Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Skeletal World of Numenera

Last week, JB asked, “However, I think I'm more interested in hearing how it PLAYS...is 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.


-C said...

This review makes it sounds . . . Good.

JB said...

Hmm...I don't know that I agree with "C."

The weirdness of the setting isn't off-putting, nor the disjointedness between different elements. I like disjointed weirdness. But it sounds a bit like "weird for the sake of filling pages" or rather "unthoughtful weird" which doesn't sound all that great.

For example, when I read that the game gives a "vague, glossed over" description of something (like an undersea city or your messenger 'squitos), I say "cool." But when you tell me that "vague" description takes up two pages in the book, map or not, I say: "this undersea city better be damn important to the setting to use that much space." And maybe it is: if so, that's cool.

Maybe the Order of Truth only takes up the same amount of word count to describe as YOU used in your post. That's pretty much all I need to run with such a group (shades of a Canticle for Leibowitz there). Much more than that and it just becomes so much setting "padding" of the kind I really don't need in a game.

I don't know, man, but my personal feelings about games is that the setting shouldn't have a higher word count than the rules, unless that setting is specific and integral to play, such that the participants need the info in order to play. When I read your review I feel like the weirdness is just an eclectic bunch of stuff and ideas, easily added to or deleted from, and I don't need a "book of weirdness." Make that a supplement.

[you can see another example of this with the otherwise super-cool Over the Edge. It's semi-forgivable in OTE because of the minimal over all page count, but I get the impression Numenera is a big-fatty of a book]

trollsmyth said...

-C: I do like it, but...

JB: I'm not sure I can recommend it to JB here. It is a monster of a book, the pdf clocking in at 418 pages. Big chunks of that are setting material, and very little of it is central to the game. The setting takes up about 100 pages, plus a 50 page beastiary, 30 pages on the numenera (magic items) that are a big part of the game, 45 pages of GM advice, and four adventures in 30 pages.

If you're interested in just the rules and the bare basics of the setting, you can get the Players Guide. It's really selections from the first 60 or so pages from the book, giving you an overview of the basic mechanic, the setting (including a map), and everything you need to create characters as a player. Won't you won't get are the random tables and descriptions of the Numenera, but I doubt there's anyone reading this blog who couldn't create their own over a lazy Sunday afternoon.

But, while there's some neat stuff in the rules, I'm not sure it's neat enough to really justify jumping into it just for them. We made some characters last night, which seemed to go really well, so hopefully I'll be able to tell you something about how it actually plays soon.

JB said...

@ Troll:

Cool looking forward to it.

Just by the way, it's certainly possible that a giant book of weird setting would be a totally cool thing to have on one's game shelf...whether to snip from or steal wholesale. I just don't usually find that kind of thing the main "selling point" for a new game.

I mean, I'm still waiting on Urutsk.