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RPG: Numenera, my new infatuation

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Life’s busy, and so once again there’s been little to no time to blog here. I wanted to write a lot during my time off work two weeks ago, but my computer decided to make my time off a nightmare. Result: I am now using a 256 GB SSD with Windows 10 as OS, I bought a 3 TB Seagate Expansion external USB disk and lost all my campaign prep that I had stored on my fairly new Lexar USB flash drive. At least I didn’t lose my main hard drive and was able to back things up. Still, a nightmare. There were tears, let me tell you. Tears.

But now I am back and kicking, and I am actually liking Windows 10 quite a lot.

I need to finish up my coop boardgames posts with a look at Cthulhu-flavoured games, but for now, I want to talk about my current gaming passion: Numenera.

numenera

I’m a huge fan of Science Fantasy, a mix of Fantasy flavoured with Science Fiction. Usually formerly advanced worlds fallen back into feudal systems, with remnants of advanced technology out and about. Examples of fiction like that that I used to enjoy are Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books (admittedly those jumped the shark at some point in the series) or Robert Silverberg’s Majipoor Chronicles.

I was delighted when I first heard of the Numenera setting. Earth, in about a billion years. Eight major, highly advanced civilizations have risen and fallen, and humanity now lives in the so-called Ninth World. Some civilizations were space-faring. There are tantalizing hints that for a while humans weren’t living on Earth anymore, but now they are back, living in a world that’s full of mysterious remnants of the previous 8 worlds, full of utterly bizarre things no one in the Ninth World actually understands. It is up to the players to discover the mysteries that were left behind.

Imagine Mass Effect’s Protheans, and Shephard hard on their trail. That’s Numenera, only that the players are less capable of actually dealing with what they discover because the other civilizations were so far advanced. Monte Cook, the author of Numenera, quotes Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the SF author, right in the introduction to the corebook: ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’. This is where Numenera is at. And it’s all very weird. This weirdness is what makes Numenera so compelling.

Given that the setting fascinated me a lot, I had no idea if the actual game system would actually play well. I’ve been groomed with D&D and compatible systems like Pathfinder and have only dabbled in other systems like Shadowrun and World of Darkness as a reader. I am most familiar with the D20 style of D&D 3e and higher. Players receive bonuses, GM sets a difficulty class, players roll a 20-sided die and add those bonuses in hopes of cracking the target difficulty class which is usually 15+. The Cypher system uses a similar, yet in practice very different system. As GM you still set a difficulty, between 0 and 10. 0 is an automatic success and doesn’t require any roll at all. For the other difficulties the player needs to reach a target goal on a d20, which is always the difficulty multiplied by 3. A task with a difficulty of 1 is simple, and thus the player needs to roll a 3 on a d20 to succeed. A task that is demanding and requires some focus is a difficulty 3, so a player needs to roll a 9. The highest normal difficulty a player can roll for is 6, which requires an 18 and is considered intimidating. Difficulties 7-10 cannot be succeeded at with a normal die roll.

In a D20-system game, the players try to stack bonuses to get their rolls as high as possible. As feats and certain conditions can add or subtract from these bonuses, Pathfinder is a very math-heavy game. I will admit to being unable to quickly calculate all this in my head as GM and am using Hero Lab as a formidable yet necessary crutch. The higher the character’s level, the more numbers to crunch. The Cypher System has a different approach. You set a difficulty, and the players now have to try to lower this difficulty with the means they have. For one, they can spend effort which lowers the difficulty by 1. Assuming the character is trying to convince someone to give them some kind of information, and the NPC is very unwilling, making this a difficulty 5 task with a target roll of 15. The character can expend effort and use points from their stat pools to lower the difficulty by 1, making it a difficulty of 4. The character has a descriptor of Charming, which means they are trained in positive social interactions. This lowers the difficulty by 1 again. The difficulty is now 3, and the target roll is a 9, which the player decides to go for.

That’s a lot less math than Pathfinder.

On top of that, the GM doesn’t do any rolls in Numenera. The GM sets the difficulties, and tells the story, but all rolls are made by the players. In combat, the GM doesn’t roll the dice for enemies. When enemies attack, each player gets a defense roll. Difficulties in combat are determined by the enemy’s level. A level 3 monster does 3 points of damage, to attack it players need to roll a 9 (or lower the difficulty) and to successfully defend they also need to roll a 9. Isn’t that easy? Of course there are exceptions for some creatures, but it’s all still very manageable.

The Amber Monolith

The Amber Monolith

First Numenera session

Having perused the corebook, I decided I wanted to play a Numenera one-shot, and a couple we used to play Pathfinder with and my SO were willing test subjects. My plan was to run The Beale of Boregal as one-shot. This adventure is in the core rulebook and it was advised that it would be a great introduction to Numenera. The basic story is that the characters are all pilgrims on the Wandering Walk, a pilgrim route that supposedly goes around the whole of the Ninth World (which only contains one super continent). While on the route, it turns out that the whole area is in distress for an undisclosed reason. Normally peaceful creatures turn hostile, pilgrims get murdered, and nano-technology goes haywire. The PCs get involved when a teenage boy asks them to bring his sick sister with strange mental powers to Cylion Basion.

For this one-shot, I didn’t use pre-gen characters, because I also wanted to test Numenera character generation, which is really fun and easy. Despite only having three character ‘classes’ or types, as they’re known here, the options are basically limitless. Any character can be different. A Cypher System character is created with a sentence: I am an adjective noun who verbs.

The descriptor is an adjective that describes the character. The ones in the corebook are all positive, which is why I also allowed the ones from the Character Options book, which also adds negative descriptors, making for richer, fuller characters, IMHO. My players agreed and exclusively picked descriptors from the Character Options. The noun/type is one of the three different classes you can play: a glaive aka warrior/fighter, a jack aka rogue/hybrid or a nano aka magic-user. The last part, the focus, is the character ability that makes the character special and stand out. Once you’ve picked all three, you add a number of free points to your stat pools, write down your skills and abilities and off you go. We also used the table to come up with a character hook.

My players came up with the following characters:

  • Ophelia is a clumsy glaive who exists partially out of phase: a warrior who is so clumsy that she gets an asset to breaking things. It also makes her more charming, in a self-deprecating manner. She looks oddly transparent and at first tier has the ability to walk through solid objects, e.g. walls. Her story hook is that she deserted from the army of her native country and is on the run.
  • Lemy is a weird jack who fuses mind and machine. Born with a long lizard tail, Lemy is a strange brainiac with very high intellect who’s always been cast out because people are creeped out by him, which makes social interactions tougher for him. He’s used nano-technology to enhance his brain capacity and will continue to do so. He leans more on the nano-side of the jack. His story hook is that he used to be a member of a travelling circus and is a wanderer.
  • Sam is a vengeful nano who employs magnetism. With her only goal in life being total revenge, Sam knows how to employ nano-technology in a way that seems like magic. She’s also able to control metal objects with her mind, serving as a magnet. Her rolled story hook was very cool. Sam once killed a crime lord in self-defense, which made her a local hero. It also forced her to leave her home town, fleeing from repercussions from the crime syndicate. Just like Ophelia she’s on the run.
A nano in action against Broken Hounds

A nano in action against Broken Hounds

My observation was that it was very easy to create unique characters with interesting story hooks for immediate play. I left the players alone for a bit to discuss how they ended up traveling together on the Wandering Walk and off we went with the adventure. The adventure is quite fun though it offers very little hooks why people would actually investigate, simply assuming that curiosity is enough to move them on. Especially if you have a party of people who are fleeing to the Beyond region of the world to escape the army and criminals. They didn’t go off the track anyhow. We didn’t actually manage to finish the adventure in one session, as it runs fairly long, and so quit just after they got to Embered Peaks to investigate the final section of the adventure.

The verdict of the players was ‘Hell yeah, let’s turn this into a campaign!’ and I was very thrilled about this. It was very fun to run the session, and incredibly relaxing. No GM screen, no dice, no character management. I mostly told my story and explained the rules as we played. I loved it.

Since then I have been very busy. I have always used published adventures because I am not confident with coming up with my own adventures and encounters. However, I find Numenera so easy to run and so inspirational that I am coming up with my first very own homebrew campaign. I will weave some published adventures from Weird Adventures and other sources into the campaign but the main campaign story is my own. I have the first half of the campaign all written up and hope to keep you posted with story progress when we play.

With the campaign outline being fairly advanced already, I am in the process of translating Justin Alexander’s excellent Numenera Cheat Sheet into German, as a reference for my players as Numenera’s German translation has not been published yet. I also want to write three flash fics about events in the characters’ past, so they can get further into the weirdness of the setting. It will also serve as introduction to some major NPCs of the campaign. I am very excited about this campaign. It’s an incredibly creative setting. I can only recommend it. The core rulebook is probably the nicest rulebook I ever owned and it’s pretty much a 3-in-1 book: player’s handbook, campaign setting + small bestiary and GM’s guide. Plus four included adventures! And if you’re not planning on GMing, and only want to play, you can buy the much cheaper Player’s Guide, which only includes the player sections from the core rulebook, which you can buy for 7.99 USD as PDF. Very cool.

My follow-up adventure to the Beale will lead the party further towards the Great Slab on the Wandering Walk, using info from The Wander, a 3rd party supplement. My goal is for them to travel the world, always hard on the heels of discovering more information about a mysterious key that one of the party members is already carrying on them, with many opposing parties trying to stop them…

3 Comments

  1. Great review. It’s interesting that my players have just finished the Beale and looked at the map and decided they want to explore the great slab. I wonder if your party got there.

    I agree that this is a great game. So wonderful to run and it stokes the creative fires. I’d love to hear more from you on it.

    • Hey, thanks for the comment. We actually didn’t go there. I should really post about my Numenera campaign some more. We don’t play very often, due to RL, but it’s always fun. After Beale of Boregal I threw them some breadcrumbs that led them to a small town near the Wandering Walk, Aurora. I snatched the idea from Ryan Chaddock’s excellent supplement The Wander. There, they reactivated a volcano that spews liquid glass instead of lava, eventually causing the ruin of the town as it got frozen in glass. From there I am in the middle of running The Vortex, we’re in part 2 now. I’ll try to post more soon.

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