Friday, 24 January 2014

Numenera: the Beale of Boregal, part three

This recording comes mostly from a laptop mic, and so the audio quality is dubious. I recommend listening on speakers rather than headphones if possible. Many apologies. It's also fairly short (22 mins) because that was just where it made sense to split the episodes.

Here begin the spoilers for the starter scenario The Beale of Boregal, and as always be aware that our podcasts are not entirely family-friendly.

To the spa!

Link to episode 03

I liked the dream plot hook more than I might have expected. It just seemed to be quite well-articulated, and it was genuinely intriguing as a setup. Plot dreams are a bit of a cliché, but I felt it was a decent example of the idea.

This is where I started to find the setting a little confusing, because spa towns with psychologists felt like something more suited to early modern civilisation than to an age with wandering adventurers. On reflection it's not so bad - the Romans had baths in Bath, after all, but then they were relatively civilised too. I think the idea is perhaps that there are areas of civilisation and other places are wild and unknown. Perhaps when I actually read the rulebook it will solidify a bit in my mind.

At this stage there was a bit of a sense that we were all somewhat useless, but that's quite misleading. I think the issue is that it feels rather like D&D, but you have very few obvious abilities, most of them aren't combat-focused, and all the numbers associated with you are small. The Glaive doesn't have a load of stuff that makes them obviously better at combat than the Nano. Actually, we kind of had it backwards: everyone in Numenera is basically really quite good at Stuff. K worries about how she'll be totally ineffectual, but her character is precisely as good at hitting stuff as anyone else, and can take the same amount of damage. It's only really damage inflicted that varies. The most noticeable thing for me was that my "wizard" is the most resilient one in the party. As we mentioned, having a number of +2 is pretty damn good in this system.


  1. At this stage there was a bit of a sense that we were all somewhat useless, but that's quite misleading.

    I think, crucially, there was a sense that we were all somewhat useless *within our specialities*. I mean yes, your Nano was basically as good at hitting things as my Glaive, but since my glaive was specifically supposed to be good at hitting things and your Nano wasn't, that was sort of irksome to me. I think we also had the ongoing problem with understanding what assumptions we were supposed to be operating on. Are we three wandering vagabonds, or three mighty heroes? The only game mechanical clue we have is that we're three people who have a 70% chance of hitting the average bandit, and a 70% chance of dodging the average bandit's attacks.

  2. To be honest, I didn't particularly feel that way, though I did wonder if not taking mind-zapping was a mistake. But I think that comes down to what we thought our speciality *was*, and possible I just got luckier than you or had a less clear idea in mind.

    The issue with combat I can absolutely understand as an irritation, and it does seem that way on first impression, only I'm not sure how much it stands up to scrutiny. Partly I think it's down to the particular choices we made.

    A starting Glaive has Might 11 and Speed 10 plus whatever extra they allocate - quite likely 13 and 12. They probably have a power granting +1 damage, can use large weapons (6 damage) and can reasonably wear Medium armour (soak 2 damage) without noticeable penalty - although you went the no-armour route instead.

    A Nano has Might 7, Speed 9 and might bump those up to 10, though adding Might. They use light weapons (2 damage) and wear no armour, except for those of us who are icy and/or warded.

    In theory both need the same roll to hit in combat. The Glaive will tend to inflict 7 damage and the Nano 2 damage, making them more than three times more effective. In normal circumstances the Glaive is also far more resilient because they tend to have some armour and have a larger pool of Might to lose before taking penalties. On top of that, they can spend that Might to increase their hit rolls more often than the Nano can - and it's more worthwhile because of the much higher damage. On average, without spending Effort (and ignoring bonus damage for high rolls because I can't do the maths), the Glaive will inflict 3.15 damage on a roll against level 4 enemies, and the Nano 0.9 damage. That's a pretty significant difference. They can also survive five hits from those enemies without penalty, compared to the Nano's one.

    Definitely we had trouble positioning ourselves on the power curve in terms of mechanics and setting. It seems from further investigation of the mechanics and from what the rulebook says that you're supposed to be genuinely competent from the beginning. p23: "This is not a zero to hero progression, but rather an instance of competent people refining...etc". But we hadn't read that, so hey.

    My sense is that quite a lot of our concern came from approaching it with D&D in mind and expecting a much more divergent set of capabilities than is actually the case. Viewed as a fighter, the Glaive looks a bit weak. Viewed as a wizard, the Nano has no equivalent of sleep or other big hitters. Everything gives small bonuses to abilities, and those don't seem impressive. As adventurers in general, though, everyone can survive multiple hits from average critters and take down those average critters in a fair fight. Those small bonuses translate into big percentages because all numbers are low. The difference seems to be that in D&D your class is the main shaper of what you can do, whereas Numenera it seems to be a much more even mix of your three factors sitting on top of a common core.

    Looking through a low-level D&D lens I'm not sure it's actually much different. Minimal variance in combat ability except for equipment, and two puny spells for the wizard? Sounds like a 1st-level party to me...

    1. Looking through a low-level D&D lens I'm not sure it's actually much different. Minimal variance in combat ability except for equipment, and two puny spells for the wizard? Sounds like a 1st-level party to me...

      True, but then low-level D&D *is* a zero to hero story.

      Interesting datapoint. I've been reviewing the book (as in looking back over, not as in writing a review) and the "Employs Magnetism" Focus includes a Tier 1 ability that can move objects with:

      " effective Might Pool of 10, a Might Edge of 1, and an Effort of 2 (approximately equal to the strength of a fit, capable, adult human)" (emphasis mine).

      So according to at least one data point, a "fit,capable adult human" has better Might than most Jacks or Nanos, and better Effort than any Tier 1 character.

      I think part of the problem here is a complete lack of any baseline, and I'm not totally certain that the book is sure where that baseline is supposed to be. It often falls into the trap of assuming that "Level" is a measure of overall status - so an Aeon Priest (a scholar who studies the Numenera) is level 5 while a Bandit is level 2, despite the fact that *surely* a bandit should be better in a fight than a priest.

    2. True, but then low-level D&D *is* a zero to hero story.

      So, this wasn't that clear, but I was thinking here in terms of how different fighters/glaives are from wizards/nanos rather than zero/heroing. At first level/tier there's only a small differentiation in terms of their class-based capabilities. The difference between the games is that in D&D both are pretty vulnerable and have probably a slightly-below-50% chance to hit a level-appropriate enemy, whereas in Numenera both are pretty resilient and have a slightly-above-50% chance.

      So what I was getting at was that the Numenera nouns don't really seem less good at their roles than their D&D equivalents at the same level, even before we look at the overall competence of all characters.

      But as you say, the uncertainty over baselines is an issue. It looks like "level" also will be, although it strikes me that other games using level/hit-die progression suffer from similar problems.* A high-level scholar in 3rd ed. is vastly tougher and better in a fight than a low-level fighter, and I suspect the same's true to a limited extend in AD&D.

      *and of course, there are always issues like "why haven't these 7th-level bandits taken over the entire neighbouring city, or indeed got jobs as mercenaries, gladiators or fighting instructors for top dollar rather than living in squalor and occasionally mugging poor merchants"

  3. With you.

    I think you're treating as distinct two things I am treating as related - mechanical competence of PCs versus mechanical differentiation of PCs.

    How competent a character in a game is, to my mind, is determined relative to other characters (both PC and NPC). For example, Iacomo in our Deathwatch game actually has a worse chance of hitting a regular human-sized target than my character in Numenera had of hitting a level 2 NPC (BS 60 vs 6+ on a D20), but Iacomo felt more like a specialised sniper, because his chance to hit is proportionally better than other characters (Erek's, Nikolai's or any NPC's).

    By comparison, while my Glaive had a 75% chance to hit with her crossbow, that was exactly the same as your Nano's chance to hit with his buzzer/dart thrower/whatever he was using, so she didn't feel like she was better at fighting than you.

    Of course you can argue that this is because characters in Numenera are supposed to have a higher base level of all-round training than characters in (say) D&D, but that doesn't seem to fit the flavour text. There's no indication that Nanos are supposed to be warrior-wizards rather than just plain wizards.

    An extra level of confusingness comes in because of the two or three Foci that allow you to add NPCs to the party. A couple of Foci add level two NPCs to the party, who are just as competent as PCs in a lot of ways, because they use the same dice rolling rules. Especially weirdly, a friendly level 2 NPC will have a 75% chance to hit a level 2 enemy, and a 75% chance to dodge its attacks (meaning that the enemy, supposedly an identical level of competence, will have a 25% chance to hit and a 25% chance to dodge).

    I agree that Indestructible Administrator Syndrome pops up in a lot of games (although *not* AD&D, since it didn't have NPC classes), but I think the use of "level" in Numenera really compounds it.

    1. Gotcha. I think this is just an issue where we have different takes.

      I think I tend to conceptualise PC competence as a bit more objective than that, or at least more independent of other PCs - maybe it's an artefact of the kind of games we've played or you just having played about a hundred times more. But I do have a sense of comparative competence, as we have seen with Nikolai - he feels pretty awesome, he's just still overshadowed by the others. It does help that in Deathwatch I have a solid idea of the threat represented by the various things we kill, to boost the impression of awesomeness.

      I also wonder... so I didn't really have much idea about Numenera coming in, and was quite hesitant about forming ideas because I assumed I'd be wrong. Part of that was I was making a conscious effort avoid thinking of it in D&D terms (joking aside), and so once we'd actually cracked open the rulebook I decided quite quickly than the nano wasn't actually equivalent to a wizard, and so on. I have no idea whether this is a difference between us or not.

      Ironically I suspect I was wrong about that, at least after a couple of tiers and with some caveats (fewer spells for one). But I think it did put me on a useful, if vague, way of thinking about the characters, as mostly distinguished by small touches from all three sources, rather than defined by class.

      Random thought - it almost seems like pulp stories would be a useful way of thinking about Numenera. The scientist protagonist and the detective protagonist can both hold their own in a brawl with thugs, but also have particular schticks.

      Oh, also - it strikes me part of the problem may be that like wizards, nanos get additional abilities on top of their normal competencies, which is easy to see as a schtick. Glaives mostly get small bonuses to an existing competency of fighting, mostly in the shape of damage, and maybe that doesn't psychologically feel as convincing.

      True about Indestructible Administrator. You get it with high-level wizards in AD&D vs low-level fighters, but that seems much more forgiveable.

  4. Oh, also - it strikes me part of the problem may be that like wizards, nanos get additional abilities on top of their normal competencies, which is easy to see as a schtick. Glaives mostly get small bonuses to an existing competency of fighting, mostly in the shape of damage, and maybe that doesn't psychologically feel as convincing.

    I suspect that was a big part of it. Your Nano was basically as good at fighting as my Glaive (apart from the fact that my Glaive could use heavy weapons, although I think you might recall that I wasn't actually that happy about being a heavy weapon user because I wasn't really trying to play that sort of character) and also got to do magic, which resulted in my Glaive feeling like she wasn't really very good at fighting, and that this wasn't a problem only because the enemies were so non-threatening.

    1. It does seem like a weakness of the system. Psychology is important. If you'd been influencing the combat in ways we couldn't, it seems like that might have helped.

      Also, I can't decide how I feel about Glaives not being better at fighting. It kind of feels like a skill in that direction would be a good match, and given the emphasis of the game is supposed to be on discovery and adventure rather than combat, it shouldn't unbalance things, right..?

    2. I don't actually mind it per se - and they *do* get Trained with weapons much sooner than the other Types. And actually being able to use Heavy Weapons is a big bonus, but it ties into my other bugbears with the system, which is how gear-based your effectiveness is.

      Interestingly, Glaives also start out with two points of Edge rather than one, which is interesting.