Thursday, January 15, 2015

Why You Should Play - Numenera

Why You Should Play – Numenera

Over the last year I’ve written up dozens of play reports, and while the early blog entries were simple summaries of the games I have run, as my writing progressed I began to express more of my opinions.  Granted, my opinions are typically from the position of a gushing fanboy… I can’t apologize for what I am.  But I do hope that some of the information I share has been helpful.  This leads me to a new feature I wanted to try in 2015 called “Why You Should Play...”

Let me say first that “Why You Should Play…” is not going to be a review.  I’m not trying to convince anyone to buy a particular product.  In fact, there are already dozens of gamers who offer reviews on and DriveThruRPG, social media, or their own blogs.  There really is no shortage of great reviews, so I didn’t feel it necessary to add to the stack.  But speaking of stacks…  I know I keep talking about the Savage Towers, and I’m sure you are all sick of hearing about them, or maybe of seeing the pictures.  But I have to admit that my concept for “Why You Should Play…” is rooted in my own stack of games…

… you know… that stack that will murder me in my sleep if I cheat on it with D&D 5th Edition

“Why You Should Play…” is going to be directed towards those gamers who may have a particular game on their shelf but have just never given it a good read through, playtest, or one-shot.  I will share my top three or four reasons (or more if I get the proper muse) that you should consider cracking that mighty tome open and introducing it at your table.  We all have games we’ve never played, and for many different, but equally understandable reasons.  Maybe you are running a home-brew fantasy campaign, but you raid Forgotten Realms sourcebooks for maps.  Perhaps, like me, you are a Browncoat, and own the entire Firefly and Serenity RPG line because… well… because that’s what the Cap’n  would do.  

But maybe… just maybe… you should consider giving these games a chance, as they were intended to be played.  

I don’t plan on limiting myself to tabletop roleplaying games either.  While I am starting this series with an RPG, I’d also like to cover some of the other games I play.  Several of these titles are new and “niche”, some are just downright classics that you can find at your FLGS discount bin or Half-Priced Books.

With that, let’s start with a game that I think I’ve become quite familiar with over the year…

Numenera - by Monte Cook

I’ve never done a formal review of Numenera, but have written nearly fifty blogposts about my adventures in the Ninth World.  When I first purchased the Numenera Corebook,  in the fall of 2013, I never believed that it would take center stage in my regular gaming.  It seemed like a niche title, and I believed that all of the weird concepts would turn some players off.  I never thought that I would be able to sustain a long term campaign and creatively support a setting so utterly alien and bizarre with my own ideas.  No, Numenera would be a one-shot game, albeit a beautiful and fun to play one-shot, that would play second or even third fiddle to my other games.

After playing the first session I realized that I was wrong.  So, so wrong.  

There are many reasons why you should consider taking that pretty orange book off of your shelf right this very minute.  I could write five or six thousand words, and only scratch the surface.  So for the sake of brevity (something that in the past I’ve had a challenge with) I’d like to give you the three main reasons that Numenera has become one of my very favorite games.  

The Cypher System Fosters Collaboration

In many role-playing game systems there is the game-master and then there are the players.  These two “sides” are commonly separated by a screen or stack of books, which clearly divides the table.  There is nothing wrong with this, and as a fan of old-school renaissance (OSR) games with a high “PC kill rate” (Hackmaster 4th Edition and Dungeon Crawl Classics come to mind), the occasional “me vs. them” mentality can be playful and fun, so long as no feelings are hurt.  Well Numenera is on the opposite end of the spectrum.  The game-master does not make any rolls, not for creatures or NPC’s.  If a player is active in combat, he or she would make an attack roll.  If defending, commonly a “speed defense” roll is requested from the player.  

The GM will set a difficulty level of course for any of these situations that require rolls, but that’s when the players can be creative.  When I set a difficulty level I commonly ask my players to come up with ways to lower the difficulty, as well as develop the story.  Here’s an example:

Jim (GM):  “The difficulty level to climb that cliff is 5.  Marc, you’ll need to roll a 15 or higher to succeed.” 

Marc:  “Okay, I’m trained in climbing, that lowers the difficulty to a 4.”

Andy:  “Since we have time, I’m going to give Marc my rope and grappling hook.”

Jim (GM):  “Perfect!  Marc, the grappling hook works as an asset, thus reducing the difficulty level to a 3.  You’ll need to roll a 9 or higher.”

By encouraging the players to come up with creative ways to negotiate the difficulty down, this enforces cooperative gameplay, and not only amongst the players.  The supportive role of the game-master helps break down that “me vs. them” barrier, and promote a more positive gaming experience for everyone.  But there is still a need for unexpected conflict, and that’s when the game-master tosses out his or her secret weapon: the GM Intrusion.

If there is one rule that seems to draw the most quizzical looks at a table full of new Numenera players it’s the GM Intrusion.  Even experienced Numenera GMs sometimes struggle with finding the proper time and place for a GMI.  A GM announces an Intrusion whenever a “1” is rolled during an action, but in an interesting twist, the GM can also declare an Intrusion by offering a player, or the entire group, experience points.  In this circumstance the GM is paying the players in-game currency in order to take direct control of the game.  

Of course the players can possibly “pay” with their existing experience points to dodge the GM Intrusion, but most seasoned Numenera players almost always take the XP and associated consequences.  This “give and take” helps create trust and an understanding that the GM will escalate a challenge, but only for the betterment of the story.  GM Intrusions add excitement to a play session and since the GM is “paying for permission” to take control, the players feel like the decision is actually in their hands.  

The most successful Numenera adventures are created by both the GM and their players working together.  

Your Can Draw Inspiration from Anywhere

Probably the biggest stumbling block I had in starting a Numenera campaign was finding the appropriate inspiration.  Inspiration is a very big deal for me when I’m writing adventures.  If I’m in a science fiction mood, ready to run a cyberpunk game, I’m reading Phillip K. Dick, watching A Scanner Darkly, and playing Shadowrun Returns.  Is it time for Dungeon Crawl Classics?  Break out the Dragon Age Origins, Lord of the Rings, and my Dragonlance novels.  But where do you get inspired for a game that takes place one billion years in the future?  

The answer is simple: everywhere!

Running a Numenera campaign can feel like you are simultaneously playing a classic fantasy setting and a far-future post-apocalyptic game.  Or it can feel nothing at all like either.  Seriously, this game will feel like whatever you want it to feel like.  

You can recreate the Robert E. Howard Conan stories, with a little flare of science, by running a “sword & sandle & science” campaign in the Beyond, with a selection of characters that mirror traditional fantasy tropes.  But why stop there?  If you were recently watching Inception, you can run an entire adventure in a massive, thousand meter long “dream manufacturing device.”  One billion years of evolution, buried science and technology, and engineering on a planetary scale opens the door to virtually any kind of adventure you want to create.  

I haven’t quite figured out how to translate Top Gun to the Ninth World, but it’s coming.  I just need to figure out the proper rules for beach volleyball.  

The Rules Cater to All Experience Levels

Another reason that I had a little trepidation initially about Numenera was the perceived lack of crunch in the rules.  I welcomed a change from Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition to Savage Worlds in 2012 - high rules crunch to more of a medium/medium-light crunchiness.  But Numenera looked like it was just downright too simple to create a character.  Turns out I was right, but for the wrong reasons.  

As you may already be aware, Numenera characters have three components: a descriptor, a type, and a focus.  “I am a blank, blank who blanks” is the common phrase you’ll here among Cypher fans.  So one player may be a Tough Glaive who Masters Weaponry while another is a Swift Jack who Exists Partially Out of Phase.  True, there are only three “types” (Glaive, Nano, and Jack), but there are dozens of descriptors and foci available.  There are literally thousands of different kinds of characters that you can create just using those three pieces of information!  But once you’ve found the three you want, you are just minutes away from your first adventure.  This high degree of customization means that players can build characters as specialized as they want, or as unique as they can imagine.  

For new players, the “descriptor/type/focus” system gives them, in an instant, an idea of how to play their character.  I’ll take this a step further, in that very new players who have never role-played before can use this system to recreate personas from their favorite works of fiction.  Starting the game with a concept that you’ve already seen in action is a great way for a new RPG player to get into the game quickly and have a good time.  I’ve brought many children to the table, and I simply asked them to tell me their favorite Disney or video game character.  For my girls it was Anna (Swift Jack who Entertains) and Elsa (Graceful Nano who Wears a Sheen of Ice), but for another new player we created a certain pointy eared explorer named Lynq (a Rugged Glaive who Explores Dark Places).  

Back to those Stacks

As more and more gamers post pictures of their collections on Google+ and Twitter (I’ve seen them referred to as “shelfies”) I often notice that many people own that bright orange Numenera corebook, tucked away in the background.  For those of you who backed Numenera as a Kickstarter or purchased it later, but have yet to play, what has kept you from trying the game?  The rules?  The universe?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!

What’s next? 

I’m considering Savage Worlds: Weird Wars Rome, Crimson Skies, and Mouse Guard, but if you have any suggestions I’m certainly open!

*     *     *

Interested in Numenera, but still haven't made the plunge?  You can pick up this amazing game in PDF or Hardback at Monte Cook Games!

One more thing!  If you are reading this before January 20th, 2015, you still have a few days left to purchase the limited edition boxed set!  

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