Thursday, 2 October 2014

Numenera, The Walking Eye and some counter-thoughts

This post is based on the Walking Eye Numenera review of a while ago. It started life as a comment that, as so often, got out of hand. As such it probably isn't as coherent as I'd like if you haven't listened to the podcast, which you should.

Rolling 3s

There's naturally a certain amount of discussion about the mechanics, and one thing that is bound to come up is the slightly odd choice in Numenera of doing things based around Difficulties 1-9 (or arguably higher) that represent numbers 3-27 on your d20 before you manage to modify them. In brief, you establish a difficulty, you use a range of skills, effort and situational modifiers to adjust that difficulty, and then you multiply it by 3 to see what your target number is.

While the 3s thing in Numenera is a bit strange, I’m pretty sure that multiplying by three at the end is the simplest way to use this system. If you set challenges to Difficulty 12 instead of 4, then each change in difficulty means adding or subtracting 3, which is a little faffier to track; or, as I'd tend to do, tracking how many changes are being applied, then multiplying the net change by 3, and then applying it. Early on, the numbers will often be very small, and so the multiplication isn't much different from addition.

Numenera's use of Tier to indicate character power also comes up. Why not Level, the old established term? Well, giving things different names is entirely good in my view, because in D&D every damn thing was called a Level. See: this Order of the Stick comic. I know Tier is a slight change of terminology from most games, and it apparently bugs a lot of people, but I think it’s genuinely useful to have different terms for, say, how powerful a creature is and how skilled a character is. Apart from just minimising confusion, it steers away from the D&D-based notion that a Level 5 creature is the intended match for a Level 5 party, which isn’t the case in Numenera. The choice to use Level for creatures and numenera, rather than for characters, is possibly where this comes from; however, my gut feeling is that it's the optimal choice. Tier has more of a sense of palpable difference to me, whereas Level is historically used in games in quite a scalable way, and PC Tier is more distinct than the Level of creatures or items. What I don't understand is why, having made this effort for clarity, they didn't go the whole hog and come up with one more term to distinguish numenera power and creature power.

Technology levels in Numenera

The crew (specifically Kevin, I think) also talk a bit about being unconvinced by the technology level of the game, given that there's a ton of powerful stuff lying around. Allegra (I think? sorry, finding specific mentions is hard) mentions at one point that it seems more plausible that it'd be vaguely Victorian.

Having a mediaeval technology level seems odd with all the numenera, but I think it does make sense if you look at it in terms of systems. They may have lots of weird technology available, and even some pretty common items whose function is known, so they can predictably achieve certain things. Some they can even maintain. However, their science isn’t advanced enough to pull the numenera and their bits of knowledge together into a coherent whole; they don’t understand the underlying principles, even if they know the rules of operation for a particular device. They also haven’t refined their other technologies enough. It’s like how Leonardo could design a helicopter but they didn’t have the engineering or materials to actually build one; or the difference engine. From the tone of the book, a lot of what they do with numenera is probably not what it was intended for. I picture it like using flashbulbs as improvised weapons. You can blind someone or produce a nasty electric shock, but that’s not the point, only unless you have the concept of film photography a flashbulb makes no sense. In the same way, it makes no sense as soon as you have something better. It's the best available solution to a specific problem at a specific level of scientific development.

Having a world full of relic technology would probably spur people to investigate it and speed up science to some extent, but much of it would be so advanced that they weren’t able to grasp it yet, like a mass spectrometer to a caveman. Some would be damaged and malfunction, or get damaged during investigation. Some would be incomplete: a printer without a computer is a bad mangle, or maybe a torture device, or you could integrate it into some kind of loom. Other tech needs infrastructure to work: a car is great if you have good roads, mechanics and fuel; a pre-installed tablet is massively less useful than if you have computers all over the place and a means of transferring information between devices.

So I reckon you’d still have a mediaeval world stage of history, with pockets of specific expertise and great learning, but a lower maintainable background level. Bear in mind that even today, the everyday level of technology is massively variable even within many countries, and a century ago isolated areas were even more low-tech. The politics of it is really important too, because if you assume you’re building up societies from tribes, then things get pretty chaotic. Geniuses die young, civilisations get overrun or struck by plagues and their knowledge is lost, new rulers kill off the scholars as a political threat, libraries burn … the infrastructure to build, teach and pass on knowledge is tough to maintain. When the Roman empire collapsed, technology levels plummeted in Britain because of political upheaval, loss of trade links, and education systems becoming unsustainable. We even lost concrete. Until pretty recently, discoveries would regularly get made and then lost for decades because science relied on word of mouth, and later on handwritten letters or tiny print runs of monographs – genetics is a good example. Political and linguistic divisions mean information doesn't travel well.

Even today, there are still plenty of issues maintaining and spreading technology, because of lack of infrastructure. At times, charities and governments have provided shiny modern equipment to disadvantaged regions, but found it rapidly got abandoned because it people couldn't get the parts to fix it, or have the means to maintain it properly, and it became less effective than low-tech methods. Other times, a few people become gatekeepers to technology, so others don't actually learn to understand it - heck, this happens in a lot of jobs, technology or otherwise. Most departments seem to have an Ancient Master who wrangles the fax, accounting system, form 3D-Q or the red truck and everyone else just petitions them for aid.

I can sort of see where the Victorian idea comes in, and there's no reason you couldn't have Victorian as the default technology level for a Numenera game, because I definitely see it as a game where this varies pretty wildly. The argument I'd make there, though, is that Victorian technology is almost defined by reliable complex systems. The railway, which is maybe the biggest thing, required lots of trained engineers with a good understanding of physical science, it required a high degree of very reliable metallurgy to create the engines so they wouldn't explode that often. The rails themselves had to be pretty standardised. Things like screws had to be standard so spare parts could be reliably fitted. People in towns across the country had to agree to various inconveniences and loss of land. There needed to be enough traffic for the companies to make money - and you needed a good legal system so the investors, railway companies, engineers, landowners and veryone were confident this ruinously-expensive venture would work (often it didn't).

Sanitation was similar - the flush toilet only really took off when it could be connected to a massive expensive sewer network in London, and that idea only came about because the Romans had invented sewers centuries earlier and left the idea behind. It spread from London elsewhere, and other towns began building massive sewer networks because they saw the hygiene benefits of the combination. Most Victorian technologies called for a lot of coordination of effort, education, standardisation and knowledge of several different areas of science that could be combined, and a lot of that was enabled by a century or two of relative people in a small island where money and resources from colonies allowed for expensive investments and a leisured scientific elite. I feel like that kind of development wouldn't easily happen on the basis of random bits of tech left behind by previous civilisations.

Wow, that got long. Sorry.

Story focus and D&D

There's an extensive discussion of an interview with Monte Cook where he talked about wanting to make a game that was all about the story. This discussion about why a “story focused” game turned out to be, fundamentally, a lot like D&D was very interesting. Also very true.

Broadly speaking, I think the TWE crew and Monty are at different points on the story-mechanics axis. It’s not a qualitative difference, because if they literally only wanted 100% story they’d probably sit around telling stories and not worry about randomisers and rules, so it seems like just a different taste in how much crunch they prefer and where they want that crunch.

For my part, I’ve really enjoyed listening to the TWE gang play all kinds of games, but for example, Fiasco did absolutely nothing for me when I was the one playing. FATE, which I don't think they've discussed outside The Dresden Files which I've yet to catch up on (not having read the books), gave me similar problems. I tend to find abstract mechanics far more confusing and irritating than something a bit more simulationy, because I have to invest energy in interpreting my actions through the lens of the system. I think basically I either want near-total narrative freedom or some kind of in-game logic for the rules. More storygame-like systems often tend to feel to me like a set of mechanics interacting with themselves and not very well integrated to the narrative, but that’s just my take.

Dungeon World and the like are a bit different. Again, I’ve enjoyed listening to a lot of DW games, but I don’t think I’d play it myself. Not because of the actual system this time, but because it’s so failure-heavy. Most rolls give a failure or a qualified success, which often ends up as a downer and sometimes pretty much undermines the success; it also means the GM (or group) have to keep on thinking of complications that fit the situation, don’t just negate the success and are somewhat interesting. It tends to dwell on the failures and focus attention on them. While D&D can be similarly whiffy, the failures are generally quick and simple, often without specific consequences for failure, which tends to downplay the sense of incompetence. Failing at (say) an attack roll gives the enemy that much longer to fight back, but doesn't damage you or disarm you, but also it doesn't make a big deal of your failure. I don’t often want to play games that are all about failing, and for some reason it feels preferable to me to take damage because an enemy succeeded on a roll than because I did middlingly on mine. But also, I feel like the constant runs of complications get in the way. The game is arguably more story-focused than D&D, but the kind of stories it produces are stories of failing all the time, and the fixed difficulties make for failures that often feel arbitrary.

Thinking about that interview... I wonder, does Monte Cook say "all about the story", or does he say "driven by the players"? Because that’s a big difference, and I think maybe an area where they have a different understanding of “all about the story”.

For example, Allegra’s narration often introduces new elements to the game: there is a rope hanging from the ceiling that she swings off to get the drop on an enemy, there are chinks in the robot’s armour that she targets with her little knife. These add in-game story elements through the player's intervention, and there's not usually any mechanic for doing this, it just happens. She's good at fleshing out details like this. I think I'm inclined to say she tends towards Describe Narrate Roll as Dan calls it, where often she'll describe actions in detail before rolling to see the result; where the system doesn't particularly allow for player narration to directly influence the result, this can get weird.

I would tend to say that Numenera is more overtly story-focused than D&D, or at least it's more overtly focused on stories that are more varied than being a band of roving dungeon-clearers.* It mechanically rewards discovery (XP system), gives players more options to increase their chances of success when it matters to them (effort and cyphers), and has the GM intervention mechanic to encourage plot twists and complications while rewarding players for accepting them. It also tries to build story elements and connections into the charcters, which D&D doesn't specifically do.

* Whether this actually makes Numenera better than D&D at creating varied stories is open to question, and indeed you could write some very interesting stories about being a band of actual roving professional dungeon-clearers.

What I don’t think it does is pass significant amounts of narrative control to the players. So for example, there's no mechanic for bypassing the robot’s armour by proclaiming that it has gaps for you to target. In fact, things like GM intervention kind of do the opposite: it costs XP to reject an intervention (essentially 3XP is lost), and players can’t spend XP to create a Player Intervention, while the GM gets free rein whenever you roll a 1. By that argument Numenera reinforces GM control of the narrative, by including explicit mechanics that enforce the sense that defining what is going on is the GM's job, and even extends to rewriting the outcome of rolls.

Adding player control in Numenera

I think, especially given the GM’s pretty passive mechanical status, you could make a good argument for more player narrative control, and the thing is it strikes me as not hard to do.

The first thing I’d do is drop the cost to reject a GM intervention. I don’t see the case for it once you’re out of an old-school mindset. This would mitigate the railroading and problem GMing that Kevin was concerned about, because players can reject any intervention any number of times without penalising themselves. It would free up GMs to propose any number of interventions without that nagging guilt, because what you’re doing is throwing ideas into the ring. This also means players might get significantly more XP, making it less concerning to blow it on rerolls, which is another tool for controlling the story. And both of these help preserve character concepts, which can easily be undermined when you keep failing at stuff that’s supposed to define your character.

The second thing is to drop the “GM” tag and make it just a straight-up Intervention. Allow players to propose them too: any complication that the affected player wants to roll with can earn an XP. Let players propose their own: I tend to do this myself, and I’ve heard The Walking Eye crew prophesying what disaster will probably befall them next (mostly CJ, I think?). The player picturing their actions often has a good sense of what they’re afraid of happening, so they’re in a good place to suggest cool problems to encounter, as well as when they just want something to work out.

A third step would arguably be to drop the GM entirely, but I’ll leave that one to someone else.

Fictional positioning

So another thing that came up is fictional positioning, which is a pretty common thing in more storyish games, as well as coming back to what Allegra was trying to do. Numenera kind of looks from some angles like it maybe should be using that, because it's a bit handwavey about things like movement, but I don't think that's the intention.

I'm going to stick with Allegra's example of getting around the robot's armour, because it's a nice straightforward one and something that's logical to try quite often. No criticism intended.

I actually have reservations about fictional positioning in general, certainly when you're dealing with combaty games. My feeling is that the TWE crew would maybe prefer it, based on previous games. It does have some very nice features, like enabling you to do exactly what Allegra tries for: coming up with something cool to attempt, and mechanically benefiting from it. In a game like Numenera which isn't super-crunchy, it sort of makes sense. While you could (for example) call for a roll to scramble on top of the robot, and another roll to discern weak points in its armour, and a third roll to strike the weak points, it feels a bit too detailed for how the system seems to work in general.

My basic reservation about fictional positioning is that it essentially replaces character skill (particularly in combat) with player skill. Now this isn't unique, because most games also do this to a large extent with social skills, whether or not the rules intend it - it's how roleplayers tend to do things. It's also usually how things like mysteries get solved, rather than simply rolling on your Intellect to discern what happened. But hey, that's a different post.

In this case, what determines whether or not a character can hit a chink between an enemy's armour, or pull off any other such manoeuvre, is narratively a mixture of their skill and luck. A system using fictional positioning tends to undermine that, because a player can simply narrate that a weak point exists and they strike it. Technically, it doesn't matter what your character is: the short-sighted scribe who's never lifted a sword in anger can declare that they strike at the weak point just as much as the professional soldier. This is essentially the same problem as having the dim-witted orc constantly coming up with brilliant plans or making flowery rhetorical arguments.

In some senses it's actually more of a problem than the dubious orc, because the orc player does at least have to come up with a plan or argument that is genuinely convincing to the group of players. In combat, what is required is simply coming up with a tactic that might plausibly have the effect you want, which can be as simple as constant variations on "I hit it in a weak point". Saying you strike to disarm them, or knock their legs out from under them, does at least suggest using a mechanic to determine whether that's effective, but if you hit a chink in the armour, you hit a chink in the armour. A friend of mine argued that what fictional combat positioning can end up with is a system where the primary thing is the specific player skill of getting the GM on side, and I think there's something to that. If you're good at coming up with things that mesh with the GM's ideas, you'll tend to do mechanically better.

The advantage of mechanical positioning is that you aren't dependent on your GM-Wrangler attribute, and so what is possible is more predictable. You know that you can achieve X benefit by doing Y, and how easy that will be. The results will generally reflect the character's skill, rather than your ability to come up with stunts to describe.

The other point that always gets me is, if you can (for example) ignore armour by doing a thing, why not always do the thing?

If someone is competent at fighting you can reasonably assume they’re always taking sensible tactical approaches to aim for weak spots and so on. Mechanically, the Glaive has abilities to increase damage that can be thought of as doing exactly that (Bash and Pierce, as I recall). If you want to try something specific in an unusual situation that feels like it should work, I would probably go for a two-stage roll: one roll to pull off the manoeuvre (find weak spot in giant robot and ignore its armour), the other for the attack. But I wouldn’t want to make it something you can always do, because as a player, it would make no sense to me not to do it every single time. Well, depending on the character, but playing someone who’s a competent fighter? You bet I’m always looking for the advantage. If there was a rule that I could use fictional positioning to ignore armour, and I was playing Bladester McSwordpants, I would use it all the time, because it's right for the character.

I tend to agree with the proposed hackfix of using degrees of success instead. Given the way damage and armour works in this system anyway (it's fairly trivial to be immune to low-level attacks as a starting character) I feel like it would be a great improvement.

What to do in Numenera

Despite the claims of being an exploration game, the crew rightly points out that most of what's presented in there is essentially combat-related. I have the same feeling, although I think it makes a kind of sense, because combat is usually the thing that needs actual rules in any game that's remotely crunchy. You don't necessarily need rules for the complex ecology of the Spineworm, you need to know what happens if you tick it off.

The Foci are often combaty, but there are some pretty varied ones in there. As I've discussed previously, Howls at the Moon is (as written) a huge personal story element with a few mechanics that's mostly a massive disadvantage to everyone. There's a long list of wizardy-looking things that immediately suggest quite general things you can do, even if the actual specific powers are written up for combat (because, again, that's when you need hard rules). Controlling gravity, illusions, creating and controlling fire, telepathy, machine empathy, wilderness survival, there's a lot of foci that feel to me to be offer quite general tools. However, it's true that mostly there is little mechanical discussion of how those would work outside combat. I would actually say more than half of the foci are not essentially about combat prowess. Most of them (but not all) can readily be used in combat, but then combat proficiency is usually the point where a game needs some measure of balance, because being unable to contribute often means dying.

The primary offender is, I think, actually the Glaive. It's hard to get away from the Fighter Mage Thief setup, and a lot of people want to play fighters in RPGs, but I do wonder if they could have come up with some other arrangement so that one character class wasn't entirely built around fighting. Maybe you could have aimed for a more general "physical specialist" niche, and had them as a rugged explorer type? But then you're stepping outside niche and into Adjective and Verb territory, and the infinite combinability of things (plus having effort pools of whatever size you choose) is part of the appeal. I don't know.


I have to say I wasn’t particularly sold on Numenera, so I’m not trying to persuade anyone here. I found the mechanics pretty unobtrusive and simple, and giving plenty of ways for you to boost your chances of success at stuff you cared about, although there were some headscratchers like insisting Effort be spent before a roll – the first thing I would change to give the players more control. As in Dungeon World, I also don’t like DM Intervention on rolls of 1, because to my mind forcing the DM to introduce twists at the whim of the dice is not that constructive. To be honest though, my main issue was that the world didn’t come across to me as a coherent whole, so I found it hard to immerse myself.

1 comment:

  1. Because Blogger doesn't want to provide backlinks, I'll flag up Dan's related post here.