Posts Tagged ‘RPG’

The people at Modiphius, makers of the latest Star Trek role-playing game, could be forgiven a slight case of nervousness at the moment. Licenses for these big-name properties don’t come cheap, and they have clearly put a lot of time and effort into the new game. One suspects they may not have been anticipating the underwhelming response to Star Trek Beyond and the general lack of buzz around the golden anniversary of Trek. In terms of the franchise’s future, a lot may be riding on the success of Discovery (perhaps a bit worryingly). There are already plenty of reasons to wish for a renaissance in Star Trek‘s fortunes and quality – the fact this would help the chances of a game which has clearly been something of a labour of love is just one more.

I’ve been playing Trek RPGs since the late 1980s – mainly in the form of the original FASA game and its associated starship combat system. Fond of them though I am, the FASA rules were, to the modern eye, very clunky and war-gamey, and failed to address some of the inherent problems in trying to simulate the Trek experience in an RPG: namely, everyone wanted to play a Vulcan, as the racial component of character creation was rather unbalanced, and the issue of the guy playing the captain turning into a despot (or junior characters being wildly insubordinate) was basically left for the GM to deal with.

Star Trek Adventures is a much slicker and more modern game that makes a decent attempt at addressing these kinds of issues. There is much to like about it, a little that I am slightly dubious about, and a few things that I think are just a bit odd. First amongst the oddities is the way that the game is clearly being marketed as a (for want of a better word) universal Star Trek RPG, with the option for games set in the 22nd, 23rd, or 24th centuries (or, to put it another way, the Archer, Kirk, and Picard eras).

Well, to some extent this is true, but the rulebook makes it clear quite early on that the default setting for the game is the year 2371 (the Enterprise-D is about to go on its final mission, the crew of Deep Space Nine are engaged in their cold war with the Dominion, and the Voyager is preparing for its ill-fated mission to the Badlands). The rationale for this is that there are plenty of options for adventure here, with other ships being called upon to fill in for the lost Enterprise, etc, but it’s hard to shake the impression that this decision was largely made for licensing reasons.

The Trek rights situation is rather complex, but basically this game was licensed by the holders of the rights to the TV shows rather than the movies, and so the game’s ability to include material from big-screen Trek seems to be very limited. The art primarily features Picard-era characters (judging by the uniforms), with a few pictures of people in Kirk-era gear, but there’s no sign of the red tunics from the Harve Bennett/Nick Meyer films or the dark uniforms introduced in First Contact. Events from some of the movies are touched upon, but only very occasionally; there’s no mention of the Abrams timeline at all (so it’s not all bad news).

The people writing this game really seem to know their lore and be dedicated to providing a proper Star Trek experience for players, so it’s very unlikely that this was an entirely voluntary choice – and, to be fair, I get the sense that Picard-era Trek is still the most popular with the fanbase, and so many people will be looking to play in this era, in which case the late-24th century default setting shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

On the other hand, if your game’s setting moves away from about 2370, there’s a sense in which the options the game presents you start to become limited. Several of the PC racial options are designated ‘Next Generation era only’, while there are no ‘original series era only’ choices. It’s most noticeable when it comes to the Federation ship classes presented as player options. Of the nine ships in the book, the Akira, Constellation, Defiant, Galaxy, Intrepid and Nova classes are obviously Next Gen only, while the Miranda and Excelsior classes bridge the original cast movies and the Next Gen era. The only original series ship offered is the Constitution class (to be fair, there aren’t any other canon ship classes from this period). There are no stats for the NX-class starship at all, despite Archer-era play still supposedly being an option. Also absent are stats for the refitted Enterprise, and the Sovereign-class – both of which are essentially movie-only designs.

This feels odd and perhaps a little irritating more than anything else, because the basic rules lend themselves equally well to recreating all periods of Trek. Any differences will most likely be ones of emphasis and style, and this is touched on to about the degree you’d expect in a core book – there’s a brief section on how the final frontier was a bit wilder in Kirk’s time (the late 2260s) and how ships operated more independently of Starfleet, but not much when it comes to creating period-authentic scenarios, for instance.

(I’m not sure this isn’t a big misjudgement, given the 2260s are arguably the most iconic Trek setting, especially for gamers who aren’t Trekkies. The idea of being off in unexplored space encountering strange new worlds (etc) may well be rather more appealing to some game groups than (say) getting heavily involved in pre-Dominion War faction politics, especially if they’re not familiar with DS9. Plus, you get to fight it out with the Klingons with a totally clear conscience, seeing as they’re definitely all bad guys at that point in history.)

The rules themselves are admirably simple, to start with at least, with a roll-some-d20s-and-beat-this-number mechanic. Target numbers vary from 8 to 16, depending on a characters competence (they are based on Attribute + Discipline) with extra successes being generated if you roll well or have an applicable focus (basically, a skill specialisation). The six disciplines each relate to one of the branches of Starfleet and are left admirably vague – the ‘security’ discipline covers everything from interrogating a prisoner to getting into a phaser battle. Characters also have a bunch of talents which can help them in various ways, too.

There’s also the seemingly-obligatory narrative system, which in this game deals with Momentum and Threat: characters can convert extra successes into something called Momentum, which is a group resource characters can spend to buy extra d20s, do more damage, get more information from the GM, and so on. Threat is basically the same but is a GM resource to make life harder for the players; it does require the GM to be on the honour system and not sneakily introduce complications (etc) if they don’t have any Threat to spend. (PCs generate Threat in a number of ways – by avoiding lethal injuries, or by using certain pieces of equipment, for instance phaser rifles or photon torpedoes.)

So far so good, but I’m a little dubious about some of the advanced rules the book presents, in which some situations are handled using ‘extended tasks’ with a new set of terminology – the book starts going on about ‘Work Tracks’, ‘Breakthroughs’, and ‘Magnitude’, and even if all this is strictly necessary for a good game experience, I’m not sure the more abstruse elements of the rules are explained sufficiently. At least the book makes it clear they are only advanced options.

The core rules encourage the GM to ensure there are a number of routes to solving any crisis the characters end up in – ‘Red, Blue, and Gold solutions’ – and there are some nice rules for using the scientific method in true Trek-style. Inevitably, though, there’s a combat system, and it’s, well, okay. One of the striking things about the FASA game was how spectacularly deadly ranged weapons were – this is a very modern game, in that PCs will have to be quite determined or very unlucky to die. It’s theoretically possible to take a bat’leth in the face from an enraged Klingon and walk away without a scratch – the same is true of a shot from a disruptor rifle, or indeed anything else. (Here the game theoretically requires the use of proprietary dice, but it’s much easier to work around this than it is with, for example, Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars game.)

The system seems likely to work much better when it comes to starship combat (although, as with many of the rules systems, the wise GM will spend time preparing cheat sheets first detailing just what the various options are for the different bridge positions), mainly because many Trek ship battles are basically slugging matches that take a long time to resolve. I anticipate that major battles will feature a lot of battering away at the opposition’s shields, desperate redistribution of the power network, captains yelling orders at their crew, systems being knocked offline, and so on. Although there is also a somewhat streamlined system for when you just want to blow up a Klingon bird-of-prey without a lot of messing about.

Hmm, you may be wondering, but what’s the ship’s counsellor doing during these epic starship battles? Just sitting there yelling ‘Captain, I sense hostility’? (If your game group even contains someone interested in playing the counsellor, your players are better adjusted than any I’ve ever met.) And, for that matter, what’s the tactical officer doing while everyone’s trying to cure the Valargian plague and tend to its victims?

Well, one fairly bold idea Star Trek Adventures really runs with is the idea of troupe-style play, where everyone runs one main character and has access to a group of minor characters who can be activated as the situation demands it. So, if you really want to be faithful to the TNG vibe and leave the captain on the ship all the time, you can: the guy who runs the captain can play a redshirt or an away team specialist for a while, and if something kicks off on the ship while the away team is, um, away, everyone else can play the bridge crew understudies. These supporting characters can even develop and advance if they recur from one scenario to the next. Given this is basically what happened to Worf and O’Brien on the TV show, this feels ‘right’, and hopefully players will embrace it (it also helps ameliorate the psycho captain problem, as most people will get to be senior officer at least part of the time).

Character generation is rather pleasing, though purists will probably object that Vulcans have been left underpowered in the name of game balance – they have the same attribute limits as Humans, which is hardly what the canon suggests. There isn’t the greatest selection of races, but there are guidelines for creating your own, along with unique characters. (Starship creation is similar to PC creation, and it’s quite easy to homebrew your own stats for the NX, or the Sovereign class, or the Ambassador class, or any of the wacky old FASA ships.) You can even randomly create your character for the most part, which is a lovely retro touch – though this does create the possibility of a PC group consisting of four science officers and a helmsman, which could lead to some curious game experiences.

The core book does not include stats for any named canon characters, which is perhaps a little regrettable as they would at least provide examples of Values (a narrative-based character element). The closest we get, weirdly enough, is a stat block for the planet-killing robot vessel from The Doomsday Machine. (There are generic stat blocks for the major adversarial races – no Gorn, alas – and their ships. They don’t quite come out and say Borg cubes can only be destroyed by a plot device, but it’s a near thing.)

Time and again, looking through this book, I was struck by the writers’ obvious and genuine love of Star Trek, both in terms of the lore – details as obscure as the registration numbers of mentioned vessels are correct – and the look and feel of the game. There’s even a roll-your-own-alien-race-of-the-week table, along with a similar one for randomly creating strange new worlds and new civilisations.

I suppose the downside of this, when coupled to the fact the game is clearly aimed at existing Trekkies, is that some of the background material assumes familiarity with the universe. A few fewer knowing in-universe documents would have made room for, say, an actual timeline of the Trek universe, detailing what went on and when. But this is a minor quibble – even Wikipedia has one of those these days.

I only have the PDF of Star Trek Adventures, but I am sufficiently impressed with it to be seriously considering acquiring the physical book and pitching it to my current group as something to consider when our current Star Wars game reaches a natural break point. The art is great, the look of the thing is very authentic (although nearly 400 pages of white-on-black LCARS text may lead to eyestrain), and really the only other negative I can think of to say about it is that the starter adventure looks a bit weak. Whether we ever get the ambitious range of quadrant- and section-specific sourcebooks Modiphius have announced, let alone era- or race-specific ones (you just know the Klingon lobby will be demanding this), is still up in the air, but I hope this game does well, because the world could always use more classic Star Trek, and classic Star Trek seems to be baked into the essence of this game. An impressive take on a tough property to get right.



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Hitting the 30th anniversary of my first experience running an RPG feels like a bigger deal than I would’ve expected, possibly because this kind of game is currently a larger presence in my life than has been the case for many, many years. I have lost track of how many hours I must have spent GMing in all that time, but the total must be well into three figures. Obviously not many moments of that stand out, but one which does came near the end of my one big Vampire chronicle, back in 1996.


We were about six months in and the climax of the story was looming, but just prior to this we were resolving a little side-quest as one of the characters had inadvertently tainted herself by consuming the soul of her evil sire (ah, Vampire…) and felt the need to expiate this. During this, one of the group got into a fight with a Spiral Dancer, the dice were unfavourable, and the numbers indicated a PC with a key role to play in the conclusion was, in fact, a pile of ash on the floor.

‘Oh, looks like I’m gone,’ said the player, with a resigned smile on his face. Almost at once I stepped in and explained how his frenzy, or the significance of the moment, or something, allowed him to keep going, with enough strength to either escape the combat or hide or finish off the evil werewolf. I forget exactly what.

It was, of course, a classic dice fudge, one of those occasions where the GM steps in and over-rules the numbers for the sake of the story. (Note I say story rather than game.) It’s something I’ve found myself doing more and more as my style of gaming has become increasingly focused on stories rather than strict adherence to rules mechanics. You wouldn’t enjoy a movie where the protagonist slipped down a flight of steps and broke his neck on his way to the final battle with the villain, and you wouldn’t enjoy playing in a game where a character failed a Dex check and suffered the same fate twenty minutes before the end (this actually happened in a Call of Cthulhu game I was a player in).

I’ve never thought much about this, beyond contemplating different ways of trying to keep dice fudges from being too obvious, but then I was browsing a ‘how to be a better GM‘ discussion the other day and found someone arguing that dice fudging is not fair. The GM may justify doing it on the grounds that he’s serving the story and creating dramatic moments, but couldn’t a player justify disregarding a dice roll for exactly the same reasons? Why bother rolling dice at all, if you’re just going to stick with the story you have in mind? Isn’t this just another example of railroading the story?

Hmmm. Well, this gave me food for thought, and I would still defend the GM’s right to fudge the dice. Firstly, many modern games have a mechanism which gives players the ability to disregard bad dice at critical points, either by a reroll or something else. Every game I currently run has one – Mutants and Masterminds has Hero Points, the Cypher games allow XP to be used to buy rerolls, and the FFG Star Wars game has Destiny Points. Implicit in all these games is the idea that the GM can fudge, in the name of a good story, it’s just that doing so gives the players an increased ability to overrule the dice in response (the implication seems to be that the GM will always be trying to make the story more interesting, i.e. difficult, which doesn’t really include things like saving players’ lives from bad dice rolling and the like).

Also, the player-GM relationship is not really an equivalent or symmetrical one, in the sense that the GM has a lot more power over everything that’s happening. This is a truth of this type of game, where one person is basically the god of the story. The only exception is a game like Fiasco, which doesn’t have a GM or storyteller at all, and which is a rather different gaming experience. Denying the GM the right to fudge is, firstly, an almost impossible restriction to enforce, and, secondly, something which feels like a throwback to the days of wargame-style rules-implementation GMing.

So, on reflection, I think I’ll continue to fudge at key moments. The issue has become a little more complex of late, however, as I have found my own gaming style doesn’t really give me the opportunity to fudge the dice as easily as I once could. This is because I only roll a tiny handful of dice each session in most of the games I run.
This is a core element of the Cypher games: one of the mantras of the system is ‘the players roll all the dice’. I was initially a bit unsure about this, but I quickly became a bit of a convert, mainly because the vast majority of my Cypher experiences have been on roll20 where the last thing I need is to worry about how to use the dice rolling utility. It also makes sense, as it gives the players a bit more to do (one person shouldn’t be throwing almost 50% of the dice, as is sometimes the case in games where the GM rolls).

I’ve got so into the non-rolling GM mindset that when I was recruited to run a Mutants and Masterminds game I gave the system a minor hack so that I didn’t need to roll any dice there, either. (One of my players pointed out, six months into the series, that opting to have heroes roll damage against a villain’s Toughness-based DC meant they could use Hero Points to make villains fail their Toughness checks, which isn’t possible in the original rules, so I may need to house-rule that a bit further.) And this also seems to work pretty well and be popular with my players.

And it doesn’t mean I can’t fudge stuff, either: I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve decided to have a bad guy cave in when the players’ attack rolls haven’t quite justified it, simply because the battle was a foregone conclusion and it would have been dull to go through three or four rounds of the players just mugging someone. As long as the players can’t see your notes, you can always do that sort of thing.

However: now I’m hoping to run FFG’s Star Wars rules, a system perhaps most distinctive for its unique dice (and dice system). The nature of the game is such that I’m not sure it can easily be hacked in the same way – the way the dice are weighted means you can’t reverse the maths and easily turn an GM-rolled attack into a player-rolled dodge. At least, I’m not confident you can. But this will be a face-to-face game so at least rolling the dice will be easy enough.
But will it be easy to fudge? The whole point of the game is that everyone involved comes up with a way to interpret every dice roll together. (One wonders quite why FFG sells GM screens for these games, given all the dice rolls are supposed to be done in the open – then again, FFG don’t usually seem to have an issue with selling things which might seem at first glance superfluous.) The flow of information is still in my hands, and I still have my godlike GM faculties when it comes to NPCs and the game world, so I suspect I still have options. Anyway, we shall see how it goes.

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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.


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.)


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.

numenera 2

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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