Tag Archives: Numenera

Numenera Licensing

Monte Cook Games released the not-open license for Numenera as well as fan guidelines for usage. The Fan Guidelines merit a read, but the heart of the license is that you pay $50 per product, you can’t crowdfund, and your total sales must stay under $2000. Over $2k, you must negotiate terms with Monte Cook Games (MCG).

I admit, the terms of all this don’t terribly excite me, but I suspect that they will work very well for Monte Cook.

When you craft the license for using your games, you are ultimately trying to do several things:

  1. How do I let people make stuff For my game (Without needing to worry that someone is going to do a Race War RPG with it)?
  2. How do I make sure I get my cut if something small takes off?
  3. How can I spread my game?
  4. How do I serve my existing community?

Different licenses reflect different emphases on these, and those emphases are not always obvious. As an example, both #2 and #3 are potentially motivated by a desire to maximize the bottom line. A lot of lamer licenses try to do all of these things without really prioritizing or making tradeoffs. Most notably, game studios have a bad habit of zeroing in on #2 rather than thinking about the commercial benefits of other approaches.[1]

Monte Cook is in a unique position. He doesn’t really need to give a crap about #3 – growth will be nice, yes, but he has an established audience already. And since #3 tends to correlate most strongly with openness, he has little real incentive to go for any kind of truly open license.

MC also was a very successful d20 publisher, and almost certainly felt the very worst of the ups and downs of the d20 Bubble and burst. I don’t pretend to be a mind reader, but if I had been through that wringer, I’d probably have some more priorities too, like keeping the market from being glutted by trash. Were I of a game design bent, I might conclude that the problem – especially for PDF products, which I hypothetically know intimately – is a very low barrier of entry, especially for really bad products. I might then want to engineer a license that puts in an artificial floor. Nothing too onerous – less than $100 but more than $20. ENough to make some stop before just turning a word doc with some clip art into a pdf and selling it for 99 cents.

But to hypothesize further, I don’t want to give away the farm. What if, somewhere out there, is the next me? The guy who will write the spinoff that gets huge? What would I have done to me if I was WOTC?

I’d put in a ceiling, and beyond that threshold, you need to negotiate. It’s a high enough celling that most products won’t hit it, but if they do, then I benefit. And, importantly, this also means I don’t need to bother with any discussions of licensing with enthusiastic fans with more ideas than business sense.

That last bit is proper genius, and I tip my hat to it. Monte’s fans are enthusiastic, and putting up an automated filter so the discussion doesn’t begin until you can hit a certain sales threshold is a great way to keep that enthusiasm from creating too much work. And more, it gives a polite way to say no to prospective partners. Rather than risk nerd-drama by saying no to someone’s heartbreaker, they can say “Just use this license, and come back to us if it does well”. [2]

That leads into the fan guidelines. Now, viewed in the abstract, this is kind of messed up. A lot of it is covered (or expanded) by fair use, so why even bother with these guidelines?

Because they’re not guidelines for the game, they’re guidelines for the community. They are the answer to every forum discussion and flamewar that MCG can think of, laid out an explicit set of best practices within that community. If you like Numenera enough to hack it hard but are not part of the MCG community, then I suspect the assumption is that you are an outlier. You can go ahead and do your fair use dance, but it won’t get any traction within the community because they have a very literal chapter and verse to cite regarding how you’re doing it wrong.

And that’s the rub. For all that this flies in the face of open and growth focused license fans, this is all very strongly designed to support the existing fanbase. That is not a common priority because very few games have a preexisting fanbase at the point when they’re developing a license. MCG’s combination of existing fanbase and new IP created an opportunity to change up his approach.

None of which is to say I’m terribly fond of the license. My own taste towards openness is well documented. But I appreciate it. I respect the problems it tries to solve, and I doubly respect that there is a license at all. I very much like being abel to clearly understand a creators intent for the use of their game. Not because I think that creates any obligation in me – If I wanted to make a white label Numenera, nothing would stop me – but because I prefer to respect a creators wishes rather than be forced to guess and then find out I’ve stepped in something. As much as I think openness helps us all, I’ll fully concede that clarity is almost as useful, and this has that in spades.

In the end, I doubt this license is going to set the world on fire, or even do much to grow Numenera, but I think it is going to serve that community well. And that’s a not a bad goal.

  1. This does beg the question (yes, it totally does, nerd) – Why introduce a license at all? Most practical answer is that fans are going to do stuff anyway, so it’s better to lead than follow. However, I also suspect there’s a very human component to it of wanting to support the fans.  ↩
  2. Openness offers this benefit too, but people still love an official seal of approval, which the Numenera license offers.  ↩

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.  ↩

GM Intrustion, Compels and Aspects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Numenera: The Rules Bit

Numenera is kind of a big deal. From Monte Cook, the mind behind many amazing things and one of the godfathers of PDF Publishing, its kickstarter raised over half a million dollars (more than Fate, though we had more backers). The book itself is a mammoth tome filled with gorgeous art which holds the promise a mind blowing setting and a possible new direction for RPGs.

I’m steadily working my way through it, and I break here to report as I get to the end of the mechanics section because, honestly, that’s what I was most curious about. There is also a strong likelihood that it’s the weakest part of the game – it certainly seems like the setting holds a lot of promise.

Before I get into the good and bad, I just want to make sure everyone is on the same page – viewed through a certain lens, Numenera isa bog standard fantasy game with everything renamed to sound exotic and all the handwavey “magic” replaced with handwavey ’“science”. It is closer to “D&D with Science” than even Gamma World.

While I’m not sure that lens is 100% fair – going with science fantasy rather than straight fantasy opens up some stylistic options – it still seem largely on the mark. However, it’s not an automatic criticism – there’s a reason that adventures with Fighters, Thieves and Wizards killing monsters and exploring ruins holds up as a model, and it will ultimately live and die by the details and quality of the setting which, as noted, I haven’t gotten to yet, so for the moment I will assume that it is pure gold.

This ends up being important on another axis, as the primary activity in Numenera is, nominally, exploration. There’s no XP for killing monsters, but there is for digging up old artifacts and discovering secrets. And even thought he book is a little snide in acknowledging that you get what you reward, it definitely tilts that way. The problem, of course, is that exploration is trickier in practice than in theory, because it’s not just a function of content, but also of transmission and translation. It can easily translate into infodumps and sock puppet theater unless some steps are taken to keep it flowing. Presumably, this is addressed int he GMing chapter, so again, for the moment, I wil assume there is great advice about how to handle that forthcoming. For now, I’ll just focus on the mechanics.

Oh, one last caveat. I will not be using game-specific terms here unless I really feel like it. Numenera pretty much re-invents every piece of gaming teminology it can[1], and it’s a bit annoying, so if I say “level” instead of “tier” it’s because I would rather explain the game.

Ok, so the core mechanic is based on steps (or levels), which equate to a difficulty of level x 3, which you are trying to beat on a d20 roll. So, something that’s level 3 difficulty (whether it’s the monster you’re attacking, the lock you’re picking or whatever) then your’e trying to beat a 9.

If you’ve got skills or tools that can help you out, those can reduce the difficulty by a number of steps (1 or 2 for skill, 1 or 2 for assets) and if you get the difficulty to 0, there’s no need to roll (and since there’s no margin of success component, that’s fine). Mathematically it’s really just a bunch of +3 bonuses, but I understand the reasoning of going in steps – it makes a lot of other mechanics behave a little more elegantly without inviting fiddly bits (those are largely saved for the optional rules)

Difficulties go as high as 10 (requiring a 30), and if the target number can’t be hit, then it’s deemed impossible, so there’s no “hoping for a crit”. High and low dice results still produce fumbles and extra damage type effects, but it’s subordinate to the difficulty rules. And, notably, all rolls are made by players, something that should feel very familiar to DL5A fans.

All good so far, though it suggests a fairly failure-heavy spread from looking at the basic math and assuming that best case (4 steps) is not super common. And that’s where effort comes in.

Basically, every character has 3 “pools” of points, one for might, one for speed, one for intellect. These have multiple uses, but the first and foremost one is that you may spend 3 points from the appropriate ability to reduce a difficulty by one step. I admit, my first thought was “Well then why not let me just spend 1:1, since I’m spending 3 to reduce difficulty by 3” but there’s a clever mechanic which addresses that. Pools also may have an “edge” score, which provides a discount on expenditure, so I may be getting a better ratio than 1:1. There’s also an “effort” rating that limits how much you can spend from a pool, but that’s less interesting.

Taking those basics, you can engage in a simple but interesting chargen process. The core of this is a fill-in-the-blanks sentence of “I am a blank blank who blanks” which unpacks into “I am a {Descriptor} {Class} who {Focus}”. So, “I’m a Tough Glaive who Carries a Quiver” for example.

Class is the most straightforward of the three – there are three classes – fighter, Mage and generalist (more properly Glaive, Nano and Jack). They do pretty much what you would expect – hit stuff, blast stuff and a little bit of everything, respectively.

Descriptors are more interesting and clever. They are largely things like “Rugged” or “Clever”, but rather than just providing a simple bonus, they provide a range of bonuses of different types, as well as potentially some drawbacks. Most interestingly, they include a small random table which includes the character’s initial link to the starting adventure. I love this, and think it’ll be super cool for con play.

There are only a dozen descriptors in the book, but there are guidelines for making more, so that seems like a fair number.

Focuses are kind of a big deal. I had expected something comparable to descriptors, but mechanically they’re a lot closer to a subclass. Not only do they include potent abilities and bonuses out the gate, but they offer powers and abilities for the character to buy as they level up. They range from being a more badass fighter to basically being Magneto, and I’m super intrigued to see their balance in play. They also include one connection to another character, which is a nice touch.

So, you pick those three things, make some choices within each one (basically which abilities you want), buy some gear and you’re good to go. if you get in a fight, you make a roll against the level of your opponent, and if you hit, inflict some damage based on your weapon, minus armor. If you get attacked, then roll to defend, and if you get hit, take damage to the appropriate pool.

When you’re ready to advance, every 4 XP buys you an ability, every 4 abilities levels you up. XP can also be used for rerolls and temporary bonuses, and while there are other avenues, you’re largely going to get it via exploration rewards or GM Intrusion.

GMI is something very much like a compel in Fate, where the GM declares that something bad happens, and you can either pay one XP to refuse, or accept 2 XP (one of which you immediately give to another player – a great touch).

So, that’s the very high level on it, but what does it mean? Well, a few highlights:

The Good

  • This looks and feels like it would play very quickly and produce some fairly distinctive characters.
  • The range of focuses goes a ways towards offsetting the narrowness of class choices.
  • Core rules are light enough that I explained them in 4 tweets. That’s a good thing for teaching.
  • Nothing to do with the rules, but the book is lovely and the PDF is well hyperlinked. Solid art throughout, and a functional layout.
  • GM Intrusion reward going to another player is wonderful

The Bad

  • I do not like expending pools for effort – its the main reason I’m not a big fan of Gumshoe, which I find otherwise brilliant. Numenera offers some clever fixes to the model (the edge mechanic, especially) but it offsets that by equating pools with health, which seems to invite a very profound death spiral. I am also leery of pools with such a large die as the d20 – spending your maximum and blowing a roll is largely unfun.
  • But not as unfun as spending an XP for a reroll and still failing. I have a great aversion to systems that allow the spending of XP for transient bonuses which got pounded into my head playing 7th Sea. Numenera has cool, fun advancement options, and despite sidebars about how advancement’s not really that important, it’s clearly a big deal. Broadly, players are incentivized to hoard XP, and effectively punished if they use it, even if they use it for something cool.
  • And, seriously, saying that if players do hoard XP, you should force them to spend it? That seems kind of dickish.
  • Oh god, the terminology
  • Little digs at D&D or other game sin the text may or may not be intentional, but they feel kind of petty
  • GM Intrusion is pretty much the worst name for a mechanic ever, If I named something that, it would be because I was being forced to put something I didn’t like and didn’t use into a book by my editor. No one had a gun to Monte’s head, so I dunno what’s up.

The Uncertain

  • I am totally unclear if you can spend yourself into unconsciousness, but it seem like you can.
  • Early on, the rules seem very adamant at the maximum potential number of steps a character can get without effort, but later rules seem to suggest that situational modifiers may go much farther than that.
  • So, I love the content of the Focuses, but that was the point in the book where my thinking of “oh, wow, this will be great for quick pickup play!” crumbled to so much dust. There are enough of them, with implications that extend throughout the life of a character, that they’re going to be the big slowdown point for chargen. It’s a tradeoff for their complexity and depth, but it broke my heart a little.
  • I’m a bit kinder to this game than I might normally be because I feel it’s intentionally pitched to newer players, or at least previously D&D only players, so I am forcing myself to be forgiving of design decisions  because I am not necessarily the audience for this. However, this means I’m going to be holding the setting and GM chapters to a much higher bar, so we’ll see how that goes.

The Bottom Line

So, those two bits that bug me, REALLY bug me a lot, But I recognize that while I have reasons for that, there is a taste element to it, and perhaps Numenara dodges these things in play (if it does not, it’s trivially hacked, but that is predicated on it meriting continued play). So, I’ll seek it out – I’ll try to run some, and ideally play a little. It’s interesting enough to merit that.

  1. Seriously, I have not seen a game be so heavy handed with this since Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth. In any other game, it would be a kiss of death, but Monte has a lot of fans, and we’ve already bought the game, so he can get away with it. At my most cynical, it seems to me an intentional move to foster a sense of community, to sort of forcibly create a subculture for the game through language. It’s not a crazy idea, especially if the thinking is that the audience is mostly just d20 escapees. But if so, I also find it a little creepy.  ↩