Saturday, 5 March 2016

Cohesion and Numenera (again)

Hi, Numenera. Long time, no see! I actually haven't heard much about you for a year or so either. No, I didn't mean... well... it's just, y'know... nobody seems to be playing you? It's kind of sad now that I think about it.

So I was listening to Improvised Radio Theatre With Dice while running seven miles down a major road in the rain over a series of hills, as is my wont, and Michael Cule was talking about his attempts to get to grips with Numenera. They resembled my own so strongly that my heart went out to him, and indeed to the game, and it got me thinking again about why it is that I just couldn't get to grips with it.

The start of episode 23, and about 50 minutes into episode 24.

Numenera feels like fog; like the fragments of an intriguing dream you clutch at upon waking, trying and failing to reconstitute the fractured sensations into a meaningful whole. Or, more prosaically, like a bunch of pieces from different, but exquisite, jigsaws.

Michael's comments on Numenera, and on Tekumel, made me realise one of the major issues. I don't think I got any sense of how the people of Numenera understand the world, and that makes it extraordinarily difficult for me to understand. It's all very well for a game to evoke a sense of wonder in the players, and great if it can also do it for the GM, but the GM needs to be able to grok a game to run it meaningfully.

Michael points out in episode 24 that Glorantha, the Runequest setting, presents multiple explanations for how the world works, all of which have some evidence and all of which are incompatible - and they're presented in-character by NPCs. The PCs, and the players, don't need to know them. For the GM, they present invaluable insight into how people thing and how their societies behave.

It makes no sense for the people of Numenera to basically view it as a fairly ordinary world full of wondrous things, like a set of D&D extras. The D&D world (whichever one you're using) is really pretty predictable - the material world is much like our own, magic and monsters have fixed and definite rules, and the laws of physics apply except when magic interacts with them in specific ways. The only serious weirdnesses are the levelling system and the HP and skill issues that result; that's mostly an issue with trying to mechanically model heroic fantasy in an otherwise fairly realistic world, and one that can be largely overcome by not insisting on building generic NPCs using the same rules as for heroic PCs and antagonists. Ancient Britons seem to have viewed the world as full of wonder, even though, from a fantasy viewpoint, it wasn't really.

Numenera is explicitly not like that. The world is full of things that are exceptions to the rules. There are all kinds of inexplicable devices lying around, some of which have obvious stimulus-response reactions and others have effects that are extremely complex, delayed or hard to detect. It's probably impossible to know what has appeared naturally and what was created. Powerful technological effects mean the basic laws of physics don't always apply - what kind of philosophy do creatures develop when experiments are not always repeatable, where gravity or space or time might work differently for no perceptible reason? What kind of societies would they build?

Do they, for example, tend towards extreme animism, on the grounds that lots of things they find genuinely do seem to be imbued with wills and even intellect of their own, and many of these are dangerous and must be "placated" by suitable behaviour and reverent handling? Do the wild inconsistencies in the laws of nature give rise to firm beliefs in powerful and whimsical deities whose presence is very real in the world, although (unlike D&D) they are not inclined to bestow miracles? Do the (apparently quite large) proportion of people with superpowers tend to form an upper caste over low-status normals, especially if these things run in families? Do rulers tend to ruthlessly control those people as likely threats to their rule? Given that what we see of societies seem to be broadly fantasy-European-feudal by default, I wouldn't expect them to have strong civilised tools (like social pressure, elaborate law, and having a lot to lose) to make even powerful people behave themselves. Do the empowered tend to get enslaved, conscripted or brainwashed as soon as their powers manifest? Do they generally conceal them from others out of fear? Are they seen as blessed and inducted into temples?

Worse, if the world really was full of the wonder that Numenera presents, they would stop being wonderful. People would incorporate ancient tech-miracles and metaphysical anomalies into their understanding of the world. Huge mountain made of fire that you can walk into and use as an elevator to ascend to one of the moons where vast lenses let you scrutinise any point on the planet? That's probably not that exciting when there's some kind of physics-defying citadel over every hill, time runs backwards once a month, and everyone you know can either walk through walls, control gravity, or turn into a bear.

The bizarreness of the setting also means I couldn't get a handle on what people do there, assuming that not everyone is a Glaive, Jack or Nano. What kinds of jobs exist? Some people seem to scavenge tech, like in Star Wars, but what's the economy like? What career paths exist? I don't want to know just for nerdiness (although that's an element); knowing the kinds of things people do in a world lets you work out where the adventure-fodder might lie.

The same applies to the players, which is crucial if you don't want to railroad everything. In a game of D&D, or Vampire, or Warhammer or any other semi-historic setting, as a player I can guess what kinds of things happen in the world. I can make my character a fur trader, my fiance the oldest daughter of a butcher, and my oldest friend an illusionist's apprentice who works in the library of the dwarven embassy. I can decide to join a band of pilgrims going to remote abbeys, since their itinerant nature provides good cover for any unfortunate deaths. I can spend downtime visiting the Imperial shrines and asking the beggars outside for gossip about decadent traders, knowing this information will get back to the gangs who undoubtedly run the place, and eventually providing a hook to get some gen on the undoubtedly corrupt nobles who are probably in thrall to some Chaos cult or other.

In a science fiction game, which Numenera kind of is, I expect the game to provide me with enough background knowledge that my character can understand the world they live in. What are the social forces that affect them? What sorts of ambitions might they have? What goals does it make sense for them to have? Just as in a modern-day game it makes no sense for a Worcestershire farmhand to aspire to buy his emancipation and become a yeoman, in a science fiction game it might be nonsensical for a character to want money (which is socially obsolete), or seek vengeance for the deaths of loved ones (who simply redownloaded themselves from the cloud) or desire freedom from the constraints of civilisation (available in a custom pocket dimension of her choice).

In Numenera, I honestly had no idea what you might do other than a) accept random quests from NPCs, and b) whatever the GM suggests. It's hard not to railroad when the players are blindfolded.

Ironically, I think for me Numenera as a setting feels very much like the world of Numenera would feel to its inhabitants. It's full of intriguing and often beautiful components, many of them astonishingly detailed, but I just don't see any way to get from those fragments to a meaningful understanding of the world.

1 comment:

  1. Yes! Economics drives adventure: at the most basic level, it tells you who's worth robbing, and who's going to ask a band of wandering nogoodniks for help against the bandits.

    Some of this feels like the old "economy of miracles" idea: the more impossible things you have in the world, the more that world feels not just strange and alien but arbitrary.

    This is especially true in an investigative game, where players have to be engaged with what's possible and what isn't in order to put their evidence into a useful framework. If someone is found dead in Numenera, how many ways are there it might have happened, and how far away might the culprit be?

    But I think to some extent this may be happening because the game is explicitly focused on those adventuring jobs: as far as I can tell from people's session reports, what you do in this game is still basically beat up weird-looking creatures and take their stuff. I do like having a game that does the elevator pitch for me: you are (type of people) who do (type of activity). But I also like having ideas about what other people in the world are doing, even if they aren't heroic adventurer types.