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Posts Tagged ‘Numenera’

Those who know me even passingly well will be aware that the playing of games has been a significant element of my life for a very long time. This year in particular has been somewhat notable, as I’ve stuck with my usual regime of board, card, and computer games, but my long-standing involvement in tabletop wargaming has come to what feels like a very definite end, while I’ve spent more time on role-playing games than in any year I can recall.

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Having been out of RPGs in a serious way for the best part of two decades, one of the interesting changes in the hobby is the way that people have been giving serious thought as to what makes these games appealing and how best to approach running them as a referee/storyteller. So I thought I would offer a couple of small thoughts on this front, mainly to do with the massive influence of Dungeons & Dragons on the whole genre and how it affects play-style and attitudes.

As I’ve said before, when it comes to synonymity, Dungeons & Dragons is to role-playing game as Hoover is to vacuum cleaner – maybe even moreso, with the rise of Dyson and so on. I routinely refer to my ‘Saturday night game of D&D’ even though I don’t believe I’ve played any flavour of the game in 25 years. The reasons for this association are not exactly obscure – if D&D didn’t invent the genre, I’ve no idea what did, and it was certainly the game that made the biggest cultural splash back in the late 70s and early 80s.

So it shouldn’t really come as a surprise if we find the influence of D&D over RPGs generally to still be incredibly strong. It continues to be a massively popular game. How popular is it? Well, a friend started up an RPG club recently, which he almost-inevitably called ‘Dungeons and Dragons and other roleplaying’. He probably needn’t have bothered with the ‘other roleplaying’ as the majority of the respondees made it fairly clear they were only really interested in playing either 5th Edition D&D or Pathfinder (a game originally derived from the more complicated 3rd-and-a-Half Edition D&D ruleset). More objectively, nearly two-thirds of the games run on roll20 – the website which facilitates most of my current gaming, which is web-based and international – are of some variant of D&D, or a system closely derived from it.

And one gets the impression that even when veteran gamers say they want to play something other than D&D, and end up playing a different rules system, on some subconscious level they still think they’re playing it – or perhaps the subconscious assumption is that all RPGs are really like D&D when you actually get down to brass tacks. And I’m not sure this is always necessarily a good thing. Hopefully making people more aware of the implicit biases and assumptions of D&Dthink will help them shake them off, and lead to more interesting and varied gaming experiences.

Perhaps the single most defining and influential feature of the original D&D rules was that they developed out of tabletop wargaming (or ‘toy soldiers’ to the uninitiated). Commentators have observed that the perceived weaknesses in the original conception of D&D, many of which have filtered down to us today, arise from the fact that it was originally intended for each player to control a whole bunch of characters rather than just one, in something much more akin to a skirmish-style wargame.

To some extent that’s what D&D remains to this day – it is, at least, the most basic playstyle of the game. Players generate a team (traditionally ‘party’) of characters, who then wander about in tunnels usually killing everything they possibly can and looting the place of treasure and other good stuff. The rules were originally not much more than a combat system with rules for character advancement, and while recent editions have addressed things like character backgrounds and motivations, there’s not much mechanically in the rules that requires these to be enforced. The default setting of D&D is the dungeon-crawl rather than any kind of structured narrative, and the default role of the DM – in theory – is to impartially implement rules procedures.

I write this as someone who doesn’t play D&D, as mentioned above, so bear in mind I may be biased – but that kind of experience appeals to me less and less as time goes by. Perhaps this makes me more sensitive to apparent occurences of D&Dthink when I’m playing other games – but I do think this is a genuine phenomenon.

What kind of thing am I thinking about? Well, earlier this year I was trying to figure out what a game was (it was a slow day) – in short, what is it that a board game like Chess and a freeform RPG like Fiasco share, that we can call them both games? I couldn’t come up with anything solid, but it did occur to me that in Chess, one player wins – it has a defined victory condition. That’s also true of most tabletop wargames – games usually have winners and losers (and occasionally tied results).

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Every D&D rulebook I have seen says that, in the game, everyone wins by having fun, and maybe they’ve meant it, but many of the D&D groups I’ve played with seem to have had the working assumption that everyone ‘wins’ by getting through to the end of the dungeon/adventure intact, having won every fight on the way (or at least run away from the big monsters successfully). And so ‘winning’ at D&D becomes primarily about being good at combat, both individually and as a team.

Individually, this takes the form of learning the rules backwards and coming up with the best choices, options, equipment and combos to make your character the baddest ass possible, regardless of all other considerations. Interesting characters are discarded in favour of optimised ones, and people spend hours cooking up absurd creations like half-Elf multi-classed sorcerer/monks, based solely on how their numbers stack up rather than any character- or story-based reason.

As a group, a similar thing happens – there’s a kind of Mission Impossible mentality, where every group has to have a fighter, a healer, a ‘face’ character, and so on. To be honest I have less of an issue with this, given the diverse group of comrades is such a trope of fiction from Lord of the Rings to The A-Team, but what I do find is that people still have the D&D team ‘roles’ in their head when thinking about groups of characters for other games.

I have seen D&Dthink in action quite a few times this year, in most of the games I have played. The main games have been Numenera and Mutants & Masterminds. Numenera is essentially the D&D experience re-skinned as a science-fantasy game, with a very simple and elegant ruleset which does not give extra attention or emphasis to combat as a means of conflict resolution. M&M is a fairly ‘crunchy’ game rules-wise, and it does assume combat as a major resolution mechanic, but this is because it is intended to simulate the action in superhero comic books, where every problem can be solved by a fist fight.

Overall, D&Dthink seems to be less of a problem the less complex and more abstract the ruleset is – D&Dthink is all about working the rules to your advantage – and so it was less of an issue in Numenera. Nevertheless, maybe it’s just the nature of fantasy RPGs – there was a lot of worrying about combat and intense, serious discussion about how best to divvy up treasure, and one keen young player asked many questions about the possibility of making a particularly vicious monster into a playable character type.

M&M is a lot crunchier and prone to min-maxing (this is RPG-speak for super-optimising your character to absurd degrees). As a comic book purist, I am a noted pain in the neck as an M&M GM, as I insist on characters having strong concepts and logical rationales for their powers. I think I must have helped eight or ten people come up with characters for M&M games this year – and it was here more than anywhere else that I saw D&Dthink casting its peculiar spell.

No matter how carefully I explained that I was hoping to recreate the feel of a ‘classic’ superhero team, very odd choices of characters and powers kept coming back to me – lots of interest in Healing as a possible superpower, not because it’s common in the books or particularly logical for that character, but because years of playing D&D had conditioned folk to believe that every team needed a healer. Someone else wanted to play the long-range support specialist, sniping from concealment – again, a solid choice for a D&D character, but not really the stuff of super-teams.

On one occasion I agreed with a potential player that he would play a super-speed character. He came back to me with a creation the most notable feature of which was a magic electrical sword which paralysed anyone it hit and did extra damage 20% of the time. None of this was remotely rationalised, it was just the best way to spend points and wreak the most havoc in combat, both of which would have been absolutely the way to go in most D&D games.

(Needless to say, this guy, like several others, ended up not participating in our game, mainly because I wouldn’t allow them to work the rules as they desired. One of the things about D&Dthink is that the rules are treated much more as some kind of holy text, not as something to be hacked or modded to make a better experience for the group.)

One of the most useful ways of thinking about RPGs that I’ve come across is something called the GNS triangle, G standing for Game, N for Narrative, and S for Simulation. These are, it is suggested, the three main approaches to RPGs – some want to have a game-style experience where it’s all about cleverly working the rules to ‘win’, others want to tell a genuine story, others want to replicate the style of a particular genre of fiction (maybe even a specific movie or TV series).

D&D is absolutely a Game-style RPG, as I hope I’ve made clear. Numenera and its sister games probably tend towards Narrative-style gaming. M&M, at least when we play it, is very Simulationist (although inevitably providing a good narrative is part of the genre experience). It seems a shame that a Game-oriented approach like D&Dthink should crop up when people are running N- and S-style games, but given D&D‘s dominance it’s only to be expected.

I don’t know. Hopefully, as players, people can make themselves aware of the existence of these kinds of thought patterns and try to go beyond them – my own M&M players have proven to be quite flexible when I pointed out just what was going on. And, perhaps more importantly, GMs can keep an eye out for D&Dthink and do their best to close it down before it gets started. When you’re actually playing D&D, D&Dthink can be perfectly logical. When playing a game in a different style, the best you can hope for is that the game will be odd and a little unsatisfying; at worst, it can wreck the whole experience.

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Well, for the benefit of anyone following along, I ran my first session of Numenera last week, and it seemed to go pretty well, considering that at least a couple of the players had a slightly shaky grasp of the rules (going from d20 to Cypher will do that, I suppose) and my audio connection wasn’t working, meaning they could all talk to each other but I could only communicate with them via typing. Hey ho. We had a good time, anyway, which is surely the only thing that matters. It just confirmed to me that the rules of an RPG are just a means to an end: I’m increasingly tending towards a sort of principle of minimum sufficient complexity to properly realise the setting, and no more. (Another meditation on games design theory looms. As usual, I digress.)

As I said when I was writing about the core rules last week, Numenera looks almost deceptively rules-light, but the getting the tone of the stories to the right level of evocative weirdness is still quite tricky. Given how easy it is to cook up your own creatures for the game (pick a number from 1 to 10 – or, more sensibly, roll 1d6+1 – and then tweak to taste) The Ninth World Bestiary might look like a fairly unnecessary purchase, from a rules point of view. It probably is, but in terms of the setting it is a genuinely remarkable resource.

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On the face of it it looks like a pretty standard RPG sourcebook or monster manual, albeit one realised to MCG’s soaringly high standards of artwork and general production competence. There’s a nice introduction crediting inspirations (most of the collected works of Dougal Dixon are mentioned, but not After Man, oddly enough), then an expanded section on creature design, and then a piece on the ecology of the Ninth World and very brief listings of common mounts, beasts of burden, and other domesticated beasties.

The monster manual resemblance hits a definite peak with the appearance of two pages of random encounter charts, broken down by terrain type. Fun though these are, I sort of wonder what they’re doing here, as they do feel like they’d be more at home in a sandbox-procedural style game than a narrative-based one like Numenera is supposed to be – creature ratings aren’t listed here, and don’t seem to have been a consideration, so I can imagine an unwitting first-time GM rolling up a dark fathom (an implacable humanoid engine of utter obliteration with a black hole (literally) where its insides should be) for a random encounter and accidentally TPKing the whole group. Still, I can’t pass by a random table without wanting to rattle some dice at it, so this is just a time-sink rather than a waste of space.

Then we are on to the creatures themselves, which are divided into three sections:  general creatures, generic NPCs, and specific individuals. There are over 130 all told, mostly of the first type, and all very much of a piece with the general setting.

To return to my frequent theme of ‘reasons why I have issues with D&D/Pathfinder’, I used to have difficulty getting my head round a world where people spend two hours walking through villages and farmland surrounded by very mundane sheep, horses, dogs, crows, and geese, then wander a short distance into the woods and find themselves beset by six-legged tentacle panthers with magical powers. Shouldn’t the magical nature of the setting have an impact on every living thing in it? Shouldn’t all the fruit trees and farm animals be a bit peculiar too?

Well, The Ninth World Bestiary does a pretty good job of giving a flavour of what it would be like to live in a world where every creature is more than a bit weird. Flipping open the book at random, I find myself looking at the entry for the odlark, a creature which resembles a maroon centipede-budgerigar hybrid, has telekinetic powers, and (apparently) ‘enjoys discussing philosophy, politics, and religion’, when it isn’t ‘culturing organic machinery’. (The odlark is comparatively mundane compared to the truly freakish thing from the opposite page, pictured below.)

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As you can perhaps see, this isn’t just a collection of things for PCs to hack to pieces (though there are plenty of those, too) – along with the odlarks, the book also features calyptors (buffalo-like herd animals which usually produce music but have other acoustic powers), valma (flying purple tetrahedrons that want to be characters’ best friend but turn vicious if snubbed) and shanu (tiny herbivores that imprint on another creature and buff its abilities).

These sort of creatures are a godsend for anyone not really wanting to run Numenera as another exercise in Murder Vagrancy: and especially useful are sections for each creature indicating its usual motive and how a group might interact with it. Now, of course, there are plenty of things in this book for which the listed motive is ‘hungers for flesh’, and things which are primarily there to be fought make up a fair proportion of the book – but even these are a very varied bunch, in terms of habitat, power level, nature (there are abhumans, animalistic predators, automata, extra-dimensional creatures, and more besides), and special powers.

Pretty much every Numenera creature has some sort of gimmick even beyond its (usually) freakish appearance – even the animals are really animals with super-powers: virtually everything can turn invisible, or release paralysing spines, or pass through solid matter, or morph into a copy of you (probably by eating your face first). This has certainly encouraged me to make the creatures I create for my own games a bit more distinctive and unpredictable.

It’s slightly ironic that this book should be so useful in terms of inspiring players’ own creativity, when the sheer quantity of creatures and ideas within means you could probably play for a very long time using just the beasties here and the ones from the core rulebook. It really is inspirational stuff, not least because of the artwork (the vast majority of creatures get a picture, usually full-colour) and the quality of the actual writing. Apart from at the start of the book, most of the background descriptions and game detail are written from an in-universe point of view, although very rarely a subtly tongue-in-cheek note creeps in (the entry for titanothaurs, a class of destructive gargantuan creatures clearly inspired by Japanese kaiju movies, notes their remarkable talent for hiding after a rampage, and lists their habitat as ‘usually near communities containing many high structures’).

The Ninth World Bestiary makes a remarkable success of combining the venerable and well-loved RPG bestiary tradition with being a brilliant resource for the specific game it was created to support. And, I can’t say this too often, it’s a gorgeously produced book even just as a book: I’ve owned my copy for a couple of months and I can still spend ages browsing through it (and seemingly finding new monsters in it every time, which is not-inappropriately odd). Even so, I suspect anyone reading this book for any length of time will find the urge to play Numenera itself very hard to ignore.

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We were having a training session at work not long ago and one of the tasks was to mingle about and talk about something we really wanted but hadn’t told anyone before. And, trying to enter into the spirit of the thing, I found myself saying ‘I want to play Dungeons & Dragons again.’ Responses varied from glazed, terrified smiles, to ‘Yes, it’s too bad it’s not the 80s any more.’

I suppose I was using D&D as a shorthand for RPGing or storygaming in general, not least because people who’ve absolutely no idea what The World of Synnibarr or even Vampire: the Masquerade is are still aware of D&D (although their preconceptions may well be wildly inaccurate). D&D is to roleplaying what Hoovers are to vacuum cleaners.

I mention this because I don’t think I’ve actually played any version of D&D in nearly 25 years, although some storygaming has taken place in that time: a couple of swings at the slightly byzantine FASA Doctor Who ruleset, a surprisingly rewarding Palladium-rules campaign where all the characters were mutant animal vigilantes, a couple of stabs at playing Call of Cthulhu, and – last but very much not least – an eight-month Vampire chronicle in 1995 and 1996, during which made friends I have kept to this day.

Since then, however, nothing much except for an abortive attempt at playing Werewolf over ten years ago. Hasn’t stopped me wanting to participate in this kind ofstorytelling, though, nor has it stopped me keeping up with rulesets that particularly interest me: the original World of Darkness, because the setting is so extraordinary; supers systems, because I’m a comics fan; licensed Doctor Who games, because duh; and generic fantasy systems like D&D and its close relation Pathfinder, because in many ways this is the ur-RPG, the purest example of the form.

Yet I’ve always had issues with D&D in its classic form, which may be the reason why I haven’t played or run it since 1990. One of these is really the sheer crunchiness of the rules – it would take a long time to teach a new player D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder, and the rules seem to promote a tactical wargame approach to play. The other is to do with the nature of the game and the setting itself.

The default D&D setting is derived from classic fantasy, most obviously the works of Tolkien and Robert E Howard, and the fact that the game is 40 years old means that most players don’t just have a good idea what the difference between a dwarf and an elf is, they also know in some detail the capabilities of even reasonably obscure monsters like slaad and yuan-ti. The result is that the game becomes less about mystery and tension and more about number crunching and – again – tactical wargaming.

I also have problems with finding the default setting a bit implausible, especially after having read books like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel: where are all the orcs and kobolds getting their weapons from? What’s their food supply? If they’re just nomadic raiders, they must only have a relatively tiny population, so why don’t the civilised races just wipe them out? To say nothing of coming up with an explanation of why all orcs are inherently evil. Even beyond that, most settings ignore the dire mammoth in the room: why is the landscape studded with vast dungeons full of useful, dangerous stuff?

None of these are insuperable problems, provided you’re prepared to put the time in, but sometimes you can’t or don’t want to. However, I think I have found an alternative, a game intriguing enough to make me put in the effort and organise my first game session in over a decade. The system in question is Numenera, from Monte Cook Games, and it honestly reads like an attempt to address my specific problems with D&D while retaining everything which makes the concept of the game attractive.

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The setting of the game is post-apocalyptic – or perhaps I should say it’s post-post-post-post-post-post-post-post-apocalyptic, for the citizens of the setting generally agree that eight previous civilisations have risen to unimaginable heights and plunged back down into nothing, leaving only mysterious relics as signs of their existence. These relics include megastructures, bioengineered creatures, dimensional rifts, machine intelligences, and much more besides. The ‘native’ human civilisations of the Ninth World operate at about the level of Dark Ages Europe, but there are those amongst the people who make it their mission to explore the vestiges of these previous realms, whether that be for profit, knowledge, or power. These, of course, are the player characters.

The genius of this setting, if you ask me, is in the way it allows the storyteller to comprehensively re-skin all the classic tropes of fantasy rolegaming, restoring a sense of mystery and wonder to them while still leaving them intuitively familiar. Every seasoned rolegamer knows orcs as well as their own family, knows what to expect, know roughly how hard they hit, and so on: but when a mob of twisted abhuman creatures with tentacles for heads comes boiling out of the woods around you, that’s a different matter – what the hell are these things? What are they capable of? The potential for metagaming – which even the best of us can find hard to resist – is vastly reduced.

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It would be remiss of me not to mention, by the way, that the setting as presented in the Numenera core book isn’t just imaginatively conceived, but worked out in some detail: there are nearly a hundred full-colour pages just describing the places of the setting, mostly in story terms, to say nothing of many more outlining a representative selection of monsters and ultratech gadgets (the setting equivalent of magic items). This is a genuinely exciting setting – at least it is if, like me, your taste in science fantasy takes in Tolkien and Howard and goes on to include the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, Michael Moorcock, and Olaf Stapledon – and the whole book is a thing of beauty even if you never actually get around to playing the game itself.

This would be a shame, because as Monte Cook himself says, he believes his company produces books that are fun to read and look beautiful, but they’re really intended to be played – they’re ultimately games, after all. The ruleset of Numenera reads like a passion project, Monte Cook’s attempt to put everything he believes about storygame design into a single system.

That may sound intimidating, but the core rules of the system comfortably fit onto a double-sided piece of A4. Every action is a 1d20 roll against a difficulty assigned by the GM, with the players having the option to spend resources to modify the difficulty if they choose. That’s the core mechanic; this is as easy to teach as the Vortex system or old-school World of Darkness, if not easier. (One of the unique things about Numenera, by the way, is that, in play at least, the players will be making virtually every dice roll. They make attack rolls to hit the bad guys and defence rolls to avoid being hit in return.)

Even character creation is about a 15-minute job, as players just fill in blanks in a I am a [adjective] [noun] who [verb]s sentence and make a few other minor choices. The game looks like it has classes – glaive (essentially a fighter), jack (utility character), and nano (technomagic user), but there’s still a lot of flexibility built into this. So you can play a Rugged Glaive Who Hunts With Great Skill, or an Entertaining Nano Who Bears A Halo Of Fire, or a Graceful Jack Who Carries A Quiver. A good selection of character choices come with the core book, but it’s actually very easy to customise your own – working out rules for an Obsessive Jack Who Walks In Shadow should be pretty easy once you get familiar with the system.

Now, my usual practice when picking up a new RPG is to make up a load of sample characters and let them fight each other (with some systems I never seem to get any further, to be honest), but another unique thing is that it has an assymmetrical game system. Player characters are defined by half-a-dozen numbers, but monsters and NPCs usually have only two or three: in extremis, you can assign any given creature a rating between 1 (a slightly asthmatic rat) and 10 (Great Cthulhu in one of his moods) and literally take it from there: every other key stat derives from the initial rating.

This, by the way, means there’s no reason why Numenera players should ever find themselves going ‘Hey ho, another band of grush marauders – where did we put the axes?’ in the same way that D&D veterans treat kobolds and hobgoblins as reassuringly familiar old friends. Creating new D&D monsters can feel like time-consuming maths homework; creating Numenera monsters is a breeze.

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Now, while the core rules of Numenera are almost uncannily brief, there’s a lot of guidance and optional extras also included. It took me a while to get through this, mainly because other parts of the book are just so enticing, but this meant I missed a couple of key things which would have answered some of my misgivings about the game. I did wonder what would happen if there was a PC vs PC clash, given the nature of the system, or indeed for that matter an NPC vs NPC confrontation. Well, these are addressed, of course.

I’m still a little uncertain that the players-roll-all-dice rule should be as definitive as the book suggests. Let’s say the players are trying to cross a river and find a rickety old bridge, and they ask me as GM whether it looks like it will take their weight. Now, I know it probably won’t. What happens if the players roll and fail their perception check? No matter what I say, they’re not going to get onto that bridge in the same way they would if I’d rolled the dice and hidden the result: they are metagaming again, and understandably.

Even as I think about this, though, it occurs to me that Monte Cook (I hate to keep calling him that, but ‘Monte’ is just too overfamiliar, ‘Cook’ is too disrespectful, and ‘Mr Cook’ is too formal) has found a smart answer to this too: there’s another mechanic where the storyteller gets to stick his nose into the story and say ‘suddenly, the bridge collapses’ in exchange for giving the poor devil who’s now falling into the river some extra experience points. There’s a sense in which this formalises something a lot of GMs have been doing unofficially for decades anyway, and it’s all in aid of a good story, which is one of the guiding principles of Numenera.

The designer (that one’s too impersonal, I fear) goes into much detail about this in the section on actually running the game, which must be one of the best I’ve ever read: there isn’t just advice on adjudicating the rules and the underlying principles (logic, creativity, flexibility), there’s a section on the GM’s rule as mediator of the setting in terms of establishing mood and so on, which even extends to things like choice of diction. It’s almost like a thesis on storygame design and RPG refereeing, and an extremely good one.

Perhaps a little more advice on scenario design would have been ideal – the book recommends avoiding the traditional map-based dungeon crawl scenario, but is a little vague on how to design and run a map-free dungeon crawl, or indeed another style of adventure, especially given that Numenera is in theory an exploration-centric game and I suspect some groups may default back into D&D-style Murder Hobo mode without even realising it. On the other hand, the core book includes a selection of different styles of adventure (one of them is, ironically, a map-based dungeon crawl) and these seem pretty solid.

Not that I will be using them myself, partly because I want something quicker and more straightforward, partly because I’m always wary of the problems inherent in running a scenario the players have access to. Normally I would feel a little uncertain heading into a new game with a new system and new players, not to mention my first time playing a game over the internet: but Numenera seems enough in sync with my own ideas about storygaming, and a strong enough system and setting, for these not to be real issues. This game looks very much like an instant classic, even just considering the core rulebook (the supplements I’ve seen all maintain the same standards). My main worry is not that the rules are not up to scratch, but that my GMing skills are so rusty I may not able to do Numenera justice. That should tell you something about just how impressed I am by it: it’s a completely new and in some ways almost radical system and setting, but it also somehow feels like it contains the essence of every reason why people have been playing storygames since the 1970s.

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