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.  ↩

7 thoughts on “Critters of Numenera

  1. Bill

    The more abstract a game is, the more I can find myself having difficulties with it. I tend to want to see that if a monster has 4 arms then it has the attacks to reflect that. I had the biggest trouble with that in MHR where modifiers to powers often read as dice manipulation and didn’t fully reflect for me the impact of that ability on the world. Sounds like something similar is going on here with monster levels. What I don’t always know is if that is objectively a reflection of the game or a reflection of me as a reader.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Well, thankfully there is more at work than *just* the levels, and while it’s streamlined, it’s not *totally* abstracted. And I think there’s a logic to the levels, I just can’t see it yet. I’m told that at least some answers await me in the GM section.

  2. Jay Money

    With regards to the Nibovian wife, it is amusingly out of place in an otherwise ultra-progressive book. If you are any type of traditionalist or conservative, everything about the setting is absolutely nauseating in its overwhelmingly blatant appeals to progressive thought.

    As an aside, imagine the player who finds out that the wife of his happily married character, whom he is expecting a child with, is actually a mechanical construct and that the beautiful baby child he is expecting is actually an Erynth Grask which will now be hunting him to death.

  3. Trevor Schadt

    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.

    From what I can tell, no, tiers and levels are in no way equivalent, and I think that’s something that a lot of D&D players are going to have trouble with. A character’s Difficulty (i.e., “level”) is a general measure of how difficult an obstacle is to overcome, but it really has no equivalency to a player’s tier because there’s no scaling mechanic.

    A D5 monster is always going to require, at its base, a player to roll a 15 or higher to hit (or avoid). As players increase in tier, it will be easier for them (through increased Edge and Effort) to do things to decrease that number. So yes, it will be more difficult for a T1 character (or group of characters) to defeat a D5 monster than a T5 character (or group of characters). (Likewise, a D1 monster will be approximately as trivial for a T1 character as a T5, although see the Mob rules for making multiple lower-level monsters into a threat.) But a D5 monster will still represent a significant challenge to the characters, because they will still need to be expending Effort (and thus depleting their pools) in order to get past the obstacle.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      I think that you are correct that the two concepts are decoupled, but they’re correlated strongly enough to absolutely invite confusion. I don’t think it’s a bad thing in and of itself, but it’s an area where more clarity would have helped (especially since it’s not like the game has a problem inventing new terminology when needed)

  4. Ricardo Alves Junqueira Penteado

    Regarding Philethis, I would like to say: “We are all Kosh” WILL be said at some point in my campaign.

    BTW, that is a very nice and fair review, congratulations!


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