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.

Sleeping Policemen

You are driving comfortably down a road (or in my case, being driven) and encounter a sleeping policeman. If you are lucky and alert, your progress slows rapidly and there is an uncomfortable bump before you resume; the smooth progress of your journey has been interrupted.

If you are unlucky or unwary, there is a sudden violent jolt causing passengers in the back to cry out, or you slam on the brakes at the last minute causing a disconcerting lurch and annoying the car behind you.

Failure in games can be a lot like this.

For international readers, a "sleeping policeman" is also known as a speed bump - a raised band across the road that is very uncomfortable to take at speed, used to enforce low speeds in dangerous or residential areas. If you encounter a real sleeping policeman in the road, it is considered very impolite to drive across them.

Now, there are different types of failure and these do not all have a jarring effect. Rolling a miss on an attack roll is a failure, but the game usually continues smoothly. Where failure becomes a sleeping policeman, or even a brick wall, is when the failure affects the narrative.

Types of failure

Broadly speaking I'd say there are three types of jarring failure. One is where a character fails in a way that feels inappropriate: Zorro repeatedly fails to stab the generic guardsman, Sultry Hotlips is unable to find a single seducable suspect, and Gorlak the Wise can recall not a single detail of the history of his own country. These failures are usually results of mechanical quirks mixed with sheer luck, and often a GM can spin them to avoid the jar.

A second, related type is where the failure breaches the tropes that are in play. Valorous Darksword nobly volunteers to hold back the rebel tide while the rest of the heroes dash to prevent the sinister ritual, and is immediately felled by a single lucky arrow at extreme range. There is an elaborate heist, and as the first of the infiltrators strolls through reception for the vital first stage of the plan, she discovers her stolen security pass doesn't let her through the secondary doors. These tend to be a mixture of player mistakes and bad luck, and are harder to work around.

The third type is where the failure prevents progress, and here investigative games are the posterboys. Detectives running out of leads, either through inattention, rolling badly or ruining them with unwise decisions, are a constant complaint on Call of Cthulhu forums. In more combat-based games, the party may feel they've run into a challenge they can't beat. A White Wolf game might feature situations where the players simply don't know what they could meaningfully do. Mostly these can be boiled down to saying: "Well, I flubbed that roll, and now I don't know what to do."

Failure and Coherence

Because these failures interrupt the flow of the narrative, they tend to disrupt the coherence of the story unless the GM is extremely skilled at improvising. It can often feel as though the next step is simply being told what to do by the GM. Players stop, discuss and may well spend a long (and sometimes frustrating) time working through options before they find a way to keep the story moving.

A very common situation is that players keep looking for ways to progress with the plan or route they are already taking, because that seems to be pyschologically how we're wired. Especially where narratives are concerned, we tend to think in terms of making the thing we're already trying work, rather than stepping back and looking for another option.

In a Call of Cthulhu game, the intended way to progress may well be a clue the players forgot or mishandled. In these cases, the GM may have to find a way to remind them of it or convincing them to try again. It's difficult to do this without it feeling very metagamey and heavy-handed.

Broadly speaking, I think the issues with coherence are firstly, that seeing one plan fail and having to switch to another naturally tends to break the flow and disperse momentum; and secondly, that a narrative of "after doing X, the heroic party started doing Y, but it didn't work, and after trying several times they talked for ages and did Z instead" simply feels less natural and satisfying than "after doing X, the heroic party did Y". A linear progression tends to feel more comfortable, and build up momentum more efficiently, than one with dead-ends and retreats.

It's worth noting that fiction narratives do typically involve changes of plan - in particular, fantasy epics, detective stories and crime stories are fond of things going wrong. The route through the pass is blocked by the minions of the dark lord, and now you must plunge into the Hideous Netherworld that was repeatedly mentioned earlier. The obvious suspect turned out to have another explanation for the deeply suspicious things she was doing, she just refused to admit it to anyone for reasons that, when you consider it's a multiple murder case, look astonishingly spurious and ill-judged (hello, Wasting Police Time). The heist went wrong because of something unexpected and probably ironic, so unless it's All Part of the Plan, time to improvise! After all, The Plan going perfectly isn't usually very satisfying.

I think one of the differences is that in these cases, the change of plan is usually smooth. The merry band are on their way to the pass, find the minions, and enter the hideous netherworld instead. The infiltrator discovers a new security door has been installed and turns aside. The investigators realise that the suspect is incredibly bland and probably something else is going on. This is partly because of the way a single author can summarise and elide information to a smooth conclusion.

With a group, things are a bit different. People can keep trying slightly different tacks on the same idea - "what if we search the settee? the shower? under the lino in the kitchen?" - because they've committed to it and the instinct is to exhaust all possibilities. Groupthink can also come into play, with everyone reinforcing the same ideas.

Because of the fact that you're not actually your character, and the way game mechanics tend to focus attention on relatively immediate goals, it's also quite easy to get sucked into the means and kind of forget about the ends. I've run a game of Call of Cthulhu where the hook was "find out what happened to this guy", where the players first fixated on working out what was suspicious about him (nothing), and then on the very suspicious workshop (fair enough). They got really into the clues in the workshop, but there was a point where they were chasing leads I hadn't actually got answers for - things intended to be vague hints and long-term hooks, or bits of background I devised so that the mystery didn't exist in a void. When I couldn't answer any more questions, I had to remind them that their paid assignment was in fact "find out what happened to this guy" not "investigate a workshop". Which is not to criticise, but just to spotlight how easy that is to do.

Similarly, it's very easy in non-mystery games to get sucked into, for example, concocting increasingly elaborate plans to break into somewhere or overcome some enemy, rather than reconsidering. Which is to an extent fair enough, because I really like concocting elaborate plans. I think a thing here is that if you concoct an elaborate plan and it works, that's fine; but if you devise a series of plans over the course of two hours and have to abandon each of them, eventually realising that maybe you shouldn't do this after all, it's unsatisfying.

I think tension has quite a bit to do with this. If you encounter an obstacle in your plan and overcome it, it ratchets up tension and then you have a sense of great achievement. If you encounter an obstacle but foresee it and change the plan immediately, you feel clever. If you try and fail to overcome it (and perhaps particularly when you fail a die roll, because it's purely random and mechanical) then the tension just oozes flatly. One way to recover is to try again and succeed, because emotionally that feels like the obstacle just grew but you overcame it anyway. But this can suck you into a cycle of frustration that still ends in a flat and unsatisfying change of plan.

To come back to my line above, fictional changes of plan tend to involve planning to go along one track from X to Y, but seeing a looming problem and switching track at the points in the direction of Z. Gaming failure-induced changes of plan normally involve heading merrily off to Y, finding the line is blocked, getting out to try and clear the debris, seeing whether you can lift the train over it, spending an hour not only discussing the use of a series of cranes but also starting to build them out of sheer enthusiasm, realising it won't work, giving up with a sense of unsatisfyingly dispersed tension, reversing back to the points and driving off to Z.

Failure and Frustration

All games (that I care about) feature failure, and in many ways it's what makes the games fun. As my friends have observed, simply choosing to succeed at things is only fun for a limited time and for a very specific type of experience. The threat of failure is crucial to the play experience. In many cases, failure is only a cause for passing regret, or even contributes to building the tension and excitement that will make the final success more satisfying. Sometimes it has longer-term consequences, which may be positive or negative, but in either case can build towards a fulfilling narrative. For example, the failure of a crucial roll may lead to a character death, and the failure of a plan can lead to the loss of a stronghold to intruding rivals.

Things become more frustrating when jarring failures come into play.

If your character repeatedly fails at supposed areas of competence, this breaks the contract you have with the game. Playing an action-adventure game where Curt Manly PI continually misses clues, falls over during brawls and makes a fool of himself in front of attractive suspects is not in keeping with either the genre or the character you have made. Playing an ace sniper who can't hit the broad side of a barn ruins the experience because, since only what happens in game narrative is real, you are not in fact playing an ace sniper. The player can easily become frustrated with their play experience.

The failure of a genre-appropriate plan is jarring because, to a large extent, games depend on tropes. In a serious narrative, the lone hero who nobly holds back the tide may sacrifice herself, but she holds back the tide. When the Big Heist goes down, the plan has a 100% chance of going awry in some way, but the plan still gets executed. If you're lucky, there's a way to deflect the failure into another trope that still works for the genre, style and characters you're playing. If not, it can be frustrating that you did the character-appropriate, genre-appropriate thing and it didn't work. It's even more frustrating if you did the character-appropriate, genre-appropriate thing instead of the mechanically-optimal thing.

There is an issue with many games in that the simple, direct approach is often mechanically optimal. This is partly because PCs in many games are very good at strongarm tactics and bad at other things, and partly because the direct approach often averages out in the PCs' favour. Failing one roll in combat is rarely disastrous. Involved tactics often require using skills you are less good at, and/or taking one-shot rolls where the entire plan comes crashing down if one person fails their Disguise check.

For me at least, this is unsatisfying because I'd often rather try a clever plan than kick down the front door and shoot everyone.

Running into a wall where you have no idea how to progress the narrative is unsatisfying because your momentum disperses, and because I think on some level it feels like a failure as a player. Zorro's inability to stab a single guard can be put down to appalling luck tonight, but you having followed up the wrong leads or tried a tactic that won't work is all on you. You picked the thing that you think should work - and it doesn't. That creates a dissonance which frustrates you, unless that failure itself offers understanding of why you failed and leads naturally to an idea of how you can move on to succeed, in which case it can feel like a satisfying and dramatically-necessary failure.

Overall, I would say that when frustration arises, that itself disrupts the coherence of the game, because it breaks immersion and the sense of enjoyable focus that maintains momentum.

Spontaneity and Coherence

So, what of spontaneity? Why would it matter whether content and events are created beforehand or improvised on the spot?

I think there are two things gone on here. One is that spontaneous play of any kind can sometimes result in coherence issues. However, I think mechanically-mandated spontaneity is particularly prone to cause problems.

Setting out a stall

At this stage, I should say that I don't have a problem with largely improvised play. I'm not advocating for All Prewritten All The Time. I've played in fantastic games that were largely made up on the spot by skilled GMs, and fantastic prewritten adventures, and I've played (and run, and decided not to run) underwhelming prewritten games and ad-hoc games that didn't quite work.

In some ways, a fully-spontaneous game run by a GM skilled at that playstyle is even stronger than a prewritten game in terms of producing a coherent narrative, because they can avoid the need to fit in crucial bits of plot or clue or cause-and-effect that the designer intended. The GM can ensure that everything that happens forms part of a continuing narrative that makes sense in the world they're depicting, and tweak things to subtly direct players towards the content they want to focus on, without ever hitting a wall. It may well be that chunks of improvisation in a strongly pre-planned game are more disruptive than a fully-improvised experience.

That said, let me outline a couple of drawbacks.


In its most simple form, improvisation adds something to a game that is likely to be more weakly connected than most existing elements. Let me put forward some arguments for this.

Recently I ran two games of Lovecraftian investigation on two successive days.

The first was a scenario that I spent two (2) years planning and hand-crafting specifically for three players and their existing characters. I considered the players' tastes and playstyles (as best I could), and the skillsets and personalities of the characters. I wove the NPCs into a social web with interconnections and attitudes. I carefully layered clues upon clues, ensuring that each part of what happened in GM-reality was accompanied by clues that allowed the characters to discern it and to eventually understand the quite implausible truth.

I found people willing to read it and comment, and filled in the gaps and flaws they identified, and added additional detail and explanations. I mulled the scenario over in my mind countless times, and pictured each of the NPCs and their possible interactions with players - not deliberately, just because it was a long process. There were several potential ways I could think of to approach it, each with their own arc.

The second scenario was randomly generated from a table in the space of three minutes, for characters randomly generated in the same period. I nobly appropriated real places to lend a touch of verisimilitude, since I could just visualise stuff in my head instead of inventing it. The plot was rudimentary and fleshed out as I went along, sometimes in response to player questions or actions. The main NPC had a motivation of "works for aliens because reasons" and no clear defining traits.

My group enjoyed both scenarios. They made it (very politely) clear that they enjoyed the first scenario immeasurably more, because it was a painstaking piece of richly-detailed investigation that was coherent and allowed them to progress logically and naturally through the weird events that drew their characters in, whereas in the second one they ran around to wherever the next clue seemed to point and looked for somebody to punch.

The second scenario was highly spontaneous, but I was making a strong effort to keep things coherent and not throwing in random events simply to spice things up. It was still far less a coherent experience than the first, and it suffered from it. I can't say there was any particular pre-intended arc in terms of exactly what kind of story it was trying to be; it ended up sputtering about formlessly somewhere between an investigation, a revelation and a pulp adventure. I had a very loose idea of what was going on, but because each scene and piece of the game was fairly spontaneous, they did not feel well-connected, so what we ended up with was a bunch of stuff that happened to some people.

Broadly speaking, my argument is that mechanically-mandated spontaneity can detract from the play experience by marring the narrative coherence of the game. I think it does this in several broad ways: by generating new and typically urgent elements that are more weakly (if at all) related to the existing experience of play; by demanding emotional and intellectual focus that could otherwise be devoted to the group's intended game; and by creating tangents that can leave the campaign feeling quite removed from the original concept.

None of these is necessarily a bad thing, but in the wrong circumstances this injection of "interestingness" can get in the way of the game you actually wanted to play.

For ease of use I'm going to use the term Happening to indicate one of these situations: it might be a GM Intervention, or a consequence of Failing Forward, or a result of the players accumulating a certain number of Awesome Chips in their pool. Regardless, the game mandates that the GM should devise something interesting that happens right now.

I really do not want to get into big terminology arguments because that's not the point. I am using Narrative to mean, broadly, the sweep of events in the game together with things like tension and dramatic arcs. Coherence means how well the events of the game seem to fit together into something that makes sense.

The reason I'm talking about this here is that, as per the rest of the miniseries, "consequences for failure" is a sizeable source of Happenings.

Because they are

A Happening wasn't part of the original idea, so is inherently likely to feel bolted-on, because it is bolted-on. You had to devise an event somehow related to a failed die roll and incorporate it into a pre-existing game.

The argument from time

Here's a second argument: Happenings are likely to be less coherent because the GM simply has less time to devise them.

GMs generally spend a reasonable amount of time planning games, whether that's between sessions or simply when devising the original campaign premise and setting. They tend to try to ensure the game makes sense, and may specifically aim to create a particular type of narrative or a dramatic arc. However, they usually have mere seconds to think up a Happening, so it's natural that they are less rigorously thought-out than pre-planned aspects of the game.

The "No True Scotsman" position

Finally, I think you can make an argument that the actual mechanic of Happenings inherently argues against them. To whit: if X was a natural and interesting outcome of the ebb and flow of the game, something which felt strongly tied into the current situation and events, the GM probably wouldn't have waited for a random game event to implement it.

Obviously this is a generalisation. Some things seem like interesting possibilities, but perhaps something to only implement if the PCs act in particular ways or get unlucky. Sometimes the GM doesn't want to interrupt when the group has momentum, simply to throw in an idea they think is nifty. In some cases the GM knows a particular 'scene' or location will be a big focus, and plans some ideas for interesting events that could occur there depending on the actions of the players.

On the whole, though, I don't think GMs typically have a set of really good ideas suited to a specific point in the game just sitting around waiting to be used if Jessica rolls a 1. I believe most of the time, if they come up with an idea which would naturally follow the current course of events and fits nicely into the genre and tone and narrative arc of the story, the GM implements it without necessarily even thinking about it as "an event". This is just the everyday business of at-the-table GMing.

The logical flipside of this would seem to be that when the GM is called on to generate an interesting event, the ideas they have available will on the whole be less natural to the narrative. They are things whose time had not come, or that seemed like vaguely cool possibilities that would throw off the perfectly good contrasting narrative the players were building up. In some cases they are simply things that could happen rather than things which seem either dramatically or logically necessary. Yes, a man could burst through the door holding a gun, but it isn't always fitting.

Dilution again

So, I think Happenings tend to be more weakly connected to the narrative than content the GM devised otherwise. This weakness combines with a second feature of most Happenings: they are urgent and demand attention.

It's entirely expected that the coherence of a setting and a scenario vary. It's not a real world, and some parts are going to be, at least initially, mostly backdrop or genre dressing or filler. In many cases players and GMs alike can politely ignore or handwave parts of the setting that seem a little fragile, underplanned or distracting. This makes them less salient and keeps the campaign moving in the group's intended direction. However, Happenings are generally things that must be addressed, and soon.

The fact that players and GM are obliged to confront them tends to highlight any weaknesses of a Happening, whether those are logical, narrative, mechanical or even social.

Obviously these weaknesses can apply to any part of the game, spontaneous or not. It might not make sense, on closer examination, that the enemies were able to lay an ambush somewhere the PCs only recently decided to go without telling anyone. A pulpy arc where the PCs repeatedly clash with mooks (occasionally getting captured and daringly escaping) and learn more about a plot, slowly building momentum to confront the big boss, may become dischordant and boggy if a mook encounter turns into a mini-investigation in more of a detective style. A challenge may turn out to rely on skills the PCs don't really have, or misjudge how much of their capability they lose without access to magic, or conversely become a walkover that feels hollow. And the revelations or decisions that happen in play may run counter to the initial pitch, the tacitly-agreed tone of a game, or specific player or GM preferences.

For example, here is something that may superficially seem reasonable.

It is a game of epic fantasy, and the party are trekking across countries in the course of a mighty quest. Currently they find themselves caught up in the darkness afflicting the Heathlands, which has been growing rapidly and threatens to overwhelm crucial strategic locations, potentially sending the whole population into flight or even enslaving them. After several exploratory forays and skirmishes, they worked out the root of the problem and are now winding up for a major milestone in the game: confronting the Grey Titan, Zchaan, with an ultimatum to abandon forging artefacts for the Howling Tyrant, or to perish before their blades. They are challenged by a party of gnomish scouts hunting for raiders, led by the dutiful princess Yark, and a social encounter begins. It was just supposed to be a basic exchange of information, but the players roll badly, and a Happening is mandated.

The GM reviews the situation, and decides that the scouts compel the party to travel to Gnomvark, the great citadel, and discuss their business with the Archmage. The Archmage, however, is distracted by local matters and by a grand ball to be held shortly, which the party may be compelled to attend before they can get an audience and thus permission to leave.

This is a stressful diversion at a time-critical point in their mission, so it will add tension and provide a mild inconvenience for their bad roll; it also avoids having an unwanted fight against what are supposed to be valued allies, which would be inappropriate for the campaign. There's nothing specific planned for the encounter, as the GM wasn't going to bring the gnomes in just yet, but they can explain what they're doing, maybe get some information or resources, make some allies, and soak in the flavour of gnomish culture. This will prove useful when they return to Gnomvark and perhaps make the players more interested for that visit. Visiting kings, exploring other countries and attending balls are classic parts of epic fantasy. They can get back to the main quest soon.

Unfortunately, this also takes the momentum that was building up and drives it into a swamp.

The party had been progressing smoothly through a series of narrative points that built up naturally to a climactic encounter with a powerful entity, which also fits into their long-term goals. Having learned the truth, their instinct is to immediately act on that knowledge and shut down the local keystone of the spread of evil powers before matters get worse. The Grey Titans were not thought to be inclined to favour evil, so there is suspicion and doubt over the truth of matters and Zchaan's motivations; will this end up as a fight, a negotiation, or even a rescue mission? The supposed in-game urgency of their quest enhances that motivation: not only do they want to halt the spread of evil in its tracks, but the faster they can do so, the sooner they can continue their journey in the hopes of putting an end to the Tyrant forever.

Unfortunately, although the Archmage is a notable NPC in the background of the campaign, this diversion doesn't tie in to the existing flow of the game. It doesn't form part of their discovery of events in the Heathlands, it doesn't seem to build on their desire to stop Zchaan, but nor is it an obstacle they can actively overcome and gain further momentum from. It is a tangent.

By dealing with the Archmage situation, the players have to switch their focus and engagement from "dealing with the Zchaan situation". They lay aside emotional investment in that plotline, excitement about the coming encounter, and the half-formed plans and in-character ideas they are (consciously or otherwise) forming relating to that plot thread. Now they have to focus on a location they had no previous interest in, an NPC (well, several) they have no particular reason to deal with, and some events that haven't yet offered them any hooks.

Players in this situation may well expect that the Archmage sidetrek will prove to be relevant to the main quest. A careful GM will try to ensure this happens, but as this Happening is spontaneous, they will need to do a lot of work quickly to make it so. They haven't prepared any clues, omens or hooks at this stage; worse, players might bite too early on hooks intended for later use, perhaps assuming they must relate to their current activities (or else, Chekhov's Gun-style, why would they exist? Foreshadowing is hard in RPGs). The players may spend quite some time looking around for relevance that does not exist, and potentially leaping on every possible hook. This can build frustration; and when they realise the gnomes aren't relevant at this stage, disappointment. None of this contributes to the momentum of the Zchaan arc. At the same time, it doesn't really work as a relaxing and informative interlude, because the players haven't just finished a dramatic section - they were anxious to do so.

Broadly speaking, the problem is that this is narratively inappropriate. It's very much in-genre for the party to attend an important event, and even to be dragged to one unwillingly while on an important quest. However, dramatically speaking this ought to happen when there isn't a huge amount of momentum in the first place, such as during a travelogue or in the lull after a storm.

Wait, hang on

Could this Happening be deployed better with planning, though?

Ironically I don't want to devote the time that would be needed to turn it into an elegant piece of GMing, but let's see.

It is a game of epic fantasy, and the party are trekking across countries in the course of a mighty quest. Currently they find themselves caught up in the darkness afflicting the Heathlands, which has been growing rapidly and threatens to overwhelm crucial strategic locations, potentially sending the whole population into flight or even enslaving them. After several exploratory forays and skirmishes, they worked out the root of the problem and are now winding up for a major milestone in the game: confronting the Grey Titan, Zchaan, with an ultimatum to abandon forging artefacts for the Howling Tyrant, or to perish before their blades. They are challenged by a party of gnomish scouts hunting for raiders, led by the dutiful princess Yark, and a social encounter begins.

The party are asked to visit Gnomvark, the great citadel, to discuss their business with the Archmage. When they arrive, they find the Archmage distracted by local matters and by a grand ball to be held shortly, which the party may be compelled to attend before they can get an audience and thus permission to leave. During their attempts to gain an audience, the party realise that there is in fact a connection between Gnomvark and the Zchaan situation. One of the expected attendees may be connected to the smuggling of the evil artefacts; moreover, there is a traditional connection between the Titans and the gnomes, and so the Archmage may have some insight into the situation with Zchaan.

In this particular case, I don't think it matters much whether the party are compelled (by poor rolling or even GM fiat) to visit Gnomvark, or given the option. Either is one valid approach to these matters. I think this more planned approach is a slight improvement on the previous.

Although the party will be forced to wait around to talk to the Archmage, they have a sense that this frustrating sidetrek may be a natural stepping-stone in their quest. Rather than the irritation of feeling "precious" time tick away pointlessly (or the immersion-damaging sense that time doesn't really matter) and waiting for the ball to be over, they might instead be impatient for the ball to happen because it's now part of their arc.

This also opens up the possibility that Gnomvark itself is important now. If an emissary of the Tyrant is attending, are the gnomes in danger? Can the Archmage be involved? Whereas the Archmage was previously just a potential source of exposition, she might now be a threat, a mole in the "good" alliance, a dupe, a reluctant pawn, a dangerously neutral force, or an ally in need of help. They may need to persuade her of the emissary's treachery to help them combat the spread of evil, or even to foil a plan that threatens Gnomvark itself. While not directly relevant to the Zchaan situation, this is a chance to crush a flowering evil or to cement an alliance with the gnomes, which contributes strongly to their main quest and potentially to the Zchaan quest as well (especially if the emissary's plan relates somehow to the artefacts).

The party also have a potentially interesting decision. Do they try to insist they are released early, progressing their Zchaan quest but deliberately neglecting the opportunity to find out what is going on here? Do they set aside the urgency of challenging Zchaan for the sake of learning more about events in Gnomvark, and the gnome-Titan history, and perhaps gaining some advantages? Do they want to confront the emissary, or leave them free for now, and how would that affect their encounter with Zchaan?

I'm not saying it's the most coherent sidequest ever, but I think it works a lot better in terms of not breaking the momentum of events and maintaining focus on one primary quest, while still obliging the party to delay and deal with unwanted social activities that get in the way of crushing evil. However, it requires planning to build up the connections between different elements that make for a more natural progression between parts of the campaign.

Why is this a problem, again?

Yes, sorry, that did get rather long. You know I like my examples.

The problem is that urgency and weak connections combine to dilute the coherence of a campaign. If you are moving through a series of events devised by the GM (at least broadly), which combine into a genre-appropriate and dramatically-satisfying narrative, this gives you a coherent and probably enjoyable experience. If you're then suddenly obliged to transfer your attention to something else which is happening, but which isn't particularly relevant to the things you have been caring about so far, your emotional connection is interrupted.

Not only are you interrupted in your experience of what was a reasonably satisfying narrative by something else; you have to start more-or-less from scratch with the new focus, work out what it is and deal with it, and then try to regain your mental immersion (or momentum, or engagement) with your original narrative.

Each time this happens, you are spending a smaller proportion of your time participating in a continuous narrative arc which builds up emotional energy for a satisfying payoff. This is true even if the interruptions are really good. Your overall enjoyment of the arc is diminished because you keep losing that focus and momentum by experiencing it in smaller chunks interspersed with other things. If the interruptions instead detract from or even deprive you of things you hoped to do, which mechanical Happenings can easily do by changing the situation, you've also lost an opportunity.

Look, it's basically multitasking. If you're writing a long report and regularly have to stop to answer the phone, you'll lose your focus, your train of thought, your holistic grasp of the report. Your satisfaction in putting together a high-quality piece of work will be reduced, and it's likely (in my experience at least) that the quality will also be impaired, because you struggled to regain focus and enthusiasm after the interruptions.

The Creativity Tax

When a system mandates Interesting Consequences for X, each time X occurs, the GM must devise an Interesting Consequence.

Remember how I said player creativity isn't a finite resource? Well, that's not quite true. Players are, especially as a group, highly creative and able to come up with ideas (usually more than enough to keep a GM on their toes and occasionally throw a whole plot wildly out of kilter) but their creativity is not actually unlimited in the short term. Nor is GM creativity. Nor are attention span, concentration, or investment in a game.

One of the disadvantages of mandating Interesting Consequences for failed rolls, even when they are of a challenge type whose immediate consequences for failure are not inherently interesting, is that it costs time, energy and yes, creativity.

In theory creativity is not limited, but in practice, it kind of is. On a good night, I can improvise wildly and come up with content fluently enough that at least some of my players can't tell I hadn't planned it all beforehand. I can see the world in my mind's eye, and intuitively sense the natural consequences of some failure or oversight. I bubble with imagination and have only to pick the juiciest, most tempting morsel to suit the palates of my players.

On a bad night it's all I can do to have an orc slip in a pool of blood, a policeman happen to be strolling by, and a man burst through a door holding a gun.

Most GMs are (rightly, in most cases) proud of their creative streak, because that's partly what draws us to games and to GMing. But that doesn't mean our creativity is unlimited in the short term, or adaptable to every situation. And each bit of creativity is a tiny emotional investment in the world and its details, and another piece of information to grasp and remember, and that adds up.

Whenever I am obliged to improvise, I draw on the same pool. Some of this is passing improvisation: holding a dialogue with a player, or fleshing out the details of a location they chose to visit. There's also reactive improvisation, where I work out the natural consequences of player interaction with the setting, whether that's experimenting with a weird device, socially manipulating NPCs, setting a Klingon workshop on fire, building an orphanage or whatever. Sometimes they focus heavily on a colour element and I have to spontaneously make important decisions that will shape the setting: what exactly is the ideology of this murderous kobold cult, and how does it tie into general kobold society and other races' interactions with them?

Thinking up something that happens when Bob rolls a botch, a fumble, a critical failure, a GM Intrusion or whatever draws on that same pool.

I can't speak for others, but personally, I would rather be devoting my energies to inventing content that somebody wanted in the game, rather than content demanded by a piece of mechanics. If players display unexpected interest in something I threw out, that's great: I want to reward that, to roll with and feed whatever momentum is building, because keeping everyone (myself included) engaged is crucial to running a fun session.

Sometimes that momentum is in an unhelpful direction, but even then, giving players a tasty morsel that says "yes, you're allowed to interact with that" before gently directing their attention elsewhere feels better for everyone.

If players are doing something unexpected in our gameworld, then I want to have the focus to interpret and gauge the appropriate consequences of actions; to amicably and reasonably judge whether there is an X, or whether tactic Y should yield interesting results. If I can do that, then players will feel freer to play with the gameworld, to try things out, to predict the results of their actions and to expect their choices to seem meaningful.

I don't want to ever be in a situation where I've expended enough of my brainpower coming up with GM Interventions that I'm too tired to play along with what my players want to try.

Fractal Distract...als?

In extreme cases, the group can end up following nested loops of distractions from whatever they were originally doing.

Of course, this is by no means unique to random Happenings. Following up a series of consequences is fairly core to sandboxy play, as opposed to prewritten adventures. It often reflects what the players find most interesting. But when these consequences are improvised on the spot in response to die rolls, rather than purely narrative considerations, I believe they're more likely to distract from the premise of the game.

If consequences result from the decisions made by players interacting with the world, there's an extent to which the players are interested. To take up an existing example: if I decide to sever a supporting beam and everyone ends up covered in orc dung, then I at least will generally feel a sense of involvement in the whole Orc Dung Debacle that ensues. If I decide to reject the Belligerent Duke's plans and tell him he's a waste of oxygen, causing the whole party to be exiled, not only do I have an emotional involvement in the consequences, but I probably considered them at least a little and decided they were interesting before making that decision.

If what happened was that I rolled a 1 on my d20, causing dung and/or exile, that doesn't feel emotionally like something I was involved in. It feels like a random event, because it was. Even if the GM does a good job of narrating it and helping it feel natural, it still doesn't involve my choices.

Because mechanical Happenings tend to be relatively common, if they have quite far-reaching consequences it's not especially difficult for these to stack.

So you are engaged on a noble epic quest to something or other. You attempt to negotiate with the Duke, and roll a 1, and get yourselves exiled for a pilgrimage. While travelling to the Cathedral to do your penance so you can continue with the quest, you roll a 1 and get lost in the mountains. While seeking shelter from a storm before trying to return to the road the next day, you roll a 1 and are captured by goblins and taken miles away to the goblin labyrinth. While breaking free from the goblins so you can escape the labyrinth and get back on the road to the Cathedral, you roll a 1 and break a supporting beam and now everyone's covered in orc dung. While trying to battle the goblins covered in orc dung, you roll a 1 and lose your heirloom axe. While trying to recover your axe from the orc dung, you roll a 1 and realise it has been carried away by a goblin thief. While following the goblin thief across the countryside, you roll a 1 and are drugged and shanghaied by a merchant...

You end up going off on side-tracks to follow up consequences and their consequences, and not actually engaging very much with what you intended to do or the GM's original content. And not using the GM's precious content is fine (to a degree, I mean, I am always sad if I don't get to use something I thought up), but then there's an extent to which writing a setting and campaign premise is superfluous if the actual game will be substantially driven by spontaneous decisions based on random events. In our example here, the noble epic quest has rather degenerated into a Sinbad-style picaresque.

On Numenera, Interesting Failure can be very uninteresting Interesting Failure spotlights, can derail and hands the power back to the DM that those types of games so often claim they want to give to the players Imagination is a limited resource - where do you want to spend it? Arbitrary "interesting" failures, or Intrusions (see also Intrusions for Numenera critters), or on improvising content that reflects what the players are actually choosing to do? On making arbitrary events "interesting", or on supporting non-arbitrary events? Interesting Failures dwell on those failures and absorb game time that can be used for more gameplay. Bifurcating Failures tend to derail. Dealing with consequences of failures can lead to highly tangential games where it's difficult to follow through on anything.

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.