Saturday, February 28, 2015

Numenera Mini-Campaign, Thoughts from Nowhere

Last Sunday I wrapped my first Numenera mini-campaign, three sessions scheduled to run 1pm-9pm-ish. We took 45 minute to hour long dinner breaks and spent 1-1 ½ hours making characters the first session. So all told, maybe 18-20ish hours of game play? Still, kinda fantastic considering that for the D&D games I was running I’d need to run 2-3 times as many sessions to get that amount of game play.

First part will be thoughts about the System and Setting and then about the plot I ran and getting used to a new group. Also, some of this might be brief if I addressed it in my earlier post about running Numenera.

Character Creation – 

Character creation went reasonably quickly, especially given that two players had never played Numenera and the other three had only played a single time. I picked up the Players Options book which both provided more options and gave another book for me to let the players page through. The Cypher system character creation (Descriptor Type Focus discussed here: What Does the Protagonist Want? Because I usually have no Idea... ) helped the players make interesting and evocative characters, which provided a great starting point for the game. There really is nothing else that has sold me on this character creation system than the fact that at the end each player has a sentence summary of their character that provides a great jumping off point for them, their fellow players and the GM.

The System – 

As I wrote before, the odd “target number = difficulty level x 3” math that seems a little oblique/confusing when you read the rules is much, much more elegant in play. The PCs were Tier 2 at the end of the mini-campaign and were making Intimidating (lvl 6/target roll 18), Formidable (lvl 7/target roll 21) and even Heroic (lvl 8/target roll 24) checks fairly regularly.

The use of stat ratings as ‘health’ pools definitely grew upon me as I ran it more. Perhaps because I’m so used to the D&D based assumption that 18 STR is an indicator of how strong you are it took a little while to grok that an 18 Might in Numenera ≠ 18 STR in D&D. Rather, an 18 Might in Numenera was less an indication of abstract raw strength than an indication of the ability to put in extended exertions. That is to say, a PC with a Might of 8 has the same chance of making an untrained check as a PC with a Might of 18, assuming that neither is skilled in the task or is expending Effort. What makes a PC with a Might of 18 better at related checks than a PC with a Might of 8 is Effort. When a PC applies Effort they reduce the step (lvl) of difficulty by 1, thus dropping the target number needed by 3. To apply effort, a PC has to spend some of their stat pool, giving characters with higher stats a larger pool to draw from. These stat pools are also used for damage. So a Glaive with a Might of 18 is able to spend from their larger Might pool and apply effort to lower the difficulty of checks more often than a Nano with a Might of 8.

Characters also spend from their pools to activate powers, which adds to the stats serving as more of a measure of endurance than absolute ability. And finally, characters can have Edges in a stat, which reduces the cost by the Edge once for each check. So, if a Jack has a Speed Edge of 2, then she can reduce the cost of activating a Speed power by 2 or can subtract 2 from the cost of applying Effort. What did get a little confusing for the players is that Edge can only be applied once per check, so if a Nano was activating a Esoterie that cost 2 Intellect, and applying 1 Effort, which cost 3 Intellect, they could apply their Intellect Edge of 2 only once, either reducing the activation cost to 0 or the Effort cost to 1.

One of the consequences of the Stats as Pools instead of absolute measurements was that it elevated non-combat situations more than I expected. Take for instance a scene where PCs are investigating a strange structure, the PCs might be making lots of Intellect checks and because they want to succeed, they might be spending Intellect points on Effort, so that even though no combat takes place, there is still a bit of tension as they get deeper and deeper into this strange structure and begin to run low in their pools. Between combats using up Might and investigating strange things using up Intellect, I did pretty good in those stats, but when I run it again, I will need to figure out some good situations to make use of Speed.

Combats were easy and relatively interesting. I think one of the Nano players lost interest in some of the combats near the end, but otherwise they seemed interesting and easy (at least from my vantage point as GM).

I used more of the setting from the book than when I ran my first Numenera attempt and it was pretty good for the most part, though the Great Slab seems to have a lot of the same characteristics as the Clock of Kala, in that they’re both strangely high, obviously artificial and difficult or impossible to climb. Fortunately, I was able to swap in the immense and strangely star shaped Caecilian Jungle in place of the Great Slab. But overall I was more than satisfied with the ease of taking what I wanted from the setting and bestiary and how Weird it was in an eminently good way.

Now as far running the game went… I think my players enjoyed it, in that they weren’t obviously unhappy with the game but I didn’t get a ton of feedback. I made a few missteps though. I used a Silver Orphan at the end of the second session and promptly forgot that they don’t speak and instead just use drawings to communicate, so that made the encounter a little less than it could have been. I should have tried to solicit more from the players as to what they wanted the city of Nowhere to turn out to be, instead of just deciding as the final session started that it was the remains of a crashed spaceship lost outside of time.

And in getting used to a newer group, which is to say that I have two players who have been regulars in my groups for 3-4 years, one player who I’ve played with and had as GM but had only been GM for once and two new players who I’ve only really begun playing with. One of the new players is the kind of player who runs her character full steam ahead, and so in the first session she ended up having a vision of a strange and powerful creature disintegrating her character’s arm. This is a habit I have with players who enjoy inhabiting the spotlight, taken from old LARP days and Devil’s Deals, where I try, now and then, to make sure that the spotlight isn’t all puppies and rainbows, but that there’s a little bit of a cost now and then so in the hopes that it will help players share the spotlight, or rather to maybe give those players pause every now and then that might allow other players to jump in the spotlight. So, of course, when the final battle arrived, the strange and powerful creature made its appearance and the price it asked for setting everything aright was the arm of the character who had the vision of it disintegrating her arm. Because, that vision had become Chekov’s gun in my mind, I had introduced it, now it had to go off.  So it did, but now, because I don’t know the player that well, I’m wondering if that’s really what she wanted. Ah well, hopefully I’m just second guessing myself, but I am definitely going to be soliciting more feedback from all the players as I begin my next mini-campaign with my Sunday gaming group, a foray into 13th Age which I am extremely excited for.

The Player Characters:

As summed up in the notes I took down on my index cards.

  • Vexilia Shayd
    • Strong Jack Who Masters Weaponry
    • Orphan, was found in Nowhere by Azariel, older adopted sister who disappeared 15 years ago in Astaria.
  • Kryyz
    • Strong Nano Who Exists Partially Out of Phase
    • Looking for Nowhere, believes that an apocalypse befell Nowhere and that’s why it’s out of phase.
  • Lrrrr
    • Mutant Glaive who Performs Feats of Strength
    • Looking for Nowhere because it is supposed to be a “Nomad” city.
  • Joleen Kentucky
    • Clever Jack who Explores Dark Places
    • Nomad out of Plains of Katuru, explored with Lrrr
    • Looking for Salvage/Scavenge in Nowhere, wants to find the Nomad City.
  • Astrape
    • Mystical Nano who rides the Lightning
    • Searching for Nowhere because it was a city filled with Numenera.

Favorite bits of Numenera –

  • Lrrr and Joleen deciding to be travelling buddies. This played out a few times over the course of the mini-campaign and I am a sucker for players giving their PCs relationships and then following up on it without the GM forcing it.
  • Vexilia jumping in head first into situations. Even after an NPC warned the PCs that they would have a strange, prophetic and unnerving vision should they leave the cave he was unwilling to leave, her player still insisted on experiencing it.
  • Astrape proposing different ways the party could use the Stone Guts cypher, aka Concrete Vomit, including flying up and spitting it down on human-sized ticks.
  • Kryyz deciding to spread lots of malicious rumors as they left a town about the bandit, Dalker Keech, whose gang the PCs had encountered and trounced, partly because I would have never expected it from that player before running the game.

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