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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

Game Day: Numenera Likes and Dislikes

by Ken Newquist / December 1, 2013
Concept art from Torment: Tides of Numenera

I've played through the first Numenra adventure as a player with my Sunday group, and we've just launched into our second full-blown adventure. Meanwhile I'm prepping to run the same introductory adventure for my lunchtime group. I've played Numenera enough to know I like it ... but I don't love it.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy playing it, and I'm looking forward to playing more of it. It's just that the game hasn't grabbed me the way that Savage Worlds or Spirit of the Century did the first time I played them.

What I Like

I like that Numenera's experience point rewards are tied to exploration and discovery, not just killing monsters and taking their stuff.

I like how player characters control their destinies based on how they allocate and spend their attribute pools to modify dice rolls.

I like the cyphers, their crazy powers, and the rate at which PCs get new cyphers. It's a very cool, very dynamic part of the game. Wizards of the Coast's Gamma World tried something similar with random, encounter-based mutations, but these work better because they are disposable bits of technology, not randomly fluctuating genes.

I like that player characters know very little about the game's science fantasy setting. The technology-as-magic nature of the Ninth World causes players to question everything they know about the natural world and the rules it operates by. Consider that in this age the Earth has been reworked so many times that even its soil isn't really soil any more; it's the broken down bits of ancient technology. The ruins of technology are everywhere.

I like the rules-light, story-driven nature of the game, though I'll admit it takes some adjusting to after two years of Pathfinder, and another two-to-three years of Star Wars. Much of the game is about exploring the world and interacting with what you find, and that's inherently interesting to me.

What I don't like

As far as what I don't like, there are parts of the rules that make my brain itch because they're either half-baked, haphazardly edited, or perhaps too anticipatory. The crafting rules are a perfect example of this: they cover making mundane items (a simple skill check) and artifacts (which require spending 3 XP) but only give rules for hacking, not creating, cyphers. After talking with folks, I think there is an in-game logic for this: people aren't creating artifacts from scratch, they are assembling them from random bits of technology they pick up around the Ninth World. Cyphers are those pieces parts, so you can't build them, you can only modify them.

It fits with the scavenger culture of the Ninth Age, where there's nothing new under the sun (except, well, maybe the super science that's keeping the sun from burning the earth to a crisp).

This is all implied, not explicitly stated. The crafting rules themselves are something of a muddle -- they read like the vestiges of an earlier ruleset that got edited out, or like anticipatory rules that look toward the Sir Arthur's Technology Compendium. I'll elaborate on that in another post, but suffice it to say that the rules as written require some interpretation by your gaming party.

We haven't hit too many rough spots with the rules yet, partially because there are so few of them. The basic mechanic is determine the level of a check, set a difficulty number, determine if you're going to spend "effort" to reduce the difficulty or pump up the damage, and then roll a die. If you beat the target number, you succeed. Most of the rules revolve around setting an appropriate difficulty and then modifying it based on bonuses or penalties.

One thing some of us balked at was the fact that ranged combatants get a "step" bonus when firing at a target at immediate range (effectively right in front of you). The argument in favor of the rule is that someone next to you is an easy target compared to someone right away, but the counterargument is that it's harder to bring up your weapon and get a bead on. We decided to go with the rule as written and see how it shook out in game.

Ultimately, I can't point to any one thing that keeps me from loving the game -- I think it's less about things I don't like, and more about things I'm not sure about.

Ambivalence

A good example is the skills system, which seems conflicted to me. On the one hand, there is no formal skill list in Numenera, although there is a suggested skill list. At the same time, many of the adjectives and descriptors in the game (e.g. the bracketed text in this line: a [stealthy] nano [who exists partially out of phase]) specifically reference the sort of generic tasks you're trained in (in the case of "stealthy", it's stealth, lies, and deception.

Unlike many other systems, you don't need to be trained in a skill to try and do something with it -- anyone can try and sneak around, it's just easier for "stealthy" characters to do it. It's a very freeform system, and the party can make up new skills on the fly. While some skillful tasks are defined in the core rule book, it's largely up to the group to come to a consensus about whether a skill is appropriate.

The conflict comes from Numenera simultaneously spelling out certain skills while at the same time saying those skills are only "suggested". Some may love this, but I think it makes for a big adjustment for folks who are used to closed skill systems like Dungeons & Dragons (3rd and 4th editions), and Pathfinder.

Numenera game masters never roll any dice, and I'm not sure how I feel about that. Numenera GMs are focused entirely the story and setting up related challenges for the players, which establishes the difficulty for all of their tasks. Social interactions, figuring out some new bit of numenera, or fighting a bandit are all tasks that the PCs succeed or fail at.

In a move that echoes what we've seen in story-based games (invoking aspects in Spirit of the Century immediately comes to mind) the GM's primary way to affect the game is through "game master intrusion".

The way it works is that the GM can decide to mess with a combat -- the book example is that a player's drops his weapon in a fight. If the player accepts this intrusion, then he gets 2 experience point, one for himself, and one he can award to another player. If he rejects the intrusion, he has to pay an XP to the game master. GM Intrusion also happens when the player rolls a 1 on a d20. This is a free intrusion, and the GM doesn't have to award any XP for it.

I haven't played enough -- and we haven't had enough intrusions -- to really have a feel for how well this mechanic works. Conceptually I like the idea, but from a practical standpoint it seems arbitrary. When you compel an Aspect of Spirit of the Century you're exploiting one of the beliefs, attributes, or foibles of a character. It makes intrinsic sense because each invocation is directly tied to the PC. I think well done GM Intrusions could make similar sense if you tie them directly to the story at hand, but I can see how players would react badly if they felt the GM was simply messing with them.

Intermediate Thoughts

I enjoy Numenera. It's providing a welcome change of pace from our standard d20 games (Pathfinder, Star Wars) and I recommend that others give it a try. It's a good game for trying out some more story-focused game mechanics without diving into the whole indie RPG scene, and it will certainly help stretch your RPG muscles. I'm curious to see where the game goes, and I can easily see running a short four-to-six month campaign set in the Ninth World. I just don't know that I'd want to invest the next two years in it like we did with Pathfinder, Star Wars and Greyhawk.