Wednesday, August 07, 2013

The Aesthetics of Numenera

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”?

Wait, what?

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.


noisms said...

I quite like the art but I'm starting to get allergic reactions to pictures of adventurers standing in a "look at me being awesome" pose.

trollsmyth said...

nosims: Maybe that's the problem? I'm flipping through the book and my eyes just skim over it because it's "stereotypical RPG art" in composition? Wouldn't surprise me.

JB said...

For a game like this ("strange future") the art and the mood/feel it conveys is certainly an important consideration. However, I think I'm more interested in hearing how it it a far-out acid trip? Or a rather banal space-superhero show?


trollsmyth said...

JB: That is the $65k question, isn't it? I'm hoping to have an answer soon, but right now I'm only halfway through the book, and I've already embarrassed myself once by saying something about the rules that turned out to be untrue on further reading. >.<

John said...

The Scribe has the advantage of being a pre-existing piece of art, not something created as an illustration for a game book. Maybe that's a better way to go - game authors should just lease the rights to all the pictures that inspired them and include them in the rulebook.

trollsmyth said...

John: Intriguingly, there are a number of pics, and some of my favorites in this book, that appear to have been leased after they inspired stuff to be included in the setting. I find that very cool, and I agree with you.

Chauncey said...

This is cool!