Numenera: How'd The First Session Go?

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 7.236% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

After reviewing the Numenera core book, some people said: “But Ferrett, you haven’t actually played the game!  How can you call that a review when you haven’t had rubber hit the road?”
Well, last night I ran my first Numenera session.  You want some impressions of the most interesting new roleplaying game to hit this year?  Well, by God, I’ve got ’em.
Nice Thing #1 About Numenera: The Character Creation Is Superbly Flavorful
When I create a character, generally it’s “concept first”: I think of an idea (“What if I had an Amish kid who fought vampires with Jackie Chan-style antics?”) and then try to shoehorn that into whatever mechanics the game provides.  Because the mechanics for character creation are often dry and uninspiring (“Oh, you’re a fighter, like all the other fighters.”).
But each of the four players in my game showed up with no pregenerated ideas of who they’d be, and the way the creation is structured actually herded them towards creating someone with a personality and a unique set of powers.  Creation itself was like walking someone through the options: “Do you want to be good at fighting, good at technology, or a little of both?  Okay, now what kind of personality do you have: Charming, Rugged, Mystical?  Now that you know what kind of personalty and type you are, let’s hook you up with a badass power like Bears a Mantle of Fire or Works Miracles.”
(In a related note, it’s really nice to be able to fit a mostly-completed character sheet into a Tweet: “Fred is an Intelligent Jack who Explores Dark Depths.”  Bang.  You know all you need to know.)
For the first time since I was a GM, “making the stats” really got people excited about their character as they worked through the process, as it told them who they were and what they were like.  The only snag was “Okay, now why do you have these weird powers?  What’s your origin story?” – but even then, the book had a generated list of suggestions, which led to a bunch of pretty kick-ass backstories generated easily.
Also, it’s right in the character generation that the players have to interact with other players – “Choose one character who is immune to your Mantle of Fire,” “Choose one character who you feel protective of” – so when we sat down, there was an instant knitting of a sense of Group as they all introduced who they were playing and then discussed how their backstories intertwined to create these unique player-on-player interactions.
Bad Thing #1 About Numenera: Stat Pools Presented As Stats
If I told you one character had a Might of 19 and the other had a Might of 3, and then told you each had to dead-lift a two hundred-pound weight without putting any special effort into it, what would you think each characters’ odds were?
What if I told you that in Numenera, barring some skill training, they had the exact same odds?
It’s a little weird, but all the “stat pool” means is that if the character wants to burn that pool to apply Effort, they can make the roll easier.  Which means that having a ton of Speed doesn’t make rolls easier in itself, it just makes it so that you can apply bonuses to the roll more times in a day – the 19 Might gal can reduce the roll’s difficulty maybe seven or eight times before she gets tired, while the 3 Might guy can only do it once.  But in terms of dead-lifting that weight, both the 19 Might gal and the 3 Might guy have the exact same chances the first time if they apply Effort.
It’s not a bad way of doing things, but people were a bit confused.  Shouldn’t having a gigantamous Intellect mean that you have a better chance?  Not without activating your Intellect skills, no.
Bad Thing #2 About Numenera: No Good Character Software (Then).
When I was creating the characters, the character generator wasn’t out yet, so I used an online generator linked to by Shanna Germain.  It didn’t tell me when a character was incomplete (and I didn’t know, since I was still inhaling mechanics), so several sheets printed out lacking Edges and other vital-to-know stuff.  I’ll have to check out the “official” app this week.
Nice Thing #2 About Numenera: The Characters Rolling Is Pretty Nice
As a dice addict, I was concerned about one of Numenera’s semi-unique features: the GM rolls no dice, ever.  The players do all the rolling.  If they’re on the attack, they make an attack roll; if they’re being attacked, they make a defense roll.  That turned out to be a really nice system, because there’s a tendency for the GM to “seize up” during most games as he rolls dice and calculates damage, and you can see the little hourglass icon over his head as he calculates.  Having the players roll for everything keeps them involved at every step, which made for a much livelier game, and I didn’t feel like I wasn’t in control.
Plus, the ability for players to spend Effort to reduce their rolls made the rolls interesting by default.  It usually wasn’t just “Okay, hit a 6 or more,” it was “Do I do something cool to lower the target number?  Do I spend my points?”
(This was also heavily encouraged by my on-the-fly-but-now-personal-canon house rule of “If you do not describe your attack in a gloriously cinematic fashion, the difficulty increases one step.”  That’s right; anyone who says, “I roll to hit” without detailing the incredibly cool way they’re assaulting this monster – and thus giving me the chance to reduce the difficulty by assigning Asset bonuses – actually finds it harder to land a blow.)
Bad Thing #3 About Numenera: It’s A Front-Load Of Stats
The Numenera system is pretty simple, but because they’re doing all the rolling, they also have to do a lot of the calculating.  As a DM, for novice players, I can often do a lot of the calculations for them if they’ve got that deer-in-the-headlights look, but Numenera encourages a fair amount of “You do it all!”  And they’ve made it as simple as they can, but it’s still a fair amount to dump on a newbie.  (And yes, you can do math for them, but when it’s not a complex chart like D&D, the easiness of the system seems to make them feel a little more stressed for Not Getting It in the beginning.  Or maybe that’s me.)
Bad Thing About Numenera #4: You Can’t Save Them From Bad Die Rolls Early On.
Poor Jerry rolled more 1s that evening than I’ve seen ever.  The dice hated him.  And while in a longer-term campaign he could have burned XP to reroll bad dice (which he did!), in this first session the only way I could give him XP to avoid the hatred of the dice was by making things harder through GM intrusion.  As it is, thanks to a slew of bad die rolls, nobody emerged with any saved XP, and I felt bad about that.
Good Thing About Numenera #3: The GM Intrusions.
Numenera is unusual in that you get XP by the GM “intruding.”  I say, “Okay, I think it would be interesting if your sword got stuck in the monster’s head and it was snatched out of your grip.  Do you agree?”  If you do, you get two XP immediately, one of which you have to hand to another player, and your sword goes bye-bye; if you disagree, you pay me one XP and keep your sword.
I was worried this would be too heavy-handed.  As it was, people seemed to enjoy them, as I used them only to make the fighting more chaotic and not to generate insta-kills, because if I say, “Okay, this beast carrying dead bodies suddenly produces a flamethrower cypher,” that’s actually kind of cinematic and cool – and you get rewarded for it with immediate XP.  We’ll see how it goes when things go more to their detriment.  But I think while it’s a bit of explicit hosing of the players – as in, we’ve lifted the DM’s screen to make it very clear when you’re engineering events as opposed to pretending that was supposed to happen all along – that leads to a little less “pretending the world is seamless,” that cost is offset by the “Well, we’re all mapping out this world together.”
If you’re the kind of guy who wants to pretend that the world was this way when you got here, then the intrusion system is a constant ping that “THE GM IS MAKING THIS STUFF UP” that may distress you.
(Also, the players seemed a little nervous at first trying to figure out who to give the bonus XP to, not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings; one suspects that’ll fade in time as they’re more comfortable with the characters.)
Thing To Learn About Numenera #1: The Intrusions
As a GM, it quickly becomes apparent that the #1 GM thing in Numenera (outside of storytelling, obvs) is when to intrude, and how often.  I don’t think I did intrude often enough in the first session (only three times), and I need to determine when that works.
Good Thing About Numenera #4: The Cyphers
The “cyphers” are Monte Cook’s attempt to give players a variety of powerful, one-shot effects – because in D&D, when you know exactly what your 1st-level thief can do, it gets a little boring.  They’re scavenged tech that works once and gets replaced, and I explicitly told my players, “Use these things, you’ll get more.”  And they added a lot of fun to the play – in the first combat, they burned two cyphers: one on a nanotech grenade that actually hurt everyone in the area (because the players all agreed they’d take some damage if this damn thing went down), and another awesome use of an intellect-destroying cypher when they were all running from a monster with an about-to-explode rocket embedded in it, and used the intellect dampener to confuse the monster so it didn’t explode while hot on their heels.
That added a lot of variety to the game, because otherwise each character did have a small, discrete set of powers, and the cyphers added variety.  “Oh!  I can do this!  Once.  And I trust I’ll get something else later on!”
But I think you have to be explicit about the “Cyphers show up a lot” as a GM, otherwise some players (like me) will hoard their magic items for the Ultimate Moment of Distress – me, I always show up for the final battle in videogames with a thousand potions I’ve been too chicken to use – so my advice would be to say, “Yes, yes, use them flagrantly.”
Bad Thing About Numenera That Wasn’t Really Numenera’s Fault #1: The Pre-generated Adventure
Rather than spend valuable novel-planning brainspace on a campaign, I instead used one of the canned adventures.  Which is a perfectly good adventure for what it is, but it’s not quite my style: it’s combat-heavy, very rails-oriented with one branching point, and funnels the players along.  This is what you want in a starting adventure, but it’s clear that my personal style (lots of talk and personal exploration with one big cinematic setpiece combat per session) is going to conflict with the pregen stuff… as it always has.  I’ll want to create my own adventures that interact with these characters explicitly – oh, the raging barbarian has a soft heart, let’s explore that, and the parkour-exploring Jack has commitment issues, let’s craft an adventure around that.
It saved some time, which was the goal, but as a snooty GM my take is that the hand-crafted adventures are always superior.  Yet first sessions are always awkward – “Hey, you’re all together and yet barely know who you are!  How’s that work?” – as players figure out who they are, and it’s worse when you’re snorting mechanics and new concepts at a furious rate.  This was a clunky session but the fun times we had were still pretty good, so I’d say this is working pretty well.

6 Comments

  1. Susan Montgomery
    Sep 24, 2013

    Had a lover who was a Warhammer 40k nut. In the two years I knew him I don’t think he ever actually played the game, between building sets, painting figures and reading the codices that changed the game every six months.
    Ferret, I’m going to take a wild guess and say that at least one room in your house is stacked floor to ceiling with TTRPG games. Am I right? 😉

    • TheFerrett
      Sep 24, 2013

      You would be entirely correct. (A small puppy next to me was the only reason I didn’t go take a picture for you. 🙂 )

      • Susan Montgomery
        Sep 26, 2013

        Oh, no need. I’ve seen plenty of Nerdoliths in my time. Though not a hardcore gamer myself, I do find myself being friends and lovers with them – when I’m not falling for furries, anyway 😛

  2. Shanna Germain
    Sep 25, 2013

    Ferret,
    Monte and I were just talking about this after our last store visit to run games:
    (This was also heavily encouraged by my on-the-fly-but-now-personal-canon house rule of “If you do not describe your attack in a gloriously cinematic fashion, the difficulty increases one step.” That’s right; anyone who says, “I roll to hit” without detailing the incredibly cool way they’re assaulting this monster – and thus giving me the chance to reduce the difficulty by assigning Asset bonuses – actually finds it harder to land a blow.)
    I am absolutely stealing this. It’s a brilliant solution!

  3. Lukasz
    Sep 27, 2013

    Thanks for the house rule, I will use it in my own game.
    I feel that all the pre-generated scenarios are lacking. They are constrained and not that weird at all, at least compared to some very imaginative adventure seeds (“Hearsay”) that you can find in “The Ninth World” chapter.
    I run a quick adventure set in Cloudcrystal Skyfields and had a lot of fun when my players explored the floating crystals, figured out the flight controls and then crashed the whole crystal armada into nearby mountains. With style!

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