Thursday, 1 December 2016

Numenera's GM interventions

So after all that talk of failures, and a few conversations, I was thinking about the actual GM Intrusions in Numenera, and I got curious. What sort of googlies does the rulebook actually throw out?


The foci are a weird and wonderful array of special abilities, no doubt perfectly suited to display the scope and versatility of the GM Intrusion. Let's see what exciting opportunities, plot seeds and wildcards Monte has chosen to throw in here!

The core rulebook outlines what I think can be considered 47 distinct GM Intrusions across the range of foci. These can, it turns out, be grouped into 5 fairly neat categories.

Things hunt you: your power causes particular types of enemies to hunt you down, be they predators or would-be captors. 4 Intrusions take this form.

Your stuff breaks: your equipment or belongings are destroyed, lost or damaged. 9 Intrusions take this form.

Your power causes chaos: you lose control of your power and it results in bad things happening. 9 Intrusions take this form.

Prejudice: people dislike or actively hate people with your abilities. 11 Intrusions take this form.

You fail: your power doesn't work. 13 Intrusions take this form. anyone else here feeling underwhelmed?

The best of these are the "your special ability makes you a target" options, because these do at least feel like narratively interesting options. However, they also feel like long-term plot rather than something that suddenly happens. I can also see the prejudice ones being interesting occasionally, although only occasionally - very few players want to be constant targets for hatred.

I have to say that most of the others feel actively bad to me.

You Suck

So there's two issues here, I think. The primary one, which suffuses most of these, is that fundamentally these remaining GM Intrusions boil down fairly tidily to "Hey, that thing you can do? That talent so unusual and definitional that it's fully one-third of your character, and the most interesting third? You aren't actually any good at it." And I think don't think this is good form. I especially don't think it's good form in a game of heroic adventure like Numenera appears to be. Having a player character suddenly prove incompetent at (essentially) the only thing they are specifically good at - their Focus - is undermining the very concept of the character.

Conan the Barbarian doesn't randomly flub his attacks one time in twenty. Spiderman doesn't fall off buildings one time in twenty. Cyclops doesn't accidentally zap the wrong person one time in twenty. Zorro doesn't say something embarrassing and fall on his arse one time in twenty. Lots of things go wrong for them, but they are virtually never a simple failure of skill, and in particular, the talents that define those characters.

I think it's even worse when that failure results in additional problems. Hey, you didn't just fail to command fire, you set this orphanage alight!

Look, one of the keystones of my roleplaying philosophy (wow, I have one? That's mildly alarming) is that reality is what happens in play. That's not a principle or anything, that's how I think it works. The reality of a character, as they feel to the rest of the group and (to a large extent) to the owning player, is derived from the events of the game, not from their backstory or statline. You can have a Shooting skill of 99%, but if you repeatedly fail to hit things you come across as a mediocre shot. You can be a simple warrior, but if you come up with neat ways out of tough situations, you end up as a simple but wise warrior who others look to for leadership. You can be a master of secret knowledge, but if none of it is ever needed in the game you are often functionally indistinguishable from someone without that knowledge.

But this means that "your abilities going wrong" has serious weight. Because now you are not Hyral, the Wielder of Fire. You are Hyral, who sometimes Wields Fire but that one time set an orphanage alight. You are Gorlinn, who does Master Gravity but there was the time she accidentally hurled me fifty metres into the air and I only survived by falling onto a dungheap, so honestly I'd stay away from her. You are Fli, the Blademaster with an unfortunate case of butterfingers.

These wouldn't be out of place in a comic fantasy, where those are both valid character concepts and expected parts of the narrative. But as best I can work out the tone and tropes of Numenera, slapstick isn't an intended part of it, and neither is the straight-up drama of struggling to master unreliable powers. It seems supposed to be a fairly classical heroic game, and those kinds of failures don't really mesh with that tone.

Stolen Thunder

A second is that one of the uses for GM Intrusions is to change the current situation. If they were simply ways to establish what happened on the roll of a 1 (a failure), it would bother me less (although it would in fact still bother me). But the GM can chip in at any time with an Intrusion. That means Monte is actively encouraging GMs to look at the game in progress and go: "Hey, you know how you just succeeded? Actually, you didn't. Maybe you also caused a massive problem."

This seems bad, because players tend to really enjoy success, which usually builds momentum, whereas failure tends to sap it. And in particular, I'm confident that swapping out a success for a failure is going to steal the momentum of a game.

Now I see two main ways the GM is likely to use these outside rolling 1s. The first is when they feel that a conflict or challenge will be cut short and rendered uninteresting by the judicious application of the Focus. The second is where they feel that the narrative evoked by the Focus going wrong is more compelling than the one evoked by it being used successfully.

I think the issue here is that in both cases, this saps agency from the players by rewriting the outcomes of some of their choices. The player chose to invoke a Focus and did so successfully; the GM decides they don't like that result and changes it. This for me veers uncomfortably close to simply saying "actually, you don't do that". I'm not willing to say it's actually wrong, or it shouldn't be done, or anything that absolute. I'm just a bit wary of it.

I think it's also relevant that the GM does this via a handwavy power, rather than via a specific mechanical ability. For example, if a creature has the ability to ignore mind-control, few players will object to it shrugging off a successful use of mind-controlling abilities. Similarly, certain powerful monsters in D&D have a pool of tokens they can use to negate failed saving throws, and thus resist powerful effects (specifically designed to ensure battles against a lone creature don't become stunlocked and therefore boring). And a few systems allow a GM to specifically protect or empower NPCs with a pool of tokens, as in FATE. Players tend to be understanding about these mechanical factors. The Numenera equivalent, however, is just the GM offering players XP to accept a rewriting of events. On the flipside, this rule is codified by the game, so some players may feel more justified in rejecting the change. As Arthur suggested though, other players may find it harder because this is an explicit mechanical aspect of the GM's tools rather than simply part of the social contract, and because they are incurring an XP penalty.

Of the two, I think the narrative intervention may be more troubling. A GM has a huge array of narrative tools and powers at their disposal, because in general the GM is inventing most of the world, the NPCs, their motivations, and can conjure or change elements with a fairly free hand to shape the narrative as they choose. Players typically have a much more limited set of explicit options for interacting with the world; choosing your actions and resolving them mechanically, filtered by your chargen choices and other developments that determine your capabilities, is the most reliable of those. You can normally rely on the fact that if you decide to Do X and you make the rolls required to Do X, you will actually Do X even if the consequences prove to be Z rather than the expected Y. The Intrusion mechanic, however, allows the GM to say that no, you didn't Do X at all.

I like to think that most GMs would use this capability sparingly, and they would generally prefer You Do X Which Causes Y But Also Z as a format for Intrusions - but that is not what Numenera recommends.

Breaking, Bad

The ones about broken/lost equipment look particularly dodgy to me, because those are fairly permanent costs whereas most effects are temporary. Replacing equipment is often not easy, especially when you're out adventuring. And it's notable that these mostly apply to Foci which rely on that specific equipment, which makes it infinitely worse. You're an archer? Your bowstring breaks. You use a shield or armour? Your shield breaks, or your armour falls apart. A weapon? Your weapon breaks or is lost or stolen. A bard? Your instrument breaks.

Yes, that's right, these Intrusions basically remove the piece of equipment that defines what that character can do. This is functionally equivalent to saying "your mystical pyrokinetic powers stop working for an unspecified period of time", which strangely enough nobody has suggested is a good Intrusion. That's because it's a terrible Intrusion. It's a bad idea to negate part of a character's core concept without strong reasons that the player is likely to accept, such as a plot that they're engaging with. Doing so arbitrarily as part of a "random things happen" mechanic is an even worse idea.

There is a very real risk that a GM running Numenera by the book might decide to, say, break the shieldmaster's shield. And it might be quite a long time before they get another one. And in the meantime, they are just worse at everything. It's not got any particular interest value that I can see, there's no real sense of narrative interest; they're just mechanically penalized.

Denizens of the Ninth World

I also took a look at the list of, let's be honest, monsters. Numenera is keen to present itself as a game of exploration and stories, rather than one of dungeon-bashing, but the fantastical creatures offered by the game don't really bear out that premise.

But that's a discussion for another time! For now, let's consider the Intrusions associated with those critters. I count 51 Intrusions (some have multiple effects and I've counted each of those effects).

Your attack misses: the creature dodges one or more attacks unexpectedly. 3 instances.

More enemies appear: there are more of them (normally 1d6 more) than you initially thought. 3 instances.

It escapes: the creature gets away, or has a damned good try. 4 instances.

It is tougher: the creature heals, has extra hit points or otherwise survives longer than expected. 4 instances.

Your stuff breaks: the creature destroys one of your items. 4 instances.

An unusual effect: something distinctly different happens. 4 instances, each of them part of another effect.

Lose a turn: you're stunned, knocked down or otherwise unable to act. 6 instances.

More dangerous: the creature takes an extra attack, causes more damage than expected, makes a special attack, or turns out to be intrinsically more dangerous than it seemed (and therefore always does more damage). 23 instances.

Let's just pause to admire the creativity here.

Yes, I am being mean here, but come on. It's not as though my summarising is really inappropriately cutting out the rich variation. Each of those has a little description, but they very much are simply a dash of flavour followed by "it makes an extra attack", "the PC moves one step down the damage track" (a major injury), "the character has [a mildly thematic experience] and takes extra damage". A few are genuinely different - the Ghost Crab responds to the loss of a limb by rapidly synthesising a new, better claw to fight them - but generally they don't feel especially varied.

There's a couple that are more thematic. The creature swallows you; it mentally seizes command of one of your gadgets and uses it against you; it entangles you in its tentacles. But they're so few and far between.

But step back a moment. The really, importantly noteworthy thing about these Intrusions is that every. single. one. is about combat. Yes, even the ones for humble beasts of burden are about them fleeing because of a fight. Given a vast wealth of imagination to play with, creatures from a biomechanical techno-fantastical future who may have entirely alien intellects and physical natures, and asked to posit the unexpected things that might happen in interaction with them, Numenera suggests you have them attack twice or inflict a particularly nasty wound.

Lack of Scope

So coming back to that permanent/temporary thing, one of the things I notice is that Numenera doesn't seem to have any standard at all for what constitutes a reasonable scope of GM Intrusion.

There's no temporal scope. Many Intrusions last for a single round, as you're stunned or prone or confused. But there's the ones where your sword is destroyed. There's the ones where your pet goes berserk and causes chaos. There's the ones where people concoct an elaborate plot to capture you and exploit your abilities.

There's no scope of severity either. There's the ones where you lose a round of actions. The ones where you alienate NPCs you may want to help you, or even be hoping to involve in a substantial storyline. The ones where you permanently destroy a valuable item, possibly one important to keeping you alive or even accomplishing a goal.

And there's no scope of kind. Most of the Intrusions are straight-up mechanical penalties. A few are short-term complications that might, in fact, lead to interesting and enjoyable play, although not if you keep doing them. And a handful are actually plot arcs that your character is caught up in in an interesting way.

Simply put, "the weapon which you use all the time and largely defines your character breaks, imposing substantial mechanical penalties for an indefinite period" is just not in any way comparable to "an entire storyline is devoted to the attempts of a group of NPCs to kill, enlist or control you". One is a major mechanical penalty with minimal interest; the other spotlights the character in a storyline that isn't necessarily disadvantageous in any way and is likely to be fun for the player. And neither of these fits well with "you fall over".

The Intrusions thing

I'm wondering whether half the problem with GM Intrusions isn't that they're trying to serve two masters.

On the one hand, Intrusions serve as a fumble rule. They're a bad thing or complication that kicks off because you rolled a 1 on your dice. This is a little like the critical hits of other games, and since only PCs roll dice in Numenera it sort of makes sense that they'd happen on a 1 instead. However, I retain my previous reservations about failure-type mechanics.

On the other hand, Intrusions are supposed to be a means for GMs to deliberately introduce additional complications, or to prevent a plan from going smoothly (and perhaps eliding a lot of what has been planned in an adventure). In this capacity, they're a kind of deal brokered with the players, but with the higher authority handed to the GM because that fits the power dynamic Monte wants for Numenera (which is fair enough). The GM feels more able to use this approach because they're offering XP and using a specific twist-introducing mechanic, while the players feel they have some control over the introduction of things they don't want. Not my favourite thing but okay, I get it.

But I don't think these two match. I'm not sure it's possible to make any kind of coherent system for handling, on the one hand, a minor mechanical penalty meant to spice up the experience of rolling badly; and another, mid-level narrative twists that are part of the shared story; and on an inexplicable third hand, quite substantial structural elements and arcs that affect the campaign and storyline on a subtler but larger scale.

I particularly don't think it's possible if you don't distinguish those things in any way. Monte does allude to them: the discussion of GM Intrusions explicitly has a section on "Using GM Intrusions as a Narrative Tool". Here he talks about how "the GM can direct things more subtly-gently, almost imperceptibly influencing events rather than forcing them. GM Intrusion represents things going wrong. The bad guys planning well. Fortune not favouring the PCs."

However, he doesn't ever talk about the fact that sometimes a GM Intrusion consists of a character falling down and losing a single turn of combat, and sometimes it consists of the entire party being trapped and moved to a different 'scene', and sometimes it involves a plot featuring a group of bounty hunters attempting to capture the party healer; and the way that these things are distinct.

Not Railroading

Let's take another look at that "Narrative Tool" business, shall we?

A GM can use this narrative tool to steer things. That doesn't mean railroad the players or direct the action of the game with a heavy hand. GM intrusion doesn't enable you to say "You're all captured, so here's your 1XP." Instead, the GM can direct things more subtly-gently, almost imperceptibly influencing events rather than forcing them. GM Intrusion represents things going wrong. The bad guys planning well. Fortune not favouring the PCs.

Okay, that sounds reasonable and useful to me.

Consider this scenario: the GM plants an interesting adventure seed in a small village, but the PCs don't stay there long enough to find it. Just outside the village, the PCs run afoul of a vicious viper that bites one of them. The GM uses intrusion to say that the poison from the snake will make the character debilitated unless he gets a large dose of a very specific antitoxin, which the group doesn't have. Of course, they aren't required to go back into the village where the GM's interesting adventure can start, but it's likely that they wil, looking for the antitoxin.

Some players might find intrusion heavy handed, but the XP softens the blow. And remember, they can refuse these narrative nudges. Intrusion is not meant to be a railroading tool, just a bit of a rudder. Not an inescapable track, but a nudge here and there."

So here are the suggested intrusions.

  • The players have missed an adventure seed. The GM intrudes to make one of them debilitated (effectively helpless) until they find a specific antitoxin, hoping they will return to the village.
  • The PCs are doing poorly in a fight. The GM intrudes to say they are caught in a net and now threatened to surrender.
  • The PCs refuse to surrender while trapped in a net and surrounded. The GM intrudes to knock one unconscious as a warning to the others.

The Snakebite

I'm not sure about you, but I think if I was in a game where the GM said "right, this character falls unconscious until you get a special rare McGuffin you have no idea where to find" this would genuinely bother me. There's a couple of reasons for that.

One is that it's a pretty major effect. As I've said, common Intrusions tend to block a PC turn or inflict about 5 points of damage (or both), or occasionally take them 1 step down the damage track. This effect is essentially doing at least 24 points of damage.

Secondly, from a mechanical point of view that's a big impact on the party. You've lost the services of probably 1/3 or 1/4 of the party, and you also need to look after that helpless PC. Your capabilities are severely restricted.

Thirdly, I think removing a PC from play is always a big deal, because that means the player can't do anything. A PC falling unconscious because of a series of bad choices or bad rolls leading to mechanical defeat is one thing, but there are several opportunities to intervene, and the other PCs can also take normal steps to revive them. A PC being captured through similar misfortune and miscalculation also has opportunities to reconsider. But here, the GM simply decrees that that player has to stop being able to mechanically interact with the gameworld for an unspecified period.

Worse, the GM then hands responsibility for their fiat to the other players. While Snoozy sits back, the others are given the unspoken choice to either carry on with their adventure (inconsiderately leaving Snoozy out of things), or drop everything and seek a solution. It's obvious which is 'correct', and also which the social contract will tend to demand. If the unconsciousness was the player's fault things might be different; they pay the temporary price for bad choices. But as it's a punishment imposed arbitrarily by the GM, it's not fair to leave them in the lurch.

Another aspect here is that it's a pretty substantial plot point, because the PCs don't seem to have any way to know where or how they might obtain the McGuffin. I mean, they can go and ask at the village like the GM wants, but that's about it. As a player, I tend to find this kind of thing disconcerting. I don't mind plots where I don't know of any specific way to resolve them, and need to explore possibilities; I don't mind plots where I know what needs doing and some sensible steps to take towards it. But "you need X, you have no notion whatsoever where X might be" gives me a sense of choice paralysis, since I don't really know where to start. The players here can't just start considering sensible options for dealing with paralysing snakebite, because they explicitly need a specific antivenom.

Coming back, though; I really don't think there's any plausible way to claim that this example isn't railroading. Monte is reacting to a PC leaving the plot location by knocking out a PC indefinitely in the hope that, for want of any other obvious options, they will go back to the village. That is not in any sense subtle, it is in no way imperceptible, and it is very close to forcing the PCs. Yes, the players could technically decide to just walk off into the desert with their unconscious pal, but most groups will not feel able to do that, and will understand that they are having their arms twisted to head back to the village. They know their fellow-player is being locked out of the game, they know the mechanical consequences, and they know that trying sensible in-game solutions will not work because they need the McGuffin.

My preference here would honestly be for the GM to bring the seed to us.

They could have an NPC ask us to stay for some reason. They could hurry forward whatever seed is happening. They could also say out-of-character that there's a bit more going on in the village if we want to hang around, thus giving us an actual choice as to whether we want to engage with it - even if they don't want to tell us exactly what it is. And honestly, I'll normally say 'yes' to that.

It seems here like Monte is falling into what I consider a bit of a trap. He seems very keen that the PCs encounter his adventure seed, but equally keen not to break the fourth wall, and thus is trying to manipulate them into doing what he wants from a metagame perspective by using in-game events. Unfortunately, this is quite an ineffective and often heavy-handed way of doing things. You're translating GM feelings into in-game content and then expecting the players to back-translate it. Of course, you might not think of it that way - I don't think Monte does - but that's essentially what's happening here. He's not specifically trying to say to the players "you should go back to the village", but he is trying to create a situation where they think going back to the village is a good idea. But it's really hard to understand how other people might react to an in-game situation when they don't have access to the information you do, and do have a lot of ideas about the plot and the gameworld which you don't have access to!

And of course, gaming is already a partly symbolic medium, with a lot of narrative tropes and genre tropes and all kinds of other baggage, which affects how events may be interpreted. The tiny fraction of available in-world information that the GM chooses to present is itself filtered and symbolic, just like a cartoon drawing is a symbolic representation of a person.

It seems to be a fairly common idea that GMs shouldn't engage in metagame discussion, but honestly a lot of the time it's the most elegant way to do things. It saves GMs from frustration that players are ignoring their beautiful content, it saves players from frustration that the GM is doing odd things and they need to try and derive from these clues what they might be 'supposed' to do. Accepting the odd bit of metagame discussion frees up players and GMs alike to generally understand in-game events as in-game events.

The Net

This example seems a little better. Yes, the GM has decreed that a net catches them, but that seems roughly what Intrusions do; there are ways this could come about through other mechanics (a net attack roll, a net trap) but the Intrusion says "this happens, unless you say no". Okay.

The actual mechanical effect of the net isn't clear, so it's hard to tell exactly how punishing it is. If the PCs can reasonably break out of it, that seems fair enough. If they basically can't, then this is functionally indistinguishable from decreeing that they lose the fight. My impression is that they can escape.

Let's be reasonable here. A GM is (we normally consider) within their rights to have the PCs encounter an overwhelming number of enemies - at least, providing they've got into a situation where being overwhelmed and captured seems a plausible risk. It's a little more controversial in other situations. On the whole, though, I personally don't think "you get captured" is an unreasonable outcome from a lot of the types of combats my characters get into; there's usually a reasonable risk of that happening through mechanics anyway. Assuming that the capture will lead to some other interesting scenes, rather than being frustratedly helpless for a long time while stuff happens around me, I'm probably okay with it as an occasional thing.

On the other hand, I'm not sure it's not railroady. Especially once the GM steps in again to knock out one of the PCs - not via game mechanics, but by decreeing it. And yes, the PCs can reject it, but still. This is a very clear signal from the GM that they are not supposed to continue this fight, and are not likely to win it.

Now, those kinds of signals can also occur in an Intrusion-free fight. The PCs might take a lot of damage quickly, for example. And yet, I feel there's something different here, because the GM is sending a metagame signal rather than an in-game one. The PC doesn't fall unconscious because of the mechanical resolution of their relative capabilities with the full weight of the player's skill to apply them, but because the GM says so. To the players, this feels like a signal from the GM that finding a clever way to apply your character's abilities will not be enough.

Now, Monte advises not forcing their hand any further. However, I think as a player, if I was told that the entire party was now trapped in a net, and then told that another PC was knocked out (without a die being rolled), I would have little reason to expect the rest of the fight to be 'fair'. No, I would understand that we were being captured because the GM said so.

Closing remarks

I've had reservations about the Intrusions mechanic for a while, and I think Monte's list of suggestions goes a fair way to highlighting the issues with it. A mechanic along this thematic line has the potential to help keep the game varied, but when the man responsible for envisioning and designing this whole universe largely limits himself to an oddball cousin of the Critical Hit and negating players' actions, it's hard to see that it adds anything worthwhile.

Like the other Uncanny Valleys I've observed with Numenera, I wonder whether this mechanic doesn't suffer from being too much and too little. A tradder iteration that essentially took the place of the Critical and Fumble and applied to extreme rolls would be easier to accept, while it could have been expanded and spun to offer a more interesting range of outcomes than simply damage boosts (as some Critical Tables already do) and to apply more broadly than just to combat. Alternatively, a more Storygame system with actual narrative mechanics would have a natural place for the idea that the GM interjects a twist, or even tempts players with failure (or just the unexpected) in the short term for the promise of greater control later.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Crusading Blackly

As you may recall, gentle reader, I am a fan of the Warhammer 40,000 universe. I have previously enjoyed some very straight-faced (and silly) games of Deathwatch under Arthur's guidance; I hope at some point to complete the campaign we were running.

For the past few months, I have been taking part in a very different angle on the whole business: a Black Crusade campaign, run by Dan. This is, for those of you not in the know, like switching from playing the Fellowship of the Ring (in an alternative universe where all of you are Strider, or possibly Legolas) to playing three distant relations of Wormtongue hiding out in the big city and plotting its downfall.

I'm not particularly proposing to discuss the campaign and its events in detail, but to waffle a bit about some specific ideas. This is going to get long; I don't really want to break up a review of a single product into several posts, but equally there's a lot to say. Sorry.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

On failure, its outcomes and its implications: simulation vs. storygame?

As I was writing this mini-series, I've been reading a bit around the internet. Other people also have their issues with Fail Forward, including major "Powered by the Apocalypse!" content writers, apparently.

Something I picked up on in that reading was something that I did touch on myself, but think is a bit secondary in my concerns. That is, basically, is there any connection between what the character attempted, and the consequence of the failure?

The first example has a rogue make a Charisma check in order to befriend an officer on a ship. The rogue fails, and the GM interprets this to mean that rather than fail to befriend the officer, the character did in fact make a good impression, but the officer is now suddenly a cannibal.

Don't get me wrong here. This example here makes me furrow my brow and raise an eyebrow and sort of shake my head in mild confusion; it's just that I'm more worried about other, larger-scale aspects of Fail Forward.

On reflection though, it struck me that this might be down to a bit of a storygamer vs. trad gamer mindset difference. I think the spontaneous cannibalism is weird, as does David Guyll, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's objectively bad. I'm wondering whether this might actually reflect attitudes towards the simulationism or otherwise of the gameworld.

In the kind of simulationist game I run, this example seems silly, because a person is or is not a cannibal. I mean, I might not have determined that in advance (it's not exactly one of the core stats), but equally I sort of expect cannibalism to be a trait I decide on some narrative or logical basis. I would find it weird to have a mechanical roll on a skill change a part of the gameworld reality that isn't even related to it.

To be fair, I might potentially get the idea that an NPC could be a cannibal based on the interactions involved in a skill roll, probably if it made me think it would be ironic in some way. But it'd be a consequence of the narrative rather than the die result.

However, if you don't subscribe to the view that a game is approximately simulating a reality for you in the first place, maybe this makes a lot more sense. Plenty of games and gamers are happy with games where a lot of narrative control rests with the players, and where parts of the game reality are subject to change. To take a classic RPG example, when a players looks for a diamond in a safe, some gamers are happy for a successful roll to mean the diamond is in the safe, without any need for the GM to have decided it was there beforehand.

As far as I'm concerned, this is mostly unsatisfying. But that's just my preference.

Players who enjoy this kind of Conflict Resolution-based approach, and the relatively flexible game reality, may be more amenable to the idea that a game-mechanical consequence of their actions or failures doesn't necessarily match the game-narrative consequences of their actions in a mappable way. If you're tending to view things more as Conflicts than as specific Tasks in the first place, then it may make more sense to you.

To pull things back to our example: maybe for a storygamey player, it's natural to model the Charisma roll as a Conflict like "do I manage to befriend the nice officer", where a failure allows that the officer is secretly a cannibal and so not so nice after all. Maybe Grignr failing to behead an orc and suddenly being endangered by a plummeting chandelier feels like a natural sequence of events simply because it comprises part of a story of sequential events.

Monday, 31 October 2016

On failure, its outcomes and its implications: caring and minding

This is a bonus spin-off thought from the main mini-series. It doesn't quite fit into the main thread.

Caring and Minding

There's another case here which I think Fail Forward handles suboptimally, but which is relatively common. This is the situation where I care what the result is, but I don't mind.

Now, you can make a case that this is exactly the situation Fail Forward tries to create, by making both options equally interesting. But let's ignore that, and focus on situations where it's inherently true, rather than those where the GM makes it true.

This is actually a really common situation in the types of games I tend to play, which are generally relatively simulationist. The most obvious case is the very frequent one where I simply want to establish facts about the world around me. For example: Is there a secret door in this wall? Is this ruin historically associated with the Dark Lady? What kind of outfit is Hilgarth Enterprises? Can I hear anyone on the other side of this door?

I care what the result is, because otherwise I wouldn't have asked.* But I don't mind. I have no personal stake in the specific answer, but collapsing that particular waveform will open up new lines of enquiry or simply inform my future actions.

You can usefully distinguish it this way:

  • I care whether there is a secret door, a letter for me, anyone inside the room, any reason to suspect Lord Surly of treason, or a pretty girl eyeing me across the room. I don't particularly mind whether those things are true or false.
  • I mind whether my gold has been stolen, a balrog is chasing me, I can escape my manacles, I know a spell to banish this spirit, or I have any ammo left.

For example, if there is someone on the other side of the door, they might be a prisoner in need of rescue, or a dangerous enemy. Either of those might be good (I do a good deed and perhaps gain a reward or information; I test my mettle and gain XP) or bad (I have to keep the prisoner quiet, free them, wonder whether the guards will notice and raise the alarm, and complete an escort quest; the enemy kills me). I don't specifically want there to be someone there, but I do want to use my senses to establish that fact.

Similarly, if I'm playing in a setting with a Dark Lady in the backstory, and exploring a sinister tower where something has happened, it makes sense to rack my brains and check whether this tower is associated with her. If so, that suggests some things that might be happening: some of her followers might be here, or the tower might be rife with undead, or an evil influence might flow from a relic buried here. I can use that information to make guesses and prepare accordingly. If not, I want to think of other possibilities and carry out appropriate research. Either way, I want to use my historical and mythical knowledge to know the answer.

A Fail Forward system doesn't handle this particularly well, because it's not clear what reasonable consequence there could be for failing "I look for secret doors". In extreme cases it doesn't handle success well either. After all, you're not trying to create a secret door with sheer force of will; you just want to know what's going on. If I succeed at listening at the door, I don't want to have to tell the GM that there's someone inside.

In fact, Dungeon World handles this by not having any consequences for this kind of failure. Which I think is probably better than the alternative, but feels a little inconsistent. It does seem to highlight that adding consequences to an event is very much not always an improvement.

It gets even worse with "I check for traps". The very last thing you want is to try to ensure your safety by making sure there's no traps, and instead end up actively creating a hazard that then injures you. Or, coming back to our secret door, to suggest that there might be a secret door, fail the roll, and suddenly be ambushed by goblins emerging from a secret door that didn't exist until you thought of it. These are, to be clear, examples of reasonably bad GMing rather than game design per se, but I think they're a decent example of where the idea of dividing character skill rolls into two equally-interesting sets of consequences breaks down.

I also think in general it's worth considering GMing and design advice from the point of view of "what happens if the GM isn't very good?". You can't design away GMing problems, of course. On the other hand, there are always going to be situations where a GM is inexperienced, underconfident, takes things quite literally, assumes the advice will explicitly state caveats rather than assuming they will work it out, tired or drunk.

The thing is that if someone does fail a roll to look for a secret door, the chain of thought that leads to them being ambushed by goblins makes a degree of sense. You looked for a secret door and failed. Well, you can't have failed to find a door that isn't there, so maybe there was a door, in which case how does it go wrong? Ah, there were goblins hiding inside! Or there weren't, but some will come soon and sneak up on you!

Unfortunately this sort of thing affects what you might call the metagame. If, when you look for secret doors and fail, this action can cause you to be ambushed by goblins that otherwise did not exist, you are creating a penalty for yourself by doing something that wasn't necessary (but was fun and interesting) in the first place. The natural response is to avoid looking for secret doors.

This is true of any similar mechanic: if failed Social Interaction rolls can have you attacked by otherwise disinterested merchants, it really deters you from talking to anyone. If fighting Dreadbears gets you horribly injured, you'll tend to avoid fighting Dreadbears.

This kind of gameplay can discourage or sabotage certain playstyles. In particular it harms deduction-style investigation, where players want to painstakingly check leads and suspicions and eliminate possibilities. It also potentially harms cautious tactical play, where players want to use research and observation to gain as many advantages as possible.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

On failure, its outcomes and its implications: derailing


There are basically three topics in this miniseries. Thread one is about (mechanical, die-rolling) failure per se and how it feels to me as a player. Thread two is about failures, interestingness and the Fail Forward/Roll Dice or Say Yes sort of concept. Thread three, today's topic, is about the interaction between failure, narrative and the coherence (in the non-Forge-jargon sense) of the play experience.

Failure, Narrative and Coherence

So, what am I wittering about today?

There's two interrelated ideas here. I'd like to begin by talking about how various types of failure affect the coherence of a game, and the table atmosphere. Then I'll discuss the relation between spontaneity/improvisation and narrative coherence. Finally, I'd like to tie these back into the main topic of the miniseries, by talking specifically about the way mechanically-mandated spontaneity affects coherence.

Friday, 21 October 2016

On failure, its outcomes and its implications: consequences


There are basically three topics in this miniseries. Thread one is about (mechanical, die-rolling) failure per se and how it feels to me as a player. Thread two, today's topic, is about failures, interestingness and the Fail Forward/Roll Dice or Say Yes sort of concept. Thread three is about the interaction between failure, narrative and the coherence (in the non-Forge-jargon sense) of the play experience.

Failing Forward

One of the arguments that came up in our conversation was more or less this:

"Fail forward" systems (like Dungeon World), which insist on providing "interesting consequences" for failure, just create an unnecessary burden on players and GMs to improvise "consequences" for things that really don't need them, or which already have consequences that arise organically from the failure.

This touches broadly on both Fail Forward and Roll Dice or Say Yes. Both of these proposals work roughly on the basis that die rolls (or whatever resolution mechanic) should be used when you're indifferent to the outcome or when both outcomes are equally desirable. This idea is built into things like Dungeon World's dice mechanic, but also links to a lesser extent to Numenera and its GM Interventions. The principle seems sound, but in application is gets trickier.

I think there are several points to consider here, including:

  • Why are we rolling dice?
  • What is the resolution mechanic resolving?
  • What is a consequence?
  • What is "interesting"?

As a quick aside, let me say that I don't think Fail Forward is an inherently flawed idea, although I will be suggesting a lot of problems with it. I think it emerges from some genuine problems (like hitting a dead end or constant whiffing) and is a sensible means to address certain situations in games (more on this far below). I try to apply it in Call of Cthulhu, for example, to avoid discouraging players and keep investigations moving. However, I think generalising it to a standard rule risks creating a new set of problems. Like all tools it is best applied with care.

The reason I will begin by focusing very heavily on the "keep things interesting" usage of Fail Forward is that this seems to be the motivation behind the systems that build it into their mechanics. I say this simply because mechanically-mandated consequences don't really seem to do anything to address potential dead ends.

Dice are fun

As Dan pointed out, one of the assumptions that these philosophies seem to make is that rolling dice is a value-neutral activity, and that's not really the case for a lot of people. Picking up the dice and rolling them is fun. It is a moment of tension, an opportunity for glory or for dramatic failure or for opening up a new possibility space within the game reality, and you don't know which or what will happen.

This is simply not comparable to making a decision about what will happen. If you decide it's cooler that Gnurk the Barbarian snatches the goblet from the altar at the last second before the ceiling crashes down before rolling under a closing door, that's nice, and it may well be the best way to handle a particular situation (especially if it keeps a campaign going) - but it simply doesn't have the rush of satisfaction that comes from the dice and your character's mechanically-assigned skills pulling together to create that result. A successful die roll feels like an achievement; the possibility of failure lends it the tension that gives it punch, and makes whatever steps you took to contribute to that success feel like work well done.


The second point is one I've touched on before. There are many different types of situations that a mechanic may be resolving.

  • Do I spot the clue that allows us to keep the investigation progressing smoothly?
  • Do I spot the warning sign of an imminent ambush?
  • Do I correctly draw the magic circle to protect me from the demon I'm summoning?
  • Do I unlock the door?
  • Do I shoot the ork?
  • Do I convince the guard that I'm allowed in here?
  • How fast do I complete the race?
  • How long does it take me to do the jigsaw?
  • Do I find a secret door?

Some of these situations open up new possibility spaces: the situation was A, but it is now A+B. For example, opening the lock or finding the clue creates new opportunities to do things.

Some of these situations irreversibly bifurcate the possibility space: the situation was A, but transitions to either B or C. Either you convince the guard, or you alert the guard.

Some of these situations modify your circumstances: the situation transitions from A to B anyway, but you are more or less prepared for it (you might call these B1 and B2). The imminent ambush is a good example; you will be attacked, but are you caught off guard or ready to defend yourselves?

Some of these give you information about the game world. You might discover that there is a secret door, or that there is no secret door you can find. Often, these also open up new possibility spaces.

Some of these situations establish other things about the situation. Running very fast might impress NPCs, or create rivalries, or win you a prize. Doing the jigsaw slowly might consume valuable time, or prevent you from helping allies, or you might not finish it before B happens.

Some of them have long-term consequences which it makes no sense to try and determine now. Your magic circle might bind the demon for a hundred years, or as little as a single night. You might have persuaded the NPC to join your side, or they might be planning to betray you next week. You may have memorised the crucial spell to banish Yog-Sothoth, or not. You will find out when the time comes.

And some of them are more complex. If I shoot the ork, it may die. Or it may be injured and decide to take cover. Or it may be injured and attack ferociously to get revenge. The orc being injured may leave it vulnerable to an ally's attacks. It might scare the ork's boss, who decides the fight's going badly and retreats. It might hearten a scared ally. If I miss, the orc might decide I'm easy prey. Or it might decide I can be safely ignored. Or another character may take the orc down with a spectacular headshot. This kind of situation leaves the consequences of failure very much open.

What kind of consequence anyway?

In games in general, and perhaps in whiffy* games in particular, it can seem as though the possibility is: "something cool happens, or something cool doesn't happen". It seems superficially obvious that in such a case you'd want the cool thing to happen all the time, because it's cool. Except brains don't always work like that.

* i.e. games where it's common that you just fail at things, and often that your opponent also fails at things, so several rounds may go by without anything particular happening.

If my character is shooting a gun at an NPC, then in a diceless system I would typically choose for my character to hit rather than miss*. From a purely rational perspective it doesn't make sense for me to prefer a dice-based system in which I have a chance of hitting to a diceless system in which I can select the most appropriate outcome, any more than it would make sense for me to prefer a job where every month I have a 50% chance of not getting paid.

* assuming that it was genre- and character-appropriate, since a thing being cool is often a function of those, even when it's failure. In some cases, my character emptying a revolver at point-blank range without landing a shot is appropriate and cool.

Similarly, if I'm trying to open a safe, climb a tree or hypnotise a bear, I feel like I would generally like to succeed rather than fail.

This line of reasoning ties into the Fail Forward situation, where games compel players and GMs to add "interesting" outcomes to failure, so instead of deciding between an "interesting" outcome and a "boring" one, you're deciding between two interesting outcomes.

This relies, crucially, on an assumption that not-succeeding at something is boring. I'll return to this below.

In theory this solves "the problem" (whatever exactly that is).* In practice it solves some problems for some people (for some others the problem never existed in the first place). And I think this solvedness relies heavily on interpreting reality as consisting only of a subset of the situations I listed above.

*Establishing what The Problem is, and to what extent it exists, and for whom, is frankly beyond the scope of this blog. It's something to do with making things interesting, at least.

It seems to me (both from reading and from listening to Actual Play) that the Fail Forward model tends strongly to interpret situations as forks in the road. Reality is in state A, you attempt to do X, and reality shifts either to state B or state C depending on your success. Either it thinks most situations are like this, or, possibly, it thinks they should be like this in a game narrative.

I think this is a genuine weakness in the approach, which is partly tied into its tendency to assume a conflict resolution model rather than a task resolution model. This is particularly pronounced when we bear in mind that games involve multiple players, of which more later.

And I think this is a weakness because that's demonstrably false. If I search for a secret door, and there is no door, the most natural consequence is that nothing happens. If I try to pick a lock and cannot, the most natural consequence is that nothing happens. If I try to win a race and don't do better than everyone else, the most natural consequence which is simply that somebody else wins. If I try to shoot an orc and miss, the most natural consequence is that my shot goes astray with no further effect. If I try to build a bridge and fail, it might collapse any time in the next decade.

It's not that none of these things can have more complicated consequences; of course they can. However, I think Fail Forward systems tend in these situations to push GMs to improvise immediate consequences which don't always have much to do with the actions of the character, or which at least rely on specific interpretations of how things happen which don't necessarily match what the player intended.

The "natural consequences" offer several possible advantages. The possibility of trying an alternate path from the same state, so you aren't tied completely to whatever you first tried, and can indulge in exploratory gameplay to sound out options and approaches. The opportunity for another player or character to step up with a new idea or ability, which can be especially valuable for newer or less confident players. A potentially important element of predictability that allows planning.

The following example is combat-themed, but it's worth noting that our inspiration here, Dungeon World, doesn't use full-on conflict resolution for most combats, but models them at the level of a single exchange of blows. Typically, the consequence is simply a matter of whether you cause damage and whether you take damage.

If this inconsistency on my part annoys you, feel free to mentally substitute "I sever the chains of the snarling dire boar!" for "I chop the Orc's head off!".

Do I really want an Awesome Fork?

The assumption of Fail Forward in its starkest manifestation is that when I say "I chop the Orc's head off!" I want my assertion to irrevocably set the game down one of two paths: one in which I chop the Orc's head off and it is awesome, and one in which my failure to chop the Orc's head off creates an exciting and dynamic scene.

And let's say for a moment that this is true, that I explicitly want our next forty-eight seconds of gaming time to consist of either the DM saying "Grignr's axe bites into the Orc's neck, severing its head from its body and spattering the walls in its oozing, grey-black blood!" or "Grignr's axe swings wildly, severing one of the supporting beams of the overhead scaffolding, causing piles of mouldy orc-dung to cascade onto the battlefield."

The thing is, both of these outcomes are time consuming (especially because they don't flow as easily in speech as they do in writing), and both of them centralise me specifically.

Similarly, in a non-combat situation: if I attempt to lockpick a door, the DM might say "the tumblers clatter into place, and the door swings open, exposing the Duke's secret devil-worshipping chamber!" or "distracted by the clicking of the lock, you fail to notice the watch-panther padding along the corridor, and it springs towards you with a roar!"

Player creativity is not a finite resource,* but time and things-that-need-doing are. If we are fighting an orc, and I chop its head off, I have denied you the opportunity to deal with the orc by some other method. If my failure to chop the orc's head off causes us all to be buried in orc dung, I have denied you the opportunity to enact any plans you might have concocted that relied on our not being buried in orc dung. Or simply the satisfaction of killing the orc yourself. If my failure to pick the lock doesn't simply waste a few minutes but lands the party in a fight against a panther while creating noise that attracts other guards, the fallback plans laid for this stealth mission are worthless, and if you thought your plan was better you may feel justifiably annoyed with me.

I don't entirely agree with this! I'll touch on it later.

And those are consequences which do at least tie in logically to the events underway, whereas a hurried GM can easily end up suggesting what seems like a random event. "As Grignr rushes the orc, a rusting chandelier detaches from the ceiling and plummets towards them both!" "You are unable to convince the old man to tell you anything, and you suddenly realise your pocket has been picked!" "Your attempt to forge a letter of credit is interrupted by ninjas!"

In contrast, if we were resolving this in a system without Fail Forward, both failed rolls would typically result in nothing particular happening - and this leaves things open for someone else to try.

Organic outcomes are interesting

To put it another way, in a traditional RPG system, failure actually does have interesting consequences, but a lot of the time the interesting consequence is "another player has a go at resolving the situation, often trying a very different approach."

You can make a strong case that traditional systems actually produce the Fail Forward effect in a far more natural and organic way than systems that mandate consequences, but this is only apparent in retrospect looking at the way multiple players' actions and successes interact.

For my money, Fail Forward games place rather too much emphasis on consequences of failure rather than on the consequences of player action. If the PCs are going to wind up getting thrown in gaol after an altercation with an aristocrat, I'd far rather it happened because Brenda the Barbarian started a fight after Billy the Bard failed to resolve the encounter diplomatically than because the DM decided that "you get thrown in gaol" was an interesting consequence of Billy's failed Diplomacy roll.

Generally speaking, with something as simple and inherently task-resolutiony as an attack roll, I'd probably rank my preferences as "I hit", "I miss" and "I miss and something interestingly bad happens as a consequence". It gets trickier when you think about social rolls or rolls to interpret information, but even there I would prefer "I fail and a reasonable consequence ensues" to "something interestingly bad happens with no particular connection to your actions".

Dead ends

At this point I should perhaps come back to the dead end idea I mentioned at the start, because most of this post has been about keeping things interesting. I think this is the main point where Fail Forward genuinely helps out.

It's quite possible to hit a point in a game where players simply don't know how to make the game continue. This is a common complaint of investigative games, where players either run out of leads, haven't managed to put the pieces together, or blew some rolls and locked themselves out of information. However, it can also happen with certain physical challenges or "puzzle" situations, including things like geopolitical shenanigans.

You can very easily hit a dead end. Your only way out is apparently through the locked cell door, and you can't pick it. Your only lead is this neighbour you just insulted. You've tried every configuration of this weird science device but you botched your roll to make it teleport you home. The group sits scratching their heads and looking at the GM, who is wondering why they paid no attention to half of the clues that were laid out, abandoned their door-removing equipment before entering the complex, and both shot the teleport operator and set fire to the manual. Or maybe things just didn't quite go as expected. Or the scenario is not as robust as you hoped. Or it's just been a really long day.

In these cases, Fail Forward is one perfectly good way for the GM to recover momentum. Here, it's not about adding interest to a failed roll per se, but using that circumstance as an GMing opportunity to throw in a clue or hook, or just to shake up a situation where the players were stuck and frustrated.

Just being stuck is not necessarily enough. Sometimes you may want time to sit, talk and mull things over and aren't really worried about whether you're "progressing the scenario". But often you are.

So you fail to pick the lock, which the GM rules means you're still fumbling when the door opens and slams you in the face; the guards sigh, threaten the rest of the party, and one of them drags lockpicker off to the infirmary, where they'll have a new chance to escape, overhear some news, or palm vital equipment.

You get an earful from the neighbour, and after he slams the door, a couple of local kids pop round the corner to sympathise, ask for a fag and hint that they know something - because that guy's always loud and they've overheard some of his other complaining. If he doesn't like you, you must be alright.

Your bumbling attempts at operating the device instead trigger a completely different function, and now a coolant maintenance bot is being despatched to the teleporter. Maybe it's intelligent enough to talk to, or has a telecomms function so you can call for help, or a company datalink that'll give you access to that manual you destroyed.

Content is not the same as interest

So, that "not-succeeding is boring" business. I think when Fail Forward starts to fall apart is where it assumes that "explicit consequences" are always more interesting than "no consequences" and should be mechanically mandated, and I think that's often not the case. Quite frequently, "that thing you were trying to do just doesn't happen" actually ends up being a more interesting outcome than "your attempt to do that thing has dire consequences", and for many people it is certainly more satisfying and even interesting than "that thing you were trying to do just doesn't happen and, for reasons that are game-mechanically connected but have no in-character logic, this other bad thing happens." The "consequences for all!" mindset basically seems to tie into an assumption that more stuff is better.

This is simply not true. Too much stuff clutters up a game. To take a simple example, I have played board games where every single turn involved doing several things: you always rolled a die for movement, you always moved, you always drew a card based on the square you landed on and a consequence ensued.

And generally these games were so boring they should have been wood-eating beetles.

In the case of an RPG, the problem is that you are generally trying to Do Something, and that it is surprisingly easy for complications and consequences to clog up the works. One of the advantages of failure-means-whiffing systems is that they tend to also be simply and relatively fast. If a bad roll means nothing happens, you can simply move on to the next character.

If you need to wait for the GM to think up and then narrate a consequence, and make sure you understand its implications, and then the next player to act has to reconsider their intentions in the light of a potential major change to the situation, this can really slow down play. It can also lead to layers of Things To Deal With piling up on the game, and making it increasingly difficult to follow, or to decide what to do. Constant consequences can act like a Cat's Crade, making each move seem to only tangle the characters, story and even players more deeply in a web and paralysing the game, or making it seem like a stream of consciousness.

And that's what I'll be discussing next.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

On failure, its outcomes and its implications: psychology

I feel like it's been ages since I was able to put together anything substantial for this blog. To be fair, nothing I write now is ever likely to compare to the insane (in relative terms) popularity of my post about animal companions...

And also to be fair, it's been a very busy few months and I'm ill. But still. I do enjoy writing for this blog and feeling like someone appreciated it.

This is going to be a miniseries about failure in RPGs, or at least in some RPGs. I fear it may be a bit dry and very rambly. Still, I present it for your delectation, or at least to keep you mildly diverted on the bus.

So a while ago I wrote some responses to a Walking Eye episode about Numenera. Very little of that is relevant right now, so let me pull out the bit which, randomly, sparked this week's post-game conversation. It is is in fact talking about Dungeon World, for some reason.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Some tips for handling zombies

I wrote this ages ago for some reason and hey, why leave it in drafts forever?


A lot of hardware shops and builders' yards will have reasonable supplies of very hard-wearing gloves, steel-toed boots, face masks and possible even welding masks. This is to say nothing of the huge amounts of building materials. Garden centres will be another good source of protective equipment, as will certain types of factory. Usefully, both the latter tend to be built in relatively isolated places.


These and similar businesses also have trolleys of various kinds, which will be invaluable for transporting stuff. Forget cars.

This will probably sound silly, but supermarket trolleys are well worth acquiring in huge numbers; they are amazingly useful and flexible. You can store things in them. You can transport them easily. You can strip them for wheels and spare parts. As storage, they can protect valuable items from quite a few types of wild animals - dogs, foxes, sheep, basically anything than can't wriggle through, climb over or tip the trolley. Their slick metal frames are hard for many animals to climb, so even rats and cats will struggle to get through.

But that's not all! Grab every trolley in sight and and circle them into an instant zombie-proof fence! They should be able to slot together into a very large closed circle. They're far too tough to break with normal force. They don't tip easily (especially in a line, where the weight is multiplied and anchored at many points), and too high for zombies to simply blunder over. Only zombies intelligent enough to actively climb objects will get past these. If you're worried, pop padlocks, cable ties or just lots of string to link them on the inner side, so the zombies can't try to slide them apart and undo the circle.

You can transport kids in them safely, at least with a bit of adaptation, and they're also great if you get the chance to loot some poultry, or even the odd sheep or dog - it's potentially much faster than trying to lead animals along.

Dogs aren't a great bet for zombie-surviving, though. They need meat to eat. For watch purposes, you're probably far better off trying to keep poultry. Chickens can make plenty of noise, while geese are famously good sentries (ask Rome).

Other supplies

While you're at the builder's yard, grab pallets. In fact, grab everything. But pallets and their pallet-lifts are very useful in general. Get pipes, too. You can do an awful lot with pipes, valves and taps, in terms of making and fixing stuff. Rubber and other sealants? Yep. Glass? You betcha. With glass, pipes, rubber sheeting (or equivalent) and some containers, you have most of what you need to get water and grow crops. They might not be nice crops, but hey.

Did you know you can run basically self-contained aquaponics by combining crops with fish? Pop round to the pet store too.

There are some other, weirder options you might consider. If you have access to a very large supply of transparent plastic boxes - like those storage boxes for keeping things in the attic or under the bed - then fill 'em with sand or pebbles and you've got a pretty much impregnable wall (stacked two or three deep and six or seven high). Fill 'em with water mixed with strong bleach or something (to stop algae building up), and you've got a near-impregnable see-through wall. If you've got an opportunity to scavenge significant amounts of a town, you can probably find a decent number. Even rectangular ice cream tubs would do at a pinch.

Okay, near-impregnable with pummelling and general shoving. Obviously zombies intelligent enough to use implements can break the plastic.

Old tyre heap nearby? You can build something approaching a fortress out of tyres with earth rammed down inside them.


Despite the nonsense zombie stories like to suggest, there will be plenty of people surviving a conventional zombie-as-carrier outbreak, or even a waterborne one. Oil rigs and ships are full of people completely isolated from zombies, and many of those people have enormous expertise in the technical fields needed to rebuild society; there are also medics, geologists, and people with all kinds of interesting hobbies. Ocean survey ships, as well as any number of research stations, hold people with biological, ecological and agricultural training.

Zombies aren't like most other diseases, they require a bite to transmit the disease, which means lots of people in relatively isolated places are likely to be safe for a few days. And they don't have to be safe for longer than that, because of biology.


See, most zombies wouldn't last long at all. If they're rotting, they'll be devoured by insects. If they have any metabolic processes at all, they need water. Once water supplies shut down, zombies will mostly dessicate within a few days. Also, if they act as typically portrayed, they will accumulate untreated injuries and bleed out or succumb to secondary infections. If they don't have blood flow, they have no means of transporting oxygen to their cells, which means they cannot generate ATP to power cellular processes, such as the contraction of muscles, which means they cannot move at all. If they don't have any metabolic processes, they cannot physically move because that's how biology works and no, shut up, SCIENCE.

In other words, whether your zombies are living-but-mindless, or rotting-but-mobile, they won't last more than a week tops. And honestly, probably less, because they'll neglect important not-dying precautions like shelter.

You need only keep yourself alive for a week or so, and then venture out to reclaim the world, alongside large numbers of oil workers, ex-prisoners, the inhabitants of all those secret Antarctic research facilities, people attending spiritual retreats, quite a lot of islanders, and most of the population of North Korea.

If the zombie plague is insect-carriable, things are a little trickier. In this case, you will need to hide out long enough for all plague-bearing insects to have died. Most have quite short lifespans, so once all the zombies have rotted away and the insects' lifecycle is over, you should be fine. On the plus side, viruses and other pathogens are quite host-specific so only a few other species will carry the disease. That being said, in this scenario people living in high mountains and the poles, where insects won't reach, are really in with the best chance.

Supernatural zombies

Supernatural zombies are a different matter. These may be capable of remaining active and largely undecayed for indefinite periods because they contravene physical laws.

Supernatural zombies are amazingly useful .

If you have a creature capable of indefinite mobility without the need of metabolic inputs (such as water or a source of glucose), you can construct something approaching a perpetual motion machine. You should (once you have constructed a suitable facility) strive to acquire as many of these zombies as possible. The exact construction required will depend on the behaviour and capabilities of the zombies, but a simple welded steel treadmill, impregnable to most zombies and possible to make with relatively available materials, should do the trick. There are undoubtedly more sophisticated machines available to a trained physicist or engineer.

The infinite supply of free energy provided by your zombie generators will allow civilisation to rise again from the ashes, indeed with a new and brighter future offered by the end of entropy and the abolition of fossil fuels. Zombies save the world, and humanity!

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

In Brief: Random Wizard Generator for Mages

So I thought I'd knock up a quick Random Wizard Generator for use with Mages: the Awakening because why not? Also I needed to briefly rest my brain from paid work.

How it works:

  1. First, roll 1d6 to determine the Puissance of the Wizard. This has no particular mechanical effect but may guide the GM in portraying the Wizard.
  2. Roll 1d6 and read horizontally across the columns to determine the Tradition from which the Wizard comes. Each Tradition has its own thematic titles and names.
  3. All future rolls are read vertically down the same column.
  4. Roll 1d6 to determine the Title of the Wizard. Not all Traditions bestow Titles.
  5. Roll 1d12 to determine the Name of the Wizard. These are of course only a sample of suitable names.
  6. Roll 1d6 to determine the Epithet of the Wizard. Where a Tradition has two columns of Epithets, roll twice and combine the results into a single Epithet.

Names alternate as traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine in each table, but wizards do just as they please.

Imperial Order of Wizardry Conclave of the High Guild of Truth Seekers Adepts of the Sign Thaumaturgical Cabal New Wave Sorcerers
the auspicious...

Ascendant Crazy
the eminent...

Questor Slim
the marvellous...

Inquisitor Dead
the venerable...

Magister Bad
the perspicacious...

Annunciator Smoking
the ineffable...

Rubricator Weird
Peregrine Actulf
Geraint Guillaume
Amadeus Jimmy
Andromeda Ermengaud Angharad Annabelle
Cecilia Alice
Tobermory Frodwin
Hywel Pascal
Tiberius Fred
Desdemona Osthryth
Branwen Noemie
Paloma Sue
Marmaduke Hrodegang Osian Raoul
Valerian Phil
Esmerelda Gudrun
Myfanwy Gabrielle
Cornelia Zoe
Hildegard Coenwulf Caradog Hilaire
Octavius Ralph
Leonara Osburh
Nerys Yvonne
Aurea Tina
Caspian Walpurgis Islwyn Blanchard
Gnaeus Ted
Jezebel Linveig
Tegan Lucienne
Marcella May
Quasimodo Aelfric
Tristan Sylvestre
Agrippa Neil
Serafina Wynflaed Eluned Marceline
Eliana Terri

Eagle  Rider of the Ninth Eye Midnight Lightning

Dragon  Whisperer of the Four Gates Scarlet Flame

Tiger Caller of the Thousand Stars Emerald Tempest

Serpent Hunter of the Fifth Wind Silver Blade

Phoenix Master of the Seven Syllables Diamond Anthem

Griffon Slayer of the Eight Secrets Dusk Wrath

For example, you might roll up the mighty archmage (Puissance 6) of the Imperial Tradition (1), The Perspicacious (5) Caspian (9), or the middling sorcerer (Puissance 3) of the Thaumaturgical Cabal (5), Questor (5) Eliana (12), or the feeble apprentice (Puissance 1) of the Conclave of the High, Osburh (8) Dragon (2) Slayer (6). Bit of an overreach there, Osburh...

If I get time I will write up a code snippet to handle this, but right now I can't spare the time.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

The Merchants of Menace

A while ago I was riffing on some "write a game in [small number] words" things, and had an idea which I didn't quite get around to doing anything with.

In the interim I've spent several months unexpectedly house-hunting, moving house and coping with a huge uptick in day job that coincided with remarkably low not-being-off rates amongst my colleagues - no fault of theirs, just unfortunate - so haven't touched the blog much. Where possible I was focusing my limited energy and free time on higher priorities, like actually playing games, trying to finish a fairly major bit of scenario writing, and doing very undemanding things to try and restore some SAN.

Here's that game, such as it is. I'm not likely to do any more to it, so I might as well throw it out here.

Fritz Wagner Holländische Handelsherren

The Merchants of Menace

Everyone knows merchants are fat and jolly, with comically-small ponies to ride, and inclined to throw up their hands in alarm when trouble brews. Well, except for the gaunt, gimlet-eyed merchants who smile thin-lipped humourless smiles as they close trapjaw deals with unfortunates, who lovingly tell their coins over again each night.

You are not those merchants.

You lope effortlessly through the city, eyes drinking in the opportunities. There is steel in your gaze and iron in your sinews, and when you shake hands you hear the heavenly clinking of gold spilling into your pockets. There are platinum rings on your fingers, set with gems, and when you drive them into the faces of unwary extortionists they leave marks like the claws of lions. You dine with princes at tables groaning with peacocks and wine, and before your silver tongue they pledge armies and sign laws. The world is your oyster, and at its heart is a pearl ripe for the harvest; a shame if it must die.

Broadly speaking this is a game of adventurers. Or rather, venturers. Merchant venturers, to be precise. You are cunning, tough and semi-piratical mercantile rogues who play the great game of profit and loss on the stage of the whole world. Thrones? An affectation best left to the weak-minded.

You are expected to indulge in fairly typical adventurer behaviour, with rather more striking of trade routes and rather less heroically hunting down monsters. Establishing a monster-hunting subsidiary company, now... that's business. Invading and plundering catacombs, on the other hand, looks like clear profit, and if a little hostile takeover is needed, you're not going to quibble at it.


It's a gimmicky system, because I was thinking about that sort of thing when I started writing it, and more importantly because it's thematic. The principle is that a lot of your activities revolve around money. Either you're directly using money to buy goods (or services, or people, or advantage), or you're throwing money at problems - or quite often, you're engaging in psychological conflict or outright games of chicken with other people, staking unspecified amounts of money on unspoken rules and trying to blink second.

That being so, the mechanics are all about money. Coins are your resource pool, your hit points and your resolution mechanic. Also, there are no shades of grey; you win, or you lose. The market is unforgiving.

Conflicts are resolved using coin flips. You establish the nature of the conflict, the approximate stakes in play, and hopefully roleplay to some extent how it's going down. Determine also whether it's an Open Conflict or a Secret Conflict, and whether they are Risking their resources. Then each of the two parties selects and flips a coin.

Each player character begins with the following Purse:

  • 5 x 1p
  • 3 x 2p
  • 2 x 5p
  • 1 x 10p

In an Open Conflict, both parties know how much their opponent is prepared to risk, and so they see what coin is being chosen. You can change your mind until you both eventually settle on a coin to use.

In a Closed Conflict (probably more common), you do not know what coin the other party will use until they are flipped.

If the conflict is likely to tax the character's resources, harm them physically, damage their social standing or face, or otherwise limit their ability to influence the world, it is considered Risking. For example, striking a deal, staring down a competitor or engaging in a fight are Risking. Convincing a bystander to give you information or looking for clues are not Risking.

The outcome is as follows:

  • Heads beats tails
  • Highest value coin wins ties
  • Matching ties are treated as ties if possible; if that makes no sense, try again
  • If Risking, the loser discards the losing coin to their Vault
  • If a PC wins a Risking conflict, they regain their lowest-value coin from their Vault

Typically an entire conflict is resolved this way, but in some circumstances it may feel more appropriate to have some back-and-forth calling for multiple flips.

When there is no obvious opponent, but the outcome of an effort is uncertain, this is an Environmental Conflict. The GM chooses an appropriate difficulty, signified by the size of the coin. The GM never runs out of coins. For a particularly easy challenge, the GM can declare that the difficulty is 1p with ties going to the player.

  • If the GM picks a 1p, with ties to the player, player wins 2/3 of the time
  • If the GM picks a 1p, the player wins 1/2 with a 1p or 3/4 of the time with any other coin
  • If the GM picks a 10p, the player wins 1/2 with 10p or 1/4 of the time with any other coin

Empty Purses

If a player runs out of coins, their resources are exhausted for now. They must rest and regroup before they can attempt anything else. If they are in danger or otherwise in a difficult situation, they may be captured, forced to retreat and so on. The player can still flip 1p against Environmental Conflicts; they can also flip 1p against standard Conflicts, but the best result they can attain is a tie (where this makes sense).


Each character can have one of the following advantages:

  • Bottomless Pockets: the character has two additional 1p coins.
  • High Stakes Gambler: whenever the character Risks a 10p, they can flip a bonus 2p.
  • Dead Cat Bounce: when the character loses a Risked coin, they can choose to lose a higher-value coin instead. If they do, they still lose the Conflict but something works in their favour.
  • Big Spender: the character can choose to Risk a coin in a challenge that doesn't require it. If they do, they can flip the coin twice and choose the better result, but must do so before seeing the opponent's result.

Each character selects three of the following traits at which they are particularly adept: Athletic, Dextrous, Hardy, Iron-Willed, Manipulative, Perceptive, Quick-Witted, Well-Informed. When they are relevant to an interaction, the character treats their primary coin (not any bonus coins) as having a value 1p higher.

Each character has one Persona that describes their outward character, and one Quirk that describes their behaviour, talents or physical nature. The player can devise these. When these factors are relevant in an interaction, the character can flip a bonus 1p.

Example character

Rogan Cordwainer is a Well-Informed, Hardy, Iron-Willed merchant with a Paternal Air and a Sophisticated Palate. He guards his resources carefully, giving him the Bottomless Pockets advantage. This makes him a solid, reliable character who weathers trouble well and generally feels in control of what's going on.

Ichabod Llewelyn is a Manipulative, Perceptive, Quick-Witted merchant with Light Fingers and an Eye for Detail. He always has another plan, giving him the Dead Cat Bounce advantage. Ichabod is erratic and takes a lot of risks (deception and outright theft tend to get you in trouble), but is good at minimising or avoiding the consequences.

Penelope Thornwick is an Athletic, Iron-Willed, Dextrous merchant with a Confidential Grin and a Love of Excitement. She is an adrenaline junkie who enjoys the rush of confrontation and challenge, giving her the High Stakes Gambler advantage. Overall, she's a gung-ho character who confidently throws herself at obstacles, and often succeeds on determination alone.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

In Brief: Mage: the (other) Awakening

So you might recall a couple of posts where I devised new versions of games based purely on their titles, including one called Mage: the Awakening.

It's back. I read a "200-word RPG" thing that was going about a while ago, and decided to try my hand at it. So here's the 200-word version (title excluded).

Mages: the Awakening

You ended up at the remotest, loneliest branch of Lie Inn (No. 666) because you’re a bunch of losers. But nobody reckoned on magic. Now a wizards’ conference is on, and travelling sorcerers in need of lodging. Impossible coffees must be brewed, flying tomes kennelled, silken robes spotlessly dry-cleaned at 4am, wake-up calls made yesterday and of course, breakfast served in bed.

Characters: Pick ten descriptors. Assign 4/5/6 to Endurance, Morale & Employability.

Mechanic: Roll 2d6, +1d6 per keyword that helps. Pick two. One determines how Successful you are. One determines how Conciliating you are.


Find out what’s going wrong and fix it! Work together to survive.

Difficulty: 1 Trivial, 2 Simple, 3 Difficult, 4 Very Difficult, 5 Complicated (several), 6 Gordian (interconnected & several customers) – overcome with Successful plus roleplay.

Customer: Food, Sleep, Interpersonal, Facilities, Weather
Crisis: Spells, Behaviour, Paraphernalia, Familiars, Monsters


Character: Confused, Irascible, Pompous, Spiteful, Affable, Businesslike – pick one.

Appearance: Handlebar Moustache, Enormous Beard, Twinkly Eyes, Dreamy Lashes, Sixpack, Piercings, Bald, Rainbow Hair, Bizarre Tattoos, Frills, Starry Robes, Pinstripes, Pyjamas, Corset and Stilettos, 9-Inch Nails, Withered, Shadowy, Faintly Glowing – pick two.

Touchiness: roll 1d6 to generate – overcome with Conciliating.

When things go badly, your stats drop. Don’t run out.

UPDATE: A supplementary Random Wizard Table is now also available on the blog, but this is a tool, not part of the core 200-word RPG.

Numenera and some uncanny valleys

So a couple of us played another game of Numenera recently, and despite our initial hesitation and previous concerns, we had a good time.

We are actually implementing one of the rules I thought up: combining the two sets of XP rules by making it so that you have to spend XP on a reroll or a benefit, before it transfers to your "actually learned something" pool. The idea behind this was twofold: firstly to make sure everyone roughly balanced out, and secondly because I actually find that mechanic quite elegant. Your nebulous "experience" lets you achieve something within the game (like recovering from a near-failure, or gaining familiarity with an activity, etc.) and that learning experience builds towards you gaining a permanent benefit. Of course, the permanent thing you gain may not actually relate to what you learned, so... look, I tried.

Starting Small

We did once again run into the sense of vague disappointment when you look at the low-level abilities. This can happen a lot; it's very tempting to keep feeling like the next level will be the one where you're finally awesome and completely satisfied with your character, and it never is.* But examining the low-level Numenera powers does seem to show up that they are genuinely quite limited.

* I actually think this is an argument in favour of sometimes playing non-levelling characters (basically iconics) rather than always using levelling systems. In theory, you should be able to make a character who does what you want them to do, and then play without that vague shadow of dissatisfaction and anticipation distracting you from what you're doing now.

Niggling Nanos

For example, the Nano is the 'esoteric powers' type, and I tend to associate that with having an array of different mystical capabilities even at low level. I think most people do. Unless you're playing (or reading, or watching) in a setting where the majority of player characters do Weird Shit, I think the assumption is generally that the Weird Shit Doer is defined by breadth. Generally speaking, you have some sort of dynamic like: the Fighter, the Thief and the Mage. Or, the Brute, the Face and the Mystic. Or, the Merc, the Tech and the Psychic. Even in Warhammer 40K, where often the whole party do quite similar things professionally (especially Deathwatch), the psyker ends up as the one who not only interacts most with anything supernatural, but also has the broadest range of knowledge in general, and has access to several different psychic powers of which most can be used flexibly.

This is partly because magic-type stuff is very strongly associated with intellect in most games I've run across. That doesn't have to be the case (as I've discussed before). But because it is, magic-users and psychics are typically also very intelligent, and so typically know a lot of things. They may have access to skills other people don't, which essentially gives them new subsystems to play with. They may just get more Skill Points or whatever you're calling them, and so get to be accomplished at more types of task than others.

A further complication is that, because a spell (and I'm just going to stick with "spell" here) allows you to break the normal rules of the game and indeed of physics, each spell essentially creates a new subsystem for you. The spellcaster can now do A Thing that other characters cannot do; they have a new tool to apply to problems.

If you consider the D&D wizard - and I know that's not the only comparator, but it's the one staring you aggressively in the face - then a starting-level wizard from 3rd edition onward typically knows a handful of cantrips plus two or three individual spells. Moreover, some of those spells are quite specific (typically combat spells), but utility spells often leave a lot of room for creativity: you can do a huge amount with mage hand (minor telekinesis), prestidigitation (basically any minor magical trick), unseen servant and so on. You can play tricks, gaslight NPCs, distract monsters, drop objects from a height, impress NPCs, carefully arrange large numbers of small objects in complicated arrays to do things at a distance (set off a trap, injure an enemy, break down a door, pull a lever, press a button...), convince an NPC that food has been poisoned, convince an NPC that food hasn't been poisoned, pass objects between cages suspended in the air, retrieve something from a grating...

What the Nano can do is, in comparison, extremely limited and often very specific. The Hedge Magic esotery is roughly equivalent to prestidigitation, but there is no mage hand. The Push esotery allows you to shove a creature or object violently away from you, but specifically can't be used to push a lever or otherwise interact with the environment. The Scan esotery lets you scan a three-metre cube and determine the type of material and energy present, but it's relatively expensive and is an instantaneous thing, rather than a lingering ability. Other abilities can be used all the time, like Ward (permanent armour) or Onslaught (an attack which, for a Nano, is usually free).

But on reflection, I don't think there's anything specifically wrong with that. What can the other characters do? Well, the Glaive gets a selection of static bonuses to their combat abilities, and a couple of general physical boosts. The Nano gets a little from the Glaive and a little from the Nano. In other words, as far as I can see, the Nano isn't less interesting than the other two; it's just that the Nano isn't significantly more interesting (in terms of variety and scope), and I think we are generally trained to expect that.

The Nano begins with two of the following abilities. "Permanent" means always-on. "Without limit" means your Edge lets you cover the 1-point cost of an abilit without spending from your pool so you can do it as many times as you want under normal circumstances:

  • a relatively powerful ranged attack*, without limit
  • a long-ranged telekinetic shove**
  • a permanent magic shield that improves your Armour by 1 - this is genuinely really good
  • scanning a 3-metre cube and learning the mechanical Level of entities within it (which largely determines how dangerous they are) plus information about matter and energy composition
  • performing a wide variety of small temporary magical effects, without limit

* Onslaught does 4 damage at range, or 2 damage ignoring armour but to Intellect (this is, in almost all cases, functionally equivalent to all other damage). This is as good as a Medium ranged weapon, or better if the target is heavily armoured. Medium ranged weapons are pretty expensive - ammo is particularly expensive. None of your "20 arrows for 1gp", this is 12 arrows for 5gp, which is as much as medium armour, most weapons, and so on. Getting free unlimited ranged attacks is genuinely valuable. You can even use it to destroy terrain and objects through patient attack, which isn't feasible for an archer.

**"short range" is the second distance category, about 50', which is really quite a long range to be able to forcibly shove an object from.

The Glaive begins with two of the following abilities:

  • do less damage on a hit but slightly hamper the target for 1 round, without limit
  • fight unarmed as though you have a medium weapon (a sword or whatever), permanently
  • do +1 damage on a hit if using a pointy ranged weapon, without limit
  • do +1 damage on a hit if using a sharp melee weapon, without limit
  • a small defensive boost when not wearing armour

I would note that at low levels, much of the time, the first ability is strictly worse than not using it. For example, fighting a Level 2 creature with Armour 2 and 6hp, a Glaive with a medium weapon does 2 damage normally. Do you want to kill the not-particularly-powerful enemy in 6 rounds, while making it always slightly less likely that it causes you 2 damage, or do you want to kill it in 3 rounds and allow it half as many attacks?

Similarly, because Glaives can wear at least 2 points of armour without penalty, and this is quite a lot of armour, the last option is mostly there to allow for playing a character who's narratively unarmoured without a substantial effectiveness penalty.

The Jack begins with two of the following abilities:

  • do +1 damage on a hit if using a slightly weird range of weapons, without limit
  • do +1 damage on a hit if using a sharp melee weapon, without limit
  • do +1 damage on a hit if using a pointy ranged weapon, without limit
  • performing a wide variety of small temporary magical effects, without limit
  • wear medium armour without it slowly sapping your life (same as the Glaive), permanently
  • defend yourself slightly better, permanently
  • a small defensive boost when not wearing armour, permanently

So... one of these choices actually gives you a new ability (Hedge Magic). Three of them increase damage, and they're just the same power tailored to different weapon choices. One is a small mechanical boost to defence. One essentially allows you to wear armour at all.* The other makes you tougher when not wearing armour.

* Wearing armour you are not Practiced in (which is not the same as training, you cannot Train in armour) causes you to lose points from your pools once per hour. This is directly equivalent to taking damage. If you wear heavy armour for 12 hours continuously, you will die. Strictly speaking, simply putting on a suit of armour and sitting still all day is fatal. Oh, and you incur a cap on your Speed Pool size until you take it off.

Examining that list, it looks to me as though the Nano is still relatively interesting. The Glaive has exactly one "new ability" and it's a minor mechanical combat trick with exactly one application; all the others are strict mechanical tweaks relating almost exclusively* to combat, and the only choice is whether you want free extra damage. The Jack has one of the Nano's options (Hedge Magic) that gives a new ability; all the others are strict mechanical tweaks relating almost exclusively to combat* and the only choice is whether you want free extra damage. The Nano has one permanent boost that relates mostly to combat*; one new attack form that is at least as good as most weapons and more flexible than any (although if you have it, using it or not is hardly a choice); one new ability to gather information that's of broad application; one new ability (Push) that's usable inside and outside combat, though its application is relatively restricted; and one new ability that can be of wide application depending on player creativity and GM flexibility.

* Defensive benefits are of course useful whenever you might take damage, so there's some occasional application in dangerous bits of exploration.

Of the five Nano options, I think three are genuinely reasonably interesting specific abilities to have, Ward is more of a narrative choice that you want to be tough, and Onslaught is kind of a no-brainer but not strictly obligatory. Knowing two of those (of which one is probably Onslaught) is a significant limitation compared to being a wizard in D&D, no doubt about it. Yet this isn't D&D.

There's a side issue as well, which is that Nanos are always trained in numenera. That is, they are trained at dealing with the magical-scientific weirdness of the setting, the weirdness so pervasive that the entire setting is named for it. If there's a weird machine, a forcefield, an artefact, a monolith, a robot, a cypher, a gadget, a woobly monster or anything like it, they can know stuff about it, and quite possibly interact with it, better than anyone else in the party. I know it's not a choice on the player's part, but I think that's a genuinely meaningful benefit in terms of doing the weird shit.

Ironically, although I started out focusing on the Nano, I think what this best demonstrates is that the Glaive feels dull in its choices. The fact that you have choices at all, but none of them do a great deal, is weirdly I think more disappointing than not having those choices and just getting a flat +1 boost to damage.

Frustrating Foci

To be honest, the bit of Numenera characters that seems coolest is the foci. You have options like: Bears a Halo of Fire, Commands Mental Powers, Controls Beasts, Controls Gravity, Employs Magnetism, Exists Partially Out of Phase, Fuses Flesh and Steel, Rides the Lightning, Talks to Machines and so on. Don't those sound cool?

Okay, some sound less cool. Carries a Quiver and Entertains are completely mundane things anyone can do - they just offer mechanical bonuses. Crafts Unique Objects is, like most things that hang on crafting systems, suited to a very specific playstyle. There's several fighting style ones that, in a game which I consider to be pretty forgiving of flavour, just don't quite seem necessary when I can just say I'm Fighting With Panache. And Works the Back Alleys is frankly unfortunate.

I have already written extensively about the baffling inclusion of Howls at the Moon.

Let's take a look at the actual abilities though.

  • Bears a Halo of Fire lets you damage anyone who attacks you melee, as often as you want. Potent, but specific.
  • Carries a Quiver lets you do more damage with a bow and spend from different pools. Useful, but very specific.
  • Commands Mental Powers lets you talk to nearby allies via telepathy. Sometimes useful, fairly specific.
  • Controls Beasts gives you a beast companion. Not very powerful, but moderately flexible.
  • Controls Gravity lets you hover in the air and move slowly. Sometimes useful, but specific.
  • Crafts Illusions lets you create a single illusion in a 3m cube within a few metres. Sometimes useful and moderately flexible.
  • Crafts Unique Objects grants you training in two crafting skills. Usefulness and flexibility depends entirely on the campaign.
  • Employs Magnetism lets you telekinetise a metal object for non-combat use. Useful and moderately flexible.
  • Entertains gives a small passive bonus to recovery during rest. Slightly useful but very specific.
  • Exists Partially Out of Phase lets you slowly move through solid matter. Useful but fairly specific.
  • Explores Dark Places gives you training in several skills. Useful and fairly flexible.
  • Fights with Panache lets you give a bonus to allies whenever you attack. Potent but specific.
  • Focuses Mind over Matter gives you a slight defensive boost. Moderately useful but specific.
  • Fuses Flesh and Steel gives you some slight permanent boosts. Moderately useful but specific.
  • Howls at the Moon gives you an ability that, by RAW, you can't control and is far more likely to be a severe liability to the party and yourself than in any way useful.
  • Hunts with Great Skill gives you some skill training. Moderately useful and fairly flexible.
  • Leads gives you some skill training and you can always 'advise' another character to grant a bonus. Useful and fairly flexible, but liable to lead to some rather repetitive (and perhaps quite irritating) playstyles.
  • Lives in the Wilderness grants some skill training. Sometimes useful but fairly specific.
  • Masters Defence makes you slightly better at using a shield. Moderately useful but very specific.
  • Masters Weaponry lets you do +1 damage with your favourite weapon. Useful but very specific.
  • Murders lets you do sneak attacks for slightly more damage, and gives you stealth training. Useful but quite specific.
  • Rages lets you... it's mechanicsy. Look, it makes you slightly better in combat, okay? Useful but fairly specific.
  • Rides the Lightning lets you add a little electrical damage to an attack, and also recharge some devices. Useful but fairly specific.
  • Talks to Machines lets you activate most types of machine at a distance. Useful and quite flexible.
  • Wears a Sheen of Ice gives you armour and protection from cold. Useful but very specific.
  • Wields Power with Precision gives you more points in your mental pool. Slightly useful but quite specific (depends what you do with them of course).
  • Wields Two Weapons at Once lets you mechanically dual-wield two light weapons. Honestly not that useful for most characters most of the time, and very specific.
  • Works Miracles lets you heal. Useful but very specific.
  • Works the Back Alleys gives you training in a few thiefy skills. Somewhat useful but quite specific.

I think in some ways the best comparators here are the X-Men. No, really. Think about these splats. They're the same kind of one-phrase descriptors you'd slap on a mutant with one shtick.

Wears a Sheen of Ice feels a bit like Iceman. But you can't control ice, shape ice, craft barriers, walk through ice, walk on ice, or anything like that. You're just a bit armoured with ice.

Rides the Lightning just lets you shock people. You can't impress people with lighting powers, repel or absorb electrical attacks, control machines with a touch, stun robots, or actually ride any kind of lightning. You can recharge powerful magical items, if you have any.

Employs Magnetism lets you move one metal object around fairly slowly. I actually think this is the most interesting of the powers, which is why I chose it this time - it's genuinely quite flexible. You can't usually use it in combat, but there's a lot of possibilities in the exploration end of things. Technically you can also use it to fly by just standing on something metal.

Controls Gravity doesn't actually let you control gravity in any sense. You can just levitate a bit. You can't walk on walls, make heavy objects float to carry them around, pin enemies to the floor, make incoming arrows fly up into the sky, and so on.

So although the Foci sound very flavourful and fun, they are actually far more restricted in most cases than we tend to expect. I think they fall into an unfortunate uncanny valley: they sound like a Fate Aspect or a handwavy superpower or perhaps a Mage Arcana that lets you do a wide variety of thematically-appropriate stuff, but they are mechanically extremely traditional and more akin to a heavily-balanced D&D spell or special ability.

What Makes a Man?

People, most definitely including me, tend to have D&D in their heads when playing Numenera. This is entirely natural. It looks like D&D, it's by one of the designers of D&D, you basically play a fantasy adventurer like in D&D, you have a fighty one and a magicky one and a tricksy one like in D&D, you roll d20s like in D&D. But it is a genuinely different game that works in some genuinely different ways

D&D has Race + Class. Numenera has Descriptor + Type + Focus, and your Type is very much not mechanically equivalent to a D&D class.

Numenera is also keen to remind you that Cyphers are a major part of the game; you are supposed to use them regularly. I believe they play a bigger part in determining not only how powerful you are, but also what kinds of things you can do, than is the case of magic items in D&D. I am very sceptical as to whether this is a good thing; it depends on what the game wants to be, but it does appear to work against its stated position on what defines your character.

Specific vs. Generic

I think one of the deceptively-different facets of Numenera is that the weight of abilities falls differently to other games that it looks like. Most trad roleplaying games tend to emphasise the specific named rule-bending special abilities that your particular class, splat or species grants you.

A Numenera character is not equivalent to a 3rd+ edition D&D character in terms of named special abilities.

A Numenera character in some ways significantly surpasses a 3rd+ edition D&D character in terms of generic ability.

I think Numenera is less about applying special abilities than D&D is, and expects a more wide-ranging style of play. I think in a lot of cases, the special abilities are the equivalent of a TV character's shtick that they apply once per episode to significant effect, rather than something they do continually. Of course, you can use most special abilities multiple times per day, but you get the idea.

I think Numenera expects you to spend more time doing things that aren't specifically on your character sheet, because you are generically quite competent at absolutely everything. This requires quite a big change of mindset and I think it's something I struggle with, at least.

The most obvious example is that when we first played, we had a Glaive and a Nano and a Jack, and as the Nano I kept talking about how we weren't any good in combat. This is completely, 100%, factually untrue. We were exactly as good at hitting things with weapons as the Glaive was. The Glaive had some special abilities that gave damage bonuses or special riders in combat, and had a bigger pool of Might points to spend on attacking, and was allowed to wield Large weapons.

The latter is actually the major difference, because doing 6 damage minus armour is massively better than doing 2 or even 4 damage minus armour, considering most things have about 12hp. If the thing has armour, this can be the difference between "reliably hurting Thing" and "being mechanically unable to hurt Thing at all unless you roll a 19 or 20", which is like the difference between zero and infinity. If the thing has no armour, this is the difference between killing it in two hits and killing it in six hits.

I did some maths.

  • A light weapon user can kill a Level 3 enemy (a lot of common threats) in 8 rounds, a level 4 in 14 rounds, and a level 5 in 25 rounds.
  • A medium weapon user requires 4, 7 and 12 rounds respectively.
  • A heavy weapon user requires 3, 5 and 9 rounds respectively.
  • If the creature has Armour 2, a light weapon user cannot kill it by conventional attack, only through critical rolls, or finding a way to gain additional damage.
  • The medium weapon user requires 8, 14 and 25 rounds respectively.
  • The heavy weapon user requires 4, 7 and 12 rounds respectively.

It's almost impossible to overstate how important armour is in this game, and the impact of that on weapon choice. The crucial take-home is that Nanos absolutely require the Onslaught power, because (unless they choose to take a weapon they're not proficient with and suffer permanent penalties) it is the only way they can reliably harm an enemy with 2 points of armour, which is relatively common - many low-level enemies have 2 armour, though higher armour is thankfully relatively rare.

But still, we were entirely competent in combat. Compared to, say, a D&D wizard, who can easily be so ineffectual at attacking and so vulnerable to damage that it's genuinely a party liability for them to try and fight, a Nano is a very competent combatant.

But forget combat for a minute. This is one of the non-obvious subtleties of the Numenera system.

If you want to sweet-talk a Level 3 NPC, you need to roll a 9 on 1d20. Everyone is inherently equally good at doing this, even if they don't have an appropriate skill, and your chances of success are quite high. You can even spend points from your Intellect pool to drop that to, at worst, a 6+ on 1d20. In contrast, sweet-talking a guard in D&D would likely be a Moderate DC15 (roll 15+ on 1d20), meaning that only an actively charismatic PC is liable to succeed.

Similarly, everyone can climb cliffs, leap chasms, sneak!, tinker with machinery, or attempt to decode ancient writings. There are some characters who are actively skilled in those things, but the benefit is relatively small (a +3, basically, so +15%).

What this means is that a lot of the time in Numenera, any character can attempt to react to a situation in whatever way seems sensible, and their chances of succeeding are far higher than a D&D-attuned brain tends to estimate. And this is something that's genuinely difficult to adjust to. I know, because I ran into these credence issues from both directions when playing Deathwatch. I regularly wanted to apply skills when I had a remarkably small chance of succeeding despite expensive training, and I tended to underestimate the likely effectiveness of certain combat tactics.

So I think what Numenera expects from you is different, in a way I haven't quite worked out yet; and partly as a result, I think the named abilities on your character sheet tend to be either of limited use, or constant benefits that feel mechanically dull. I think you need to step high, wide and plentiful with gleeful exuberance, and expect that the system and the GM will support your far-reaching interpretation of what you can reasonable attempt. Of course I can do this. I'm a hero.

It reminds me in some ways of, for example, a lot of pulpy and action films. Of course the protagonist can fool the guard. Of course the protagonist can solve the riddle. Of course the protagonist can fly the plane. And so on.

I don't think these excuse Numenera from the fact that these abilities seem underwhelming. How a game makes you feel is important. I think this particularly in the light of its presentation: much is made of the idea that You Are An Adjective Noun Who Verbs, whereas mechanically you're very much more of a Verbing Noun who is a bit Adjectival, and I think if looked at holistically, you are actually An Adventurer Noun Who Verbs and Is a Bit Adjectival. That is to say, I think that the bulk of your effectiveness in Numenera actually comes from being a Player Character, with your Noun and Verb giving you a small package of abilities to colour your capabilities, and your Adjective being of very small benefit.

It's not what I'd do with an Adjective Noun who Verbs system, not at all. But I'd like to try and play it for the game that it is, not the one I'd expect it to be.

Tradition, Story and Numenera's Dilemmera

I'm getting the sense that Numenera suffers from a continuing tension over where it wants to fall on the loose spectrum between a Traditional RPG and a narrative game.

A very high proportion of abilities are actually just rather bland purely mechanical benefits: a flat bonus to this, or training (equivalent to a bonus) in that. I'm not sure why these are thought to make your character cooler. The names sound cool, but do they feel cool?

Mostly what I feel makes me cooler is Being Able to Do a Thing. It's being set apart from others in a qualitative or semi-qualitative fashion: being able to break the rules, or to interact in a way others can't, or to understand something others don't. Or, in a low-mechanics game, it's flavour and character and background. And I can't help wondering if, despite being very mechanicsy and trad-RPGish, Numenera would actually like you to focus on the latter and treat any mechanical benefits or new abilites as mere perks. But I think in that case, its approach of having specific and discrete powers works against that, at least by setting expectations.

On the one hand, Numenera offers you a template that looks a lot like trad-RPG Race + Class. Yet as I've argued, much of your mechanical competence comes from simply being a Player Character, which feels more storygamey.

On the one hand, Numenera offers you an array of foci that seem to be broad-brush archetypes of Stuff You Can Do, as I'd expect in a storygame - is "Covered in Fire" not an ideal shorthand for a flexible story-focused game? Yet mechanically, they offer you a single specific benefit, and often one which is a pure bonus with no additional flexibility or options to make your character feel more interest; something more typical of a Trad RPG.

One the one hand, Numenera seems to offer a Fighter, Mage, Rogue triad that defines your playstyle and capabilities, exactly what a Trad RPG tends to do. Yet the latter two, at least, are much more combat-ready than their Trad RPG niche generally permits, partly because they have far less in the way of niche abilities.

On the one hand, Numenera has specific templates that offer specific powers that do specific things, which feels very Trad. But on the other hand, you are encouraged to make up your own skill lists and to try things you have no particular training in, which feels very storygamey.

On the one hand, Numenera has no particular rules for combat: you can attempt anything, there's a flat target number for the enemy based on how "powerful" it is, and the GM simply determines what modifiers might apply and exactly what the outcome means. This feels like a loose, flexible narrative combat system from a storygame. Yet almost everything in the rulebook is a monster that hungers for your flesh and can't be negotiated with, and there's a simply but highly mechanical damage system that goes as far as having fixed damage amounts and subtractive armour, which means some characters literally can't hurt some others, which feels quite Trad to me.

On the one hand, Numenera has a quite specific setting with very highly-described locations, artefacts, monsters, individuals, political systems and even local economies. Yet it's also very handwavy about exactly how any of this is supposed to work as a functioning world, what anyone actually does with their time, what life is like for the people, and all the other details that allow you to run a simulationist-by-default campaign.

And of course, to top it all off, Monte Cook then goes and tells us that actually what's really important about the system is... the cyphers. The ten-a-penny one-shot minor magical items you roll up on random tables from looting enemies and ruins. He describes these as "more like abilities and less like gear", and goes so far as to name the entire game mechanical system The Cypher System. And the thing is... given how limited and specific most of the actual chosen character abilities are, quite often having a cypher that can do X will indeed be at least as powerful as anything you can do, and they do indeed grant a meaningful expansion of your capabilities. Sometimes a dramatic one. You can easily have one cypher that lets you climb sheer surfaces, one that offers remote viewing at unlimited distance, and one that translates any language. Bearing in mind you'll typically start play with three abilities, at least one of which is usually a flat bonus... that's a big increase in options.

The end result is that I never know which lens I should be looking at the game through: am I thinking like a mechanical Trad Gamer who knows exactly what I can do and how and when, or a narrative Storygamer who takes cues from general descriptions to collaboratively create a wonder-filled story of exploration and adventure? The truth probably lies somewhere in between, and it's hard to find.

The bottom line

I think Numenera is perhaps more sophisticated than I initially gave it credit for. Unfortunately, I think context will hinder it. You can only play a game in the context that exists. I don't think the expectations raised by all the games that have come before allow us to approach a game with classes and levels and specific special abilities and modifiers, like Numenera, with a mindset that what's really cool and important about my character is how I think about them. Particularly when the game iself tells me otherwise - tells me that I'm an Adjective Noun who Verbs.

When I think, at the core of it all, when all pretence is stripped away, I'm a guy walking across a desert of broken civilisations a billion years in the future, breathing nanotech and looking up at artificial stars, scavenging forgotten miracles for a few measly shins.