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.


JB said...

You need to expand more on those last two paragraphs. At least for me (I'm a little obtuse), what you're trying to say is unclear.

trollsmyth said...

JB: Old-school D&D has the built-in fun of the logistical challenges of exploration. WotC-era D&D has the built-in fun of tactically complex combat.

Numenera's built-in fun is pretty much playing with the cyphers. In the same way that old-school D&D hex-crawling can become a drag if you ignore the logistics, or poorly balanced combats can ruin WotC-era D&D, not having opportunities to do cool things with cyphers will leave you wondering why you're playing this game.

The letter and the spirit of the rules implies lots of cypher churn as well as random selection from a chart of 100.

So, unlike WotC-era D&D, instead of having a list of character abilities to build your adventures around, you may have little to no idea what your PCs will be able to do when you're designing your adventures. And, if they're clever, they'll find unusual ways to use the stuff they get.

So instead of carefully designed challenges that maximize opportunities for your PCs to show off their favorite abilities, what you really need is an open playground that lets them explore what they can do with the random collection of oddities they collect. It's a bit like building a 1st person shooter level and not knowing if it's for Team Fortress, Call of Duty, or Portal.

Ok, that's probably overstating things more than a little. And with clever players, they'll find lots of out-of-the-box ways to use their cyphers. The trick is to present them with challenges that encourage and reward that.

That make sense?

JB said...


I suppose it would make more sense if I had a better grasp of cyphers. I scrolled back through your older posts on Numenera, but didn't see much info despite them being "central to the game, mechanically." Are these equipment? Traits? Handed out by the GM? Invented on the fly by the players? Subject to parameters based on the character's stats or "level?" Subject to any parameters at all?

But maybe I'M the one who's over-thinking this...are you telling us that the msin "feature" of the game (besides a neat setting) is that s bunch of one shot magic items that are constantly available (through random selection and generous doling out) as players' creativity using these things? Because, well, that doesn't sound terribly interesting to me. It's hard to develop/identify with an imaginary character (you know, the "role-playing" thing?) when the basis for play is figuring out new ways to resolve challenges with the random loot in your pack. There's no consistent identity there...it's just playing an extravagant game of Hearts and playing the different hands of cards you're dealt at any one time.

trollsmyth said...

JB: Apologies for taking so long to get back to you on this.

Cyphers are equipment, rather like potions from D&D. Beyond the fact that they are one-use and disposable, they really aren't subject to parameters at all; if characters get a cypher that allows them to destroy a city, hey, guess what? They can destroy a city.

(Even the one-time limit is a bit wishy-washy, as there are a few that last for the life the character.)

But this is exactly the same as saying that the logistical challenges of exploration are central to old-school D&D. Cyphers don't define Numenera characters any more than rations and flasks of lamp oil define D&D characters. However, just as the logistical challenges of D&D define what a good D&D dungeon is like (non-linear that wears down on the PCs' resources over time), the importance of cyphers to Numenera define what a good Numenera adventure should be like.

That make sense?

Justin said...

JB it would be a good idea to DL the Players Guide and even read the short fiction that's included in the campaign setting to get a feel for the game.

I can help you with that if you can't find it online.