Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Numenera, part 1

At the weekend, as we are wont to do, Arthur, Dan, me and another friend sat down to try out Arthur's shiny, shiny new copy of Numenera. And as I am wont to do, I'm going to gab on about it.

Contains mild spoilers for The Beale of Boregal, the starting adventure for Numenera.

Actually, one of my biggest take-homes from the session is how disjointed it felt. None of that was Arthur's fault, and I feel a bit bad about it like. I mean, first sessions are quite often a bit awkward, and in this case Arthur's the only one who'd read any of the rules or setting, so there was the inevitable sort of pauses and waiting bits during chargen while each person made up their mind and wrote stuff down. I don't think there's anything we could've done about that. I did say at the time that RPGs should come with three spare copies of the chargen rules so you can all do it at once, but as people pointed out, the rules you need tend to be a bit dispersed and it'd be hard to do. It's a nice idea though, and I might try it out if Monitors ever gets off the ground (which is most likely if my house gets launched into space by a fracking accident).

Like a lot of the time, I'd brung along my dictaphone and was recording the session to put up here, except the batteries were apparently knacked after a big game last weekend. I had some spares, but somewhere between being rechargeable and maybe not the best, they only lasted ten minutes a pop. So I interrupted things a couple of times to ferret in a bag, and eventually Dan grabbed a laptop and tried recording on that. No idea how it turned out yet. But obviously that was a big interruption to the game, and it's to Arthur's serious credit that he took it so well. Soz, mate. Next time I really need to just put fresh disposable batteries in at the start and not muck about, or else shrug it off if we lose the recording (although that does seem like it'd be a shame).

There was also an important work call for our fourth player, which she could do even less about, and we had to call a halt for a while and then chatted a bit about it afterwards. Again, reasonable enough, but it does throw the game out when you stop in places you hadn't planned for. So I think between all that we were all just a bit less focused than we could've done with being. I thought (and think) that was a shame, both for Arthur's game and for Numenera, because in that situation you're that much less immersed in the game and that much less able to appreciate it.


The chargen for Numenera is a little bit more involved than the "you're an Adjective Noun who Verbs" that hooked me in the first place, but it's still along AD&D lines, or even Deathwatch, rather than Pathfinder. The time mostly boiled down to Arthur reading stuff out for us and then explaining it - quite often we didn't really need to know X at the time, but of course you don't know you don't need to know*, as Colin Powell might have said if he played RPGs - while the effort was mostly a case of writing down the relevant details so we wouldn't need to ask Arthur to look it up again later. With better knowledge of the system, most of the time could've been eliminated and we'd have had less to write down. Again, if it's the sort of thing you played a lot, you might all have a rulebook and speed things up even more.

As nearly always, we did group chargen, which we all favour for various reasons. In the case of what I tend to call podtests, I think it helps because a) taking a reasonable spread of things makes it more interesting to listen to, and b) explaining to the others what you (think you) did, why, and what it means for your character and the group is actually really damn helpful for a listener who's never played the game before. And you get the back-and-forth, which again helps people understand what you're doing, as well as cutting down on schoolboy errors or misreadings.

While it's possible to create something similar to, say, a D&D character, I deliberately went and picked a combination you just wouldn't get in another game, with my Rugged Nano who Wears a Sheen of Ice. That's quite substantially because I wouldn't get to do it in another game and I thought it was cool. I also think it gives the game a better chance to show off its own moves; with picking familiar options I think it can get unfair because you could end up judging a game on how it plays when you're unconsciously trying to replicate another game that it isn't. The character difference gives a mental break that signals to you that it's a different kind of game.

We actually rolled randomly to allocate the three "classes" (Glaive, Nano and Jack) between the three of us. Here, interestingly, Dan said he'd thought I'd end up as a Nano because I always struck him as the sort of person who plays wizards. That's interesting to me primarily because I've actually never played a wizard or wizard-equivalent in any RPG until Numenera. In fact, I'm a bit notorious for playing spiritually-inclined dwarves. The lack of wizardry is down to a few things, none of which is a lack of interest in wizards. Primarily, my early RPing was with experienced players in NWN, and not only had I never played before, but I also don't play MMORPGs or anything, which meant I was really paranoid about not being able to handle a complex and fragile class at the same pace as everyone else. So I went for tough, simple and largely support characters. While I've branched out a bit since then, I do tend to play with more experienced gamers (and GM for less), which means it's a natural trend. I suppose I could also say that one of the things about wizards is, in most games you're really restricted on the amount of wizarding you can do, which for me makes them less appealing than other classes that can do their thing more often. Anyway, this time was going to be different.

Off the top of my head, I've played:

  • A dwarven cleric (Neverwinter Nights-medium campaign)
  • A dwarven monk (Neverwinter Nights-medium campaign)
  • A sociopathic whiny twin-rapier-wielding elven princess (Neverwinter Nights-medium campaign)
  • A twin-rapier-wielding orc ranger (Neverwinter Nights-medium campaign)
  • Antonio Banderas in power armour (Deathwatch)
  • A mentally-unstable minor aristocrat and reincarnated evil sorcerer (Call of Cthulhu)
  • A stolid professional bodyguard for a party of clothies (Pathfinder DM-run companion)
  • A dim, amiable clay golem (playtest)
  • A Halo-playing frat-a-like glashtyn (playtest)
  • A wastrel of uncertain everything (Dying Earth)
  • A young businesswoman of unfortunate husbandage (Fiasco)

But of course, everyone remembers the dwarves.

I was really pretty happy with my character. Being a Nano gave me a vaguely wizardy theme, although interestingly the limited number of starting abilities and my choices meant I basically did the same stuff as the others. Of my two "esotery" (spell) choices, I took Ward and Scan. The first one gave a permanent defensive bonus that stacked with my Sheen of Ice armour to make me the toughest person in the party. Given I had an armour of 2, that was a bit of a shock, but it's a low-modifier game from what I can see; in practice it meant I could halve the damage from most attacks. Scan allowed me to sense and analyse nearby items, materials and organisms, with a kind of psychic radar, which I just thought was cool. I didn't take any offensive abilities, and to be fair the pool is quite small (there's precisely one that does damage, plus telekinetic pushing). The impression I get is the game wants you to mostly work in roughly the same way, with different approaches and probabilities because of your builds; this doesn't seem to be a game where Fighters Fight, Wizards Cast and Rogues Disable Traps. Hit chance and damage essentially came from the weapon, with Dan's chosen special ability granting +1 damage, which looks paltry until you realise that translates into between +25% and +50% by weapon. Yeah, Numenera seems to be a low-numbers game, which means every point counts.

My Rugged choice made me a kind of wild-man, with an affinity for animals and plants, which I thought was a nicely interesting combination with wizarding. A bit of the Radagasts, I suppose, though I didn't think of it at the time. Sheen of Ice meant I was permanently dusted with frost and insensitive to cold, and on a whim I could freeze ice out of the air around me into crude armour. This would be decent in the first place, although mostly I took it because I thought it was well cool, but combined with Ward it was really pretty good - not sick, just a good synergy. Obviously going for Ward cost me the chance of flexibility, but I felt like being solid at a small number of things was a better choice for a first shot.

There was some brief discussion of whether this was going to be a bad combination, because in some games choosing non-obvious combinations is a pathway to problems. I felt like this wasn't going to be one of them, and from what I saw that was right. I think basically PCs get to be competent at stuff, and while your class modifies your three stats, your other choices give you other stuff instead. Notably, it seemed like everyone was basically equally good at fighting, with small variances because Dan's glaive had bigger weapons and her powers granted slightly more damage. There was none of the massive gaps you might find in a Fighter Wizard Thief party, and it was kind of fun that my job as the wizard was actually to stand at the front and soak damage because I was covered in ice and slay Broken Dogs with my Shredder claws. Sorry, I haven't entirely got over just how beast that was.

Another interesting thing, especially compared to our Deathwatch games, was that the shopping part of the game took about two minutes, which was mostly Arthur reading out the names of the weapons we could choose from and Dan vacillating over just how big a sword Tasha needed because game-mechanically it almost always makes sense for assassins to use a greatsword even though it's farcical. We really didn't need anything but starting gear, and quite a bit of that didn't see use. Adventuring kits were untouched, and none of us even used any of our cyphers (one-use magic items). In the first go at a game, you do tend to concentrate on the core mechanics, and we didn't feel hard-pressed at any point - I think I took two hits the whole game, and that was it for the party. Also, until you've got a feel for the game, it's hard to know how much you're supposed to use limited abilities, as you don't know what the turnover is like.


One thing we did find a bit odd was the connections mechanic. Each character has a reason for having set out adventuring, which you choose from a short list (one per... Focus? possibly). While you do get a choice, we couldn't really see anything that felt suitable - not least because we weren't particularly sure what the initial adventure was. Once we found out, I ended up choosing "I need the money", which isn't a very good reason to go into the wilderness and climb a huge rock if I'm honest. However, nearly all the options seemed to be "I persuaded X to let me come along" or "I thought Y needed my protection", so it seemed very easy to end up with a party who'd all convinced each other to go but had no actual reason for it. More of a buddy film than an adventuring party, y'know?

The game does seem to be generally trying to make characters feel connected. Each Focus will affect one other player in a specific way, which is sort of vaguely interesting mechanically, though it doesn't particularly strengthen the party as far as I'm concerned. In my case, my ice armour would also spread to our Jack if he was nearby; the Jack also knew that Tasha was an assassin, while Tasha could see through all his illusions. A bit of a mixed bag to me; I think something more like Traveller chargen offers a better chance to build connections between characters that mean something to the players. Another slight issue is that you're making these decisions before you really know anything about the other characters, which is always a potential problem. In principle, though, I appreciate this.

* There are known ignorances: things we know we need to know. There are known unignorances: things we know we don't need to know. There are unknown ignorances: things we don't know we need to know. And there are unknown unignorances: things we do not know we do not need to know.

On the one hand, this is pure frivolity. On another hand, I think it's actually kind of relevant in gaming, almost to the point where I might write something more substantial about it (feel free to bagsy it, though).

More to come soon.

1 comment:

  1. I've more or less finished editing together a podcast of this playtest, which should go up once The Price of Hubris is finished. Unfortunately the issues with the recorder mean the audio quality drops in the second half, and there's a chunk of the post-game chat that was corrupt and crashed Audacity whenever I tried to do anything but delete it. C'est la vie.