Numenera: How'd The First Session Go?

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.

I'm Walking. Are You Donating? Please?

As a reminder, I’m doing a charity walk this Sunday to help my goddaughter Rebecca and all kids with cancer.  I will be wearing a purple cape because her favorite color is purple.  So if you have a few bucks to donate, that would be nice of you.  If not, I’ll take prayers.
In a clarification that bothers me, technically speaking Rebecca is not our goddaughter.  Rebecca is Jewish, and as such the Meyer family doesn’t have a tradition of godparents.  But we’re basically the ones who are on-deck for so many issues, and so dear to our heart, that we call Rebecca (and Carolyn, and Joshua) our um-children, because really there’s no tradition of Godparents per se but dammit, they’re something significantly above “our friends’ kids.”  And so when we were blogging during the initial crisis, we didn’t want to have to explain that shorthand seventy times a day.
Anyway.  Rebecca is ill.  Her proton therapy and chemo is going as well as can be expected – she has not been robbed of notable brain function yet – but she could still use your help.  So if you’ve got a few spare bucks and don’t mind donating, here is the link.  (And I’ve tried to thank everyone who’s donated to me personally, but if I missed you, please contact me for my personal “You are damned wonderful” comment.  Seriously.  You deserve it.)

Grand Theft Auto Again: How Do They Fuck This Up?

Grand Theft Auto is like a casino for me.  And I don’t like gambling.
But so many other people love gambling, talking about how awesome fun it is, how glamorous the casino life, how great the food, and so periodically I question my own sanity.  It must be fun, I think.  Everyone else is having fun.  I must have missed something about the experience.  And so I head into town and find the blackjack table and shell out money, and just as I have the past seven times I’ve gone to a casino, find it deeply disappointing.
Not bad.  Just so uninteresting that there are other clearly superior pleasures I could be wasting my money on.
And Grand Theft Auto gets so hyped that nobody but me ever seems to notice how they badly fuck up the small details.
For example: their tutorials are among the crappiest tutorials in the whole world; it’s like nobody ever played them.  First off, they make the inevitable mistake of having the tutorial text be miniscule for no apparent reason.  Seriously.  I have a 55″ screen that is maybe seven feet away, and I had to get up to sit in front of the TV like a four-year-old watching Nickelodeon cartoons to actually read what the fucking text was.  It was, literally, unreadable from my couch; if the button I was supposed to press wasn’t X, Y, B, or A – the color-coded ones – I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. If it was, I pressed it blind and hoped what it did was obvious.
But then, the tutorial screens pop up as you’re doing other things.  So I’m chasing a dude through traffic, and while I’m trying to figure out where he’s gone, alerts keep blipping up in the top left-hand corner of the screen to say, “WHILE YOU HAVE BEEN SQUINTING TRYING TO READ ME, YOU JUST LOST SIGHT OF YOUR BUDDY.”  What would be wrong with a little confirm dialogue, actually pausing the game for slower readers so we don’t have to split our attention?
Oh, it’d be less cinematic.  Fuck you, Rockstar.
And there’s no archive of these tutorial hints, so if you miss them you’d better get a goddamned FAQ.  Hey, we taught you once, move on, move on.
Saints Row does tutorials correctly, which is why it’s been gaining significantly on Grand Theft Auto.  Sadly, GTA was the biggest premiere in videogame history (in part due to lemminglike suckers like me), and none of the reviews I noted seemed to grok how GTA is very high-quality in some levels, but absolutely bombs in some basic usability tests in others.  It’s one of those things that reminds me that what other people want in a videogame experience is often highly different from mine, and that my tastes are small and easily overlooked.  GTA was a huge success, so why do we need to fix these things?
Because they’re fucking terrible?

I Hope You Know You Were Always Beautiful

A friend of mine is posting photos of herself after her tremendous weight loss. She’s very proud. A hundred pounds, shed.
I can’t see a difference.
Oh, I mean, I can see a difference, I’m not blind; a smaller ass, less curvy hips, a thinner face. But she’s still beautiful to me in both sets of photos. She’s so happy that I’ve gone back and looked over her old pictures, just to ensure there’s something I’m not missing:
Nope. Still lovely as ever. In both incarnations.
And I don’t want to say anything because it’s her body, and she has the right to do with it as she pleases. If this slimmer self makes her feel sexier, then I support that. Anything that raises the happiness level and hurts no one is something I support.
But still.
I hope you feel sexier because this new body is what you saw yourself as all along, and not something you were pushed into because idiots were mean to you when you were fatter. I hope you know that there are some very thin people who aren’t pretty at all, just sort of lanky and mean-faced because they are mean. I hope you know that sexiness and prettiness and all of that other rot is something that comes from within, a beauty that rises to the surface because you’re something special, not an external thing that gets erased when you gain twenty pounds.
And yeah, I know society has a “Be a jerk for free” card that’s quietly handed out to everyone around a fat person. It’s not easy, being fat in America, because some doctors will blame every symptom on your weight and some people will assume you’re slovenly and poor and the commercials tell you that you have no worth until you’ve thrown off those couple of pounds.
The real weight you’re carrying is not the fat. It’s the expectations.
So I’m glad you’re proud because you lost weight and are bathing in the adulation of all the folks saying, “You look good!” I get that. After my heart surgery I lost forty pounds, and some people were all complimentary, as if this near-fatal incident was an awesome thing. It’s nice to have those mean people stop being mean.
Still. I hope you know that you were always pretty, at least to me.

Denying Global Warming: The Definition Of Evil

Earlier this week, Rupert Murdoch said this to Al Gore:

That makes him evil.
Let me clarify: not everyone who denies global warming is caused by manmade causes is evil, though I think most of ’em are pretty dim.  There are those who’d argue that the rise in temperatures is caused by the end of a mini-Ice Age, or whatever flavor-of-the-week justification they can haul out – and though I think they have to be a mental contortionist to get there, hey, I can dig how some people love alternate explanations.
And not everyone who denies global warming is evil.  Many of them are simply dumb.  If they’re taking their cues from elsewhere, they don’t look at the full history, they might be suckered in by evil guys like Rupert Murdoch.
But Rupert?  He’s the head of a major news organization.  You don’t get to be head of a major news organization without seeing actual facts somewhere.
Which means he had to have seen these charts.
No, seriously.  Go take a look.  Basically, what Rupert is doing is looking at a three-month section of a trend that spans years, seeing a brief upwards blip before the inevitable downwards plunge, and actually going on the offensive to say, “Look at that recovery we’ve had!”
Look.  If you want to deny the reasons of global warming, well, I’m not in agreement, but I understand.  But he’s not denying the reasons for global warming; he’s denying the warming itself.  What Murdoch is doing is looking the facts straight in the eye, facts he must have been presented with, and choosing to lie about them.  He’s literally denying a trend that any fool could look at and say, “Yes, the world is heating up and the Arctic Circle is shrinking” – which, you know, that bastion of liberal thought The Pentagon is planning for, as they’re scrambling to find plans to defend the newer and smaller territory
– and he is not only shrugging off those facts, but presenting them as not-facts to his audience.  Because the best theory we have going is, in fact, that man-made pollution is causing this trend, which could cause havoc on the coasts that roughly 40% of Americans live on, and he doesn’t want to deal with that.  So how do you win the argument?
By denying the problem exists.
A global catastrophe, where someone is actively denying its existence because he stands to lose money by acknowledging it.  Someone who’s willing to ruin millions of lives to save himself a buck.  And worse, he’s doubling down and broadcasting that disinformation to millions of people, denying a clear truth because he knows he’s unlikely to win the next debate about “So why is this happening?”
That’s pretty much the definition of evil.
Look. I know it sucks when your basic foundation thoughts get contradicted.  For a long time, I thought heroin was an intensely addictive drug, and that if you took it, you’d be hooked.  Studies on rats showed this!  They’d keep pressing the “gimme drugs” button until they starved!  And so I’ve studiously avoided heroin or cocaine or anything like that, because I have a supremely addictive personality.  (I mean shit, you shoulda seen how many hours I put into Saints Row this past month.)
But as has recently become apparent, those studies were badly administered. Turns out if you take a highly social kind of rat and stick it in solitary confinement, it basically goes nuts – at which point it’ll cheerfully take all the drugs you can offer it.  Put those rats in a rat-friendly place with a lot of other rats and let them play and run about, and it’s a struggle to get them to take drugs.  And when they start, they can also tail off easily.  (Which is actually what happened to a lot of American soldiers who experimented with heroin in Vietnam and dropped it when they got home, but I dropped that bit of truth from my experience as an outlying fact.)
Here.  Have a really great link that describes the experiment in comic-style.
And so, now that it’s been expressed to me that drugs may not be the core issue, poor people trapped in shitty neighborhoods may be the issue, I’ve gotta rethink my thinky-bits on drugs.  Does this mean I’m going to rush out and snort a pile of cocaine?  Hell no.  A large-scale study doesn’t supercede small-scale blips, like the “record rise” in arctic ice, and it may turn out I’m one of those people who’s wired to be addicted.  Nor does it mean I am obligated to do a 180 and embrace this new concept wholeheartedly; I can sift for more data.
But it does mean when I discuss drugs, I have to think in terms that there may be other compelling arguments that demolish long-held beliefs of mine.  The idea that “heroin may not be as bad as I thought” is one that pushes my squick button hard, as we all know that heroin ruined poor, poor Speedy, but I have to look that in the eye.
If I don’t incorporate these new studies into my thought patterns, I risk becoming evil.  Worse, if I throw away that new data because I don’t like the messages of what it points to, I risk becoming really evil.
And if I’m the head of a major news organization disseminating lies because I don’t want to lose a debate, then?  That’s pretty fucking evil.