Design Diaries

The Spirit of Numenera

In conversations over the last few weeks, I’ve found myself talking about Numenera to interested people–not so much the rules, or the setting, but the essence of the game.

When I was a teenager, I played in a 1st edition AD&D game run by my friend Jay. Jay passed away recently and his loss from my life is pretty profound. Anyway, during that first game, we were about to play Decent into the Depths of the Earth (although we were going to start with the last portion of the G3–you old timers all know what I’m talking about). I created a character–named Malhavoc, by the way, if that rings any bells–and Jay told me that Malhavoc knew the truename of some super powerful demon lord and I could call upon him once to do my bidding. I knew this power was way out of my weight class, so to speak, but it was something I could only do once, so it wasn’t going to throw the whole campaign out of whack.

Obviously, this is well outside the rules of AD&D. Looking back 30 years later, I strongly suspect that Jay had no rules for how this would work. No stats for the demon lord. But since I could only use it once, that stuff didn’t matter. It was a get out of jail free card. It was a “you get to do one really cool thing at some point” benefit. It was a “use your imagination on this one” ability.

And by which I mean it was awesome.

Cut to many years later. I was running a campaign called “The Wall” using the Rolemaster rules as a basis, although so heavily house-ruled and jury rigged that I might as well just say I was running a campaign in a game called “The Wall.” My friend Bruce had a character who, every once in a while, could use his sort of zen-like, monk-ish concentration to alter reality in a creative way. He would basically spend some points from a pool and tell me what he was trying to do. I would consider the task at hand and the points he was spending and assign a percentage chance for success, and he would roll. (I would, on the fly, assess a sort of graduated success mechanic if possible, so that sometimes he would achieve part of what he wanted, often with interesting results.)

Again, this was awesome, and led to all sorts of amazing situations that never would have occurred if we’d allowed ourselves to be overly encumbered by strictly codified rules.

Cut to many years after that. I was running a 3rd Edition D&D game set in Ptolus. Now, 3E’s strengths come from its exhaustive definition of, well, everything. And I had a major role in helping craft all of that. But it was important to me that there still be some undefined aspect of the game. So I instituted a hero point system. This system became codified in Arcana Unearthed (and Arcana Evolved) but at the table it was far less systemized. In fact, it was very much “you tell me what you want to use the hero point for and I’ll determine if it works.” The answer was usually “yes,” because hero points were rare and hard to come by, but if you were doing something really outlandish I’d give it only a chance for success (graduated, partial success results possible based on your roll). “Get out of jail free” cards. “Use your imagination on this” abilities.

Thus, it was sort of a synthesis of the first two examples. And I could provide a hundred more from my decades of roleplaying. The point is that these things provided room in the game to allow for both player and GM imaginations to take the stories and scenarios in new and sometimes crazy ways.

Which finally brings me back to Numenera. Numenera’s rules don’t work like any of the above examples. But the spirit of the game–the essence–owes a great deal to these experiences. Numenera is about imagination, ideas, and stories. The rules exist only to service these things, and when they’re not needed they get out of the way. Which means, among other things, that there aren’t rules for things that don’t need rules.

Someone I was chatting with about another game system told me about a high level character who got a wizard’s tower, but the group was stymied because there were not rules for wizards’ towers anywhere in their game. The very idea that they might do something without a codified rules system was inconceivable. Numenera is built around a very different approach.

If I’m the GM and I decide that there’s a fat old woman running a shop that sells weapons and armor in a particular town, I don’t need rules for that. She’s just there. I don’t have to check a rulebook to find out how many children she has running around the shop annoying customers, how many rooms she has in her apartment over the shop, nor how many shelves of gauntlets she has. The GM creating that (often on the fly, but sometimes ahead of time) is, to me, just a part of the rpg experience. It’s the imagination engine–rather than the rules engine–that drives the whole game.

There’s nothing wrong with rules for stuff like that, but the game moves faster–and provides space for far more creativity–without them. Rules shouldn’t get in the way, slow things down, or encumber the game. They shouldn’t prevent amazing and cool things from entering the story. Maybe that fat old woman has an uncanny ability to spot shoplifters in her shop. Maybe the kids are actually her eyes and ears that way. Or maybe she’s psychic. There’s no rule for either case, it’s just the GM inserting his creativity.

I do my best in the GMing chapters (plural) found in the Numenera corebook to provide a lot of advice and instruction for running games in this way. (If that alone is something you’re interested in, I daresay the GMing chapters of the book might be worth it to you on their own.) But a GM utterly paralyzed without instructions and subsystems and forever unwilling to create that kind of stuff on his own probably wants to play a different game.

I recently had to tell someone (because I prefer to be honest) that Numenera probably wasn’t for him. He wanted something that was very systemized with rigid simulation, little GM adjudication, and precise quantification for everything, and that’s not Numenera. But honestly, I think that people who want to play an rpg who aren’t willing to let the imagination engine drive their experience are in the minority. Many of you reading already play this way, and have since forever. Those of you who have been relying entirely on rules may find it refreshing and freeing to focus more on an imaginative playstyle.

As of this writing, you can still preorder the print version of Numenera as well as the Player’s Guide and get the ebook versions for free. It’s a good deal. I hope you’ll give it a try.

 

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Adventures! (Numenera Product Line-Up, Part 2)

There’s a well-accepted “truism” in the tabletop industry nowadays: Adventures don’t sell. There’s only one problem with this bit of truth–it’s not true at all. Many, if not most, of the bestselling tabletop products of all time are adventures–Keep on the Borderlands, Ravenloft, etc.

I think adventures are important for many reasons. First and foremost, they serve as a means to show how the game was meant to be played, and what kinds of things players (and their characters) do in the game. If we go back to the early 1980s, we can look at the rules for D&D and get a sort of muddy picture of what’s supposed to go down in a session. There’s clearly fighting. Monsters. Spells and magic items. But then we flip open a copy of Tomb of Horrors and we see that they explore old dungeons full of weird traps and riddles and get treasure. Then we open Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl and we see that they track down evil doers and confront them in their lairs. Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun has the PCs wandering around in the wilderness having encounters, and Descent into the Depths of the Earth has them doing the same thing, but underground. Each of them presents a clear picture of things that a group of PCs can do, and how the GM can present those things in a game.

Second, adventures provide cool ideas and unique expressions of the game. A published adventure should be filled with things that even the experienced GM might not have thought of on her own. This is why published adventures have to be really GOOD. While they should showcase the strengths and the focus of the game, they should do so in a really creative way. In other words, the first D&D adventure shouldn’t be a murder investigation, because while you can do that in D&D, it’s not really the main thrust of D&D (save that for the fourth or fifth D&D adventure). The first D&D adventure(s) should be dungeon crawls. But they should be awesome dungeon crawls, not just something that anyone could throw together in a few minutes.

I put a lot of value in just reading adventures written by someone else, because we all fall into our own ruts, and getting a fresh perspective even on something very familiar–like a dungeon crawl or an urban intrigue–can be really helpful. When I hear a GM say, “I never read published adventures,” I react to that (at least inwardly) with about the same level of respect as I would a writer who says, “I never actually read anymore.”

Third, and perhaps most obviously, an adventure offers the ability to play the game on short notice. With no prep work other than reading, a GM has everything she needs to run a game for her friends. And a great GM, of course, gives it her personal touch so that it will apply to/please/challenge her own group, because no game designer will ever understand a group of players as well as their own GM. To once again use a phrase from the Numenera corebook, that’s not cheating, that’s awesome.

So how does all this apply to Numenera? I’m strongly embracing the idea of adventures for the game, which will come in many forms.

Numenera Corebook Adventures

The Numenera corebook will have four adventures in it. These are designed with the microscope approach. The first is designed as everyone’s first adventure, offering a way to explain how the PCs first meet, and really guiding the GM through all the steps. There’s even a plot flowchart to help with the fact that it’s somewhat nonlinear. There’s also a location based “dungeon crawl” style adventure, because exploring the unknown is important. The third is a more complex urban intrigue with a lot of interaction, because Numenera isn’t as combat-focused as some games. And then lastly, there’s a large-scale adventure dealing with the Convergence, one of the Steadfast’s major organizations, and their bid to seize some serious cosmic-level power. It’s got a real “wow” factor to it when the PCs make their final discoveries. In order, each of these adventures turns down the level of “magnification” of the “microscope,” meaning that each puts more responsibility in the hands of the GM and in turn grants the players a great deal more flexibility. The first tries to hold the hand of the GM a bit, offering guidance and suggestions and lots of detail. The others do so less and less, assuming the GM can handle filling in the gaps here and there, and fleshing out areas and characters that need it, depending on what the players choose to do. The idea here, of course, is that every GM has different needs and desires when it comes to adventure material.

Adventure Seeds

Of course, if you’re the kind of GM who likes to just take an idea and run with it, then, well, Numenera is REALLY the game for you. Because everywhere you look in the book, we’ve included adventure and encounter ideas, called out on the page, just screaming to be used. In the setting chapters, for example, every location has a “hearsay” section that offers 1-4 adventure seeds. Likewise, each has a “weird” section that offers a similar number of just crazy, unexplained Ninth World-ish stuff found there that PCs can explore and interact with. There are so many things like that in Numenera that you could play half a dozen campaigns and never use them all.

The Devil’s Spine

The first support product for the game after the release of the corebook and the Player’s Guide, is a set of adventures. Knowing how important adventures are to the game, I want to prove the “truism” wrong.

When we ran the Kickstarter, we announced three short adventures as individual stretch goals. After some consideration, we have decided that the three 32-page adventures are going to be combined into one, large, 96-page book. We can do a lot to make the product better in that format. (To make sure everyone gets at least what they paid for, every Kickstarter supporter who ordered even one of the adventures will get the adventure book. That means that they will effectively get ALL THREE adventures.) The collected adventure book will be called The Devil’s Spine. The current plan is that this product will ship both electronically and physically in the late fall, tentatively scheduled for October.

The three adventures in the Devil’s Spine will be linked, but easily played alone. They take PCs all over the Ninth World (and beyond…but that would be telling), and get them involved in all kinds of strange, cool, and hopefully mind-bending experiences. While the corebook adventures set the stage for what a Numenera scenario might involve, the Devil’s Spine will stretch the boundaries in different ways.

Because I know that beginning GMs have the adventures in the corebook, particularly the first, highly detailed, introductory one, I know I don’t have to hold their hands too much, so to speak, with the Devil’s Spine adventures. I know that the GMs running these adventures will likely have some experience under their belts. Thus, these adventures will be provided with a sort of “mid-range” setting on our “microscope.” They will, however, also include seeds and other ideas for GMs who want to expand and create their own material. The idea is to make them useful to all different kinds of GMs.

While we’ll be doing all kinds of different products in our line, I’m proud that the first one out of the gate will be an adventure. It will likely be one of the most important products of all of them. Hopefully, we’ll get the chance to do even more down the line, but that’s really up to you.

 

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Game Mastering Numenera

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The Numenera corebook’s design and development are complete. There’s still a lot of editing to do, a few illustrations and maps to complete, and layout’s only just begun, but things are moving along quite quickly now. It’s very exciting to see it pull together. In coming weeks, you can expect to see a number of previews of the material inside, and discussions of how we created the game, and why we made the choices we did.

The ReaperCon Question

This past weekend, I was at ReaperCon in Texas. It was a great convention, and I had a lot of fun. I ran a game of Numenera for some attendees and we all enjoyed ourselves. On the ride to the airport, however, I was asked a number of questions about the game’s design by some people who hadn’t yet had a chance to play. One question that stuck with me was, “Is Numenera player driven or GM driven?” That’s a difficult question, not because it’s hard to come up with an answer, but because it’s difficult to know what’s really being asked. The real truth is, a good game is “driven” by everyone involved and the fun that they’re having. But that’s certainly not an answer to the question actually being asked.

The question might mean, “Who’s more important, the players or the GM?” Again, the answer to that should probably be, “Everyone,” but that’s not true of many games–some of them great games. Or it could mean, “Who drives the action?” This latter question is probably too simple (again, everyone does, if everything is firing on all cylinders), but it’s the one I sort of seized on in my mind when I answered, “Numenera is GM driven.”

The Numenera Answer

The reason is this: The Running the Game section of Numenera is probably the most important one. It’s the key, I think, to making Numenera work. There are many games, particularly newer games, that de-emphasize the role of the GM as an adjudicator of the rules and a provider of the setting. They formalize the rules to the point where little or no adjudication is needed, they regiment the role of the GM to one of procedure, and they put setting and event creation in the hands of the players, at least in part. (To be certain, few games do all of these things at once–I’m generalizing.) Some games, of course, have done away with the GM altogether.

These are all fine things, but to be very clear, Numenera does not stand among such games. This game’s approach is far more classical–traditional, if you will–than that. It assumes a GM with the authority to use logic and fiat to give the game structure and substance. Mechanically, it empowers the GM to do whatever she wishes to advance the story or portray the setting or characters as needed. Although NPCs have rules, they are not the same rules as PCs (they are far simpler, and designed to allow them to fulfill their role in the game appropriately). GM intrusions can change the course of events.

In the same way that you might shut down various processes running in the background of your computer to allow it to do the things you want it to do more efficiently, Numenera takes away the things that can be cumbersome on a GM to free her to focus on the story and the fun. NPC and creature stats are simple and easy to create on the fly. It’s easy to randomly generate–create whole cloth–interesting devices, locations, situations, and anything else the GM needs, so that if you want to spend a lot of time preparing, it can all go into the imaginative, wild ideas that Numenera thrives upon. It’s the ideas and the stories that are important in this game, not the mechanics that are used to portray them, so that it’s the ideas and the stories that the players interact with, not the mechanics. It can be fun to sit and figure which of your character’s abilities grants you the best possible chance of inflicting the most damage on a particular foe in that particular situation, but sometimes it’s also fun to just wonder what your character would do when presented those circumstances.

This is why, in the same way that Numenera mechanics are designed to interact with the GM in certain ways, they are also designed to facilitate this kind of interaction with the players. In an effort to encourage player creativity, flexibility is built into the system so that “I attack” is not always the best or most interesting answer to “What does your character do?”

The Running the Game Section of the Book

But actually, I’ve written about a lot of this before. (Scan back through the various entries on this site.) However, now that I’ve finished writing it, I can tell you that it’s the lengthy Running the Game section of Numenera that really helps someone understand how to use this ruleset the way it is designed to be used. In other words, how to assess the difficulty of actions, the capabilities of NPCs, and how to use these things and the other tools at hand to help facilitate the creation of a cool story. It is, in a very real way, a guide to how I like to run game sessions. While I’ve written about running games extensively in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, in Dragon Magazine’s Dungeoncraft, in Kobold Quarterly’s Game Theories, and in dozens of other essays I’ve penned over the years, it’s Numenera that actually comes closest to revealing how I personally run games.

This part of the book is divided into three chapters. The first talks specifically about using the Numenera rules. The game requires a lot of assessment and adjudication on the part of the GM, and this part talks extensively about how to do just that, quickly and easily.

The second chapter discusses the creation of a great RPG story, and running game sessions. It stresses (so I will stress it again here) that the GM doesn’t create the story alone–that’s what the group does together. But the Numenera GM is empowered to guide the story in interesting ways in the same way that players are. Think about it this way–during the game, with each action, a player can change the course of the story. However, much of the time, GMs are asked to keep their hands off that course (for fear of railroading the game), thus leaving GM decisions only to the preparation phase. In other words, GMs don’t get to have this kind of fun during the game, only between sessions. But that’s not the way it works in the hands of really good GMs (in my opinion), so Numenera encourages and facilitates GMs introducing things that make the game more interesting. To quote one of my editor’s favorite lines from the book: “That’s not cheating, that’s awesome.”

The third chapter deals specifically with creating creatures, characters, places, technology, and stories set in the Ninth World. It’s a setting with its own unique approach and challenges, and the GM is the key to portraying the right atmosphere of weird. In many ways, the GM is the ambassador of the setting, although I’m aware that some players will likely embrace the Ninth World enough that they will take on that role in some groups too. In that case, the GM is merely the ambassador of the weird, which is probably as it should be.

In Numenera, keeping things weird is a vital part of the flavor. But I’ll write more about that soon enough.

 

 

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Numenera Product Line-Up (Part 1)

This weekend, I finished making the last few adjustments to the Numenera rules based on playtester feedback. Sean Reynolds, the developer, has taken a pass through most of the rules now too, and editors Shanna Germain and Ray Vallese are now editing some of the initial material. We’re also looking at some initial page layout options.

And, if you missed out on the Kickstarter, you can preorder the game now directly from us.

It occurred to me over the weekend that–thanks to the Kickstarter campaign and all the great support we got–we have a big product line-up. I wanted to start talking about some of the upcoming products so you know what it is we’re actually creating.

Today I’m going to be talking mainly about the Numenera Corebook and the Numenera Player’s Guide.

The Numenera Corebook

The Numenera Corebook is the main rulebook. It’s a 416 page hardcover with color art, some of which we’ve previewed for you. This book gives you all the rules of the game as well as the Ninth World setting, GM advice, and even some adventures to get you started. We’re taking the lessons that I learned creating Ptolus and applying them here, so if you liked the way that book was presented and organized, you’re going to like this book.

These are the sections of the book:

Welcome to the Ninth World: This is a brief overview of the setting to give you a feel for things as we go forward.

An Introduction to Numenera: This is an overview of the rules. Basically, in just a few short pages, you’ll learn everything you need to play the game.

Creating Your Character: All the stuff you need to make a very memorable character, with an emphasis on story and getting to play exactly the character you want to play.

Playing the Game: This is the more complete and in-depth explanation of the rules. (Although it’s still pretty short as RPG rulesets go.) While “An Introduction to Numenera” teaches you to play, this is the chapter you’ll refer to when you want to remember how to use the rules to do something.

Optional Rules: I didn’t want to clutter the very simple and straightforward rules with a lot of options or complications, so they all go here. If you want a more complex, robust game, you might want to add in some or all of these optional rules. If you want to keep things simple, just skip this chapter.

Discovering the Ninth World: The longest section of the book, this provides a lot of information about the setting, with an emphasis on weird things to discover and exciting things to do.

Creatures and Characters: The Ninth World is filled with interesting creatures and NPCs. This chapter provides details on a number of them.

The Numenera: This section provides you with heaps of interesting items and weird technologies to include the game.

Running the Game: Perhaps the most important of the book, this lengthy section provides GMs all the advice and insight in running a Numenera game. This is very much the blueprint for “running an rpg the Monte Cook way,” so if that’s of interest to you, you might want to give this a read.

Adventures: There’s really no better way to learn a game than by playing, and these adventures will get you playing right away. Further, they provide insight for GMs into what kinds of adventures they might want to create on their own, and what can be done in a Numenera scenario.

The Numenera Player’s Guide

Just like it sounds, this is a guidebook aimed at players. It’s short–only 64 pages–and includes only material for the corebook. In other words, there’s nothing in the Player’s Guide  that isn’t in the corebook. However, it’s very useful, because there’s no need to hand a new player a 416 page rulebook to get them started. It has only the material that a player needs to get a feel for the game and the setting, and to create a character. More or less, it’s a distilled version of the first three sections of the corebook that I listed above.

There are a lot more products in the line-up, but these two form the foundation of the line.

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Four Types of Numenera

When originally thinking about technology in the Ninth World, I mostly thought in terms of how it was used, and thus created cyphers, artifacts, oddities, and discoveries. These categories are useful to show how a PC interacts with the numenera–how it is (or isn’t) useful to them. As I began actually writing, I found that there’s another way to slice that particular pie: by origin and appearance.

Art by Kieran Yanner

 

This approach didn’t occur to me until I started trying to describe numenera items to players in my playtest. It started to become very clear to me, however, when I started to explain to GMs in the text how to portray numenera in their campaigns. I realized that, when it comes to devices that characters are likely to carry around with them and use, there were four types.

Scavenged: The most basic type of device is the one pulled out of some ancient ruin. It was either a complete device, found intact, or a portion of another device, removed by some learned person, which can then be used for a function all its own. The former might be a bracer-like device with some touch-sensitive controls that the wearer can manipulate in order to create and control a powerful magnetic field around himself. The latter might be a viewscreen from some vast machine that all by itself allows the user to see through up to one inch of normal matter.

Cobbled: The second most common type of device, a cobbled item, is something made of at least two parts and joined together to make a function possible. Let’s say a knowledgable tinkerer has taken a lens mechanism from one device and yanked a control mechanism from a larger console and wired them together. Then she took an old, still-functioning power supply and connected it, and bound it all together with cord. In the end, she’s created a high-powered nightvision telescope and range finder, assuming the user–through a bit of practice and trial and error–can decipher some of the symbols to understand the distances shown in the readout.

Bonded: This is where the setting itself starts to intrude on the items. Because realistically, people in the Ninth World are going to start to take found items and make them their own. A scavenger might have found a device that fires a beam of high-powered energy, but when he sells it to a member of the Jagged Dream, a fanatical cult, they get a smith to fashion an intimidating housing around the device, complete with an easy-to-use hand-grip, trigger mechanism, and even a spiked blade on the front should the wielder enter close-combat. Then, one of their artisans etches their unique iconography into the housing, blade, and grip, so that in the end it is a stylish (albeit strange) and likely intimidating weapon.

In other words, bonded items no longer look like something found in a trash-heap. They are beautiful (or terrifying, or whatever the craftsman wants). They are incorporated into other items. They are named. They might even come with written instructions on their use.

Fashioned: Rarest but in some ways perhaps most exciting (from a setting point of view), fashioned items are devices based on ancient technology but created by people of the Ninth World. Imagine a clave of aeon priests who have studied in an ancient laboratory for years (perhaps generations) and finally determined how to recreate an “elixir” they discovered which speeds up wound closure and tissue knitting by an order of magnitude or more. The compounds needed are rare and difficult to attain, but with them they can begin to manufacture small amounts of this concoction on their own. Years later, they open houses of healing that are known and respected by all in the region.

I say that this is the most “exciting” type of item from the point of view of the setting because it is, in fact, exactly what the core story of Numenera is: taking from the past in order to build a new future.

The original ways of looking at technology in Numenera are still quite valid from a gameplay point of view, but from a setting point of view, it’s useful to have these categories as well.

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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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Fourth Playtest Report

As mentioned in the previous installment, the four companions, Caedmyn the graceful nano, Grayden the glaive who commanded mental powers, Caracol Vus the strong blademaster, and Fisher, the jack who crafted illusions, had activated an ancient vehicle. That vehicle now sped through an underground tunnel, carrying the four of them in the direction that the metallic heart guided them.

They rested as best they could while the hovering cylindrical conveyance sped through the darkness. A strange sound interrupted their respite, however. Something had fallen atop the top of the vehicle. Next, they heard it move across the surface above them. Caracol Vus climbed the ladder to the hatch to investigate.

The creature clinging there resembled a featureless ape without a head. Its stooped, broad body seemed to be made primarily of a bright green, viscous substance, its shape dictated by a thick, translucent membrane. To Caracol Vus, it seemed like a fluid-filled synth bag with a humanoid shape. It lunged at him, and he tried to escape back down the ladder. The green thing followed. Its body was too broad to fit through the hatch, but the membrane that served as its flesh was extraordinarily maleable, and it squeezed through the circular opening into the interior of the vehicle.

Grayden immediately attempted to communicate with the creature using his telepathic gift. He felt his mind touch not one mind within it, but a multitude. He didn’t seem to be able to send a message, for his voice was but one among far too many, but he got an idea of what the minds were saying to each other:

Investigate.

Investigate through infection.

Caracol Vus attacked the intruder, slicing into its membrane with his well-crafted sword. As he did, the liquid inside sprayed out, filling the interior of the cylinder with choking, greenish mist that settled upon the floor in a thick, gelatinous residue. With this loss of mass, the creature could not keep its shape. Like a partially deflated balloon, it flopped upon the floor but still attempted to defend itself with its flaccid arms. A blast of force from Caedmyn and another slice from the glaive’s blade and the creature was finished, but not before the green mist filled the mouths and noses of most of its foes.

Meanwhile, Fisher heard more noise from behind, in the cylinders connected behind them. He opened the rear door, and then the door into the next hover-vehicle in the chain. Another of the things had entered through the ceiling hatch there. It moved to attack, but he held it back with his quarterstaff in the space between the two cylinder-cars. Grayden and Caedmyn moved to assist and forced the creature back. It attempted to force its way forward again, but Fisher knocked it loose and it fell into the darkness.

The four of them sealed their vehicle’s entrances as best they could and attempted to catch their breath. Eventually, however, late in the day, the hovering caravan of gleaming metal tubes came to a gentle stop. They could hear that giant metal clamps descended from above them and locked the vehicle into place yet again.

Again Caracol Vus exited through the upper hatch to check the situation. He saw that there had been a third gelatinous creature, but that it had remained on top, and had been crushed by one of the metal pincers. He mused to himself that the clamps did not move quickly, suggesting that the creature had never encountered one before, and had no idea that it would destroy it if it did not move. Not even animal level intelligence.

The four of them happily exited the strange conveyance and found themselves in a multi-leveled chamber not unlike the one they had left on the other side of their trip. This area, however, seemed in far better repair. Exploring, they found some ancient mechanized consoles and Caedmyn scavenged a few new cyphers from it. Soon, however, they began to feel slightly weak. And tired. Each of them felt as though they were coming down with some kind of illness. The flu perhaps. They pressed on.

The labyrinthine complex stretched in all directions, but they followed the instructions of the heart and eventually found a sector of the place coated in hardened, organic material that reminded them of the egg chamber they had originally found under Tichronus’ manor just that same morning.

Pressing onward, they emerged into a tall, dark room thick with humidity and foul odors. A massive, serpentine creature coiled in the center. Spindly appendages circled its broad mouth that reminded the explorers of spider’s legs.

Caracol bravely entered the chamber, and made peaceful gestures. The serpent spoke in a low, hissing, reverberating tone, but they didn’t understand.

Then it tried a different language, and its words were clear: “Why are you here?”

“I have been told that you could remove the creature that has attached itself to my back,” Caracol said.

“I could,” it replied. “But I have no intention to.”

“Is there any way we can convince you?” Fisher suggested.

“I doubt it. You are of no consequence.”

“Who are you?” Grayden asked.

“I am Devola. I am The Mother.”

“How do you speak our language?”

“I have had to deal with creatures such as you before.”

The light of realization lit Fisher’s eyes. “Tichronus!”

“Yes,” Devola hissed. “That one is known to me.”

The group wanted to ask more about their employer’s relationship with her, but the serpentine creature suddenly flared to anger. “You have brought The Enemy Here!”

“What do you mean?” Caedmyn asked.

“You carry the enemy within you. Allow me to destroy it immediately or I must slay you all.”

“She means the green goo we inhaled,” Fisher suggested. “It carried something with it.”

“We’re infected,” Grayden agreed.

“Yes, please destroy it,” Caracol Vus said.

Devola bent down close to him, and showed that one of her limbs ended in a long needle. Before he could protest, she thrust it into the glaive’s arm and injected him with something. Not without trepidation, each of the other three submitted to similar treatments.

“Who is your enemy?” Grayden asked.

“It is a countless multitude. It seeks to infect my progeny and I. And thus assimilate us. I cannot allow that.”

“Perhaps we can help you fight them,” Caracol Vus suggested. “And then you can remove this thing on my back.”

“You could help me. And thus make yourselves of consequence. I would do this for you.”

“And I would survive the process?”

“I can make that happen.”

“How can we fight The Enemy?” Caedmyn asked.

“You cannot destroy The Enemy. It is too vast. But you could destroy the device that allows it to communicate with itself over vast distances. That would effectively prevent it from being a threat to me. I will not go, nor will I send my young–the risk of infection is too great.”

Without hesitation, Caracol said, “We’ll do it!” The others begrudgingly agreed.

Devola then described to them how to get to The Enemy’s device, and how to destroy it.

 

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NPCs in Numenera

So, early on in the Kickstarter for Numenera we added a bestiary as a stretch goal. This bestiary will be filled with creatures, but will also have some characters and character types, because not everything that you interact with is a “monster.” Plus, in the Ninth World, some things that seem like monsters are actually potential allies, and some things that look harmless most certainly are not.

NPCs (including creature of all types) in Numenera do have the same kind of stats as PCs. As simple as it is to make a Numenera player character, it’s far simpler than creating a PC. Or, to put it a different way, each NPC is precisely as complicated to make as the GM wants it to be.

Everything in the game system can be given a rating from 1 to 10. This is true of an animal, a town guard, a door, or an artifact. Basically, the GM is deciding on this rating for his or her world’s own internal consistency. From a game mechanics standpoint, there is no right or wrong. (If you’re coming from 3rd or 4th Edition D&D, I can’t stress this enough.) This rating is much more important from a verisimilitude standpoint than a mechanical one. While characters too have ratings (levels), there is only a casual correlation. It’s a handy guideline, but not a rule. You don’t just use rating 1 stuff if the PCs are level 1. You use rating 1 stuff if it’s appropriate to whatever’s going on in the story. Your beginning characters in Numenera will likely encounter stuff with a rating of 3 or 4 right out of the gate. And maybe more. It’s okay.

Once you’ve decided on the rating, you get a target number. Target numbers are basically the rating times 3. That’s its target number for everything. So in a fight, a PC fighting a level 4 opponent has to roll a 12 or higher to hit, a 12 or higher to dodge from the foe’s blows, and a 12 or higher to affect it with some weird effect from a device. Even if it has special stuff going on, it’s stilled keyed off that number. If it’s poisonous, the roll needed to resist its poison is 12. Etcetera etcetera. Its entire “stat block” is 12.

Sound easy?

Of course, to keep things interesting, there are other factors, but each is unique to a given NPC. Some NPCs might be rated as being really good with a particular attack, and thus gain a bonus to their base number. So a level 4 automaton that blasts foes with an extremely accurate energy blast might be a 12 on everything, but a 15 with its blaster.

NPCs and creatures, of course, can have all kinds of weird powers or weaknesses, and they might have armor or special weapons. But these exceptions are all layered on top of an extremely simple core with a single default score. So they never get very complex. The point of this kind of design is to keep things really, really simple unless they deserve to be more complex. If the town guard is gullible, your GM notes might say, “Level 3 guard (9), can be easily tricked (6).” You added a tiny bit of complication with that last clause, but you did it because it makes the encounter with him more interesting and to quantify the world you’re crafting. So the tiny complication is absolutely worth it. Adding notes and mechanical alterations because of the guard’s cooking skill and his predilection with metallurgy probably isn’t worth it.

And best of all, really straightforward creatures, like the dreaded stiletto beetle and its nasty stinger, can be represented entirely by one number with no exceptions, and it will still be an interesting, quick encounter.

This also tells you how characters interact with the rest of the world. If a locked door has a rating of 5, it will take a roll of 15 or higher to bash it down. Or pick it. Or phase through it. Or whatever. Like an NPC, these simple stats can be altered with specific exceptions. So the level 5 steel door might have a substandard lock that only requires a 9 to pick, for example.

It’s important to note that creature toughness or any other kind of difficulty in the game is a matter of the GM giving meaning to the fictional reality of the setting, not performing game mechanical mathematic surgery. There is no concept in Numenera of “a challenge of N level is appropriate to a party of N+X level characters” or anything of the sort. As I’ve written earlier, PCs don’t get XP based on defeating foes or bashing down doors. So there is no right or wrong.

That said, the Numenera corebook will be overflowing with examples of standard NPCs, objects (particularly cool numenera artifacts), challenges, creatures, and so forth. And the  follow up books will present even more. These will work as references, but more importantly as a way to teach GMs to create their own–even on the fly.

The point here is to keep the game focused on the story and the cool ideas. If the GM doesn’t have to keep a lot of numbers and die rolls in his head, he can spend his time thinking about what might happen next, or what the implications of PC actions might be. And if the “stat blocks” aren’t bogged down with lots and lots of numbers–many of which might never come into play in the relatively short encounter–there is more room to discuss the cool ideas behind the NPC. In other words, if you encounter a woman who can walk through walls and remove single memories from your mind with her touch, that’s the cool and important stuff we want to focus on.

Numenera is a game about the characters and ideas that make great stories.

 

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More On the Ninth World

The Ninth World is the setting for my new Numenera roleplaying game. I’ve described it as a far future post-apocalyptic setting. Basically, it’s the backdrop of a young civilization that has grown up amid the ruins of very old, very advanced civilizations. A billion years from now, we are long gone, as are the civilizations that evolve and rise (and fall… or leave… or transcend) after us. And the one after them. A billion years is a long, long time. It’s far more time than there is between us today and the dinosaurs.

In the time of the Ninth World, the land masses of the planet have returned to form a vast supercontinent surrounded by seemingly endless seas with extremely dangerous storms. But is the Earth in the configuration it is because of natural forces and simply the march of time or did some prior civilization design it to be so? Certainly the ancient inhabitants of the so-called “prior worlds” had the ability to shape their planet–and likely other planets–as they saw fit. Proof of this is everywhere. “Impossible” landscapes are a normal part of the Ninth World’s topography. Islands of crystal float in the sky. Inverted mountains rise up above plains of broken glass. Abandoned structures the size of kingdoms stretch across distances so great that they affect the weather. Massive machines, some still active, churn and hum. But for what purpose?

Along the southeastern coast lies The Steadfast, a collection of kingdoms and principalities with little in common except for a unifying religion. This religion, called by its adherents The Order of Truth (and by all else as the Amber Papacy), reveres the past and the knowledge of the ancients as understood by the enigmatic Aeon Priests. By decree of the Amber Pope, The Steadfast and The Order of Truth wage war with the lands to the north, believed by many to be enthralled by a secretive and mysterious cult called the Gaeans. Nobles amid The Steadfast are called to the Crusades, making war against the infidels with ever stranger weapons discovered or devised by the priesthood.

Beyond the bounds of The Steadfast, however, lies The Beyond, a vast wilderness punctuated by very occasional, very isolated communities. The Beyond also has its Aeon Priests, but these are not linked by any kind of organized network. They do not answer to the Amber Pope. Instead, they dwell in sequestered claves. Around these claves, small villages and communities known as aldeia have arisen. Each clave has discovered and mastered various bits of numenera, giving every aldeia its own distinct identity. In one, the inhabitants might raise unique bio-engineered beasts for food. In another, people may pilot gravity-defying gliders and race along the rooftops of ancient ruins. In still another aldeia, the priests in the clave may have developed the means to stop aging almost entirely, making the residents immortal and willing to sell their secret–for an incredibly high price. Because the villages are remote and separated by dangerous distances, trade of these discoveries is occasional and haphazard.

But not every village or tribe in The Beyond has a clave to help guide them amid the dangers of the past. Some of these have discovered the numenera to their peril, unleashing terrible horrors, plagues, or mysteries beyond comprehension. Travelers might find a village where all the residents have been transformed into flesh-eating monstrosities, or another that whose populace works as slaves for some machine intelligence left over from an earlier era.

Outside the aldeia and other settlements, the dangers multiply. Amid the ruins of the past lie tribes of vicious abhumans, as likely to kill and eat an explorer as talk to her. Clouds of tiny invisible machines called the Iron Wind scour the wilderness, altering everything they touch. Monstrous predators, ancient death machines, and stranded extraterrestrial or transdimensional beings also all pose a threat in the uncharted reaches of The Beyond. But so too can a careful and capable explorer find awe-inspiring numenera that can accomplish anything one can imagine.

In the Ninth World, numenera is both the risk and the reward.

 

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