November 2012

Distinguishing It From Magic

I keep bringing up Arthur C. Clarke’s third law, that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” when I talk about Numenera. It’s a lynchpin for the entire game and its associated setting.

Does that mean that the technology of the Ninth World is just simply fantasy with the serial numbers filed off?

Not exactly.

The Limits of the Limitless

As lead editor Shanna Germain and I continue to develop Numenera and the Ninth World, we are setting parameters and developing guidelines. And “what is possible?” is certainly an important one. It would be easy to say, with the amount of time involved, anything is possible. And perhaps that’s true. And if someone ran a Numenera campaign and had anything that might happen in a traditional fantasy game, I wouldn’t tell them that they were doing it wrong.

But it’s not exactly the way we’re going with it. Oh, don’t get me wrong. The fantastic, far-future technology left over in the Ninth World gives us floating crystal mountain ranges, teleportation, creatures that should be too large to sustain their own weight, and all sorts of “impossible” things. But there are a few things that we’re not letting even the wildly advanced tech directly mess around with.

Life after death: Traditional fantasy often involves magic that works upon the souls of creatures–including and perhaps in particular, bringing them back from the dead, either as a restorative, as a way to gain information, or in the form of some kind of undead monstrosity. In Numenera, you could conceivably use technology or even telepathy to access the memories (and even personality) stored in the brain of a dead person. You could have biological or technological means to animate a corpse, and even give it some kind of drive or will, accessing those prior memories and personality. But you won’t find the traditional wights, animate skeletons, liches, or other such undead. You won’t find mediums who communicate with the spirits of the departed or necromancer priests that can return your dead comrade to life for you. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t mediums or necromancers that claim to be able to do those things, and might even use technology to achieve them in some semblance. Or that the vast majority of people living in the setting are going to call it “magic” either way. So it comes down to this: traditional voodoo zombie raised by the dark arts, or “walking dead” corpse, animated by a sophisticated virus that can activate nerve endings, muscles, and even memories? From the viewpoint of many people, this is nothing but a rather pedantic splitting of hairs, and I’m well aware of that. It’s more a designer’s mindset than something that really distinguishes the setting. This kind of philosophical discussion isn’t going to help you while the thing tries to chew your face off.

Sympathetic magic: In most fantasy magical systems, like begets like. A feather from a pegasus allows you to fly. The touch of water sprite allows you to breathe underwater. The dust of the remains of a saint in a holy shrine is needed to dispel a curse. That’s all really cool–but it has no place in the Ninth World. In Numenera you might end up with a small, hand-held device that looses ferocious gouts of flame, just like in a fantasy setting, but it’s only in the latter that the device is the tooth of an ancient red dragon soaked in the blood of an efreet. In Numenera it’s a mechanical device. Just because the wielder doesn’t understand how it works, and believes the latter to be true, doesn’t mean that it is. So again, however, this is more a matter of perception versus reality than anything else. Someone might feel the need to chant the names of ancient saints and burn appropriate incense before using the magical gestures (activating the control pad) that opens the sealed door. This is, of course, wonderful character and story fodder. Because what does the person do when they see that the associated rituals and “mystical connections” they thought existed suddenly don’t, but the “magic” remains. In other words, what does the person who’s been reciting the chants and burning the incense to open the door believe when she sees someone just push the right buttons on the control panel and get the same result? (Or to look at it from the other side, what does the person who tries to just push the buttons do when he sees that it doesn’t work, and that the chants and incense–activating unseen audio and chemical receptors in the door–ARE required?)

Faeries, spirits, or traditional myth: While extradimensional, incorporeal entities exist in the Ninth World as a result of the prior worlds’ inhabitants experimenting with gates and other means to access other levels of reality, that doesn’t make them sylphs, ghosts, angels, or demons. And to be sure–as with the other issues–people might even call them that, but as a designer (and a gamemaster), I’m not limited to what tradition tells us about those beings, because they aren’t those beings. I might create something that seems very much like a spirit dwelling in a lake, but I don’t have to cleave to the myths of selkies or the nymphs when I do so. In fact, the situation offers me the great gift of creative space in order to do something different with the idea.

The Benefits of Limitations

Strangely, I have found that putting even the slightest limitations on the setting (and more specifically, the power behind the setting–the causes of all the perceived effects) has broadened it, not diminished it. Somehow, imagining the power it would take to work with gravity, material strength, power resources, and other factors makes putting a floating city in the sky more interesting than having it just be the result of some powerful spell. It encourages me to think about the strange-looking gravity repulsors on the bottom of the city, and what the effects might be of being near them. It makes me think about the invisible force-field supports and bridges that connect the towers of glass, constantly repaired by fields of nanobots, so that they can take virtually any insane shape I can conceive. It makes me think about what might come to live in such a city after its creators are gone.

Spending time trying to imagine these–unimaginable–advanced civilizations that could build (almost) anything they wished spurs on creativity in ways that thinking about powerful wizards who could accomplish anything never did. Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a condemnation of traditional fantasy. I love that stuff (obviously). But right now, I’m head over heels about ultra-advanced technology and the setting its remnants can provide.

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Fifth Playtest Report

Need to catch up on what happened before? The last installment can be found here.

After their negotiations with Devola, Caracol Vus, Grayden, Fisher, and Caedmyn went to a storehouse in the complex where the strange serpentine creature had stored some supplies. They not only found food, water, and other necessities for their journey, but some useful artifacts.

The first was a metallic rod that could be used to very temporarily negate gravity’s pull on a creature or object. Basically, whatever it affected would float up into the air and then come crashing down again. The second was a small device that, when properly activated, brought a sort of wall into existence. (In truth, it was more like a large portion of some far larger device that could be used effectively as a barrier. What’s more, what it really did was teleport the barrier, so if it was “created” in one spot, it disappeared from the place it previously rested. Third was a headband that emitted a blast of powerful energy. Lastly, there was a transparent synth shield that, gave a sort of readout when the wearer looked through it at a creature, detailing the best place to strike. Grayden took the gravity wand, Caedmyn took the barrier, Fisher put on the headband, and Caracol Vus decided to wield the shield.

Fully rested and equipped, the four left the subterranean complex and struck out overland to the location that Devola had provided. Her instructions said that they needed to find a stronghold of The Enemy and destroy a machine there. This device, she explained, allowed The Enemy to “communicate with itself.”

The journey took them through a blasted wasteland of strangely regular valleys. Eventually, they walked through series of huge, upright, metallic rings that dominated one of the valleys. The rings were clearly the remnants of some collapsed structure. As they walked, they saw two humans crouched behind one of the rings where the valley abruptly opened into a wide plain. They looked as though they might be hiding, but not from the approaching travelers–something from outside the vale.

Grayden called out to the figures, who made motions with their hands for him to be silent. Grayden and the others joined the two, a man and a woman, where they hid.

“Cragworm,” the woman said.

“I don’t hear or see anything,” Fisher said.

“There’s a hunting cragworm out there,” she said again, with a frustration borne by urgency.

Caracol Vus peered around the ring structure and saw nothing. “I don’t see anything either.”

“What’s a cragworm?” Grayden asked.

The woman furrowed her brow in contempt. “You must all be silent!”

“Well, if you don’t tell us, we won’t know what to look for,” Grayden replied, quietly.

“Maybe it’s gone,” Fisher said.

“Let’s wait for a bit and see what happens,” Caedmyn whispered.

So they waited. And nothing happened. Finally, deeply suspicious of the woman, Grayden said, I’m just going to go around and take a look.” To Fisher, telepathically, Grayden said, “Watch these two. I think they’re lying. I think this is a trick of some kind.” Then he carefully stepped around the side of the metal ring and took a few paces forward. Looking around, he still saw nothing. He began to turn back to his companions when suddenly, a portion of the rocky ground ahead of him moved. It rose up into the air. It opened an enormous maw.

Grayden then knew what a cragworm was. The thing was like a serpent, the exact color of the local stone and earth, at least eighty feet long and larger in circumference than a human by at least double. It has a great number of eyes and a toothy, multi-hinged mouth that opened in four directions. Before he knew what had happened the thing reared up and bit him, swallowing him so that his upper half was now in the creature’s gullet.

The others cried out and leapt into action. Caracol Vus attacked it with is blade, and Caedmyn with an esotery. Their new male companion also charged into the fray with a sword of his own. Fisher created an illusion of other figures to harass it. It was a titanic struggle. Caedmyn eventually got the cragworm to let Grayden go with a well-placed  that lash of raw force to its jaws. But then it turned and bit the man with the sword.

“Nim!” the woman cried out as it tore him in half.

With a powerful blow, Grayden finished the creature, which collapsed in a heap.

They learned that the woman’s name was Laris. Distraught and angry over the death of her companion, she would tell them little of her purpose there. This made the group, Grayden in particular, more suspicious, and thus they were perhaps more gruff with her than was appropriate for someone who just lost a friend. She would not agree to help them or accompany them, although she confirmed that in the plains beyond, there were a number of ancient towers and strange, greenish creatures dwelled in and around them.

The foursome pushed onward, into a jumbled ruin of metal and stone that stretched as far as they could see. Here and there stood metal towers with their tops torn away. They looked more like support structures than dwellings–like the many legs of an enormous table. One of the towers, although still damaged at its very top, was more complete and taller than the rest. As they drew closer, Fisher spotted huge, bulbous insectoid things crawling on the outside.

Further, as they approached, they saw more and more patrols of emerald skinned, nearly featureless humanoids. While they were reminiscent of the creatures they had encountered on the floating vehicle the day prior, they were clearly different. Fisher used his power to craft illusions to attempt to make the entire group appear to be these green mannequin-like creatures and they pressed on toward the tower.

The disguise did not seem to fool many of the humanoids, however, who began to rush toward the four infiltrators. When Caracol Vus attacked the first that came too near, he discovered with surprise that they were as featureless on the inside as they were on the outside. That is to say, his blade cut one in half and it was simply solid all the way through, with the consistency of a thick sponge. Greenish water splashed out of the dark sponge as it struck the ground.

Fisher urged them all to get into the tower, the doorway to which was both close and just a simple, wide archway. Slicing through a few more of the spongy guardians, they reached their goal and went inside. Again, they remarked upon the fact that the “tower” seemed more like a support structure than a dwelling. It certainly wasn’t defensible, with wide gaps in the outer casing in many places. Most of the interior was open, although a metallic grid ceiling was approximately 70 feet above them, with a spiral ramp following the interior wall, winding up to it. From there, they could see this walkway continued, but on the outside of the tower.

Caedmyn used her new device to create a barrier that blocked off the ground floor entrance. Grayden looked up and noted that the inside of the tower was alive with more creatures. Getting to the top would be an arduous task.

Caracol Vus tightened the grip on his sword and with a nod, led the way. “Let’s go!”

The others followed, with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

 

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An Interview with Numenera Lead Artist, Kieran Yanner

If you’ve drooled over the early concept art for Numenera, then you already know something about the brilliant artist that is Kieran Yanner. As lead artist for Numenera, Kieran is setting the stage for much of what’s to come in the Ninth World.

Recently, he agreed to sit down for an interview with Numenera editor, Shanna Germain. The two covered artistic inspiration, the visual aesthetics of gaming, and the process of world-building.

Shanna: You’re the lead artist for Numenera. What does this entail and how are you working with the team and the other artists to bring The Ninth World to life?

Kieran: I’m essentially taking Monte’s ideas and fleshing them out visually. Monte will present a concept to me and I’ll start sketching out some ideas, or if I feel confident about a specific concept I’ll run with it to an almost finished state and then present it. Sometimes this spurs tangent ideas neither of us had thought of previously. When the world is more visually developed, I’ll be switching over to doing completed illustration work. This will set the style and tone for the world.

Shanna: Are you a gamer? If so, what do you play? What games are you currently finding most intriguing?

Kieran: I am but have little time these days to game. I’m a big fan of isometric RPGs when it comes to computer games and enjoy a variety of different genres when it comes to tabletop; D&D and Rifts were always my favorite.

Shanna: Does being a gamer influence the way you create your art?

Kieran: It certainly helps. When I first started in the industry I targeted the jobs I took to sections of books I knew the audience would be flipping through the most. They also tended to be the sections I would flip through the most. This also prepped me for working in the computer games industry—I was used to developing my own world from running tabletop games. That came in very handy during the preproduction phase of game development.

Ultimately I try to analyze what the audience will like and find a balance between that and what interests me. Left to my own devices, my artwork would be more unsettling and introspective and not really related to game art.

Numenera is meeting that in a very interesting way. I have an in interest in fashion, especially haute couture. So costuming will be more fantastical, more surreal. The ultimate aim is to present something very different from what has come before in the tabletop industry.

Shanna: Is art for tabletop RPGs different than art for computer RPGs or other games? How does the art aesthetic lend itself to each type of game?

The main difference is you have to account for polygons when producing conceptual art for computer games. You may be developing for a system that cannot handle a high polygon count, which forces you to think of how you can develop a visual style that works in a more geometrically simplistic way. The environments, creatures and characters you design also have to function, they have to move, they have to swap gear and weapons. All this needs to be taken into account.

In tabletop art you can forgo a lot of that, so sometimes it’s hard for an illustrator to transition to the computer games industry. On the other side you have the issue of artwork typically needing to be completed to a higher fidelity or tighter rendering in the tabletop industry. In the computer games industry, the idea is to present a concept as quickly as possible so it can either be iterated or scrapped. So sometimes it’s tough for a concept artist to transition into an illustrator role. The current trend in illustration is leaning more toward a loose impressionistic style, which has likely been born from artists moving between the industries.

Shanna: What are your artistic influences in general? Are there any artists in particular you’re looking at for inspiration when designing art for Numenera?

Kieran: Personally, I’ve had a lot of people influence me over the years, some more so in the earlier part of my career. I’ve always had a soft spot for the TSR illustrators of the ’80s and ’90s so I think I’ll always turn to them for inspirational lift when I’m feeling stuck.

For Numenera specifically, things are still evolving, but the Art Deco and Art Nouveau periods will play a large role. Monte is also a big Moebius fan, so I’ve also looking to his sensibilities when considering the visual aesthetics. Ultimately I don’t want to rely too heavily on any one artist for inspiration; I really want to make this unique.

Shanna: Numenera is a blending of game play styles and aesthetics – a game that utilizes d20s but has a wholly new game mechanic, a world that blends science and fantasy, a tabletop RPG with a digital app. How does this blending come through in the art style? What are you doing differently with Numenera that you haven’t done with other games?

Kieran: From the get-go, I was looking to develop visuals that were neither heavily science fiction or fantasy. I feel science fiction from the earlier part of last century had a more whimsical vibe, so I’m looking to Jules Verne more so than George Lucas. This also touches back to haute couture fashion—often you can’t tell whether the person is stepping out of a science fiction or fantasy film, heading out to a BDSM club, or nabbing a cup of coffee in Soho. Otherworldly is probably the best description. Using Deco and Nouveau, I’m hoping to essentially “rein in the crazy” and solidify the visuals into a cohesive style.

Shanna: If you had to capture the essence of The Ninth World in a single image that you’ve created, which one would it be, and why?

Ahh, I’ll have to disappoint there. It would have to be in image yet to revealed. This may happen halfway through production of the core book or at the very end. It’ll likely involve a central character in a very interesting setting. I think the landscapes we’ve seen so far are evocative of the scale and drama of the setting and the concept of the monoliths would have to be the most iconic visual statement so far—but we’ve got a big story to tell and lots to come.

Shanna: What kinds of images do you have in the works for Numenera that you’re most excited about?

Kieran: For me, it’s the character exploration, which coincidentally is what I’m doing at the moment. I’m a character artist at heart so those are always gonna’ get my blood flowing.

Shanna: What else are you working on right now?

Kieran: Besides Numenera and some personal work, I’m working with Cryptozoic on a project, creating a new cover for Kobold Quarterly and doing some contract work with Microsoft. Which is why I unfortunately don’t have a lot of time to play the games I’ve helped create. We need to speed up cloning technology!

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