Actions in Numenera

Here’s how you play Numenera.

The player tells the GM what she wants to do. The GM determines if that action is routine (and thus just works) or if there’s a chance of failure.

So far, I’ve just described pretty much every tabletop rpg, ever (almost).

In Numenera, specifically, what happens next is that the GM determines how hard the task will be, on a scale from 1 to 10. This part isn’t dependent upon the character. It’s just a range from really easy to basically impossible. The game will offer a lot of guidelines on how to figure this out, because this is the core mechanic of the game. It’s basically the only mechanical task the GM has in the whole game. (Remember, I said Numenera was easy to GM–more on that in a minute.) So I’ll defininately make it clear and easy to judge these things. Remember, I am a believer in the “teach a man to fish” style of good GMing.

(If you have no idea what that means, it comes from the old adage, “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” The idea here is not to just give GMs a ton of rules to memorize, or lots of rules in books to reference, but to teach them how to make their own, logical judgement calls.)

Of course, most of the time, it’s not a matter of exact precision. If you say it’s a 3 and it “should” have been a 4, the world’s not over.

Anyway, each difficulty level (1-10) has a target number associated. It’s basically 3 times the level. That’s the number you need to roll on a d20 (or higher) to succeed. Because there are not a lot of modifiers to the roll, that means two things:

1. Target numbers like 3 or 6, which would be boring in most games that use the d20, are not boring. If you need a 6, for example, you still have a 1 in 4 chance to fail.

2. The upper levels of difficulty, 7, 8, 9, or 10, are all but impossible, since the target numbers would be 21 or higher. But (you knew there was a “but” coming, right?)…

It’s quite common for players to modify the difficulty of a task. I wrote about this earlier. Using training, assets, working together, or–perhaps most importantly–effort, difficulty levels can be moved down multiple steps to make them easier. In other words, rather than adding to the die roll, the number you need is reduced. This is mathematically very similar, but it has three advantages:

1. Players doing arithmetic using a range of all possible numbers every action is slower that the GM making measured adjustments in large, uniform steps. Playtesting has already shown this to be true.

2. Calculation is done once, no matter how many times you attempt the action. If you establish the that target number is 12, it’s 12 every time you try that action. You only have to do that calculation once. If you’re adding numbers to your die roll, you have to do it every time you make the attempt. Consider this fact in light of combat. Once you know that you need to roll a 12 or higher to hit your foe, combat moves very, very quickly.

3. If you can reduce the difficulty of an action down to zero, no roll is needed at all. This means that the Olympic gymnast doesn’t roll dice to walk across the balance beam, but the average person does. The task is initially rated the same for both, but is reduced for the gymnast. So there’s no chance she’ll roll a 1.

This is how everything in the game works, whether its climbing a wall, sweet talking the guard, or fighting some bio-engineered horror. (Sweet talking the guard has some special considerations, but I’ll get to that in a later column.)

The thing to remember–and this is the kind of thing that makes people’s heads kind of explode when they first hear it, so hang on–is that this is the way everything works. The players are always making the rolls, and the GM is moderating the task levels. So in combat, when the character attacks, the player rolls for the attack. When the NPC attacks the character, the player rolls for her character to dodge.

I know. It’s weird. But it’s an idea I first saw put in play in 1992 by game designer Blake Mobley. It’s one of those things that seems really alien at first, but once you get used to it, it engages the players even more and frees up a lot of work from the GM. Again, in playtest people were a little leery at first but eventually they loved it. It gives GMs the freedom to concern themselves entirely with the flow of the game. The GM doesn’t use dice to determine what happens (unless he wants to), the players do. For things that don’t directly affect the PCs, the GM uses narrative intrusion to determine if and when something happens. For example, if the PCs are fighting an automaton guardian, and another guardian needs to batter down a door to join the fray, the GM doesn’t need to roll dice to determine when the new automaton manages this (unless he wants to). He just decides when would be best for the story–probably when it would be worst for the PCs.

Obviously, there’s still a lot of playtesting to do. No plan survives the enemy, so to speak. Target numbers could change. Concepts could change. But this is the way we’ve been playing the game for a while now, and it’s been a blast.

 

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