Thursday, October 03, 2013
Generally speaking, in your standard Old School game there are few reasons why players worry about dates and time. The first is logistics: do they have enough food, principally. And food is measured in days-worth of rations. So knowing how many days it will take to travel from point A to point B, or how many days travel away from civilization they are is what they're really worried about.
And for that, you don't really need any calendar at all. But there are other issues that might make knowing specific dates important. Some of these are cultural: festivals, legal proceedings, birthdays, stuff like that. Some are merely window-dressing; are the peasants in the fields harvesting, sowing, mending fences or what? Some are logistical; are the roads smooth and dry, muddy swamps, or under two feet of snow?
But a few issues can be of vital importance to adventurers. The two that repeatedly pop up in my campaigns are the times of sunset and sunrise, and the phases of the moon. And for those, you need something a touch more robust. But only a touch. You'll notice that the calendar for Doom & Tea Parties is ridiculously simple and terribly unrealistic. But it makes it very easy to know both the season and the current phase of the moon. No math or tables required.
As it turns out, one of my players chose Howls at the Moon as their Focus, so knowing when the moon is full is actually pretty important. He doesn't have to guess, I don't have to fiddle with tables or calculations, and life is good. This is the Zen of the Lazy DM. ;)
Tuesday, September 17, 2013
Anoetic means the cypher is fairly simple and stable: it's a pill or has only one button and is extremely easy to use. Occultic cyphers have lots of levers and controls on them and are more complex to use, though generally only one combination of settings has any noticeable effect, and it's still a one-use item.
Goo actually describes a variety of substances that are usually found in soft synth tubes. The tubes, even empty, are greatly prized by explorers for their near indestructibility while their bright colors make empty tubes excellent toys for children. Being brightly labeled (usually), most folks enjoy a +2 on rolls to identify a tube of goo.
The tubes tend to be about an inch across and almost four inches long. They’re pinched closed at both ends. One end is just sealed soft synth, and it’s as difficult to pierce or damage as the rest (Difficulty 7 to penetrate or pierce) while the other end sports a brightly colored tab of stiff synth. To use most goo, you tear off the stiff synth tab then squeeze the goo out onto yourself. With only a bit of coaxing, the goo will spread to cover a single being. There’s usually more than enough goo to cover a single creature or object, though attempting to spread the goo out over multiple uses or people causes the stuff to immediately decompose.
Decomposing goo usually liquefies and slides cleanly off the person or object it’s been put on [GM intrusion: the goo stains clothing it’s been spread over.] or evaporates in a quickly dissipating cloud that smells like mulch or a bog. This decomposition tends to be rather sudden when it happens.
Goo spreads to cover the entire body in a shiny, clean layer. It will go over clothes and does the cover the face, smoothing over the features to make who ever’s wearing it unrecognizable. However, those wearing goo can (usually) see and breathe through the goo easily.
All goos are anoetic cyphers.
Effect: This midnight blue goo forms small, rigid scales across its entire surface. The result is heavy armor that lasts for 14 hours. If it’s spread directly across the skin, it imposes no penalties; if spread over clothes it imposes the penalties of medium armor.
Effect: Translucent crystal blue, this goo must be spread across bare skin to be effective. It tingles on the skin and massages the dermis and higher layers of muscle. It improves the wearer’s Edge for all stats by +1, but won’t raise any above 3. It lasts for 14 hours and evaporates into a minty-fresh cloud.
Effect: This rich green goo restores +1 point to any one stat every minute. After half-an- hour, it will restore a level of health, then dissipate.
Effect: This goo seals a person in a tight cocoon of purple goo. Legs are pressed together and arms are trapped at the sides. Those outside the cocoon can change the translucence of the goo (blocking the sight of the captive), as well as how well, if at all, sound travels through it (though they cannot suffocate the captive). The cocoon lasts for 28 hours, or until someone outside dissipates it. From inside, it’s a Might feat with a difficulty of 8 to break out of the cocoon.
Effect: The translucent crimson sensation goo heightens the sensations of anyone wearing it. While it can reduce the Difficulty of a challenge to a character’s tactile sensitivity (lock-picking, safe-cracking, reading Braille, and the like), it also reduces the difficulty of torturing, seducing or otherwise influencing the gooed character via touch. In addition, anytime a character wearing this goo is hurt in combat, the sensation is so overwhelming that they must make an Intellect check against a Difficulty of 4 or pass out for 1d6 minutes. This goo last 14 hours + 2d6 hours.
Effect: X-ray goo is translucent green and glows with a cold electric light. It allows others to inspect the internels of whatever or whoever is covered. It lowers by one the Difficulty of any task where such x-ray vision could be useful, such as picking locks, diagnosing disease or internal injuries, or the like. It lasts four hours.
Effect: Once smeared on a body, this opaque goo writhes with brilliant colors in wild, mind-bending patterns. The colors and patterns appear to be affected by the mood of the wearer, but just how isn’t entirely clear. Wearing this good impedes the vision of the wearer not at all, but it can be an asset in public performance tasks.
Effect: Whatever this goo was originally designed to do, it’s toxic to most life in the Ninth World. Anyone wearing this goo (which comes in a variety of colors) immediately suffers a wound equal to the level of the goo and then another every 5 minutes they continue to wear the stuff. Removing this goo is often (50% of the time) easy, but the rest of the time it’s a Might task with a Difficulty of 4.
Effect: While wearing this white goo, you’ll never be too hot. Or too cold. It keeps your body temperature constant, which for most people makes it feel like it’s a pleasant spring day. It lasts 28 hours.
Form: a crystal and synth box six inches tall, 14 inches wide, and 16 inches deep.
Effect: this artifact has a panel on the top perforated with thousands of tiny, octagonal holes. If a pound of organic matter is placed on that panel it will start to “melt” into the machine while an array of holographic controls will appear in the air over the machine. Using it to get the goo you want is a Difficulty 7 Intellect challenge (anything that beats Difficulty 3 will produce a tube of goo, just not necessarily the one the user was trying to get).
[GM Intrusion: the machine spits out a goo with a completely blank label. The only way to learn what’s in it is to use it.]
Tuesday, September 10, 2013
The mechanics are fairly simple, but nearly all of it is in the hands of the players. This can cause some confusion. I’m working on a cheat-sheet of ways to lower target numbers for my players. Hopefully that’ll make things run more smoothly, though honestly they ran pretty smoothly last night.
double-jeopardy of stat pools being both dice-roll modifiers and hit points. They were quick to utilize the environment to help them avoid dangers and to pit monsters against each other Harryhausen-style.
And yeah, Numenera has a definite old-school feel. It promotes rulings over rules. Its rules are fairly simple and few in number. There’s not much emphasis on gear (weapons, for instance, are categorized as small, medium, or large and that pretty much tells you everything you need to know about them; in the mechanics of combat, there’s no difference between an axe, a saber, and a spear). A monster’s stat line looks like this: steel spider [level 3(9), health: 9, Damage 3, Armor, see page 260]. As stated above, it encourages lateral thinking. The setting is atmospheric but also wide-open. And a good game requires an interesting locale.
Mechanically, the cyphers are central to the game. They provide most of the weird feel (so I think we’re going to see a lot of new ones, especially from folks who like a lot more weird in their games) as well as the best options for lateral thinking and planning.
But beyond them, the rules are not terribly interesting in-and-of-themselves. They do their job and then get out of the way. So if you’re used to running games where manipulating the rules largely is the game (3e and 4e, I am so looking at you), you’re likely to find Numenera a little flat there. Hell, I found Numenera a little flat there, and I tend to run Labyrinth Lord.
Mr. Cook calls Numenera a game about exploration. I think he’s right, but he certainly doesn’t mean it the way old-school D&D is a game about exploration. Numenera isn’t about logistics, encumbrance, or keeping strict time records. It is about solving problems through clever use of one-shot wonders, powers, and the environment.
And that means your Numenera game will largely rise or fall on the quality of your adventures. Interesting places with intriguing, open-ended challenges that give your players lots of room to play should be the order of the day. Think more Myst’s intellectual playgrounds and less of tactical challenges, linear stories, or even the dependable ol’ five room dungeon. A good Numenera location, whether it be an ancient ruin, a skyship, or a royal court, needs to be full of opportunities for players to be clever and challenges that encourage them to be so.
Yeah, ok, that’s rather vague, and I’m still teasing out just what that means in terms of location design, though at this point I’m pretty sure you should be designing locations more than adventures.
Friday, August 30, 2013
Your character has three stats: Might, Speed, and Intellect. Unlike most beat-the-number mechanics, your stats, by themselves, don’t modify your rolls. They do create pools of points you can burn to modify your rolls, however. So if you have an Intellect of 16 and you’re attempting to break a really difficult code (Target Numbers are three times Difficulty, so a Difficulty of 5 means you need to roll a 15 or better on a d20), you can choose to burn 3 points of Intellect to lower the Difficulty by one (and thus the Target Number by 3; from 15 to 12 in our example). This lowers an Intellect pool of 16 to 13.
But wait, there’s more! Each time a pool goes to zero, things get worse in other ways as well. Not only do you not have any points to use from that pool to make tasks (like avoiding getting bit) easier, you also endure additional penalties. A character with one pool at zero is impaired. It now costs four points from a pool to lower a Difficulty by one. They also don’t get special bennies from rolling high. A character with two pools at zero can do nothing but move, unless one of the pools at zero is Speed, in which case they can’t even do that.
Put it all together, and you’ve got one nasty death spiral.
Death spirals are generally decried as a blemish on the face of RPGs. Sure, they make sense from a simulationist point of view, but they are generally not much fun at all. They drag out combat even as they make the final result more and more a foregone conclusion. So why did Mr. Cook include such a nasty one in Numenera?
While Mr. Cook and I appear to have diametrically opposed ideas as to what makes a good adventure, I have to give the man props for his rules-design skills. Numenera has some really slick design work in it and the interaction of the death spiral and the core themes is probably the crown jewel of the book.
First, the death spiral works in steps. Yes, every time you get hurt or burn points from a stat pool, you do have fewer to work with. However, as any veteran Magic or D&D player will tell you, the only hit point that really counts is the last one. Just so in Numenera; so long as you have enough stat points to apply effort or activate a power, it doesn't appear to matter whether or not this is the last time you can do it or the first of many times.
(This assumes that powers don't stack in synergistic ways. That is, if activating your Vapor Cloud power made using your Lightning Bolt power more effective, then it might begin to matter how deep your pool was. My brief glance through the powers didn't reveal any like that, but folks who've actually played might tell a different story.)
Granted, reaching zero in a pool is a double-whammy with the damage track penalties on top of not having any more points to burn from that pool. However, it's more a stepped spiral than a sloped one; that is, until you pass over the edge of the step, things really aren't much worse from the beginning of the step to the end of the step. This gives you lots of time to see the train coming while you still have the resources to get off the tracks.
And when I say “resources” I don't just mean points in your pools. Mr. Cook is also a big fan of single-use get-out-of-jail-free cards. In Numenera, there are two kinds of such. The first is EXP. You can burn an EXP to reroll any single roll, even one you didn't roll yourself. And you can do this as often as you have EXP to burn. (Which goes very well with Numenera's the-players-roll-all-the-dice. And note that since the players roll all the dice, no dice are rolled behind the screen.)
Cyphers are found with such regularity that the PCs can use them freely. There will always be more, and they’ll have different beneﬁts. This means that in gameplay, cyphers are less like gear or treasure and more like character abilities that the players don’t choose. This leads to fun game moments where a player can say, “Well, I’ve got an X that might help in this situation,” and X is always different. X might be an explosive device, a short-range teleporter, or a force ﬁeld. It might be a powerful magnet or an injection that will cure disease. It could be anything. Cyphers keep the game fresh and interesting.
And, in fact, the cyphers range from generic healing potions to devices that muck with time, or cause the PC to teleport around like a blink dog, or open up small black holes! They can give you temporary skills (“I know kung-fu!”), allow you to remotely control machines with your mind, record audio or video, or fix a nearly-unmoveable spike anywhere (even midair). And those are just the ones in the core rulebook.
The cyphers are the key to making the game work differently than other games. Numenera isn’t about playing for years before a character is allowed to teleport, travel to other dimensions, lay waste to a dozen enemies at once, or create a mechanical automaton to do his bidding. He can do it right out of the gate if he has the right cypher.
Where most RPGs are built around a leveling treadmill, Numenera is built around cypher-churn. The players should constantly have new cyphers (that is, new abilities) to play with and plan around. The game stays fresh, the players stay eager for that next cool thing, and they also stay focused on out-of-the-box thinking and going places to get more cool cyphers.
Now witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational Monte Cook:
- Stats as fuel for special abilities plus stats as hit points creates a potentially vicious (but stepped) death spiral.
- Players, recognizing the dangers of the death spiral, look for ways to solve problems that avoid burning stats. Cyphers are the obvious go-to solution but...
- …each player can only carry so many cyphers before they start interacting in their packs in ways reminiscent of D&D's old potion miscibility table (only without any of the good options).
- Luckily, cyphers are plentiful for adventurous types who go places cyphers can be found.
Thus you get a benevolent feedback loop of using cyphers and hunting cyphers. Unlike old school D&D where players could wind up buried in mountains of gold, you never run out of uses for cyphers and, in fact, are encouraged to find novel uses for the things.
How does this all actually work in play? I'm anxious to find out.
Thursday, August 22, 2013
Profligacy – In a world of limited resources, it is imperative that as many as possible be turned towards understanding the mechanics of the physical world and the numenera we have been blessed to study. Since the Princes and Peoples of the world will, as is their nature, waste so much on War, Pomp, and Comfort, it falls to the Aeon Priests to set the example by devoting as much time and treasure as they are able to study and research, setting aside the bare minimum required for health and well-being... Suppression – Truth hidden is theft! It is an act of violence against your brothers and sisters, against the Order, against all of humanity, and against all rational and peace-loving beings of the Ninth World. To hide discovered knowledge for personal aggrandizement or out of perverted humility is to turn your back on truth and embrace falsehood. For indeed, a truth not put to the Test of Reproducibility is not a truth but merely a supposition... Pride – Truth is greater than any one person, any clave, any priest or pope, even the entirety of the Order itself. When a supposition is put to the Tests, it is the supposition that is tested, not the one who has proposed it. Ego has no place in the Order and no place in a Test, either among the testers or the proposer... Deceit – To falsify data is to murder knowledge, trust, wisdom, and peace! Sloth – Failure to record even a single iota of data is worse than spending the whole day in bed. At least the sleeper does not waste the time of others, or threaten the veracity of investigation and experimentation... Superstition – Only those things that can be measured can truly be known. To base one's propositions on hearsay, assumptions, hopes, or the actions of inscrutable beings of nebulous reality is to build one's house upon sand... Carelessness – Never forget the Doom of Calleene! Never forget that you hold the lives of your brothers and sisters, your neighbors, perhaps even of the entire world in your frail hands! The search for Truth is never bloodless, but it is in your hands to hold back the toll of death and pain. It is your care, your precision, your cautious wisdom and safe habits which hold the Imp called Murrfee at bay... Ignorance – We are all plagued by things we don't know. The world teases us with questions that assail and delight our minds. And yet we are also offered a banquet of knowledge and Truth upon which to feast. While none of us can know all that is offered, to choose ignorance when one could choose knowledge is worse than choosing death when one could choose life... Hubris – While we are called to learn the entirety of Truth, we are not called to wield every power Truth puts in our hands. Understanding how something is done is not the same as understanding why, or even if, a thing should be done. We must honor the things that are, and understand why they are that way before charging headlong into “improvements.” First among these is the sanctity of the human form...Armed with this list, and with the aid of the Angulan Knights, Pope Cliven set about purging the Order of Truth of its fascination with short-term goals and gains. Competition between priests for patrons and worldly prestige, while not eradicated, was at least held somewhat in check. Priests were given the opportunity to confess their wrongdoings and endure public scourging in order to prove their penitence. Those who refused were excommunicated. The Triangular Heresy was driven across the Black Riage and never heard from again. Brechels the Mad was devoured by a xi-drake and his principle lieutenants forced to endure public confessions and scourgings in the capitals of all the nations of the Steadfast. - Excerpt from the Elder Debon's A History of the Amber Papacy
Tuesday, August 13, 2013
But if you go from the map to the Player’s Guide, it’d be understandable if you were a little confused, especially if you’re used to Raggi or Zak-level weirdness. There’s almost nothing that weird in character creation. Oh, there are some slightly odd mechanics, sure, but as I mentioned before, it’s a class + adjective + schtick system. The adjective’s chosen are mostly standard RPG fare (strong, learned, charming, etc.) but for “mystical/mechanical” which refers to having a way with the numenera. It might mean you’re a cyborg of some flavor, but doesn’t need to mean that, so exactly how weird that is really depends on where the player takes it.
The schticks, called foci, tend to be weirder, but don’t have to be. Foci such as “carries a quiver,” “leads,” or “works the back alleys” are largely mundane, and could easily fit characters in games without a hint of the supernatural. Some push the boundaries of the ludicrous (I can’t help but think of this guy when I read “Rides the Lightning”) but nothing really feels out- there weird to me. As a for-comparison, here’s the 5th Tier Nano power, Knowing the Unknown:
Tapping into the datasphere, you can ask the GM one question and get a general answer. The GM assigns a level to the question, so the more obscure the answer, the more difficult the task. Generally, knowledge that you could find by looking somewhere other than your current location is level 1, and obscure knowledge of the past is level 7. Gaining knowledge of the future is impossible.
The deeper you go, the stranger things get, however. You get undersea cities, a town of cast-off and misanthropic robots digging through giant drifts of spare parts for repairs (which is in turn coveted by the still-living decapitated head that rules another town), towns built atop crashed starships, temples built to honor frog-gods, giant crabs that feast on the latent brain activity of its prey, and, of course, the now infamous Nibovian wives. There are alien cyborgs performing tactical maneuvers for a war in which both sides died off who-knows-how-many millenia ago. You have artifacts with randomly determined drawbacks (a la 1e artifacts) and ray guns that inflict ecstatic pleasures on the target.
The weird is there, but exactly who deep you and your group wallow in it is very much up to you.
For instance, there’s a guy who breeds flying insects specifically to carry coded messages. How are these messages transported? The book doesn’t say. Could be in tiny scrolls on their legs, but the implication is that it’s more biological than that. Perhaps it’s in the way they chirp. Or in the pattern of spots on their backs. Or maybe if you eat the bug you’ll fall into a hallucinogenic trance in which you’ll witness a series of scenes that make perfect sense to target of the message.
A lot of the setting material is like that. It’s vague glosses that give you more than enough room to make it what you want it to be. The undersea city, for instance is described in maybe two pages, a single illustration, and no map. In your campaign, it could look like this, or this, or even this! And the whole setting is very much like that: thin glosses full of imagination-fuel you can take as far (or not) as you wish.
The Angulan Knights and the Order of Truth are set up as social linchpins for the Ninth World. Whether they are villains, heroes, or a (fairly realistic) mix of the two is entirely up to the GM. Whether the Gaians that are the focus of the crusade are unfortunate innocents (perhaps the targets of extreme militant atheists if you play the Order of Truth as described in the book), a true threat to the world, or as complete fabrications is, again, entirely up to the GM.
What you decide to do with them, then, will decide the flavor of your campaign. And what you do with the artifacts and cyphers and settings and monsters will also decide the flavor of the campaign.
So I think the answer to BJ’s question is, “How much do you want it to be?” There’s nothing that says it needs to be phantasmagorical, but you can absolutely get there from here.
I should have a game under my belt in the near future and will be able to report more then.
Wednesday, August 07, 2013
I was a backer on the Numenera Kickstarter largely because it promised a game that combined “outside-of-the-box gameplay such as that found in Planescape, Dark Space, or Chaositech, the far-future stories of Gene Wolfe, Michael Moorcock, or Jack Vance, or mind-blowing visuals like those found in the work of French artist Moebius”. I'm a huge fan of that science-fantasy Heavy Metal thing, so this looked right up my alley.
Because this is Monte Cook, the core book clocks in at a hefty 400+ pages. These include all the rules, a bestiary, maps, and setting info, so I'm not going to ding him too hard for that. I've not finished reading through the book yet, so I'm a bit hesitant to start chewing on the rules or even the setting too much. What have I read, however, strongly feels like this, and this, and this with a bit of this thrown in for good measure. Which, quite frankly, makes me rather happy.
As an important for-instance, let's take a look at PCs. By now, you've probably heard about Numenera's Mad Lib's, fill-in-the-blank character creation that results in you being able to describe your PC as a blankety blank who blanks. The middle blank is your type (aka class) of which there are three: glaive (aka fighter), nano (aka magic-user) and jack (which is a mix of the other two and/or skill-hound). So far, pretty basic.
The first blankety is your descriptor and it's words like “stealthy” or “intelligent” or “rugged.” Unlike a game like Fudge where that would be left fairly vague and give you bonuses when what you're doing involves your adjective, Numenera spells out when and what sort of modifiers you get, plus additional bonuses like gear and contacts that come with it, as well as the occasional handicap.
When you get to the last blanks, your character's focus, you're suddenly in superhero and “Masters of the Universe” territory. Like the descriptor, you pick your focus from a list of firmly-defined options. These include “bears a halo of fire,” “controls gravity,” “murders,” and “wields two weapons at once.” It's your character's schtick and, like Beastman's ability to control animals or Shadowcat's ability to go immaterial (both of which have analogs in the list of foci), it's going to go far in defining what your character does and perhaps even who they are. Especially since you're only allowed each focus once per group.
With 29 foci and three types, you can create 87 different templates to build your character around (though, granted, not all foci and types are good matches). Toss in your descriptor and you've got a lot of room to play in and create unique characters with. But the art that begins the chapter on character creation feels kinda generic:
Don't get me wrong, technically it's quite competent. Each individual is, in fact, individual with the nice use of the metal circles to tie them all together, but they feel terribly much like stereotypes: the haughty star-jock warrior, the haughty can-kick-your-ass daredevil babe, and the haughty tosses-energy-blasts ascetic mystic. I know exactly what their voices sound like, what their catch-phrases are, and what they can do in a fight, which is good for potential PC art, but it's less the (considerable) skill of the artist as how much they lean on stereotypes.
Now, maybe it's because of I've been spoiled by James Edward Raggi IV (NSFW) and Zak Smith (also NSFW), but when you make a game about Earth a billion years in the future, I expect art that's compelling and strange. And yes, it's a terribly not-fair comparison, but this is strange and compelling. This feels very much been-there-done-that. (And anyone who thinks that having the guys showing more skin than the gals will give them a pass on art like this (NSFW) or the torture piece are deluding themselves.) You're about a quarter of the way through the book, on page 105, when you finally encounter Keith Thompson's delightfully macabre Scribe and finally find art that lives up to the promise of the setting.
Before that, it's a lot of rather uninspiring digital art with heavy brush strokes of the sort that rules Deviant Art right now. The tough, angry warrior woman whose arm has been replaced by a weapon, Witchblade-style. The moody landscapes with the giant rocks and things floating in the air above it. You've seen it before.
Granted, when your setting is this strange (and the strange is there, it just takes a while to get to it) you need to give the players something familiar to latch on to, to identify with. This familiarity makes it comfortable, and possibly inviting. It makes it easy to imagine what sorts of things you can expect to find in this very stranger world, and who your character is going to be. Numenera is very careful about easing you into the strange. Again, character creation is a good example of this. Hey, your character's a glaive, but that's just a fancy word for fighter. You know what a fighter is. Nothing odd here, right? He's also graceful. Good balance, great hand-eye coordination. So a fighter who's good at dodging and landing just the right blow. You've seen his type before. He's wiry and quick and...
Oh, did I mention he has the power to travel “a long distance from one location to another almost instantaneously, carried by a bolt of lightning”?
So I absolutely understand, and can even commend, the desire to offer readers something comfortable and familiar with the art. I just wish more of it felt compelling. There's some neat stuff in the art, but nothing that quite rises to the level of the imagination seen in the ideas in the book. And when your setting is this strange, you really need the art to carry a lot of the communication load.
Don't get me wrong, there's some neat art in this. Keith Thompson provides some excellent strangeness, as has already been shown. And some of the artists, folks like Samuel Arya, Helge Balzer, Guido Kuip, Brynn Metheny (who does some great creature design), Kieran Yanner (who did the cover), Mark Tarrisse, Cory Trego-Erdner, and Adrian Wilkins, can (and many do here) produce some really great atmospheric and moody art. I just can't help but feel that, for much of the book, the art design was restrained to keep things from getting too weird.
This might be a matter of taste as well. For a project like this, I would have aimed more for mood and maybe a bit less towards the you-are-there style I normally enjoy so much. There's some great black-and-white work that really seems to capture the flavor of the text, women in tall headdresses riding vicious lizards and such. My hope is that, with such a great stable of artists already involved in the project, Mr. Cook will let them really spread their wings and give us the bizarre and intriguing setting his words describe in future products.