Part two of my first impressions of Numenera from our game last weekend, begun here.
Contains mild spoilers for The Beale of Boregal, the starting adventure for Numenera.
I was well impressed with this. This is about the slickest system I can think of, maybe excepting BRP. Even there, the fractions of skill and modifiers can turn a simple d100 roll into something that feels complicated, while Numenera's system felt slick. In part that's because you're not using your stats, but fixed target numbers for success, which can be modified based on circumstances or by spending stat pools (I never bothered). To some extent that means the DM is doing the work, but it seemed like they were quite minor adjustments, and more importantly quite simple. We mostly ended up rolling on better than 50% chances, even on combat rolls for the Nano and Jack, which means succeeding most of the time. I think most them were more like 80%.
I think the best way to express it is that I never felt like the system got in my way. Admittedly it was a fairly short introductory scenario and we didn't try anything that complicated, but then it's not necessarily complicated things that expose snags in the ruleset. It's actually making me really tempted to reconsider making a very pared-down version of Monitors, although I'd have some issues with the magic/tech distinction... On the hypothetical downside, I can see that if things remain as simple as that throughout, it might start to feel simplistic for the action-and-adventure kind of game it seems to be aiming for. I don't know how it felt from the DM's perspective (Arthur?).
From my point of view, in this particular game, I quite liked the fact that even the magic (including the esoteries I didn't take) seemed really very simple - a pleasing combination mixture of mechanics that were quite simple, like Ward or Onslaught (magic bolts), and things with no actual mechanics that rely on GM interpretation of a description, like Scan. It's not what I'd want for Call of Cthulhu, but it felt appropriate here, in this setting where technology and magic fade into one another. Of course, it does rely on have a GM comfortable making those calls, and on the GM and players agreeing.
I initially though the levelling system was ultraslick as well. It seems that the GM can make a "GM intervention" by giving the affected player two XP tokens (I think you can reject these, but I didn't see the point and it sounds like that's quite punitive). You keep one and give the other to another player. Now I misinterpreted Arthur's brief description of the levelling rules and thought you could buy one upgrade with each XP, which would have been very simple and quite nice. In reality, it costs four XP to buy an upgrade, and you get a few XP for missions as well as the GM intervention ones. I assume there are good balancey reasons for this, and apparently you can use the tokens for things other than buying upgrades, but it was still a mild disappointment. My own fault, though.
When you do have four XP, you can buy one of a set of upgrades (increasing a Pool, an Edge, a Skill, ...something else, or buying a new special ability). Each can only be bought once. When you've bought four, you move up one Tier, and gain new abilities from your Noun, Adjective and Verb. The limit is almost certainly because otherwise you'd just buy Edge and use all your powers all the time.
While I found the rules and options quite fun, I think all of us struggled with the setting. It was hard to get a sense of what the place was like, and how it "worked" - how do people behave, and how does that interact with our place in society? What kind of people are we supposed to be, and how does that compare to NPCs? How do both of those interact with our OOC goals of having adventures? It's a little tricky to establish your specific identity without understanding what you're fitting into or contrasting with. Because it wasn't obviously based on a real-world culture or history, or even an obvious fantasy setting, it was a bit tricky to work those things out.
I think in general, there's a bit of an issue with what you might call "hotchpotch" settings in that while they nicely mix things up and break away from the same old tropes, their variety can make it very very difficult to get a feel for the setting. The more divergent the contents are, the harder it is to have intuitions about anything. A setting that mashes up the Court of the Sun King and 1950s America is odd but means drawing conclusions from two sets of cultures; a setting that also grabs elements from the Aztecs, Victorian industrialism, Tolkein, Clark Ashton Smith, stonepunk, Star Trek and Warhammer 40,000 is going to be very hard to interpret.
To be fair, Numenera isn't the latter. However, it's a science fantasy setting that's very divorced from anything familiar, and that means no tropes to draw on. I found it somewhat confusing even in the short time we were there. One minute it was caravans in the waste, and stone circles that curse anyone who breaks hospitality; shortly afterwards we were in a spa town being asked to visit a garden that grew nanotech fruits and alien metals so that a psychiatrist could cure our NPC of possession. We fought dogs with bird-skull heads. Even at the most basic level, wilderness camping reads like Conan the Barbarian, spa towns read like Georgette Heyer and psychiatrists are clearly neither, so I couldn't tell what level of civilisation we were experiencing. Did people brawl in smoky taverns and rob snake temples, or exchange quips in the Royal Institute of Adventurers? Was our place more like petty mercenaries, Victorian explorers or some kind of special agents? Were there libraries, doctors, supermarkets, insurance?
Similarly, the wildly variable levels of what I might call available technology were a little odd. I've no problem at all with magic-as-technology or technology-as-magic, which are both fun. However, due again to the hotchpotching, I couldn't initially guess what might be generally available in this setting, as opposed to being unique artefacts, though I decided in the end it's broadly faux-medieval like most fantasy, with odd technological trinkets here and there. Early on, though, I wasn't sure if it might be more like Star Wars, with people riding hoverbikes to the nearest solar station for a bowl of porridge before the witch-burning.
In some ways I think the technology situation may actually be quite similar to that in Warhammer 40,000, with a low baseline tech, specific known technologies that can be exploited but aren't understood well enough to generalise, and a plethora of unique artefacts that nobody really understands. It also seems like it shares the Imperium of Man's suspicious attitude to technology, or at least to people who get too involved in it.
Sets in fiction and the Ninth World
I think one source of the disconnect comes from the Ninth World thing, actually. This means many things are very different from what we're used to, to the point that I don't think a single one of the monster entries was a recognisable creature. There was the germ of an idea here that I tried to articulate to the others and I don't think I succeeded, but let's try again...
In reality, one of the ways we understand the world is classification. Things come in types and patterns, and we can use the similarities to draw general conclusions. For example, animals come in broad types, materials can be roughly grouped, so can professions or cultures. If a fictional setting presents us with identifiable types, then we can predict some things without being explicitly told them, and it gives the sense of an understandable world. In contrast, if everything we encounter is unique and different, they become a set of things to memorise.
Numenera seems to lean heavily towards the unique model. Not only are the monster entries all novel, but they all seemed to be radically different from each other. There weren't, for example, recognisable genera of creatures or classes of war machine. I also didn't get a sense that the monsters related to any obvious non-monster creatures that existed in the setting. Now this mildly bothers me as a biologist (which doesn't really matter), but I also feel like it makes things that little bit more difficult as a player with zero starting knowledge of the setting. Similarly, because every location seemed to have a somewhat arbitrary level of technology, I couldn't get a feel for what the technological capabilities of the prevailing culture actually were - or whether there was a prevailing culture at all. When you can't assume that recognisable groups exist, your ability to make OOC predictions about the gameworld is limited, which is an issue when IC you should know these things.
To put it another way: if the starter scenario had featured youngsters riding up to our camp on an elephant to report that their village was being besieged by buffalo, and we'd been sent to retrieve herbs from a garden occupied by a wolfpack, we would have had an intuitive sense of the kind of threat presented by these creatures and the ways they might be likely to behave. As it was, we couldn't tell whether the "pallones" (floating razor-edged jellyfish, apparently?) would have slaughted everyone within minutes and immediate help was needed, or were just kind of annoying. The broken dogs were a bit more predictable by dint of being doglike, but if you'd called them something else and given them five legs I'd have been just as clueless. Basically it's a matter of tropes.
I'll cheerfully admit that I'm a bit weird about this, but I think it'd make a lot of fantastical game settings more robust if the designers at least briefly considered how biology works. You can have any creature you like, but species don't arise in isolation; they evolve from similar species or are left behind when relatives die out. Reptiles are really quite variable, but you can spot the similarities and predict some things about them. Same with birds, or felines, or arachnids. It's particularly striking when you have sentient species that appear to have no relatives whatsoever. I'm not saying you need sound scientific explanations, but I am saying that if you have a species of human-sized sentient ladybird and no other insects bigger than a palm or with any level of intelligence, that's an anomaly. Humans are pretty isolated as species go, but we still have a whole swathe of primates.
Magic and technology are good explanations, but you're still usually turning something into something else, if nothing else because doing things from scratch is both hard and largely pointless. Are you really going straight to human-sized sentient ladybirds, or wouldn't you have started with dog-sized beasts of burden and kept making better ones? And again, once you create a cool magical servant beast, do you start all over again next time, or make a new model every year? Either way, you're likely to end up with a group of recognisably-similar creatures.
I'm not really in a position to review the scenario, since I haven't actually read it and as I said our game was a bit disrupted. It does seem that Arthur refined it a bit for us, since I've seen mention of fluff we managed to escape and some mildly tiresome NPC behaviour that he sensibly ignored.
The adventure didn't really seem to leave much room for flexibility, basically asking us to visit a couple of locations and do specific things there. Given it's apparently a questy sort of game that's not entirely surprising. Also, starter scenarios are amongst other things an opportunity to introduce mechanics in a controlled way, and that aim doesn't mesh too comfortably with sandbox play. That being said, the way the adventure consisted of specific one-room locations (effectively) made it feel more linear than I think an equivalent scenario set in a single location might have; essentially you're going from Camp Room to Doctor Room to Dog Room by fast travel, and so there's not much opportunity for creative approaches. Not something to completely slate it for, it's just something I notice in retrospect.
On the other hand, I did quite like the premise of the adventure when we'd worked out what it was, and it seemed like something you could actually have done (or do) rather more with, especially if the last section offered some ways to dig into the history a bit in future adventures (which it may do, I don't know).
It seemed like the general consensus was that people had a reasonable time with Numenera, but didn't really see much reason to play it instead of a system we already know. The two that came up were D&D (inevitably) and Dying Earth (on account of some similarities in setting). Certainly I think if you're looking for adventure and already know D&D fairly well then there's a lot to be said for sticking with it. On the other hand, I did feel like there were some interesting differences, and in particular I do wonder whether Numenera might suit some people who wouldn't necessarily care for D&D. Its main strengths there are the relatively simple mechanics and the different background. The mechanics are slick enough that players really don't have to fuss over maths or rules complexities, which is more than can be said for any edition of D&D. At the same time, people who aren't really into fantasy or just want a change might find the Miyazaki-like world appealing, and I suspect a keen GM could tweak things to create a more familiar setting for such players. So I have the impression it might be quite a good game for people new to gaming.
Dying Earth is a call I can't make, because frankly I know virtually nothing about it. I've read precisely one Jack Vance short story, as far as I'm aware - not part of a deliberate policy, I just have a ridiculous number of unread books - and if it was a Dying Earth tale it seemed quite different from what the others have talked about. I've played one game of Dying Earth, and to be honest I found it a struggle. I had the same problems with the setting that our non-Warhams friend had playing Deathwatch, perhaps exacerbated by the fact that we didn't spend any of our game killing stuff, which does tend to simplify matters. So I really had no idea how to play my character, what to do, what the world was like or how to approach the game. As far as I was concerned, then, Numenera was no more unfamiliar as a setting, and it was more approachable for me because I'm au fait with doing escort quests and killing monsters for people, whereas Dying Earth didn't offer me anything familiar to hang on.
So while I'm not in a desperate hurry to go and play some more Numenera, I'd certainly be up for it in the future, and I have an anime-enjoying friend or two who I think would appreciate it.
Oh, and just to get this off my chest: I'm all for people incorporating more actual Gaelic into their games, but in a fantasy setting full of name soup, is it really completely outrageous to think you could expect players to pick one of the real spellings of "beale" as beul (Scottish), béal (Irish) or beeal (Manx)? It's just a really weird thing to do. Nobody has games featuring black-clad ningers throwing shurryken at samyoureye, is what I'm saying. < /rant >