Numenera Write-Up, Session #4: The Qi Zeppelin Disaster

(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.)

The initial goal of my Numenera campaign was to run it entirely on pregenerated modules. I’m writing novels, I said.  I don’t have the brainspace to dedicate to a campaign, I said.  I’ll just run it out of the book, I said.
AH HA HA HA HA.
No, my Numenera campaign has catapulted off the rails and into a full-blown saga, as I am wont to do, and now I’m using that writer-brainspace to design a Numenera module.  My brain hates me.
But here’s the thing: I believe GMing is an art.  And I think writeups of how an adventure went are often helpful to other GMs – kind of like tournament reports in Magic, where a well-done summary of the day’s events can show you how to be a better GM.  For years, I did this for my Planescape campaign, rehashing the plot and discussing what did or did not work, and since Numenera is such a new system, it’s kind of exciting to discuss how to be not just a better GM, but a better GM in Numenera.
So.  What happened?
In the last session, I dropped the hammer: the players discovered that the Iron Wind was actually a computer system gone berserk.  At one point, in one of the previous empires, the Iron Wind was actually a nanotechnology cloud that was everywhere, attending like genies to whoever asked – conjuring delicious food out of mid-air, genetically reconfiguring people’s bodies so that they could fly to the heights of the stratosphere or delve to the depths of the ocean, and always keeping records of their bodies so they could be reconstituted if they died.
Then something happened to it, and the Iron Wind went rogue.  Now it sweeps across the Ninth World in nightmarish nano-storms, dismantling things at random, reassembling them into worse configurations.  But if it could be repaired, then maybe everyone destroyed by the Iron Wind could be resurrected.
That was the not-so-subtle way of saying to the players: Here is your end goal.  Then, as they were wondering how they might actually accomplish this, a heavily-armored woman made of glass stepped through a dimensional rift and into the room and said, “I’m sorry.  You weren’t supposed to find that out.  Now, you have to die.”
That was the not-so-subtle way of saying to the players: Here is your end boss.
The glass woman (level 6) used all kinds of dimensional-warping tricks on the players (spurred by GM interventions), and I was pleased to see that my players were clever enough to almost take her down.  The Numenera book says that a level 6 opponent is a near-unbeatable challenge, but they did chip away at her through strong rolls and good tactics.  But in the end, I had my final GM Intervention: she waved her hand, disgusted, and said, “Just die” and teleported them up all 20,000 feet up in the air.
And that’s where we began this session.
I let the players attempt to save themselves, and they seemed appropriately panicked as they realized just how far up they were, and how little chance they had.  They weren’t even near each other, as the glass woman had separated them.
I stressed that they’d never seen this view of the land, as everywhere they’d ever been before they’d gotten to by walking or riding; flying was some crazy dream.  Which, I think, is part of good Numenera GMing; you want to remind the players that really, most of the world is still very much stuck in medieval technology, even if they are constantly exploring scientific ruins.  I think that sort of thing helps keep the wonder alive.
My players gave their “falling” their best shot: our Explores Dark Depths Jack figured out how to steer a little, the Clever Jack made some wings with a Hearth Magic, and the Barbarian just prayed.  None of them particularly worked; in terminal velocity, the wings shredded, and steering was aiming our Jack at a nearby body of water.
Then blue streaks started to zip past them.  Rexx, steering desperately, realized that someone was trying to target them with something as they plummeted – he got glimpses of hardwood floors, brass rails, and electricity in the middle of it.  Eventually, he dove into one…
…and wound up in a tank of some sort filled with a hundred smaller dimensional rifts that bled off his momentum.
Here’s one trick I did as a GM: I put the camera exclusively on Rexx while he tried to save himself, as he was the most agile, and let the other players watch as they tried to figure out what the hell they would do when their turn came up.  Then, when Rexx was rescued, I told them that he saw their characters in the tanks next to him.  Which is a nice short-hand; I think other GMs might have played it out three times in a row, but when the end result has to be “Your PCs are saved by a stranger,” then handwaving that the exact same thing happened to the other guys is a good way of building tension and then breaking it.
The stranger turned out to be a an elderly woman with a long gray braid, dressed in the starry cloak that symbolizes a member of the Order of Truth.  She apologized for not being able to save their friend (i.e., the player who’d had to, quite literally, drop out of the campaign), and then they all compared notes.
I hate the comparing notes meetings.
In the beginning, it’s usually hard for the players to know who to trust, or who to swap information with; some generally share freely, but there’s always a couple who are like, “Do we want this person to know this thing?”  Which is often quite warranted – especially when the last time you learned this information, a glass woman teleported in and killed at least one of your party.  So when you meet the initial NPCs, there’s often a lot of dancing around what sort of information you should give and what they know, and so forth.
What I always do in a campaign is try to give the players a couple of people who you can unreservedly trust.  Other NPCs may have mixed motivations, but providing them with a “base character” or two to ask for advice when they’re not sure what to do has turned out to be invaluable; quite often, the players will squabble, and you really can’t do anything as a GM because you don’t have a legitimate voice.  A couple of close allies allows you to shape the debate, turning them away from dead-ends or truncating tedious conversations, and as such – while Lexa will eventually become an ally – at first, it’s pretty forced.
But compare notes they did, and Lexa eventually revealed that as someone who studies dimension-folding, she’d seen flashes from this glass woman – who she calls Glyssa – but nobody Glyssa had ever hunted down before had survived.  The players revealed that Glyssa seemed to be acting out of some warped nobility – that by killing anyone who knew the secret of the Iron Wind, she was acting for the greater good.  (“The greater good.”)  Lexa then suggested that as a member of the Order of Truth, she could take them to the Amber Pope and perhaps the Order of Truth had some further knowledge about both the Iron Wind and what this Glyssa might be doing.
Medium-term plot: accepted.
At which point Lexa revealed that:
a)  They were not dining in a room.  They were dining in a great zeppelin, two thousand feet above the ground.
b)  The zeppelin was a living creature called “Beulah.”  c)  Did they want to learn how to pilot Beulah?
The piloting scene wasn’t planned, but the players were a little frustrated after all the “So what should we do next?” and so I decided it was time for fun and games.  So we had a few nice days where Lexa taught the PCs how to fly a great living zeppelin – going up on top of her inflatable body to drink wine and watch the sunset, scrubbing Beulah’s body to rid her of mold (which also has the benefit of petting her), discovering what happens when you piss Beulah off (she tends to drop ballast and drop you five feet at the worst times).
And there was a nice scene where they were drinking wine and Lexa got to discuss what I see as one of the key aspects of Numenera: ecological damage.  To her, this world had once been beautiful, but there – she pointed down – was a black mold from some other planet that was destroying a forest, and there was a group of pallones that were driving out the native creatures, and there were some dimensional foldings from wayward technology that was hurting the air.  The Ninth World is the scraps and leavings of great cultures, and with the wonders left behind are also messes that no one is quite sure how to clean up.
The players were quite surprised to find that the old empires spanned galaxies, and that some of the empires weren’t even human.  “Why don’t they come back?” they asked.  “What happened?”
“Maybe they collapsed,” Lexa said.  “Maybe they don’t think we’re worth talking to any more.  Maybe they’ve forgotten us.”
“Man, I am gonna be so sad when this NPC dies,” said Jerry.  Which is good.  That meant I got the players in her camp.
But as that conversation wound down, the alarm bells went off.  A horde of small, metallic flying things were scanning the top of Beulah.  Rexx and Rena went up to investigate; Raven, who had determined she was not going up top ever, stayed below with the sole parachute.  The small flying things scanned Rexx and Rena, then zoomed in and targeted their eyes and –
What I had told the players before was to make sure they knew what their characters’ worst moment was, and now they figured out why.  I started with Rena, who had lost her sister to the Iron Wind: as the bug flashed her eyes, she was back on that day, and I asked.  “So what were you doing with your sister on the last day she was alive?”  Christy said they were playing tag.  And of course, as a very evil GM, I said that her sister was hard to tag – she was athletic, had the same lanky genes that Rena did, was clearly going to grow up to be one hell of a warrior.  And her sister tackled her when it was obvious she couldn’t escape, and then said:
“I made you a present.”
“What?”
She took out a ring of daisies.  “Here,” she said.  “I’m making you Queen of the World.”
And that’s when the Iron Wind hit.  Rena tried to save her sister, picking her up and running away, but no; she would forever remember tripping, seeing her sister sprawl to the ground, the Iron Wind howling around her as it turned her lungs to diamond.  She remembered her sister turning blue, choking out the last of her life – but instead of dying, her sister instead said, “This would never have happened if you had prettier hair.  You need a better shampoo.  You need Lustrin – ”
And WHAM, they’re back on the ship.  Take 4 Intellect damage and you need, need to buy some Lustrin.
These mini-flashbacks were mostly effective, though Rena’s was by far the best; I didn’t sit down with Jerry as much to map out Rexx’s tragedy, so that was a little freeform and not as emotionally impactful, and floundered a little.  But the Odfreys were fearful; you could kill them in a single blow, but sucking Intelligence by revealing bad memories made the players hate them.  If you’re going to do something like this (and these guys will appear in the module I’m writing), I’ll have some better idea of how to frame a mini-flashback.
Rena, enraged, smashed two of the Odfreys in one shot, and they exploded, sending white-hot showers of metal down onto Beulah.  Beulah lurched, and since Raven had opted to stay down in the cabin where it was safe, a GM Intrusion sent her falling out the windshield.
A furious combat ensued on top of the zeppelin, with GM Intrusions and notable events being:
a)  Rexx had a Wall of Fire, which he wanted to use to put a barrier between him and the Odfreys.  Fortunately, an intelligence check showed that putting a wall of fire on a rapidly moving airship meant that the wall of fire would impact them shortly.  He instead dropped it behind the Odfreys so it swept past them, taking out four in one shot….
b)  But Beulah lurched at the last minute in a GM Intrusion, causing the wall of fire to burn the back of her body, causing a major leak.  Beulah was crashing.  Call for Speed rolls to not tumble off the roof.
c)  Another Intrusion meant a competing set of Odfreys arrived, blue instead of red, and immediately began fighting with each other for consumer dominance, fighting at each other with sweeps of vicious laser beams that, when dodged, tore up Beulah’s surface more.
d)  Raven fell out of the window and was attacked by an Odfrey flashback, but rolled a 20 on her recovery and managed to use the memory of her dead wife in an “I want to LIVE!” moment that let her scramble up onto the deck.
e)  Another GM Intrusion set fire to the ladder she was crawling on.  Still another had Rexx tumble through a flap in the Beulah’s roof and so he tumbled down into her body and had to rescue himself.
f)  Raven worked her Who Works Miracles angle to try to heal Beulah, aided with a little assistance from Bob the Cypher-Friend.
In the end, after a spectacularly chaotic combat, with Beulah only about 700 feet off the ground, Lexa – who had been calling up “What’s going on?” and not one PC had ever answered her – decided to use her dimensional technology to warp Beulah to a safer location.  The ship glowed blue, shimmered, and vanished.
Leaving all the players 700 feet up in empty air, with only one parachute between them.
Next session, please.
As usual, I’m quite pleased by Numenera’s mechanics, although there were four things I learned:
1)  Considering Numenera is usually so good about avoiding needless busywork, the “Might per hour” cost for armor just strikes me as a lot of remembering when someone put on or off their armor.  That’s a lot of bookkeeping that I, as a GM, don’t like.
2)  I thought getting another level of Effort was the slam-dunk easy choice to make when levelling, but Jerry proved that an Edge of 2 is still really quite good.  So go Monte and Shanna for providing balanced mechanics!
3)  Having damage come off the Intelligence track is terrifying for most people.  Once they get used to managing Might, having something attack another stat was just something that sent them flying.
4)  Players can, in theory, heal 1d6+1 to a pool by taking an action… but in no combat run thus far has anyone had a spare action to take.  Maybe I run combats too chaotically, but I’m always keeping the players busy so that they’re fending off a foe or something.  Not sure if that’s my style or just a purposeful rule to ensure that recovering points in combat has a cost.

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