Numenera: How'd The Second 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.)

So last week, I took the Numenera system out for its first spin.  Last night, my players showed up for the second session. And we learned more what worked about Numenera and what didn’t.
As usual, my toss-off ideas have already begun to mutate into large-scale pillars of the campaign.  You see, last week, the characters started out on the Wandering Way, a pilgrimage-like walk around the land, and I figured I’d have them run into a few fellow travellers so it didn’t feel like they were alone.  And so they ran into – oh, I don’t know, an old wise man who looked like Obi-Wan Kenobi and his boy apprentice, who’d had his mouth sealed shut by the Iron Wind (the rogue storm of nanobots that plagues Numenera).  They were on their way to the healing pools.  Flavorful, a brief encounter…
…but then, thanks to a twin set of botched rolls analyzing the old man’s cypher equipment, the players became convinced that the old guy’s equipment was about to explode, and hastily made their exit.  Which meant the big monster that was scheduled to attack that night hit the old man and his apprentice first.  Which meant when the players defeated the monster, they found a small, scared, mouthless teenaged boy hiding nearby, which was not at all part of the adventure I had planned.
So it goes.
As a good DM, you roll with it, and I said, “Well, they’ve already rescued the boy, how can we make him a) helpful and b) interesting?”  The helpful was an easy shot: this group had no nanos, which is to say nobody who understood technology at all.  The boy’s a nano-in-training.  But what made him interesting?
So when the session started tonight, two of the players – who were healers – discovered that the boy’s mouth had been sewn shut.  As in, he’d had a mouth once, and had been purposely sealed.
Further examination revealed that the boy had a head full of wasps.
That’s right; some unfortunate experimentation with the Iron Wind – the kid’s an explorer – had transformed the boy’s brain and skull into a literal hive mind of small wasps.  He thinks, he thinks, through the insects now, which has put a sadly premature end to his dating life.  But fortunately, one of the cyphers the players had was a one-shot “learn a language” numenera, and he burned it to learn the kid’s body language, allowing this mute boy to tell his sad story – how he’s convinced the Iron Wind is sentient, how he’s been chasing it (and all nanites) for study, and how once his head was transformed to a wasp cage they sewed up his mouth so they wouldn’t escape.
That set a nice tone of weirdness for the evening.
The players then set out on the obligatory “find the foozle” part of the canned adventure, wherein they were to go to the Synth Gardens to get healing supplies.  The Synth Garden, I extemporized, was a large half-buried geodesic dome.  Jerry, who’s playing a parkour-like Jack, immediately scaled the dome and started looking for alternate entryways.  Why, strangely enough, as he began to explore, he found a crack in the dome, because you try to reward players who do interesting things.
Then I made my first GM Intrusion: “Hey, Jerry, how would you feel if the crack snapped underneath you and you fell into the dome?”
“Don’t mind if I do,” he grinned.
Jerry fell in solo; I was wondering how the other players would get in, as they weren’t notably climby, but then Christie realized she had a cypher that allowed her to pass through walls. I hadn’t been expecting that, but that was actually an awesome solution – even if I had to burn a GM Intrusion to have the portal explode a second after they dove through it.
The inside of the Synth Garden was a wood of of tall, slender black trees made of circuitry and blinking Christmas lights, the dark place filled with the warm whirr of fans keeping the servers at operating temperatures.  Stacks of home-grown servers were everywhere, sprouting from the ground, surrounded by curls of cable.  As Jerry tried to make his way back to his compatriots (guided by the convenient explosion), another GM intrusion meant that he leapt over a stack of disk drives and landed straight in the middle of a pack of Broken Hounds.
These Hounds, however, were circuitry beasts, wiry half-robot things that looked like a Doberman made of legos and buzzsaws.  A fight, needless to say, broke out, as poor Bob (the hive-mind boy) ran for the hills.  Many GM intrusions and botched rolls (this group loves 1s) helped keep the combat interesting, including:
1)  Yes, you fake the Doberman out so it bites its companion instead.  The companion is so wounded it explodes in your face.
2)  You chop the Doberman to bits.  The bits crawl to the trees and reform into four more smaller techno-spiders.
3)  You chop a tree down to kill a techno-spider!  The botch means it falls on your companions.  This intrusion means two black techno-spiders were in the tree, and they fall on your friends!
That went on until it was clear the players would be either overwhelmed by the endless waves of regenerating techno-spiders or have to run, at which point clever old Bob the NPC shut down the garden’s guardians long enough that they could find the central virus-server and destroy it.  End session as they harvest a bunch of Numenera in triumph.
So.  What did I discover about Numenera this week?
1)  Players Love GM Intrusions. 
After last session’s intrusion-low game, which gave them little experience, I amped up the intrusions, giving as many as I could.  After the session, all three players told me they frickin’ loved the intrusions, as it always made the game more interesting – and requested even more of them in the future.  They were enthusiastic, and in fact I started to ask, “Hey, can I raw-dog this intrusion?” because it was more exciting to offer them a “blind” XP that they trusted would be weird and fun rather than explain the new surprising thing in advance.  They were generally receptive except when it was life-and-death, in which case they wanted to know.  Which is fair.
2)  Players Are Not Sold On The XP Tension.
You spend XP to reroll, or to advance your character.  Which means every time you throw in an XP, you’re sacrificing future gain.  It’s part of the game system, but it does mean they feel bad about cancelling out that failure by burning the level of Effort they were about to buy.  The players were generally good about it, but they did note an understandable reluctance to throw all that away just for silly combat.
It’s one of those things where the system works, and is in fact designed around the idea of burning XP for current and future gain, but it just doesn’t feel rewarding when you do it.
3)  The Descriptors Are Badly Designed. 
If you’re “Intelligent,” you get a pure bonus to your stats – all upside.  But if you’re “Charming,” you get a minus on any willpower rolls.
Considering the players make all the rolls, it’s sort of mean to ask them to remember when they’re bad at something.  There’s every incentive to remember the positive rolls, but the negative ones are just baggage they’re carrying with them.  Which isn’t to say that it couldn’t work, but the descriptors are designed so only some players have drawbacks – which means it’s hard for me as a GM to remember who’s bad at what, and the players are already (as I mentioned in my writeup of the first session) carrying a lot of mental rules baggage with them already.
If every descriptor had a plus and a minus, that would be awesome.  You could say, “You have a minus, what is it?” and feel comfortable as a GM.  But they don’t  As it is, I was put in the position where I had to ask for almost every interaction, “So do you have a negative modifier for this?  Look on your character sheet!  Look!” and eventually I just… didn’t bother.  Which isn’t a good place to be, where already we’re ignoring portions of the character sheet.
4)  The Players Get Much More Into It When They Understand The Rules…
My players told me that the first session was okay, but they had to know so many rules that it was hard to get into the game.  Fortunately, the rules are simple enough that this session they got it, and they termed this session “actively fun.”  We’ll be playing again next week, yay!
5) …But There’s Still A Lot Of Confusion What Edges Do. 
They get that paying some portion of their stats helps them do better at things, but the cost reduction of the edges was still baffling, and required some discussion.  I also had to prod them that burning XP let them re-roll, and I’m not sure they remembered that XP could let other people re-roll.
In short: it’s fun enough that we’re already running, and they all said they were looking forward to next Monday.  Which is great.  I don’t know what I’ll do when I run out of pregenerated adventure as a plot hook, but hey!  Clearly, my imagination runs away with me anyway.
(I just hope “GM space” doesn’t take up too much of the creative space I allot to writing fiction.  I’m taking a three-week break after my novel draft, so this game is opportunely-timed; we’ll see what happens when I’m back to story-writing.  Walking our new dog will give me more time to think, though.)

7 Comments

  1. Shanna Germain
    Oct 1, 2013

    I actually laughed out loud reading this — especially the combat bit!

    • TheFerrett
      Oct 1, 2013

      Excellent.
      For the record, if you guys are ever looking for any new writers or designers, definitely keep me in mind. My fiction, at least, has something of a track record. 🙂

  2. Joshua
    Oct 1, 2013

    My suggested house rule for Numenera XP is that you buy improvements with spent XP. That is the XP that you’re normally awarded is potential, and it can only be converted to actual by using it on things like rolls and cancelling failures. Only actual XP can be used to buy improvements. That way you encourage engagement with the spend-XP-to-achieve system instead of punishing it.

    • TheFerrett
      Oct 1, 2013

      That’s a neat house rule, but I’m not sure how it’d work in terms of advancement; considering you give XP pretty freely in terms of 4-8 GM Intrusions, with 2XP per, that might mean that characters level up to the next tier every 2-3 sessions. As it is, with this, they get the next package every two sessions or so, which seems manageable.

      • Joshua
        Oct 1, 2013

        You can always step it down (2 spent XP:1 improvement XP or even more), but I have a feeling that leveling faster would probably be more fun. So far Numenera doesn’t really feel like it will lend itself to long-term campaigns anyway, at least with the folks I’ve been playing it with. Or if it does, we’ll be making new characters fairly regularly and being able to catch up will be a feature, not a bug.

        • TheFerrett
          Oct 1, 2013

          Yeah, that’s a perfectly valid approach. Me, I love evolving characters through year-long megaplots, and the weirdness just makes it easier for me to go long-term.
          Then again, I had a four-year Planescape campaign. PLANESCAPE 4 LYFE

  3. Gini
    Oct 1, 2013

    As a”love to play; hate to read rules” player, I appreciate the simplicity of the rules. Even though we are still stumbling aonf with them a bit, I don’t feel the “I rolled dice. What they mean?” stupidity I often feel with games.
    I’m looking forward to next week!

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