Saturday, July 5, 2014

Thoughts on the Ninth World--What Do I Know About Numenera?

I picked up the Numenera bundle from the Bundle of Holding.  I had been interested in looking at the setting before, but never really wanted to spend the cash on it, since that's a lot of cash on a whim.  The bundle pricing eliminated that concern, so I was happy to get the chance to dive in.

Because it was an overall positive experience, I think I'll throw out the negatives first.

Doing it Wrong

Its not a deal breaker, but there are several places where the Numenera book makes sure to hammer you over the head with the idea that this isn't like other RPGs you have ever played, because it's suppose to be about exploring and finding out new things.  That's cool.  I think an RPG should let you know what kind of tone they are shooting for.  It just felt like the core book spends too much time reiterating this point and casting itself in contrast to other RPGs.

I wouldn't even have included this except that other parts of the rules go out of the way to say, "make this your own."  While the tone of the setting should be finding new, weird stuff, some groups might do this by climbing mountains and tromping through the snow and facing danger that way, and other groups are going to dive straight through the mutant animals and left over killer robots.  Some explorers fight monsters, some plan out their adventures by diving into ancient knowledge and getting all of the answers up front, and some swim and trek, and climb mountains, and some do a little of all of that.

Just in brief, lots of the book leans towards the latter, but whenever the former disclaimer comes up, it just feels a bit like saying, "hey, wait, this campaign may be feeling a bit too much like some other RPG, stop it!"

Fictional Accounts

The fiction in the book is meant to give you a feel for the setting, but the super short stories seem to be very invested in the "its about exploration and new things!" paradigm, so, at least for me, the fiction was really dry and boring.  It felt a lot like it all boiled down to, "hey, there are weird and wondrous things in this world, and some are dangerous, and you don't recognize this world even though its Earth, and this guy knows things, and stops the danger, and isn't the world alien and strange and wondrous," and in the end, I don't know that it did much to make me feel like I "got" the setting, which seemed to be the point of including the fiction.

Everything is a Mystery, Except all of the Stuff that Isn't

Obviously you want to have some concrete facts upon which to hang the tropes of the setting that you hope to establish.  I fully expected to have a few regions detailed, some recurring themes, a few organizations, some relatively benign and some malevolent, and an overall map with some geography that makes you go, "wow, I wonder what is up with that."

Also, I'll disclaim myself right here and now, and say that I love settings like Middle-Earth, the Forgotten Realms, and the Star Wars Galaxy, where there is a ton of stuff going on and lots of little fiddly details.  So what I'm about to say may sound strange coming from me.  That disclaimer in place . . . for what the game seems to want to do, all of the setting detail seems to work counter to that goal.

I'm not going to be one of those people that says "if you have too much detail, there is no room to adventure."  I've heard that about Star Wars and the Forgotten Realms, and I vehemently disagree with those assertions.  I think a lot of time it boils down to a matter of scope.  Yes, if you are trying to kill Palpatine in Star Wars or destroy Szass Tam in the Realms, you might run into some of the big name NPCs.  But if you aren't doing something on that scale, there are tons of empty places on the maps.  These settings are much larger than people realize, and a look at map scale alone should illustrate that.

But I do think that you model the behavior you want to promote in the game by what you chose to focus on and the examples you give.  The rest of the rules are about exploration, the unknown, mysteries, and even coming up with random elements on the fly, but there are a few "zoomed in" areas of the setting that get a whole lot of details.  While these seem to be potential starting areas for adventurers, I'm not really sure if we need this level of detail, and it makes if feel like hyper detail is the goal for where the adventurers currently are, but the rest of the rules seem to lean heavily towards areas having tendencies and themes rather than solid facts.

Given that the rules, mechanics, GMing advice, and creatures don't seem to take up as much space as setting detail, it just feels a bit unbalanced to me, as the setting detail goes on and on and on, and that seems to work a bit against the "get out there and find weird mysterious stuff" tone of the rest of the book.

So just to clarify, I'm not saying no setting should ever have lots of detail.  I'm saying this setting may have been better served with less detail, especially in the core book, as an initial introduction.  It feels like setting detail more on the level of 13th Age's Dragon Empire might have been in order.

Gorgeous Presentation

I love how these products look.  Not only are they pretty, but the visuals support a world that is made up of a patchwork of millions of years of advanced things that don't quite work they way they used to work. Things are a little familiar, but still a little strange, and costumes and equipment looks like it kind of matches, but might have been scavenged from multiple sources.  It all visually comes together well.

Division of Labor

I really, really like that there is a Player's Guide that is available separate from the full rules.  If, as a GM, I want to run this setting, and I'm trying to talk players into playing this game with me, I feel a lot less guilty about asking them to buy the Player's Guide, which is much more affordable, than convincing them to pick up the full, huge core rulebook.

I'll go one step further and say I really wish more companies had this kind of division between just what the players need and what the guy running the campaign in the full core rules will need.  I know D&D has always had the Player's Handbook versus DMG and Monster Manual division, but a lot of modern RPGs have moved to the all in one approach.  Additionally, the way the player rules work in Numenara, its not quite the huge chunk of the rules that spells, feats, and equipment are in D&D style games.

The Rules of the Game

I really like how this game resolves, well, everything.  I like the idea that you are just rolling a d20 most of the time, unmodified, because your character's abilities modify the difficulty, not the dice roll.  I like the simplified movement rules  (which are similar to what you see in Fantasy Flight's Star Wars games or 13th Age).  Powers and abilities are easily summarized.  Monsters and NPCs have incredibly simple expressions to represent them when needed.  Its just meaty enough that there is something to work with but simple enough that you can keep most of it in your head without flipping pages too much.

If you are a GM that likes to roll dice, well, you may not like Numenera.  Everything is player facing.  The GM presents the situation, and the PCs resolve everything against the difficulty of what the GM has laid out.  If the PCs attack a creature, they resolve against it's level in difficulty.  If it attacks them, they resolve their defense against its difficulty.

GM intrusions aren't so much a new concept, but how to use them and the fact that the GM using them gets you XP is a new thing, and its part of what I mentioned about encouraging improvisation.  If the PCs roll a 1, its not so much a fumble as something complicated happened.  If the GM wants to have something complicated happen out of the blue, he can give you XP to have it happen.  Its not entirely unlike Fate points and how they are awarded in Fate Core, but it's inhabits its own unique space as well.

You might get stuff that functions kind of like magic items, but the various items may have some random, not particularly useful function, only function once, or have a specific game effect which isn't what the device was originally created to do.  This all combines to reinforce that this is a weird far future post apocalyptic setting where you can't count on knowing too much that is "true" without really digging for the information.

You combine three different descriptive aspects of a sentence to figure out what the mechanical aspects of your character are, but if that's not enough variety for you, there are "visitants" in the setting as well, which are alien species that happen to have been living on Earth for a while as well, and also have no clue about the past or how to get home.

If you really want to succeed at doing something, you can exhaust one of your "wound tracks" to do so, making you more likely to drop, since you are essentially borrowing from your own "hit points," but in a nice spin that I particularly like, you can also spend some of your vitality from one of those tracks to attempt to make another check if you fail at a skill.  Its such a nifty idea, I may appropriate it for my Age of Rebellion game, letting the players burn strain to retry something instead of just saying "sorry, you failed the check, no rerolls for you."

I don't know if it's innovative, or just a really nice collection of ideas that have been around forever and joined together, polished, and buffed to a shiny precision, but I'm pretty happy with how they look.  I will say that, since I'm all about saying that you shouldn't pan a game before your play it, I don't know if these rules work as well in the wild as they look like they should.

Where is it on "the List?"

I've always got a list of games I want to run, and run again, going on in my head.  I'm not sure where I would rank Numenera, but it does indeed have a spot on the list now, if only to see if it works the way it looks like it works.  Overall, I'm not sorry at all about the purchase, even with the elements that detracted from my enjoyment of the game that I ran through at the beginning of the post.

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