things that are new again.” That is, the reason that there is so much effort put into making gear impermanent is to drive home a core ethos of play where the rewards are not the treasures (artifacts and cyphers), rather, the treasures are a reason to continue to explore and discover (because that is how they’re replenished).

Only play will tell if this is a good idea, but I think it’s clear that it’s a very deliberate idea, which is a good sign. It will be difficulty to address the sense that it is perhaps a bit punishing, but that sentiment is based on an entirely different approach to play than Numenera looks to be encouraging.

Anyway, the last section is Oddities and Discoveries. It’s ok, but it’s a little bit of a letdown – after all that stuff I just said about deliberately driving play towards discovery, I would have expected this section to be the biggest one, but it’s 80% one giant table of random oddities.

There’s a bit more in a final section on creating new Numenera,and it’s solid. Good game balance thoughts for artifacts and cyphers, and some ballpark guidelines for Oddities and Discoveries.

Ultimately, I think discoveries get short shrift in this chapter, and it’s another thing I’m hoping the GMing chapter picks up. If you accept the premise that Numenera is really a game about exploration and discovery, then it’s self evident that discoveries are a really big deal, and I hope the game gives me some help in making that so.

Weirdly, this ties back to the issue of technological development in some ways because it speaks to an essential question about the nature of the world – is it essentially static or dynamic? Technological development is one way that a dynamic world might change, but so are profound discoveries. It is entirely possible for discoveries to have a large impact on the setting.

But it’s equally possible for them to be TV episode style discoveries – something big and flashy which reveals something to the charters on hand, then vanishes or otherwise becomes irrelevant.

Numenera makes no promise that it’s a game about changing the world – it’s a game about discovering the world, and what I’ve seen so far is leading me to suspect that discoveries are more in the TV vein than not. But I hold out hope.

Conveniently, the next section is the GM stuff, so hopefully many questions will be answered soon.

  1. The logic of what depletes and how quickly is not always evident. It seems roughly correlated to potency, but there is definitely a bit of “how much will this piss off the player?” thinking in it, which is why signature items or things that would be hard to adjudicate seem to not deplete.  ↩

Critters of Numenera

The monster section is where a lot of system show their seams, specifically because interesting monsters tend to introduce a lot of edge cases, and those can often push a system or introduce one-off rules which can create a disconnect. This is not a criticism, just a reality of designing complex systems. To use an example, in Numenera the Cragworm has a paralyzing attack which, rather than affecting the condition track, just paralyzes (not a mechanical term, as far as I can tell) the target for 2 rounds. This is probably the right way to handle it, since I suspect that makes for a better cadence of a fight, but it also puts a little black mark next to the existing rules for paralysis.

However, the monster section is also an opportunity to showcase the strong parts of the system, and Numenera provides us that as well. One of the nice pieces it adds is a GM intrusion for each monster which allows for a way that monsters can do those strong, signature effects from time to time without demanding bookkeeping or having the monster hit their go-to attack all the time. So, for example, the Blood Barm’s attack includes some poison potential – normally it just does damage, but a GM intrusion might have a poison seed implant in a character’s skin. In this, it follows a patten that we’ve seen in games like 13th Age and Dungeon World that makes monsters a little bit more procedural,[1] which is an excellent thing. If I had a complaint, it would only be that I want more of it.

Unrelated to mechanic’s the monster section is where Numenera’s art shines, albeit to such an extent that when you hit a monster entry without art, it’s a little disappointing. Thankfully, there are only 4 or 5 such entries.

As I go through the entries, it’s interesting to see the window that the monsters open up on the world. Just as other design decisions about things like travel or religion are guideposts to the nature of the game, so are the monsters. Where the setting gravitated towards D&D norms, the monsters do not adhere to that quite so strongly. It took me a minute to put my finger on why this was, and I realized that it was the absence of dungeons. While the monsters in the book exist within the larger ecosystem of the world in some way (to greater and lesser extent) there’s no need to establish or justify a dungeon ecosystem. Through the D&D lens, this means that these are largely non-dungeon critters: they’re more outdoor or extradimensional kinds of encounters.

Reading the chapter has left me with a bit of a desire to get a sense of what levels are really supposed to mean. This is relative int he context of monsters, yes, but it also has come up in terms of things like the strength of materials. Stone is apparently level 5, and I don’t think I would have intuited that. I’m hoping the GM section sheds some light on this.

Anyway, Monster entries are hard to address as a whole, so let me lay down some snapshots.

  • Holy crap, i wish the picture for the Jiraskar was bigger because I love it. Visually, it’s basically what happens when you mix one of those beautiful fighting fish with a Tyrannosaurus Rex. It’s a great, very distinctive visual.
  • A lot of monsters have effects which either take gear or take away actions. I admit, I’m not a huge fan of this, since neither of those are very fun as a player. I suspect this was a case of trying to avoid any kind of complex status effects system (since those are off-putting) but I think it might have swung a little bit to far.
  • I’m pretty sure it’s not just me, but the Philethis are basically Vorlons. I’m largely OK with this, though man, they are basically perfectly designed as GM Tools – unlimited teleport, high defenses and probability manipulation yields a convenient excuse for anything.
  • Saw the Margr and had a moment of wondering if GW had slipped them a bribe. Basically, Margr are beastmen (in the Warhammer sense of the term) and whether you think that’s cool or not depends on your taste. Structurally, they have all the attributes of the textbook evil humanoid race (that is to say, the way Orcs and such get used) and I’m sure they’ll see some use in that fashion.
  • The Dread Destroyer is, so far as I can tell, Basically the Tarrasque of the setting. I have a hard time seeing any group of PCs, even at the highest tiers, taking on one of these things, which makes it more of a force of nature. That is not actually a bad thing, but I’d have loved some hooks that don’t involve going head to head with one.
  • The Mesomeme is pretty damn creepy.
  • This is just me, but in my mind I admit I make the Murden’s less raven-y and more like a Tonberrys
  • I love the art for the Scutimorph, but it’s probably the hardest monster to actually find a use for
  • I am having a hard time matching the descriptions of the Zhev to the art for them. it’s great art, and I totally want to fight one of those things, but I’m not sure what it is.

I should also speak to the elephant in the room – The Nibovian Wife, a sex and preganacy monster that seems like an updated succubus. It’s been the topic of some heated discussion which has attracted some of the worst elements of gaming. I fully admit that when I first read the entry, I just kind of shrugged and viewed it as a way for GMs to punish 14 year old boy players for playing like 14 year old boys. But I am not a mother, and it is very easy for me to not register how an entry like this feels to a mother, and the answer in some places is that it feels off-putting and othering. And when confronted with such a reaction, I feel it is reasonable and appropriate to consider those responses rather than shrug it off because I don’t have that reaction. I also don’t excuse it solely because it’s a monster, and monsters are supposed to be bad, because these issues are WAY more complicated than that, and I am far from qualified to speak to that. I’ll just leave it at this – this is a potent, and resonant idea for a monster, but the things which make it resonant are based on some really not-good foundations. And the loot line is really creepy (not in the good way).

This is not a basis for a blanket condemnation of the game. It’s obvious throughout the text that great effort has been put into providing fair representation of gender and sexual orientation, and that this is a priority for the creators. That’s admirable, and I don’t think a misstep overly detracts from that, just as I think calling it a misstep does not pass judgement on the game as a whole. And, honestly, it’s a mistake I could just has easily have made, so it’s presence bothers me less than my confidence that the writers will learn from it reassures me.

So there’s that.

Back in the mechanics, I have to say that by the end of the Monster and NPC chapters, I really have no idea what levels mean and how to balance some of these things. It’s also kind of raised the question of how characters relate to the world. Are tiers and levels truly equivalent? If they are, then there’s a weird disconnect (Since there’s almost no level 1 stuff that’s not vermin) but if they aren’t, then is their a rough mapping? An Aeon priest is a level 5 NPC – at what point is my Nano a rough peer of one of them? This may seems frivolous, but my gut sense of the opposition provided is that it’s uneven, with a lot of low and high, but not a lot of middle. Bu it may be that I just don’t know what the middle looks like.

Putting a flag in that as something I’m expecting the GM section to address

  1. All of this has also emphasized something important about GM Intrusion. While it can be arbitrarily triggered by the GM, it’s important to note that it’s also invited by a fumble on the dice. That invites a curious question of emphasis – I viewed GMI as a compel-like mechanic that is also invoked on a fumble, but I wonder if it might be closer to intent to say it’s a fumble mechanic that can also be used outside of diced situations. There’s a definite logic to that, including the idea of getting XP for failures, which I can see being appealing.  ↩

Numenera Setting Stuff

So, this is going to be a very weird and very nerdy objection to something which, at first glance, Numenera does very well, and that is the Map.

Now, the poster map is lovely, no question at all, and it’s technically very well done, with all levels of detail available, which makes it a rich, amazing dataset. Unfortunately, that richness leads to an easy trap – the individual detail maps are just zooms in on the larger map.

This may not seem like it would create a problem – it’s all the same data after all – but it actually means that there’s more information than is contextually helpful on any given map. Which is to say, yes, there are times when you want less information on a map.

This may seem counterintuitive, but bear in mind that a map is just one more piece of design, and as with all design, it should serve a purpose. Using a one-size-fits-all solution may be technically satisfying, but it creates a less useful experience.

Writ large, my issue with maps is probably a fair metaphor for my reaction to the setting as a whole. There’s lots of good, gorgeous stuff there, but the level of zoom is occasionally erratic or out of sync with the content. In parts it will go on for 4 pages about a forgettable locale, then in other parts it will deliver half a dozen great idea seeds in the span of half a page.

The setting material starts out a little meh, as it goes through The Steadfast, the nominally “Civilized” area which nominally makes for the core of play. There are 9 kingdom writeups, and they’re not bad, but they also don’t deliver much that you haven’t seen before[1]. Mostly, they made me miss Eberrron.

Things get more interesting as you get out into “The Beyond”, those spaces beyond the boundaries of the Steadfast. This is where the weird stuff is, and some of it’s really awesome. It is, however, a little jarring to read, as the voice of the text changes DRASTICALLY at times. So much so that I initially assumed that there were a lot of different writers for this section whose work had gotten cobbled together (there were not).

As with the maps, this is kind of a technical point. The individual sections are generally fine (though they sometimes sacrifice being playable in favor of being evocative) but it makes for a very jarring read. It ends up being less of a detriment than it might because the whole section is very diverse, but it kind of hurts all the same.

So here’s where I come clean – I had high expectations of the setting, and the fact that it does not deliver those does not make it bad, but it does make me sad. Were I to sum it up, I would say that any time there was a choice to take the premise of the setting (which is wonderful) in one of several directions, the choice was always to take it in the direction which conforms to default D&D assumptions.

One large way this manifests is that there is very little native science and technology. There’s lots of using old tech/magic to do things, or people working to rebuild old tech, but very little emphasis on people making things. From the perspective of adventures, this is probably a very fine point, but from the perspective of worldbuilding, it says a lot[2].

All of this would be well and good save for one genuinely maddening frustration. At numerous points, the text makes a point of emphasizing that we’re now back to one giant supercontinent and the rest of the world is largely empty ocean, even though no one actually knows this for sure in setting.

While I’m sure this came from one of the science books about the future of the world, I am frustrated by the decision. If you are excited about the idea of Numenera’s setting but want to go carve out your own corner of it. then you have to actively discard this bit of setting truth. The fact that it was not left as an unknown and is explicitly called out (multiple times) feels like an admonition against making the setting your own. Yes, of course, it’s an admonition that anyone can ignore, but it leaves me wondering why it’s there at all.

This one sticks in my craw because I fully admit that I’d rather raid the setting for parts than use it as written. The setting is good enough that I don’t want to just discard it and start from whole cloth, but I absolutely need to bend it some for my own table.[3]

Bottom line, the setting is good, but not quite the transcendent experience I was hoping for. It is possible that my expectations were too high, but I think there’s a bit more to it than that. Where it’s weakest, it’s doing setting details by the numbers. Where it’s strongest, it’s introducing ideas that could be real play drivers.

There’s a good chance I’m not the audience for this, as I suspect the audience is people just stepping out of the D&D pool. Differences I see as trivial may seem very broad from that perspective, and I have no desire to belittle that. But I do admit to the selfish desire that it was a little bit more for me, as it were.

The Good

  • Beautiful Map
  • Very few Elminsters
  • Great range of environments and ideas
  • Good attempts to seed each location with hooks.
  • NPC shorthand reveals the strong simplicity of the system

The Bad

  • Pangea
  • Uneven voice
  • One size fits all map
  • Flight is nonexistent except when its not
  • Given that there’s a crusade against them in progress, it feels like the Gains got short shrift

The Mixed

  • Quality of plot seeds ranges from inspired to “Hey, that castle over there is mysterious. MYSTERIOUS!”
  • The Steadfast is not bad, and with a little polish could probably pop, but a lot of the political tensions that drive the region feel tacked on because reasons
  • The mechanical implementation of the organizations (giving you an extra thing to spend XP on) is clever, but the organizations themselves don’t exactly jump off the page.

  1. So, I took that as a strike against, but if you accept the premise that Numemera is designed to be someone’s baby steps away from D&D, then it makes a lot of sense for the “core” of the setting to be very familiar-feeling to D&D players.  ↩

  2. And, weirdly, is kind of at odds with one of the core philosophical bits of going sci-fi: No Gods. Removing gods from the table makes a bold statement about making our own way in the world, but then kind of leaves it at that.  ↩

  3. Which will probably include importing elements from Dark Space, natch.  ↩

How to Judge Numenera

So, it seems pretty clear I’m going to be chewing on Numenera for a while, so i want to step back a bit and check some of my own assumptions. This struck me while I was going through the book and I noticed some art re-use, and I totally had a neckbeard-y instinctive response of “really?” and just as quickly realized that was perhaps unfair. Yes, Numenera is a lovely book, and yes, it’s clearly got a lot of fun art, but that does not mean that budgets are infinite and that it wasn’t the best solution.

And that brings up the question of how to evaluate Numenera as a product. There’s an argument that this shouldn’t be necessary, and that every game can be fairly judged on its content, whether it’s from Wizards of the Coast or run off on some guys inkjet printer. And maybe that’s true for someone who is not me, but for me the source makes a big difference. It speaks about what could have been done (and wasn’t) as well as to the intended audience for the game (or if the game even has the idea of a target audience).

And that gets fiddly with Numenera, which is to say, with Monte Cook[1] (and since the imprint is Monte Cook games, the issue’s right out there in the open). It’s super easy to think of this as the product of a “big publisher” based on a few data points:

  • Monte Cook is unquestionably one of the rock stars of the RPG industry. Long list of published credits followed by arguably being the godfather of the d20 PDF boom, with numerous well received titles under his belt since he went independent.
  • The kickstarter raised over half a million dollars! That’s real money!
  • He works (primarily) in the d20 space, in a way that has him marked as a mainstream (rather than indie) designer.
  • He has a fandom. This may seem like an extension of the rockstar thing, but it’s a step removed from that. There is a sense that Cook has a pre-enthusaistic audience willing to shell out for his work , and in turn his work primarily serves them.

So, by that thinking, Cook is a big publisher (whatever that means) and should be held to a higher standard. He is, after all, The Man.

Except those things don’t really hold up well under any kind of scrutiny.

First and foremost, given the pennies to be made in this industry, the very idea of a Rock Star is kind of preposterous. I’m sure (or at least I hope) that Cook does ok, but if he ends up seeing big dollars, they’re going to be on the video game side of things (and I totally wish him luck in that).

Second, kickstarter dollars don’t go quite as far as one might hope. There are diminishing costs to publishing, but they don’t drop off so quickly that there’s some point where you are magically raking in money. And since Cook kept adding to the rewards (as we did with Fate) he sacrificed profit to make a better product for fans. Put another way, I don’t have visibility into his finances, but I do know how much things cost us, and based on that, I’m pretty confident he’s not retiring to Aruba any time soon.

Third, Numenera is not a d20 product. It’s outside of that zone of comfort and expertise, and that’s admirable. So even if there was some genuine d20-can’t-be-indie stigma, it’s not really relevant.

Last, while there may be other concerns surrounding anyone’s fanbase (like what happens when you criticize their game, natch) those are not things to hold against them. We all have “fanbases” of one stripe or another, and the fact that Cook has engaged his so successfully that I keep accidentally trying to call him “Monte” as if I knew him is something to be applauded, not condemned.

All of which is to say that while yes, Cook had some advantages in launching this, they don’t diminish the product and – more importantly – they don’t change that he’s one more independent publisher trying to make something, and that’s the criteria the work should be judged by.

  1. One thing I won’t touch in this is that by all reports, Cook is a really nice guy. I have only met him once, and that was in a fanboy capacity, so I can’t really speak to it. However, I have no reason to think otherwise, and I totally accept that he’s a cool dude. But that’s an aside.  ↩