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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

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Game Day: A Death in Numenera

by Ken Newquist / December 29, 2013

We finished our second game of Numenera with our first character death. Talos, an Intelligent Nano Who Employs Magnetism, died at the tentacles of an alien horror while exploring a subterranean ruin. The survivors of the expedition, Deegan (a Stealthy Jack Who Commands Mental Powers) and my character, the Scorn of Dread Nazaar (a Stealthy Nano Who Exists Partially Out of Phase), did their best to fend off the beast, but when Talos fell, they fled to the surface.

Unfortunately, you don't get XP for discovering a new way to die (and is getting mauled by a tentacled monster really all that original?)

We never solved the mystery of the ruin, which appeared to be a crashed ship or ancient research facility. For all we know, we've successfully exposed the town built above it to attack by the denizens of the complex.

Let the heroes deal with it. We're explorers. Our job is to find the unknowable; someone else can figure out how to kill it.

I have no doubt that we were staring down a Total Party Kill; if Deegan and Scorn hadn't run, everyone would have died at the hands of the tentacled monster (or the strange robot that had been stalking us, and turned its attention on the horror we unleashed).

The monsters were all level 6 o 7, depending on the kind of attack you used, which mean our target number on a d20 die was 18 or 21. Naturally, we spent effort to drop the target down a level, moving it to a slightly easier 15 or 18, but still ... you can only do that so many times. And let's not forget that in Numenera, when you spend effort, you're expending a portion of your character's hit points.

It creates an interesting tension: do you spend effort trying to take down the enemy, knowing that if that enemy hits you, you'll be that much closer to death? Do you not spend effort in a vain attempt to hold on to precious points that will be lost the minute the enemy does hit you? Or do you run? We choose the latter. Well, except for Talos, who died.

Why did we do so badly? I think it comes down to a couple of things. First, we've used our cyphers (powerful technological devices) to bypass or negate many threats. While this allowed us to spawn a wall of fire that prevented a giant crab with human heads attached to its skull from eating us, it didn't kill said crab. That in turn meant we didn't find the cyphers in its lair. This would be important later on.

Second, my character -- Scorn -- can phase through doors. This is a very handy trait, but it means that we can explore areas much more quickly. Rather than be stymied by a locked door, Scorn can simply pass through it, see what's on the other side, and report back. This quick hit scouting tends to leave stones unturned and that means we come up short on cyphers. Again. This would be even more important later on.

Third, we rolled badly, especially when it was important. Climbing down into the bowels of the alien complex was a sure-fire way for Scorn to roll a natural one. This led to a Game Master Intrusion that caused said fall to hurt Scorn even more than normal. Unlike our first adventure, where we often hit the things we were attacking, in our second outing we missed, and missed hard, often in spite of having also expended effort.

Fourth, we were low on experience points. In Numenera, players can spend XP to re-roll blown checks, which is great ... if you have XP. We had just spent all of ours buying advancements for our characters, which mean that door wasn't open to us. Moreover as a group we've struggled with Game Master Intrusion, which is the game's mechanic for allowing the GM to affect he outcome of die rolls. It's a "Yes, but" mechanic in which the GM can negate or complicate character success.

In theory you should use it at least once a session, but no more than once per character. Each intrusion yields two XP for the party each time it's used, once for the player character being affect, another for another character designated by that player.

We discussed this at length after our last session, and our feeling was that GM Intrusions seem easy enough as a concept, but they're hard to pull off in practice. Intrusions nerf a player's success, turning it into a failure ("your synthsteel axe glances off the bandit's armor") or something more interesting ("you unlock the door, but doing so causes all the lights in the room to begin strobing rapidly").

Either way, you're counting on a) the players succeeding enough to make intrusions fun and b) a GM who's willing to occasionally derail the story.

If your players are failing more often than not, it's hard to rob them of one of their few successes. And if the story is moving along nicely (despite all the terrible die rolling) it's hard to introduce complications that de-rail that.

We rarely used intrusions, which means we were probably a little low on XP. Less XP means less chances to negate bad die rolls. More bad die rolls means you get eaten by a tentacle monster.

I suspect this is more a question of our gaming style than it is a fundamental issue with Numenera. We're used to D&D and Pathfinder, and while we've used hero points and similar mechanics, those aren't really about GM narrative control, and they're not awarded like Numenera XP.

Numenera's XP mechanics is more like compelling aspects in Spirit of the Century, awarding bennies in Savage Worlds or plot points in Cortex games (Serenity, Battlestar Galactica). These are games that most of us are played, but we haven't played them often.

Having said that, I think those other games handle their bennie mechanic better because they're a) about engaging a character's flaws, and thus promoting role-playing and/or b) rewarding good role-playing. In all these games, the XP just seems to flow naturally, without the GM really trying. Even complications come naturally, because players are actively seeking them.

In theory, Numenera's intrusions should promote similar behavior, because complications mean XP, but I think everyone -- GM and players -- are a little risk averse and the mechanic isn't enough to overcome that aversion.

I'd love to see Numenera run at a convention so I could get a sense for how GM intrusions work with other groups. I'm also interested to see how it works with my lunchtime group, which has been playing Savage Worlds and Dragon Age for the last two years, and doesn't have as much of the Pathfinder/d20 history as my Sunday group.