Thursday, April 03, 2014

Review: Love and Sex in the Ninth World

“Love and Sex in the Ninth World” (abbreviated LaSitNW here) is a 13 page pdf document published by Monte Cook Games for their Numenera line. It’s written by Shanna Germain who is no stranger to erotica, kink, and gaming, and that shows in this little “glimmer.”

LaSitNW is just what it says it is on the tin: the hows (and, unfortunately, also the whys) of adding romance and sex to your Numenera game. I say that discussing the whys is unfortunate because it’s wasted space; if you had no interest in doing so, why would you have picked up this pdf? Beyond a discussion of what sex and romance can do in your game, there seems little point to it, and in a product so tiny, space and time and effort are at a premium. So I don’t see much point in selling the product (or the idea) to someone who’s already bought it, especially when it’s not the sort of thing you can flip through at a store.

The text itself is a mixture of practical advice, egg-shell-walking caution, and flashes of brilliance. I’d love to see what a bolder, unapologetic writer like Zak S. might do with the same topic, but for what it is and who its published by, it’s more than I’d expected.

The very first words of the text are as follows: “Because the Ninth World is so large and disparate, it would be foolish to make sweeping generalizations about sex, love, lust, and courtship among its inhabitants.” Ms. Germain then proceeds to do exactly that. We are told that gender inequality and sexual orientation are no big thing in the Ninth World. This is disappointing from a world-building standpoint, but hardly surprising. Sweeping these broadly off the table right from the start prevents drama, especially in games where people are expected to play their own, real-world genders and sexual orientations.

If this starts you to worrying that Ms. Germain’s Ninth World is some sort of happy-happy rainbow-spangled Seattle-esque love fest where sex is always magical and bright, the brief section on class will relieve your fears. It’s short and deals exclusively with slavery in the Ninth World. The attitudes described are very Roman; slaves are used for sex without much consideration for their opinions on the matter. There’s an interesting fission between the matter-of-fact outlook of the inhabitants of the Ninth World and modern day sensibilities. One NPC, Duke Ingast, is described as “a notorious slave owner”. I can’t help but imagine the phrase would make as much sense in the Ninth World as calling someone in our day and age a “notorious toaster owner.”

The first section closes with a description of the loosey-goosey, term-limited, and rather vague institution of marriage in the Ninth World (called “coupledom”) and an explanation of how attraction is very culturally specific. It’s all very Heinleinian (including legal prostitution and for-hire enforcers of relationship contracts) though without any mention of non-communal polyamory. Which is kind of surprising; one would think that the Aeon Priesthood would be the natural place to find line marriages.

The real juicy meat of LaSitNW comes in the section called Putting Sex in Your Game. These two pages are sprinkled with little gems of wisdom culled from Ms. Germain’s experience as a gamer and author: “Love’s job is usually to portray deep emotional loss… or high emotional joy…” “Sex’s job is typically about power exchange.” “ If a PC is trying to get pregnant, and the guard is clearly expecting (or vice versa—maybe the guard has been infertile for years), the dynamic will have a unique emotional charge.”

Some of what’s in there is your basic adventure-creation advice (romance as a plot point, etc.) and some looks half-baked (an extremely vague section on mechanical benefits from love and sex without any real explanation of how to handle it looks tailor-made to trip up unexperienced GMs). But as an essay on how to use the fact that love and sex complicate everything, it shines. If you’re an experienced hand at writing romance and erotica it may seem like old hat, but for the rest of us, there’s a lot of brain-fodder here to play with.

Unfortunately, it’s followed by a full page on how sex is a touchy topic, “triggers,” and similar warnings. It’s all given the star treatment, but the folks who really need to read it won’t, and it’ll likely scare off the timid.

With that last bit of dreary business taken care of, Ms. Germain allows herself to get playful with her subject matter. She discusses love tokens (instead of rings, Ninth Worlders exchange badges), STIs, pregnancy (“Getting pregnant is a level 5 task between two fertile people of the opposite sex who are not using devices to alter fertility.”) and childbirth, and prostitution. That last is perhaps the most fun. We learn, for instance, that prostitution is not the final refuge of the skill-less and destitute, but rather the domain of highly trained, celebrated, and well-compensated professionals. These professionals are known by their specializations and styles. Goldglams are the rockstars of the sex world, advertising their presence with street performances and then picking their sexual clients selectively. Daupsams trade sex only for numenera, and include aeon priests among their number. Flute boys seemed misnamed to me; they bear little resemblance to the musician-whores of Athens and seem more like the geisha of Japan.

We then get another page of apologia for use of non-traditional sex and gender roles. They do brush against the real issue (using traditional assumptions to limit people’s options at the gaming table) but it’s another page that could have been put to better use.

The final section gives us three artifacts, five cyphers, and eight oddities. Most are good, offering intriguing bits of roleplay and strange abilities that will find all sorts of creative use inside and outside bedrooms. The weakest of the bunch is what amounts to a levitating sex-swing, but even that is fraught with creative uses once you get it into the hands of devious players.

If play that includes sex and romance intrigues you, and you’re not intimately familiar with the art of crafting romance or erotica stories, this is certainly worth your time and treasure. (You should probably also invest in a beginner’s guide to writing that sort of thing, especially if you haven’t read much of it.) The bits of numenera and background details are interesting, but by themselves are not worth the price if that’s all you hope to get out of it. I would have preferred a more in-depth treatment of the subject with greater emphasis on cultural permutations, but I also recognize that I’m odd in that respect. As such, while I bemoan the short shrift such a limited form allows the topic, I’m thrilled it got even this much attention and that it was handled as expertly as it was. I hope we’ll be seeing more of Ms. Germain’s kinky creativity in the near future.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

If We're in Heorot, it Must be Wotan's Day

There's been some fun chatter about calendars and their uses over at G+ lately, resulting in a post by Oddysey over at her blog. She mentions that she has no idea what the date actually is in the Doom & Tea Party's game. By the in-game calendar it is, in fact, the 20th day of the Second Moon of Spring. But that's not terribly important.

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.

I did something very similar in my Numenera game. The setting dictates 28 hour days and a 313 day year. So I made that as simple as I could, with four seasons divided into three moons, and each moon having 26 days. The full moon falls on the 13th day, and the new moon falls on the 26th. The extra day is New Year Day (falling between the last day of the Third Moon of Autumn and the first day of the First Moon of Winter), keeping things both easy-peasy and in line with the official setting dictates. And again, no funky names for days or months. The Third Occlusion of the Octopus means nothing, but everyone has some idea of what the 20th day of the Second Moon of Spring ought to be like.

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

Great Gobs o' Goo!

Here's an example of cyphers for Numenera, and one artifact at the end. Level is a basic catch-all for anything you might want to do with the item: reverse engineer it, identify it, add it to another device, or whatever. External just describes how it's applied. Other cyphers are internal (like pills or injections), wearable (like jewelry or temporary tattoos), or useable (basically describing hand-held devices like tricorders or flashlights). Depletion is the roll you make every time the item is used to see if you've used it up or broken it.  If you roll a 1, this is the last time the artifact works properly, if at all.

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.

Level: 2d6
External: goo
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.

Level: 2d6
External: goo
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.

Level: 2d6
External: goo
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.

Level: 1d10
External: goo
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.

Level: 1d6
External: goo
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.

Level: 2d6
External: goo
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.

Level: 1d6
External: goo
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.

Level: 1d6
External: goo
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.

Level: 2d6
External: goo
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.

Level: 1d6+1
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).
Depletion: 1-10

[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

Numenera in the Wild

Ran my first game of Numenera last night. Character creation is quick and easy, but you have to be a bit careful as you go through to hit and understand every point. Weapon skills, for instance, work differently from other skills (not sure why) in that you start at a negative, and then train up to no modifiers before getting the usual modifiers. Also, since each of the three aspects (adjective, noun, and phrase) can overlap in certain areas, you need to go through each carefully to make sure you note everything, plus sometimes hopping back-and-forth to avoid redundancy. Even at our level of inexperience and with flipping around in the book, we went from concept to completed character in something like a half-hour.

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.

It didn’t take ‘em long to discover the 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

Unpacking Numenera's Cypher Economy

Two of my players have created characters, I’m waiting on two more, and then it’s nailing down a time and place for play (which will absolutely be after WorldCon sometime; just how long will depend on my recovery time).  As I work on a first adventure (because the four in the book are real stinkers) I’m going over the rules bit-by-bit in more depth.  One thing that stands out is how stats work.

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.

So far, so good.  Having high stats means you can put forth more effort (ie burn points from your pools) to make tasks easier.  (Having the right skills, tools, situation, or help can also make tasks easier.)  Things get exciting when fights and traps and such kick in because these pools are also your hit points.  Get chewed on by a Broken Hound and you’ll lose 4 points from your Might pool.  Once your Might pool drops to zero, you start losing points from your Speed pool.  Lose all the points in all three pools and you’re dead.

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.)

However, the biggie is the cyphers. Cyphers are one-shot techno-magic devices that work very much like potions in D&D. However, unlike potions, cyphers are not bought or sold in shops, and they should be so ubiquitous in adventures that each player should always have a handful in their packs:

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

For Numenera: the Nine Deadly Sins

Just a bit of background detail as I get ready to run a Numenera game. I have some players, a few PCs made up, and I'm working on our first adventure.

By the time Cilven was elevated to the office of the Amber Papacy, the Order of Truth was in crises. The Triangular Heresy was by this point deeply rooted in the foothills beneath Mencala Peak. The ever-escalating extravagant promises made to princes and patrons were beginning to take their toll on the Order's reputation. The resulting scandals, plus the continuing actions of Brechels and his acolytes, drove a wedge deeper and deeper between the Order and the Angulan Knights, which by this point were becoming an institution within the Steadfast.

No sooner had the mantle of papacy settled upon Cliven's shoulders than she immediately set to reforming the Order of Truth. Once again, all encyclicals were published in Truth and the library program was reinvigorated with additional funds and talent. For the first time, the Amber Papacy officially declared human breeding experiments to be anathema, a powerful first step in repairing the fraying alliance between the Order and the Angulan Knights.

Most importantly, Pope Cliven prescribed the until-now informal Nine Deadly Sins in her famous “On the Character and Future of the Order of Truth”:

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

The Skeletal World of Numenera

Last week, JB asked, “However, I think I'm more interested in hearing how it it a far-out acid trip? Or a rather banal space-superhero show?” Good question, and one I’m not quite ready to answer as I’m only just now beginning to organize a game. But as I prepare, I did want to address the world that’s present to us in the books.

First, there’s the map. Right off the bat, you can see some odd geography. I know the Clock of Kala leapt right out at me, and right after it, the Great Slab, the star-shaped Caecilian Jungle, the apparently drowned Fengali Forest and the Cloudcrystal Skyfields. I discovered more that my eyes had missed as I read through the book. The places are as blatantly unnatural as they appear to be, and while it’s not hard to turn up the weirdness a notch or two, each is suitably odd and a great leaping-off point for further imaginative oddness.

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.

Now, compare this to Raggi’s “Contact Outer Sphere” which includes a chance for the sorcerer to be “possessed by a psychic beast roaming the interstellar ether between the caster and the answering star” or Cook’s Expert Rules “Contact Outer Plane” that could result in weeks of madness for the caster. If that was the extent of your exposure to Numenera (and it very well might be for some players) you could be excused for thinking that you had a Masters of the Universe knock-off in your hands.

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.

And, just for an added twist, Mr. Cook isn’t above playing games with people’s expectations. For instance, in a game where exploring is the principle theme (“Discovery is the soul of Numenera.”), an organization all about the rational search for, discovery, and study of the ancient artifacts that litter the world in order to make the world a better place ought to be the good guys. An organization run by a guy who calls himself the Amber Pope, its leaders “priests,” and who presents themselves to the populace as a religion because they’ve discovered people are “more likely to respect, admire, and obey” a religion should be the villains. In Numenera, they’re the same organization. Calling for a crusade in order to channel the war-like tendencies of the “civilized” nations outward instead of towards each other nicely encapsulates the nature of the Order of Truth. That the book has nearly nothing to say about the target of this crusade (and even leaves it an open question as to whether or not they even exist) is pretty much of a piece with the rest. Mr. Cook does the same with the Angulan Knights, invoking Gamma World’s Knights of Genetic Purity on the one hand while on the other describing them also as being dedicated to justice, irrespective of rank, wealth, or authority. That they ride white psychic dragons is just the icing on the cake.

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.