Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A Billion Years in the Future... Running Numenera

Decanted, a robot with a human head in it's chest.  Pretty sure my players weren't fans.

I ran Numenera last Friday. Originally, I had planned to end my GM break by running an Unknown Armies horror game, but alas events (a surprise evening in the ER) and poor organization (I did not heavily recruit players for the game and so on Monday the even had 1 confirmed player and 2 maybes and it was only on Friday afternoon itself when potential players told me they wanted to play) prevented that from occurring
Instead I ran a Numenera scenario I had been toying with for a while as it was easier to run on the fly and much less emotionally draining than my Black Friday themed horror show. Still plan on running that, so I'll have to just gather up four or five brave souls who wouldn't mind an evening of harrowing, but what follows here are my thoughts on running Numenera for the first time.

  • Premise/Setting
    • Numenera is set a Billion Years in the Future, making it almost as much a Fantasy game as a Science Fiction game. Compare this to the other Science Fiction game I've run recently, Fading Suns, which is set around the year 5000, making Numenera a time over three hundred thousand times more distant from the current day than Fading Suns. Conversely, the year 5000 is only 1 and a half times more distant from today than 14 AD (the year Augustus died). While I feel more constrained by keeping technology/events 'realistic' to the future dark age of Fading Suns, having the far, far future of Numenera made it easier to hand wave away any pesky tendencies towards a constrained realism and go with my more fantastic tendencies, which I enjoyed. It also made it easier to accept some sillier name choices by my players, namely, Waffle and Jurraskicker.
    • While the setting has been critisized by some (it is one of Thomas' concerns with the game) I actually found it very easy to pick and choose from the setting presented in the core book and felt free to just create my own little pocket of the Ninth World. Instead of leaving the players bewildered and unable to choose from the vastness of an entire world, I constrained them in a smallish valley whose inhabitents served a machine intelligence of some sort and who thought that the world outside of their valley had undergone an apocalypse that rendered it uninhabitable. 
  • Character Creation
    • One of the things that intrigued me most about Numenera was character creation, and I was not disappointed. It took roughly an hour to shepherd the four players through character creation, none of whom had any previous Numenera setting or rules knowledge. The Descriptor, Type, Focus system worked pretty well, at least from my perch as GM and I tossed out 5 motivations to at least give the players a starting point of what their PCs might want in the scenario. The four PCs we ended up with were:
      •  Churlz, a Swift Glaive who Wields Two Weapons.
      • Waffle, a Mystical Nano who Works Miracles.
      • Jurraskicker, a Tough Glaive who Rages.
      • Pryff, a Strong Jack who Focuses Mind over Matter.
    • I think the biggest hurdles for character creation were getting through the options and the limited chance for randomness.
      • Even though there are only three types (classes) Glaive (Warrior), Nano (Mage) and Jack (Rogue/Bard/Skill character) with 12 Descriptors and 29 Foci you end up with over a thousand separate options. This is alleviated a bit by the Descriptors and Foci being fairly evocative of what they give you, more so than many feats or options in other RPGs from my experience. So Commands Mental Powers or Swift at least give you a good feel for the flavor your character would have, even if the mechanical benefits aren't as obvious.
      • As far as randomness, as the attributes use a point buy system there's little of the classic roll some d6 and see what your character can be feel, the only tables that are intended to be random are the Type background tables, and even those are optionally. The DM for the AD&D/OSRIC game I'm playing in was playing and though he rolled randomly to choose from the Type, Descriptor and Foci tables, I don't think it was quite as satisfying for him as rolling up a random D&D character would have been.
  • Running the Game
    • I was surprised at how easy the difficulty task difficulty/target number calculations were to perform on the fly. While it might not seem that taking the difficulty level of a task and multiplying it by three to obtain the target number needed would be very intuitive, especially with the addition of the players being able to call upon their backgrounds or spend points for a pool to reduce the difficulty by a level (or two or three as it turned out often), it was. And I'm glad I read this post by Monte about having the conversation about the difficulty and modifiers before the dice roll rather than after. I was surprised, though, at how often the players spent extra points to reduce a difficulty down to 2 or 3 to get a target number of 6 or 9, as I expected that they would settle for a difficulty of 4 (target number 12) more times than they did.
    • I was also surprised at how much I enjoyed not having anyone roll for damage because Numenera has a fixed damage system and how little the players complained (ie, I don't remember anyone complaining about it).
    • Another pleasant surprise was the lack of the ubiquitous and troublesome "I roll for Perception" checks that haunt and bog down D&D games. Not sure if this was a feature of the rules system or the players not being familiar with it, but it was much appreciated by me and I'm hoping that it will continue when I run Numenera next. 
    • Combats went smoothly and the knowledge/skill checks were much simpler and more intuitive. Definitely a fan of the Skill system of Numenera which is basically "If you have a relevant skill, lower the difficulty level by one". 
    • For the next time I run, I plan on making more GM intrusions, where you give players XP to make what is basically a Apocalypse World/Dungeon World style GM move. I think that more intrusions will help the XP economy as players can spend XP for rerolls or to cancel a GM intrusion in addition to saving them up to buy more powers and advance and at least from the first session, I think that players will enjoy a more high XP game than a low XP game where they might feel they have to hoard XP.
  • Exploration/Discovery
    • Numenera is explicitly meant to be a game about exploration and discovery which gave me a nice focus as a GM. So when conceiving of my isolated valley setting I built it around several mysteries (who/what is the Crystal Seer, what does the Crystal Seer want, who is the Cast Out, why was Xat abandoned, is there anything outside the valley?). By the end of the session the players had figured out several mysteries (the Crystal Seer is an AI left over from an ancient corporation) but there are still several left to be resolved and because I'm thinking about discovery it makes it easier to be willing to let the players make discoveries instead of the issue I've had with several D&D campaigns where I try and hoard my secrets as much as I can so that they drive the plot (which never works well, so I'll definitely be switching to a more Numenera style of thinking).
  • Overall I quite enjoyed Numenera and I think (and hope) that my four players did as well, now to figure out a good time to run it again and see if we can get at least 5 or 6 more sessions out of it.  

1 comment:

  1. Numenera certainly is intriguing to me. I think your willingness to jump in to new systems in games, analyze them, digest them, teach them, and then run them is pretty outstanding. I'm always looking to 'borrow' from other systems, but my style of doing so is far more piecemeal. I would be intrigued to maybe try this out. Perhaps a short session on the Podcast is up for discussion?

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