Friday, August 30, 2013

Unpacking Numenera's Cypher Economy

Two of my players have created characters, I’m waiting on two more, and then it’s nailing down a time and place for play (which will absolutely be after WorldCon sometime; just how long will depend on my recovery time).  As I work on a first adventure (because the four in the book are real stinkers) I’m going over the rules bit-by-bit in more depth.  One thing that stands out is how stats work.

Your character has three stats: Might, Speed, and Intellect.  Unlike most beat-the-number mechanics, your stats, by themselves, don’t modify your rolls.  They do create pools of points you can burn to modify your rolls, however.  So if you have an Intellect of 16 and you’re attempting to break a really difficult code (Target Numbers are three times Difficulty, so a Difficulty of 5 means you need to roll a 15 or better on a d20), you can choose to burn 3 points of Intellect to lower the Difficulty by one (and thus the Target Number by 3; from 15 to 12 in our example).  This lowers an Intellect pool of 16 to 13.

So far, so good.  Having high stats means you can put forth more effort (ie burn points from your pools) to make tasks easier.  (Having the right skills, tools, situation, or help can also make tasks easier.)  Things get exciting when fights and traps and such kick in because these pools are also your hit points.  Get chewed on by a Broken Hound and you’ll lose 4 points from your Might pool.  Once your Might pool drops to zero, you start losing points from your Speed pool.  Lose all the points in all three pools and you’re dead.

But wait, there’s more!  Each time a pool goes to zero, things get worse in other ways as well.  Not only do you not have any points to use from that pool to make tasks (like avoiding getting bit) easier, you also endure additional penalties.  A character with one pool at zero is impaired.  It now costs four points from a pool to lower a Difficulty by one.  They also don’t get special bennies from rolling high.  A character with two pools at zero can do nothing but move, unless one of the pools at zero is Speed, in which case they can’t even do that.

Put it all together, and you’ve got one nasty death spiral

Death spirals are generally decried as a blemish on the face of RPGs. Sure, they make sense from a simulationist point of view, but they are generally not much fun at all. They drag out combat even as they make the final result more and more a foregone conclusion. So why did Mr. Cook include such a nasty one in Numenera?

While Mr. Cook and I appear to have diametrically opposed ideas as to what makes a good adventure, I have to give the man props for his rules-design skills. Numenera has some really slick design work in it and the interaction of the death spiral and the core themes is probably the crown jewel of the book.

First, the death spiral works in steps. Yes, every time you get hurt or burn points from a stat pool, you do have fewer to work with. However, as any veteran Magic or D&D player will tell you, the only hit point that really counts is the last one. Just so in Numenera; so long as you have enough stat points to apply effort or activate a power, it doesn't appear to matter whether or not this is the last time you can do it or the first of many times.

(This assumes that powers don't stack in synergistic ways. That is, if activating your Vapor Cloud power made using your Lightning Bolt power more effective, then it might begin to matter how deep your pool was. My brief glance through the powers didn't reveal any like that, but folks who've actually played might tell a different story.)

Granted, reaching zero in a pool is a double-whammy with the damage track penalties on top of not having any more points to burn from that pool. However, it's more a stepped spiral than a sloped one; that is, until you pass over the edge of the step, things really aren't much worse from the beginning of the step to the end of the step. This gives you lots of time to see the train coming while you still have the resources to get off the tracks.

And when I say “resources” I don't just mean points in your pools. Mr. Cook is also a big fan of single-use get-out-of-jail-free cards. In Numenera, there are two kinds of such. The first is EXP. You can burn an EXP to reroll any single roll, even one you didn't roll yourself. And you can do this as often as you have EXP to burn. (Which goes very well with Numenera's the-players-roll-all-the-dice. And note that since the players roll all the dice, no dice are rolled behind the screen.)

However, the biggie is the cyphers. Cyphers are one-shot techno-magic devices that work very much like potions in D&D. However, unlike potions, cyphers are not bought or sold in shops, and they should be so ubiquitous in adventures that each player should always have a handful in their packs:

Cyphers are found with such regularity that the PCs can use them freely. There will always be more, and they’ll have different benefits. This means that in gameplay, cyphers are less like gear or treasure and more like character abilities that the players don’t choose. This leads to fun game moments where a player can say, “Well, I’ve got an X that might help in this situation,” and X is always different. X might be an explosive device, a short-range teleporter, or a force field. It might be a powerful magnet or an injection that will cure disease. It could be anything. Cyphers keep the game fresh and interesting.

And, in fact, the cyphers range from generic healing potions to devices that muck with time, or cause the PC to teleport around like a blink dog, or open up small black holes! They can give you temporary skills (“I know kung-fu!”), allow you to remotely control machines with your mind, record audio or video, or fix a nearly-unmoveable spike anywhere (even midair). And those are just the ones in the core rulebook.

The cyphers are the key to making the game work differently than other games. Numenera isn’t about playing for years before a character is allowed to teleport, travel to other dimensions, lay waste to a dozen enemies at once, or create a mechanical automaton to do his bidding. He can do it right out of the gate if he has the right cypher.

Where most RPGs are built around a leveling treadmill, Numenera is built around cypher-churn. The players should constantly have new cyphers (that is, new abilities) to play with and plan around. The game stays fresh, the players stay eager for that next cool thing, and they also stay focused on out-of-the-box thinking and going places to get more cool cyphers.

Now witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational Monte Cook:

  • Stats as fuel for special abilities plus stats as hit points creates a potentially vicious (but stepped) death spiral. 
  • Players, recognizing the dangers of the death spiral, look for ways to solve problems that avoid burning stats. Cyphers are the obvious go-to solution but... 
  •  …each player can only carry so many cyphers before they start interacting in their packs in ways reminiscent of D&D's old potion miscibility table (only without any of the good options).
  • Luckily, cyphers are plentiful for adventurous types who go places cyphers can be found.

Thus you get a benevolent feedback loop of using cyphers and hunting cyphers. Unlike old school D&D where players could wind up buried in mountains of gold, you never run out of uses for cyphers and, in fact, are encouraged to find novel uses for the things.

How does this all actually work in play? I'm anxious to find out.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

For Numenera: the Nine Deadly Sins

Just a bit of background detail as I get ready to run a Numenera game. I have some players, a few PCs made up, and I'm working on our first adventure.

By the time Cilven was elevated to the office of the Amber Papacy, the Order of Truth was in crises. The Triangular Heresy was by this point deeply rooted in the foothills beneath Mencala Peak. The ever-escalating extravagant promises made to princes and patrons were beginning to take their toll on the Order's reputation. The resulting scandals, plus the continuing actions of Brechels and his acolytes, drove a wedge deeper and deeper between the Order and the Angulan Knights, which by this point were becoming an institution within the Steadfast.

No sooner had the mantle of papacy settled upon Cliven's shoulders than she immediately set to reforming the Order of Truth. Once again, all encyclicals were published in Truth and the library program was reinvigorated with additional funds and talent. For the first time, the Amber Papacy officially declared human breeding experiments to be anathema, a powerful first step in repairing the fraying alliance between the Order and the Angulan Knights.

Most importantly, Pope Cliven prescribed the until-now informal Nine Deadly Sins in her famous “On the Character and Future of the Order of Truth”:

Profligacy – In a world of limited resources, it is imperative that as many as possible be turned towards understanding the mechanics of the physical world and the numenera we have been blessed to study. Since the Princes and Peoples of the world will, as is their nature, waste so much on War, Pomp, and Comfort, it falls to the Aeon Priests to set the example by devoting as much time and treasure as they are able to study and research, setting aside the bare minimum required for health and well-being...

Suppression – Truth hidden is theft! It is an act of violence against your brothers and sisters, against the Order, against all of humanity, and against all rational and peace-loving beings of the Ninth World. To hide discovered knowledge for personal aggrandizement or out of perverted humility is to turn your back on truth and embrace falsehood. For indeed, a truth not put to the Test of Reproducibility is not a truth but merely a supposition...

Pride – Truth is greater than any one person, any clave, any priest or pope, even the entirety of the Order itself. When a supposition is put to the Tests, it is the supposition that is tested, not the one who has proposed it. Ego has no place in the Order and no place in a Test, either among the testers or the proposer...

Deceit – To falsify data is to murder knowledge, trust, wisdom, and peace!

Sloth – Failure to record even a single iota of data is worse than spending the whole day in bed. At least the sleeper does not waste the time of others, or threaten the veracity of investigation and experimentation...

Superstition – Only those things that can be measured can truly be known. To base one's propositions on hearsay, assumptions, hopes, or the actions of inscrutable beings of nebulous reality is to build one's house upon sand...

Carelessness – Never forget the Doom of Calleene! Never forget that you hold the lives of your brothers and sisters, your neighbors, perhaps even of the entire world in your frail hands! The search for Truth is never bloodless, but it is in your hands to hold back the toll of death and pain. It is your care, your precision, your cautious wisdom and safe habits which hold the Imp called Murrfee at bay...

Ignorance – We are all plagued by things we don't know. The world teases us with questions that assail and delight our minds. And yet we are also offered a banquet of knowledge and Truth upon which to feast. While none of us can know all that is offered, to choose ignorance when one could choose knowledge is worse than choosing death when one could choose life...

Hubris – While we are called to learn the entirety of Truth, we are not called to wield every power Truth puts in our hands. Understanding how something is done is not the same as understanding why, or even if, a thing should be done. We must honor the things that are, and understand why they are that way before charging headlong into “improvements.” First among these is the sanctity of the human form...

Armed with this list, and with the aid of the Angulan Knights, Pope Cliven set about purging the Order of Truth of its fascination with short-term goals and gains. Competition between priests for patrons and worldly prestige, while not eradicated, was at least held somewhat in check. Priests were given the opportunity to confess their wrongdoings and endure public scourging in order to prove their penitence. Those who refused were excommunicated. The Triangular Heresy was driven across the Black Riage and never heard from again. Brechels the Mad was devoured by a xi-drake and his principle lieutenants forced to endure public confessions and scourgings in the capitals of all the nations of the Steadfast.

- Excerpt from the Elder Debon's A History of the Amber Papacy

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Skeletal World of Numenera

Last week, JB asked, “However, I think I'm more interested in hearing how it it a far-out acid trip? Or a rather banal space-superhero show?” Good question, and one I’m not quite ready to answer as I’m only just now beginning to organize a game. But as I prepare, I did want to address the world that’s present to us in the books.

First, there’s the map. Right off the bat, you can see some odd geography. I know the Clock of Kala leapt right out at me, and right after it, the Great Slab, the star-shaped Caecilian Jungle, the apparently drowned Fengali Forest and the Cloudcrystal Skyfields. I discovered more that my eyes had missed as I read through the book. The places are as blatantly unnatural as they appear to be, and while it’s not hard to turn up the weirdness a notch or two, each is suitably odd and a great leaping-off point for further imaginative oddness.

But if you go from the map to the Player’s Guide, it’d be understandable if you were a little confused, especially if you’re used to Raggi or Zak-level weirdness. There’s almost nothing that weird in character creation. Oh, there are some slightly odd mechanics, sure, but as I mentioned before, it’s a class + adjective + schtick system. The adjective’s chosen are mostly standard RPG fare (strong, learned, charming, etc.) but for “mystical/mechanical” which refers to having a way with the numenera. It might mean you’re a cyborg of some flavor, but doesn’t need to mean that, so exactly how weird that is really depends on where the player takes it.

The schticks, called foci, tend to be weirder, but don’t have to be. Foci such as “carries a quiver,” “leads,” or “works the back alleys” are largely mundane, and could easily fit characters in games without a hint of the supernatural. Some push the boundaries of the ludicrous (I can’t help but think of this guy when I read “Rides the Lightning”) but nothing really feels out- there weird to me. As a for-comparison, here’s the 5th Tier Nano power, Knowing the Unknown:
Tapping into the datasphere, you can ask the GM one question and get a general answer. The GM assigns a level to the question, so the more obscure the answer, the more difficult the task. Generally, knowledge that you could find by looking somewhere other than your current location is level 1, and obscure knowledge of the past is level 7. Gaining knowledge of the future is impossible.

Now, compare this to Raggi’s “Contact Outer Sphere” which includes a chance for the sorcerer to be “possessed by a psychic beast roaming the interstellar ether between the caster and the answering star” or Cook’s Expert Rules “Contact Outer Plane” that could result in weeks of madness for the caster. If that was the extent of your exposure to Numenera (and it very well might be for some players) you could be excused for thinking that you had a Masters of the Universe knock-off in your hands.

The deeper you go, the stranger things get, however. You get undersea cities, a town of cast-off and misanthropic robots digging through giant drifts of spare parts for repairs (which is in turn coveted by the still-living decapitated head that rules another town), towns built atop crashed starships, temples built to honor frog-gods, giant crabs that feast on the latent brain activity of its prey, and, of course, the now infamous Nibovian wives. There are alien cyborgs performing tactical maneuvers for a war in which both sides died off who-knows-how-many millenia ago. You have artifacts with randomly determined drawbacks (a la 1e artifacts) and ray guns that inflict ecstatic pleasures on the target.

The weird is there, but exactly who deep you and your group wallow in it is very much up to you.

For instance, there’s a guy who breeds flying insects specifically to carry coded messages. How are these messages transported? The book doesn’t say. Could be in tiny scrolls on their legs, but the implication is that it’s more biological than that. Perhaps it’s in the way they chirp. Or in the pattern of spots on their backs. Or maybe if you eat the bug you’ll fall into a hallucinogenic trance in which you’ll witness a series of scenes that make perfect sense to target of the message.

A lot of the setting material is like that. It’s vague glosses that give you more than enough room to make it what you want it to be. The undersea city, for instance is described in maybe two pages, a single illustration, and no map. In your campaign, it could look like this, or this, or even this! And the whole setting is very much like that: thin glosses full of imagination-fuel you can take as far (or not) as you wish.

And, just for an added twist, Mr. Cook isn’t above playing games with people’s expectations. For instance, in a game where exploring is the principle theme (“Discovery is the soul of Numenera.”), an organization all about the rational search for, discovery, and study of the ancient artifacts that litter the world in order to make the world a better place ought to be the good guys. An organization run by a guy who calls himself the Amber Pope, its leaders “priests,” and who presents themselves to the populace as a religion because they’ve discovered people are “more likely to respect, admire, and obey” a religion should be the villains. In Numenera, they’re the same organization. Calling for a crusade in order to channel the war-like tendencies of the “civilized” nations outward instead of towards each other nicely encapsulates the nature of the Order of Truth. That the book has nearly nothing to say about the target of this crusade (and even leaves it an open question as to whether or not they even exist) is pretty much of a piece with the rest. Mr. Cook does the same with the Angulan Knights, invoking Gamma World’s Knights of Genetic Purity on the one hand while on the other describing them also as being dedicated to justice, irrespective of rank, wealth, or authority. That they ride white psychic dragons is just the icing on the cake.

The Angulan Knights and the Order of Truth are set up as social linchpins for the Ninth World. Whether they are villains, heroes, or a (fairly realistic) mix of the two is entirely up to the GM. Whether the Gaians that are the focus of the crusade are unfortunate innocents (perhaps the targets of extreme militant atheists if you play the Order of Truth as described in the book), a true threat to the world, or as complete fabrications is, again, entirely up to the GM.

What you decide to do with them, then, will decide the flavor of your campaign. And what you do with the artifacts and cyphers and settings and monsters will also decide the flavor of the campaign.

So I think the answer to BJ’s question is, “How much do you want it to be?” There’s nothing that says it needs to be phantasmagorical, but you can absolutely get there from here.

I should have a game under my belt in the near future and will be able to report more then.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

The Aesthetics of Numenera

I was a backer on the Numenera Kickstarter largely because it promised a game that combined “outside-of-the-box gameplay such as that found in Planescape, Dark Space, or Chaositech, the far-future stories of Gene Wolfe, Michael Moorcock, or Jack Vance, or mind-blowing visuals like those found in the work of French artist Moebius”. I'm a huge fan of that science-fantasy Heavy Metal thing, so this looked right up my alley.

Because this is Monte Cook, the core book clocks in at a hefty 400+ pages. These include all the rules, a bestiary, maps, and setting info, so I'm not going to ding him too hard for that. I've not finished reading through the book yet, so I'm a bit hesitant to start chewing on the rules or even the setting too much. What have I read, however, strongly feels like this, and this, and this with a bit of this thrown in for good measure. Which, quite frankly, makes me rather happy.

As an important for-instance, let's take a look at PCs. By now, you've probably heard about Numenera's Mad Lib's, fill-in-the-blank character creation that results in you being able to describe your PC as a blankety blank who blanks. The middle blank is your type (aka class) of which there are three: glaive (aka fighter), nano (aka magic-user) and jack (which is a mix of the other two and/or skill-hound). So far, pretty basic.

The first blankety is your descriptor and it's words like “stealthy” or “intelligent” or “rugged.” Unlike a game like Fudge where that would be left fairly vague and give you bonuses when what you're doing involves your adjective, Numenera spells out when and what sort of modifiers you get, plus additional bonuses like gear and contacts that come with it, as well as the occasional handicap.

When you get to the last blanks, your character's focus, you're suddenly in superhero and “Masters of the Universe” territory. Like the descriptor, you pick your focus from a list of firmly-defined options. These include “bears a halo of fire,” “controls gravity,” “murders,” and “wields two weapons at once.” It's your character's schtick and, like Beastman's ability to control animals or Shadowcat's ability to go immaterial (both of which have analogs in the list of foci), it's going to go far in defining what your character does and perhaps even who they are. Especially since you're only allowed each focus once per group.

With 29 foci and three types, you can create 87 different templates to build your character around (though, granted, not all foci and types are good matches). Toss in your descriptor and you've got a lot of room to play in and create unique characters with. But the art that begins the chapter on character creation feels kinda generic:

Don't get me wrong, technically it's quite competent. Each individual is, in fact, individual with the nice use of the metal circles to tie them all together, but they feel terribly much like stereotypes: the haughty star-jock warrior, the haughty can-kick-your-ass daredevil babe, and the haughty tosses-energy-blasts ascetic mystic. I know exactly what their voices sound like, what their catch-phrases are, and what they can do in a fight, which is good for potential PC art, but it's less the (considerable) skill of the artist as how much they lean on stereotypes.

Now, maybe it's because of I've been spoiled by James Edward Raggi IV (NSFW) and Zak Smith (also NSFW), but when you make a game about Earth a billion years in the future, I expect art that's compelling and strange. And yes, it's a terribly not-fair comparison, but this is strange and compelling. This feels very much been-there-done-that. (And anyone who thinks that having the guys showing more skin than the gals will give them a pass on art like this (NSFW) or the torture piece are deluding themselves.) You're about a quarter of the way through the book, on page 105, when you finally encounter Keith Thompson's delightfully macabre Scribe and finally find art that lives up to the promise of the setting.

Before that, it's a lot of rather uninspiring digital art with heavy brush strokes of the sort that rules Deviant Art right now. The tough, angry warrior woman whose arm has been replaced by a weapon, Witchblade-style. The moody landscapes with the giant rocks and things floating in the air above it. You've seen it before.

Granted, when your setting is this strange (and the strange is there, it just takes a while to get to it) you need to give the players something familiar to latch on to, to identify with. This familiarity makes it comfortable, and possibly inviting. It makes it easy to imagine what sorts of things you can expect to find in this very stranger world, and who your character is going to be. Numenera is very careful about easing you into the strange. Again, character creation is a good example of this. Hey, your character's a glaive, but that's just a fancy word for fighter. You know what a fighter is. Nothing odd here, right? He's also graceful. Good balance, great hand-eye coordination. So a fighter who's good at dodging and landing just the right blow. You've seen his type before. He's wiry and quick and...

Oh, did I mention he has the power to travel “a long distance from one location to another almost instantaneously, carried by a bolt of lightning”?

Wait, what?

So I absolutely understand, and can even commend, the desire to offer readers something comfortable and familiar with the art. I just wish more of it felt compelling. There's some neat stuff in the art, but nothing that quite rises to the level of the imagination seen in the ideas in the book. And when your setting is this strange, you really need the art to carry a lot of the communication load.

Don't get me wrong, there's some neat art in this. Keith Thompson provides some excellent strangeness, as has already been shown. And some of the artists, folks like Samuel Arya, Helge Balzer, Guido Kuip, Brynn Metheny (who does some great creature design), Kieran Yanner (who did the cover), Mark Tarrisse, Cory Trego-Erdner, and Adrian Wilkins, can (and many do here) produce some really great atmospheric and moody art. I just can't help but feel that, for much of the book, the art design was restrained to keep things from getting too weird.

This might be a matter of taste as well. For a project like this, I would have aimed more for mood and maybe a bit less towards the you-are-there style I normally enjoy so much. There's some great black-and-white work that really seems to capture the flavor of the text, women in tall headdresses riding vicious lizards and such. My hope is that, with such a great stable of artists already involved in the project, Mr. Cook will let them really spread their wings and give us the bizarre and intriguing setting his words describe in future products.