Game Day: Dawn Over Numenera

With our Second Darkness campaign on hiatus for a week my gaming group decided to try out Numenera, Monte Cook’s new game of science fantasy set 1 billion years in the future. Numenera is one of the lead contenders for our next RPG campaign, with three members of the group participating in the Kickstarter and another pre-ordering the core rule book.

The Kickstarter contingent has been working our way through the core rule book PDF since it’s release on August 1 and by game day we knew enough to run a few simple encounters.

We kicked off the night with character creation since most of us hadn’t had the time to make characters before the game. We spent about two hours creating characters and discussing the various aspects of said characters:

  • The three core attributes, Might, Speed, and Intellect. Each is associated with a resource pool that’s spent to power abilities.
  • The three character types: The warrior-like “glaive”, the wizardly “nanos”, and the roguish “jacks”.
  • Character descriptors: Adjectives that describe the character and provide certain game mechanic advantages like attribute boosts, extra skills, special abilities, additional equipment, story hooks connecting the character to other members of the party, and a role-playing drawback.
  • Character foci: What the character does in the world, like “fights with panache”, “employs magnetism”, or “works the back alleys”.

The process quickly yielded a short, but useful, description of your character in the form of [name] is a [descriptor] [type] who [focus].

The Scorn of Dread Nazaar

I loved it. Getting players to create backstories for their characters, or even descriptions of their characters, can be difficult. Numenera does it as a matter of course, yielding the RPG equivalent of an elevator pitch after 30 minutes of character creation.

In my case I was immediately drawn to the “exists partially out of phase” character foci. It reminded me of a time-travelling superhero I played back in my DC Heroes days when I was in college. The character was in a state of temporal flux, providing a story reason why he suddenly disappeared from the game when I had to run off and work at the student newspaper.

I knew that was my foci, so I started working backwards from there. I’d already thought about playing a nano, but when I saw the random background chart that said “You served as an apprentice for a nano-sorcerer respected and feared by many people. Now your bear his mark”, I was certain.

A backstory sprung to mind. Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, my character had once dared try to control powers best left to more knowledgeable practitioners. A terrible accident left him partially out of phase with reality, and drew the scorn of his master, the Nazaar the Dreaded. Nazaar caused a tattoo with his mark to appear on his apprentice’s forehead, pulsing with malevolent blue power before it faded.

The apprentice was then cast out of the tower. So was born The Scorn of Dread Nazaar, a stealthy nano who exists partially out of phase. The stealth was a outgrowth of his backstory; naturally he used to sneak in the lab at night to run his own experiment, and naturally he was quite good at lying about it … until he got caught.

No one knows his true name; he is simply called “Scorn”.

Most of us didn’t create such back stories because these were designed as throwaway characters to learn character creation and to try out some game mechanics. I like Scorn though; I think he’ll find his way into the actual game.

Weird Combat in 1,000,000,000 AD

As for the playtest, we ran two combat encounters. We realize that Numenera is an exploration-centric game — you get experience for discovering new things, not killing monsters — but the combat resolution and the task resolution rules are the same: the game master sets a target number based on how difficult a task is and the player rolls a twenty-sided die and tries to beat it.

Difficulties are based on levels, each of which has a set target number. A task with a difficulty of 1 is simple and only requires the player to roll a 3. A task difficulty of 5 is difficult and requires the player to meet or beat a 12. Things get progressively harder, culminating with a task difficulty of 10. That’s an impossible task that has a target number of 30.

Or perhaps seemingly impossible, because player characters can actually lower that number. “Effort” allows a player to try harder, which has the effect of lowing the task difficulty by one or more (our meek 1st level characters only had 1 rank of Effort, but more advanced characters have higher Efforts). That could turn an “Impossible” task into one that’s meerly “Immortal” one (requiring a 27 instead of a 30). At our level it mean something more like turning a Demanding task (target = 9) into a Standard one (target = 6). Doing so costs you points from your attribute pools, but it’s worth it.

All of this is used in combat. Monsters have a level, and that level maps to the task difficulty. Hitting a Level 2 monster with your sword means there’s a target number of 6. If you hit, you do flat damage depending on your weapon type (light weapons do 2 points of damage, medium ones do 4, heavy weapons do 6).

Likewise, if the monsters attack the PCs, their difficulty determines what the players roll to evade the attack. A Level 2 monster’s attack would also require a Speed check of 6 or better to avoid.

The same approach is used if you’re trying to bypass a door, barter with a merchant, or navigate river rapids: the game master sets the difficulty, the players try to beat it.

It’s a cool concept, and it’s fast. We were able to pack in character creation and two fights into five hours of gaming, with frequent pauses to look up rules and short breaks to setup the next encounter.

We didn’t run a proper role-playing scenario, and we didn’t try using the bits of scientific magic known as numenera, but we played enough to get a sense for the game.

When I was making my character I was concerned that there weren’t enough options for players, but in actual play the game mixes things up nicely. Effort allows you to choose when to make a task easier, or when to pack a bigger punch. As I read the book some of the game terms became a mental mishmash of terms like tiers, edges, effort, and levels. That confusion disappated at the table; because tasks are all handled the same way, you’re constantly using the same mechanics over and over again. That makes learning them much easier.

There were the inevitable discussions regarding things like “extreme range”, who’s description isn’t clear in the book. Is “extreme range” beyond long range, or just beyond your weapon’s effective range; e.g. if my mental blast power has a range of “short”, would long range be considered “extreme”? We weren’t sure.

We also paused to look up holding an action and player vs. player combat (you know, just in case it happened) and were able to find answers to those questions. One disappointment while doing all this impromptu research was the lack of an outline in the PDF. While the book is extensively hyperlinked, it doesn’t make use of the “outline” feature often used in RPG pdfs. This made moving around the PDF more difficult, particularly jumping between chapters.

Mechanics aside, we all enjoyed the strangeness of the campaign setting. In the book, Monte Cook urges people to keep things weird and I don’t think we’ll have any problem doing that. The weirdness is the most compelling element for me; I love the potential of all manner of strange and twisted relics merging from a billion years of histroy.

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